Universal Design and the Museum

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of posts by Lemelson fellow Aimi Hamraie. Aimi is a PhD candidate in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Emory University. Her dissertation examines Universal Design and disability. Her blogs will discuss accessibility features at the Smithsonian, particularly the National Museum of American History.

Universal Design is the idea that spaces and products should be intentionally designed to be accessible to as many people as possible. The idea grew out of disability access – the design or retrofit of buildings and technologies to be accessible to people with disabilities, such as wheelchair users, people with low vision, or people who are hard of hearing. Most of the time, features of the built environment that are accessible to people with disabilities are retrofits, meaning that they are added on after a design is already planned.

When a wheelchair ramp is added as an afterthought, often to the back of a building, it means that wheelchair users cannot enter in the same way as other people. Often, this means entering through an alley next to a garbage dumpster, or needing to call someone to turn on a wheelchair lift. This reinforces the notion that having a disability means that a person is disqualified from public life and community.

Photo via Creative Commons.

In the above image, a concrete ramp has been paved on top of brick stairs on the exterior of the building. The building was inaccessible to people using wheelchairs or other mobility devices with wheels. It was also inaccessible to anyone pushing a stroller or cart. These kinds of retrofits are often less desirable than better designs that take into account the effects of a design feature before the space, technology, or product is even built.

Blusson Spinal Cord Center in Vancouver. Photo by Aimi Hamraie.

In contrast, this image shows the interior of the Blusson Spinal Cord Center in Vancouver, British Columbia. This ramp is an example of Universal Design because it is the central design feature of this building and accesses every floor in the building. It is flexible and can be used by anyone – not just wheelchair users – to get to the upper floors.

Accessibility at the Smithsonian Institution

Since 1968, federal disability access laws have required the accessibility of various spaces and technologies, including buildings, public spaces, information technology, and transportation systems. Federal buildings were the first structures required to be accessible. Because the Smithsonian Institution is federally funded, it began its efforts to make museums accessible as early as the mid-1970’s. As a result, Smithsonian sites have not only been retrofitted to be more accessible, but the Smithsonian itself has developed innovative accessibility strategies and policies, including design features that follow Universal Design.

As a Lemelson fellow, I had the opportunity to look at the Smithsonian’s institutional archives on accessibility as a case study for my dissertation project on Universal Design. I am interested in how museums in the Smithsonian system use Universal Design and accessibility to disseminate knowledge and educate the public. Because the group of people visiting any Smithsonian museum is incredibly broad, I was interested to learn more about how the museums took this range of people into account in designing exhibits. The features I discuss below are in addition to those offered by the museum, such as docent tours or wheelchairs, that are in compliance with accessibility laws but do not have to do with exhibit design.

America on the Move

America on the Move is a transportation exhibit at National Museum of American History with a number of Universal Design features. These features are significant because they are so seamlessly integrated into the design of the exhibit that you will not notice them unless you know what you are looking for. For this post, I am going to focus on mobility features – meaning how the space is designed for people with disabilities, particularly wheelchair users, to move through it.

The above image shows ramps descending into a long hallway, with various vehicles on either side. From the slope of the ramps and the rails on them, you may be able to tell that this is the kind of space that may have previously had stairs. The ramps serve as elevated platforms that give you access into seeing inside of the window of the house on the right and the trailer on the left. When you get to the bottom, you can read or hear information about these parts of the exhibits on the kiosk.

The kiosks and displays, you may notice, are about two to three feet from the ground. This puts them at eye level for people who are seated in wheelchairs, people of short stature, or children who may be using the exhibit. The screens are tilted up to make them easier to read from a range of heights. The kiosks are also interactive, providing information in both text and voice for museum visitors in different languages.

Some of the other ramps are so subtle that you may miss them if you are not paying attention. This image shows a ramp that approaches a Chicago transit system bus in the exhibit. The ramp is so slight that it just appears that the floor slopes slightly upward to meet the bus. On the left, you can see a handrail that shows that it is indeed a ramp. Also notice that there are no stairs in this area. The ramp is usable to everyone.

Above, you can see that when the ramp reaches the bus, there is a flat entrance into the bus. Someone in a wheelchair can easily enter the bus without needing an additional ramp.

Now you can see inside of the bus. Although this bus was probably not accessible at the time that it was used, people using wheelchairs or strollers can easily enter the space because the first few rows of seats on the right side have been removed. When I was visiting the exhibit, I even saw a few tourists with rolling luggage enter the bus! This shows what a little bit of spatial reconfiguration can do for accessibility. Putting these features directly into the exhibit encourages multiple ways of using the space by different people.

One last design feature worth mentioning is this small theater area. Facing the screen are two rows of seats. The first row has three seats, while the back row has five. The spaces in the first row that are open are places where people in wheelchairs can join the theater and have a view from the first row. Many theaters have similar spaces, but in back rows in places with less than optimal viewing access. In this theater space, though, accessibility is privileged in the design of the space. Of course, if no one sits in these spaces, you cannot even tell! This is all part of the seamless integration of Universal Design into the exhibit.

Stay tuned for Aimi’s next posts looking at sensory features and technological developments.

I’ll Take That Drink To Go!

Inventors draw and sketch as part of their process of working out an idea. Drawing moves the idea from the inventor’s mind to the paper, making it seem more possible. Sketches and drawings can also convince others that something will work—before it is actually built or manufactured. This makes them a particularly important part of the patent application package.

A great example of this critical supporting material is found in the A. Bernie Wood Papers in the Museum’s Archives Center. Arthur Bernie Wood (1921-1986) was an advertising designer, consultant, and inventor actively involved in the development of the restaurant franchise industry in America during the 1960s and 1970s. Particularly notable is his work in creating, promoting, and merchandising the new fast-food corporate image of McDonald’s (read more about Wood in the finding aid to his papers).

In addition to his work for restaurant chains, Wood also held a number of patents, including one for a “Beverage Cup-Holder for Motor-Vehicle Doors” (U.S. Patent 3,128,983). Today we take cup holders in vehicles for granted—I think my minivan has ten cup holders, perhaps more. But this indispensable feature wasn’t common in the early 1960s. Involved as he was in the growing fast-food industry, it might seem obvious that Wood would wonder where drive-thru patrons might put their drinks as they drove off with a sack of burgers and fries. Wood stated in his patent, “Apart from the floor of the vehicle there hardly is a level place where on to set a cup without fear of it being upset.” While other solutions to this problem were already available, Wood believed he could do better.

What makes Wood’s patent interesting to me is not the idea of a cup holder itself, but the amount of archival documentation supporting it. Patent “jackets” are specialized folders that contain standard information such as patent number, actions, references, assignment, application serial number, and fees paid. The jacket also typically contains correspondence with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, foreign patent and trademark offices, the inventor/designer, company attorneys, and other company officials; as well as drawings and photographs. In Wood’s case, the patent jacket contains substantial sketches and prototypes that trace the evolution of his idea for a practical cup holder.

Wood’s sketches and paper prototypes provide insight into his inventive process and help us understand how he worked out his idea. He created numerous paper templates and annotated those with measurements and directions on how to fold and assemble the cup holder. The images seen here include pencil sketches, which were first transformed into paper templates, and then into finished patent drawings. The black-and-white image shows the beverage cup holder in Wood’s car.

 

We don’t know if Wood’s cup holder was ever manufactured or if the patent was licensed. But I feel certain that Wood would have loved my ten cup holder minivan.

Follow A. Bernie Wood’s invention process–from sketch to patent to beverage on the go–below:

Try It: Fresh Paper

Note: “Try It” refers to a step in the invention process – testing your product. This post is not an endorsement of any product.

A few weeks ago, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed and saw a post about a new product that promised to keep fruits and vegetables fresher longer. Since I do a good part of my food shopping in the summer at farmer’s markets or in the produce section of my local grocery store, I was intrigued.  I love all the fresh produce of summer but I get frustrated when I buy things only to have them go off a few days later. Curious (but skeptical), I clicked on the link and was introduced to Fresh Paper, marketed as “a dryer sheet for produce.” Basically, it’s a small paper towel-like square made of edible, organic, and compostable ingredients that inhibit the growth of bacteria and fungi that make produce rot. According to the article I was reading, you simply place fruits and vegetables on or near the square of Fresh Paper and your produce will stay fresh 2-4 times longer.

Kavita Shukla. Image from Cartier Womens Initiative.

I loved the sound of this and decided to do a little more research, not only on the product but about who was behind it. I learned that Fresh Paper was invented by Kavita Shukla, a young woman who first had the idea for her invention when she was a middle school student. She was visiting her grandmother in India and accidentally swallowed some water while brushing her teeth. Concerned that the water would make her sick, her grandmother mixed together a tea with the Indian herb fenugreek. Shukla drank the tea and didn’t get sick, and thinking like a true inventor, began to wonder about what else this traditional spice could be used for.

Skukla in high school. Images from Lemelson-MIT.

Shukla hit upon a possible use when she was grocery shopping with her mother and noticed that nearly every package of strawberries contained a berry or two that was already rotten. Could her grandmother’s herbal mixture help solve this problem? Shukla began working on her idea and in 2002, after a summer as the Lemelson-MIT High School Invention Apprentice, was awarded patent number 6,372,220 for her “Fenugreek Impregnated Material for the Preservation of Perishable Substances.” (This was actually Shukla’s second patent. Her first, received in 2001, was for a “Smart Lid” which has a built-in device that alerts users when the container is opened or leaking.)

As I learned more about Shukla I was struck by the similarities between her story and that of other inventors the Lemelson Center has studied over the years:

  • She began inventing and exploring the world around her at a young age. She didn’t become an inventor as an adult; she has practiced inventive thinking and ‘doing’ skills throughout her life.
  • The invention wasn’t the result of a single “Eureka” moment. The incident in India inspired her, but it took years of study, experimentation, and scientific understanding to take Fresh Paper from idea to market.
  • There were setbacks along the way. Shukla first wanted to start a non-profit to distribute Fresh Paper but with few resources, it was challenging. It wasn’t until years later that the opportunity to work with a partner came along and she was able to take the idea to market.

My package of Fresh Paper.

Today, through her company Fenugreen, Shukla sells Fresh Paper to individual consumers and at grocery stores and farmer’s markets throughout the U.S. But she is also thinking about how Fresh Paper can be used to keep produce fresh in food banks and how farmers in the developing world might use the product to extend the life of their crops once picked. As much as 25% of the world’s food supply is lost to spoilage, and Shukla hopes to use Fresh Paper to address this problem.

A tomato on Fresh Paper. So far it has lasted a week!

A week ago I received my order of Fresh Paper in the mail. I have been using the sheets with my produce at home and they seem to be working. But more than being satisfied with the product, I am impressed by the young inventor who created it and her vision for using invention to impact and improve the lives of people around the world.

On the Road with Smithsonian Affiliations: Places of Invention in Western Massachusetts

This is a guest post by Jennifer Brundage, a National Outreach Manager for Smithsonian Affiliations and a Lemelson Center Advisory Committee member.

Working in a Smithsonian office devoted to national outreach, I am very fortunate to travel a lot for my job.  My department, Smithsonian Affiliations, fosters long-term collaborative partnerships with museums and cultural institutions nationwide. In our ongoing quest to identify potential partners, I recently found myself traversing western Massachusetts. Both of the museums I visited have recently opened exhibitions that interpret their cities and regions as centers of invention. Having keenly followed the Lemelson Center’s research on the relationship between innovation and location for their upcoming Places of Invention (POI) exhibition, I was struck (and inspired) by how many similar characteristics were highlighted in the museums I visited.

A glimpse at the Museum of Springfield History's exhibition on the city's history of innovation. Photo by Jennifer Brundage.

The Springfield Museums’ new, recently opened Museum of Springfield History documents the many innovations that sprang from this city. Through the lens of POI, I immediately wondered, Why here? The answer was the Springfield Armory. The Springfield site was chosen for an armory in 1777 by General George Washington and closed during the Vietnam War in 1968. (Because the Harper’s Ferry Armory and Arsenal was destroyed during the Civil War by another Springfield native, abolitionist John Brown, the Springfield Armory was America’s first, and last, federal armory.) As is well-documented by the POI team, research and development funded by the government is often a magnet for invention—in this case, for cutting-edge engineering and manufacturing processes. Because of the need to produce firearms quickly and easily during the War of 1812, the Springfield Armory combined the use of interchangeable parts (already done in France), with a rapid method of production. The result, called the “American System,” was precise mass production that revolutionized industry worldwide. (The Springfield Armory is now a National Historic Site.)

"Springfield Bicycle Club--Bicycle Camp--Exhibition and Tournament, Springfield, Mass, U.S.A., Sept. 18, 19, 20, 1883." Color lithograph by Milton Bradley and Co., Springfield, Massachusetts. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Not only did the Armory’s workers contribute to this culture of innovation, but so did the network of contractors in the surrounding region. During the Civil War-era, inventor Milton Bradley moved to Springfield to set up the state’s first color lithography shop. Looking for additional purposes for his lithography machine, Bradley created a board game called “The Checkered Game of Life,” a popular game, now revised, that is still available today. Seeing bored Civil War soldiers stationed in Springfield, Bradley also began to produce chess, checkers and backgammon sets. A board game empire was born. The Milton Bradley Company also was the first American company to make croquet sets.

Board games weren’t the only entertainment to be born in Springfield. Basketball originated here as well, in 1891. A physical education teacher at the YMCA International Training School, James Naismith, introduced the game to his class of 18 young men (literally using a basket tacked to a balcony 10 feet above ground). Within three years, it was being played around the world.

Later, bicycle makers Charles and Frank Duryea, also of Springfield, founded the Duryea Motor Wagon Company in 1896, one of the first companies to build and sell gasoline powered vehicles. (A Duryea automobile is in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.)

Dr. Seuss and the Cat and the Hat, Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden at the Springfield Museums. Photograph by Jennifer Brundage.

Springfield’s most famous native son, though, might be Theodor Geisel—otherwise known as Dr. Seuss. The Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden at the Springfield Museums does a great job of juxtaposing the historic images of Springfield’s main street that inspired Geisel with the fanciful illustrations of houses, cars, and people as they were ultimately re-imagined in the creative author’s books.

An hour away in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, the Berkshire Museum presents its “hometown” inventors in the Feigenbaum Hall of Innovation. As early as the Revolutionary War, Stephen Crane, owner of the Liberty Paper Mill in Boston, was making paper from cotton—paper that fueled the revolution through its use in patriotic newspapers and broadsides. By 1799, his son Zenas Crane founded his own paper mill, Crane & Co., at an ideal spot on the Housatonic River in Dalton, Massachusetts, in the Berkshires.

The Feigenbaum Hall of Innovation, Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Photo by Jennifer Brundage.

Even though it was eventually discovered that pulp from trees made paper production cheaper, Zenas Crane and his sons continued to insist on using only waste cotton as a suitable raw material. In 1849, they introduced silk threads into the fiber of bank-bill paper, an invention designed to prevent counterfeiting currency. Their dedication to tradition as well as innovation paid off handsomely. In 1879, Crane & Co. won the first contract to produce the paper for the United States currency. Our money is still printed on paper printed by Crane, which continues to introduce technical innovations that protect the security of currencies worldwide.

The Berkshire Museum's invention curriculum--definitely try this at home! Photo by Jennifer Brundage.

Another phenomenon documented by the POI team is the way in which an area’s creative community is fed by, and in turn, nourished by, its place of invention. This is certainly true in the Berkshires, home to many of America’s greatest artists and thinkers. It is in the land-locked Berkshires that Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick, where Norman Rockwell painted some of his most iconic images of America, and where Edith Wharton created the luxurious environment that informed her best-selling novel, The House of Mirth. This mix of creativity and invention is captured so well in the Berkshire Museum’s “Use Your Noodle” elementary school curriculum. Modeling the invention process itself, a box of noodles challenges students to take an everyday object—pasta—and engineer models for math, physics, geometry problems and more.

It’s exciting to experience the truth of the Lemelson Center’s assertion that, while they have chosen historic and contemporary examples for their exhibition, invention can happen anywhere. Every place with the right mix of inventive people, ready resources, and inspiring surroundings is a potential place of invention. Submit your stories and tell us about your own place of invention!

Beat the Heat with a Cool Treat

I don’t know about where you are, but Washington, D.C., has been in the middle of a heat wave. Temps were in the 100s this weekend (105 to be exact). Washingtonians have been staying inside to bask in air conditioning, heading to the nearest body of cool water for a dip, and otherwise trying to avoid heat stroke.

One of the more fun ways to cool down is by enjoying a cold treat. Here are three frozen treats (and their invention stories) to beat the heat:

  • Eskimo Pies. Christian K. Nelson invented the ice cream bar covered in a chocolate candy coating in 1920 after being inspired by a young customer at his confectionery storewho couldn’t decide between buying a chocolate bar or an ice cream. In 1921, Nelson partnered with chocolate maker Russel C. Stover and the Eskimo Pie received U.S. Patent #1,404,539 on January, 24, 1922.

    Image from the Eskimo Pie Corporation Records, 1921-1996, Archives Center, NMAH.

  • Popsicles. The invention of the popsicle, like so many other items, was an accident. Eleven-year-old Frank Epperson left a soft drink overnight on his San Francisco porch in 1905. The next morning he discovered the mixture frozen solid around the stirring stick. Epperson didn’t apply for a patent until 1923, and, though he later sold the rights to the Popsicle, inspired the Fudgsicle, Creamsicle, and Dreamsicle.
  • Frozen Margarita. In 1971, Mariano Martinez, inspired by a Slurpee machine, adapted a soft serve ice cream machine to meet the demand for the popular adult frozen beverage at his Dallas restaurant. Though the machine was never patented, the original machine now resides in the collections of the National Museum of American History.

How are you beating the heat this summer?

An Inventive Dad

With Father’s Day coming up this weekend, I’ve been thinking a lot about how being a parent requires you to be inventive. I thought I’d share with you the story of Joseph B. Friedman and the product — ubiquitous to you and me — that his daughter inspired him to invent.

Pencil sketch of flexible drinking straw, no date. Photo from the Archives Center at the National Museum of American History.

Friedman was with his daughter, Judith, at his brother’s soda fountain. Judith had ordered a milkshake and was struggling to drink it through a straight paper straw, the only straw option at this point in the 1930s. Having an inventive bent, Friedman was able to alter the straw by inserting a screw and wrapping dental floss around the screw thread. This created corrugations, allowing the straw to bend over the lip of the glass and Judith to more easily drink her milkshake. He was granted a patent for this — the Flexible Drinking Straw — on September 28, 1937. (Read more about Friedman, his other inventions, and how his papers came to the Archives Center.)

 

If you’ve got a story about how being a parent has inspired you to be inventive, we’d love to hear about it in the comments!