Spaces of Invention

Faculty and students all over the country are transforming their learning spaces into Places of Invention.

How do we know?

On March 22, the Lemelson Center hosted our partner NCIIA (National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance) and a student invention showcase, part their annual conference, Open Minds. Part of the program was “Spaces of Invention,” six Ignite talks by students and faculty who describe their Design Kitchens and maker spaces from the collegiate through K-12 arenas. Speakers include:

Girls Get Science (and Invention)

On Saturday, March 23, I had the wonderful opportunity to participate in a special evening program called “Girls Get Science,” which was sponsored by The Great Adventure Lab and took place at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville, Maryland. The other panelists included my Smithsonian colleague Dr. Marguerite Toscano, a marine scientist and paleobiologist at the National Museum of Natural History, and Dr. Betsy Pugel, a physicist and electrical engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. The audience consisted of about 40 parents (some of whom are also teachers) from the DC metro area with about 40 of their daughters who are in grades 2-6.

Girls participating in nanotech activities.

Participating in nanotechnology activities in Spark!Lab.

The panelists and parents participated in a lively and thought-provoking 75-minute Q&A session facilitated by Great Adventure Lab president Joan Rigdon about how to support and encourage girls’ interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) activities and possibly inspire them to pursue related careers. We talked a lot about the importance of having female role models (such as my fellow panelists!) from science, invention, and related fields. We also discussed ways to make STEM experiences more fun, social, interdisciplinary (including art, which makes it STEAM), and relevant to the “real world” to keep girls engaged through their teen years when typically their enthusiasm and participation wanes due to social and cultural pressures. While parents were discussing their potential futures, the daughters were in nearby classrooms totally engrossed in hands-on activities about basic robotics, video game programming, and engineering.

Girls inventing robots in Spark!Lab.

Inventing robots in Spark!Lab.

After the official Q&A, the panelists and parents joined the girls to see their inventive creations and talk more on-one for about 45 minutes. Several parents told me they had loved spending time previously with their children in the Lemelson Center’s Spark!Lab and asked eagerly when it would reopen [answer: late spring 2015 when the National Museum of American History’s west wing first floor reopens]. A girl, about 7-8 years old I’d bet (a key age for budding inventors), came up to me and quietly shared that she had been working on an invention at home but it had failed. I explained to her that failure is an important, in fact essential, part of the invention process and all inventors have to fail in order to learn. Indeed Thomas Edison is quoted as saying, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Then I asked if she would go back to her invention and keep tinkering, and she said she would, she had a couple of ideas to try to make it work. While we were talking she was sticking a Spark!Lab pin onto her shirt very intently.

Stephanie Kwolek, inventor of Kevlar, portraying in "Invention at Play."

Stephanie Kwolek, inventor of Kevlar, portrayed in “Invention at Play.”

Since the Lemelson Center was founded in 1995, we’ve had the great fortune of researching, documenting, and highlighting an array of amazing historic and contemporary women inventors. One woman at the “Girls Get Science” event came up to tell me she was proud to know already about Kevlar® inventor Stephanie Kwolek, who I mentioned during the Q&A as one of my favorite women inventors I had the opportunity to meet. It turned out she learned about Kwolek while visiting the Center’s Invention at Play exhibition that I worked on as the project historian and later project director. Kwolek is one of 6 featured case studies in the exhibition, along with stories of other women inventors including Marjorie Stewart Joyner, Sally Fox, and Gertrude Elion, Patsy Sherman, Ruth Foster, Krysta Morlan, Ann Moore, and Lydia O’Leary, and Annetta Papadopoulos of the IDEO team.

Inventor Patricia Bath meets with female students.

Patricia Bath, inventor of the Laserphaco Probe, talks with female students during an Innovative Lives presentation.

Some of the women inventors above were participants in the Center’s Innovative Lives program series. You can read more about them there along with: Patricia Bath, inventor of the Laserphaco Probe for the treatment of cataracts; astronaut and electrical engineer Ellen Ochoa; and GirlTech founder Janese Swanson. For a sampling of additional stories, please read my colleagues’ thoughtful “Bright Ideas” blogs about Fresh Paper inventor Kavita Shukla and “Boater” diaper cover inventor Marion O’Brien Donovan, and referring to actress/inventor Hedy Lamarr at the end of a recent blog about Michael Jackson (yes, he was an inventor too!). Also, listen to some fascinating Inventive Voices podcasts both with women such as co-founder Rachna Choudhry, NASA food scientist Vicki Kloeris, and neonatal products inventor Sharon Rogone, and about women like industrial psychologist Lillian Gilbreth, computer programmer Grace Hopper, and hair care products entrepreneur Madam C. J. Walker. Finally, for more historical perspective, check out a 1999 article by Center senior historian Joyce Bedi titled “Exploring the History of Women Inventors.”

The Lemelson Center is always looking for more and different stories from and about women inventors and is interested in documenting them throughout American history. If you have stories to share, let us know. Happy women’s history month!

Creating the Spark!Lab National Network

Shortly after the Lemelson Center opened Spark!Lab at the National Museum of American History in November 2008, we started receiving inquiries from museums, libraries, community centers, and individuals from across the country. Most had visited Spark!Lab with their family or had heard of it from a friend or colleague and wanted to know how they could get a Spark!Lab in their city or town. The reasons varied—from declining schools to museums in need of fresh programming to community centers wanting quality after-school programs for young students—but the message was clear: Spark!Lab offered a fun and innovative educational approach to STEM and creative learning, and offered opportunities for kids and their families to engage in the invention process.

Hands-on invention activities in Spark!Lab

Hands-on invention activities at The Discovery.

I’ll admit, the first few phone calls were pretty flattering and more than a little exciting. But when the calls continued and our floor staff began to relay similar messages from Spark!Lab visitors, I realized that we were onto something. It seemed that Spark!Lab might be able to fill the needs of institutions beyond the Smithsonian. So we began to develop plans to take Spark!Lab outside of Washington, DC, and to create the Spark!Lab National Network.

Like many ambitious projects, the Spark!Lab National Network didn’t take shape overnight (despite my sincere wishes otherwise). First, we had to figure out if we could even lend our content and the Smithsonian and Spark!Lab names to a non-Smithsonian entity. (According to the Smithsonian’s Office of General Counsel: yes!) Then we had to consider how we would run a project like this while still maintaining our presence at the Museum. How would we ensure quality and consistency of experience at labs we didn’t directly manage? How would we select locations for Spark!Labs? How much would a Spark!Lab cost and what would that fee include for our collaborators?  Perhaps the most important question, how could we work with staff at our satellite locations to build their capacity for developing their own Spark!Lab activities and, collectively, become better at encouraging inventive creativity in all of our respective visitors?

The Terry Lee Wells Nevada Discovery Museum.

The first Spark!Lab off the National Mall opened in September 2011 at the Terry Lee Wells Nevada Discovery Museum.

Fast forward to September 2011, and we celebrated the opening or our first Spark!Lab National Network site—a prototype of sorts—at the Terry Lee Wells Nevada Discovery Museum in Reno. Spark!Lab at The Discovery has provided incredible learning opportunities for everyone involved. For the Lemelson Center, it has helped shape our thinking about all sorts of things, from training to activity development to communication strategies to marketing opportunities. It has really laid the groundwork for the expansion and development of the Network. And thanks to a generous gift from the Ford Motor Company Fund, this expansion is in the works! Their gift, announced at the Washington Auto Show in late January, will provide funding for us to expand to three additional U.S. museums. It will also provide much-needed support for the design of the new Spark!Lab at the National Museum of American History, which will open in 2015.

Ford Donates $500,000 to the Smithsonian -- Edsel Ford II (standing center), great-grandson of Henry Ford, announces a $500,000 contribution to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and Lemelson Center for the Study of Innovation for its educational Spark!Lab program at the 2013 Washington Auto Show. Edsel Ford pictured here with Ford Motor Company Group Vice President of Government and Community Relations Ziad Ojakli (standing third from right), Vice President of Sustainability, Environment and Safety Engineering Robert Brown (standing between Ford and Ojakli), representatives of the Smithsonian, and fourth grade students from Cornerstone Schools of Washington D.C.  Photo by Sam VarnHagen/Ford Motor Co.

Ford Donates $500,000 to the Smithsonian — Edsel Ford II (standing center), great-grandson of Henry Ford, announces a $500,000 contribution to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and Lemelson Center for the Study of Innovation for its educational Spark!Lab program at the 2013 Washington Auto Show. Edsel Ford pictured here with Ford Motor Company Group Vice President of Government and Community Relations Ziad Ojakli (standing third from right), Vice President of Sustainability, Environment and Safety Engineering Robert Brown (standing between Ford and Ojakli), representatives of the Smithsonian, and fourth grade students from Cornerstone Schools of Washington D.C. Photo by Sam VarnHagen/Ford Motor Co.

Edsel Ford II joins fourth grade students Miniyah Peterson (center) and Raeanna Nelson (right) from the Cornerstone Schools of Washington D.C , in a Smithsonian Spark!Lab activity creating a sound pathway for marbles, one of the Spark!Lab activities. Photo by Sam VarnHagen/Ford Motor Co.

Edsel Ford II joins fourth grade students Miniyah Peterson (center) and Raeanna Nelson (right) from the Cornerstone Schools of Washington D.C , in a Smithsonian Spark!Lab activity creating a sound pathway for marbles, one of the Spark!Lab activities. Photo by Sam VarnHagen/Ford Motor Co.

We’re now starting to come off cloud nine and begin the real work of identifying potential partner museums and developing content and activities for these new sites. We are thrilled to be able to take Spark!Lab to other communities, and to start to create a true network and community of educational practice around invention and innovation. We’re also excited to be talking about the Spark!Lab National Network to museum colleagues at two upcoming conferences—the Association of Children’s Museums InterActivity event in Pittsburgh in April and the American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting in Baltimore in May.  If you’re interested in learning more about the Spark!Lab National Network or bringing Spark!Lab to your community, let us know in the comments or email us at!

A Unique Way to See the World: Skateboarders and Inventors

In December, I shared my experiences traveling to Orlando, Florida in 2011 to begin a new Lemelson Center initiative into the exploration of invention, innovation, and creativity in skateboarding culture.  Our work and research continued with a visit by skateboarding legend Rodney Mullen this past summer who spent a wonderful couple of days at the Lemelson Center discussing the role of innovation not only in skateboarding, but its critical importance to the larger society—both historically and in the future.

During his visit, Rodney graciously allowed us to record a video podcast which debuted this past December. The goal of the podcast was simply to let “Rodney be Rodney” and allow him the opportunity to explain his thought process and approach to skating and innovation. The response to the podcast has far exceeded our expectations with over 70,000 views so far. Of course, this is due to Rodney’s stature and popularity in the skateboarding community. But the posted comments to the video reveal that we are succeeding in establishing an important connection between skateboarding and innovation and between the skate community and the Lemelson Center. One the pure joys of working at the Lemelson Center is the opportunity to bring disparate groups of people together through the interdisciplinary connection of invention and innovation. This includes scholars with public audiences, young kids with inventors, and even skateboarders with museum professionals.

Rodney Mullen talks skateboarding and innovation.

Rodney shares some of his thoughts on skateboarding and innovation with me on the roof of the Museum.

As part of our continued work together, the Lemelson Center, in collaboration with the International Association of Skateboard Companies, plans to feature skate culture with a major public festival—Innoskate—on June 21 and 22, 2013, as an extension and compliment to the celebration of the 10th anniversary of global Go Skateboarding Day. Innoskate will celebrate invention and creativity by sharing skate culture’s widespread innovative spirit with the Museum’s public audiences. Innoskate activities will feature skate demonstrations, panel discussions, films, donations of skate objects to the national collections, and other programs to showcase the impact of skate culture’s innovations in American culture. (Stay tuned for more information to come.)

As part of the planning process, I had the pleasure to welcome Ryan Clements (of Excel Management and formerly of Skatepark of Tampa), to the Museum in early February. Ryan is a highly respected member of the skate industry and is playing a key role as part of the Innoskate planning committee. His insights and assistance have been extremely valuable. As part of our planning and discussions, we found ourselves on the Museum’s large plaza fronting the museum’s entrance on the National Mall. Most of Innoskate’s activities and programs will take place on the plaza in a large area that is defined by large planters, built-in benches, and a short set of stairs. Primarily, we were looking at this area because of our intention to install a mini-ramp here for skate demonstrations during Innoskate. But Ryan immediately saw the potential of the built environment, the surrounding architecture of benchers, planters, and such, for developing a “do-it-yourself” project of constructing ¼ pipes and placing them up and against the surrounding architecture to demonstrate various aspects of street skating. (This is a new addition to the program that we are actively pursuing.) But significantly, where I saw a place to sit, Ryan saw a place to skate and to create.

Benches outside the museum are a draw for skateboarders.

Just benches? Or a skater’s paradise?

Later that day, as Ryan and I were walking out of the Museum, we continued discussing the intersection of innovation and skateboarding and the role of “terrain” or the built environment in skate culture. As a skater, Ryan said that he was constantly thinking of new ways to skate the world around him. And it’s not just the stairs, hand rails, and curbs that present such opportunities, but just about anything and everything he sees—Ryan told me that he once tried to figure out how to skate a huge pile of dirt. In his effort to help me understand this phenomenon, Ryan explained that “skaters just view the world around them through a different lens than most others,” constantly using their own creativity and self-expression to move through their world.

Ryan’s observation literally stopped me in my tracks. His self-reflection about how skaters view and understand the world around them resonated deeply with how inventors often describe themselves.  Inventors often share a distinct mindset—a compulsion to solve problems and to find ways to improve the things around them. In particular, Jerry Lemelson, who founded the Lemelson Center with his wife, Dolly, has often been described as a man who couldn’t help but constantly think about how to improve the things he encountered in his world. It is not uncommon for inventors to state that they, too, view the world a bit differently than most others.

Tony Hawk donates skateboard to the Museum.

Tony Hawk signs deed of gift for his skatedeck in 2011. Curator Jane Rogers and I are standing by. Photo by Lee Leal, Embassy Skateboards

So does this correlation suggest that all skaters should start hiring patent attorneys or that all inventors should head out to the nearest skate shop for a new skateboard? Not necessarily—though of course there are skateboarders who are inventors and inventors who skate. But in the effort to illuminate the history of invention and to understand the factors that influence how, when, where, and why innovation occurs, we should take notice of the fact that highly creative and innovative people seem to share a common characteristic of being able to engage their world—not for what it is, but for what it has the potential to be.

“Political Machines” Speakers in the News

We are fortunate to have many fine speakers participating in our upcoming symposium, Political Machines: Innovations in Campaigns and Elections, taking place on November 2 and 3 here at the National Museum of American History. Our speakers are recognized leaders in their fields, so as you might expect, they appear from time to time in national newspapers, on TV, etc.  Here’s a sampling of some previous media appearances by our fabulous symposium speakers:

David Schwartz
Chief Curator at the Museum of the Moving Image


Darrell M. West
Vice President, Governance Studies and Director, Center for Technology Innovation, Brookings Institution

Jon Grinspan
Doctoral Candidate, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia

Zephyr Teachout
Associate Professor, Fordham Law School

Sarah Igo
Associate Professor of History, Sociology, and Political Science, Vanderbilt University

Jon Cohen
Director of Polling, The Washington Post


David Becker
Director of Election Initiatives, Pew Center on the States

Thad E. Hall
Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Utah

You can also check out our latest podcast to get a preview of each session from our moderators—Lemelson Center Senior Historian Joyce Bedi, Lemelson Center Deputy Director Jeff Brodie, Political History Curator Larry Bird, and me. Did you enjoy learning about our speakers and their research? Come see and hear the real thing this weekend!

The International Symposium of Science Museums

“Mamma mia, here I go again
My my, how can I resist you
Mamma mia, does it show again
My my, just how much I’ve missed you…”

To ABBA’s surprise, I’m sure, as well as mine, their song “Mamma Mia” will always remind me of my September trip to South Korea. Yes, you read that correctly. The disco classic was sung by an all-girls pop group during a special banquet honoring the participants, organizers, and VIPs involved in the 2012 International Symposium of Science Museums in Busan. This entertainment offering was a most unexpected conference experience, especially while jet lagged.

I had arrived late the previous night after a 14+ hour flight from Washington, D.C., to Seoul, a four-hour layover, and then another flight to Busan, the country’s second largest city on the southern coast. Thanks to melatonin and a comfortable hotel bed, I managed to sleep normal hours, and awoke to the morning sunshine feeling relatively energetic. So I took a nice long stroll along neighboring Haeundae beach, a popular spot with Korean vacationers during the summer.

Courtesy of ISSM.

I felt very fortunate to be among a small group of mostly European and American museum professionals invited to speak at the symposium. At the Bexco convention center we were led through a large meeting room to our name-tagged seats at the front tables and provided with headsets for simultaneous Korean-English translations. I imagined this must be a taste of what it is like to attend United Nations meetings.

Official welcomes included remarks by Hang Sik Park, president of the National Science Museum of Korea, which was hosting the conference. Then we heard an interesting keynote address by Sarah George, the director of Utah’s Natural History Museum. After that, we beheld another surprising performance—a musical theater piece by a Korean group called Vollklang Solisten about the connections between Western classical music and Pythagorean math. I cannot begin to describe it adequately here.

Photo by Ellen Wetmore.

During the first session I was one of five panelists discussing STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) education at science museums and informal learning organizations. It is a strange experience to speak to about 200 people listening to translations, so they would nod, smile, or chuckle in response to things I said about a minute after I said them. I shared stories about a broad range of Lemelson Center projects supporting STEAM education and 21st Century Skills. Overall, even in my jet lagged haze, I think my presentation went well and audience members posed some thoughtful questions during the Q&A section at the end of the session.

That evening the presenters were bused to Nurimaru, a spaceship-like building in Dongbaek Park, for the aforementioned banquet hosted by the Federation of Busan Science and Technology. The event began with individual introductions of Korean VIPs who stood and bowed. Then each of the invited foreign speakers were also introduced in Korean, so we had to listen carefully for our names, then stand and bow too. After that there were several official speeches in Korean for which we received English translation handouts.

Courtesy of ISSM.

We savored a delicious, seven course, very continental-style dinner accompanied by Bordeaux wine. I was seated with, among others, YP Kim, the director of the Busan Aquarium, which we had a chance to visit the following day. Mr. Kim is from Seoul originally but has lived in both the U.S. and Canada and actually did some translation work at the Smithsonian around 1982. My tablemates were interesting to converse with despite my hitting a wall around 8:30 p.m. and barely being able to think straight.

Now back to my reference about the night’s entertainment. The pop quintet danced about the stage playing traditional Korean instruments while singing ABBA with an electronic beat pounding in the background. My Swedish colleague Ann Follin, director of the Tekniska Museet (National Museum of Science and Technology) in Stockholm, was even more surprised than I. We shared a good chuckle about the experience two days later when we traveled via train to Daejeon with a Korean colleague, Hannah Lee, of 4D Frame.

The ABBA Performance.

In Daejeon, Ann, Hannah, and I enjoyed visiting the National Science Museum where we met up with Min-Jung Kim, who I had worked with when she was a visiting professional at the Smithsonian last year. Min-Jung and her associate Suk Yeong Lee gave us a wonderful tour of the Museum’s complex of buildings with exhibits covering the history, present, and future of Korean science and technology. I took lots of photos to show my colleagues.

National Science Museum's Discovery Center.

Thanks to Ann, I was invited to join her meeting at nearby KAIST, the Korean Advanced Institute for Science and Technology. We spoke with research assistant professor Namyoung Heo and senior researcher Young Ju Lee about KAIST’s new Center for Entrepreneurship as well as their Global Institute for Talented Education. The meeting content was right up my proverbial alley professionally, as Ann had surmised, and she and I had lots to talk about afterwards as we taxied back to the train station and then traveled on to Seoul.

Monica and Min-Jung Kim. Photo by Ann Follin.

It was a whirlwind business trip, with three days of international travel for four days in South Korea. My heartfelt thanks to the organizers of the International Symposium of Science Museums, my fellow presenters, and all of the people who hosted me in Busan and Seoul. It is an experience I will never forget.

Invention Makes America

As the National Museum of American History (of which the Lemelson Center is of course a part) is busy charting its way forward during strategic planning, its staff is asking a big question—What makes America…America?

Did your mind simultaneously go blank and run wild at the same time? I know mine did when we were asked to write down five things in a recent staff meeting. Here’s what I came up with (no judgement!):

  • The Statue of Liberty
  • Hollywood/pop culture
  • Inaugurations
  • Fried foods on sticks at county fairs
  • The sheer size of the nation

The staff here has had a chance to weigh in, and now the Museum REALLY, REALLY wants to know what YOU think. The survey asks two questions:

  1. When you think about America, what three objects or images come to mind?
  2. What inspires you about America and helps define its essential character?

Everyone’s going to have different answers, though we can expect that certain themes will emerge. But this morning I got to thinking, how would the Lemelson Center answer? It’d be impossible to pick only three inventions! In technology, would it be the telephone or Technicolor? On the home front, disposable diapers or Tupperware? If we looked at medicine, could we decide between the implantable pacemaker and prosthetic legs? Would solar roofing shingles or a water purifier represent solving environmental problems?

Marion O'Brien Donovan, grandmother of the disposable diaper; Technicolor camera; Flex Foot prosthetic; Bell telephone. Smithsonian photos. UV Waterworks apparatus courtesy of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Tupperware photo from Wikimedia Commons user OttawaAC.

The options are extensive and equally powerful in their own ways. It would take minds much wiser and greater than mine to pick just three. But I think the second question is easier to answer on behalf of the Lemelson Center. We believe that America is resilient, problem-solving, creative and resourceful—in short, inventive. America has always charged forward, hunting for the next big idea, solution, product, technology, what have you. The Lemelson Center thinks this inventive spirit is so integral to America that we document it—through our exhibitions, collections, programs, etc.—in order to foster that spirit. And we can’t wait to see what America comes up with next.

An Entrepreneurial Spirit

I grew up on a busy street in a suburb of Chicago. On hot days, you could smell the pavement melting – sulfurous, tarry, goopy. Being that power lines intersected on our corner, the hum and rattle of construction equipment was ever-present in my summers. The perfect opportunity for a child to bask in air conditioning or run through the sprinklers, right?

Not for me. When other kids were swiping Fla-Vor-Ice from the freezer and vegging out in front of cartoons, I was opening a lemonade stand with my sister. We saw a business opportunity – close to 100 degree heat + thirsty construction workers – and sold our lemonade for 25¢. We eventually made enough (I think it was about $10, a big amount for a kid) to buy a Velcro ball toss toy.

From left to right: My sister, my mom, and me. My mom made our pumpkin costumes for Halloween. Gotta love her hair.

That entrepreneurial spirit has fueled a lot of what I have done in life. The thrill I get of creating something from nothing, of doing a lot with a little: this is what makes me perfect for my work at the Lemelson Center. Most recently, I invented a pop-up museum model by thinking through what resources I had at hand and what I wanted to do: a bus pass, scratch paper, and free space at a local library + create conversation and build community. Now other museums, nationally and internationally, are picking up my technique and creating their own pop-up museums.

Here I am taking a break from facilitating my “Something or Someone You Love” pop-up at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History.

Personally, I aspire to make a substantial contribution to the global community through invention and innovation. As the new Spark!Lab National Network Coordinator, I am excited about having the opportunity to support young people in their own inventive exploration. Check back to see the Spark!Lab National Network grow; hopefully we’ll be coming to your neck of the woods soon.

Political Machines

Well, it’s mid-September and we’re deep into the 2012 presidential campaign. Active campaigning for the primaries began well over a year ago in the summer of 2011, and as usual the campaign season has been nasty, brutish, and long.  Are you suffering from PCF—Presidential Campaign Fatigue? Fortunately, the Lemelson Center has an antidote.

On November 2 and 3, the Lemelson Center is marking this election year by presenting “Political Machines: Innovations in Campaigns and Elections,” a symposium that examines the role of invention and technology in electoral politics. Through this lens, we will temporarily shift the focus away from today’s candidates and issues to examine the critical role that “political machinery” such as campaign advertisements, voting machines, and automated opinion polls plays in our democracy. When these technologies work well, they often go unnoticed; when they fail (e.g., hanging chads, “Dewey Beats Truman!”), the consequences can be momentous.

The symposium will be held on November 2–3, 2012, at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, on the Mall in Washington, D.C. All events will be free and open to the public. Our sessions will employ formats typically seen on the campaign trail, including a keynote address, stump speeches, and interactive “town hall” Q&A sessions with our speakers. Audience members will also be able to vote on questions posed during the symposium, using a handheld audience response system or “clicker” provided by our technology partners at Meridia. Watch out, Oprah!

So who’s speaking? “Political Machines” will bring together scholars, government policymakers, campaign strategists, and members of the news media to focus on the historic and contemporary role of technology in various aspects of the electoral process, including Advertising, Campaigning, Polling, and Voting. Here’s a sneak peek at our sessions and speakers:

Advertising: Friday, Nov. 2, 8:00–9:30pm

Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower was the first presidential candidate to make use of thirty-second television ads, in 1952. Courtesy of

In our Advertising session, David Schwartz, chief curator at the Museum of the Moving Image, will present selections from his online exhibit, The Living Room Candidate, which features over 300 television commercials from every presidential election since 1952. Schwartz will examine the persuasive techniques employed in various historical ads and explore the role of various technological platforms—from biographical films to thirty-second television ads to YouTube—in the evolution of political advertising.

Keynote Address: Saturday, Nov. 3, 10:30–11:30am

After some introductory remarks by my boss, Arthur Molella, our keynote speaker will be Darrell M. West, vice president and director of Governance Studies and director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution. In a wide-ranging address, West will set the table for the sessions to follow by describing the historical, contemporary, and future role of technology and innovation in the electoral process and in governance.

Campaigning: Saturday, Nov. 3, 11:30–12:30pm

How have candidates employed innovative campaign techniques and new technologies to deliver their messages, raise money, and garner grassroots support from voters? This session will examine the technology and material culture of campaigning—from buttons and hand-painted convention signs to the internet. One of our featured speakers will be Zephyr Teachout, an associate professor at Fordham Law School and, formerly, director of internet organizing with “Dean for America.” Teachout pioneered in using the internet and social media platforms during Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign and coauthored a book about her experience, Mousepads, Shoe Leather, and Hope: Lessons from the Howard Dean Campaign for the Future of Internet Politics.

In 1964, GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater used this clever can in his unsuccessful campaign against Lyndon B. Johnson. Courtesy of NMAH.

Polling: Saturday, Nov. 3, 2:00–3:00pm

Pioneering pollster George Gallup.

How have candidates and journalists utilized innovations in polling and statistical analysis to discern the mood of the electorate? In turn, how have citizens come to trust polling data as a reliable source of information? In this session, Vanderbilt professor Sarah Igo, author of The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public, will describe the emergence of modern public opinion research in the 1930s among door-to-door pollsters like George Gallup and Bud Roper. For a more contemporary view, Jon Cohen, director of polling at the Washington Post, will describe what it’s like to use automated phone banks and statistical software packages as a 21st-century pollster.

Voting: Saturday, Nov. 3, 3:30–4:30pm

What are the technologies that underpin the right to vote—our most cherished democratic institution? In this session, we will examine the current state of election administration and explore a multitude of web-based and mobile technologies that may someday transform how we register, receive our ballots, and cast our votes. For example, David Becker, director of election initiatives at the Pew Center on the States, will describe efforts to improve our DMV databases and other technological processes involved in voter registration and identification. Also, University of Utah professor Thad E. Hall will describe how we may someday cast our ballots, as detailed in his book Point, Click, and Vote: The Future of Internet Voting.

The Votomatic punched-card recorder and its confusing “butterfly ballots” were at the center of the controversial 2000 Bush-Gore election. This particular voting machine was collected by curators from the Museum’s Division of Political History. Courtesy of NMAH.

Book Signings; Objects Out of Storage: Saturday, Nov. 3—times TBA

For the 1980 Reagan-Carter campaign, Herman Silvers and Cornel Tanassy wrote the single, “Hello Ronnie, Good-bye Jimmy.” Courtesy of NMAH Archives Center.

In addition, on Saturday, November 3, we will schedule some book signings with our speakers and bring out some classic campaign materials from the Museum’s collections so visitors can get a closer look. For example, we’ve pulled some amazing presidential campaign tunes from the Sam DeVincent Collection of Illustrated American Sheet Music.

Here at the Lemelson Center, we believe that invention and innovation are everywhere … even in campaigns and elections. So if you’re tired of the standard campaign coverage and want to look at this election from a different perspective, we hope you’ll join us on November 2 and 3 for an exploration of our “Political Machines.”