The Rise of Innovation Districts

On June 9, 2014, I attended a program at The Brookings Institution with my colleagues Laurel Fritzsch and Lemelson Center fellow Matt Wisnioski. The program marked the release of a new report entitled “The Rise of Innovation Districts: A New Geography of Innovation in America,” developed by Bruce Katz, Vice President and Co-Director of Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program (MPP), and Julie Wagner, a non-resident senior fellow with MPP. The report and accompanying program provided a present-day and more policy-oriented perspective on many of the issues the Lemelson Center is exploring through Places of Invention, our exhibition (and accompanying book) set to open in Summer 2015.

“The Rise of Innovation Districts” is a new report developed by Bruce Katz and Julie Wagner of the Brookings’s Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. Courtesy of the Brookings Institution.

“The Rise of Innovation Districts” is a new report developed by Bruce Katz and Julie Wagner of the Brookings’s Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. Courtesy of the Brookings Institution.

In their report, Katz and Wagner trace what they call “a remarkable shift…in the spatial geography of innovation” away from the suburbs and back to cities. As documented by historians like Bill Leslie and Scott Knowles, many high-tech firms moved to the suburbs in the years after World War II where they built sprawling, space-age corporate campuses and R&D facilities. Some of the best known examples include the General Motors’ Technical Center (Warren, MI, in 1956), IBM’s Thomas Watson Research Center (Yorktown Heights, NY, in 1961), and AT&T’s Bell Laboratories (Holmdel, NJ, in 1962). The thinking at that time was to isolate industrial scientists from the suits and bean-counters at headquarters (and from other competitors) by plopping them in an idyllic university-like setting where they could invent new cutting-edge technologies.

In 1962, AT&T opened  a sprawling 472-acre campus for Bell Labs in suburban Holmdel, NJ.  It was designed by modernist architect Eero Saarinen, who created similar suburban campuses for General Motors (Warren, MI) and IBM (Yorktown Heights, NY).  Photo courtesy of user MBisanz on Wikimedia Commons.

In 1962, AT&T opened a sprawling 472-acre campus for Bell Labs in suburban Holmdel, NJ. It was designed by modernist architect Eero Saarinen, who created similar suburban campuses for General Motors (Warren, MI) and IBM (Yorktown Heights, NY). Photo courtesy of user MBisanz on Wikimedia Commons.

However, according to Katz and Wagner, by virtue of their suburban locations, these campuses were “accessible only by car, with little emphasis on quality of life or on integrating work, housing, and recreation.” Thus, “a new complementary urban model is now emerging” giving rise to what they call “innovation districts.”

These districts, by our definition, are geographic areas where leading-edge anchor institutions and companies cluster and connect with start-ups, business incubators and accelerators. They are also physically compact, transit-accessible, and technically-wired and offer mixed-use housing, office, and retail.

In contrast to the post-war suburban campuses, think Kendall Square in Cambridge, MA; University City in West Philadelphia, PA; and South Lake Union district in Seattle, WA. These urban districts feature big research universities (MIT, Univ. of Pennsylvania, Drexel) and big high-tech firms (Amazon, Microsoft) that serve as anchors for attracting additional high-tech startups, plus the housing and complimentary retail businesses that support them.

As Bruce Katz argues in this short video, innovation is increasingly taking place where people come together, not in isolated spaces. Courtesy of the Brookings Institution, via YouTube.

Katz and Wagner explain some of the reasons for this geographic shift back to cities. First, in terms of demographics, married families with children—the residents most likely to enjoy the suburbs—now constitute less than 20% of all U.S. households. Young professionals and retired empty-nesters increasingly prefer to live in cities where they can walk to the gym, visit a museum after work, or meet a friend at a coffee shop or tavern.

But a more interesting observation concerns the changing nature of innovation strategies and why today’s innovators and entrepreneurs favor the inter-connectedness of cities. During the mid-20th century, the big high-tech firms pursued a linear model of innovation, in which they believed pure scientific research (R) would lead directly to the development (D) of marketable new technologies, all within the confines of the firm’s suburban R&D labs. That strategy worked for a while: for example, researchers at Bell Labs developed transistors and lasers while earning 11 Nobel Prizes. But Bell Labs would eventually fall victim to the “campus curse” as the isolation and insularism of its pristine suburban labs slowed the pace of innovation. In fact, AT&T sold off Bell Labs to Alcatel-Lucent in 1996, and the famous Holmdel, NJ laboratories, designed by modernist architect Eero Saarinen, now sits empty. It may be converted into a medical center…or razed.

Instead, most small and medium-sized businesses are increasingly turning toward an “open innovation” strategy, in which they develop some of their own in-house technologies, while also partnering with other firms to buy or license certain new inventions. As Katz noted in his talk, this mixed, open innovation strategy “craves proximity” and “extols integration” in order to make the necessary connections. So in terms of geography, it makes more sense to locate a startup in an urban innovation district where the density of development increases the odds of finding new ideas and technology partners—at the “incubator” next door or in a serendipitous exchange at the corner coffee shop.

Coffee shops (like Detroit’s Great Lakes Coffee) are now places for entrepreneurs to work and network. Photo credit: Marvin Shaouni, originally published in Model D, and featured in the Brookings report.

Coffee shops (like Detroit’s Great Lakes Coffee) are now places for entrepreneurs to work and network. Photo credit: Marvin Shaouni, originally published in Model D, and featured in the Brookings report.

As Katz and Wagner note in their full report, these 21st century innovation districts are in many ways a return to the original 19th and 20th century industrial districts that flourished in the first wave of industrialization. In these districts, firms from the same industry would cluster in a city neighborhood as workers walked to work and patronized local businesses. We see this clearly in some of our Places of Invention exhibition case studies. For example in 19th-century Hartford, skilled machinists in the Coltsville neighborhood lived in company-built housing and walked a few hundred yards to Samuel Colt’s famous armory where they mass produced revolvers with interchangeable parts. After their shift, they might walk next door to Charter Oak Hall to practice with the Colt Armory band, take in an evening lecture, or use the lending library while mingling with fellow workers. To use Katz and Wagner’s language, the Colt Armory was the “anchor firm” of the Hartford “innovation district,” which grew to include the Weed Sewing Machine Co., the Pope Manufacturing Co. (bicycles, automobiles), both the Underwood and Royal Typewriter companies, and Pratt &Whitney (machines tools), the last of which was a spin-off founded by two former Colt machinists. Similarly, in the 1950s several medical device firms clustered around two Twin Cities anchors—the University of Minnesota’s Variety Club Heart Hospital and Medtronic—in “Medical Alley” Minnesota.

This is a black and white birdseye view of Coltsville and the CT River.  It is a black and white detail from the original color lithograph, print, O.H. Bailey and Co., Boston, “The City of Hartford,” 1877.

A bird’s-eye view of “Coltsville,” 1877. This industrial village along the Connecticut River in Hartford included Samuel Colt’s famous onion-domed factory (foreground), and behind it, workers’ housing, a baseball field, and a church. To the right of the armory and below the church is Charter Oak Hall, where workers could engage in numerous leisure activities. A detail from the lithograph “City of Hartford” (1877) by O. H. Bailey, courtesy of The Connecticut Historical Society.

Katz and Warner believe there is strong potential for the growth of innovation districts in several U.S. cities. Indeed, as new urban innovation districts emerge in cities like St. Louis, Detroit, and Boston, civic leaders would be wise to brush up on their history to learn lessons from earlier Places of Invention.


Chesbrough, Henry.  Open Innovation: The New Imperative for Creating and Profiting from Technology.  Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2003.

Godin, Benoit. “The Linear Model of Innovation: The Historical Construction of an Analytical Framework.” Science, Technology & Human Values 31 (2006): 639–667.

Katz, Bruce and Julie Wagner. The Rise of Innovation Districts: A New Geography of Innovation in America. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2014.  Accessed 19 June 2014.

Leslie, Stuart W. and Scott Knowles.  “Industrial Versailles: Eero Saarinen’s Corporate Campuses for GM, IBM, and AT&T,” Isis 92, no. 1 (March 2001): 1-33.

Rigby, Bill and Alistair Barr. “Will Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon fall victim to the ‘campus curse?’” San Jose Mercury News, 28 May 2013.  Accessed 19 June 2014.

Made in Golden

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

Location, location, location. It’s important for real estate as we all know, but as I’m learning, also critical for innovation and invention.

The state of Colorado has no shortage of breathtaking, jaw-dropping locations. In my home state over the holidays, I rediscovered Golden, a town not only full of scenic vistas, but also packed with nuggets of invention. (Excuse the pun! I couldn’t help myself.)

A grand arch spanning the town’s main street welcomes all to Golden.

A grand arch spanning the town’s main street welcomes all to Golden.

Golden (“Where the West Lives”!) is situated near the junction of I-70, the highway that leads straight to the Rocky Mountains and the ski resorts (and former mining towns) for which Colorado is so famous. It’s also only 15 miles west of Denver, enough to be close, but not too close, to major transportation lines. During the Gold Rush, Golden quickly became an ideal stopping point between the capital city and the mining industry. In fact, in 1858, David King Wall, Golden’s first resident, innovated a way to divert the pristine mountain water from Clear Creek to irrigate crops of vegetables, providing much-desired fresh produce for city dwellers and miners alike. The access to this same pure water also attracted Golden’s most famous resident, Adolph Coors in 1873. As the Places of Invention project repeatedly shows, when access to natural resources, business opportunities, and intellectual capital come together, they create a magnet for even more innovation over time. Golden is no exception. Soon, the Colorado School of Mines started attracting engineers to the town, and mountaineers discovered its benefits as well.

View of the Made in Golden exhibition, showing a diorama of the town from 1938-39, and a list of reasons why over 150 manufacturing businesses call Golden home.

View of the Made in Golden exhibition, showing a diorama of the town from 1938-39, and a list of reasons why over 150 manufacturing businesses call Golden home.

This legacy of invention, stretching into the present day, is the subject of an enlightening exhibition currently on view at the Golden History Center, entitled Made in Golden. After establishing the primacy of location for this community, the exhibition describes how the Coors Brewery decided in the early 1950s that steel—the material chosen for selling beer in cans—was seriously flawed for a variety of reasons, including leakage, contaminants, cost, and most importantly, the unpleasant metallic taste it gave to beer. And so in 1959, Coors invented the two-piece aluminum can, revolutionizing the beverage industry. Coors continued to innovate, creating the internal coating, sterile-fill, and printing processes for aluminum cans that are still the industry standard.

Another view of the Made in Golden exhibition, showing various processes of innovation.

Another view of the Made in Golden exhibition, showing various processes of innovation.

Access and proximity to the mountains also brought innovative adventurers to Golden. In 1981, Patrick Smith survived an avalanche in nearby Berthoud Pass, even though he left his specialized shovel (invented by fellow Golden resident Paul Ramer) in his car because it wouldn’t fit in his backpack. In response, he designed a new kind of pack around the dimensions of a Ramer shovel, and the firm Mountainsmith was born. Mountainsmith used a patented delta suspension system, and produced the best selling lumbar pack for close to ten years. In related gear innovation, climbers and mountaineers alike also flock to the Spyderco knives developed and still produced in Golden, with their trademark holes and pocket clips that make these necessary survival tools easy to carry.

Mountainsmith packs on view in Made in Golden.

Mountainsmith packs on view in Made in Golden.

Jolly Ranchers were developed in Golden, as a way for ice cream vendors Bill and Dorothy Harmsen to extend their season into the Colorado winter by making candy with best-selling names like Fire Stix. And with only four companies in the world producing low wattage lasers for commercial use, Golden boasts one of them, Epilog, who turned the industry on its head when it invented the first low-cost, small-format laser engraver. It’s like a printer, except instead of paper, one can print on glass, wood, metal, fabric… even eggs!

An Epilog laser-produced metal disk, each visitor’s souvenir from this innovation exhibition.

An Epilog laser-produced metal disk, each visitor’s souvenir from this innovation exhibition.

Golden is not the only place to uncover the state’s history of invention. The History Colorado Center (a Smithsonian Affiliate) chronicles innovations in mining, snow sports and more at its location in downtown Denver. (For example, did you know that the cheeseburger was invented in Denver?) The Lemelson Center’s Places of Invention exhibition already plans to highlight two Colorado stories when it opens in 2015. The Telluride Historical Museum (a Smithsonian Affiliate) will share how the Ames Hydroelectric Generating Plant built in 1891 was the world’s first commercial long distance transmission and use of AC generated power. This breakthrough was critical to operating the silver mines in the often inaccessible terrain of the San Juan mountains of southern Colorado, but also, transformed the industrial capacity of the nation. Fort Collins’ revolutionary inventions in clean energy and socially responsible innovation will be featured as well, showing that Colorado State University, the city, and community businesses actively pursue collaborations that result in local innovations with a global impact.

Another view of the Made in Golden exhibition, showing a lab for visitors to devise their own innovative solutions to city problems.

Another view of the Made in Golden exhibition, showing a lab for visitors to devise their own innovative solutions to city problems.

Colorado is a gold mine of invention, both historically and into the present day. I’m confident future prospecting trips will uncover even deeper veins of innovation. Any ideas on where else to look?!

Be Still, My Heart: Behind the Scenes in the Cardiac Collections

We crowded together in the narrow passageway at the rear of the Medicine and Science collections storage area. Curator Judy Chelnick slowly opened a drawer in one of the gray metal cabinets and special guest Manny Villafaña’s eyes lit up. He exclaimed: “It’s like being a kid in a candy store!” Before him lay a group of small archival boxes nestled together, each holding a cardiac pacemaker or valve. Judy picked up items one by one for Manny to get a closer peek. She also showed him related objects in glass-fronted storage cabinets around the room. This was a highlight of Manny’s visit to the National Museum of American History in late March. He came to town in part to learn more about the Museum’s collections and why, how, and where we care for both three-dimensional objects and archival documents.

Inventor Manny Villafana with curator Judy Chelnick in storage looking at heart valves.

As he oohed and aahed about the array of medical collections, my colleague Chris Gauthier captured Manny’s expert commentary on video while I snapped photographs. Not only does Manny have great familiarity with these objects from his life-long career as an inventor and entrepreneur in the medical-device industry, but also he knows many of their inventors. For example, he had professional connections with the inventors behind two key artifacts for the Places of Invention exhibition’s “Medical Alley” story: a Medtronic 5800 externally wearable cardiac pacemaker and a Chardack-Greatbatch implantable pacemaker model.

Manny Villafana examines a pacemaker.

Manny talked knowingly about the 5800, which was originally invented by Medtronic, Inc. co-founder Earl Bakken in 1957 and sold commercially starting in 1958 (thus the model number). Manny worked for Earl at Medtronic as its first international sales administrator before starting his first rival company, Cardiac Pacemakers Inc. At the latter, Manny worked closely with engineer Wilson Greatbatch, the inventor of the first successful implantable cardiac pacemaker named for him and surgeon William Chardack. The Chardack-Greatbatch pacemaker model dating from about 1961 has been in the Museum’s care for a long time. Medtronic recently donated the 5800 model dating from about 1972, along with two other recent cardiac pacemakers to help expand the medical sciences collections.

An early pacemaker.

A Chardack-Greatbatch pacemaker.

As part of Manny’s behind-the-scenes tour, archivist Alison Oswald welcomed him to the Museum’s vault to show him a range of archival materials. She explained why we save certain items and how we care for them, from inventors’ notebooks to paper prototypes to marketing brochures. He was surprised about the Archives Center’s interest in collecting ephemera, which the Society of American Archivists defines as “Materials, usually printed documents, created for a specific, limited purpose, and generally designed to be discarded after use….Examples of ephemera include advertisements, tickets, brochures, and receipts.” It got him thinking about how seemingly unimportant papers he has squirreled away might be worth saving. Alison gave him a copy of our Modern Inventors Documentation (MIND) Program brochure to take home for further consideration.

Archivist Alison Oswald shows Manny Villafana archival documents.

While he was here, we filmed Manny as he shared great stories about his personal collection of pacemakers and heart valves, including some objects he brought along in his jacket pockets. He pulled out a real gem, St. Jude Medical bileaflet mechanical heart valve serial number 1—“the industry’s gold standard”—that he co-invented. (Be sure to watch the full video to see a later set of ATS heart valves, which he co-invented, used as cuff links!) Manny founded St. Jude Medical, Inc. in the 1970s and ATS Medical in the 1980s, and is now the CEO of his seventh company, Kips Bay Medical, Inc. In addition to the video footage of him discussing the Museum’s collections with Judy and talking about his own, I conducted a short video interview with Manny in the Lemelson Center. I asked him questions about his childhood and career, the history of the medical-device industry in Minnesota, and his relationships with some of the key Medical Alley pioneers like Bakken and Dr. C. Walton Lillehei, “the father of open-heart surgery.” Manny’s visit provided a wonderful opportunity to create video documentation to complement the Museum’s medical-device object and archival collections. We also look forward to featuring clips in the Places of Invention exhibition!

Inventing the Modern Organic Farm

As I sliced into a perfectly ripe, farm-fresh, red tomato, thoughts of a hot summer day flashed in my head. To me, there is nothing more satisfying than a juicy, salty, sweet tomato when the August sun is high in a cloudless sky. But it was late May, the temperature was a cool 45 degrees, and this wasn’t a typical tomato. It was grown during the coldest months of winter on a windswept peninsula off the coast of Maine, and it wasn’t grown using pesticides or chemical fertilizers. And guess what? It tasted absolutely divine.

Organic tomatoes.

Tomatoes just like these German Johnsons can be grown year-round in an unheated greenhouse. Photo courtesy of Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the word ‘impossible,’” says Eliot Coleman, the pioneer farmer behind this tomato. It’s a fascination that has lead Coleman to invent, create, and innovate tools and techniques that have taken on the “impossible” in organic farming. His innovations have been instrumental in changing the way people grow food through the coldest winter months. Indeed, without Coleman, the White House probably wouldn’t be growing greens in December.

American consumers’ eating habits are changing, and the latest iteration of the US Department of Agriculture’s Farm Bill reflects that. It’s considered to be one of the most progressive farm bills to come out of Washington in decades. With significant growth in spending on local and regional food systems (from $10 million annually to $30 million), and a new emphasis on organic foods, the 2014 Farm Bill—signed by President Obama in February—goes a long way to supporting the small farmer. Many of the ideas proposed in the bill find their roots in the early organic revolution of the 1960s, which was lead, in part, by Eliot Coleman.

As the son of a Manhattan stockbroker, Coleman came to farming by happenstance. After graduate school in Vermont, he found himself teaching Spanish at a college in New Hampshire, where he met his first wife, Sue. One day while shopping in a general store, Eliot came across the book, “Living the Good Life,” by Helen and Scott Nearing. Struck by the Nearing’s experience living “off the grid” in mid-coast Maine, Coleman was inspired to seek out a similar adventure of his own. He and Sue left New Hampshire in 1968 with $5000 in savings and bought a piece of property from the Nearings in Harborside, Maine. There, with not a structure in sight, some of the least ideal soil for growing crops you could want, and nothing but a few hand tools and boundless energy, the Colemans began what would eventually become Four Seasons Farm, and a new organic year-round farming philosophy emerged.

But Eliot Coleman wouldn’t say that there was anything innovative about the way he approached organic farming. He’d say that it was simply an extension and adaptation of farming techniques that were practiced throughout Europe and the Americas prior to the advent of industrial farming. The old ways of doing things emphasized ecosystem management to be successful: compost, crop rotation, and naturally occurring soil nutrients.

“Using compost and natural systems to grow food was so simple,” he says. “The world’s best fertilizer, compost…is made for free in your backyard from waste products. The soil, the natural world was giving me everything I needed as inputs for this system. This place really is well designed, isn’t it? And it’s only because an awful lot of people haven’t been paying attention to [the fact that the natural world is well designed] is why we have difficulties.”

But what makes Eliot Coleman innovative is that he views with disdain and skepticism many cutting-edge trends in farming, such as relying on chemical fertilizers, monocrops, and industrial-scale tools. Central to his (innovative) philosophy is that there is much more value in diversity and sustainability.

Coleman began his farm by clearing the land by hand and working to make the rocky, acidic soil more balanced and fertile. It was a slow process, one acre giving way to two acres and so on—a process that continues to this day. Along the way there have been countless challenges, giving Coleman many opportunities to be creative in finding solutions.

For example, how do you weed between 30-foot rows of lettuce quickly and without breaking your back? This was a problem Eliot took on headfirst, and he devised the Collinear Hoe:


The Collinear Hoe, from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, a garden and farm supply company that Eliot Coleman works closely with to develop his ideas into production models. Photo courtesy of Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

Watch Eliot Coleman demonstrating how to use the Collinear Hoe here:

Or, how about a quick way to incorporate the right amount of compost within your soil so your compost isn’t too deep or too clumpy? Well, hook up a cordless drill to a tiller with small tines and you get Coleman’s “tilther.” What used to take 25 minutes now takes five.

Tiller mixing compost into soil.

Eliot Coleman prepares a bed in the garden using his invention, the Tilther, to mix compost into the soil. Photo courtesy of Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Mr. Coleman shares Benjamin Franklin’s belief that “As we benefit from the inventions of others, we should be glad to share our own…freely and gladly.” So, he was never interested in obtaining patents for his inventions. He just wanted a tool that would make farm work a little easier. Any ideas he had, he gave to an engineer or manufacturing company so that they could perfect the tool or product. That way, Eliot and his farmer friends could all benefit from it.

Perhaps his most significant contribution to commercial organic small-scale farming is the moveable hoophouse. The latest iteration is the New Cathedral Modular Tunnel, a structure that allows users to grow crops in progression with the seasons. When one area of the garden needs to be covered, the tunnel or greenhouse is lifted by 4 people and moved, or pushed along tracks that run the length of the fields. This invention is what allows Eliot to grow juicy red tomatoes all year long.

Putting up frames for modular greenhouse.

Eliot Coleman poses with his daughter Clara Coleman at Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine. The two have just completed framing part of the 14’ Gothic Modular Moveable Tunnel, based on Mr. Coleman’s designs. September, 2013 Photo courtesy of Johnny’s Selected Seeds

The latest innovation Mr. Coleman has helped usher is a tool called the Quick Cut Greens Harvester, which, like the tilther, uses a cordless drill as its motor. Most exciting about this invention, which makes harvesting fresh salad greens much easier than the old method of cutting by hand, was that it was invented by a 16-year-old named Jonathan Dysinger, who visited Four Season’s Farm and was encouraged and inspired by Mr. Coleman to pursue the idea.

Watch Eliot Coleman demonstrate the harvester here:

Eliot Coleman’s contributions to small-scale and organic farming are numerous. From his philosophy to the methods and tools used to make it a viable business option, rejecting the conventional and daring to try the impossible are hallmarks of his work and legacy.


Disputed Culinary Invention Locations

The invention of Poutine is claimed by Warwick, Quebec. The ice cream sundae was created in Ithaca, NY. Frog Legs are a uniquely French delicacy. These are universal truths, right? Actually, the origins of these dishes are all in hot dispute. At least four Quebec communities say they invented poutine and several U.S. locations claim they invented the ice cream sundae. Finally, evidence of the first cooked frog legs was found in England. Mon Dieu!

There is intense community pride in inventing a culinary dish, especially if it becomes iconic for a country. After all, food is as representative of a culture and its people as music, architecture, and historical objects. UNESCO, which is a branch of the United Nations is primarily known for designating World Heritage sites, also compiles a list of intangible heritage, which they define as “traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.” Culinary traditions are considered a type of intangible heritage, and listed foods range Northern Croatian gingerbread to broader categories such as the Mediterranean diet and Mexican cuisine.

Poutine—French fries and cheese curds topped with a light brown gravy-like sauce—has become an iconic Canadian dish. In a 2007 CBC/Radio-Canada viewer survey of the greatest Canadian inventions of all time, poutine was ranked number ten, beating the electron microscope, the BlackBerry, and the paint roller, among other items. The province of Quebec gained prestige as the birthplace of one of their nation’s iconic dishes. Obviously there is a lot at stake for the place that invented it, not only in terms of local pride but also marketing power and potential big business. Unfortunately the restaurateur who invented poutine is in dispute.

Some dish disputes are intense, albeit good natured. The ice cream sundae has several claimants for its birthplace; the top two contenders are Two Rivers, Wisconsin and Ithaca, New York. These cities are fighting a “Sundae War.” In 2006, the Ithaca Visitors Bureau offered free sundaes on Sundays for the month of July. The Two Rivers City Council responded with a “resolution formally challenging the city of Ithaca, New York’s claim to be birthplace of the ice cream sundae.”  They also encouraged Two Rivers residents to send postcards to Ithaca’s mayor—postcards with a photo of the Two Rivers historical marker that relates the history of the birth of the sundae in a rhyme:

“Ice cream sundaes are sweet …and they give you the shivers.
Just remember they started right here in Two Rivers!”

Ithaca responded with its own historical plaque and declared victory by providing the oldest written advertisement for an ice cream sundae.

Note that being the birthplace of a culinary dish is not always desirable. The English have mocked the French for hundreds of years for eating frog legs, derisively calling them “Frogs” and “frog eaters.”

So there was shock and disbelief across England when archeologists found the burnt leg of a toad at a site in Amesbury dating from 6250BC to 7600BC. This is the earliest evidence of a cooked toad or frog leg, predating evidence in France by a full eight millennia.

As long as people invent new culinary dishes that may become icons of their cities, states, and countries, the importance of their birthplaces cannot be underestimated. And for those places of invention already in dispute, they can take comfort in diners enjoying their iconic dishes and debating which place prepares it best (another debate entirely). Bon appetite!


The History of the Nineteenth Century in Caricature by Arthur Bartlett Maurice and Frederic Taber Cooper, pg 91

A Day at the Armory: Part II

One of the most exciting aspects of historical research is the thrill of finding a truly great primary source. Recently, while researching Hartford’s industrial history for our Places of Invention exhibition, I uncovered a remarkable first person account of the inner working of Samuel Colt’s Hartford Armory from 1857. Fortunately, copyright protection has expired on such an old piece, so I thought it would be fun to reprint it here. The original article is quite long so I have cut and provided a digest of certain sections, while retaining the descriptions of the factory and grounds. Enjoy Part II…and go back to read Part I.

Part II: “Repeating Fire-Arms:  A Day at the Armory of Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Company,” United States Magazine, vol. 4, no. 3 (March 1857): 221-249.

With the exception of the steam engine and boilers, a majority of the machinery was not only invented, but constructed on the premises. When this department was commenced, it was the intention of the Company to manufacture solely for their own use. Some months since, applications were made by several foreign Governments to be supplied with machines and the right to operate them. After mature deliberation, it was concluded to supply orders, and on the day of our visit we saw a complete set of machinery for manufacturing fire-arms, that will shortly be shipped to a distant land. The Company have now determined to incorporate this manufacture as a branch of their regular business. The machine shop is the lower floor of the front parallel; its dimensions are 60 by 500 feet; it is supplied with power and hand tools of every desired kind, all of the most approved construction.

Drawing of A Colt workman at a jigging machine, 1857.

Figure 4: A Colt workman at a jigging machine. The machine featured a revolving wheel with various metal cutting tools attached so the machinist could perform several operations on a single work piece. From United States Magazine, 1857.

Another of the numerous inventions of Colonel Colt is the Metallic Foil Cartridge, a contrivance that always insures “dry powder’ to the possessor. Tin foil, cut in the required shape, is formed in an inverted cone, which is charged with gunpowder; the ball is oval, with a flat end; a circle is pierced near the edge, on this flat end, to receive the edge of the foil; on the cone and ball being brought together, the joint is closed by pressure; they are then inclosed in paper wrappers, so arranged that this covering can be instantly removed when the cartridge is about to be used. The whole operation is completed so perfectly that the cartridge is entirely impervious to water, as by experiment they have repeatedly been fired after having been immersed for hours. Owing to the peculiar shape of the bore of the nipple in Colt’s firearms, the fire from the percussion caps readily penetrated the foil, without pricking.

They are manufactured in a building erected expressly for the purpose, situated about half a mile south of the armory. No fire is allowed in any part of the works, heat being furnished by steam generated in an out-building. Nearly the whole labor here is performed by females, about thirty of whom were at work during our visit – the foreman, engineer and charger making the complement of employees.

Drawing of women assembling Colt's patented gunpowder cartridges, 1857.

Figure 5: Women doing the dangerous work of assembling Colt’s patented gunpowder cartridges at the Cartridge Works. From United States Magazine, 1857.

The principal officers of the company consist of Colonel Colt as President; E. K. Root, Esq., Superintendent, and Luther P. Sargeant, Esq., Treasurer and Secretary; besides these, there is a chief to each department – Mr. Horace Lord being master workman in the armory. Colonel Colt has been particularly fortunate in the selection of his immediate associates; they are all men of mark. Mr. Root, to whom we are indebted for a few hours of valuable instruction, is one of the most accomplished, practical and scientific mechanics of the day; although only in the prime of life, he has established a most enviable position, and his opinions on mooted questions of mechanism are eagerly sought after, even by the principals of some of our most extensive city establishments. Colonel Colt informed us that since their first connection all his views had been most ably seconded and put in practical operation by Mr. Root. In fact, the whole manufacture of every description is under his immediate direction.

Although so much care and attention have been exercised in perfecting the armory, its accessories and products, yet the general welfare of the employees has not been neglected; most extensive arrangements for their comfort and convenience are in the course of rapid completion. And we may here remark that they are deserving of such especial favor; as a body they are mostly young men, many of them having commenced their business life in the establishment. It was, in a measure, necessary to educate men expressly for the purpose, as the manipulation required is not exclusively that of the gunsmith, or of the machinist, but a combination of both of these callings. Taken as a whole, we found them decidedly a reading and thinking community, and we venture the assertion, that it would be difficult to produce a counterpart of mental capacity in the same number of mechanics employed in a manufactory. That they are well compensated for their services is evinced from the fact of the pay-roll amounting to from $1,000 to $1,200 per day.

The grounds around the armory have been laid out in squares of 500 feet each by streets 60 feet wide; upon these squares are being erected commodious three-story dwellings. Sufficient for about eighty families have already been finished, and are occupied by the employees; the operations will be continued until all who desire are accommodated. These houses have all the conveniences of city life. Gas works, of sufficient capacity to supply as large a population as can occupy the area, have already been erected and put in operation. Attached to the engine in the main building is a “cam pump,” which raises the water from the Connecticut to a reservoir on the hill beyond, from which it is distributed, by pipes, to the armory, dwellings, etc….One of the buildings is a beautiful structure known as Charter Oak Hall – so named from its being located on the same avenue as the venerable and time-honored tree, which for centuries braved the storm, and from a singular incident became celebrated in our colonial history. This hall is employed by the operatives for lectures, debates, concerts, balls, etc. The festive occasions are enlivened with music from a band organized from their midst – the instruments, which are most excellent, having been furnished though the liberality of Colonel Colt. A public park, fountains, etc., are in the plans, all of which are being successfully executed.

On the hill overlooking the whole is the palatial residence of the proprietor. It is really a superb edifice, the main building being fifty by one hundred feet; it is in the Italian villa style – the ground and out buildings being on the scale which would naturally be expected of a man of his extended views and liberal taste.

The marvelous extension of use of Colonel Colt’s revolver within a few years, in Europe, and over parts of Asia – the establishment by the British Government of an armory of its own at Enfield, for its manufacture – the establishment of another by the Russian Government at Tula for the same manufacture – the call upon Colonel Colt, aided in part by some other American establishments, to provide all the important machinery for these new armories – these facts and hosts of testimonials from all parts of the world, and from the highest sources, attest the unrivaled excellence of the repeating arms of Colonel Colt, and rank him among the most remarkable inventors of the world.

A Day at the Armory: Part I

One of the most exciting aspects of historical research is the thrill of finding a truly great primary source. As you probably recall from History 101, a primary source is a document, report or set of observations written contemporaneous with the period you’re studying.  The best primary sources are first-person accounts—these reports from the past give historians our best evidence of what things were really like in a given place and time.

Recently, while researching Hartford’s industrial history for our Places of Invention exhibition, I uncovered a remarkable first person account of the inner working of Samuel Colt’s Hartford Armory from 1857. The observations of the unnamed reporter and (pre-photographic!) renderings by artist Nathaniel Orr provide a rich sense of life in Coltsville and on the factory floor.

Fortunately, copyright protection has expired on such an old piece, so I thought it would be fun to reprint it here. The original article is quite long so I have cut and provided a digest of certain sections, while retaining the descriptions of the factory and grounds. Enjoy!

“Repeating Fire-Arms:  A Day at the Armory of Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Company,” United States Magazine, vol. 4, no. 3 (March 1857): 221-249.

Eric’s note: The first part of the article describes Colt’s invention and patenting of the revolver in 1836.  It then describes Colt’s first failed efforts to build a successful business in Paterson, NJ.  In 1847, after correcting some of the defects in his original design, Colt received an order for 1000 revolvers from Captain Samuel Walker of the Texas Rangers.  Colt contracted with Eli Whitney, Jr. of Hamden, CT to manufacture the revolvers to his specifications.  The proceeds from this and subsequent orders allowed Colt to establish a temporary factory in his native Hartford, then build his permanent factory in 1855.  The observer from United States Magazine, writing in 1857, describes the two-year old armory.   

[The orders from Colt’s improved revolver enabled him to] …transfer his enterprise to Hartford, his own native town, upon the banks of the Connecticut, where he has at last succeeded in founding an armory, the most magnificent of its kind, it may be safely alleged, in the known world – an establishment, built in the first place by damming out – in a project deemed by many, in its inception, almost superhuman – the waters of the mighty Connecticut in their maddened freshet time – which incorporates, in buildings and machinery, a full million of dollars – which give employment to from six to eight hundred men inside the main building, and to numerous hands outside, – which dispenses daily, in wages alone from one thousand to fifteen hundred dollars, and manufactures, year by year, from seventy-five to one hundred thousand arms…

…Within the corporate limits of the City of Hartford, immediately below the Little or Mill River, is a section land, containing about 250 acres, which, owing to its formerly being submerged at the periodical freshets of the Connecticut River, was available at certain seasons only, and then but for grazing. Colonel Colt selected and purchased this spot as his field of operations. His first move was to erect an embankment, or dyke, by which the waters of the Connecticut were entirely and permanently excluded; thus reclaiming the land for building purposes or tillage, as might be desired. This embankment is about two miles long, averaging over one hundred feet wide at the base, and over forty feet in width at the top, and from ten to twenty feet in height. It is built in the most substantial manner, the sides being covered with osier, both for protection and ornament, and for material for his willow works factory, for which he has brought fifty skilled craftsmen from Germany and plans to build for them Swiss-chalet style houses called the Potsdam village. From the smoothness of the road on the dyke, and the beautiful scenery in the vicinity, the dyke has become the fashionable drive of the citizens.

Drawing of Colt Armory from across the Connecticut River, 1857.

Figure 1. Armory of the Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Company in Hartford, from across the Connecticut River. Notice the earthen work dykes secured by osier (willow) trees on the opposite river bank. From United States Magazine, 1857.

That the operations might be on the most extended scale, and also that the proprietor might have the undivided exertions of his principal assistants in the manufacture, an association was now formed under a special law from the state, styled “Colt’s Patent Fire-arms Manufacturing Company.” The stockholders in the company are few, Colonel Colt being largely the principal, and the others the heads of the various departments of the business. The capital is $1,250,000; the whole of which is invested in the buildings, tools, machinery, raw materials, etc….The new armory…was finished and operations commenced in it in the Fall of 1855.

The motive power is located about in the center of the main building. It consists of a steam engine – cylinder, 36 inches in diameter, 7 foot stroke, fly-wheel 30 feet in diameter, weighing 7 tons. This engine, which is rated at 250 horse power, is supplied with the well-known “Sickel’s Cutoff,” which the superintendent and engineer speak of as the most useful and important addition to the steam-engine since the days of Watt. The steam is furnished from two cylindrical boilers, each 22 feet long and 7 feet in diameter. The power is carried to the attic by a belt working on the fly-wheel; this belt is 118 feet long by 22 inches wide, and travels at the rate of 2,500 feet per minute.

Fully appreciating the great interest manifested by our readers in descriptions of this kind, we will now proceed to conduct them through the interior of this immense industrial pile, and on the way we will endeavor to explain, as understandingly as possible, the various processes of the manufacture, from the raw metal and wood, to the complete and effective arms familiarly known as Colt’s Revolvers.

Leaving the office we cross the bridge, pass down through the machine shop, engine room, etc., to the rear parallel, an apartment 40 by 50 feet square, the center of which is appropriated as the store-room for iron and steel. Large quantities of these materials, in bars and rods, are stored here in charge of a responsible party, whose duty it is to fill the orders from the contractors, and render an accurate statement of such deliveries to the main storekeeper’s department. This latter system is universal throughout the establishment – thus the materials of all kinds can be readily accounted for, no matter what their state of transposition.

Drawing of the furnaces and anvils of Colt Armory's forging shop, 1857.

Figure 2: The furnaces and anvils of Colt’s forging shop. From United States Magazine, 1857.

We now follow them to the armory proper, which, in the first place, is the second story of the front parallel. This is probably not only the most spacious, but the best arranged and fitted workshop extant. We fully understand this to be a broad and sweeping assertion, yet we have an abundance of competent authority to back the opinion. On first entering this immense room, from the office, the tout ensemble is really grand and imposing, and the beholder is readily impressed with an exalted opinion of the vast mechanical resources of the corporation. The room is 500 feet long by 60 feet wide, and 16 feet high. It is lighted, on all sides, by 110 windows that reach nearly from floor to ceiling; it is warmed by steam from the boilers – the pipers being under the benches, running completely around the sides and ends; there are the perfect arrangements for ventilation, and sufficient gas burners to illuminate the whole for night-work. Running along through the center is a row of cast-iron columns, sixty in number, to which is attached the shafting – which here is arranged as a continuous pulley – for driving the machines, as close together as possible, only allowing sufficient space to get around and work them. The whole of this immense floor space is covered with machine tools. Each portion of the fire-arm has its particular section. As we enter the door the first group of machines appears to be exclusively employed in chambering cylinders; the next turning and shaping them; here another is boring barrels; another group is milling the lockframes; still another is drilling them; beyond are a score of machines boring and screw-cutting the nipples, and next to them a number of others are making screws; here are the rifling machines, and there the machines for boring rifle-barrels; now we come to the jigging machines that mortice out the lock-frames; and thus it goes on all over this great hive of physical and mental exertion.

Drawing of the second floor of Colt’s East Armory, showing dozens of machine tools and operators, powered by overhead pulley, belts, and shafting, 1857.

Figure 3: The second floor of Colt’s East Armory, showing dozens of machine tools and operators, powered by overhead pulley, belts, and shafting. From United States Magazine, 1857.

As soon as completed the different parts are carried to the story above, which, with the exception of the machinery and the columns through the center, is an exact counterpart of the room below. It is designated the Inspecting and Assembling Department. Here the different parts are most minutely inspected; this embraces a series of operations which in the aggregate amount to considerable; the tools to inspect a cylinder, for example, are fifteen in number, each of which must gauge to a hair; the greatest nicety is observed, and it is absolutely impossible to get a slighted piece of work beyond this point.

The finished arm is laid on a rack, ready for the prover; of course many others accompany it to the department of this official, which is located in the third story of the rear building. Here each chamber is loaded with the largest charge possible, and practically tested by firing; after which, they are wiped out by the prover and returned to the inspection department. The inspectors again take them apart, thoroughly clean and oil them, when they are for the last time put together and placed in a rack for the final inspection. This is done by Mr. William Tuller, a gentleman who has been in the constant employment of Colonel Colt since the manufacture commenced in Hartford. The parts having been so thoroughly examined and tested, it would seem that this last inspection was scarcely necessary; but, after a short observation, we saw several laid aside. Taking up one with a small mark on the barrel, “Why do you reject this?” we inquired. “Pass that to-day, and probably much larger blemishes would appear to-morrow,” replied Mr. T. The order from the Principal is perfection; and a small scratch in the bluing or varnish is sufficient to prevent the arm passing. The finished arm is now returned to the store room; from whence, after being papered, they are sent to the wareroom – situated in the basement of the office building; from this they are sent to nearly every portion of the habitable globe.

In round numbers it might be stated that supposing the cost of an arm to be 100; of this the wages of those who attended to and passed pieces through the machines was 10 per cent, and those of the best class workmen engaged in assembling the weapons was also 10 per cent, thus leaving 80 per cent for the duty done by the machinery.

Stay tuned for Part II of the article…

Sol’s Place

We talk a lot about “place” of invention these days in the Lemelson Center. Center staff is exploring this topic for an upcoming exhibit titled Places of Invention. The exhibit will take visitors on a journey through time and place to meet people who lived, worked, played, collaborated, adapted, and took risks in order to solve problems and create new solutions. But what does a place of invention look like? Examining the life and work of Solomon “Sol” Adler (1901-1989), an American-born inventor of sewing machines, provides a glimpse of one invention space.

Adler’s personal papers, which are housed at the National Museum of American History’s Archives Center, contain numerous sketches and drawings demonstrating his precision as a draftsman. They provide insight into the drawing abilities he later used to prepare patent drawings. Adler also enjoyed metalworking. An expert machinist and toolmaker, his home workshop boasted a geared lathe, tilling head machine, drill press, bench grinder, and an assortment of hand tools. Living in New York City did not afford much room for a home workshop—some of this equipment and tools was set-up in closets! Adler, who devoted most of his inventive life to improving sewing machines, moved to Japan in 1954 to work for Brother International Corporation (BIC), a subsidiary of the Nippon Company, as a consultant. At BIC, Adler solved certain design and operational problems the company was having in developing a zigzag sewing machine for sale in the United States. While in Japan, Adler created this pencil sketch of his workshop, circa 1955. It depicts his vision for his “place of invention” and how it would be organized.

Sketch of Sol Adler’s workshop, circa 1955.

Sketch of Sol Adler’s workshop, circa 1955. (AC1157-0000003)

The same precision Adler used in his drawings is evident in his workshop. Tools and containers are precisely placed and labeled indicating he appreciated the economy of the space and how to make it function efficiently. Note Adler’s use of cigar boxes to organize his many and diverse machine parts. And, Adler (noted as “A” on the drawing) intended to share his place of invention and collaborate with someone named “Micri.” I don’t know if this workshop was ever realized, but Adler certainly captured it well on paper. Visit our website for more stories about invention and to learn more about Places of Invention.

Inventing an Exhibition, Part III

Over the past two years the Lemelson Center team has been working diligently with exhibition designers at Roto and museum evaluators at Randi Korn and Associates (RK&A) to develop and test our next exhibition, Places of Invention (POI). If you’ve read previous Bright Ideas blog posts, you may know that this exhibition is scheduled to open in the Lemelson Hall of Invention when the National Museum of American History’s West Wing reopens in mid-2015 after extensive renovations.

The POI exhibition will take visitors on a journey through time and place to discover the stories of people who lived, worked, played, collaborated, adapted, took risks, solved problems, and sometimes failed—all in the pursuit of something new. POI features six American communities—Hartford, Connecticut, late 1800s; Hollywood, California, 1930s; Medical Alley, Minnesota, 1950s; the Bronx, New York, 1970s; Silicon Valley, California, 1970s-80s; and Fort Collins, Colorado, 2010s—representing a surprising array of people, places, time periods, and technologies. The exhibition examines what can happen when the right mix of inventive people, untapped resources, and inspiring surroundings come together.

In July 2012 and then again in March 2013 I wrote blog posts reflecting on how our exhibition development process mirrors the inventive process. Continuing the series, I’d like to share more updates here about recent POI project activities, particularly about our latest round of evaluation with visitors.

By May 2013, we completed the exhibition’s conceptual design phase (known at the Smithsonian as the 35% design phase). Roto submitted renderings and design specifications for official review by various Smithsonian departments regarding accessibility, security, lighting, electrical needs, conservation issues, and more. Museum director John Gray and senior staff members reviewed and approved the exhibition content and conceptual design, giving us enthusiastic thumbs up to proceed.

Since then the design development phase (called 65% design) has been underway. During this period the Center’s exhibition team has been collaborating closely with Roto to hone the look and feel of the POI exhibition, focusing on design details, developing more interactive elements, finalizing objects and images, creating exhibit case layouts, and writing exhibition labels.

We conducted round two of formative evaluation with RK&A at the Museum on July 8-10, 2013. Evaluation is funded by the POI project’s National Science Foundation grant. Following up on similar testing done for other interactives during round one in January 2013, the objectives of this evaluation were to explore:

  • how visitors use three prototype interactives;
  • how visitors interpret these prototypes;
  • whether there are any barriers to visitors’ use of the interactives;
  • whether visitors understand the relationships among people-place-invention and 21st century skills (e.g. collaboration, creativity, communication, flexibility, and risk-taking); and
  • how visitors interpret what this POI exhibition is about.
The introductory panel at the entrance to the POI prototyping space in the Museum’s first floor east corridor.

The introductory panel at the entrance to the POI prototyping space in the Museum’s first floor east corridor.

Roto set up three stations of prototype interactives, with minimal contextual materials, in the first floor East corridor of the Museum.  Stanchions and moveable wall panels demarcated the small testing area, with an introductory panel about the exhibition displayed right outside. RK&A evaluators recruited walk-in adult visitors who were alone or in groups of adults and children to participate in the study.

Inside the prototyping area on day one of testing.

Inside the prototyping area on day one of testing.

The activities we tested were:

  • an interactive about how early pacemakers worked for the 1950s Medical Alley, MN case study about the invention of the external, wearable pacemaker;
  • an activity to try out DJ scratching as part of the 1970s Bronx, NY case study about the birth of hip-hop music;
  • an activity for the exhibition’s Hub called Build Your Own Place of Invention, where visitors were encouraged to think about the conditions needed for their hypothetical place of invention, such as what people, spaces, or resources they would need.

For three days, the RK&A team observed and interviewed 48 groups of visitors (78 adults and 55 children ages 6-17) as they tried the different components without any coaching. Roto and Lemelson Center staff members were on hand to fix any mechanical issues and generally observe visitors as unobtrusively as possible. At the end of each testing day, we met with RK&A to debrief about visitor actions and interview responses and then made tweaks to the interactives for the next day’s testing.

The DJ scratching interactive on day 3 of testing

The DJ scratching interactive on day 3 of testing.

In August, RK&A produced a final report based on the data they collected, providing information about their interviews and specific recommendations for further interactives development.  The report addressed both successes and challenges, including what visitors considered the most enjoyable, least enjoyable, confusing, and intriguing aspects of the exhibit interactives, and their understanding (or lack thereof) of the exhibition messages. Finding that “place” is still conceptually difficult for many visitors, RK&A shared recommendations about how and where to define and visually represent place in the exhibition to reinforce our interpretation of “place” and its relationship to inventors and invention.

Visitors trying out the pacemaker interactive on day three of testing.

Visitors trying out the pacemaker interactive on day three of testing.

The evaluation process has been extremely informative, productive, and—for me as the project director—essential. Although the exhibition budget is tight, the money spent now on formative evaluation means the designers and fabricators will need less time and money to tweak and revamp the exhibition components in the future. Observing and talking with visitors on the Museum floor really pushed the Lemelson Center and Roto to rethink assumptions about how they use and interpret our creations. The resulting tweaking process—incrementally during the testing days and ongoing since then as we continue to build upon the report’s recommendations—will make the final exhibition much more meaningful and engaging for our visitors.

The Build Your Own Place of Invention activity on day three of testing.

The Build Your Own Place of Invention activity on day three of testing.

Hip-Hop, the Collaborations Don’t Stop

What happens when you put museum experts and hip-hop community members in the same room? The Lemelson Center found out when we hosted a hip-hop discussion day in July.

The day was organized as a culmination to Goldman Sacs fellow Martha Diaz’s summer at the Lemelson Center. Martha is the founder of the Hip-Hop Education Center at New York University. The Center cultivates hip-hop scholars, teaching artists, hip-hop advocates, and social entrepreneurs to encourage the incorporation of hip-hop into the way teachers educate students. She is also a scholar-in-residence working on an upcoming hip-hop exhibit at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. Martha came to the Lemelson Center to learn more about museum practices and to share her knowledge of hip-hop with us as we continue research for our upcoming exhibit Places of Invention. When the exhibition opens in 2015, it will include the invention of hip-hop in the Bronx during the 1970’s as one of five case studies that represent various characteristics  of a place of invention.

Conceptual design drawing of what the Bronx section of the exhibition may look like.

Conceptual design drawing of what the Bronx section of the exhibition may look like.

We had intended the meeting as a wrap-up event for Martha’s fellowship. Little did we know that instead it would be the start of some great collaborations. Participants from the hip-hop and cultural/performing arts communities in D.C. and New York  contributed to a robust conversation that covered a variety of topics.

One issue that surfaced is that many pioneering hip-hop artists feel that current histories of hip-hop do not present a full picture—they discussed how important it is to emphasize that hip-hop was created in spite of the environment in the Bronx. Our participants also felt that it will be important to capture hip-hop’s conflicting history while the most prominent figures are still living. This is an issue that the National Museum of American History’s Jazz Oral History Program has struggled with and can serve as a good case study for the hip-hop community.

Grandmixer DXT, Grammy award winning turntabalist and hip-hop historian, address the conference.

Grandmixer DXT, Grammy award winning turntabalist and hip-hop historian, address the conference.

The hip-hop community voiced the desire for institutions to be more inclusive. They observed that institutions tend to cater toward other institutions, but reminded us that it’s important to reach out to community members, even thought this often the more difficult path. This is something that the Lemelson Center is familiar with. In partnering successfully with the skateboarding community on a recent event about inventions and innovations in skateboarding, we learned that while there are often vocabulary barriers and differing working methods that make collaborating more challenging, ultimately if both collaborators are committed to the end product, then success is achievable and inevitably more meaningful.

Perhaps the most surprising comment to come out of the meeting that this was the first time the hip-hop artists participating had been asked to participate in a meeting like this—of D.C.-based groups working on hip-hop projects. The energy and enthusiasm from people was apparent and has translated more quickly than I anticipated into the creation of collaborative projects. We are currently awaiting the results of an application co-written by Martha Diaz and Deborra Richardson, the chair of the Archives Center at the National Museum of American, to fund the creation of a Smithsonian hip-hop group that would coordinate hip-hop related projects at the Institution. It is hoped that part of this may be the founding of a hip-hop oral history program and a book about documenting hip-hop’s history.

Conference attendees included representatives from the Smithsonian, D.C. performing arts groups, and the State Department.

Conference attendees included representatives from the Smithsonian, D.C. performing arts groups, and the State Department.

Another direct outcome of the meeting is the negotiation of long-term collaborations between the Lemelson Center and two pioneering hip-hop artists. These artists would help us tell the story of hip-hop through our exhibition, website, book, and programming.  The artists will be featured at the Smithsonian, and gain exposure to a different type of audience, and inspire new generations. There have also been discussions with all of the people in the D.C. hip-hop community who participated in the meeting about future programming collaborations, allowing the Lemelson Center to tell a fuller story of inventions in hip-hop beyond the walls of the exhibit, and for other organizations to find new inspiration in the museum’s exhibits and collections. These collaboration will give us all the opportunity to interest people who may have had no previous interest in hip-hop.

Without knowing it the meeting was a kick off to fruitful collaborations with other people, organizations, and communities they represent. I can’t wait to see what we come up with next!