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:

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.

Sources: 

http://www.johnnyseeds.com

http://www.fourseasonfarm.com

http://www.motherearthnews.com/homesteading-and-livestock/homestead-pioneers-land-zmaz71sozgoe.aspx#axzz2wbxeImNx

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!

Sources:

http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich/index.php?lg=en&pg=00002

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/23/dining/23pout.html?_r=2&

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/06/nyregion/06sundae.html

http://www.historyextra.com/news/britons-were-eating-frogs-legs-8000-years-french

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!

Historic Silicon Valley Bar and Restaurant Review

The Power Lunch. The billion dollar invention scribbled on the back of a napkin. “Accidentally” (on purpose…) running into a potential angel investor at his or her favorite watering hole. These are all familiar aspects of the high-tech business culture in Silicon Valley, where some of the most important conversations occur outside the office.

The “official” Silicon Valley Napkin.

The “official” Silicon Valley Napkin. Courtesy of the Computer History Museum.

But this phenomenon is not confined to trendy eateries in downtown Palo Alto. In fact, the use of pubs, restaurants, and social gathering spaces for business purposes is a distinctive marker of innovative hot spots—in different regions, for all kinds of technologies, and at many different times in our history. For example, Dr. Walter Lillihei, Earl Bakken, and the founders of Medtronic talked shop at the local Lutheran church and the University of Minnesota Campus Club, transforming the Twin Cities into “Medical Alley.” And in 1930s Hollywood, producers, directors, and technicians discussed the artistic merits of new innovations like Technicolor at studio commissaries and the legendary Brown Derby restaurant.

In short, social gathering places—and the exchange of ideas they facilitate—are a key ingredient in fostering a culture of innovation. This is a key finding of Places of invention, an exhibition scheduled to open in 2015 at the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. The Lemelson Center’s historical research draws on the theories of sociologist Ray Oldenburg, author of The Great Good Place. In that book, Oldenburg describes the societal importance of what he calls the “Third Place”—a community gathering place that’s not home and not the workplace. These Third Places—like barber shops, diners, bookstores, and coffee shops—are welcoming places where regulars gather to engage in conversation and trade ideas.  And this easy exchange of ideas, in turn, is a big part of what drives innovation.

But how exactly does this work? Let’s return to the Silicon Valley of the 1960s and ‘70s, when pioneering microelectronics firms like Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel began transforming the region into a high-tech hot spot. In a 1983 Esquire article on Intel founder Robert Noyce, Tom Wolfe wrote that “every year there was some place, the Wagon Wheel, Chez Yvonne, Rickey’s, the Roundhouse, where members of this esoteric fraternity, the young men and women of the semiconductor industry, would head after work to have a drink and gossip and brag and trade war stories about phase jitters, phantom circuits, bubble memories” and other mysteries of the trade. The same concept held true for the sales and marketing guys, who had their own hangouts.

But weren’t they afraid of sharing proprietary information with a competitor? Yes and no. Then and now, Silicon Valley had notoriously high job mobility, so it was common to run into a colleague from a prior job and talk shop at a local tavern. Since techies changed jobs all the time, they were often more loyal to friends and former colleagues than whichever firm they happened to be working for at the moment. Thus, useful information flowed back and forth liberally, even among competitors. Plus, in order to GET good information, you had to GIVE good information, so a certain amount of divulging was necessary. Naturally, alcohol tended to lubricate this process. Moore’s Law suggested that processor power doubled every 18 months, so there was no sense in keeping a secret for too long anyway, given Silicon Valley’s short product cycles. So even though local firms competed intensely, the region’s high-tech workers easily traded information over beers to make deals and keep up with the rapid pace of technological change.

With these ideas in mind, here are a few Silicon Valley restaurants and watering holes—past and present—that have served as high-tech hubs:

Walker’s Wagon Wheel (Mountain View)

Walker’s Wagon Wheel tavern.

Walker’s Wagon Wheel tavern. Courtesy of Carolyn Caddes and Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

This western-themed bar at the corner of Whisman Avenue and Middlefield Road in Mountain View was a stone’s throw from the Fairchild campus and the place to go in the 1960s. In her book Regional Advantage, UC Berkley geographer AnnaLee Saxenian quoted Jeffery Kalb, a veteran of National Semiconductor, DEC, MasPar, and other high-tech firms:  “In the early days of the semiconductor industry there were certain places that everybody frequented and the standing joke was that if you couldn’t figure out your process problems, go down to the Wagon Wheel and ask somebody.” When the tavern was demolished in 2003, the Computer History Museum in Mountain View picked up one of the tavern’s trademark Conestoga wagon wheels and a section of the bar for its permanent collections.

The Peppermill Restaurant and Lounge (Santa Clara)

nterior picture of the vacant Peppermill in Santa Clara, now the Axis Nightclub.

Interior picture of the vacant Peppermill in Santa Clara, now the Axis Nightclub. Courtesy of Flickr member JAB88.

The Peppermill, located just off US 101 at Bowers Drive, was one of a chain restaurants and lounges owned by a Nevada-based casino. Naturally, it was a little flashy, with velvet and faux-leather booths, lots of mirrors, and a small waterfall in the lobby. In their book Silicon Valley Fever, Everett Rogers and Judith Larsen quoted an anonymous Intel informant: “I can go to the Peppermill at eight in the morning and always meet somebody I know. All of my customers and all of my competitors—and that’s about five hundred people—eat breakfast there regularly…The Peppermill is just a giant meeting place.” A few years ago, the Peppermill was converted to the Axis Nightclub.

The Oasis Beer Garden (Menlo Park)

The Oasis Beer Garden

The Oasis Beer Garden. Courtesy of Flickr member, Xavier de Jauréguiberry.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, hackers from the Homebrew Computer Club would adjourn their meetings in the auditorium at Stanford’s Linear Accelerator and head over to this beer and burgers joint. It was established in 1958, and still sits just north of the Stanford campus at 241 El Camino Real in Menlo Park; according to its website, it serves “families, teams, professors, business tycoons, and students” alike. The Oasis features wooden tables and booths carved by decades of undergrads and techies alike, as well as signs instructing patrons to throw their peanut shells on the floor.

Lion and Compass (Sunnyvale)

The Lion and Compass.

The Lion & Compass. Photo via the San Francisco Chronicle.

After selling Atari for $28 million, company founder Nolan Bushnell opened this upscale bar-restaurant in 1982 at 1023 Fair Oaks Avenue in Sunnyvale. It combines an oak-paneled English-style pub (adorned by a NYSE stock ticker) with a chic sky-lit Terrace Room serving eclectic California cuisine. According to Robert Reinhold’s 1984 write-up in the New York Times, the “Lion and Compass has become the premier deal-making center and gathering spot for the barons of computer technology who lord over the tiny patch of California dubbed Silicon Valley…[Y]oung engineers with bright ideas dine with venture capitalists with money and leave smiling; loans and sales worth millions of dollars are transacted over Saumon Blanc en Croute.” Reinhold concluded that “the Lion and Compass is to the computer world what Sardi’s is to New York’s theater district.”

Buck’s Restaurant (Woodside)

Owner Jamis MacNiven, outside Buck’s Restaurant.

Owner Jamis MacNiven, outside Buck’s Restaurant. Courtesy of John McChesney/NPR.

Buck’s opened in 1991 and is located at 3062 Woodside Rd just west of Interstate 280. The quirky diner is popular with venture capitalists, as it sits halfway between their hillside mansions and offices on Sand Hill Road. Speaking to NPR in 2010, owner Jamis MacNiven recalled a litany of deals made under his roof: “Hotmail was founded here…Netscape had their early meetings in the back room; Tesla was founded here; PayPal got funded here.” Buck’s casual atmosphere would seem to make it an unlikely place to do business. MacNiven himself eschews a suit and tie in favor of loud printed shirts, and the walls and ceiling are adorned with kitschy “flair” that includes a Soviet space suit, several stuffed fish, and a Statue of Liberty with an ice cream sundae for a torch. However, Buck’s has become something of a bellwether for the high-tech economy—a full parking lot is a sign of good times.

Obviously, these are just a handful of the places where Silicon Valley’s tech gurus get things done.  Share your own story—where are your favorite pubs, restaurants, and high-tech hangouts?

Sources:

Gulker, Linda Hubbard.  “A long time Oasis on game day.”  In Menlo blog post, October 3, 2009, accessed June 18, 2013, http://inmenlo.com/2009/10/03/a-long-time-oasis-on-game-day/.

Lion and Compass Restaurant.  “About Lion and Compass.”  Accessed June 18, 2013.  http://www.lionandcompass.com/about.htm.

Markoff, John.  “A Burger with a Side of YouTube Please.” New York Times, October 15, 2006, p. H2.

McChesney, John.  “Checking a tech bellwether: Buck’s restaurant.”  WBUR/NPR blog post, August 2, 2010, accessed June 18, 2013, http://www.wbur.org/npr/128874569/checking-a-tech-bellwether-bucks-restaurant.

The Oasis Beer Garden.  “About Us.”  Accessed June 18, 2013.  http://theoasisbeergarden.com/about.php.

Oldenburg, Ray.  The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community, 3rd ed.  New York: Marlowe & Company, 1999.

Reinhold, Robert.  “Restaurant has Recipe for Multimillion Dollar Computer Deals.” New York Times, January 7, 1984, p. 7.

“Remembering Walker’s Wagon Wheel.”  SFGate blog post, May 21, 2007, accessed June 18, 2013, http://blog.sfgate.com/techchron/2007/05/21/remembering-walkers-wagon-wheel/.

Rogers, Everett M. and Judith K. Larsen.  Silicon Valley Fever: Growth of High-Technology Culture.  New York: Basic Books, 1984.

Saxenian, AnnaLee.  Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Wolfe, Tom.  “The Tinkering of Robert Noyce: How the Sun Rose on Silicon Valley.” Esquire, December 1983, pp. 346-374.

Yi, Matthew.  “The Lion in Winter: Even after the Dot-Com Bust, Restaurant Draws Silicon Valley Powers.” SFGate blog post, January 24, 2003, accessed June 18, 2013, http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/The-Lion-in-winter-Even-after-the-dot-com-bust-2639147.php.

Manny’s Medical Alley

Recently I traveled to Minnesota to conduct additional research for the Places of Invention exhibition about the early days of the region’s medical-device industry now known as “Medical Alley.” This wasn’t just any research trip, though. Thanks to a personal introduction from David Rhees of the Bakken Museum, I had the special opportunity to meet one of the region’s pioneers, Manuel (“Manny”) Villafaña. You may not know his name, but you’ve probably heard of at least one of the seven medical-device companies he has founded in Minneapolis, including Cardiac Pacemakers Inc. (CPI) and St. Jude Medical.

Manny and I first chatted briefly on the phone in early June, while he was waiting for a business flight to Rome and I was in my office in D.C. I had read a number of articles and transcripts of oral history interviews with him and many of his fellow Medical Alley pioneers. Still, there is nothing like meeting with inventors and innovators in person, hearing their anecdotes and getting to know them better. I always leave these conversations feeling inspired.

On June 25, I hurried from the airport to Manny’s Steakhouse in downtown Minneapolis to join him for dinner. (Yes, the restaurant is named for him!)  Manny greeted me warmly from his booth, where he was waiting for me patiently with customary glass of milk in hand. Over Caesar salads, a huge shared NY strip steak, and even bigger “Manny’s brownie” for dessert, we discussed highlights from his fascinating life and career.

Manny Villafaña at St. Jude Medical, June 27, 2013

Manny Villafaña at St. Jude Medical, June 27, 2013

Born in 1940 to Puerto Rican parents, Manny grew up in a tough South Bronx, New York, neighborhood. A high-school graduate, Manny quickly showed his skills as a salesman. By his early 20s, Manny worked for Picker International selling medical products on behalf of many companies, including Minneapolis-based Medtronic Inc. In 1967 Medtronic co-founder Earl Bakken and colleague Charlie Cuddihy flew out to New York and lured him away to help expand international distribution of Medtronic implantable cardiac pacemakers. Manny told me he’ll never forget the day he and his wife arrived in Minnesota for his new job. It was March 8 and he recalls the weatherman announcing the temperature as “15 degrees below zero with a negative 43 degree wind chill.” Welcome to Minneapolis!

Manny and Elizabeth Villafaña at his childhood home (undated). Courtesy of Manny Villafaña.

Manny and Elizabeth Villafaña at his childhood home (undated). Courtesy of Manny Villafaña.

Two days after our delicious steakhouse dinner, details about Manny’s early career in Medical Alley emerged during a great driving tour he gave me. He wanted to chronologically illustrate his career and show both the growth and proximity of his various companies. So we started by driving to the small former Medtronic site where Manny first worked in 1967. At that point the company had moved from the original garage headquarters where it was founded by Bakken and Palmer Hermundslie in 1949 to a building that was about 7,500 square-feet.

In 1971, Manny left Medtronic and founded CPI to develop a cardiac pacemaker he co-invented using a new lithium battery developed by engineer Wilson Greatbatch. Greatbatch, who I met in 1996, is best known for inventing the first commercially successful implantable pacemaker in 1958. Named after him and collaborating surgeon William Chardack, the Chardack-Greatbatch implantable pacemaker was licensed by Medtronic in 1960 and became the driving force behind that company’s success. About a decade later, Greatbatch’s latest battery invention became the basis for the success of Manny’s rival company CPI. As we sat in the parking lot by the 5,000 square-feet building where it was originally located, Manny told me that CPI’s first lithium battery-powered pacemaker is still running today—41 years later.

Once again as his company expanded, Manny decided to leave and start another venture, St. Jude Medical, in 1976. This time he focused on developing a mechanical heart valve, which became the industry’s gold standard. His new company moved into the old CPI office space after it moved across the highway to a bigger building. CPI (now owned by Boston Scientific) and St. Jude Medical remain Medtronic’s biggest competitors in the medical-device industry. Manny drove me to CPI’s and then St. Jude Medical’s headquarters, which are near each other today and dwarf the 5,000 square-feet industrial park buildings where they began.

We ran out of time that afternoon to drive by the sites of his other Minneapolis companies in intervening years—GV Medical, Helix Bio-Core, ATS Medical, and CABG Medical. However, he invited me and my colleague Kari Fantasia to meet him the following day at his newest venture, Kips Bay Medical. So we duly drove to the company’s 5,000 square-feet headquarters in an office park. [Notice a trend? He thinks that size is optimal for medical-device start-ups.]

Kari Fantasia, Monica Smith, and Manny Villafaña at Kips Bay Medical, June 28, 2013

Kari Fantasia, Monica Smith, and Manny Villafaña at Kips Bay Medical, June 28, 2013

Manny gave us a brief overview of technologies he has been involved in, from the Chardack-Greatbatch pacemaker he sold for Medtronic to the St. Jude Medical heart valve he co-invented to today’s Kips Bay’s eSVS® Mesh that he believes will revolutionize coronary bypass surgery. Interestingly, his current company is named for the Kips Bay Boys Club in New York where he spent a lot of time as a kid and that he credits in part for his later success.

When I asked Manny “Why Minnesota?” for all of his companies, he answered: Where else are there 10,000 engineers all in one place with such medical device expertise? It’s a highly skilled, tight-knit, hard-working community and he clearly wouldn’t consider founding his companies anywhere else. Manny is very proud of his special relationships over the decades with other key Medical Alley pioneers, including his friend and mentor Dr. C. Walton Lillehei. Medical Alley has a long history of being a collaborative, inventive community indeed.

1985 photo of four cardiac pioneers who trained or worked in Medical Alley (left to right): Dr. Nazih Zudhi, Manny Villafaña, Dr. C. Walton Lillehei, and Dr. Christiaan Barnard. Courtesy of Manny Villafaña.

1985 photo of four cardiac pioneers who trained or worked in Medical Alley (left to right): Dr. Nazih Zudhi, Manny Villafaña, Dr. C. Walton Lillehei, and Dr. Christiaan Barnard. Courtesy of Manny Villafaña.

Doctors Inventing Auto Safety

Editor’s Note: This post is by Lemelson Fellow Lee Vinsel. Lee is an Assistant Professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology.

This summer I am a fellow at the Lemelson Center, where I am researching the history of automotive safety, focusing on the story of safety in the early period of auto history, from 1900 to 1940, which remains underexplored by historians. My research here has brought me face-to-face with a theme that scholars at the Lemelson Center are currently exploring, namely the role that geography and local networks play in innovative thinking.

The Lemelson Center is developing an exhibition called, Places of Invention, which examines the roles that places and communities play in fostering inventive and innovative activity. Places of Invention focuses on some neat examples of hotspots of innovation: the growth of scientific communities in Washington, DC, in the late 1800s; the rise of manufacturing industries in Hartford, CT, during the mid-19th century; inventive activity around Cambridge, MA, spurred on by World War II military spending; the emergence of Silicon Valley in California and “Medical Alley” in Minnesota during the 1960s and 1970s; the birth of Hip Hop in Bronx, NY, which forever revolutionized popular music; and contemporary research in energy research in Fort Collins, CO.

With my research focus, it’s no surprise that I am particularly interested in the role locality has played in influencing automotive safety. Detroit is a famous example of the power of place in shaping technological change, as reflected in works like, Robert Szudarek’s How Detroit Became the Automotive Capital. Often historians focus on the kinds of inventors, engineers, and entrepreneurs who play a direct role in improving the technologies and companies at the center of the local economy. In Detroit, for instance, this central focus would be on the famous automotive firms and the people that worked for and with them. I argue that this focus is too narrow—people of seemingly unrelated expertise sometimes become involved in innovative hotspots. My research includes the role that medical doctors played in improving auto safety.

One example is Dr. Claire Straith. Straith was a plastic surgeon at Detroit’s Harper Hospital who played an important role in improving the practices of reconstructive surgery. According to Straith’s family, on weekends he often went from hospital to hospital, working on people who had been injured in automobile accidents. Most of the people injured were women and children who were sitting in the right-front passenger seat—what Straith called the “Death Seat.” Straith’s experiences led him to become critical of automotive design of the day and to create safety technologies.

Beginning in the early 1930s, Straith installed homemade seatbelts in his own car. He then created and installed crash pads on his car’s dashboard, especially on the passenger side. Straith patented at least two of these devices—the Smithsonian has one of his crash pads in the national collections. The pads were marketed directly to consumers, though few people bought them. However, Straith remained a vocal critic, and he fought tirelessly to get automakers to install safety technologies in their products.

The Straith padded dashboard is demonstrated in this photo by the inventor's daughter, Jean Straith Hepner, and granddaughter, Grace Quitzow. Photo courtesy of Grace Quitzow.

The Straith padded dashboard is demonstrated in this photo by the inventor’s daughter, Jean Straith Hepner, and granddaughter, Grace Quitzow. Photo courtesy of Grace Quitzow.

Some companies listened. Walter Chrysler met Straith, which led to Chrysler engineers building some of Straith’s ideas into the company’s 1937 line of cars. Straith continuously criticized the sharp metallic knobs on cars, which frequently gouged and disfigured people in crashes. The 1937 Chryslers featured recessed knobs on the dashboard. Straith also influenced Preston Tucker, who built safety features into the 1948 Tucker Sedan.

The auto industry was heavily focused on the annual model change during this period, and companies would introduce safety features as part of the publicity of one year’s models, only to backslide and remove the features the very next year. It was not until the mid-1960s—when the federal government created mandatory safety standards—that safety technologies became a permanent fixture of American automobiles.

Straith was not the only medical doctor in the Detroit-area to innovate around auto safety. Another leader in the field was neurosurgeon Elisha Gurdjian, who worked at Wayne State University’s hospital. Gurdjian was also bothered by the kinds of injuries he saw coming into hospitals. He realized that doctors knew far too little about the biological mechanisms of concussions and other trauma-induced brain injuries. He also realized that investigating concussions would involve the study of forces, which lay well outside his own expertise. For this reason, Gurdjian teamed up with a young Wayne State professor in mechanical engineering named Herbert Lissner. The two men began conducting experiments on how forces acted on bodies, using both human cadavers and living, anesthetized, non-human animals (mostly dogs).

While Gurdjian and Lissner’s fundamental contributions were to medical science—especially a field known as impact biomechanics, which they helped found—they also created some innovative experimental apparatus and technical procedures involving already existing technologies. For instance, the two researchers used strain gages, which were usually used to test industrial materials like metal and concrete, to study the strength of bone. They also removed an elevator from an elevator shaft at Wayne State and put an ejection seat in it. They then proceeded to “drop” bodies down the shaft and use pneumatic systems to shoot bodies up it to study the effect of forces on biological systems. No doubt this is innovation, even if it is innovation that we would rather not think about.

Many of Gurdian and Lissner’s experiments were quite grisly, so I will pass over the details here. (For some entertaining accounts of biomechanical studies at Wayne State, see Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers; interested readers can also contact me at leevinsel (at) gmail (dot) com for a paper I wrote on the topic.) I also believe that some of their experiments on living animals were clearly unethical, but it is impossible to deny that their research played an important part in improving automobile safety. Indeed, when the U.S. government created automotive safety standards in the mid-1960s, regulators built Gurdjian and Lissner’s findings of how much force the human body could tolerate directly into the new federal rules.

Medical doctors in Detroit, the automotive capital, made fundamental and early contributions to auto safety. In the end, it took a whole movement, including safety advocates like Ralph Nader, to create national safety standards in the United States, but we owe the innovations of Straith, Gurdjian, and Lissner a great deal.