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?


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.

Calling Smithsonian Affiliates!



Become a part of this new model for the co-creation of exhibition content!

Join other Affiliates eager to share the different ways people, resources, and geography came together in their communities to forge hot spots of invention.


Selected Affiliates and their community partners explore the central message of the  Places of Invention exhibition—that invention is everywhere and sparked by unique combinations of people, resources, and surroundings. Teams, led by Affiliates, are asked to apply these themes to their own communities and create multiple deliverables, including videos, oral histories, and public programs.

Video deliverables include one or more short pieces synthesizing team findings. These pieces will become featured stories on the POI exhibition’s dynamic, large-scale interactive map in the center of the gallery. The map will be accessible from both the exhibition and web, allowing it to grow exponentially as visitors read, tag, and comment on Affiliate stories, even make use of the option to add their own images and videos.

Current stories being developed include:

The Illinois River, one of the most consistent and powerful influences on Peoria, IL innovation


One of the major glass companies in Newark, OH: The Holophane Co. Inc. Works

The Bronx, NY
Fort Collins, CO
Hartford, CT
Hollywood, CA
Huntsville, AL
Lowell, MA
Medical Alley, MN
Newark, OH
Peoria, IL
Pittsburgh, PA
Seattle, WA
Silicon Valley, CA

With your participation, we hope to have videos representing all regions of the United States when the Places of Invention exhibition opens in 2015 at the National Museum of American History.

WHAT KINDS OF INVENTION? ALL KINDS!! We’re interested in any new or improved way of doing things; in interdisciplinary stories of STEM-based invention and innovation through cross-pollination, including the bustling social spots where people shared and refined ideas; in the ways local people lived, worked, played, collaborated, adapted, took risks, solved problems, and sometimes failed—all in the pursuit of something new.

We’re interested in a wide range of innovation: in green energy, medicine, education, transportation, and robotics; in the ways that art and music can intersect with technology, as with the electric guitar; in civil engineering, architecture, and construction; in agriculture—from seed cultivation to harvesting processes; in biotechnology that changed the way we eat, treat disease, and create alternative fuels; in communications and fiber-optics; in fabric technology—from 19th-century textile mills to high-performance synthetic fabrics worn by athletes today; in computers, software engineering, web technology, and social media; in business and advertising; in aeronautics, military production, and urban planning; and in the mass production of any kind of goods. Stories can be about current and historic innovation, as well as cycles of innovation spawned by a community’s infrastructure and natural resources repurposed over time.


Must be a Smithsonian Affiliate to be eligible


Application Deadline: September 1, 2013
Winner Notification: October 4, 2013
DC Training: December 6, 2013
Final Deliverables Due: December 8, 2014


Contact Anna Karvellas, Places of Invention Affiliates Project Coordinator, via email or by calling 202-633-4722.

Access her presentation from the Places of Invention panel at the 2013 Smithsonian Affiliations Conference, as well as those by the following Affiliates:

Documenting Gaming in Greater Seattle, Julia Swan, Adult Public Programs Manager, Museum of History and Industry

Inventing the Pittsburgh Sound, Kate A. Lukaszewicz, Lead Educator, Senator John Heinz History Center


Places of Invention has been made possible by a generous grant from the National Science Foundation 

Inspiring Bicycle Innovation

One of the best things about meeting inventors where they work is getting to see their spaces of inventions. How do companies design their buildings to encourage employees to be creative and inventive? The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was designed with an “Infinite Corridor”—a hallway that runs through the main buildings of MIT—whose design encourages workers to bump into each other on their way from one place to another and share ideas. Keeping this in mind, I took special note of building design on a recent visit to Trek Bicycle’s headquarters in Waterloo, WI.

ExteriorTrek has created a bicycle-filled environment where employees always have bicycles on their minds and within sight. It begins even before arriving at work. Trek highly encourages its employees to commute by bicycle—a definite motivational challenge once the snow begins to fly. They also have an exercise room on site so that employees can continue to bike even when it does snow.

Trek emphasizes green energy, so it seems natural that the building uses on natural materials such as wood, natural lighting, and earth tone colors to create a comforting space and to help their workers think along ecological lines.

A cubical-style layout facilitates conversation among employees. If you think that this type of layout would have no room for bikes, think again. Almost every cubicle has its occupant’s bike parked outside of it. Not only are bikes typically parked outside them, but the work spaces also have bike components hanging above them. The building also offers many cork and white boards in public spaces for employees to quickly share their thoughts and ideas—and for others to read and be inspired by them.

APicture 001

APicture 002Trek’s headquarters contains a manufacturing section that allows designers to rapidly prototype ideas and concepts. Manufacturing on-site also allows them to wheel newly completed models next door to their photography studio. Housing their marketing and PR team alongside everyone else allows for and in-depth understanding of the products they market. Also, being located on the limits of a small town gives Trek employees the advantage of easily wheeling out new bikes for a test ride.

Trek has created a space to inspire bicycle innovation—literally surrounding employees with bicycles, from the individual components to the final, complete form.

Trek was the first company to incorporate carbon fiber into their bike frames and is also the first bicycle company to explore recycling carbon fiber bike frames. In our latest podcast, Jim Colegrove, senior composites manufacturing engineer at Trek, describes the evolution of carbon fiber frames at Trek and discusses how Trek inventors work together to create a better ride.

Nikola Tesla’s Place of Invention

Today we host a lecture by noted historian and Tesla biographer W. Bernard Carlson in which he will explore Tesla’s visionary approach to invention and the business strategies behind his most important technological breakthroughs.

In a blog post on Gotham Center, Carlson writes about Tesla’s place of invention, Manhattan:

Leonardo da Vinci’s studio in Milan. Thomas Edison’s laboratory at Menlo Park, New Jersey.  Jobs and Wozniak in the family garage in Los Altos, California.  Although we tend to think about creativity as an abstract, cerebral process, invention actually takes place in specific locations that inform the design and content of a device.  For Nikola Tesla, nearly all of his creative work took place in Manhattan, and where he worked, lived, and played profoundly shaped his inventions.

Read more about Tesla’s relationship with New York City.

Inventing for the Environment

The northwest coast of Iceland in January is a stunningly beautiful place. Waterfalls tumble over steep cliff edges, forming rainbows in their spray. The clear, crisp blue of the sky reaches down to the even deeper blues of the fjords. Volcanoes dot the landscape, boiling pits of mud and minerals the colors of agate fill the air with the smell of sulfur, and it seems that steam leaks from the smallest cracks in the earth wherever you go. And this year, the snow sat in islands surrounded by lava and moss.

Icelandic horses grazing

Icelandic horses grazing near Akureyri in January 2013. Photo by Joyce Bedi.

Like most visitors, I couldn’t help but admire the beauty and bounties of Iceland—the bracing clean water, the fresh seafood, and the abundant geothermal power. As I traveled around, I heard Icelanders express their gratitude for these resources and affirm their deep connection to their natural environment. But they also talked about changes that their land is experiencing, from higher winter temperatures to the increased economic importance of mackerel to the fishing industry as warmer ocean temperatures bring these fish farther north.

Mud, minerals, and sulfur in Iceland.

Mud, minerals, and the smell of sulfur in the Icelandic landscape, January 2013. Photo by Joyce Bedi.

The perspectives of the people who live in Iceland reflect this year’s theme for Earth Day on April 22: “The Face of Climate Change.” People around the world are submitting photos and comments to the Earth Day website, offering their personal observations on climate change and their dedication to doing something about it. Looking through those images and reading the thoughts of so many people from so many places made me think not only about Iceland but also about another place closer to home.

Horsetooth Reservoir, Fort Collins, Colorado

Horsetooth Reservoir in Fort Collins, Colorado, June 2012. Photo by Joyce Bedi.

Last summer I traveled to Fort Collins, Colorado, for a week of research on developments in cleaner, more sustainable energy sources (we will be featuring Fort Collins in the Lemelson Center’s upcoming Places of Invention exhibition). The people I interviewed there shared the feelings of responsibility for the environment that I had witnessed in Iceland. I also saw firsthand their efforts to effect change through invention and innovation.

Amy Prieto, Colorado State University

Inventor Amy Prieto in her lab at Colorado State University, June 2012. Photo by Joyce Bedi.

One of the inventors I met was Amy Prieto, an associate professor of chemistry at Colorado State University and the founder of Prieto Battery. Her work centers on inventing a rechargeable battery that will last longer, charge faster, and won’t be made with toxic materials. Still in the prototype stage, the heart of the battery is a thin slice of copper “foam” that, like a sponge, is full of holes. This 3-dimensional structure increases the amount of surface area and allows electrons to move more freely and over shorter distances than in conventional batteries. This means that the Prieto battery is expected to last longer and recharge faster than traditional lithium-ion batteries.

Prieto battery components

Some components of Prieto’s prototype battery, June 2012. Rectangles of copper “foam” are top center. Photo by Joyce Bedi.

Prieto’s work represents a new way of thinking about batteries. “The journey is an exciting one and one we believe in,” the team at Prieto Battery asserts. “Beyond changing how people power their lives, Prieto Battery believes strongly in retaining why we started in the first place—a diverse, highly collaborative, environmentally conscious team driven to deliver on our promise to create the world’s most advanced rechargeable battery. This is what powers us.”

Amy Prieto will soon be sharing that driving sense of commitment—to teammates, to invention, to the environment—with a group of elementary-school students in Mississippi. Last fall, the Lemelson Center’s hands-on invention center, Spark!Lab, partnered with ePals, an education media company and safe social learning network, for the second annual “Invent It! Challenge.” The contest asked students to think about real-world problems and invent something that could help solve them. The ePals Choice Award went to the “Solbrite,” a “solar-panel purse LED light,” invented by a 9-year-old girl named Marlee. Her prize is a video chat for her and her classmates with inventor Amy Prieto.

From the shores of northern Iceland and the valleys of the Colorado Rockies to a classroom in Mississippi, invention and innovation remain important tools for conserving natural resources, reducing pollution, and confronting global climate change. Who knows, perhaps a Prieto battery will be part of the “Solbrite” one day.

Innovating Jazz: The Pittsburgh Sound


Mary Lou Williams’ piano, c. 1940s, on view in a re-creation of the Crawford Grill in the Senator John Heinz History Center’s exhibition, “Pittsburgh: A Tradition of Innovation”

It’s no wonder that a unique jazz sound emerged from Pittsburgh. The city has a hum and a buzz, a palpable energy that resonates in its landscape, social spaces, and multitude of people. My colleague Ken Kimery—Executive Producer of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra and Program Director of our Jazz Oral History Program—tells me the sound is unmistakeable. That you instantly recognize the city’s voice and feel in the placement of the beats of Kenny Clarke’s, Art Blakey’s, and Roger Humphries drums. In Stanley Turrentine’s saxophone. In Billy Strayhorn’s compositional techniques and the musical dialects produced through jazz session group dynamics.


Kenny Clarke Quartet


Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers


Check out the Roger Humphries drum solo at 3:25

I recently went to Pittsburgh wanting to know more about this sound for the Lemelson Center’s Places of Invention (POI) Affiliates Pilot Project. When the POI exhibition opens in 2015, the story of Pittsburgh jazz innovation will be featured on a large, digital interactive map at the center of the exhibition and website. The Senator John Heinz History Center, one of our most active Smithsonian Affiliate museums, is creating content for the project with Dan Holland of the Young Preservationists’ Association of Pittsburgh. The story will focus on the 1920s–1960s. Ken Kimery and Marty Ashby, Executive Producer of Pittsburgh’s MCG Jazz, are advising the team, directing them to additional experts and resources and making available oral histories and other multimedia. When the exhibition opens, the public will have opportunities to comment on the story and add recollections of their own, making the map another repository for the growing body of documentation about the city’s jazz history. We’re especially eager to see material posted by the Pittsburgh jazz and preservation communities.

The thesis of the POI exhibition is that place and community matter; that advantages and limitations of geography and resources drive innovation when combined with new ideas shared and refined through social networks. If I had any questions about Pittsburgh geography, they were answered on my drive into the city to visit the POI team. My car went up and down and around steep hills, past rocky slopes, and over railroad tracks and wide rivers moving large chunks of ice. As I wound through neighborhoods of brick houses, I couldn’t help but lean into each curve and think of the geology that helped drive the city’s famous steel and glass industries. Buildings I passed on rocky outcroppings looked more like cliff dwellings than urban homes.

Clockwise from top left: Crawford Grill sign, Art Blakey House, Crawford Grill, August Wilson House

Clockwise from top left: Crawford Grill sign, Art Blakey House, Crawford Grill, August Wilson House

I learned even more about Pittsburgh’s landscape on a tour of the city’s Hill District led by Dan Holland. His knowledge of the area—the things that live even when the physical structure might be gone—was not only impressive but also moving. Smithsonian Affiliations’ Jennifer Brundage and the Heinz History Center’s Sandra Smith and Kate Lukaszwewicz also joined and provided helpful insight. As we passed the homes of Art Blakey and August Wilson, we saw storefronts and row houses clumped together on otherwise razed blocks. The Crawford Grill nightclub held its own on a street corner behind a blue historical marker. At the New Granada Theater on Centre Avenue, signs of community involvement and recovery were evident.

Details of the New Granada Theater, originally built as a Pythian Temple in 1927 for the Knights of Pythias, an lodge for African American craftsmen.

Details of the New Granada Theater featuring Pittsburgh jazz legends. The building was originally built as a Pythian Temple for the Knights of Pythias, an African American craftsmen lodge.

Dan also took us to a special spot on the Hill for the tour’s most dramatic view: a panorama of “the city of bridges.”

View of the Strip from the Hill: The Heinz History Center’s Sandra Smith and Kate Lukaszewicz with the Smithsonian’s Jennifer Brundage and YPA’s Dan Holland. Remains of old funicular to the right. Allegheny River in the background. Zoom in for detail.

View of the Strip from the Hill: The Heinz History Center’s Sandra Smith and Kate Lukaszewicz with the Smithsonian’s Jennifer Brundage and YPA’s Dan Holland. Remains of old funicular to the right. Allegheny River in the background. Zoom in for detail.

Nearby, we could see the remains of the old Penn funicular from a time when gravity planes transported coal and people up and down the Hill to the Strip District.

Click on the image to go to “Pittsburgh Then and Now,” a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette site. Photo copyright 2004 Carnegie Museum of Art, Charles “Teenie” Harris Archive.

Click on the image to go to “Pittsburgh Then and Now,” a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette site. Photo copyright 2004 Carnegie Museum of Art, Charles “Teenie” Harris Archive.

So how did the city’s geography, community, and networks shape Pittsburgh jazz? Our team is exploring this question in detail, taking into account the research and documentation that has been lovingly preserved in its cultural institutions. Does it come from the people dining with—celebrating with—worshipping with—playing with—laughing with—surviving with each other in segregated Pittsburgh? From a strong African American middle class with money to spend at the lively social spots that lined the Hill? From the mix of ethnicities that came to live and work together? From the many schools and institutions promoting music education? From the building trades-inspired apprenticeship system? From the clubs serving mill workers whose shifts ran around the clock? From the artists who could actually make a living performing and teaching in the city? From the visiting musicians bringing new ideas and inspiration to the music scene while on layovers between New York, Chicago and New Orleans?

Or was it something else? The very rhythm of the city itself? Can the answer be found in Teenie Harris’ photographs of musicians and good-timers packed into the Crawford Grill and Goode’s Pharmacy? In images of children in classrooms clapping to live piano or playing brass instruments and bongos on the street? In performance shots of Roy Eldridge blasting his trumpet, Art Blakey on drums, a


Boys, possibly from Herron Hill School, playing brass instruments on steps, circa 1938-€“1945. Charles “Teenie” Harris/Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh.
Click on image for NPR’s story “The Big Legacy of Charles ‘Teenie’ Harris” about the photographer and the opening of a CMA exhibition of his work in 2011.

young Ahmad Jamal at the piano, and Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn backstage at the Stanley Theater? In the movement of the dancers and Lena Horne captured in a night at the Loendi Club? In Mary Lou Williams sitting at the Syria Mosque’s piano, surrounded by Earl “Fatha” Hines, Erroll Garner, Billy Eckstine, and Maxine Sullivan?

Ahmad Jamal Trio

Renée Govanucci and Marty Ashby (MCG Jazz), Dan Holland, and Sandra Smith and Kate Lukaszewicz (Heinz History Center). The team met to brainstorm and think about collaborative opportunities between the Heinz History Center, MCG Jazz, the Lemelson Center, and the broader Smithsonian.

Renée Govanucci and Marty Ashby (MCG Jazz), Dan Holland (YPA), and Sandra Smith and Kate Lukaszewicz (Heinz History Center). The team met to discuss the POI project and collaborative opportunities.

My colleagues and I are enthusiastic to learn more and see how the Pittsburgh POI team develops its story. My trip was deeply rewarding and full of exuberant conversations about the project and the importance of telling this often overlooked story of Pittsburgh invention. We welcome all to join us as we celebrate the ongoing innovation of the Pittsburgh jazz sound.


Spaces of Invention

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

How do we know?

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

Inventing an Exhibition, Part II

Last summer I wrote a blog post about the 10% preliminary design phase of the Lemelson Center’s Places of Invention project and how exhibition development often mirrors the inventive process. In those early days of working with our exhibition design firm Roto we focused on the “Sketch It!” step, relying on their expertise to bring visual life to our highly researched, content-rich, but conceptually abstract topic.  At the end of this official 10% design phase we had an exhibition floor plan, artistic renderings, and fun art direction boards for a concrete and colorful manifestation of our exhibition that we could share with project stakeholders and potential funders.

Invention Process Infographic

The “Create It!” step of the invention process next came into play. The second official phase of Smithsonian exhibition planning is called “35% conceptual design,” and for Places of Invention this phase began in October 2012 and runs through the end of March 2013. Now the Lemelson Center/NMAH-Roto team is collaborating to hone details of the design, including detailed floor plan, object layouts, graphics, typography, colors, lighting and acoustic-abatement needs, and specifications for mechanical interactives and multimedia. This is also the time for preliminary estimates for how much all of these elements are going to cost, which is where the proverbial rubber meets the road for decision making as we move forward.

The exhibition team was thrilled to see a version of "Places of Invention" come to life.

The exhibition team was thrilled to see a version of “Places of Invention” come to life.

During the 35% design period of any exhibition’s development, I believe it is very important to conduct formative evaluation, which Randi Korn & Associates (RK&A) defines as testing “interpretive ideas and components for their functionality and ability to communicate content.” This could be termed the “Test It!” invention step. Fortunately, the National Science Foundation grant for Places of Invention supports three stages of evaluation: front-end (which RK&A conducted in summer and fall 2011); formative (two phases during 2013); and summative (at the end of the project).

The prototyping process featuring two case studies--Hartford, CT, and Hollywood. The Hollywood story looks at the development of Technicolor.

The prototyping process featuring two case studies–Hartford, CT, and Hollywood. The Hollywood story looks at the development of Technicolor.

So, we brought Roto and RK&A together and came up with a plan to do a first round of formative evaluation prototyping at NMAH during late January. Although this is generally a slower time at the Museum, with fewer tourist traveling to the nation’s capital between the winter holidays and spring breaks, we had the advantage of two major events coinciding—President Barak Obama’s second inauguration and Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday—that attracted many thousands of visitors. We figured enough people would hang around afterwards to visit the famous local sites, including the Smithsonian museums on the Mall, to garner walk-in visitors willing to participate in our evaluation.

In the Hartford section, visitors were tasked with using a jig to twist wire into a business card holder--or whatever else they could invent!

In the Hartford section, visitors were tasked with using a jig to twist wire into a business card holder–or whatever else they could invent!

Over three days, January 23-25, staff from Lemelson Center, Roto, and RK&A collaborated to conduct formative testing. We mocked up two exhibition case studies—Hartford, Connecticut and Hollywood, California— and also the “Interactive Map,” a participatory exhibit that asked visitors to share stories of their places of invention by writing comments to post on a U.S. map or by taping short videos on a laptop computer. The basic evaluation objectives were to explore general usability and understanding of intended exhibition messages. RK&A recruited walk-in adult visitors who were visiting alone or with children 10 years and older. RK&A then observed these visitor groups while they used the exhibition elements, including reading labels, looking at images, trying out interactives, and watching videos inside the case study areas and at the Map. Finally, RK&A interviewed the visitors and recorded data in handwritten notes. At the end of each day of prototyping, folks from the Lemelson, Roto, and RK&A teams gathered to discuss visitor feedback and interactions in order to “Tweak It!” for the next day. It was a fun, constructive, and exhausting process.

On the interactive map, we asked visitors to leave stories about their places of invention, either through Post-Its or videos.

On the interactive map, we asked visitors to leave stories about their places of invention, either through Post-Its or videos.

We recently received the final report from RK&A, which includes careful analysis of the visitor observations and interviews and very constructive recommendations. This document has already helped us focus on key changes and improvements to the exhibition (the “Tweak It!” stage) while also provided us with enough objective information to know we are headed in the right direction. So onward we go through the final weeks of conceptual design, and then we can look forward to the “65% design development” phase through fall 2013. Keep an eye out for more reports from me along the way!