Bob Casey: Beyond the Podcast

I recently interviewed inventor Bob Casey for the Lemelson Center’s podcast series. As with many people I’ve interviewed, Bob had many interesting stories to share—far more than can be contained in a 20-minute podcast. Although our podcast focused on the debut of the dual turntable system, Bob also told us how he ended up donating objects to the National Museum of American History and about his military career.

Bob shadowed his father Edward P. Casey (a pioneer in commercial sound system design and installation) on many of his sound system projects.  His father built a rectangular box with two multi-speed transcription turntables inside for a religious event. After the event his stored it away. Years later, Bob took the discarded box and used it in 1958 to present prerecorded music at teenage dances by combining his father’s dual turntable box with two special Hi Fi horn speakers. This was the first time that dual turntables were used at a dance to play prerecorded music—introducing a whole new format of entertainment nearly ten years before the technology became the standard of every DJ. The equipment gave Bob the advantage he needed to put on some of the best dances in the area and he was asked to run “Record Hops” in other venues including country clubs and parks.

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Now retired in upstate New York, Bob was cleaning out some old equipment from his shed, separating it into “throw” and “keep” piles. That first dual turntable system went into his “throw” pile. Fortunately, one of Bob’s friends told him he was crazy if he threw it out. After photos of the dual turntable box appeared in books about DJs, Bob was encouraged to contact someone about finding it a good home. Upon contacting the National Museum of American History in 2012, curator Eric Jentsch requested a few photos of the turntable. Eric assumed he would get a few photos of the device sitting on a tabletop, but Bob took this opportunity to photograph it in the environment it originally debuted. He reassembled the entire system in the same high school gym he first played it at in 1958—St. Eugene’s in Yonkers, NY. It was a wonderful way for Bob to have one last experience with the equipment before giving it to the national collections.

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While interviewing Bob, I discovered that the inventiveness and resourcefulness demonstrated by his invention also shaped his military career. While stationed in an infantry outfit in Germany in 1967, Bob’s reputation earned him an audition—though he didn’t know it at the time. One day, while visiting the flagship station (network) of the American Forces Network –Europe in Frankfurt, Germany, the Head of Network Production, who had previously met him, casually asked Bob to put together a few promos for radio. Bob furiously put some things together on reel to reel tape but the officer started to play it before Bob thought it was completed.  Bob tensely watched as the officer listened to his improvised radio intros. The officer said he loved it and offered Bob a position at the network.  After only six days on the job, another twist of fate redirected Bob. As part of the military “lottery system,” he was given orders for Vietnam. However, by taking an audition that was so bad that it was good, and with many letters of commendation from the European station, his abbreviated position in Germany allowed him to serve his time in Vietnam as Head of Radio Production for AFVN. Without his skills to invent and create on the spot there’s no telling where he might have ended up.

Listen to our podcast with Bob Casey.

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.

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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.

Tony Hawk and Rodney Mullen, Skateboard Legends…and Inventors?

In January 2011 I found myself in a rather unusual place—at the National Surf and Skate Expo in Orlando, Florida. Along with my colleagues Jane Rogers, an Associate Curator in the Museum’s Division of Entertainment, Sports, and Culture, and Betsy Gordon, a Project Executive from the National Museum of the American Indian, I traveled to Orlando to meet some of skateboarding’s founding pioneers and enduring legends. The National Museum of American History had just launched a broad collecting initiative focusing on skateboarding and I was keenly interested in the role of invention, innovation, and creativity play in skate’s history and culture. As a group that feels that it has been cast as “outsiders” most of their lives, the skaters were surprised at the Smithsonian’s interest, but very welcoming and eager to share their experiences with us. The day culminated with an “All-80s” skate competition that featured the likes of Tony Hawk, Mike McGill, Andy MacDonald, and a host of other icons of skateboarding lore. At the conclusion of the event, Tony Hawk donated his skateboard to the Museum while standing in the middle of the vert ramp surrounded by 2,500 screaming fans.

Tony Hawk signs deed of gift for his skatedeck. Jane and I are standing by--the skateboarders were expecting the Smithsonian to be represented by a bunch of "old dudes." Photo by Lee Leal, Embassy Skateboards.

Since that time, the Lemelson Center and the Museum have continued to build important relationships with skateboarding’s innovators. The Lemelson Center’s belief that everyone is inventive and that innovation abounds all around us is one of our greatest strengths and affords us the opportunity to explore the history of invention and innovation from a variety of interdisciplinary perspectives and across a broad range of subjects. Most associate invention and innovation with technology and science, but the Center often explores other unexpected places where invention and innovation flourishes—like skateboarding. This wide exploration is critical to fostering an appreciation for the central role invention and innovation play in the history of the United States. It also makes our work extremely interesting, fun, and exciting as we meet, collaborate, and explore the world of invention and innovation with all types of people.

Skate legend Rodney Mullen was kind enough to let us film him doing tricks on the roof terrace of the Museum.

In August of 2012, the Lemelson Center invited Rodney Mullen, the unquestioned leader and pioneer of street skating, to visit us to discuss the role of invention and innovation in American life. It was a truly wonderful day in which we exchanged ideas and views not only about skateboarding, but about the role and importance of creativity and innovation to building a better society.  You can watch our video podcast with Rodney below or on YouTube.

Our exploration of the intersection between innovation and skateboarding continues. On June 21-22, to coincide with National Go Skate Day 2013, the Lemelson Center will host Innoskate, a major public festival that will celebrate invention and creativity in skate culture. Innoskate will highlight the contributions skate innovators make to society through demonstrations, hands-on education activities, public programs with inventors and innovators, and donations of objects to the national collections. Activities will also include discussions and demonstrations of evolving technology such as decks, wheels, trucks, board design, materials, etc., as well as innovations in tricks that fueled further technological innovations. Hands-on activities related to skate culture may include aspects of board design and fabrication, use of new materials, and/or the engineering and physics of making decks and performing tricks.

We will continue to share program information about Innoskate in the months to come—so keep checking back with us.

Podcast: Political Machines — Innovations that let people be heard

Laurel Fritzsch interviews Rachna Choudhry for our podcast series.

A lobbyist and a Congressional staffer walk into a dinner party. It sounds like the start of some sort of inside-the-Beltway joke; instead, it’s an invention story. Rachna Choudhry and Marci Harris found common ground on a vexing issue–when constituents write in to Congress, there is no way of the writer knowing if the message has been received or for Congressional staffers to know that it’s coming from a real person. The result of that conversation is Popvox, a web tool that verifies, aggregates, and simplifies communication with Congress.

Rachna sat down with Laurel Fritzsch to talk about the process behind developing Popvox in our latest podcast. Click here to listen in.

Note: This post is not an endorsement of any product.

Podcast: Graham Nash’s Inventive Approach to Art

Former museum director Brent Glass, Graham Nash, Steve Boutler, curator Shannon Perich and Mac Holbert pose with the IRIS printer in 2005 at the National Museum of American History.

One of the most exciting aspects of working at a Smithsonian museum is the chance to meet and work with some extremely interesting people. This could be a curator who oversees and studies a unique collection, a visiting lecturer regarded as the top of their field, or even the occasional two-time Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Famer–no big deal. I recently had the opportunity to interview Graham Nash over the phone for the Lemelson Center’s Inventive Voices podcast series. Mr. Nash discussed his role in the development of digital photographic printing and the connections between the inventive process and creating art such as music and photography.

Now, to be completely clear, I’m probably much younger than Mr. Nash’s primary audience (CSN’s album Daylight Again was released in the same month that I was born). That doesn’t mean I didn’t grow up listening to his music though, as I like to think my parents had excellent taste in what was played around the house and in the car. Having the chance to interview a musical legend was a thrill in itself, but from a work standpoint, hearing him talk about the similarities between tinkering with a machine to make it do what he wanted and the act of songwriting was a total hit. Have a listen to the latest episode in our Inventive Voices series, and see if you don’t find some artistic or inventive inspiration from Graham Nash’s story.



Video Podcast: Inventing Early Photography

“…soon the plate takes on a clouded appearance, and then gradually it clears and like a thing of life, stands forth the image in all the boldness that art and science can combine to give.”

“No one writes like that anymore.”

Indeed, the flowery prose of S.D. Humphrey’s 1858 American Handbook of the Daguerreotype isn’t seen much these days. Finding a daguerreotypist may prove just as difficult. This past April, Mike Robinson from Toronto’s Ryerson University visited the Museum of American History’s photographic collection. Taking a break from his research in the collection, Mike demonstrated his contemporary process for preparing light-sensitive plates and then actually using them in creating a daguerreotype portrait.

The most recent episode of the Lemelson Center’s Inventive Voices podcast series also features Museum of American History curator Shannon Perich discussing the combination of forces that led to advancements and innovations in the field of early photography. Be sure to check out the entire Inventive Voices podcast series on our website for more audio and video interviews!