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

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

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

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

Manny Villafana examines a pacemaker.

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

An early pacemaker.

A Chardack-Greatbatch pacemaker.

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

Archivist Alison Oswald shows Manny Villafana archival documents.

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

How ‘bout that apple?

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries trade cards were commonly used to announce and advertise a company’s product or service. The cards, typically 2” x 4” or 3” x 5” in size were printed with images and other useful information about a specific item or service. Trade cards with enticing images lured in potential customers. Information about  the product or service was printed on the back of the card. Many of the cards were chromolithographed, a popular printing process which used multiple lithographic stones.  In this example from the Skandia Plow Company of Rockford, Illinois, an anthropomorphic apple wearing slippers was printed in bright yellow, orange, and blue tones. The eye-catching colorful image was intended to promote their iron lever harrow, patented in 1889, to would be plow buyers. An important piece of farm equipment, a harrow leveled the soil and prepared it for seeding. The apple, looking as tough as an iron plow in her rose colored ruffled skirt has her fist raised and is angry. Perhaps she thinks a Skandia harrow will level her apple orchard leaving no trees or worse, she’ll be made into apple sauce. Buy a Skandia plow or else! As the apple shuffles along you can hear her shout the refrain :

The plowman homeward plods his weary way.
Surprising all at tea, with what he has to say
About his troubles with his old inferior plow;
And wondering where he’ll get a better now.

He goes to town and sees across the street,
A sign that dazzles every eye it meets.
He staggers in, and buys himself a Skandia plow,
That somehow tells him, “He’ll be happy now.”

Trade card, Skandia Plow Company, 1887. (AC0060-0000026-01) (front-apple)

Trade card, Skandia Plow Company, 1887. (AC0060-0000026-01) (front-apple)

Trade card, Skandia Plow Company, 1887. (AC0060-0000026-02) (verso-plow)

Trade card, Skandia Plow Company, 1887. (AC0060-0000026-02) (verso-plow)

 To learn more about trade cards in our collections, visit the Archives Center and the Warshaw Collection of Business Americana.

Conserving the Patent Model Collection

This is a guest post by Joan Boudreau, Curator, Graphic Arts Collection, National Museum of American History.

2014 marks the 150th anniversary of the granting of U.S. patent number 43649, to John Joseph Charles Smith for a “machine for cutting printers type.” Smith’s patent drawing and model offer a view of the invention for his type-cutting machine. The machine sawed individual letters from cast-metal strips. The strips could be made by Smith’s companion invention of the same date, U.S. patent number 43648.

jjcsmith patent drawing

The three-dimensional patent model (measuring approximately 4″x10″x13″) resides in the Graphic Arts Collection at the National Museum of American History alongside some 400 other patent models relating to the printing trade. These patent models have been a part of the national collections since the early 20th century.

jjcsmith patent model

Smith’s model is one of 31 patent models recently surveyed for their conservation and preservation treatment needs, thanks to a small “Staff Projects” funding grant from the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. These small internal grants fund museum work related to invention and innovation at the National Museum of American History and around the Smithsonian.

During the last several years, staff at the Museum have been preparing to load information and photographs of the hundreds of graphic arts-related patent models to the web. (View our work here.) It became clear during this process that a small number of models, which had not seen much use (i.e. for research or display) in the last few decades, were in need of conservation treatment, mostly because of ferrous metal corrosion (or rust, in non-technical terms).

The Staff Projects grant from the Lemelson Center, as well as assistance from the Museum’s Preservation Services team, allowed for the hiring of a conservation specialist who inspected the models needing attention and prepared an in-depth report. The report included treatment needs and a conservator’s time requirements for each model. Now, armed with this important information, we are able to better understand the funds required to actually treat the models, preserving them to a stable condition. We will soon be out applying for grants and seeking other types of funding.

The conservation of objects relating to our American national heritage, including the history of American technology, is good museum practice, and, in fact, one of the missions of the Smithsonian—preserving our nation’s heritage for future generations. The patent models in the Graphic Arts Collection are unique, three-dimensional representations of inventions that factored into the United States’ place of dominance during the Industrial Revolution, which emphasizes the importance of their preservation.

Over 200,000 inventions were patented between the years 1790 and 1880, the period when parent models were a requirement of the patent application process. Some of the inventions and inventors of the first half of the 19th century are represented  in a painting commissioned in 1857 entitled “Men of Progress” by Christian Schussele. The painting, a Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery holding, depicts an imaginary gathering of successful inventors—Cyrus McCormick, Charles Goodyear, Samuel Colt, Samuel Morse, Elias Howe, Richard M. Hoe (representing the printing trade), and thirteen others—thought to have “altered the course of contemporary civilization.” The painting, also depicting representative patent models, applauds these men and their contributions to the fields of agriculture, armaments, communications, energy, engineering, medicine, textiles, and transportation.

men of progress

“Men of Progress” speaks to the depth and breadth of American inventiveness, and to the central role invention and innovation play in the history of the United States. The existence of our patent system is representative of the intellectual property protections offered by the U.S. government, a response to the concept of equal freedoms for all.

Very few patented inventions ever become successful in the marketplace, for a variety of reasons. It is not immediately clear whether John Joseph Charles Smith’s type-cutting invention was ever even manufactured. But we can say that the patent model represents just one of Smith’s many patented inventions (overall, according to Smith’s 1914 obituary in The New York Times, he had been granted 60 U.S. and foreign patents), and more broadly the thousands of inventions patented between 1790 and 1880.

The patent models in the Graphic Arts Collection represent only four percent of the some 10,000 models in the Museum’s collections transferred to the Smithsonian from the U.S. Patent Office in 1908 and 1926. The models reside in various collections at the Museum, in accordance with the subject interests of our different curatorial units. Today you can view about ten percent of the patent model collections online, and patent models dating from 1836 to 1880 are listed in a two volume publication prepared by Barbara Janssen. (Volume 1, Volume 2.)

Richard M. Hoe is depicted in the painting "Men of Progress." This is a patent model of his flatbed cylinder press dated 1844.

Richard M. Hoe is depicted in the painting “Men of Progress.” This is a patent model of his flatbed cylinder press dated 1844.

Each of these patent models has a story to tell. Some, like those representing the works of John Joseph Charles Smith, can be told in connection with each other; many more represent the only patented invention of an individual. The Museum’s collection of patent models offers an endless repository of yet-untold stories of American technological history.

The Cell Phone’s True Magic

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Thus pronounced Sir Arthur C. Clarke, the prophetic author of 2001: A Space Odyssey and many other science fiction classics, in his “Third Law” of 1973. The connection between technology and magic can be traced back even farther than the 19th century, when electrical inventors Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla were popularly known as wizards—a label that neither apparently tried to shed. In the era of Edison and Tesla, magic was part of the mystique of invention, and, frankly, an effective marketing strategy. Both electrical inventors were self-promoters fixated on reputation and market share.

The cover of The Daily Graphic of New York, 9 July 1879, pronounced Edison a “wizard.” SI negative #80-18655

The cover of The Daily Graphic of New York, 9 July 1879, pronounced Edison a “wizard.” SI negative #80-18655

Sir Arthur’s statement prompted me to reflect on if, and how much, times have changed. It seems to me that we are thoroughly accustomed and adapted to today’s electrical devices that have transformed our public and personal lives. They no longer astonish. Yet these gadgets are more powerful, mysterious, and “magical,” than ever. Their inner workings are infinitely miniaturized and shrouded in impenetrable disposable boxes. We are increasingly reliant on latter-day magicians, a priesthood of technicians, to mediate between them and us.

Of all the devices that surround us, the cell phone may qualify as the most magical. Yet, unlike other disruptive technologies—the telegraph, telephone, and light bulb—few people are familiar with the name of its inventor, Martin “Marty” Cooper. I had the privilege of interviewing him in a public forum last month. (Watch the interview on C-SPAN3).

The author (left) interviews cell phone inventor Martin Cooper. Photo by Chris Gauthier.

The author (left) interviews cell phone inventor Martin Cooper. Photo by Chris Gauthier.

While working at Motorola, Cooper introduced the public to the first true cell phone in 1973 (the year that Clarke handed down his Third Law), and brought forth what is surely the most ubiquitous technology on the planet. It is estimated that the number of cell phones in use in 2014 will actually exceed the world population of seven billion. A game-changing technology by any measure, it has become the continually-evolving platform for a dizzying array of novel devices whose social impacts are incalculable. We humans are the ultimate social animals and, for good or ill, the cell phone is the perfect tool for addressing our social needs—and neediness.

Yet Marty Cooper refuses to mystify himself or his amazing accomplishment. One of the most down-to-earth people I have ever met, the trim white-haired Cooper is above all a teacher, devoted to building bridges between the public and technology.

During our interview last month, I asked Cooper about his “Eureka moment” in the discovery of the cell phone. He immediately rejoined that there never was such a moment—and added that I should not have expected one. Like almost all major inventions, he said, the cell phone was the culmination of many small, often anonymous improvements made over a long period. He gave ample credit to his coworkers at Motorola as well as to other engineers, and stressed that he never came forth with the mythical “Aha!” It was not magic, but plain hard work. The greatest challenge was reducing the size of the phone, called the Dyna-TAC, from the size of a brick (hence, the nickname) weighing 2.5 pounds. Even after the major breakthrough of the invention of the integrated circuit, shrinking the handset was a long, hard slog.

Two early Motorola "brick" phones and an early flip phone. Photo by Chris Gauthier.

Two early Motorola “brick” phones and an early flip phone. Photo by Chris Gauthier.

Well, what about your April 3, 1973, public demonstration of the first cell phone in New York City, I asked? Was it anything like Samuel Morse’s first telegraph message, “What hath God wrought?” a line borrowed from the Bible. No, his was hardly a mystical moment, Cooper remembered. He made the call not to a colleague, but to Joel Engel, his rival at AT&T, who was then working on a cellular car phone. Known for his puckish sense of humor, Marty said: “Joel, I’m calling you from a cellular phone, a real cellular phone, a handheld, portable, real cellular phone,” making sure that Engel got the point.

Another major thing Cooper wanted us to know is that a cell phone is not a phone at all. Unlike illusionists who try to distract our gaze when they perform their tricks, he pointed out exactly where we should look. He explained that the cell phone is a special kind of radio, tracing its lineage not to Bell but to radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi (that’s why the sound you hear when you first turn on your handset isn’t the once-familiar dial tone but the hiss of radio static.) As a communications engineer, this is a lineage that he is clearly proud of.

As for his greatest accomplishment, Cooper is quoted as saying the “personal telephone [is] something that would represent an individual, so you could assign a number not to a place, not to a desk, not to a home, but to a person.” The capability of calling an individual rather than a place, he insists, was the real value of his technical breakthrough. AT&T was focused on the car phone—place, not person. Told repeatedly that the personal cell phone was impossible, Cooper prides himself on his perseverance and faith in himself. No surprise then that he puts great stock in the cell phone as an agent of human individuality in our mass culture. That is its essence and true magic.

Cooper holds up his invention. Photo by Chris Gauthier.

Cooper holds up his invention. Photo by Chris Gauthier.

In May, the Lemelson Center will join with Smithsonian Magazine and the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination to explore themes of invention both magical and factual. The 2014 “The Future Is Here” festival will focus on “Science Meets Science Fiction: Imagination, Inspiration, and Invention.” We are inviting the public to explore with us the tantalizing realm where the real, the imagined, and the illusory meet, if not in the “Twilight Zone,” at least in the same neighborhood. “Science Meets Science Fiction” will open new vistas on society’s future by highlighting the visionaries in science, invention, and science fiction who epitomize human imagination and creativity. We invite you to join us. But we’ll ask you to silence your cell phones.

Future Is Here Marquee

Inventing the Modern Organic Farm

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

Organic tomatoes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Tiller mixing compost into soil.

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

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

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

Putting up frames for modular greenhouse.

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

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

Watch Eliot Coleman demonstrate the harvester here:

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


Disputed Culinary Invention Locations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Inventing a Knitting Pattern

With a plethora of knitting patterns already on the market, you’d think there’s no room for anything new. However, it is entirely possible to invent your own knitting pattern—and it’s easier than you think. The following steps, similar to the process of invention used in Spark!Lab, can jumpstart your journey to create a piece of fiber art that you’ll be proud to make and wear.

1) Find Your Inspiration

Look at your inspiration; what will translate well into a piece of fiber art? Perhaps the building you work in has interesting architectural detail—you could pick some lines from this detail to base your pattern on. Or perhaps you found a beautiful red leaf in Autumn—the color can be the jumping off point. Maybe you love zombies? What about them could inspire a piece of knitting? The world is full of interesting possibilities; all you have to do is observe. I keep a little notebook with me at all times so I can jot down inspiration when I come upon it.

A zombie dishcloth from

A zombie dishcloth from

2) Determine Your Skill Level

Do you know how to construct sweaters, or are you just learning to knit and purl? Figure out what your skill level is, and attempt to create a pattern that aligns with the level of knowledge and expertise you already have. If you’re just starting out, a simple scarf or washcloth could be great, while an intricate pullover, maybe with colorwork, would be fun for those more advanced.

Cary Grant trying to knit in the movie Mr. Lucky. From the Lion Brand Yarns blog.

Cary Grant trying to knit in the movie Mr. Lucky. From the Lion Brand Yarns blog.

3) Draw It Out

Going from inspiration to finished product doesn’t happen directly. Drawing your pattern idea, based on your inspiration, is a crucial step in writing a pattern. Sometimes when we envision a finished product, it doesn’t turn out exactly how we thought. Sketching out a picture of what you want to create will help you make early decisions about the final product.

4) Write It Down

If you have a pattern with more intricate designs, you might want to use a chart, especially when working with lace. If it’s something easier, you can simply write out the directions. Always start out by writing what kind of fiber you chose (the kind of yarn and the brand), the size of the needles, the gauge, and how many yards you used.

An American flag knitting chart from

An American flag knitting chart from

5) Test and Tweak

It’s not uncommon for a pattern to have errors in it. Don’t be too proud to admit a mistake—even professional pattern inventors with many years of experience have patterns with errors in them! Give your pattern to friends or fellow knitters on to test. Use feedback to correct any problems, and update the written pattern.

6) Decide What To Do With Your Pattern

Many people invent patterns to be given away for free and the enjoyment of all. You can do this, or keep it to enjoy yourself. You can also choose to sell your pattern on many different websites, including Ravelry, Etsy, at farmer’s markets, or through a personal blog.

Happy knitting!


One of the pleasures of working at the National Museum of American History is discovering the connections between the collections and research. A good example is my recent experience with Ajeeb, the famous chess-checker playing automaton. I learned about this amazing automaton while processing the William L. Bird Holidays on Display Collection. I was immediately smitten with Ajeeb, a ten-foot high, wax and papier-mâché mechanical wonder that won most every game of chess and checkers it played.

Ajeeb, also known as “The Egyptian,” was conceived of by Charles Edward Hooper of England in 1867. First displayed at the Crystal Palace in London, Ajeeb was brought to the United States in 1886 and featured at the Eden Museé, a New York City amusement place which opened in March 1884. Ajeeb is a descendant of earlier chess-checker playing automatons. In 1769, Wolfgang von Kempelen of Austria introduced the Mechanical Turk, which served as the inspiration for Ajeeb. Other automatons with similar abilities and names like Mephisto, Hajeb, and As-Rah also appeared. While the Ajeeb enjoyed a long stint at the Eden Museé (almost forty years), he was not the only Ajeeb on the circuit. Martinka & Company of New York, America’s oldest magic shop sold a chess-playing automaton in its 1898 and 1906 catalogs. Although we don’t know the price or sales figures, the idea that individual consumers could purchase their own Ajeeb is delightful.

The Ajeeb’s chess and checker playing prowess was greatly doubted and debated. Many believed Ajeeb was operated from an adjacent room; others thought that he had a magic brain. Indeed, inside the Ajeeb’s base, cleverly concealed by panels displaying complex machinery, were hidden operators maneuvering the arms, and carefully choreographing every move. The greatest wonder ever invented was an elaborate hoax—a great illusion that entertained crowds all over the world.

Lithographed trade card from Eden Museé, 1896. (AC0060-0000003-01)

Lithographed trade card from Eden Museé, 1896. (AC0060-0000003-01)

Months after discovering the Ajeeb in the collections I was talking with a colleague who was researching the early history of mathematical games played on computers. I mentioned my discovery and she shared my enthusiasm for this mysterious automaton. Several months later I found Ajeeb elsewhere in our collections. While examining a box about vending machines in the Warshaw Collection of Business Americana I found the Ajeeb on a trade card from the Eden Museé. To learn more about our collections, visit the Archives Center website.


“Eden Museé Faces Bankruptcy,” New York Times, p. 17, June 8, 1915.

Ensmenger, Nathan. Is chess the drosophila of artificial intelligence? A social history of an algorithm.  Social Studies of Science, 42 (1), pp. 5-30, 2012.

Kobler, John. “Where Are they Now? The Pride of the Eden Musee,” New Yorker, November 20, 1943.

[Trade catalogs from Martinka & Co.], January 27, 1898.

Sparking Young Minds with the Spark!Lab Invent It Challenge

On January 17—which happens to be Kid Inventors’ Day—the Lemelson Center launched the 3rd Annual Global Spark!Lab Invent It Challenge. Hosted in collaboration with the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access and ePals, the contest challenges children ages  five to 18 to create an invention that solves a real-world problem. Alone or in groups, kids must work through the invention process, identifying a problem, researching possible solutions, sketching designs, building and testing prototypes, and creating ads to sell their ideas.

Though this may sound a little daunting, young inventors have access to lots of support on the Challenge website as they tackle their projects. Past winners, including Chase Lewis, are serving as Student Ambassadors, answering questions and offering tips to their fellow inventors. Questions like “Where did you get your idea from?” and “How do you know if other people have done your invention?” have generated great advice from the Ambassadors already. Other message boards allow kids to share invention-related books and websites with one another, and even share their invention ideas to get feedback from their peers. (That board doesn’t have any traffic yet, though. I wonder if kids are fearful of their great ideas being stolen…)

As we await this year’s entries (the contest closes on April 11, 2014), here’s a look back at some of the most memorable inventions from the first two years. If these are any indication, this year’s Spark!Lab Invent It Challenge will generate a collection of inventions that are creative, innovative, fun, and inspiring.

The Solbrite


The Cycle Umbrella

The Cycle Umbrella

The Hands-Free Safety Straw

The Hands-free Safety Straw


The Heating Bathing Suit

The Heating Bathing Suit

The Rescue Travois

The Rescue Travois

The Sports Storing Device

The Sports Storing Device

The Sunshine Hat

The Sunshine Hat

The Turbo Scraper

The Turbo Skraper

The Vacuduster

The Vacuduster

Faster, higher, stronger: Science and engineering behind the Olympic Winter Games

“Citius, Altius, Fortius”—translated as “faster, higher, stronger”—is the motto of the modern Olympic Games. This phrase could also sum up the goals of scientists, engineers, and other inventors working with athletes to develop new and improved sports equipment, clothing, and even technical skills. In the Olympic games, viewers around the world see the latest science and technology in action as skiers, skaters, and sledders take to the slopes, rinks, and tracks in Sochi, Russia, to compete for quadrennial Olympics glory. This post first appeared on O Say Can You See.

Citius, Altius, Fortius; Faster, Higher, Stronger

Citius, Altius, Fortius; Faster, Higher, Stronger

To enhance your TV watching from the couch, check out this great series of free short videos about Science and Engineering of the Olympic Winter Games 2014 produced by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in partnership with NBC Learn.

As summarized in the introduction, “this enlightening 10-part video collection, narrated by NBC Sports’ Liam McHugh, delves into the physics, engineering, chemistry, design and mathematics behind the ‘world’s foremost sporting event.’” The videos feature U.S. Olympians and Paralympians whose names you may know, alongside scientists and engineers whose important research has been funded by NSF. Complementary educational materials are provided for the budding scientists and engineers in our lives.

A poster from the first Winter Olympic Games which were held in Chamonix, France, in 1924. Via Wikimedia Commons.

A poster from the first Winter Olympic Games which were held in Chamonix, France, in 1924. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Personally, I am fascinated by the Winter Olympics, the first of which was held in Chamonix, France, in 1924. Generally I favor the figure skating and alpine skiing part because I’ve experienced the pain and pleasure of trying them myself—so I played those videos first.

Skating is all about physics, which Olympic hopefuls like Gracie Gold and Ashley Wagner make look easy as they gracefully jump and spin on the ice. The skiing video features Julia Mancuso, who has won multiple Olympic medals including a bronze in Sochi, and Heath Calhoun, an Iraq veteran and 2010 and 2014 Paralympics contender. Also stars are the scientists and engineers behind them, like Dr. Kam Leang of the University of Nevada, Reno, who uses nano-scale carbon tubes to help reduce vibration in skis.

A commemorative stamp for the 1932 Winter Olympic Games held in Lake Placid, New York. It is in the collection of the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum.

A commemorative stamp for the 1932 Winter Olympic Games held in Lake Placid, New York. It is in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum.

Of course, during the Olympics TV marathon, I often end up watching less popular sports, too, that are sometimes ignored in the U.S. during intervening years. The video about the engineering behind bobsledding, featuring U.S. team members Steve Holcomb and Steve Langton, raised my interest in watching that more carefully. I didn’t realize that bobsledding is one of the most dangerous sports, and the video illustrates numerous issues about weight, stability, speed, and drag that engineers must address to meet the sport’s official requirements.

Bonnie Blair's speed skin from the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France

Bonnie Blair’s speed skin from the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France.

Check out Shani Davis’ cutting-edge speed skating suit in the video clip “Engineering Competition Suits.” Perhaps one day, he will donate his suit to the Museum to join Bonnie Blair’s speed skating suit from the 1992 Olympics, which was cutting-edge in its time. We also have a pair of Apolo Anton Ohno’s speed skates among other great Olympics-related objects in the Museum’s sports collections. Doubtless NBC Olympics coverage will mention more than once that Blair and Ohno are the most decorated U.S. Winter Olympic athletes, with six and eight medals respectively, while Davis has won two gold medals at the last two Olympics and is competing in Sochi for more.

Shaun White's outfit and snowboard.

Shaun White’s outfit and snowboard.

The short video about the physics of snowboarding featuring Shaun White reminded me a lot of skateboarding, which the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation featured during Innoskate 2013, albeit on a much smaller, temporary half pipe built simply as a demonstration stage. Interestingly, White is both a medal-winning skateboarder and snowboarder and competed in the latter sport in Sochi. I should note that the Museum’s sports collection includes a Burton snowboard donated by White as well as an accessible snowboard invented by then-students Nathan Connolly and Matt Capozzi, who were featured in the Lemelson Center’s Invention at Play exhibition.

An accessible snowboard invented by then-students Nathan Connolly and Matt Capozzi, who were featured in the Lemelson Center's Invention at Play exhibition.

An accessible snowboard invented by then-students Nathan Connolly and Matt Capozzi, who were featured in the Lemelson Center’s Invention at Play exhibition. (0174706).

If this year’s NSF-NBC video series just whets your appetite, be sure to watch their previous collaboration, the “Science of the Olympic Winter Games 2010,” with informational segments about the science behind skiing, ski jumping, ice skating, and more.

We can thank Baron Pierre de Coubertin for reinventing the Olympic Games starting in 1896. An aristocratic French educator, he was inspired by ancient Greek culture and also the opportunity to use sports as a way to encourage intercultural communication and trust. The three core values of the Olympic Movement are Excellence, Respect, and Friendship, the latter defined in part as “build[ing] a peaceful and better world thanks to sport, through solidarity, team spirit, joy, and optimism.” Hopefully this year’s games in Sochi will live up to these values that helped spawn this international sports festival 118 years ago.

U.S. stamp commemorating the centennial of the Olympic Games.

U.S. stamp commemorating the centennial of the Olympic Games.