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

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.

50 years ago today: Opening a “Palace of Progress”

The Museum of History and Technology (the previous name of the National Museum of American History) was dedicated on today’s date 50 years ago, opening to the public on the following day, January 23, 1964. Director Art Molella reflects on the fascination with the future and sense of modernism that shaped the museum’s outlook and even our building. This post first appeared on O Say Can You See.

“New Smithsonian Unit to be a Palace of Progress,” gushed The Evening Star about the exciting exhibitions in store for visitors to the “Big Marble Shrine” being built on the National Mall.

The Museum of History and Technology (MHT), the original name of the National Museum of American History (NMAH), opened to great fanfare on January 22, 1964. President Lyndon Johnson presided over the ceremony, saying, “every doubter who hesitates before the onrush of tomorrow will … spend some time in this great museum.”

Reproduction of rendering of MHT by Hugh Ferris, Avery Library, Columbia University. Ferris was an architect and the foremost delineator of buildings in his day. In Ferris’s rendering, abstract sculptures of scientific instruments surround the building.

Reproduction of rendering of MHT by Hugh Ferris, Avery Library, Columbia University. Ferris was an architect and the foremost delineator of buildings in his day. In Ferris’s rendering, abstract sculptures of scientific instruments surround the building.

Such statements captured the spirit that gave birth to the museum, one that “combines the history and technology of a Nation.” “In a country such as ours,” stated MHT’s founding director Frank Taylor, “…these are inseparable because of the tremendous influence science has had on our way of life and development.”

Frank Taylor, MHT's founding director, standing on the building's fifth floor terrace. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 95, Box 22A, Folder: 52.

Frank Taylor, MHT’s founding director, standing on the building’s fifth floor terrace. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 95, Box 22A, Folder: 52.

“The onrush of tomorrow…”— an interesting statement to make about what was after all a history museum. But the future was very much in the air, not to mention in outer space. It was the decade of the Space Race, culminating in the US moon-landing foretold by the recently assassinated President, John F. Kennedy.

1964 also happened to be the year when the New York World’s Fair opened in Flushing Meadow. The fair and MHT shared a common theme of technological progress, with the fair looking to the future and MHT to history as its prologue. Fairgoers toured the technological Futurama in the General Motors pavilion, seeing lunar rovers explore the moon and atomic submarines and “Aquacopters” survey the ocean depths.

Modern display techniques developed for world’s fairs challenged MHT’s new staff of designers to create equally exciting historical displays inside the new museum. Many of the fair’s pavilion buildings manifested the same mid-century modern style as MHT. The first modern building on the Mall, MHT emerged from the enthusiasm of the 20th-Century Modern Movement and a deep faith in technological progress. What better way to express this than through an emblematic building—the concrete embodiment of the animating beliefs behind the new museum.

An April 1964 postage stamp in the collection of the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum.

An April 1964 postage stamp in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum.

The story of MHT’s design involves some fascinating twists and turns. Putting any sort of modern building on the traditional National Mall was never an easy sell to the conservative Fine Arts Commission in Washington, D.C.

The Smithsonian started on the safe side, choosing a firm that had been involved in the Mall’s early century redevelopment: McKim, Mead, and White. Knowing MHT had to harmonize with the neo-classical buildings around its site, the lead architect, James Kellum Smith, compared MHT to the Acropolis — “the sacred precinct of Athens” — and to ancient Rome. When Smith died in 1961, the young Walker Cain took over, agreeing that the Mall “is a classical environment if there ever was one.”

Cain said he designed “a building which is classical in definition, and the detailing is modern.” The in-and-out pattern of the building’s marble walls was meant to suggest abstract Greek columns. Original designs showed modernist renderings of scientific instruments surrounding the building. One such sculpture was put in place: Jose de Rivera‘s “Infinity” at the Mall entrance, which to Cain evoked an abstract orrery, a mechanical model of the solar system. Modern sculptures like Alexander Calder’s “Gwenfritz” embellished the building at other spots.

Installation of the "Infinity" sculpture by Jose de Rivera. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 95, Box 34, Folder: 17.

Installation of the “Infinity” sculpture by Jose de Rivera. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 95, Box 34, Folder: 17.

As a result, MHT represented a modern/neo-classic hybrid. Architectural critics like Ada Louise Huxtable of The New York Times were annoyed by the compromised modernism. (“An awkward attempt to marry the classical and the modern, the building is legitimately neither; it is a monstrous and meaningless misalliance,” she wrote.) But, in some sense, the building’s blend of styles accurately represented its amalgam of traditional Americana and forward-looking technology—the Museum of History and Technology.

As it turned out, the year MHT opened was a problematic one for “progress” of any kind, as I was reminded when I happened to watch an episode of American Experience’s 1964. While it was the year Ford’s sporty Mustang debuted, it also witnessed the murder of three Civil Rights workers in Mississippi, a major escalation of the Vietnam War, and Berkeley student protests.

A future post blog will consider how the young Museum registered such social and cultural changes.

A pin in the museum's collection from the 1964 New York World's Fair

A pin in the museum’s collection from the 1964 New York World’s Fair.

Remembering Apple’s “1984” Super Bowl ad

Today marks the 30th anniversary of Apple’s famous “1984” television ad that aired on January 22, 1984 during the third quarter of the Super Bowl XVIII between the Los Angeles Raiders and Washington Redskins. Historian Eric Hintz describes how the “1984” ad and the introduction of the Apple Macintosh were key milestones both in the history of computing and the history of advertising.

The Super Bowl is a cultural event that attracts the attention of more than just football fans. In 2013, Super Bowl XLVII was the third most watched telecast of all time, with an average viewership of 108.7 million people. With so many eyeballs tuned in, advertisers bring out some of their best work and casual fans tune in for the groundbreaking TV commercials as much as for the game. Who could forget Steelers Hall of Famer “Mean” Joe Greene selling Coca-Cola (1979) or the Budweiser guys coining “Wassuuuup?!?” (2000) as everyone’s new favorite catchphrase? However, Apple’s “1984” ad during Super Bowl XVIII is arguably the most famous Super Bowl commercial of all time.

In 1983, the personal computing market was up for grabs. Apple was selling its Apple II like hotcakes but was facing increasing competition from IBM’s PC and “clones” made by Compaq and Commodore. Meanwhile, Apple, led by Steve Jobs, was busy developing its new Macintosh computer. Remember that in 1983, most businesses and governments still employed large, expensive, and technically intimidating mainframes. And while the first personal computers of the early 1980s were smaller and less intimidating, they still featured black screens with green text-based commands like C:\> run autoexec.bat.

Drawing inspiration from the pioneering Xerox Alto and improving on the underperforming Apple Lisa, Jobs and the Apple team built the Apple Macintosh with several revolutionary new features we now take for granted. A handheld input device called a “mouse.” A graphical user interface with overlapping “windows” and menus. Clickable pictures called “icons.” Cut-copy-paste editing. In short, Jobs and his team were creating an “insanely great” personal computer that was intuitive and easy to use—one he hoped would shake-up the PC market. At the same time, Apple had recently lured marketing whiz John Sculley away from Pepsi to be the firm’s new chief executive. Sculley, who had masterminded the “Pepsi Generation” campaign, raised Apple’s ad budget from $15 million to $100 million in his first year.

Apple Macintosh (“classic” 128K version), 1984, catalog number 1985.0118.01, from the National Museum of American History.

Apple Macintosh (“classic” 128K version), 1984, catalog number 1985.0118.01, from the National Museum of American History.

Apple hired the Los Angeles advertising firm Chiat/Day to launch the Macintosh in early 1984; the account team was led by creative director Lee Clow, copywriter Steve Hayden, and art director Brent Thomas. The trio developed a concept inspired by George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, in which The Party, run by the all-seeing Big Brother, kept the proletariat in check with constant surveillance by the Thought Police. In the ad, IBM’s “Big Blue” would be cast as Big Brother, dominating the computer industry with its dull conformity, while Apple would re-write the book’s ending so that the Macintosh metaphorically defeats the regime. To direct the commercial, Chiat/Day hired British movie director Ridley Scott who’d perfected the cinematic look and feel of dystopian futures in Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982). The 60-second mini-film was shot in one week at a production cost of about $500,000. Two hundred extras were paid $125 a day to shave their heads, march in lock-step, and listen to Big Brother’s Stalinist gibberish. Shot in dark, blue-gray hues to evoke IBM’s Big Blue, the only splashes of color were the bright red running shorts of the protagonist, an athletic young woman who sprints through the commercial carrying a sledgehammer, and Apple’s rainbow logo. The commercial never showed the actual computer, but ended with a tease: “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984.’”

Scenes from Apple’s “1984” Super Bowl advertisement.  From Folklore.org.

Scenes from Apple’s “1984” Super Bowl advertisement. From Folklore.org.

1984Girl_fromFolkloreDotOrg

When shown the finished ad in late 1983, Apple’s board members hated it. Sculley, the Apple CEO, instructed Chiat/Day to sell back both the 30 and 60-second time slots they’d purchased from CBS for $1 million, but they were only able to unload the 30 second slot.  Apple was faced with the prospect of eating the $500,000 production costs of an ad that could really only air during calendar year 1984, so it swallowed hard and let the ad run once during the third quarter of the Super Bowl. Some 43 million Americans saw the ad, and when the football game returned, CBS announcers Pat Summerall and John Madden asked one another, “Wow, what was that?”

The ad, of course, was a sensation. The commercial’s social and political overtones held particular resonance in the mid-1980s, as the United States and Soviet Union were still engaged in an ideological Cold War. And, like Lyndon Johnson’s famous “Daisy” ad from the 1964 presidential campaign, the ad aired only once in primetime, but was replayed again and again on the network news that evening as the ad itself became a buzz-worthy source of free publicity. But even the mystique of the single airing wasn’t entirely true. Chiat/Day had quietly run the ad one other time, at 1 a.m. on December 15, 1983 on KMVT in Twin Falls, Idaho, so that the advertisement qualified for the 1983 advertising awards.  As expected, the ad won several prestigious awards, including the Grand Prize at the Cannes International Advertising Festival (1984) and Advertising Age’s 1980s “Commercial of the Decade.” But the ad’s most enduring legacy is that it cemented the Super Bowl as each year’s blockbuster moment for advertisers and their clients.

While the ad aired during the Super Bowl on January 22, it merely pointed to Macintosh’s official debut two days later. On January 24, 1984, Apple held its annual shareholders meeting at the Flint Center auditorium on the campus of De Anza College, just a block from Apple’s offices in Cupertino, California. After dispensing with the formalities of board votes and quarterly earnings statements, the real show began. Steve Jobs walked on stage in a double-breasted suit and bow tie and rallied the troops by tweaking his chief rival: “IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control, Apple.  Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry, the entire information age?  Was George Orwell right?”

Jobs then presented perhaps the greatest new product demonstration in history. Jobs walked over to a black bag, unzipped it, and set up the Macintosh to wild applause.  Then Jobs inserted a floppy disk and started the demonstration of the Mac’s windows, menus, fonts, and drawing tools, all set to the stirring theme from Chariots of Fire. Then, the Mac spoke for itself: “Hello, I am Macintosh…”

So when you watch the Super Bowl on February 2 this year, it’s possible that the ads will overshadow the game. And for that you can thank Apple’s Macintosh, Chiat/Day and “1984.”

An International Spark!Lab Workshop

We recently hosted colleagues for a two-week workshop on the process of developing and prototyping Spark!Lab activities. We also arranged trips to visit several other hands-on spaces at the Smithsonian, to show the breadth of ways to approach this sort of programming.

Our Ukrainian colleagues Nina and Zhenya.

Our Ukrainian colleagues Nina and Zhenya.

This was a really wonderful opportunity for the folks in the workshop, as it was a diverse crowd: staff from both Art Arsenal in Kyiv, Ukraine, and the Shenandoah Valley Discovery Museum in Winchester, Virginia, joined us. This may seem like an odd pairing, geographically, but both museums are in a crucial part of their strategic development, and so came to us at a good time for inspiration and learning.

Prototyping a music activity with visitors.

Prototyping a music activity with visitors.

I had two favorite moments over the course of our time together. The first was developing and prototyping an activity on the topic of contemporary art; this was an area of particular interest for our Ukrainian colleagues. Through brainstorming, we determined that contemporary art is based on emotion and beauty. We agreed on a handful of emotions, went shopping for random materials and gathered recyclables from our office, and put the activity together. It was quite a success with visitors!

Two pieces of contemporary art made by visitors  - ‘hunger’ and ‘sadness’, left to right.

Two pieces of contemporary art made by visitors – ‘hunger’ and ‘sadness’, left to right.

My second favorite part was our trip to ArtLab+ at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. ArtLab+ is a drop-in art space for teens, with opportunities for them to gain expertise in computer programs, technical equipment, and much more. It’s an inspiring space that really resonated with our colleagues.

ArtLab

I’m so glad we had the chance to share our expertise in developing Spark!Lab activities, prototyping, and much more. I know we also learned a great deal from our colleagues! We’re looking forward to seeing how they implement what they learned, and eager to see how it benefits their work.

A Day at the Armory: Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Day at the Armory: Part I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned for Part II of the article…

Sol’s Place

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

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

Sketch of Sol Adler’s workshop, circa 1955.

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

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

Innovating New Traditions

As Thanksgiving approaches, our thoughts naturally turn to traditions—national traditions like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and our own personal traditions, which in my family means kielbasa and apple pie, going to the local Christmas tree farm, and my family members pretending to be shocked when I decline a serving of carrots for the 28th year in a row. (And, of course, my mother’s mashed potatoes, over which I rhapsodized in a previous post.)

Woodcut of a turkey

Woodcut, The Marchbanks Calendar–November by Harry Cimino. Smithsonian American Art Museum.

We all have traditions, but where did they come from? When we deep-fry the turkey or add a spiral ham to the menu, it may not seem particularly innovative. But the technology behind these yummy traditions had to come from somewhere. While doing some Thanksgiving-inspired Googling, I came across this fun video from History on the invention of deep-fried turkeys, turduckens, and honey baked hams:

While we may not know who invented the deep-fried turkey, we can take a look at Harry Hoenselaar’s patent (#2470078A) for an “apparatus for slicing ham on the bone.” Hoenselaar’s invention was ingeniously created out of various objects found around his home—a pie tin, brackets, a hand drill, and a broom handle, to name a few. The patent application reads:

In the meat industry there is a large market for sliced meats, particularly for ham slices, but the bone construction and the shape of a ham is such that no wholly satisfactory method of slicing it exists. This statement also applies to legs of lamb and other like cuts of meat.

It is an object of the invention to provide a method and a machine for slicing ham and other joints, which are of exceptional efficiency in operation. Another object of the invention is to prepare ham for the market in a new and superior form.

Millions of spiral cut hams are sold every year, so I believe we can safely say that Hoenselaar accomplished what he set out to do—create an “efficient” ham.

Patent drawing of the ham slicing machine.

Patent drawing by Harry Hoenselaar.

So whatever your traditions are this Thanksgiving, enjoy the holiday!

And remember, when frying a turkey, safety first!

Innovating to Avoid Turkey Trauma

On Thanksgiving, Americans consume about 46 million turkeys. The key to serving a perfect bird is getting the interior to just the right temperature. Too low and you risk getting sick from the undercooked meat. Too high and it’s likely to be dry.

About 30 million turkeys are sold each year with built-in pop-up timers designed to tell cooks when the bird has reached that magic temperature. Today, the pop-up timer market is dominated by Volk Enterprises, founded in the 1950’s by Anthony Volk. When he returned from serving in World War II, Volk began working in a turkey processing plant, which led him to invent a variety of turkey-related products, and ultimately, to start his eponymous company.

Before he invented his pop-up timer, Volk worked with his brother Henry to create a device called the Hok-Lok, which helps to bind the turkey together. The wire contraption, which is meant to be left on the turkey even during cooking, keeps the drumsticks right alongside the turkey breast, and helps make the breast look plumper. Basically, it keeps the whole bird together and looking nice. Though the company has since innovated on the design and created new binding products out of different materials, the Hok-Lok is still used today.

Patent drawing for the Hok-Lok, a Poultry Trussing Device

Patent drawing for the Hok-Lok, a Poultry Trussing Device

After the Hok-Lok, Volk went on to develop a turkey thermometer, but he wasn’t the first to do so. In the 1960’s, a group from the California Turkey Producers Advisory Board began thinking about how to gauge when a turkey was done—but not overdone. The Board was receiving complaints about turkeys being too dry, which they attributed to overcooking. The group began brainstorming ways to combat this, and came up with the idea of an insertable thermometer.

Diagram of a pop-up turkey timer

How a pop-up timer works (via How Stuff Works)

In 1971, after prototyping various solutions, the group filed a patent for a Thermal Indicator “particularly suited for use in indicating temperatures attained by a heated body such as an article of food….” The Indicator was inspired by ceiling sprinklers that activate when they reach a certain temperature. The turkey thermometer consists of four parts: an outer tubular casing, an inner piece that pops up when the appropriate temperature is reached, a spring, and a small amount of metal at the bottom of the tube. The inner pop-up piece is situated in the metal, which is solid before cooking. The metal melts as the turkey cooks, releasing the inner piece and allowing it to pop up.

Patent drawing for the first pop-up turkey timer

Patent drawing for the first pop-up turkey timer

The group established the Dun-Rite Manufacturing Company to make the devices, but in 1973, sold it to 3M. 3M refined the design and continued to make the timers until 1991, when it sold that part of its business to none other than Volk Enterprises.

In the 1970s, Anthony Volk invented his own turkey thermometer. A reverse of the pop-up timer, Volk’s Vue-Temp thermometer was designed to stick out when the turkey was raw and to sink into the bird as it cooked. The design seemed to confuse consumers, however, and Volk soon abandoned that design to develop his own pop-up timer, which was similar to the Dun-Rite/3M device. (It was so similar, in fact, that 3M sued Volk Enterprises in the 1980s for patent infringement. The suit was ultimately settled, however, and both companies continued to produce the timers.)

Patent drawing for Volk’s first Disposable Cooking Thermometer, the Vue-Temp

Patent drawing for Volk’s first Disposable Cooking Thermometer, the Vue-Temp

Though Volk Enterprises dominates the built-in turkey timer market today, there are also pop-up thermometers that can be purchased independently of a bird. The most innovative (at least aesthetically)? This thermometer that is actually shaped like a turkey. Its drumsticks pop up when the meat is done.

Pop-up turkey thermometer shaped like a turkey.

Via Food Beast