Get that clean, baby-face look: Razors at the Smithsonian

Well, we’re just about halfway through November and the streets are filled with beards—all for a good cause. Whether participating in Movember or No Shave November or just being lazy with the razor, November is all about facial hair. The Smithsonian is participating in our own unique way and highlighting historic mustaches, beards, and sideburns. Just check out our Pinterest page, “Smithsonian Staches,” or visit the National Museum of American History’s blog, O Say Can You See, for some truly amazing mustache-related collection items—from photos of Ambrose Burnside to a bicentennial-celebrating beard.

Ambrose Burnside

Perhaps Burnside’s most lasting legacy was the genesis of the term sideburn, the fashionable facial hair style that took its title from his scrambled surname

Beard dyed red, white and blue.

Northwoods Hairstyling of Downey, California, dyed this beard for Gary Sandburg, who later sent it to the Smithsonian. The American bicentennial commemorated the 200th anniversary of the convening of the Second Congress in the Pennsylvania State House (now known as Independence Hall) in Philadelphia, July 4, 1776, and the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which called for separation from Great Britain and the creation of the United States of America.

Come December 1, the razors come out, perhaps to the delight of spouses and significant others. Coincidentally, November hosts some razor-specific invention anniversaries.

On November 15, 1904, King C. Gillette received a patent (No. 775,134) for a razor. “A main object of my invention is to provide a safety-razor in which the necessity of honor or stropping the blade is done away with, thus saving the annoyance and expense involved there in,” reads Gillette’s patent application. By making his blades out of “very thin sheet-steel,” he was able to “produce and sell [his] blades so cheaply that the user may buy them in quantities and throw them away when dull without making the expense thus incurred as great as that of keep the prior blades sharp.” Gillette’s razor was adjustable, to allow for different beard lengths, and featured a safety guard.

Patent drawing for "Razor" by Gillette, 1904.

Patent drawing for “Razor” by Gillette, 1904.

On November 6, 1928, Jacob Schick patented (No. 177,885) a “Shaving Implement.” Whereas Gillette was concerned about creating cheap and replaceable blades, Schick’s invention avoided blades altogether. “The invention is designed to provide a shaving implement that does not require the usual prior application of lather, or its equivalent to the face as the cutting of the hair can be done while the face and hairs are comparatively dry.” When using Schick’s Shaving Implement, “the hairs are snipped off and by repeating the stroke several times the face is cleanly shaven.” Schick’s invention also used air suction, both to draw the hair away from the skin and to suck the cut hairs out of the implement.

Patent drawing for "Shaving Implement" by Schick, 1928.

Patent drawing for “Shaving Implement” by Schick, 1928.

One of the more interesting places to find razors in the collections of the Smithsonian is the National Air and Space Museum. Examples from both Gillette and Schick have gone up into space—astronaut Michael Collins carried shaving equipment made by Gillette on the Apollo 11 mission. More Gillette and Schick items reside in the national collections at NASM and Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum.

Gillette razor and shaving cream carried aboard Apollo 11.

This shaving equipment was carried aboard the Apollo 11 mission by astronaut Michael Collins as part of his personal preference kit. Both pieces were readily available in drugstores.
The Personal Preference Kit was so named because all astronauts were permitted one small bag for personal or small items of significance they wished to carry into space.

Inventing an Exhibition, Part III

Over the past two years the Lemelson Center team has been working diligently with exhibition designers at Roto and museum evaluators at Randi Korn and Associates (RK&A) to develop and test our next exhibition, Places of Invention (POI). If you’ve read previous Bright Ideas blog posts, you may know that this exhibition is scheduled to open in the Lemelson Hall of Invention when the National Museum of American History’s West Wing reopens in mid-2015 after extensive renovations.

The POI exhibition will take visitors on a journey through time and place to discover the stories of people who lived, worked, played, collaborated, adapted, took risks, solved problems, and sometimes failed—all in the pursuit of something new. POI features six American communities—Hartford, Connecticut, late 1800s; Hollywood, California, 1930s; Medical Alley, Minnesota, 1950s; the Bronx, New York, 1970s; Silicon Valley, California, 1970s-80s; and Fort Collins, Colorado, 2010s—representing a surprising array of people, places, time periods, and technologies. The exhibition examines what can happen when the right mix of inventive people, untapped resources, and inspiring surroundings come together.

In July 2012 and then again in March 2013 I wrote blog posts reflecting on how our exhibition development process mirrors the inventive process. Continuing the series, I’d like to share more updates here about recent POI project activities, particularly about our latest round of evaluation with visitors.

By May 2013, we completed the exhibition’s conceptual design phase (known at the Smithsonian as the 35% design phase). Roto submitted renderings and design specifications for official review by various Smithsonian departments regarding accessibility, security, lighting, electrical needs, conservation issues, and more. Museum director John Gray and senior staff members reviewed and approved the exhibition content and conceptual design, giving us enthusiastic thumbs up to proceed.

Since then the design development phase (called 65% design) has been underway. During this period the Center’s exhibition team has been collaborating closely with Roto to hone the look and feel of the POI exhibition, focusing on design details, developing more interactive elements, finalizing objects and images, creating exhibit case layouts, and writing exhibition labels.

We conducted round two of formative evaluation with RK&A at the Museum on July 8-10, 2013. Evaluation is funded by the POI project’s National Science Foundation grant. Following up on similar testing done for other interactives during round one in January 2013, the objectives of this evaluation were to explore:

  • how visitors use three prototype interactives;
  • how visitors interpret these prototypes;
  • whether there are any barriers to visitors’ use of the interactives;
  • whether visitors understand the relationships among people-place-invention and 21st century skills (e.g. collaboration, creativity, communication, flexibility, and risk-taking); and
  • how visitors interpret what this POI exhibition is about.
The introductory panel at the entrance to the POI prototyping space in the Museum’s first floor east corridor.

The introductory panel at the entrance to the POI prototyping space in the Museum’s first floor east corridor.

Roto set up three stations of prototype interactives, with minimal contextual materials, in the first floor East corridor of the Museum.  Stanchions and moveable wall panels demarcated the small testing area, with an introductory panel about the exhibition displayed right outside. RK&A evaluators recruited walk-in adult visitors who were alone or in groups of adults and children to participate in the study.

Inside the prototyping area on day one of testing.

Inside the prototyping area on day one of testing.

The activities we tested were:

  • an interactive about how early pacemakers worked for the 1950s Medical Alley, MN case study about the invention of the external, wearable pacemaker;
  • an activity to try out DJ scratching as part of the 1970s Bronx, NY case study about the birth of hip-hop music;
  • an activity for the exhibition’s Hub called Build Your Own Place of Invention, where visitors were encouraged to think about the conditions needed for their hypothetical place of invention, such as what people, spaces, or resources they would need.

For three days, the RK&A team observed and interviewed 48 groups of visitors (78 adults and 55 children ages 6-17) as they tried the different components without any coaching. Roto and Lemelson Center staff members were on hand to fix any mechanical issues and generally observe visitors as unobtrusively as possible. At the end of each testing day, we met with RK&A to debrief about visitor actions and interview responses and then made tweaks to the interactives for the next day’s testing.

The DJ scratching interactive on day 3 of testing

The DJ scratching interactive on day 3 of testing.

In August, RK&A produced a final report based on the data they collected, providing information about their interviews and specific recommendations for further interactives development.  The report addressed both successes and challenges, including what visitors considered the most enjoyable, least enjoyable, confusing, and intriguing aspects of the exhibit interactives, and their understanding (or lack thereof) of the exhibition messages. Finding that “place” is still conceptually difficult for many visitors, RK&A shared recommendations about how and where to define and visually represent place in the exhibition to reinforce our interpretation of “place” and its relationship to inventors and invention.

Visitors trying out the pacemaker interactive on day three of testing.

Visitors trying out the pacemaker interactive on day three of testing.

The evaluation process has been extremely informative, productive, and—for me as the project director—essential. Although the exhibition budget is tight, the money spent now on formative evaluation means the designers and fabricators will need less time and money to tweak and revamp the exhibition components in the future. Observing and talking with visitors on the Museum floor really pushed the Lemelson Center and Roto to rethink assumptions about how they use and interpret our creations. The resulting tweaking process—incrementally during the testing days and ongoing since then as we continue to build upon the report’s recommendations—will make the final exhibition much more meaningful and engaging for our visitors.

The Build Your Own Place of Invention activity on day three of testing.

The Build Your Own Place of Invention activity on day three of testing.

Who Invented the Super Bowl Trophy?

After working at The Lemelson Center for a while, it’s not hard to see that invention is all around us. In the news, in our interests, and in our daily life, it’s easy to find the invention story behind the objects and people who we encounter.

For example, I’ve been watching quite a bit of football since the start of the season. I love keeping up with my team, the Seahawks, and following along with the local team here in Washington, D.C. Last year my colleague wrote about innovation in football helmet technology designed to keep more players safe from head injuries, which is still a relevant conversation. Looking to the future, lots of fans are anticipating the 2014 Super Bowl, myself included. Which got me wondering: who invented the Super Bowl trophy?

According to Westchester Magazine, a publication from Westchester, New York, the idea of having a trophy came in 1966 from then NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle. He contacted Tiffany & Co., where he began collaborating with the head of design, Oscar Reidner.

The Super Bowl Trophy

Screenshot from Tiffany.com

Apparently Reidner had never watched a football game or held a football, so he immediately bought one at a toy store. He then cut up a cereal box for a prototype and met for lunch with Rozelle, where he sketched his idea on a cocktail napkin. Et voila, a major American icon was invented. Tiffany & Co. continues to handcraft a new trophy every year, which is incredible!

A silversmith at Tiffany & Co. works on the trophy.

A silversmith at Tiffany & Co. works on the trophy. Screenshot from NJ.com

Next time I covet that pair of diamond earrings from Tiffany’s, I’m sure I’ll remember that they also produce a football-related invention. It’s fascinating to continue finding invention stories wherever I look.

Seeing in the Dark: Aerial Recon in WWII

The Lemelson Center’s annual symposium took place on Oct. 25 and this year we explored the role technology and invention plays in our surveillance society. You can watch the archived video on UStream. In this post, we look at one invention that allowed for wartime surveillance from the sky.

Many of us who work at the National Museum of American History have a favorite object or two. Mine is part of the photographic history collections. It’s a General Electric Mazda FT-17 flash lamp, whose prototype was invented by Harold “Doc” Edgerton at MIT to take aerial reconnaissance photographs at night. Why do I like it? Well, OK, I’m a photography geek. But the tube is elegant yet cool, and it has a great story.

Edgerton had originally invented an electronic stroboscope to study high-speed machinery in motion. But he soon turned his light (and camera) on a vast range of subjects. Applying his solid engineering training, vivid imagination, and good business sense, Edgerton continually adapted and commercialized the technology he had created. In the 1940s, this work took Doc into the sky.

Major George Goddard of the army’s photographic laboratory at Wright Field (now Wright-Patterson Air Force Base) visited Edgerton at MIT in 1939. Goddard had joined the U.S. Army Signal Corps in 1917 and was appointed instructor of aerial photographic interpretation at the School of Military Aeronautics the following year. He knew firsthand both the value and limitations of aerial photography using existing technology. So he asked if Edgerton and his colleagues could build a strobe that would be powerful enough to take photographs from a plane, at night, from a height of a mile. “We can do that,” Doc said. “We haven’t got it in the house, but we can do that.” (1) That confidence produced an electronic flash system for night aerial photography that delivered information impossible to obtain in any other way.

Edgerton’s night aerial photography system.

Edgerton’s night aerial photography system. The flash tube (lower center) fits into the reflector at the left. The camera (center), which looks a lot like an oversized 35-mm single-lens reflex camera, is sitting on top of one of the capacitor banks. The serviceman is holding the control box. Courtesy of the MIT Museum.

The strobe that Doc originally designed to photograph events from the bleachers of Boston Garden provided a technical foundation for his electronic flash for military night aerial photography. But the components of this new flash system were bigger and more powerful than anything Doc had yet built. The flash tube is a tough monster; its 30 inches of strong, quartz glass, coiled into a xenon-filled spiral, withstood the 4,000 volts discharged through it. The tube fit into a reflector mounted in the plane’s belly or tail. Banks of capacitors, weighing up to 500 pounds each, were slung on the plane’s bomb racks and supplied power to the flash tube. A direct contact synchronized the flash to the equally oversized aerial camera.

Setting up the strobe (left) and camera (center) at Boston Garden, 1946. Courtesy of the MIT Museum

Setting up the strobe (left) and camera (center) at Boston Garden, 1946. Courtesy of the MIT Museum

In April 1941, the first experimental unit–camera, capacitors, flash tube, and reflector–was mounted in a B-18 and tested over Boston. But the system’s most famous test began on June 5, 1944, when an A-20 equipped with the flash took off for France, ahead of the D-day invasion forces. Doc recorded the results in his laboratory notebook on June 7, 1944: “The A-20 (No 449) went on its first mission on Monday night June 5 arriving at the target on June 6 around 130 am. The target was two road intersections south of Caen. Due to clouds the pictures were taken at 800 ft – 2000 ft. The photos were very good but there was no overlap. Some flack [sic] from ground machine guns was encountered at a town named Coustances. Villedieu-les-Poêles was photographed. I stayed up until 5 am to see the negatives out of the dryer.” (2)

Doc continued to tweak the giant flash system even as it saw use in many more missions during the war. One of my favorite runs, though, took place in August 1944, when Edgerton was testing the flash in England. Stonehenge, standing alone on the Salisbury Plain, proved a perfect subject for his experiments.

Stonehenge, 1944. Courtesy of the MIT Museum

Stonehenge, 1944. Courtesy of the MIT Museum

The nighttime aerial reconnaissance photography system developed by Edgerton and his colleagues at MIT, in industry, and in the military, was used throughout the war. The adaptation of the flash tube from peacetime photography of things like rodeos in Boston Garden to wartime reconnaissance flights over Europe is a testament to Edgerton’s creative mind. Throughout his life, Doc welcomed each new inquiry. “If you don’t wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning and want to do something,” Edgerton quipped, “why, you’re wasting time.” (3)

A serviceman inserting the flash tube into the reflector. Courtesy of the MIT Museum

A serviceman inserting the flash tube into the reflector. Courtesy of the MIT Museum

References:

(1) “History of the Strobe Light,” Edgerton Hall, MIT, Cambridge, Mass., November 27, 1984. Harold Eugene Edgerton Papers, MC 25, Box 116, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Institute Archives and Special Collections, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

(2) Notebook 15, 30 Jan. 1944 – 16 Feb. 1945, pp. 23-24, Harold Eugene Edgerton Papers, MC 25, Box 53, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Institute Archives and Special Collections, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

(3) WGBH Nova, “Edgerton and His Incredible Seeing Machines.” Original broadcast: January 15, 1985.

This post first appeared in Prototype, May 2010 edition.

Hip-Hop, the Collaborations Don’t Stop

What happens when you put museum experts and hip-hop community members in the same room? The Lemelson Center found out when we hosted a hip-hop discussion day in July.

The day was organized as a culmination to Goldman Sacs fellow Martha Diaz’s summer at the Lemelson Center. Martha is the founder of the Hip-Hop Education Center at New York University. The Center cultivates hip-hop scholars, teaching artists, hip-hop advocates, and social entrepreneurs to encourage the incorporation of hip-hop into the way teachers educate students. She is also a scholar-in-residence working on an upcoming hip-hop exhibit at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. Martha came to the Lemelson Center to learn more about museum practices and to share her knowledge of hip-hop with us as we continue research for our upcoming exhibit Places of Invention. When the exhibition opens in 2015, it will include the invention of hip-hop in the Bronx during the 1970′s as one of five case studies that represent various characteristics  of a place of invention.

Conceptual design drawing of what the Bronx section of the exhibition may look like.

Conceptual design drawing of what the Bronx section of the exhibition may look like.

We had intended the meeting as a wrap-up event for Martha’s fellowship. Little did we know that instead it would be the start of some great collaborations. Participants from the hip-hop and cultural/performing arts communities in D.C. and New York  contributed to a robust conversation that covered a variety of topics.

One issue that surfaced is that many pioneering hip-hop artists feel that current histories of hip-hop do not present a full picture—they discussed how important it is to emphasize that hip-hop was created in spite of the environment in the Bronx. Our participants also felt that it will be important to capture hip-hop’s conflicting history while the most prominent figures are still living. This is an issue that the National Museum of American History’s Jazz Oral History Program has struggled with and can serve as a good case study for the hip-hop community.

Grandmixer DXT, Grammy award winning turntabalist and hip-hop historian, address the conference.

Grandmixer DXT, Grammy award winning turntabalist and hip-hop historian, address the conference.

The hip-hop community voiced the desire for institutions to be more inclusive. They observed that institutions tend to cater toward other institutions, but reminded us that it’s important to reach out to community members, even thought this often the more difficult path. This is something that the Lemelson Center is familiar with. In partnering successfully with the skateboarding community on a recent event about inventions and innovations in skateboarding, we learned that while there are often vocabulary barriers and differing working methods that make collaborating more challenging, ultimately if both collaborators are committed to the end product, then success is achievable and inevitably more meaningful.

Perhaps the most surprising comment to come out of the meeting that this was the first time the hip-hop artists participating had been asked to participate in a meeting like this—of D.C.-based groups working on hip-hop projects. The energy and enthusiasm from people was apparent and has translated more quickly than I anticipated into the creation of collaborative projects. We are currently awaiting the results of an application co-written by Martha Diaz and Deborra Richardson, the chair of the Archives Center at the National Museum of American, to fund the creation of a Smithsonian hip-hop group that would coordinate hip-hop related projects at the Institution. It is hoped that part of this may be the founding of a hip-hop oral history program and a book about documenting hip-hop’s history.

Conference attendees included representatives from the Smithsonian, D.C. performing arts groups, and the State Department.

Conference attendees included representatives from the Smithsonian, D.C. performing arts groups, and the State Department.

Another direct outcome of the meeting is the negotiation of long-term collaborations between the Lemelson Center and two pioneering hip-hop artists. These artists would help us tell the story of hip-hop through our exhibition, website, book, and programming.  The artists will be featured at the Smithsonian, and gain exposure to a different type of audience, and inspire new generations. There have also been discussions with all of the people in the D.C. hip-hop community who participated in the meeting about future programming collaborations, allowing the Lemelson Center to tell a fuller story of inventions in hip-hop beyond the walls of the exhibit, and for other organizations to find new inspiration in the museum’s exhibits and collections. These collaboration will give us all the opportunity to interest people who may have had no previous interest in hip-hop.

Without knowing it the meeting was a kick off to fruitful collaborations with other people, organizations, and communities they represent. I can’t wait to see what we come up with next!

Extraordinary Attractions! Be Amazed! Must See!

Hidden Motors Give Life to Prehistoric Monsters. Robot Cow Moos and Gives Milk. Mechanical Monster Eats Girl on Movie Stage. These spectacles and more were created by Messmore & Damon, a New York firm that specialized in window displays and parade floats. Founded in 1916, the dynamic and creative duo of George H. Messmore and Joseph Damon designed and constructed parade floats, dioramas for museums, exhibits for expositions, displays for department stores, scenery, exhibits for corporate clients, and for film, theater, and television. Most of their parade and department store work featured animated mechanical devices.

1.Hidden Motors Give Life to Prehistoric Monsters, Popular Science Monthly, June 1933. (AC0846-0000002.tif)

Hidden Motors Give Life to Prehistoric Monsters, Popular Science Monthly, June 1933. (AC0846-0000002.tif)

Mechanical Monster “Eats” Girl on Movie Stage, Popular Science Monthly, October 1931.

Mechanical Monster “Eats” Girl on Movie Stage, Popular Science Monthly, October 1931. (AC0846-0000003.tif)

Messmore & Damon brought to life huge dinosaurs, tigers, mastodons, dragons, other monsters, and even cows. One of their creations was a life-sized (48 foot long, 9 foot high, 4,000 pound) mechanized reproduction of a dinosaur, Amphibious Dinosaur Brontosaurus (aka “Dolores” or “Dino”). It could laugh, breathe, roll its eyes, shake its head, and move its jaws. It was a must see. Created for the Century of Progress International Exhibition (1933-1934), “The World a Million Years Ago,” Dino was made of layers of chicken wire, canvas, rattan, papier-mâché and paint. A human ran a complicated series of motors, chains, ball bearings, gears, cranks, counterweights, and universal joints that worked in concert to create a spectacular experience. The dinosaur was capable of moving its head in all directions and it had a moveable jaw. George Messmore’s 1933 patent (US Patent 1,898,587) stated “the jaw was intended to hold a dancer so that the dancer may be lifted up by the animal for entertaining purposes.”  Dino hit the entertainment circuit after the Fair entertaining thousands at department stores and other venues. He even inspired an essay contest for youngsters who were asked, “What Would Happen if Dino Lived Today?”

Drawing for US Patent 1,898,587, February 21, 1933.

Drawing for US Patent 1,898,587, February 21, 1933. (AC0846-0000006.tif)

Drawing for US Patent 1,898,587, February 21, 1933.

Drawing for US Patent 1,898,587, February 21, 1933. (AC0846-0000007.tif)

For more information about Messmore & Damon, Inc., Records, visit the Archives Center and Holidays on Display, an online exhibition featuring Messmore & Damon.

5.Postcard, Amphibious Dinosaur Brontosaurus, 1933. (AC0846-0000009.tif)

Postcard, Amphibious Dinosaur Brontosaurus, 1933. (AC0846-0000009.tif)

Can We Control Surveillance Tech?

On October 25, the Lemelson Center will hold its annual New Perspectives on Invention and Innovation symposium and this year’s theme is ripped from the headlines: inventing the surveillance society. We knew we had a hot potato in this topic when we began planning early in 2013, but we had no idea it would soon explode when Edward Snowden leaked information about the National Security Agency’s (NSA) spying at home and abroad. To say that this has raised the stakes for us at the Lemelson Center would be a huge understatement. While there are myriad aspects to the ongoing controversy, our symposium will focus on the technology of surveillance and the related issues of social and ethical responsibility.

surveillance-header

If history has taught us anything, it is that technology and invention can often escape our control, however good our intentions. If we wait to address social problems downstream after they arise, it is usually too late. It then becomes mostly a futile game of catch-up. The ideal approach is to try to anticipate such problems from the start of major projects, building in front-end attention to the social and ethical impacts of emergent technologies. I say “ideal,” because there are major obstacles to doing so. Mostly it’s a matter of money, but second-guessing an emerging technology in this way may also be criticized and dismissed as a brake on innovation.

Occasionally, though, such foresight is evident. Consider the government’s Human Genome Project, in which the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Department of Energy (DOE) were major players (the latter because of concern over health issues related to radiation from atomic testing and chemical exposure). Both the DOE and the NIH genome programs set aside fully 3-5% of their annual budgets for risk assessment and for the investigation of Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications (ELSI). While such efforts may not have fully anticipated, much less solved, future problems, at least they were a move in the right direction.

Human Genome Project logo

Human Genome Project logo (color) Credit: the U.S. Department of Energy Genome Programs (http://genomics.energy.gov)

That privacy issues were deeply implicated with the genome project was recognized early on. There was a real danger that personal genetic information could get into the wrong hands or be used inappropriately, with truly scary consequences for individuals, including denial of employment and health insurance. One might reasonably ask why the same care has not been taken with information and communications technologies that have allowed the NSA to do what it does. Why were we taken by surprise by both government and commercial abuse of digital innovations? Perhaps it’s because they emerged over a relatively long period of time and from a disparate set of players, whereas the Human Genome Project(s) had much more the flavor of a crash program like the Manhattan Project, with its reliable funding, central management, and tightly controlled access.

Yet, as with the genome project, government- and particularly military-sponsored R&D played a critical role in the launching of today’s breakthrough digital technologies, and they still do. The Internet owed its birth to the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Project Agency, which developed ARPANET. With national security as the over-arching motivation and justification, keeping the new technologies in control and out of the wrong hands had to be a major concern. Because of the veil of secrecy, I can’t say if there was actually an attempt to establish regulations with respect to the privacy issues that bedevil us today. Perhaps there was, but clearly the events of September 11 have fundamentally changed the rules of the game.

A major factor in the whole problem of management and control was the privatizing of government R&D, resulting in hybrid organizations combining private and government sectors (see Kevin R. Kosar, “The QuasiGovernment: Hybrid Organizations with Both Government and Private Legal Characteristics,” Congressional Research Service, June 22, 2011.). The pattern was established after the Second World War with the creation of Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDCs)—so-called GO-CO (government owned, contractor operated) organizations. The first of these was the Air Force’s RAND Corporation, established in 1947 in Santa Monica, California. Government atomic weapons labs like Oak Ridge and Los Alamos national laboratories soon followed suit. Such quasi-government arrangements allowed for much more flexibility in terms of spending, procurement, hiring, personnel adjustments, and more rapid technology transfer from basic research to application.

Entrance to Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

The entrance to Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Part of the Department of Energy, the Lab is run by a contractor.

There were clear advantages to this model, but it has come under increasing scrutiny and criticism over the last decade because of the potential for corruption, lack of accountability and oversight, and loss of government control of research. In particular, the FFRDCs greatly complicated the problem of regulation. More than a decade ago, public policy expert Ann Markusen argued persuasively against privatizing national security. She pointed out that government out-sourcing requires strong management, but “such capacity is undercut by the unpopularity of regulation and unwillingness to spend on it” (“The Case Against Privatizing National Security,” June 2001).

As I write, the question of governmental oversight of the National Security Agency’s data-mining, monitoring, and outright spying is being hotly debated. Perhaps NSA was and is indeed working within its own regime of regulation and accountability. But the cosy relationship today between government agencies like NSA and the companies they outsource to makes it far too easy for classified government innovation and information to flow into the commercial sector, where there is little if any incentive for regulation. The Snowden case was a prime example.

PRISM Logo

PRISM logo via WikiCommons.

Today, I often hear it argued that no one should have been surprised by the revelations of government spying. After all, social media users, not to mention on-line shoppers, have willingly, with little if any apparent concern for the consequences, already ceded much of their personal privacy to corporations. As my colleague Jeff Brodie noted (with tongue firmly in cheek), “we want our cake, we want the icing, and we want to eat it without gaining weight.” (A penetrating satire on this incredibly self-destructive social behavior is David Egger’s recent novel on the ultimate perils of Big Data, The Circle.)

Invention and innovation, however, can also be powerful forces for democracy and the public good. Recent history has shown that cell phones and social media have made it far more difficult for dictators to control information. Such technology has clearly been crucial to the Arab Spring, for example. But it is also a double-edged sword that can be used by ill-intentioned regimes to undermine democracy in unprecedented ways. With mounting concerns for national security, surveillance technologies are not going away. But is it too late to bring them back under at least some semblance of democratic control?

Keep It Secret. Keep US Safe.

During our Inventing the Surveillance Society symposium on Oct. 25, we will be featuring World War II posters from the Archives Center in an “objects out of storage” program in the Museum’s 1East corridor.

Posters were one of the largest mediums for advertising during World War II.  Advertisers invented new art styles, designs, and propaganda campaigns. One campaign related to promoting privacy.

During the U.S.’s involvement in WWII (1941-1945) posters were a medium produced largely for people on the home front. They provided guidance on ways that people could feel that they were helping the war effort—one of which was maintaining secrecy.

Espionage and sabotage were serious concerns for U.S. citizens during the war. The American film industry contributed to the paranoia by producing numerous films about spies. Also, government censorship meant that credible information was hard to find, and therefore people relied more heavily on rumors as information regardless of their truth.

WWII poster advocating for secrecy

From the Princeton University Poster Collection, NMAH Archives Center, AC0433-0000037.

These factors encouraged the production of government posters stressing the importance of national security and deterring information leaks and sabotage. They made people feel that secrecy and protecting their privacy was a patriotic duty. One series of posters was the “careless talk” campaign. “The beauty of the ‘careless talk’ campaign was that people could feel involved in the war, playing a part and combating the enemy, merely by doing nothing and keeping their mouths shut,” historian O.W. Riegel concluded.

Caricatures and stereotypes were typically used in posters at this time. Often the leader of the country symbolized the country itself—i.e. Hitler came to symbolize Nazi Germany. These caricatures sometimes took a monstrous form.

An unforeseen consequence of these types of posters was that they increased paranoia about spies by making it seem like there was a spy around every corner. It also made people wary of being suspected of espionage.

WWII Poster advocating for secrecy

From the Princeton University Poster Collection, NMAH Archives Center, AC0433-0000046.

In thinking about how this advertising might relate to our contemporary society I have observed that current advertising and propaganda about U.S. citizens being spied on comes from the private sector, rather than the government. But I think that you can ask the same question of WWII posters that you can of contemporary advertising: Is encouraging people’s fear of spying in order to convince them to increase their privacy a good strategy? Do the ends justify the means? Join us for our symposium, Inventing the Suveillance Society, to explore these kinds of questions.

Inventing for Man’s Best Friend

My dog Crazy Legs with an assortment of his (destructible) toys

My dog Crazy Legs with an assortment of his (destructible) toys

As anyone with a dog knows, finding an indestructible toy for your pooch can be nearly impossible. After coming home from work last week to find that my dog, Crazy Legs, had destroyed three of his toys in one day, however, I decided it was time to renew my quest for the perfect toy. An online search for “indestructible dog toys” yielded more than 150,000 results. I found toys of every material, shape, size, and flavor (yes, flavor) imaginable. But none of them really looked indestructible, and reviews of many of the products confirmed my suspicions. After a little more digging, however, I came across inventor Amy Rockwood who has created a toy she describes as “nearly indestructible” with the patent-pending “Chew Toy Safety Indicator.” Rockwood’s line of toys is made of rubber: green (for “go”) on the outside and red (“stop”) on the inside. As the patent application describes, “If the green layer is compromised to where the red can be seen from the outside of the chew toy…the toy design is no longer safe for the pet to use.” Once the dog chews through to the red, the toy becomes vulnerable and can be chewed into smaller pieces, which a dog can easily swallow. While Rockwood intends for the toys to be indestructible, she has designed them with a safety net of sorts that alerts the dog owner that the toy is no longer safe, thus reducing the risk of choking or digestive complications.

Patent drawing for the “Chew Toy Safety Indicator”

Patent drawing for the “Chew Toy Safety Indicator”

According to the American Pet Products Association, Rockwood’s invention is just one of a growing market of pet products. The APPA estimates that Americans will spend more than $55 billion on their pets this year alone. Pet owners are spending more on everything from toys, beds, and specialty foods, to clothing, seat belts, and designer accessories (think collars and pet carriers from Barney’s and Burberry). Increasingly, Americans view their pets as family members and are willing to purchase supplies and accessories for their pets like those they would buy for themselves.

One inventor trying to capture a piece of this growing—and ever-more-sophisticated market—is 15-year-old Brooke Martin of Spokane, WA. Brooke has invented a contraption that uses an Internet-enabled device, such as a smart phone or tablet, to allow dog owners to talk to their pets via video, and even remotely deliver dog treats!

A dog videochatting with its owner.

You can video chat with your dog using Brooke Martin’s invention (image courtesy of GeekWire)

So-called “smart collars” are also taking the pet market by storm. Dog owners can outfit their canine friends with collars that track location and activity level. (Cat owners, don’t despair; feline models are said to be coming soon!) Data from the collars are then synced to the owner’s smart phone, allowing them to assess the health and fitness of their dog and even share the information with their veterinarians. By tracking the exercise and rest patterns of our pets, we can learn more about how they spend their days (particularly when we’re not around), and ideally, spot behavioral changes quickly. Developers of these new collars believe that with the help of technology, we can help our pets can live longer, healthier lives.

A smart phone app showing data collected by smart collars.

Smart collars allow pet owners to track their dogs’ activity levels (image courtesy of gizmag.com)

Roy Eng, Michael McGuire, and Mark Robinson are another team of inventors working to extend the length and quality of our pets’ lives. Their “Adjustable Wheelchair for Pets” helps animals who have lost use of their rear legs as a result of injury or paralysis. While wheelchairs for pets are not new, they have traditionally been custom-built for each pet, which has meant long wait times and expensive price tags. The adjustable model, however, allows pet owners to purchase the assistive devices off-the-shelf and easily adjust them for their own pets. Once equipped with the chair, pets can resume their regular activities and lead relatively normal lives.

Patent drawing for the “Adjustable Wheelchair for Pets”

Patent drawing for the “Adjustable Wheelchair for Pets”

A 2013 report on pet health in the United States shows that cats are living 10% and dogs 4% longer than they did just a little over a decade ago. The study cites a variety of reasons, including better preventive care and higher spay and neuter rates. While it does not examine the influence that new technologies and tools are having on the life expectancy rates of our pets, I like to think that inventors—and their inventions—are contributing to the extended health and well-being of our animal companions.

(Though it’s true that Americans spend more on their pets now than ever before, creating specialty pet products is not a new idea:  In the 1980s, Ruth Foster invented the Gentle Leader® dog collar, and in the 1950s, Charlotte Cramer Sachs developed her own line of dog accessories including the Watch Dog, a dog collar with a built-in watch. Now those are some smart collars!)

Inventor Ruth Foster and a dog wearing the Gentle Leader® collar (image courtesy of Center to Study Human-Animal Relationships and Environments, University of Minnesota)

Inventor Ruth Foster and a dog wearing the Gentle Leader® collar (image courtesy of Center to Study Human-Animal Relationships and Environments, University of Minnesota)

An ad for Charlotte Cramer Sachs’ dog products, including the Watch Dog

Pet Accessories advertising sheet for “Watch-Dog,” “Lead-o-Matic,” and “Guidog,” 1953. (AC0878-0000007)

Inventing the Surveillance Society

We are being watched. Anytime we enter a building, place a phone call, swipe a credit card, or visit a website, our actions are observed, recorded, and analyzed by commercial and government entities. Surveillance technologies are omnipresent—a fact underscored by the Boston Marathon bombing dragnet and Edward Snowden’s revelations of widespread domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency earlier this year. It’s clear that we live in a “surveillance society” driven by a range of innovations, from closed-circuit TV cameras to sophisticated data mining algorithms. But how did our surveillance society emerge, and what is the effect of ubiquitous surveillance on our everyday lives?

surveillance-header

To tackle these questions, the Lemelson Center is presenting Inventing the Surveillance Society, a symposium that explores the role of invention and technology in a modern world where our actions (and transactions) are constantly being monitored. The symposium will bring together scholars, inventors, policymakers, members of the media, and the public to discuss the historical evolution of surveillance technologies, and their contemporary societal implications. The symposium will be held on Friday, October 25 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.  All events are free and open to the public and will be available via live webcast.

As I’ve told friends and colleagues about our upcoming symposium, I’ve encountered some mild surprise that a history museum would be convening this kind of conversation. Let me provide a few reasons why the Lemelson Center and the National Museum of American History are the right place for this discussion and describe how our approach will be different than what you typically see on the 24-hour news cycle.

The President said we should do it. As a Smithsonian (i.e. federal) employee, I listened closely when my boss, President Obama, made remarks on the heels of Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s domestic surveillance programs. In his June 7 news conference, the President suggested that the American public will need to “discuss and debate” the “balance between the need to keep the American people safe and our concerns about privacy.” With our symposium, we are providing a free, public forum for exactly this kind of discussion here at the Smithsonian.

Widespread public access. Think tanks and university department host these kinds of programs all the time, but they tend to operate at a somewhat rarified level; unless you’re a scholar or policymaker, it can be tough to get on the invitation list. Here at the museum, admission is free and we welcome all comers. And if you’re not in D.C., then you can tune in via a live webcast. By hosting a very public event, we believe we’re fulfilling our Smithsonian mission—“the increase and diffusion of knowledge”—in a way that will be accessible to the broadest number of people. We hope you’ll participate in the discussion.

Current events in historical perspective. Over the last several months, questions about surveillance have been debated daily in newspapers and on current affairs news programs. They rightly focus on breaking news—that’s their job. However, the emergence of the surveillance society did not occur overnight. As a museum, we can present the long view on surveillance and hopefully uncover some insights that will illuminate our current era.

Trade catalog for "The Detectifone", 1917

As demonstrated by our museum collections, surveillance technology has a long history. Trade catalog, Carl Anderson Electric Corporation, 1917, Smithsonian Institution Libraries

Surveillance is not new. Since ancient times, kings and pharaohs have dispatched spies to gather intelligence on things happening both inside and outside the kingdom. And over the last 150 years or so, those direct, human observations have been augmented by a range of new inventions that have improved the watchers’ ability to capture, store, and analyze their observations. Yet, a symposium dedicated only to the history of surveillance wouldn’t be very relevant, so we plan to explore both the historical emergence of the surveillance society and its contemporary implications. Today’s news is tomorrow’s history, so it’s crucial that the museum convene conversations like this to explore and document current topics like surveillance that will be historically significant in 50, 100, or even 200 years.

Focus on invention and technology.  In the news, the conversation about surveillance tends to be framed in terms of legal and ethical issues: how do we balance national security and personal liberty?  However, few pundits stop to consider the technological basis of the surveillance society. As with past symposia that have explored topics likes spaceflight, food, and sustainable architecture, the Lemelson Center’s 2013 program will specifically examine the surveillance society through the lens of invention and technology.

CCTV Trade Catalog, 1989,

Trade catalog, Crest Electronics, Inc., 1989, Smithsonian Institution Libraries

At its heart, modern surveillance is fundamentally driven by technology. For example, the invention of the daguerreotype and the phonograph in the 19th century created new kinds of recorded evidence that were more trustworthy than faulty memories or hearsay.  Similarly, 20th century office technologies like the dossier, the carbon form in triplicate, and the filing cabinet were mundane (but crucial) innovations that enabled government and commercial bureaucracies to gather, store, and retrieve information about us. Today, autonomous cameras record your entrance into a building—or through a red-light intersection. Massive data warehouses store terabytes of information about our credit card transactions and website clickstreams, so that sophisticated data mining algorithms at Amazon and Netflix can suggest the kinds of books and movies it believes we would enjoy. Clearly, the advance of technology has expanded the scope and strategic value of surveillance. Accordingly, the symposium’s emphasis on invention should provide new insights that go beyond the familiar privacy-security debate.

So that’s the advance scoop on Inventing the Surveillance Society, our annual Lemelson Center symposium, coming to the National Museum of American History on Friday, October 25. Check out the program here—we hope you’ll attend or check out the live webcast! In the coming weeks, I’ll say more about our featured speakers and what they’ll be discussing—stay tuned!