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?


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!

What We’re Reading

A round-up of articles we found interesting, funny, disturbing, or otherwise distracting this week….

Titanium Bullets, Rocket Sleds, and C-4: How the U.S. Tested the Safety of Nuclear Batteries on Wired. The title is pretty self-explanatory. Check out the awesome pictures and technical drawings to find out how the Department of Energy went about “smash[ing] them, blow[ing] them up, shoot[ing] them and break[ing] them.”

Hopkins researchers on Snowden, NSA leak on WAMR-ABC2. This was an interesting take on the privacy v. security debate—that the government is setting standards that open secure systems to backdoor hacking. And especially interesting given our upcoming symposium, Inventing the Surveillance Society (October 25).

CDC Threat Report: “We Will Soon Be in a Post-Antibiotic Era” also on Wired. This article couldn’t help but get us thinking about the innovations that will be needed if and when antibiotics no longer meet our healthcare needs.

Why Today’s Inventors Need to Read More Science Fiction on The Atlantic. A new class at MIT “mines these “fantastic imaginings of the future” for analysis of our very real present.” Building prototypes based on science fiction? Sign us up!

What were your “must-read” technology/innovation articles this week?


Twin Towers of Living Light

Tonight, at sundown, two square shafts of blue light will ascend into the heavens from the ground of New York City, symbolizing the former towers of the World Trade Center.  These shafts of light shine in tribute to the men, women, and children killed during the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001.

Tribute in Light.

Tribute in Light. Photo by Flickr user beanhead4529.

“Tribute in Lights” is the product of artists Julian La Verdiere and Paul Myoda. It consists of 88 7,000-watt xenon spotlights in the shape of two squares that shine four miles into the sky—the strongest shaft of light ever projected vertically into the sky. Xenon lights are the same type used in such common devices as strobe lights, camera flash bulbs, and IMAX and digital film projectors. The lights can be seen from over 60 miles away.

It takes a lot of energy to power the generators used for the lights. In an effort to be more environmentally conscious, the generators are fueled with biodiesel fuel made from cooking oil that is collected from local restaurants. Contrary to what you may think, the ideal atmospheric conditions for the lights are a misty fog—the light needs to reflect off of particles and moisture in the air. They are truly an achievement of contemporary lighting techniques.

The technology behind this tribute is a feat, but the artists behind them originally had an even more cutting-edge project planned for the World Trade Center. La Verdiere and Myoda were exploring the possibilities of using bioluminescence to create beams of light. Their studio was located within World Trade Center 1 (the north tower), on the 91st floor. In 1999 they began to explore the possibility of creating a bioluminescent beacon of light that would be emitted from the radio tower of the north tower.

The light they planned to use is based on innovative research into bioluminescence—the natural light emitted by some living organisms (“living light”). The artists’ goal was to develop a way to amplify and control the bioluminescence of some of these organisms in order to use them to beam light. One organism in particular—sea plankton (dinoflegellates), which emits a blue light when it is agitated in the water—seemed promising.

An example of bioluminescence.

Bioluminescing Dinoflagellate. A biological clock triggers bioluminescence in the dinoflagellate Pyrocystis fusiformis. At dusk, cells produce the chemicals responsible for its light. Photo by E. Widder, ORCA,, via the National Museum of Natural History.

This research took place in the invertebrates department of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Over the next six months, the artists selectively bred different planktons in order to create the brightest and largest bioluminescent plankton possible. They also learned how to control when the plankton rested and when they emitted light. They planned to use the amplified light of a single bioluminescent celled organism as a “bioluminescent beacon” that would shine like a spotlight from the world trade tower.  The “bioluminescent beacon” was slated to be unveiled in spring 2002.

With preliminary work completed, La Verdiere and Myoda moved out of their World Trade Center 1 studio several weeks before September 11. A desire to mark the six month anniversary of the terrorist attach resulted in their work being put to a modified use. While the xenon spotlights used in “Tribute in Lights” replaced the bioluminescent concept, there are undeniably similarities in the projects.

Using bioluminescent light for human lighting solutions is something still being explored by many. A team of scientists from Syracuse University are attempting to create lighting using the bioluminescence of fireflies. The team believes that their bioluminescent lighting system could be 20 to 30 times more energy efficient than any previous systems. Also, bioluminescent bacteria are also being used by Philips Designs to produce lighting that will both consume waste and emit light. Research projects on human uses for bioluminescence are at the cutting-edge of energy efficient lighting experimentation. As research in this field advances, perhaps La Verdiere and Myoda’s work will truly come full circle and, in the future, living organisms may fuel the light emitted from the National September 11 Memorial. Intended to symbolize lost life, I can’t image a more fitting place for two towers of “living light.”

For more information on how the “Biolulminescent Beacon” please go to “The Genesis of the TRIBUTE IN LIGHT” by Julian LaVerdiere and Paul Myoda.

Historic Silicon Valley Bar and Restaurant Review

The Power Lunch. The billion dollar invention scribbled on the back of a napkin. “Accidentally” (on purpose…) running into a potential angel investor at his or her favorite watering hole. These are all familiar aspects of the high-tech business culture in Silicon Valley, where some of the most important conversations occur outside the office.

The “official” Silicon Valley Napkin.

The “official” Silicon Valley Napkin. Courtesy of the Computer History Museum.

But this phenomenon is not confined to trendy eateries in downtown Palo Alto. In fact, the use of pubs, restaurants, and social gathering spaces for business purposes is a distinctive marker of innovative hot spots—in different regions, for all kinds of technologies, and at many different times in our history. For example, Dr. Walter Lillihei, Earl Bakken, and the founders of Medtronic talked shop at the local Lutheran church and the University of Minnesota Campus Club, transforming the Twin Cities into “Medical Alley.” And in 1930s Hollywood, producers, directors, and technicians discussed the artistic merits of new innovations like Technicolor at studio commissaries and the legendary Brown Derby restaurant.

In short, social gathering places—and the exchange of ideas they facilitate—are a key ingredient in fostering a culture of innovation. This is a key finding of Places of invention, an exhibition scheduled to open in 2015 at the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. The Lemelson Center’s historical research draws on the theories of sociologist Ray Oldenburg, author of The Great Good Place. In that book, Oldenburg describes the societal importance of what he calls the “Third Place”—a community gathering place that’s not home and not the workplace. These Third Places—like barber shops, diners, bookstores, and coffee shops—are welcoming places where regulars gather to engage in conversation and trade ideas.  And this easy exchange of ideas, in turn, is a big part of what drives innovation.

But how exactly does this work? Let’s return to the Silicon Valley of the 1960s and ‘70s, when pioneering microelectronics firms like Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel began transforming the region into a high-tech hot spot. In a 1983 Esquire article on Intel founder Robert Noyce, Tom Wolfe wrote that “every year there was some place, the Wagon Wheel, Chez Yvonne, Rickey’s, the Roundhouse, where members of this esoteric fraternity, the young men and women of the semiconductor industry, would head after work to have a drink and gossip and brag and trade war stories about phase jitters, phantom circuits, bubble memories” and other mysteries of the trade. The same concept held true for the sales and marketing guys, who had their own hangouts.

But weren’t they afraid of sharing proprietary information with a competitor? Yes and no. Then and now, Silicon Valley had notoriously high job mobility, so it was common to run into a colleague from a prior job and talk shop at a local tavern. Since techies changed jobs all the time, they were often more loyal to friends and former colleagues than whichever firm they happened to be working for at the moment. Thus, useful information flowed back and forth liberally, even among competitors. Plus, in order to GET good information, you had to GIVE good information, so a certain amount of divulging was necessary. Naturally, alcohol tended to lubricate this process. Moore’s Law suggested that processor power doubled every 18 months, so there was no sense in keeping a secret for too long anyway, given Silicon Valley’s short product cycles. So even though local firms competed intensely, the region’s high-tech workers easily traded information over beers to make deals and keep up with the rapid pace of technological change.

With these ideas in mind, here are a few Silicon Valley restaurants and watering holes—past and present—that have served as high-tech hubs:

Walker’s Wagon Wheel (Mountain View)

Walker’s Wagon Wheel tavern.

Walker’s Wagon Wheel tavern. Courtesy of Carolyn Caddes and Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

This western-themed bar at the corner of Whisman Avenue and Middlefield Road in Mountain View was a stone’s throw from the Fairchild campus and the place to go in the 1960s. In her book Regional Advantage, UC Berkley geographer AnnaLee Saxenian quoted Jeffery Kalb, a veteran of National Semiconductor, DEC, MasPar, and other high-tech firms:  “In the early days of the semiconductor industry there were certain places that everybody frequented and the standing joke was that if you couldn’t figure out your process problems, go down to the Wagon Wheel and ask somebody.” When the tavern was demolished in 2003, the Computer History Museum in Mountain View picked up one of the tavern’s trademark Conestoga wagon wheels and a section of the bar for its permanent collections.

The Peppermill Restaurant and Lounge (Santa Clara)

nterior picture of the vacant Peppermill in Santa Clara, now the Axis Nightclub.

Interior picture of the vacant Peppermill in Santa Clara, now the Axis Nightclub. Courtesy of Flickr member JAB88.

The Peppermill, located just off US 101 at Bowers Drive, was one of a chain restaurants and lounges owned by a Nevada-based casino. Naturally, it was a little flashy, with velvet and faux-leather booths, lots of mirrors, and a small waterfall in the lobby. In their book Silicon Valley Fever, Everett Rogers and Judith Larsen quoted an anonymous Intel informant: “I can go to the Peppermill at eight in the morning and always meet somebody I know. All of my customers and all of my competitors—and that’s about five hundred people—eat breakfast there regularly…The Peppermill is just a giant meeting place.” A few years ago, the Peppermill was converted to the Axis Nightclub.

The Oasis Beer Garden (Menlo Park)

The Oasis Beer Garden

The Oasis Beer Garden. Courtesy of Flickr member, Xavier de Jauréguiberry.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, hackers from the Homebrew Computer Club would adjourn their meetings in the auditorium at Stanford’s Linear Accelerator and head over to this beer and burgers joint. It was established in 1958, and still sits just north of the Stanford campus at 241 El Camino Real in Menlo Park; according to its website, it serves “families, teams, professors, business tycoons, and students” alike. The Oasis features wooden tables and booths carved by decades of undergrads and techies alike, as well as signs instructing patrons to throw their peanut shells on the floor.

Lion and Compass (Sunnyvale)

The Lion and Compass.

The Lion & Compass. Photo via the San Francisco Chronicle.

After selling Atari for $28 million, company founder Nolan Bushnell opened this upscale bar-restaurant in 1982 at 1023 Fair Oaks Avenue in Sunnyvale. It combines an oak-paneled English-style pub (adorned by a NYSE stock ticker) with a chic sky-lit Terrace Room serving eclectic California cuisine. According to Robert Reinhold’s 1984 write-up in the New York Times, the “Lion and Compass has become the premier deal-making center and gathering spot for the barons of computer technology who lord over the tiny patch of California dubbed Silicon Valley…[Y]oung engineers with bright ideas dine with venture capitalists with money and leave smiling; loans and sales worth millions of dollars are transacted over Saumon Blanc en Croute.” Reinhold concluded that “the Lion and Compass is to the computer world what Sardi’s is to New York’s theater district.”

Buck’s Restaurant (Woodside)

Owner Jamis MacNiven, outside Buck’s Restaurant.

Owner Jamis MacNiven, outside Buck’s Restaurant. Courtesy of John McChesney/NPR.

Buck’s opened in 1991 and is located at 3062 Woodside Rd just west of Interstate 280. The quirky diner is popular with venture capitalists, as it sits halfway between their hillside mansions and offices on Sand Hill Road. Speaking to NPR in 2010, owner Jamis MacNiven recalled a litany of deals made under his roof: “Hotmail was founded here…Netscape had their early meetings in the back room; Tesla was founded here; PayPal got funded here.” Buck’s casual atmosphere would seem to make it an unlikely place to do business. MacNiven himself eschews a suit and tie in favor of loud printed shirts, and the walls and ceiling are adorned with kitschy “flair” that includes a Soviet space suit, several stuffed fish, and a Statue of Liberty with an ice cream sundae for a torch. However, Buck’s has become something of a bellwether for the high-tech economy—a full parking lot is a sign of good times.

Obviously, these are just a handful of the places where Silicon Valley’s tech gurus get things done.  Share your own story—where are your favorite pubs, restaurants, and high-tech hangouts?


Gulker, Linda Hubbard.  “A long time Oasis on game day.”  In Menlo blog post, October 3, 2009, accessed June 18, 2013,

Lion and Compass Restaurant.  “About Lion and Compass.”  Accessed June 18, 2013.

Markoff, John.  “A Burger with a Side of YouTube Please.” New York Times, October 15, 2006, p. H2.

McChesney, John.  “Checking a tech bellwether: Buck’s restaurant.”  WBUR/NPR blog post, August 2, 2010, accessed June 18, 2013,

The Oasis Beer Garden.  “About Us.”  Accessed June 18, 2013.

Oldenburg, Ray.  The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community, 3rd ed.  New York: Marlowe & Company, 1999.

Reinhold, Robert.  “Restaurant has Recipe for Multimillion Dollar Computer Deals.” New York Times, January 7, 1984, p. 7.

“Remembering Walker’s Wagon Wheel.”  SFGate blog post, May 21, 2007, accessed June 18, 2013,

Rogers, Everett M. and Judith K. Larsen.  Silicon Valley Fever: Growth of High-Technology Culture.  New York: Basic Books, 1984.

Saxenian, AnnaLee.  Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Wolfe, Tom.  “The Tinkering of Robert Noyce: How the Sun Rose on Silicon Valley.” Esquire, December 1983, pp. 346-374.

Yi, Matthew.  “The Lion in Winter: Even after the Dot-Com Bust, Restaurant Draws Silicon Valley Powers.” SFGate blog post, January 24, 2003, accessed June 18, 2013,

Tailgating: Grilling, Drinking, and Inventing

With summer winding down, most people are looking forward to cooler fall temperatures. However, a new season of football is just heating up and you know what that brings: tailgating.


Photo via

Tailgating is a time-honored tradition of gathering together and celebrating one’s team before, during, and—if everyone’s still standing—after a football game. Literally, the term “tailgate” refers to the back part of a truck or heavy duty vehicle. Tailgating, or a tailgate party, is therefore what happens when people socialize around the open tailgate.

Now, as anyone who has been to a sporting event knows, tailgating is where it’s at. Meeting up with friends to reminisce over last year’s wins (or losses), trash talking the other team, and imbibing a few tasty beverages are all part of the festivities.

So what tailgating inventions are out there?

Let’s start with the main event of tailgating—eating and drinking. The Tailgate PartyMate was invented by a fan who was tired of having to haul tables to prepare food, in addition to being frustrated that he never had enough room for everything. So, he invented a table system that hooks onto the trailer hitch of a truck. No more having to haul cumbersome tables or deal with too little space!

a table system hooked onto the trailer hitch of a truck

Photo via

Now, the second most fun thing about a tailgate party is all the great games to play—washertoss, horseshoes, wiffle ball, and more. But what happens if you want to enjoy the refreshments and play a game at the same time? That’s where the Scorzie comes in. This handy invention keeps your drink cool and keeps your game score tallied, all in one convenient place.

A drink koozie that keeps score for you.

Photo via

And then there’s what Popular Science Magazine calls “the sports fan’s dream”: a totally tricked-out grill. Lance Greathouse, a dental-laser repairman, invented a grill that’s a “fire-spewing, beer-chilling machine that can drive from one parking-lot party to the next.” Apparently, he had seen tailgating setups that included separate components, but never combined them all together. So, from out of his head popped his tailgating monster, which has a grill and refrigerator on opposite ends, with a satellite stereo, MP3 player, speakers, and a live TV feed of what’s cooking in between. Add on a steel cylinder that shoots fireballs into the air for fun, and I’d say you’ve got your Sunday afternoon all set.

A grill that also has a refrigerator, sound system, and fire-ball shooting abilities.

Photo via

I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for this year’s gridiron extravaganza. Bring on the grilled meat and the fireballs. Bring on the games and keeping score and keeping drinks cool. Bring on hooking stuff up to the back of the truck and making even more space for mom’s seven-layer dip. Looks like I’ve got plenty of inventions to help me enjoy my football games.

Who Invented Labor Day?

1956 Labor Day Stamp

1956 U.S. Postal Service 3 cent stamp honoring Labor Day – in the National Postal Museum’s collections.

Labor Day—the American holiday on the first Monday of September—generally marks the end of summer, the beginning of the school year, and—in certain circles—an arbitrary cut-off point for wearing white. It’s frequently celebrated by taking a long-weekend trip, firing up the backyard grill at home, or going to see a Labor Day parade. Of course, this is assuming you’re lucky enough to actually get the Monday off from work.  As I contemplated my holiday weekend activities, I began to wonder: Who invented Labor Day?

Matthew Maguire and Peter J. McGuire

Matthew Maguire and Peter J. McGuire (undated) – from Department of Labor

I shouldn’t have been surprised to find several informative articles about the history of Labor Day featured on the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) website. Apparently, as so often happens with invention, there are disputes about who came up with the idea first. DOL acknowledges that two men with coincidentally similar names, Peter J. McGuire and Matthew Maguire, have received credit for suggesting a holiday to honor American workers.

Both men were well-respected union leaders working in the New York-New Jersey region during the 1880s—a very active period in the U.S. labor rights movement. Peter McGuire founded the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and co-founded, with Samuel Gompers, the American Federation of Labor (better known simply as the AFL). Matthew Maguire served as a secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in Paterson, New Jersey, and also as the secretary of the Central Labor Union of New York.  Although the tide seems to be turning toward giving Maguire the primary credit, both men were clearly influential in speaking up on behalf of their fellow workers.

American Federation of Labor label

American Federation of Labor label (circa 1900) – from Wikipedia

The Central Labor Union of New York held the first Labor Day celebrations on September 5 in 1882 (see lithograph) and 1883. The following year the union shifted the holiday to the first Monday of the month. This tradition generally spread as state governments began to officially put the holiday on their calendars. Finally in 1894, the federal government made Labor Day a national holiday for all 50 states and the District of Columbia. According to the DOL, which is celebrating its centennial this year, the holiday is “dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”

1882 New York City Labor Day Parade

Lithograph of 1882 Labor Day parade in New York City – from Wikimedia Commons

1900 Labor Day Parade in Buffalo

1900 Labor Day parade in Buffalo, New York – courtesy of the Library of Congress

For more about the holiday and related labor history, check out the American Enterprise exhibition blog post by historian Paul Buhle on the National Museum of American History’s website. You can also read a Smithsonian story about Labor Day’s secret societies connection. If you’re a social studies teacher, you might be interested also in the Library of Congress labor-themed educational resources.

Happy Labor Day!

President Woodrow Wilson (Left) with American Federation of Labor founder and long-time president, Samuel Gompers (Center), and DOL Secretary William B Wilson at an undated Labor Day Rally

President Woodrow Wilson (Left) with American Federation of Labor founder and long-time president, Samuel Gompers (Center), and DOL Secretary William B Wilson at an undated Labor Day Rally. – From the Department of Labor website

Joining the Boys Club: Cindy Whitehead and Skateboarding

Editor’s note: This post is by Natalie Scavuzzo, an intern in the National Museum of American History’s Office of Public Affairs. Natalie is a junior at the College of William and Mary majoring in Film and Media Studies.

One of the highlights of my time interning at the National Museum of American History was the opportunity to help work on the Lemelson Center’s Innoskate event, where I met Cindy Whitehead. Cindy hails from southern California and has been active in the male-dominated pro vert skateboarding circuit since the 1970s. Cindy is one of the only women ever to be featured riding vert in the centerfold of a skateboarding magazine and, following her skateboarding career, has been working professionally as a self-proclaimed “Sports Stylist.”

Cindy Whitehead skating vert in the 1970s.

Photo courtesy of Cindy Whitehead.

Cindy Whitehead speaks at Innoskate.

Cindy speaks at Innoskate about skate fashion. Smithsonian photo by Tyrone Clemons.

After meeting Cindy in person at Innoskate 2013, I asked her about her unique skateboarding and career experience.

How did you get into skating?
I grew up in a beach community in southern California. A lot of people surfed and, eventually, skateboarding became popular. I’d go to the beach with friends to hang out and cruise and do tricks. My favorite parts of skateboarding were being with my friends, being outside, and enjoying that freedom. Just being able to push off and seeing where you end up.

Did you ever feel like the skating scene you joined in on was a “boys club”?
Well, we were always jumping in and joining the boys club whether or not we were invited or not! The boys were always welcoming and couldn’t have been nicer or more excited for us to participate. More girls should join up!

There are people out there in the world that sometimes do not believe that girls belong in certain things, like sports or upper level management. That is just a very, very antiquated way of thinking.

Are there any organizations pushing for girls to get out there and skate?
Yes. There’s plenty—my own Girl is Not a 4 Letter Word, Skateistan, Long Boarding for Peace, there’s so many out there. More girls skate abroad than skate here. Skateboarding gives skaters a lot of freedom and girls are finding out what boys have known all along. Skateboarding gives them somewhere to go, to hang out, to do a sport, and go outside.

Do you have any words of wisdom for girls looking to start skating?
Some people don’t think you belong, but the majority of people think you do. Believe. Go out there and do what you want do and push ahead. It’s fine, there will always be a few naysayers in anything you decide to do.

What does it mean to be included in the Smithsonian?
We’re all still talking about it, still amazed that we’ve been embraced—it’s an honor. To be honored here alongside the guys, it’s an amazing thing.

Skateboarding clothes donated to the national sports collection.

Objects donated from Cindy to the national sports collection. Photo from Cindy’s Instagram (@SportsStylist).

I believe Cindy is a great example of a woman who proves that you don’t need permission from “the guys” to achieve success. By staying true to herself, Cindy is a trailblazer for female skateboarders and women in general.

Where Art and Tech Meet

A couple months ago, I was invited to write an introductory essay for Masters of Abstraction, a new book by German photographer Peter Badge. The book is a collection of portraits of winners of the Fields and Abel prizes in mathematics, and the Turing and Nevanlinna awards in computing. These are the top prizes in their fields, all modeled more or less on the Nobel, which has no category for mathematics.

I first met Peter about fifteen years ago when I was co-curating an international exhibition on the 100th anniversary of the Nobel Prize. He was commissioned to photograph the laureates for the exhibition and accompanying volume. When I watched Peter at work I was immediately struck by two things: first, his uncanny ability to relate to the laureates on a personal level and to capture on film his sense of their personalities and deep humanity, however remote or abstract their research; and, second, his stubborn insistence on sticking with analog photography and old-fashioned photographic film—specifically black-and-white Kodak Tri-X—just when digital technology was taking over his medium. Over the years, he has never gone digital, despite the near-disappearance of Tri-X from the shelves of photo stores. These observations prompted me to reflect on the tools of photographers, human creativity, and machine “intelligence.”

Vint Cerf, 2004 Turing Award Winner

Vint Cerf won the Turing Award in 2004 with Bob E. Kahn for “pioneering work on internetworking.” c: Peter Badge/Typos1 in cooperaton with the Heidelberg Laureate Forum – all rights reserved, 2013

Let me try to explain why I think this matters. It is conceivable that Alan Turing, mathematical genius, code-breaker extraordinaire, and pioneer of artificial intelligence after whom the prize is named, could have ultimately rendered Peter’s work obsolete. Turing’s famous “Turing Test,” proposed in 1950, is defined in Wikipedia as a “test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of an actual human.” As far as I know, Turing himself never ascribed any deep existential meaning to his test.  However, in the popular mind, it carries the implication that smart machines, perhaps in the not too distant future, will surpass and eventually replace the brains of intelligent, even super intelligent, humans.


HAL 9000, via Wikimedia Commons.

Should that appalling day arrive when the descendants of HAL 9000, the single-minded and omniscient computer of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, become masters of the universe and solve all conceivable mathematical riddles, would we still want to buy Peter’s book? Would we want to view photographs of human also-rans in some future mathematical Olympiad totally dominated by machines? Granted, it would be interesting and probably comforting to study the humanity, character, and creativity written in their faces. But, in the end, would it matter?

For Peter, the answer to this question is surely that yes, it matters, and for a myriad human reasons. Intelligence is ultimately a human concept. In that sense, we can reasonably ask if intelligence can ever truly be “artificial.” Peter’s goal is not only to honor prizewinners, but to probe the mysteries of human creativity. He knows instinctively that creativity can never be reduced to computer algorithms. It is ironic to think that Turing himself, who lived a brilliant but tormented life, would have been the worst possible candidate for machine replacement.

That takes us back to Peter’s loyalty to analog film, his chosen and evidently natural medium. I have not asked Peter this question, but I think I know why he has not yet gone digital. I suspect he resists the imposition of a computerized process between himself and his human subjects.

Shafrira Goldwasser, 2012 Turing Award winner.

Shafrira Goldwasser won the 2012 Turing Award along with Silvio Micali for their work in the field of cryptography. c: Peter Badge/Typos1 in cooperaton with the Heidelberg Laureate Forum – all rights reserved, 2013.

There are suggestive parallels here with the creative processes of mathematicians. Evolving computer technology has changed how mathematicians work. Abstract mathematics increasingly involves computers; the verification of proofs is one example. But, just as photographers “see” their final image in their mind’s eye before actually taking the shot, mathematicians often visualize their proofs in advance. Both photographers and mathematicians share this sensory, almost tactile feeling for their creations.

Abstraction is central to science and mathematics, but the term has other, equally rich resonances. In this sense, the title of Badge’s book—Master of Abstraction—plays brilliantly on the association with masters of abstract art. Even die-hard believers in machine intelligence cannot credibly claim that artists will eventually cede their studios to ranks of painting robots wielding brushes and palettes. The creative theories and inventions honored in Peter’s book are not just equivalent to art, they have become art and speak to the identity of all forms of creativity.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that photography, too, is all about numbers: film speeds,
f-stops, shutter speeds, focal lengths, light intensity, even the “golden ratio” applied to framing an image. This is just as true for analog film as it is for digital photography, though digital has added a few more numerical parameters to play with. At some point though, Peter Badge, like all genuine practitioners of his art form, puts the numbers behind him and proceeds on the wings of creative instinct. And this is where Peter and his subjects merge in body, mind, and spirit, in a realm where numbers become sheer beauty.

Sergei Novikov, 1970 winner of the Fields Medal.

Sergei Novikov won the Fields Medal in 1970 for his work in algebraic topology, most notably the Novikov conjecture, which concerns homotopy invariance of certain polynomials in the Pontryagin classes of a manifold. c: Peter Badge/Typos1 in cooperaton with the Heidelberg Laureate Forum – all rights reserved, 2013

Archimedes, the greatest mathematician of antiquity, is featured on the Fields Medal for mathematics. A Latin inscription from Astronomica, by the Roman poet Manilius, surrounds Archimedes likeness:

you are seeking to pass beyond your understanding and make yourself master of the universe….

Archimedes on the Fields Medal, via Wikimedia Commons

Archimedes on the Fields Medal, via Wikimedia Commons

In a title match for “Master of the Universe” between Archimedes and HAL 9000, where would you put your money? I know where I would.

Innovations in “FOOD”

A few nights ago, my friend Corinne was making dinner and realized she didn’t have a steamer basket large enough to accommodate the head of cauliflower she was preparing. After a few minutes rummaging around in cabinets and drawers, she rigged up this:

corinnes invention

And it worked! Brilliantly, I’m sure she’d want me to add. “Hey, you should probably put this in the Smithsonian,” she said. (I tend to get that a lot from friends and family.)

It got me thinking. The kitchen is definitely a place of invention. We’ve discussed food-related inventions before here on Bright Ideas—innovations in coffee, the invention of cup holders, a gadget that might just let me finally recreate my mom’s famed mashed potatoes, and the stories behind three frozen treats. But what other food innovations reside in the collections at the National Museum of American History? Here are five invention stories from our food exhibition, FOOD: Transforming the American Table, 1950 – 2000. (There are so many more!)

1.  Food Television Programming

Julia Child’s The French Chef debuted on public television in 1963. Its successful ten-year run inspired a model for a flood of new cooking shows and culinary stars throughout the 1970s and 1980s. In 1993, a new cable channel, Television Food Network, turned cooking and food shows into twenty-four-hour entertainment—a round-the-clock affirmation of Julia’s instinct that demonstrating omelette-making would appeal to viewers.

Martha Stewart and Mario Batali.

Martha Stewart and Mario Batali, 2007. “Martha Stewart Living” first aired in 1993.
Batali, who joined the Food Network in 1995 starred in “Molto Mario” beginning in 1997.

2. The Ring King

Krispy Kreme of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, had been making doughnuts since 1937. In the 1950s as the company expanded to a small chain of stores, it sought ways to ensure a consistent and profitable product. They created a dry doughnut mix and developed a machine that automated the doughnut-making process. The Ring King Junior formed, fried, turned, and cooled about sixty dozen doughnuts per hour, reducing labor costs.

ring king

3. Ready to Eat Carrots

Engineer and inventor, Joseph T. Listner was early to recognize the appeal and convenience of bagged, ready-to-eat vegetables. In 1959, he designed and built a one-of-a-kind machine that sliced raw carrots into sticks. The machine enabled a small-scale producer like Listner, Inc., in Wallington, New Jersey, to slice an estimated one million pounds of carrots in sixteen years of operation.  Listner sold his bagged carrot sticks and cole slaw to stores, including the Grand Union supermarket chain.

Listner made his slicer with components from other machines.  Although the carrots still had to be peeled by hand, the machine automatically trimmed them to uniform sticks.

carrot machine

4. New Materials, New Tools

Using materials developed before and during World War II, manufacturers created a variety of new equipment and appliances for postwar cooks.  New plastics, non-stick-coatings, and pyroceramic glass were among the most successful.  Tupperware, Teflon, and Corning Ware housewares took their place in many American kitchens next to old reliable glass jars, and cast iron and aluminum skillets. Brand-new electrical gadgets consumed ever greater amounts of counter space.

A Coring Ware dish, a Teflon-coated Bundt pan, a Rival Crock-Pot and a Veg-O-Matic.

1. Corning Glass Works formulated a glass ceramic material in the 1950s that withstood extreme temperatures. A single Corning Ware dish could be used for cooking, freezing, and serving food. 2. Bakeware pioneer Nordic Ware was one of the first companies to apply Teflon to its products, including its signature Bundt cake pan. 3. Patented in 1975, the slow-cooking, electric Crock-Pot with a removable insert allowed busy home cooks to start dinner before they left for work, and return home to a fully cooked meal. 4. The Veg-O-Matic food slicer, invented by Samuel J. Popeil, debuted in 1963 and was sold by his son, Ron, via late-night television. The device is best remembered for his iconic sales pitch—“It slices! It dices!”

5. White Zinfandel

Zinfandel was one of the grapes associated with cheap jug wines widely produced after the repeal of Prohibition. During the replanting of California’s vineyards in the 1960s and 1970s, acres of Zinfandel were ripped out to make way for the new darlings of the vineyards, Cabernet and Chardonnay.

One vintner who kept his Zinfandel grapes was Bob Trinchero of the Sutter Home Winery, who used them to produce a dry, rosé-style wine. In 1975, while his grapes were fermenting, the yeast died before the wine’s sugar was converted to alcohol. He decided to try selling the resulting slightly sweet pink wine. Many Americans still had a “sweet tooth” for wine, and his “blush,” called White Zinfandel, was a runaway hit.

Bottle of white zinfandel and a bumper sticker praising the wine.

This is one of the first bottles of White Zinfandel made by the Trincheros of Sutter Home Winery in 1975. They named it Oeil de Perdrix, or Eye of the Partridge. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms later rejected the name, so this new wine became, simply, White Zinfandel. The bottle is on load to the exhibition from Trinchero Family Estates and Sutter Home Winery. Below is a bumper sticker.

Note: Photos were taken in the exhibition and text is pulled from exhibit labels.

Reinventing Spark!Lab

Since my June 2012 blog, we have been hard at work planning for a new Spark!Lab at the National Museum of American History. I have formed a great team of colleagues from around the Museum to help develop a space that meets the needs of our (very diverse) visitors, ties Spark!Lab to the expertise and collections of the Lemelson Center and NMAH, and offers a truly innovative experience. Our planning team is made up of curators, educators, and historians; fundraising professionals; a public affairs specialist; and an accessibility expert—not to mention the all-important project manager who keeps us on schedule and within budget. It’s great to have a team with such wide-ranging knowledge and experience, as each member brings his or her own perspective to the planning process.

As we plan the space, we are using the Spark!Lab mission to provide a guiding framework:

In Spark!Lab, we help visitors connect invention to their own lives and to the American narrative, and offer opportunities for visitors to engage in the invention process and recognize their own inventive creativity.

Three core educational messages are also helping to shape the Spark!Lab 2.0 experience:

  • Invention is a process. 
  • Everyone is inventive.
  • Invention and innovation have been—and continue to be—an important part of the American Experience.

As we think about the visitor experience, we’ve been working to develop a new thematic structure for Spark!Lab so that all of the activities will tie to a common theme. Our idea is that themes will change throughout the year and will reflect the vast collections held by NMAH. To get inspiration for themes and related activities, our team has been taking “field trips” to different collections areas in the Museum. These visits are seeding great discussions among our group as we think about how to incorporate history into hands-on, invention-based activities for kids and their families. (This is also one of the great perks of working for the Smithsonian. Where else can you see such cool stuff?)

To date, the team has visited the Physical Sciences and Medical Sciences collections—or, really, parts of them. Most collections at NMAH are enormous and many are stored in multiple locations, some on- and some off-site. But we’ve been lucky to see collections items—many of which have never been or are rarely on display—that reflect various aspects of invention and innovation throughout American history.

Here are a few highlights from our visits:

Inside the Physical Sciences collections storage area

Inside the Physical Sciences collections storage area

Curator Steve Turner holds a 19th century “Tellurian.” This teaching device was used to show how the Earth’s movement on its axis and its orbit around the sun causes day, night, and the seasons.]

Curator Steve Turner holds a 19th century “Tellurian.” This teaching device was used to show how the Earth’s movement on its axis and its orbit around the sun causes day, night, and the seasons.

The National Tuning Fork Collection.

The National Tuning Fork Collection. The tuning fork, invented in the early 1700s by a British trumpeter, is an acoustic resonator. When struck, it will vibrate and resonate at a constant pitch. The specific pitch depends on the length of the two prongs or tines of the fork. Tuning forks have a wide range of scientific, medical, and technological applications.

In the Medical Sciences collections, we looked at a large collection of eyeglasses to learn about the changes in the shape, size, and materials of which glasses were made. Early glasses, like those on the right (1750-1800), were small as the capability to grind lenses was limited. The circles on the ear pieces would have fit over the user’s ears to keep them in place.

In the Medical Sciences collections, we looked at a large collection of eyeglasses to learn about the changes in the shape, size, and materials of which glasses were made. Early glasses, like those on the bottom (1750-1800), were small as the capability to grind lenses was limited. The circles on the ear pieces would have fit over the user’s ears to keep them in place.

A prototype of an early defibrillator. The device was controlled by a simple on/off switch, and had a single knob to increase or decrease power.

A prototype of an early defibrillator. The device was controlled by a simple on/off switch, and had a single knob to increase or decrease power.

We also viewed the toothbrush collection and saw a range of innovative solutions to keeping teeth clean, including a sort of “Swiss Army” toothbrush (1908) which was made of ivory and incorporated other tooth- and gum-cleaning implements, and the Spongo (1940s-1950s) featuring a “sanitary” and “replaceable” sponge head instead of bristles.

We also viewed the toothbrush collection and saw a range of innovative solutions to keeping teeth clean, including a sort of “Swiss Army” toothbrush (1908) which was made of ivory and incorporated other tooth- and gum-cleaning implements, and the Spongo (1940s-1950s) featuring a “sanitary” and “replaceable” sponge head instead of bristles.

Our team has had a great time visiting these and other treasures at NMAH and, in the coming months, looks forward to visiting more collections. Next on our list are Photographic History to see cameras, lenses, and all things photography, and Work and Industry where we’ll get a chance to see the wide range of robots in NMAH’s collection!

Just this week we also kicked off the exhibition design process for Spark!Lab, so we’re not only thinking about the activities visitors will do but what the environment will look like and how the space will really function. So expect more (and more frequent) updates as we further develop and design Spark!Lab 2.0. Though we won’t reopen our doors until 2015, we’re already excited about welcoming visitors back to Spark!Lab and seeing them create, collaborate, innovate, problem-solve, and of course, invent.