This is a guest post by Jennifer Brundage, a National Outreach Manager for Smithsonian Affiliations and a Lemelson Center Advisory Committee member.
Working in a Smithsonian office devoted to national outreach, I am very fortunate to travel a lot for my job. My department, Smithsonian Affiliations, fosters long-term collaborative partnerships with museums and cultural institutions nationwide. In our ongoing quest to identify potential partners, I recently found myself traversing western Massachusetts. Both of the museums I visited have recently opened exhibitions that interpret their cities and regions as centers of invention. Having keenly followed the Lemelson Center’s research on the relationship between innovation and location for their upcoming Places of Invention (POI) exhibition, I was struck (and inspired) by how many similar characteristics were highlighted in the museums I visited.
The Springfield Museums’ new, recently opened Museum of Springfield History documents the many innovations that sprang from this city. Through the lens of POI, I immediately wondered, Why here? The answer was the Springfield Armory. The Springfield site was chosen for an armory in 1777 by General George Washington and closed during the Vietnam War in 1968. (Because the Harper’s Ferry Armory and Arsenal was destroyed during the Civil War by another Springfield native, abolitionist John Brown, the Springfield Armory was America’s first, and last, federal armory.) As is well-documented by the POI team, research and development funded by the government is often a magnet for invention—in this case, for cutting-edge engineering and manufacturing processes. Because of the need to produce firearms quickly and easily during the War of 1812, the Springfield Armory combined the use of interchangeable parts (already done in France), with a rapid method of production. The result, called the “American System,” was precise mass production that revolutionized industry worldwide. (The Springfield Armory is now a National Historic Site.)
Not only did the Armory’s workers contribute to this culture of innovation, but so did the network of contractors in the surrounding region. During the Civil War-era, inventor Milton Bradley moved to Springfield to set up the state’s first color lithography shop. Looking for additional purposes for his lithography machine, Bradley created a board game called “The Checkered Game of Life,” a popular game, now revised, that is still available today. Seeing bored Civil War soldiers stationed in Springfield, Bradley also began to produce chess, checkers and backgammon sets. A board game empire was born. The Milton Bradley Company also was the first American company to make croquet sets.
Board games weren’t the only entertainment to be born in Springfield. Basketball originated here as well, in 1891. A physical education teacher at the YMCA International Training School, James Naismith, introduced the game to his class of 18 young men (literally using a basket tacked to a balcony 10 feet above ground). Within three years, it was being played around the world.
Later, bicycle makers Charles and Frank Duryea, also of Springfield, founded the Duryea Motor Wagon Company in 1896, one of the first companies to build and sell gasoline powered vehicles. (A Duryea automobile is in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.)
Springfield’s most famous native son, though, might be Theodor Geisel—otherwise known as Dr. Seuss. The Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden at the Springfield Museums does a great job of juxtaposing the historic images of Springfield’s main street that inspired Geisel with the fanciful illustrations of houses, cars, and people as they were ultimately re-imagined in the creative author’s books.
An hour away in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, the Berkshire Museum presents its “hometown” inventors in the Feigenbaum Hall of Innovation. As early as the Revolutionary War, Stephen Crane, owner of the Liberty Paper Mill in Boston, was making paper from cotton—paper that fueled the revolution through its use in patriotic newspapers and broadsides. By 1799, his son Zenas Crane founded his own paper mill, Crane & Co., at an ideal spot on the Housatonic River in Dalton, Massachusetts, in the Berkshires.
Even though it was eventually discovered that pulp from trees made paper production cheaper, Zenas Crane and his sons continued to insist on using only waste cotton as a suitable raw material. In 1849, they introduced silk threads into the fiber of bank-bill paper, an invention designed to prevent counterfeiting currency. Their dedication to tradition as well as innovation paid off handsomely. In 1879, Crane & Co. won the first contract to produce the paper for the United States currency. Our money is still printed on paper printed by Crane, which continues to introduce technical innovations that protect the security of currencies worldwide.
Another phenomenon documented by the POI team is the way in which an area’s creative community is fed by, and in turn, nourished by, its place of invention. This is certainly true in the Berkshires, home to many of America’s greatest artists and thinkers. It is in the land-locked Berkshires that Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick, where Norman Rockwell painted some of his most iconic images of America, and where Edith Wharton created the luxurious environment that informed her best-selling novel, The House of Mirth. This mix of creativity and invention is captured so well in the Berkshire Museum’s “Use Your Noodle” elementary school curriculum. Modeling the invention process itself, a box of noodles challenges students to take an everyday object—pasta—and engineer models for math, physics, geometry problems and more.
It’s exciting to experience the truth of the Lemelson Center’s assertion that, while they have chosen historic and contemporary examples for their exhibition, invention can happen anywhere. Every place with the right mix of inventive people, ready resources, and inspiring surroundings is a potential place of invention. Submit your stories and tell us about your own place of invention!