A Day at the Armory: Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Day at the Armory: Part I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned for Part II of the article…

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.

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.

Inventing an Exhibition, Part II

Last summer I wrote a blog post about the 10% preliminary design phase of the Lemelson Center’s Places of Invention project and how exhibition development often mirrors the inventive process. In those early days of working with our exhibition design firm Roto we focused on the “Sketch It!” step, relying on their expertise to bring visual life to our highly researched, content-rich, but conceptually abstract topic.  At the end of this official 10% design phase we had an exhibition floor plan, artistic renderings, and fun art direction boards for a concrete and colorful manifestation of our exhibition that we could share with project stakeholders and potential funders.

Invention Process Infographic

The “Create It!” step of the invention process next came into play. The second official phase of Smithsonian exhibition planning is called “35% conceptual design,” and for Places of Invention this phase began in October 2012 and runs through the end of March 2013. Now the Lemelson Center/NMAH-Roto team is collaborating to hone details of the design, including detailed floor plan, object layouts, graphics, typography, colors, lighting and acoustic-abatement needs, and specifications for mechanical interactives and multimedia. This is also the time for preliminary estimates for how much all of these elements are going to cost, which is where the proverbial rubber meets the road for decision making as we move forward.

The exhibition team was thrilled to see a version of "Places of Invention" come to life.

The exhibition team was thrilled to see a version of “Places of Invention” come to life.

During the 35% design period of any exhibition’s development, I believe it is very important to conduct formative evaluation, which Randi Korn & Associates (RK&A) defines as testing “interpretive ideas and components for their functionality and ability to communicate content.” This could be termed the “Test It!” invention step. Fortunately, the National Science Foundation grant for Places of Invention supports three stages of evaluation: front-end (which RK&A conducted in summer and fall 2011); formative (two phases during 2013); and summative (at the end of the project).

The prototyping process featuring two case studies--Hartford, CT, and Hollywood. The Hollywood story looks at the development of Technicolor.

The prototyping process featuring two case studies–Hartford, CT, and Hollywood. The Hollywood story looks at the development of Technicolor.

So, we brought Roto and RK&A together and came up with a plan to do a first round of formative evaluation prototyping at NMAH during late January. Although this is generally a slower time at the Museum, with fewer tourist traveling to the nation’s capital between the winter holidays and spring breaks, we had the advantage of two major events coinciding—President Barak Obama’s second inauguration and Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday—that attracted many thousands of visitors. We figured enough people would hang around afterwards to visit the famous local sites, including the Smithsonian museums on the Mall, to garner walk-in visitors willing to participate in our evaluation.

In the Hartford section, visitors were tasked with using a jig to twist wire into a business card holder--or whatever else they could invent!

In the Hartford section, visitors were tasked with using a jig to twist wire into a business card holder–or whatever else they could invent!

Over three days, January 23-25, staff from Lemelson Center, Roto, and RK&A collaborated to conduct formative testing. We mocked up two exhibition case studies—Hartford, Connecticut and Hollywood, California— and also the “Interactive Map,” a participatory exhibit that asked visitors to share stories of their places of invention by writing comments to post on a U.S. map or by taping short videos on a laptop computer. The basic evaluation objectives were to explore general usability and understanding of intended exhibition messages. RK&A recruited walk-in adult visitors who were visiting alone or with children 10 years and older. RK&A then observed these visitor groups while they used the exhibition elements, including reading labels, looking at images, trying out interactives, and watching videos inside the case study areas and at the Map. Finally, RK&A interviewed the visitors and recorded data in handwritten notes. At the end of each day of prototyping, folks from the Lemelson, Roto, and RK&A teams gathered to discuss visitor feedback and interactions in order to “Tweak It!” for the next day. It was a fun, constructive, and exhausting process.

On the interactive map, we asked visitors to leave stories about their places of invention, either through Post-Its or videos.

On the interactive map, we asked visitors to leave stories about their places of invention, either through Post-Its or videos.

We recently received the final report from RK&A, which includes careful analysis of the visitor observations and interviews and very constructive recommendations. This document has already helped us focus on key changes and improvements to the exhibition (the “Tweak It!” stage) while also provided us with enough objective information to know we are headed in the right direction. So onward we go through the final weeks of conceptual design, and then we can look forward to the “65% design development” phase through fall 2013. Keep an eye out for more reports from me along the way!