Doctors Inventing Auto Safety

Editor’s Note: This post is by Lemelson Fellow Lee Vinsel. Lee is an Assistant Professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology.

This summer I am a fellow at the Lemelson Center, where I am researching the history of automotive safety, focusing on the story of safety in the early period of auto history, from 1900 to 1940, which remains underexplored by historians. My research here has brought me face-to-face with a theme that scholars at the Lemelson Center are currently exploring, namely the role that geography and local networks play in innovative thinking.

The Lemelson Center is developing an exhibition called, Places of Invention, which examines the roles that places and communities play in fostering inventive and innovative activity. Places of Invention focuses on some neat examples of hotspots of innovation: the growth of scientific communities in Washington, DC, in the late 1800s; the rise of manufacturing industries in Hartford, CT, during the mid-19th century; inventive activity around Cambridge, MA, spurred on by World War II military spending; the emergence of Silicon Valley in California and “Medical Alley” in Minnesota during the 1960s and 1970s; the birth of Hip Hop in Bronx, NY, which forever revolutionized popular music; and contemporary research in energy research in Fort Collins, CO.

With my research focus, it’s no surprise that I am particularly interested in the role locality has played in influencing automotive safety. Detroit is a famous example of the power of place in shaping technological change, as reflected in works like, Robert Szudarek’s How Detroit Became the Automotive Capital. Often historians focus on the kinds of inventors, engineers, and entrepreneurs who play a direct role in improving the technologies and companies at the center of the local economy. In Detroit, for instance, this central focus would be on the famous automotive firms and the people that worked for and with them. I argue that this focus is too narrow—people of seemingly unrelated expertise sometimes become involved in innovative hotspots. My research includes the role that medical doctors played in improving auto safety.

One example is Dr. Claire Straith. Straith was a plastic surgeon at Detroit’s Harper Hospital who played an important role in improving the practices of reconstructive surgery. According to Straith’s family, on weekends he often went from hospital to hospital, working on people who had been injured in automobile accidents. Most of the people injured were women and children who were sitting in the right-front passenger seat—what Straith called the “Death Seat.” Straith’s experiences led him to become critical of automotive design of the day and to create safety technologies.

Beginning in the early 1930s, Straith installed homemade seatbelts in his own car. He then created and installed crash pads on his car’s dashboard, especially on the passenger side. Straith patented at least two of these devices—the Smithsonian has one of his crash pads in the national collections. The pads were marketed directly to consumers, though few people bought them. However, Straith remained a vocal critic, and he fought tirelessly to get automakers to install safety technologies in their products.

The Straith padded dashboard is demonstrated in this photo by the inventor's daughter, Jean Straith Hepner, and granddaughter, Grace Quitzow. Photo courtesy of Grace Quitzow.

The Straith padded dashboard is demonstrated in this photo by the inventor’s daughter, Jean Straith Hepner, and granddaughter, Grace Quitzow. Photo courtesy of Grace Quitzow.

Some companies listened. Walter Chrysler met Straith, which led to Chrysler engineers building some of Straith’s ideas into the company’s 1937 line of cars. Straith continuously criticized the sharp metallic knobs on cars, which frequently gouged and disfigured people in crashes. The 1937 Chryslers featured recessed knobs on the dashboard. Straith also influenced Preston Tucker, who built safety features into the 1948 Tucker Sedan.

The auto industry was heavily focused on the annual model change during this period, and companies would introduce safety features as part of the publicity of one year’s models, only to backslide and remove the features the very next year. It was not until the mid-1960s—when the federal government created mandatory safety standards—that safety technologies became a permanent fixture of American automobiles.

Straith was not the only medical doctor in the Detroit-area to innovate around auto safety. Another leader in the field was neurosurgeon Elisha Gurdjian, who worked at Wayne State University’s hospital. Gurdjian was also bothered by the kinds of injuries he saw coming into hospitals. He realized that doctors knew far too little about the biological mechanisms of concussions and other trauma-induced brain injuries. He also realized that investigating concussions would involve the study of forces, which lay well outside his own expertise. For this reason, Gurdjian teamed up with a young Wayne State professor in mechanical engineering named Herbert Lissner. The two men began conducting experiments on how forces acted on bodies, using both human cadavers and living, anesthetized, non-human animals (mostly dogs).

While Gurdjian and Lissner’s fundamental contributions were to medical science—especially a field known as impact biomechanics, which they helped found—they also created some innovative experimental apparatus and technical procedures involving already existing technologies. For instance, the two researchers used strain gages, which were usually used to test industrial materials like metal and concrete, to study the strength of bone. They also removed an elevator from an elevator shaft at Wayne State and put an ejection seat in it. They then proceeded to “drop” bodies down the shaft and use pneumatic systems to shoot bodies up it to study the effect of forces on biological systems. No doubt this is innovation, even if it is innovation that we would rather not think about.

Many of Gurdian and Lissner’s experiments were quite grisly, so I will pass over the details here. (For some entertaining accounts of biomechanical studies at Wayne State, see Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers; interested readers can also contact me at leevinsel (at) gmail (dot) com for a paper I wrote on the topic.) I also believe that some of their experiments on living animals were clearly unethical, but it is impossible to deny that their research played an important part in improving automobile safety. Indeed, when the U.S. government created automotive safety standards in the mid-1960s, regulators built Gurdjian and Lissner’s findings of how much force the human body could tolerate directly into the new federal rules.

Medical doctors in Detroit, the automotive capital, made fundamental and early contributions to auto safety. In the end, it took a whole movement, including safety advocates like Ralph Nader, to create national safety standards in the United States, but we owe the innovations of Straith, Gurdjian, and Lissner a great deal.

Universal Design and the Museum: Technological Developments

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of posts by Lemelson fellow Aimi Hamraie. Aimi is a PhD candidate in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Emory University. Her dissertation examines Universal Design and disability. Her blogs will discuss accessibility features at the Smithsonian, particularly the National Museum of American History.

My last two posts covered the topic of Universal Design in the museum in terms of structural features, such as ramps, and educational features involving sensory information. In this post, I am going to discuss some of the technological features of accessibility at the National Museum of American History.

You may remember from my first post on America on the Move  that the exhibit has a number of computer kiosks at each major site.

These kiosks are an example of Universal Design because they provide the same information in several ways – through interaction with the screen, text, and audio of the text, and in different languages. This means that international visitors can access the exhibits, and that if one kind of display, such as text or sound, is not accessible, another type is available.

A new exhibit, American Stories, uses a crowdsourcing app to help visitors understand how objects are important to the way that we talk about the history of the United States.

Upon entering American Stories, a sign tells you in both English and Spanish that an app is available for the exhibit. The large, oval-shaped, red and yellow sign has information on how to download the app on your smart phone, if you have one. The sign tells you how to participate in using the crowdsourcing functions of the app, or how to just listen if that is what you would rather do. This app was developed by the Smithsonian Institution Accessibility Program, using existing open-source software and adapting it for museum use.

You may notice that the sign does not say anything about this app being a feature for disability access. This is because as a Universal Design feature it is usable by a range of people seeking information in the exhibit. What makes this app interesting and significant, however, is the fact that it is accessible to people with disabilities, who can record their own perceptions and experiences with the objects of the exhibit for other people to hear. Including the voices of people who are often excluded from accessing spaces where knowledge is shared, like museums and schools, in the exhibit itself shows that people with disabilities are valuable parts of the public and have important things to say about the history of the United States.

How does the app work? When you download the app, the first screen you see asks whether you want to “listen” or “speak.” You can also record feedback on the app and the exhibit by clicking the yellow “i” icon at the bottom of the screen.

Image courtesy of Beth Ziebarth.

You can choose to listen to the stories about the objects recorded by the museum curators or members of the public.

Image courtesy of Beth Ziebarth.

You also have the choice of recording something about one of the objects, describing something else that should be included, talking about your experience in the exhibit, or responding to someone else’s recording.

You may notice from the above image of the menu that it is a clear and easy to read interface. The text is in a sans serif font. The parts of the menu with text feature high-contrast text, with the text itself in white and the background in either black or dark turquoise blue. This is another Universal Design feature – it helps make the text more visible and readable.

Image courtesy of Beth Ziebarth.

This slide of Step 3 of recording through the app uses high contrast text, this time with black sans serif text on a white background. It also uses large, intuitive, and easy to understand icons that are explained within the menu. Using this menu, you may record and upload commentary on an object.

Another feature of the app is a map, again in high contrast, with white text on a black background, that shows the layout of the exhibit. You can choose which part of the exhibit you want to talk or hear about through the app using the map. This is both a part of the function of the app itself, and a way of helping with wayfinding within the exhibit.

Image courtesy of Beth Ziebarth.

There are, of course, access issues that are raised any time technology is used. For example, not everyone has access to smart phone technologies. However, the museum is working on a pilot program that involves checking out iPhones and iPads to visitors on a provisional basis. (Apple technologies are designed with Universal Design in mind – and have been around almost as long as the company itself has existed.) Designing an app that is usable on these technologies also makes it possible to use voice recognition, screen readers, and screen magnification to enhance the accessibility of the experience.

Individual technologies like smartphones are making it possible to provide information to visitors in museums in a range of ways. Whereas some exhibits must build accessibility into their structure – by placing placards at certain heights and making sure to have kiosks with sound or screens with captioning – smartphones are now becoming able to provide multiple sources of data (text, sound, and even haptic feedback) to users. They can be mounted on stands, attached to arms, and used without a lot of upper body strength. Most importantly, these devices move through exhibits with the visitor. If a sign is not at the right height, the device can still provide the same information. If audio is unclear, it can be replayed.

Both software and hardware developments allow users to choose how they receive and provide information. (For more information on accessibility research on wireless devices, such as cell phones, see the work of Universal Design advocates, James Mueller and Mike Jones, at the Wireless RERC at the Georgia Institute of Technology.)

It will be exciting to see how this app is further developed to incorporate usability for languages beyond English and Spanish, and also whether it will set a standard for interaction and accessibility in other exhibits. Future versions could have text transcription of the audio, or incorporate video and other kinds of crowdsourced information.

One last bit of Universal Design: American Stories, like many of the museum’s exhibits, has a website, where you can access images and information about many of the things in the exhibit no matter where you are.

Universal Design and the Museum: Sensory Features

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of posts by Lemelson fellow Aimi Hamraie. Aimi is a PhD candidate in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Emory University. Her dissertation examines Universal Design and disability. Her blogs will discuss accessibility features at the Smithsonian, particularly the National Museum of American History.

In my last blog post, I discussed different Universal Design strategies used in the America on the Move exhibit at National Museum of American History. Universal Design is the idea that spaces and products should be intentionally designed to be accessible to as many people as possible. Because museums have so many visitors and have to represent information to a range of people – of all ranges of ability, ages, and cultural backgrounds – they have adopted some very innovative Universal Design strategies.

In this post, I am going to discuss some of the design features of museum exhibits that incorporate sensory information appealing to sight, touch, sound, and even smell! Providing information through different senses is one way of doing Universal Design, because it takes into account all of the different ways that people perceive and learn.


This image from America on the Move shows a cast iron of food with a sign that says “sniff” on the lid. You can turn the handle on the pot to smell the food inside. This provides information about the food, as well as the vessel in which it would have been cooked.



One of the most important ways of designing for multiple senses is to provide haptic information – information that you can touch. Touch can help us understand how something feels, how it is shaped, and how its parts relate to one another. If a person has low vision, but can touch something, they will be able to get a more complex understanding of the object that is being seen. Throughout the Smithsonian, there are a number of objects that ask you to touch them in order to get more information. These are usable by anyone, and, for many of us, provide information that the text of the exhibit does not.

Here is a map that you can touch from America on the Move. It shows the layout of a house, with raised walls. If you touch more than one part of the map at once, you can think about how the rooms are spatially related to one another. At the bottom, there are railroad tracks that are also raised. Inside of each room, there is text that tells you what the room is. This text is unfortunately not raised. If you have low vision or your eyes are closed, you may be able to feel the words but you will not be able to read them necessarily. Even though some aspects of the design are accessible, others may not be necessarily.

The above sign from the National Museum of American History exhibit, The Price of Freedom: Americans at War, shows a haptic map of the exhibit with a block of Braille text to the left. A person wanting to know what is in the exhibit can look at the map, touch it, read the Braille, or do all of the above! To understand how to move through the space, there are raised tactile arrows leading from one area into another. The text inside of each space is also larger than in the previous map, so that it can be touched and read. Haptic maps such as this one make the layout of the exhibit clearer and establish better wayfinding

This image shows a red plastic model of a house in the Within These Walls exhibition at the American History museum. By touching the model, you can get a sense of the dimensions of the house and where the windows and doors are. You may not be able to read the placard below or get information about what happens inside the house, however.

The above image of a haptic model from the Wright Brothers exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum shows how a tactile map can display different kinds of information that are useful to people with different abilities. The bronze map has raised text and Braille text. It shows the details of a journey, complete with land, mountains, and a railroad. When I visited this exhibit on several occasions, the space around the map was the most crowded part of the exhibit. Adults and children were both touching the various parts of the map to get different kinds of information.

Here is a model of the Big Bang from Explore the Universe at the Air and Space museum. It is the most interesting of all of the models I have seen because it not only represents an image in three dimensional form, as the others do, but it also conveys a sense of time. On the side of the image furthest from the viewer in this image, the Big Bang begins and the bronze on the panel is relatively smooth, with small dimples and bubbles. As it moves to the left, the bubbles grow larger and more complex, demonstrating the way that matter in the universe became more complex over time. By feeling the contours of the model, as well as looking at its appearance, we get a very interesting story about how matter changed over time as the universe expanded.


Have you ever been to an exhibit where there was a lot of text that was hard to see? Maybe there was low light, or the font was too small? This image, also from the Air and Space museum, shows a high contrast display. This means that the image background and text contrast with each other so much that the text is clear. In this case, the white text on black background makes it easier to see if you have low vision, or if you have been inside of a dark exhibit for a few minutes and you are straining to see. The images of various space rocks are also backlit to make them easier to see.


As you go through the Air and Space or American History museums, you may notice that the videos have captions on them that describe the sounds being made and also tell you what words are being said. This serves many purposes. For people who are hard of hearing, it provides the information visually. It also is helpful for people who have hearing but may be in the exhibit at a time that is very busy.

These are only a few examples of sensory-based accessibility at the Smithsonian. As you can tell, these features are useful for everyone – not only people with particular disabilities, but also people who benefit from having information displayed in multiple ways. Visiting these exhibits and imagining what they would be like without these features helps us understand that accessibility is not an issue about individual people needing accommodations to help them get into the space, but a collective issue that benefits a broader range of people.

Stay tuned for Aimi’s final post on technological developments at museums.

Universal Design and the Museum

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of posts by Lemelson fellow Aimi Hamraie. Aimi is a PhD candidate in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Emory University. Her dissertation examines Universal Design and disability. Her blogs will discuss accessibility features at the Smithsonian, particularly the National Museum of American History.

Universal Design is the idea that spaces and products should be intentionally designed to be accessible to as many people as possible. The idea grew out of disability access – the design or retrofit of buildings and technologies to be accessible to people with disabilities, such as wheelchair users, people with low vision, or people who are hard of hearing. Most of the time, features of the built environment that are accessible to people with disabilities are retrofits, meaning that they are added on after a design is already planned.

When a wheelchair ramp is added as an afterthought, often to the back of a building, it means that wheelchair users cannot enter in the same way as other people. Often, this means entering through an alley next to a garbage dumpster, or needing to call someone to turn on a wheelchair lift. This reinforces the notion that having a disability means that a person is disqualified from public life and community.

Photo via Creative Commons.

In the above image, a concrete ramp has been paved on top of brick stairs on the exterior of the building. The building was inaccessible to people using wheelchairs or other mobility devices with wheels. It was also inaccessible to anyone pushing a stroller or cart. These kinds of retrofits are often less desirable than better designs that take into account the effects of a design feature before the space, technology, or product is even built.

Blusson Spinal Cord Center in Vancouver. Photo by Aimi Hamraie.

In contrast, this image shows the interior of the Blusson Spinal Cord Center in Vancouver, British Columbia. This ramp is an example of Universal Design because it is the central design feature of this building and accesses every floor in the building. It is flexible and can be used by anyone – not just wheelchair users – to get to the upper floors.

Accessibility at the Smithsonian Institution

Since 1968, federal disability access laws have required the accessibility of various spaces and technologies, including buildings, public spaces, information technology, and transportation systems. Federal buildings were the first structures required to be accessible. Because the Smithsonian Institution is federally funded, it began its efforts to make museums accessible as early as the mid-1970’s. As a result, Smithsonian sites have not only been retrofitted to be more accessible, but the Smithsonian itself has developed innovative accessibility strategies and policies, including design features that follow Universal Design.

As a Lemelson fellow, I had the opportunity to look at the Smithsonian’s institutional archives on accessibility as a case study for my dissertation project on Universal Design. I am interested in how museums in the Smithsonian system use Universal Design and accessibility to disseminate knowledge and educate the public. Because the group of people visiting any Smithsonian museum is incredibly broad, I was interested to learn more about how the museums took this range of people into account in designing exhibits. The features I discuss below are in addition to those offered by the museum, such as docent tours or wheelchairs, that are in compliance with accessibility laws but do not have to do with exhibit design.

America on the Move

America on the Move is a transportation exhibit at National Museum of American History with a number of Universal Design features. These features are significant because they are so seamlessly integrated into the design of the exhibit that you will not notice them unless you know what you are looking for. For this post, I am going to focus on mobility features – meaning how the space is designed for people with disabilities, particularly wheelchair users, to move through it.

The above image shows ramps descending into a long hallway, with various vehicles on either side. From the slope of the ramps and the rails on them, you may be able to tell that this is the kind of space that may have previously had stairs. The ramps serve as elevated platforms that give you access into seeing inside of the window of the house on the right and the trailer on the left. When you get to the bottom, you can read or hear information about these parts of the exhibits on the kiosk.

The kiosks and displays, you may notice, are about two to three feet from the ground. This puts them at eye level for people who are seated in wheelchairs, people of short stature, or children who may be using the exhibit. The screens are tilted up to make them easier to read from a range of heights. The kiosks are also interactive, providing information in both text and voice for museum visitors in different languages.

Some of the other ramps are so subtle that you may miss them if you are not paying attention. This image shows a ramp that approaches a Chicago transit system bus in the exhibit. The ramp is so slight that it just appears that the floor slopes slightly upward to meet the bus. On the left, you can see a handrail that shows that it is indeed a ramp. Also notice that there are no stairs in this area. The ramp is usable to everyone.

Above, you can see that when the ramp reaches the bus, there is a flat entrance into the bus. Someone in a wheelchair can easily enter the bus without needing an additional ramp.

Now you can see inside of the bus. Although this bus was probably not accessible at the time that it was used, people using wheelchairs or strollers can easily enter the space because the first few rows of seats on the right side have been removed. When I was visiting the exhibit, I even saw a few tourists with rolling luggage enter the bus! This shows what a little bit of spatial reconfiguration can do for accessibility. Putting these features directly into the exhibit encourages multiple ways of using the space by different people.

One last design feature worth mentioning is this small theater area. Facing the screen are two rows of seats. The first row has three seats, while the back row has five. The spaces in the first row that are open are places where people in wheelchairs can join the theater and have a view from the first row. Many theaters have similar spaces, but in back rows in places with less than optimal viewing access. In this theater space, though, accessibility is privileged in the design of the space. Of course, if no one sits in these spaces, you cannot even tell! This is all part of the seamless integration of Universal Design into the exhibit.

Stay tuned for Aimi’s next posts looking at sensory features and technological developments.

In Residence: The Lemelson Center 2012 Fellows

Our fabulous Lemelson Center Fellows, left to right: Matthew Hockenberry, Hallie Lieberman, Steven Wilf, and Aimi Hamraie. Photo courtesy of Eric Hintz.

One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is that I get to coordinate the Lemelson Center’s Fellows Program. The Fellows Program is one of the many ways that we fulfill the research component of our mission, “To foster an appreciation for the central role of invention and innovation in the history of the United States.” Essentially, the Center puts its money where its mouth is—we offer paid fellowships (read: $$$) to encourage historians, museum professionals, authors, documentary filmmakers, and all manner of researchers to come to the Museum, spend time with us, and use our world class invention collections. Our fellows in turn take their findings and pen articles, write books, build exhibits, and produce films on invention, innovation, and technology. Since 1995, the Center has hosted over 50 fellows, who are now alumni of the program.  That’s a lot of “fostering.”

In a typical year, we name anywhere from three to five fellows, and they come whenever their schedules allow; thus, their times of residence almost never overlap. Well that changed this summer when we had four (4!) Lemelson Center fellows in residence simultaneously! They are:

  • Aimi Hamraie, Ph.D. candidate, Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Emory University.  Aimi is exploring issues related to universal design and disability. She will be examining several collections, including: the Accessible Snowboard collection, the Van Phillips collection, Safko International papers, and the Hernandez-Rebollar collections. She will also be working with the Smithsonian Accessibility Office to understand how universal design considerations have been built into past exhibitions and the Museum itself.
  • Matthew Hockenberry, Ph.D. candidate, Media, Culture, and Communication, New York University.  Matthew is examining the global supply chains used in the manufacturing of telegraph and telephone technologies from approximately 1876-1926 He will examine several collections, including the Western Union papers, the Anglo-American Telegraph Company collections, and the papers of Western Electric founder, Elisha Gray.
  • Hallie Lieberman, Ph.D. candidate, Mass Communication, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Hallie is exploring the technological history of sexual aids. Lieberman will explore familiar collections in new ways—for example, she will examine the trade catalogs of the BF Goodrich rubber companies for information on condoms (vs. tires) and literature from appliance-maker Hamilton Beach for information on vibrators (vs. toasters). She will also examine the Museum’s HIV/AIDS collections and our extensive periodical collections to track the socio-cultural impact of sexual aids.
  • Steven Wilf, professor and associate dean, University of Connecticut Law School.  Steven, a legal historian, is conducting research for his forthcoming book with Cambridge University Press, tentatively titled: Intellectual Property Law in America: A Legal and Cultural History. The book traces the history of American intellectual property law from its beginnings in the 18th century through the digital age and describes how patent, copyright, and trademark laws serve to prompt, direct, or even constrain innovation. Wilf will examine runs of invention-oriented periodicals and IP documentation in several of the Museum’s collections, including the Telescoping Shopping Cart Collection; the Eisler Engineering Company Records; the Serge A. Scherbatskoy Papers; the Arthur Ehrat Papers; and the Leo H. Baekeland Papers.

The Lemelson Center fellows and staff talk shop over breakfast. Photo courtesy of Eric Hintz.

Having this many fellows in the Museum all at once is a rare event, like the Transit of Venus, or the Cubs winning the World Series. So to mark the occasion and foster a sense of intellectual community, we recently gathered the fellows and a few Museum staff with similar intellectual interests to talk shop at the Constitution Café. For example, Aimi talked universal design with Beth Ziebarth, director of the SI’s Accessibility Program, while Matthew talked supply chains with Work and Industry curator Peter Liebhold. We all sipped coffee, ate muffins, and enjoyed each other’s company.  (A big thank you to Tanya Garner for organizing the meet-up.)

Before signing off, I should tell you that my interest in the Fellows Program extends beyond a simple line item in my job description. You see, to paraphrase an old commercial by the Hair Club for Men, “I’m not only the Fellows Program coordinator, but I’m also a client!” Back in 2007, as a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania, I was fortunate to receive a 10-week Lemelson Center Fellowship to conduct research for my dissertation (now book project) on American independent inventors. So I’m very proud to be counted among a distinguished group of alumni fellows and to serve now as the steward of our outstanding Fellows Program.

So congratulations to all of our past and present Lemelson Center Fellows.  And to our future fellows, I’ll teach you the secret handshake…