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.

Manny’s Medical Alley

Recently I traveled to Minnesota to conduct additional research for the Places of Invention exhibition about the early days of the region’s medical-device industry now known as “Medical Alley.” This wasn’t just any research trip, though. Thanks to a personal introduction from David Rhees of the Bakken Museum, I had the special opportunity to meet one of the region’s pioneers, Manuel (“Manny”) Villafaña. You may not know his name, but you’ve probably heard of at least one of the seven medical-device companies he has founded in Minneapolis, including Cardiac Pacemakers Inc. (CPI) and St. Jude Medical.

Manny and I first chatted briefly on the phone in early June, while he was waiting for a business flight to Rome and I was in my office in D.C. I had read a number of articles and transcripts of oral history interviews with him and many of his fellow Medical Alley pioneers. Still, there is nothing like meeting with inventors and innovators in person, hearing their anecdotes and getting to know them better. I always leave these conversations feeling inspired.

On June 25, I hurried from the airport to Manny’s Steakhouse in downtown Minneapolis to join him for dinner. (Yes, the restaurant is named for him!)  Manny greeted me warmly from his booth, where he was waiting for me patiently with customary glass of milk in hand. Over Caesar salads, a huge shared NY strip steak, and even bigger “Manny’s brownie” for dessert, we discussed highlights from his fascinating life and career.

Manny Villafaña at St. Jude Medical, June 27, 2013

Manny Villafaña at St. Jude Medical, June 27, 2013

Born in 1940 to Puerto Rican parents, Manny grew up in a tough South Bronx, New York, neighborhood. A high-school graduate, Manny quickly showed his skills as a salesman. By his early 20s, Manny worked for Picker International selling medical products on behalf of many companies, including Minneapolis-based Medtronic Inc. In 1967 Medtronic co-founder Earl Bakken and colleague Charlie Cuddihy flew out to New York and lured him away to help expand international distribution of Medtronic implantable cardiac pacemakers. Manny told me he’ll never forget the day he and his wife arrived in Minnesota for his new job. It was March 8 and he recalls the weatherman announcing the temperature as “15 degrees below zero with a negative 43 degree wind chill.” Welcome to Minneapolis!

Manny and Elizabeth Villafaña at his childhood home (undated). Courtesy of Manny Villafaña.

Manny and Elizabeth Villafaña at his childhood home (undated). Courtesy of Manny Villafaña.

Two days after our delicious steakhouse dinner, details about Manny’s early career in Medical Alley emerged during a great driving tour he gave me. He wanted to chronologically illustrate his career and show both the growth and proximity of his various companies. So we started by driving to the small former Medtronic site where Manny first worked in 1967. At that point the company had moved from the original garage headquarters where it was founded by Bakken and Palmer Hermundslie in 1949 to a building that was about 7,500 square-feet.

In 1971, Manny left Medtronic and founded CPI to develop a cardiac pacemaker he co-invented using a new lithium battery developed by engineer Wilson Greatbatch. Greatbatch, who I met in 1996, is best known for inventing the first commercially successful implantable pacemaker in 1958. Named after him and collaborating surgeon William Chardack, the Chardack-Greatbatch implantable pacemaker was licensed by Medtronic in 1960 and became the driving force behind that company’s success. About a decade later, Greatbatch’s latest battery invention became the basis for the success of Manny’s rival company CPI. As we sat in the parking lot by the 5,000 square-feet building where it was originally located, Manny told me that CPI’s first lithium battery-powered pacemaker is still running today—41 years later.

Once again as his company expanded, Manny decided to leave and start another venture, St. Jude Medical, in 1976. This time he focused on developing a mechanical heart valve, which became the industry’s gold standard. His new company moved into the old CPI office space after it moved across the highway to a bigger building. CPI (now owned by Boston Scientific) and St. Jude Medical remain Medtronic’s biggest competitors in the medical-device industry. Manny drove me to CPI’s and then St. Jude Medical’s headquarters, which are near each other today and dwarf the 5,000 square-feet industrial park buildings where they began.

We ran out of time that afternoon to drive by the sites of his other Minneapolis companies in intervening years—GV Medical, Helix Bio-Core, ATS Medical, and CABG Medical. However, he invited me and my colleague Kari Fantasia to meet him the following day at his newest venture, Kips Bay Medical. So we duly drove to the company’s 5,000 square-feet headquarters in an office park. [Notice a trend? He thinks that size is optimal for medical-device start-ups.]

Kari Fantasia, Monica Smith, and Manny Villafaña at Kips Bay Medical, June 28, 2013

Kari Fantasia, Monica Smith, and Manny Villafaña at Kips Bay Medical, June 28, 2013

Manny gave us a brief overview of technologies he has been involved in, from the Chardack-Greatbatch pacemaker he sold for Medtronic to the St. Jude Medical heart valve he co-invented to today’s Kips Bay’s eSVS® Mesh that he believes will revolutionize coronary bypass surgery. Interestingly, his current company is named for the Kips Bay Boys Club in New York where he spent a lot of time as a kid and that he credits in part for his later success.

When I asked Manny “Why Minnesota?” for all of his companies, he answered: Where else are there 10,000 engineers all in one place with such medical device expertise? It’s a highly skilled, tight-knit, hard-working community and he clearly wouldn’t consider founding his companies anywhere else. Manny is very proud of his special relationships over the decades with other key Medical Alley pioneers, including his friend and mentor Dr. C. Walton Lillehei. Medical Alley has a long history of being a collaborative, inventive community indeed.

1985 photo of four cardiac pioneers who trained or worked in Medical Alley (left to right): Dr. Nazih Zudhi, Manny Villafaña, Dr. C. Walton Lillehei, and Dr. Christiaan Barnard. Courtesy of Manny Villafaña.

1985 photo of four cardiac pioneers who trained or worked in Medical Alley (left to right): Dr. Nazih Zudhi, Manny Villafaña, Dr. C. Walton Lillehei, and Dr. Christiaan Barnard. Courtesy of Manny Villafaña.

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.

Bionic Repair

Via Wikimedia Commons user Debivort.

As I continue to recover from my recent anterior cervical discectomy and fusion (ACDF) surgery, I can’t help but feel a bit like the “Six Million Dollar Man.” I can almost hear the bionic sound effect that was the staple of Lee Major’s TV character, Steve Austin (I’m leaking the proximity of my age here). The procedure is typically performed to treat nerve root and spinal cord compression as a result of spinal stenosis, degenerative disc disease, or, as in my case, a herniated disc. The surgeon accesses the spine with a small incision in the crease of the neck and after moving neck muscles and the esophagus aside, the bedeviled disc is removed, replaced, and the vertebrae stabilized with a titanium plate and four screws. It is the titanium plate that makes me feel somewhat bionic and the use of titanium specifically that makes the surgery so interesting to me. For several decades, titanium has been recognized as an element that can bond with bone and integrate with it. It is the use of titanium in the surgery that allows the fusion of the reconstructed vertebrae to remain secure.

The hope and expectation of surgeons who perform this procedure is that the patient will end up with a much more stable spinal structure than before. In the opening sequence of the “Six Million Dollar Man,” a voice describes the star, “Steve Austin, astronaut. A man barely alive. Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology.” How fitting, right?

When my surgeon initially described the entire procedure and mentioned the plate, I remember wondering how I would ever get through a TSA checkpoint without being searched extensively and repeatedly. My wife, who works for the Department of Homeland Security and was seated next to me, immediately began shaking her head in pity. But my doctor quickly assured me that the plate was much too small to cause me any such issues.

As I recall that this is the surgery that corrected WWE super star John Cena’s herniated disc and corrected quarterback Peyton Manning’s collapsed vertebrae, I can only hope that if Cena could return to wrestling and Manning could return to playing professional football, a little old man like me can eventually return to yard work with the kids. Wish me the best folks.