Invention Makes America

As the National Museum of American History (of which the Lemelson Center is of course a part) is busy charting its way forward during strategic planning, its staff is asking a big question—What makes America…America?

Did your mind simultaneously go blank and run wild at the same time? I know mine did when we were asked to write down five things in a recent staff meeting. Here’s what I came up with (no judgement!):

  • The Statue of Liberty
  • Hollywood/pop culture
  • Inaugurations
  • Fried foods on sticks at county fairs
  • The sheer size of the nation

The staff here has had a chance to weigh in, and now the Museum REALLY, REALLY wants to know what YOU think. The survey asks two questions:

  1. When you think about America, what three objects or images come to mind?
  2. What inspires you about America and helps define its essential character?

Everyone’s going to have different answers, though we can expect that certain themes will emerge. But this morning I got to thinking, how would the Lemelson Center answer? It’d be impossible to pick only three inventions! In technology, would it be the telephone or Technicolor? On the home front, disposable diapers or Tupperware? If we looked at medicine, could we decide between the implantable pacemaker and prosthetic legs? Would solar roofing shingles or a water purifier represent solving environmental problems?

Marion O'Brien Donovan, grandmother of the disposable diaper; Technicolor camera; Flex Foot prosthetic; Bell telephone. Smithsonian photos. UV Waterworks apparatus courtesy of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Tupperware photo from Wikimedia Commons user OttawaAC.

The options are extensive and equally powerful in their own ways. It would take minds much wiser and greater than mine to pick just three. But I think the second question is easier to answer on behalf of the Lemelson Center. We believe that America is resilient, problem-solving, creative and resourceful—in short, inventive. America has always charged forward, hunting for the next big idea, solution, product, technology, what have you. The Lemelson Center thinks this inventive spirit is so integral to America that we document it—through our exhibitions, collections, programs, etc.—in order to foster that spirit. And we can’t wait to see what America comes up with next.