Sol’s Place

We talk a lot about “place” of invention these days in the Lemelson Center. Center staff is exploring this topic for an upcoming exhibit titled Places of Invention. The exhibit will take visitors on a journey through time and place to meet people who lived, worked, played, collaborated, adapted, and took risks in order to solve problems and create new solutions. But what does a place of invention look like? Examining the life and work of Solomon “Sol” Adler (1901-1989), an American-born inventor of sewing machines, provides a glimpse of one invention space.

Adler’s personal papers, which are housed at the National Museum of American History’s Archives Center, contain numerous sketches and drawings demonstrating his precision as a draftsman. They provide insight into the drawing abilities he later used to prepare patent drawings. Adler also enjoyed metalworking. An expert machinist and toolmaker, his home workshop boasted a geared lathe, tilling head machine, drill press, bench grinder, and an assortment of hand tools. Living in New York City did not afford much room for a home workshop—some of this equipment and tools was set-up in closets! Adler, who devoted most of his inventive life to improving sewing machines, moved to Japan in 1954 to work for Brother International Corporation (BIC), a subsidiary of the Nippon Company, as a consultant. At BIC, Adler solved certain design and operational problems the company was having in developing a zigzag sewing machine for sale in the United States. While in Japan, Adler created this pencil sketch of his workshop, circa 1955. It depicts his vision for his “place of invention” and how it would be organized.

Sketch of Sol Adler’s workshop, circa 1955.

Sketch of Sol Adler’s workshop, circa 1955. (AC1157-0000003)

The same precision Adler used in his drawings is evident in his workshop. Tools and containers are precisely placed and labeled indicating he appreciated the economy of the space and how to make it function efficiently. Note Adler’s use of cigar boxes to organize his many and diverse machine parts. And, Adler (noted as “A” on the drawing) intended to share his place of invention and collaborate with someone named “Micri.” I don’t know if this workshop was ever realized, but Adler certainly captured it well on paper. Visit our website for more stories about invention and to learn more about Places of Invention.

Hip-Hop, the Collaborations Don’t Stop

What happens when you put museum experts and hip-hop community members in the same room? The Lemelson Center found out when we hosted a hip-hop discussion day in July.

The day was organized as a culmination to Goldman Sacs fellow Martha Diaz’s summer at the Lemelson Center. Martha is the founder of the Hip-Hop Education Center at New York University. The Center cultivates hip-hop scholars, teaching artists, hip-hop advocates, and social entrepreneurs to encourage the incorporation of hip-hop into the way teachers educate students. She is also a scholar-in-residence working on an upcoming hip-hop exhibit at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. Martha came to the Lemelson Center to learn more about museum practices and to share her knowledge of hip-hop with us as we continue research for our upcoming exhibit Places of Invention. When the exhibition opens in 2015, it will include the invention of hip-hop in the Bronx during the 1970′s as one of five case studies that represent various characteristics  of a place of invention.

Conceptual design drawing of what the Bronx section of the exhibition may look like.

Conceptual design drawing of what the Bronx section of the exhibition may look like.

We had intended the meeting as a wrap-up event for Martha’s fellowship. Little did we know that instead it would be the start of some great collaborations. Participants from the hip-hop and cultural/performing arts communities in D.C. and New York  contributed to a robust conversation that covered a variety of topics.

One issue that surfaced is that many pioneering hip-hop artists feel that current histories of hip-hop do not present a full picture—they discussed how important it is to emphasize that hip-hop was created in spite of the environment in the Bronx. Our participants also felt that it will be important to capture hip-hop’s conflicting history while the most prominent figures are still living. This is an issue that the National Museum of American History’s Jazz Oral History Program has struggled with and can serve as a good case study for the hip-hop community.

Grandmixer DXT, Grammy award winning turntabalist and hip-hop historian, address the conference.

Grandmixer DXT, Grammy award winning turntabalist and hip-hop historian, address the conference.

The hip-hop community voiced the desire for institutions to be more inclusive. They observed that institutions tend to cater toward other institutions, but reminded us that it’s important to reach out to community members, even thought this often the more difficult path. This is something that the Lemelson Center is familiar with. In partnering successfully with the skateboarding community on a recent event about inventions and innovations in skateboarding, we learned that while there are often vocabulary barriers and differing working methods that make collaborating more challenging, ultimately if both collaborators are committed to the end product, then success is achievable and inevitably more meaningful.

Perhaps the most surprising comment to come out of the meeting that this was the first time the hip-hop artists participating had been asked to participate in a meeting like this—of D.C.-based groups working on hip-hop projects. The energy and enthusiasm from people was apparent and has translated more quickly than I anticipated into the creation of collaborative projects. We are currently awaiting the results of an application co-written by Martha Diaz and Deborra Richardson, the chair of the Archives Center at the National Museum of American, to fund the creation of a Smithsonian hip-hop group that would coordinate hip-hop related projects at the Institution. It is hoped that part of this may be the founding of a hip-hop oral history program and a book about documenting hip-hop’s history.

Conference attendees included representatives from the Smithsonian, D.C. performing arts groups, and the State Department.

Conference attendees included representatives from the Smithsonian, D.C. performing arts groups, and the State Department.

Another direct outcome of the meeting is the negotiation of long-term collaborations between the Lemelson Center and two pioneering hip-hop artists. These artists would help us tell the story of hip-hop through our exhibition, website, book, and programming.  The artists will be featured at the Smithsonian, and gain exposure to a different type of audience, and inspire new generations. There have also been discussions with all of the people in the D.C. hip-hop community who participated in the meeting about future programming collaborations, allowing the Lemelson Center to tell a fuller story of inventions in hip-hop beyond the walls of the exhibit, and for other organizations to find new inspiration in the museum’s exhibits and collections. These collaboration will give us all the opportunity to interest people who may have had no previous interest in hip-hop.

Without knowing it the meeting was a kick off to fruitful collaborations with other people, organizations, and communities they represent. I can’t wait to see what we come up with next!

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.

Calling Smithsonian Affiliates!

IMAGE EXP

APPLY NOW BEFORE THE SEPTEMBER 1ST DEADLINE!

Become a part of this new model for the co-creation of exhibition content!

Join other Affiliates eager to share the different ways people, resources, and geography came together in their communities to forge hot spots of invention.

THE PROJECT

Selected Affiliates and their community partners explore the central message of the  Places of Invention exhibition—that invention is everywhere and sparked by unique combinations of people, resources, and surroundings. Teams, led by Affiliates, are asked to apply these themes to their own communities and create multiple deliverables, including videos, oral histories, and public programs.

Video deliverables include one or more short pieces synthesizing team findings. These pieces will become featured stories on the POI exhibition’s dynamic, large-scale interactive map in the center of the gallery. The map will be accessible from both the exhibition and web, allowing it to grow exponentially as visitors read, tag, and comment on Affiliate stories, even make use of the option to add their own images and videos.

Current stories being developed include:

The Illinois River, one of the most consistent and powerful influences on Peoria, IL innovation

Newark

One of the major glass companies in Newark, OH: The Holophane Co. Inc. Works

The Bronx, NY
Fort Collins, CO
Hartford, CT
Hollywood, CA
Huntsville, AL
Lowell, MA
Medical Alley, MN
Newark, OH
Peoria, IL
Pittsburgh, PA
Seattle, WA
Silicon Valley, CA

With your participation, we hope to have videos representing all regions of the United States when the Places of Invention exhibition opens in 2015 at the National Museum of American History.

WHAT KINDS OF INVENTION? ALL KINDS!! We’re interested in any new or improved way of doing things; in interdisciplinary stories of STEM-based invention and innovation through cross-pollination, including the bustling social spots where people shared and refined ideas; in the ways local people lived, worked, played, collaborated, adapted, took risks, solved problems, and sometimes failed—all in the pursuit of something new.

We’re interested in a wide range of innovation: in green energy, medicine, education, transportation, and robotics; in the ways that art and music can intersect with technology, as with the electric guitar; in civil engineering, architecture, and construction; in agriculture—from seed cultivation to harvesting processes; in biotechnology that changed the way we eat, treat disease, and create alternative fuels; in communications and fiber-optics; in fabric technology—from 19th-century textile mills to high-performance synthetic fabrics worn by athletes today; in computers, software engineering, web technology, and social media; in business and advertising; in aeronautics, military production, and urban planning; and in the mass production of any kind of goods. Stories can be about current and historic innovation, as well as cycles of innovation spawned by a community’s infrastructure and natural resources repurposed over time.

REQUIREMENTS

Must be a Smithsonian Affiliate to be eligible

IMPORTANT DATES

Application Deadline: September 1, 2013
Winner Notification: October 4, 2013
DC Training: December 6, 2013
Final Deliverables Due: December 8, 2014

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Contact Anna Karvellas, Places of Invention Affiliates Project Coordinator, via email or by calling 202-633-4722.

Access her presentation from the Places of Invention panel at the 2013 Smithsonian Affiliations Conference, as well as those by the following Affiliates:

Documenting Gaming in Greater Seattle, Julia Swan, Adult Public Programs Manager, Museum of History and Industry

Inventing the Pittsburgh Sound, Kate A. Lukaszewicz, Lead Educator, Senator John Heinz History Center

NSF

Places of Invention has been made possible by a generous grant from the National Science Foundation 

Nikola Tesla’s Place of Invention

Today we host a lecture by noted historian and Tesla biographer W. Bernard Carlson in which he will explore Tesla’s visionary approach to invention and the business strategies behind his most important technological breakthroughs.

In a blog post on Gotham Center, Carlson writes about Tesla’s place of invention, Manhattan:

Leonardo da Vinci’s studio in Milan. Thomas Edison’s laboratory at Menlo Park, New Jersey.  Jobs and Wozniak in the family garage in Los Altos, California.  Although we tend to think about creativity as an abstract, cerebral process, invention actually takes place in specific locations that inform the design and content of a device.  For Nikola Tesla, nearly all of his creative work took place in Manhattan, and where he worked, lived, and played profoundly shaped his inventions.

Read more about Tesla’s relationship with New York City.

Innovating Jazz: The Pittsburgh Sound

IMG_0002

Mary Lou Williams’ piano, c. 1940s, on view in a re-creation of the Crawford Grill in the Senator John Heinz History Center’s exhibition, “Pittsburgh: A Tradition of Innovation”

It’s no wonder that a unique jazz sound emerged from Pittsburgh. The city has a hum and a buzz, a palpable energy that resonates in its landscape, social spaces, and multitude of people. My colleague Ken Kimery—Executive Producer of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra and Program Director of our Jazz Oral History Program—tells me the sound is unmistakeable. That you instantly recognize the city’s voice and feel in the placement of the beats of Kenny Clarke’s, Art Blakey’s, and Roger Humphries drums. In Stanley Turrentine’s saxophone. In Billy Strayhorn’s compositional techniques and the musical dialects produced through jazz session group dynamics.

 

Kenny Clarke Quartet

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I9z9sU5dXnw

Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qywMA_vrvsc

Check out the Roger Humphries drum solo at 3:25

I recently went to Pittsburgh wanting to know more about this sound for the Lemelson Center’s Places of Invention (POI) Affiliates Pilot Project. When the POI exhibition opens in 2015, the story of Pittsburgh jazz innovation will be featured on a large, digital interactive map at the center of the exhibition and website. The Senator John Heinz History Center, one of our most active Smithsonian Affiliate museums, is creating content for the project with Dan Holland of the Young Preservationists’ Association of Pittsburgh. The story will focus on the 1920s–1960s. Ken Kimery and Marty Ashby, Executive Producer of Pittsburgh’s MCG Jazz, are advising the team, directing them to additional experts and resources and making available oral histories and other multimedia. When the exhibition opens, the public will have opportunities to comment on the story and add recollections of their own, making the map another repository for the growing body of documentation about the city’s jazz history. We’re especially eager to see material posted by the Pittsburgh jazz and preservation communities.

The thesis of the POI exhibition is that place and community matter; that advantages and limitations of geography and resources drive innovation when combined with new ideas shared and refined through social networks. If I had any questions about Pittsburgh geography, they were answered on my drive into the city to visit the POI team. My car went up and down and around steep hills, past rocky slopes, and over railroad tracks and wide rivers moving large chunks of ice. As I wound through neighborhoods of brick houses, I couldn’t help but lean into each curve and think of the geology that helped drive the city’s famous steel and glass industries. Buildings I passed on rocky outcroppings looked more like cliff dwellings than urban homes.

Clockwise from top left: Crawford Grill sign, Art Blakey House, Crawford Grill, August Wilson House

Clockwise from top left: Crawford Grill sign, Art Blakey House, Crawford Grill, August Wilson House

I learned even more about Pittsburgh’s landscape on a tour of the city’s Hill District led by Dan Holland. His knowledge of the area—the things that live even when the physical structure might be gone—was not only impressive but also moving. Smithsonian Affiliations’ Jennifer Brundage and the Heinz History Center’s Sandra Smith and Kate Lukaszwewicz also joined and provided helpful insight. As we passed the homes of Art Blakey and August Wilson, we saw storefronts and row houses clumped together on otherwise razed blocks. The Crawford Grill nightclub held its own on a street corner behind a blue historical marker. At the New Granada Theater on Centre Avenue, signs of community involvement and recovery were evident.

Details of the New Granada Theater, originally built as a Pythian Temple in 1927 for the Knights of Pythias, an lodge for African American craftsmen.

Details of the New Granada Theater featuring Pittsburgh jazz legends. The building was originally built as a Pythian Temple for the Knights of Pythias, an African American craftsmen lodge.

Dan also took us to a special spot on the Hill for the tour’s most dramatic view: a panorama of “the city of bridges.”

View of the Strip from the Hill: The Heinz History Center’s Sandra Smith and Kate Lukaszewicz with the Smithsonian’s Jennifer Brundage and YPA’s Dan Holland. Remains of old funicular to the right. Allegheny River in the background. Zoom in for detail.

View of the Strip from the Hill: The Heinz History Center’s Sandra Smith and Kate Lukaszewicz with the Smithsonian’s Jennifer Brundage and YPA’s Dan Holland. Remains of old funicular to the right. Allegheny River in the background. Zoom in for detail.

Nearby, we could see the remains of the old Penn funicular from a time when gravity planes transported coal and people up and down the Hill to the Strip District.

Click on the image to go to “Pittsburgh Then and Now,” a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette site. Photo copyright 2004 Carnegie Museum of Art, Charles “Teenie” Harris Archive.

Click on the image to go to “Pittsburgh Then and Now,” a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette site. Photo copyright 2004 Carnegie Museum of Art, Charles “Teenie” Harris Archive.

So how did the city’s geography, community, and networks shape Pittsburgh jazz? Our team is exploring this question in detail, taking into account the research and documentation that has been lovingly preserved in its cultural institutions. Does it come from the people dining with—celebrating with—worshipping with—playing with—laughing with—surviving with each other in segregated Pittsburgh? From a strong African American middle class with money to spend at the lively social spots that lined the Hill? From the mix of ethnicities that came to live and work together? From the many schools and institutions promoting music education? From the building trades-inspired apprenticeship system? From the clubs serving mill workers whose shifts ran around the clock? From the artists who could actually make a living performing and teaching in the city? From the visiting musicians bringing new ideas and inspiration to the music scene while on layovers between New York, Chicago and New Orleans?

Or was it something else? The very rhythm of the city itself? Can the answer be found in Teenie Harris’ photographs of musicians and good-timers packed into the Crawford Grill and Goode’s Pharmacy? In images of children in classrooms clapping to live piano or playing brass instruments and bongos on the street? In performance shots of Roy Eldridge blasting his trumpet, Art Blakey on drums, a

teenie

Boys, possibly from Herron Hill School, playing brass instruments on steps, circa 1938-€“1945. Charles “Teenie” Harris/Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh.
Click on image for NPR’s story “The Big Legacy of Charles ‘Teenie’ Harris” about the photographer and the opening of a CMA exhibition of his work in 2011.

young Ahmad Jamal at the piano, and Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn backstage at the Stanley Theater? In the movement of the dancers and Lena Horne captured in a night at the Loendi Club? In Mary Lou Williams sitting at the Syria Mosque’s piano, surrounded by Earl “Fatha” Hines, Erroll Garner, Billy Eckstine, and Maxine Sullivan?

Ahmad Jamal Trio

Renée Govanucci and Marty Ashby (MCG Jazz), Dan Holland, and Sandra Smith and Kate Lukaszewicz (Heinz History Center). The team met to brainstorm and think about collaborative opportunities between the Heinz History Center, MCG Jazz, the Lemelson Center, and the broader Smithsonian.

Renée Govanucci and Marty Ashby (MCG Jazz), Dan Holland (YPA), and Sandra Smith and Kate Lukaszewicz (Heinz History Center). The team met to discuss the POI project and collaborative opportunities.

My colleagues and I are enthusiastic to learn more and see how the Pittsburgh POI team develops its story. My trip was deeply rewarding and full of exuberant conversations about the project and the importance of telling this often overlooked story of Pittsburgh invention. We welcome all to join us as we celebrate the ongoing innovation of the Pittsburgh jazz sound.

 

Spaces of Invention

Faculty and students all over the country are transforming their learning spaces into Places of Invention.

How do we know?

On March 22, the Lemelson Center hosted our partner NCIIA (National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance) and a student invention showcase, part their annual conference, Open Minds. Part of the program was “Spaces of Invention,” six Ignite talks by students and faculty who describe their Design Kitchens and maker spaces from the collegiate through K-12 arenas. Speakers include:

Sound and Vision

Editors Note: This is a follow-up to “It’s in the Details,” Anna’s recent blog about fiber artist Timothy Westbrook and his use of repurposed materials. Originally from upstate New York, Westbrook has enjoyed becoming part of Milwaukee’s robust arts community, itself at the center of a vibrant place of invention

Donated audio cassette tapes in Westbrook's studio

 

Westbrook's "The Unicorn Maiden" comprised of woven cassette tape with cotton, blue velvet curtains, bed sheets, a Victorian hand-embroidered curtain, and a Victorian unicorn button. Modeled by Raquel and styled by Alexis Rose. Photo by Gerard Heidgerken at BarelyPractical.com.

“Blue, blue/
electric blue/
that’s the color/
of my room/
where I will live— /
blue, blue—”

These lyrics from David Bowie‘s “Sound and Vision” have been lolling through my mind ever since I began thinking about the hand-woven cassette tapes in Timothy Westbrook‘s
designs. If it wasn’t for Bowie, after all, or the Clash or the Ramones or Troublefunk (you get the picture), I might not have felt such a familiar and sentimental pull towards Westbrook’s use of crinkly, sparkly, magnetic cassette tape. Who knew that old cassettes full of hiss could LOOK so good. Recognizing the tape in Westbrook’s jackets, dresses, and scarves was like seeing an old friend in a new context. In Westbrook’s Pfister Hotel studio, once-loved tape was woven into shimmering new life with pearl cotton, wool, and blended silk bamboo.

For those who remember, cassettes were high-maintenance friends: easily degraded by heat and humidity, often stuck in Walkmans, and with a tendency to spew ribbons of crumpled tape that had to be carefully rewound with a pencil. (This was best-case scenario: more often, the tape was mangled.) You work with what you have and I loved that technology. Soundtracks, mix tapes, and “cassingles” got me through.

Where do all the old “new technologies” like cassette tape go, though? I often think about that here at the Lemelson Center where we study innovative technology that supplants the old. While collections documenting the history of invention are carefully preserved by the Smithsonian and its counterparts, cassettes mostly go from shoe boxes to giant landfills where they degrade and leach pollutants into our water table and get into our food chain.

Details of Westbrook's woven cassette tape

Thankfully, artists like Westbrook are inspired to re-think this cycle and imagine how materials can be repurposed. Each of his gowns, for example, use between 6 and 12 yards of cassette tape. He makes it a point to never use virgin materials: “The goal is zero-waste which is often confused as ‘take this rectangular fabric and make a muumuu wrap dress.’ I simply mean do not throw anything away that is not biodegradable.”

Naysayers who think eco-friendly/sustainable fashion means burlap and muumuus will be more than surprised when they see Westbrook’s holiday dress. Made from a combination of gospel and holiday tapes, wire hangers, roses, grommets, and a Mrs. Claus costume, the materials inspire humor and play a metaphorical role in the visual story of the dress. Varying tape colors add visual depth.

The "Alexis Rose" holiday dress made of gospel and holiday-themed audio cassette tapes, red velvet from a Mrs. Claus costume, wire hangers, and donated grommets filled with roses. Sue Lawton's "Willow Tree" is in the background.

The relationship between sound and vision is not only a constant in Westbrook’s work—it also is the inspiration for his experimentation with audio tape. As a child, time spent listening to books-on-tape with his blind grandfather made him think about ways that sensory experiences could be translated. What if the books they listened to could be transformed back into something visual that could be understood through touch?

"The Stripe" (right) with woven cassette tape and a cotton and vintage chiffon curtain. Modeled by Michael and styled by Alexis Rose. Photo by Gerard Heidgerken at BarelyPractical.com.

Asked about the challenges of his medium, Westbrook muses, “I don’t really have problems with the cassette tapes—only inspiration. The story is in the wording: cassette tape is a kind of ribbon. So where else do we hear ‘yarn, thread, string, rope, ribbon’? Fabric. Weaving. What are other related things? Line, floss, string—violin string!—electric wire, silk. All of a sudden new materials make themselves available.”

His ability to look at things differently—to see all of the preceding materials as monofilaments to be woven, for example—keeps Westbrook’s work evolving. Strong mathematical ability and a fertile imagination stoke this fire, even allowing him to think about similarities between the sensorial process of weaving and playing audio cassettes reel to reel.

"The Femme Nouvelle" made with woven cassette tape and wool and a scarf made with woven plastic bags and cotton. Modeled by Layna and styled by Alexis Rose. Photo by Gerard Heidgerken at BarelyPractical.com.

So what next? Coming off a successful final gallery night show at the Pfister Hotel, Westbrook is winding down his time as Artist-in-Residence. He plans to stay in Milwaukee where he will continue to explore new ways to create sustainable, low-impact works that challenge established ideas about luxury and beauty in our disposable culture. He is innately good at connecting different people, ideas, and industries together—an important figure in any thriving place of invention—and I expect we will hear remarkable things about the community-focused projects he and collaborator Alexis Rose have on the horizon.

Alexis Rose and Westbrook at his final gallery night show. Rose styled the show and was its creative director. Photo by Gerard Heidgerken at BarelyPractical.com.

Earlier today, New Yorkers had a chance to hear Westbrook speak at the GreenBizForum about every object’s potential reuse. 

Special thanks to BarelyPractical.com.

Yankee Ingenuity Part II: The Inventors of Hartford

Editor’s Note: Hartford is a featured case study in our upcoming Places of Invention exhibition. For more on Hartford as an invention hot spot, read Part I of Yankee Ingenuity.

In the 1800s, New England (and Connecticut in particular) was the home to dozens of iconic inventors, including Hartford’s Samuel Colt, Hamden’s Eli Whitney and New Haven’s Charles Goodyear—not to mention hundreds of lesser-known, but highly skilled machinists and toolmakers who worked in the region’s factories and shop floors to continually improve their manufacturing processes. Hartford is a microcosm of that larger story. In just a few blocks in downtown Hartford, you can see how the methods of precision, interchangeable parts manufacturing spread from firm to firm and industry and to industry—from arms-making to sewing machines to typewriters to bicycles and automobiles, creating a real hot spot of innovation.

Some notable inventors from Hartford at this time:

Samuel Colt, 1859, courtesy of the Connecticut State Library.

Samuel Colt is the reason we are still talking about Hartford today. A Hartford native, he patented his namesake revolver in 1835-1836, but his real innovation was perfecting a precision manufacturing system that allowed him to mass produce 1000 identical copies of his design with interchangeable parts. He was a brilliant inventor and a manufacturing genius, but he was an even greater promoter of his business. He would shower liquor and lavish gifts on Army generals, schmoozing them to secure arms contracts in a way that would make us blanch today. Colt was an equal opportunity salesman—in the years before the Civil War, he sold arms to both the Northern and Southern states. He traveled to Europe and sold arms to both the British and Russian governments, arming both sides of the Crimean War. He was incredibly wealthy, brash and larger than life, with expensive tastes in art—like a modern day Larry Ellison or Richard Branson.

Albert Pope, circa 1900, courtesy of the Connecticut Historical Society.

Albert Pope was a Boston entrepreneur who first saw a high-wheel bicycle at the 1876 Philadelphia World’s Fair. These were imported from England, but Pope was determined to manufacture bicycles in the United States. After securing patent rights in the U.S., he arrived in Hartford in 1878 and contracted with the Weed Sewing Machine factory to build his bicycles. Eventually the bicycle business became so lucrative that Pope bought out Weed. Eventually in the 1890s, Pope also began making steam, gasoline, and electric cars in Hartford.

Christopher M. Spencer, circa 1863, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Christopher Spencer was a serial inventor and entrepreneur who worked across a number of industries. He invented a winding machine for silk thread, a repeating rifle that Abraham Lincoln personally tested and adopted for the Union Army during the Civil War, and an automatic screw-making machine.

Mark Twain, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Mark Twain was the quintessential American humorist and author of the 19th century—he was famous all over the world—but most people don’t know that he was also an inventor. He secured three patents: a men’s garment that worked like suspenders, a self-pasting scrapbook with pre-glued pages, and a type of historical board game, much like Trivial Pursuit. He was also a failed venture capitalist, who nearly lost everything when he unwisely invested in a failed typesetting machine that he thought would revolutionize the printing business. (When I was in Hartford, I got to visit his historic home in the Nook Farm neighborhood and see Twain’s “man cave”—he had an upstairs room where he and his friends would play billiards, smoke cigars, and drink brandy. In the corner was a little writing desk where he wrote all of those classic novels.)

Colt employees on the shop floor, circa 1900, courtesy of the Connecticut State Library.

It’s easy to learn things about a famous industrialist like Samuel Colt or Albert Pope, but much harder to find information about the folks who worked for them. It’s been difficult to understand what life was like for the average machinist or engineer who worked on the shop floor in one of Hartford’s many factories. I would love to know, for example, what it was like to work at Colt’s armory. What was the experience of living in the Coltsville factory neighborhood—to play in the Colt band, to play on the Colt baseball team, or to attend dances at Charter Oak Hall? Unfortunately, there are hardly any first-person accounts of the city’s workers. This is especially true of immigrant workers; many were not literate in English and left few records.

Yankee Ingenuity: Hartford, Connecticut

Hartford, Connecticut, is a classic story in the history of American technology. If you have ever wondered why people refer to “Yankee ingenuity,” this is what they are talking about. Hartford in the mid-1800s was one of the birthplaces of American mass production, making it a perfect case study for our upcoming Places of Invention exhibition. Around 1850, Hartford native Samuel Colt perfected the precision manufacturing process that enabled the mass production of thousands of his revolvers with interchangeable parts. Over the next several decades, a variety of industries adopted and adapted these techniques and Hartford became the center of production for a wide array of products—including firearms by Colt, Richard Gatling and John Browning; Weed sewing machines; Royal and Underwood typewriters; Columbia bicycles; and even Pope automobiles. In the mid and late 1800s, the United States overtakes Great Britain as the world’s foremost economic superpower, largely on the strength of its prowess in inventing and manufacturing new technologies. Hartford is at the center of that revolution.

Coming out of Hartford at this time is a whole class of general purpose machine tools, like the turret lathes, drill presses, and milling machines. These were essentially machines that ground and shaped metal blanks into precise shapes that became the components of finished products—things like revolver barrels, sewing machines needles, and bicycle gears. These milling machines were general purpose technologies. Essentially, these were machines to make other machines. I think of it as similar to today’s microchips—a basic memory chip can go into any number of products, from laptop computers to digital cameras to the cable box. Once the basic techniques of forging and milling pieces of metal were understood, you could make just about anything, and they did in Hartford.

In addition to the manufacturing industries, there was so much more going on in Hartford at the same time. Most people, if they know much about Hartford, probably know it as “the insurance capital of the world.” So in addition to all of these manufacturing firms, at the exact same time, you have the emergence of all these major insurance firms, like Aetna, Travelers, and “The Hartford”—firms that still exist today.

Hartford also had this amazing literary scene in the mid-1800s. The city was home to Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which ignited the abolitionist movement in the decade before the Civil War. Her next door neighbor was none other than Mark Twain, who wrote many of his classics in Hartford—including The Gilded Age (1873), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), The Prince & the Pauper (1882), Life on the Mississippi (1883), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). In fact, the protagonist of Connecticut Yankee is based on the superintendent of the Colt armory.

Hartford reached its peak in the decades before and after the Civil War. It begins to wane in the first decade of the 20th century, when some of the original inventors and entrepreneurs begin to retire and sell their businesses. In 1901, Colt’s widow, Elizabeth Jarvis Colt, sells the firm to a conglomerate; Pratt & Whitney also sells out in that same year. Many of these parent firms are based outside of Hartford, and they begin to relocate certain operations. Meanwhile, Albert Pope’s bicycle and auto-making operations face labor unrest and a banking crisis—he gets over-extended and declares bankruptcy in 1907 and the firm gets broken up into pieces. At the same time, firms looking to expand can’t do so within the city limits of Hartford, so they start to move to the suburbs of West Hartford and Manchester, and to cheaper labor markets in the Southern states and outside the U.S. By the 1950s, Hartford—like many industrial cities—begins to lose its commercial tax base, and starts to experience white flight some urban decay. However, because Hartford is the state capital and maintained the insurance industry, it has remained an important and vibrant city. Even today, we still have Colt-brand firearms, Columbia-brand bicycles, and Pratt & Whitney’s precision gauging and measurement tools.

Read Part II to learn more about the inventors of Hartford.