Tailgating: Grilling, Drinking, and Inventing

With summer winding down, most people are looking forward to cooler fall temperatures. However, a new season of football is just heating up and you know what that brings: tailgating.

Tailgaiting

Photo via bishs.com.

Tailgating is a time-honored tradition of gathering together and celebrating one’s team before, during, and—if everyone’s still standing—after a football game. Literally, the term “tailgate” refers to the back part of a truck or heavy duty vehicle. Tailgating, or a tailgate party, is therefore what happens when people socialize around the open tailgate.

Now, as anyone who has been to a sporting event knows, tailgating is where it’s at. Meeting up with friends to reminisce over last year’s wins (or losses), trash talking the other team, and imbibing a few tasty beverages are all part of the festivities.

So what tailgating inventions are out there?

Let’s start with the main event of tailgating—eating and drinking. The Tailgate PartyMate was invented by a fan who was tired of having to haul tables to prepare food, in addition to being frustrated that he never had enough room for everything. So, he invented a table system that hooks onto the trailer hitch of a truck. No more having to haul cumbersome tables or deal with too little space!

a table system hooked onto the trailer hitch of a truck

Photo via tailgatepartymate.com.

Now, the second most fun thing about a tailgate party is all the great games to play—washertoss, horseshoes, wiffle ball, and more. But what happens if you want to enjoy the refreshments and play a game at the same time? That’s where the Scorzie comes in. This handy invention keeps your drink cool and keeps your game score tallied, all in one convenient place.

A drink koozie that keeps score for you.

Photo via scorzie.com

And then there’s what Popular Science Magazine calls “the sports fan’s dream”: a totally tricked-out grill. Lance Greathouse, a dental-laser repairman, invented a grill that’s a “fire-spewing, beer-chilling machine that can drive from one parking-lot party to the next.” Apparently, he had seen tailgating setups that included separate components, but never combined them all together. So, from out of his head popped his tailgating monster, which has a grill and refrigerator on opposite ends, with a satellite stereo, MP3 player, speakers, and a live TV feed of what’s cooking in between. Add on a steel cylinder that shoots fireballs into the air for fun, and I’d say you’ve got your Sunday afternoon all set.

A grill that also has a refrigerator, sound system, and fire-ball shooting abilities.

Photo via popsci.com

I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for this year’s gridiron extravaganza. Bring on the grilled meat and the fireballs. Bring on the games and keeping score and keeping drinks cool. Bring on hooking stuff up to the back of the truck and making even more space for mom’s seven-layer dip. Looks like I’ve got plenty of inventions to help me enjoy my football games.

A Unique Way to See the World: Skateboarders and Inventors

In December, I shared my experiences traveling to Orlando, Florida in 2011 to begin a new Lemelson Center initiative into the exploration of invention, innovation, and creativity in skateboarding culture.  Our work and research continued with a visit by skateboarding legend Rodney Mullen this past summer who spent a wonderful couple of days at the Lemelson Center discussing the role of innovation not only in skateboarding, but its critical importance to the larger society—both historically and in the future.

During his visit, Rodney graciously allowed us to record a video podcast which debuted this past December. The goal of the podcast was simply to let “Rodney be Rodney” and allow him the opportunity to explain his thought process and approach to skating and innovation. The response to the podcast has far exceeded our expectations with over 70,000 views so far. Of course, this is due to Rodney’s stature and popularity in the skateboarding community. But the posted comments to the video reveal that we are succeeding in establishing an important connection between skateboarding and innovation and between the skate community and the Lemelson Center. One the pure joys of working at the Lemelson Center is the opportunity to bring disparate groups of people together through the interdisciplinary connection of invention and innovation. This includes scholars with public audiences, young kids with inventors, and even skateboarders with museum professionals.

Rodney Mullen talks skateboarding and innovation.

Rodney shares some of his thoughts on skateboarding and innovation with me on the roof of the Museum.

As part of our continued work together, the Lemelson Center, in collaboration with the International Association of Skateboard Companies, plans to feature skate culture with a major public festival—Innoskate—on June 21 and 22, 2013, as an extension and compliment to the celebration of the 10th anniversary of global Go Skateboarding Day. Innoskate will celebrate invention and creativity by sharing skate culture’s widespread innovative spirit with the Museum’s public audiences. Innoskate activities will feature skate demonstrations, panel discussions, films, donations of skate objects to the national collections, and other programs to showcase the impact of skate culture’s innovations in American culture. (Stay tuned for more information to come.)

As part of the planning process, I had the pleasure to welcome Ryan Clements (of Excel Management and formerly of Skatepark of Tampa), to the Museum in early February. Ryan is a highly respected member of the skate industry and is playing a key role as part of the Innoskate planning committee. His insights and assistance have been extremely valuable. As part of our planning and discussions, we found ourselves on the Museum’s large plaza fronting the museum’s entrance on the National Mall. Most of Innoskate’s activities and programs will take place on the plaza in a large area that is defined by large planters, built-in benches, and a short set of stairs. Primarily, we were looking at this area because of our intention to install a mini-ramp here for skate demonstrations during Innoskate. But Ryan immediately saw the potential of the built environment, the surrounding architecture of benchers, planters, and such, for developing a “do-it-yourself” project of constructing ¼ pipes and placing them up and against the surrounding architecture to demonstrate various aspects of street skating. (This is a new addition to the program that we are actively pursuing.) But significantly, where I saw a place to sit, Ryan saw a place to skate and to create.

Benches outside the museum are a draw for skateboarders.

Just benches? Or a skater’s paradise?

Later that day, as Ryan and I were walking out of the Museum, we continued discussing the intersection of innovation and skateboarding and the role of “terrain” or the built environment in skate culture. As a skater, Ryan said that he was constantly thinking of new ways to skate the world around him. And it’s not just the stairs, hand rails, and curbs that present such opportunities, but just about anything and everything he sees—Ryan told me that he once tried to figure out how to skate a huge pile of dirt. In his effort to help me understand this phenomenon, Ryan explained that “skaters just view the world around them through a different lens than most others,” constantly using their own creativity and self-expression to move through their world.

Ryan’s observation literally stopped me in my tracks. His self-reflection about how skaters view and understand the world around them resonated deeply with how inventors often describe themselves.  Inventors often share a distinct mindset—a compulsion to solve problems and to find ways to improve the things around them. In particular, Jerry Lemelson, who founded the Lemelson Center with his wife, Dolly, has often been described as a man who couldn’t help but constantly think about how to improve the things he encountered in his world. It is not uncommon for inventors to state that they, too, view the world a bit differently than most others.

Tony Hawk donates skateboard to the Museum.

Tony Hawk signs deed of gift for his skatedeck in 2011. Curator Jane Rogers and I are standing by. Photo by Lee Leal, Embassy Skateboards

So does this correlation suggest that all skaters should start hiring patent attorneys or that all inventors should head out to the nearest skate shop for a new skateboard? Not necessarily—though of course there are skateboarders who are inventors and inventors who skate. But in the effort to illuminate the history of invention and to understand the factors that influence how, when, where, and why innovation occurs, we should take notice of the fact that highly creative and innovative people seem to share a common characteristic of being able to engage their world—not for what it is, but for what it has the potential to be.

Running: A High Tech Sport

I’m a runner. I started running in late 2000, and in June the next year I ran the Mayor’s Marathon in Anchorage, Alaska—my very first race ever. Since then, I’ve run seven other marathons, a dozen or more half marathons, countless 10 milers, 10Ks, and 5Ks, and even a couple triathlons. In the last 10+ years, I‘ve logged thousands on miles on the road and running has become a big part of my life.

The other night I was suiting up for a run and realized that it was 12 years ago to the day that I had started training for my first race. (I have a weird thing for dates and seem to remember a whole host of odd-yet-significant occasions like this one.) I was new to running then, of course, and didn’t know the first thing about what to wear (other than running shoes and even those turned out not to be the right ones for my pronating feet). I can remember wearing cotton sweat pants, long sleeve cotton t-shirts, and fleece jackets to train that winter. When spring came, it was gym shorts, cotton socks, and more cotton t-shirts. I thought back on that—as I pulled on my compression tights and layers of Under Armour—and wondered how in the world I ran mile after mile in cotton. It sticks, it gets heavy, it chafes, and it surely doesn’t breathe when you sweat or, worse, get caught in the rain. Thank goodness I eventually discovered technical clothing that can wick, warm, cool, breathe, or do pretty much anything else the weather and my workout demand!

Since I’m not only a runner but also someone who’s interested in innovation, I started thinking more about the gear I wear and use now, and how invention and innovation have impacted the sport of running. There are innovations in shoes, clothing, technology (think GPSs and apps that help us map and track runs), even the food and drink we consume before, during, and after a run.  Races themselves have become hot spots of innovation, with new timing systems that are built right into the bibs (race numbers), solar powered generators that are used to provide electricity at start and finish lines, and race premiums (like t-shirts) made from recycled and/or sustainable materials.

Race number with built-in timing chip. Photo courtesy of MI Sport Online.

I polled some friends and members of my local running group to find out what others thought about innovation in running gear and, specifically, what their favorite innovations are (or have been). I received a wide range of responses: tech fabrics like Dri-Fit and Mizuno Breath Thermo, GPS devices, tracking apps, heart rate monitors, shoes (including running sandals and “barefoot” models), special lights for running in the dark, and foods like gels and gummies formulated especially for endurance athletes.

At the Lemelson Center, we’re always interested in the people and process behind invention, so I decided to take a closer look at some of these innovations to learn more about who created them, why, and how. I uncovered a lot of great stories. Some, like the invention of the first Nike shoe by college track coach Bill Bowerman, were familiar. But I found some new stories, too, including two female entrepreneurs who have designed a GPS specifically for women athletes, a runner in Oregon who developed a hand-held lighting system for running in the dark, and a former chef who created a plant-based energy bar made of whole, raw ingredients.

Nike running shoes with patented waffle sole, about 1979. Smithsonian photo.

What I love about all of these stories, both old and new, is that they are wonderful examples of the independent American inventor. These are inventors who began working not in a research lab or a corporation with a big R&D budget (although lots of great innovation takes place there, too), but in their garages, basements, kitchens, and workshops. They were fueled by their own interests, needs, and motivations, and at least initially, all set out simply to solve a problem and to make running easier, more efficient, better. The United States has a rich history of independent invention, and it is great to see this spirit reflected in the running community.

Old (left) and new (right) running shoes.

As part of my New Year’s resolution to get more organized at home, I was cleaning out my closet the other day and came across the shoes I wore in that first race in Alaska. They’re beaten up and not suitable for running (or really anything) anymore, but I’ve kept them all these years for sentimental reasons. Just pulling them out of the box brought back memories of the training I endured, the anxiety in the days leading up to the race, and most vividly, the elation I felt at crossing the finish line after 26.2 hard miles. They also reminded how far running gear has come: They are so heavy and clunky compared to the shoes I wear now, which—thanks to all the inventors and innovators out there—will probably feel bulky and out-of-date, too, in another 10 years!

Football Helmet Technology

A leather helmet worn by Gerald Ford while playing football for Michigan in the 1930's. From Wikimedia Commons.

As the parent of a high school football player who suffered a minor concussion two years ago and a huge football fan, it’s both reassuring and fascinating to observe the advancements being made in helmet technology. Most of us have heard recent stories about how concussions have caused significant health problems for retired professional football players. Most recently, repetitive concussions and concussion related injuries have been blamed for the suicides of former NFL players Junior Seau, Ray Easterling, and Dave Duerson. Seau and Duerson both shot themselves in the chest, with Duerson leaving a note behind indicating that he wanted his brain donated for the study of football related brain injuries. The Seau family recently announced that they would allow researchers to examine the brain of Junior Seau for the same reason. In a recent Sports Illustrated article, the plight of two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback Jim McMahon is outlined in heart wrenching detail. A 2007 brain scan revealed that McMahon was experiencing early-onset dementia as a result of at least four documented concussions throughout his career, including the head first body slam that ended his season in 1986 (the photo of this injury in the article is stomach turning). As a result, McMahon has been experiencing both short-term and long-term memory loss, and he’s now experiencing acute, intense headaches that drop him to his knees in a cold sweat.

But while it’s great to know that improvements are being made in helmet safety, can anything be done to separate the game from its gladiator mentality? Most football fans know that the greatest respect is given to players who propel themselves all over the field with reckless abandon. Any talk of changing this aspect of football culture is viewed as outright blasphemy. Many have found solace in the fact that coaches all over the country are focusing on tackling techniques that prevent helmet-to-helmet injuries.  Is technique an important part of the overall problem? According to Tim Gray, a physics professor at the University of Nebraska, an average defensive back’s speed combined with his mass can produce around 1600 pounds of force during a tackle. With that amount of force, bad technique can mean not only potential brain injuries, but possibly life-threatening overloads to the spine. The 2012 Annual Survey of Football Injury Research reports that helmet-to-helmet tackling and blocking techniques were the direct cause of 36 deaths and 30 permanent paralysis injuries in 1968. The total elimination of fatalities wasn’t reported until 1990. In response to these deaths in the 1960s, the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) was founded. Clearly, there should be a continued focus on safe techniques in addition to advancements in helmet technology.

In terms of measuring helmets for their ability to reduce concussion, that task has been undertaken by Virginia Tech since 2011. Virginia Tech researchers have produced a ranking for helmets utilizing the STAR (Summation of Tests for the Analysis of Risk) system. This ranking involves performing 120 impacts on helmets, and data collected from impacts experienced by players. Most disturbing about the 2011 ratings was that one of the lowest-rated helmets was being used by most players in the NFL. Now, the lowest three rated helmets from the 2011 rankings are off the market.

One example of emerging helmet technology is a helmet designed by Troy Fodemski, an entrepreneur from Colorado Springs, CO. Fodemski, an electrical engineer, has designed a response system in helmets that would release dozens of tiny airbags sequentially to cushion blows to the head. Fodemski’s start-up company, Concussion Mitigation Technologies, LLC, has patented its technology that it says will measure hits, compare data, and administer pressure to the tiny airbags in response to the movement of the brain upon impact. Then there’s a product called the Thermocrown, from a startup company called Thermopraxis and renowned helmet producer Schutt Sports. The Thermocrown is a fitted device inside the helmet that, after a hard hit, receives an injection of cooling gas to lower the head’s temperature to minimize damage. It is essentially an ice pack that can be initiated by training staff in seconds.

Obviously, there would be a number of obstacles leading to implementation and use of these products on the football field, but the concepts are rather exciting. Let’s hope that with continued analysis of helmets on the market and the advancements of new, innovative helmet technology, we can see fewer instances of permanent and lingering brain and spinal injuries.