Rocket Scientist and Inventor Yvonne Brill

Rocket Scientist and Inventor Yvonne Brill. Photo via the Winnipeg Sun.

Yvonne Brill. Photo via the Winnipeg Sun.

I venture to guess that when most people hear “rocket scientist” either they envision a man wearing a lab coat or think of the phrase “It’s not rocket science” used in reference to comparatively easy tasks. In my years at the Lemelson Center I’ve had the advantage of meeting several fascinating rocket scientists, most of whom were women. Now, naturally, if you read my March blog “Girls Get Science and Invention,” you’re already aware of my particular interest in women inventors. In that light, I noticed a New York Times obituary about pioneering rocket scientist and inventor Yvonne Claeys Brill (born December, 30 1924—died March 27, 2013) and was intrigued to learn more about this recipient of the 2010 National Medal of Technology and Innovation “for innovation in rocket propulsion systems for geosynchronous and low earth orbit communication satellites, which greatly improved the effectiveness of space propulsion systems.”

Yvonne Brill receiving the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2010 from President Obama.

Yvonne Brill receiving the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2010 from President Obama. Photo via USPTO.

Unfortunately, her New York Times obituary received news coverage not so much because of Mrs. Brill’s amazing career accomplishments but rather because of the way the obituary was written…and then revised…due to initial complaints about its apparent sexism. The New Yorker, Slate, and other publications analyzed the “misguided obituary” that originally began: “She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children.” Two sentences later the obituary author added that she “was also a brilliant rocket scientist.” In the revised version, that latter statement replaced the beef stroganoff reference (which disappeared). However, as The New Yorker noted, you still had to read many paragraphs before finding out that, while raising three children, she was actually working part-time in the field before returning full-time and gaining fame for her satellite-related research.

Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, Yvonne Claeys earned her B.Sc. in Mathematics from the University of Manitoba and her M.S. in Chemistry from the University of Southern California. She got a job at Douglas Aircraft and then shifted to the new field of rockets on the Project RAND contract. According to a 2009 MIT article, “she participated in pioneer studies that defined rocket propellant performance.” At RAND she also met her husband, William Franklin Brill, who was a research chemist. After marrying, they moved to the East Coast for his job, and her career path took her to, among others, a full-time job at Wright Aeronautical and part-time work at FMC Corporation during the aforementioned child-rearing years. Then, in 1966, she took a full-time job at RCA’s rocket subsidiary Astro Electronics where she patented her propulsion system for satellites, for which she gained international acclaim. Yvonne Brill’s projects included working on the propulsion systems for Tiros, the first weather satellite, and for Nova, a series of rockets designed for U.S. missions to the moon. From 1981-1983 she worked at NASA, then returned to RCA for three years. From 1986-1991 she was the propulsion manager for the International Maritime Satellite Organization in London until her retirement.

Tiros, a satellite invented by Yvonne Brill.

Tiros satellite. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Nova Rocket invented by Yvonne Brill. Photo via NASA.

Nova Rockets. Photo via NASA.

Thanks to career-focused obituaries about Yvonne Brill I found many interesting resources, including a 2005 interview conducted with her for the Society of Women Engineers (SWE). Mrs. Brill had received the SWE award in 1986 and was elected the next year into the National Academy of Engineering for her work advancing spacecraft propulsion technology and propellant performance. Other career accolades included: the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal in 2001, given to non-Government employees whose contributions demonstrate ”a level of excellence that has made a profound or indelible impact to NASA mission success”; the 2002 Wylde Propulsion award from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics; the 2009 John Fritz Medal from the American Association of Engineering Societies; and induction in the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2010 for inventing the Dual Thrust Level Monopropellant Spacecraft Propulsion System (U.S. Patent #3,807,657).

Throughout her career, Brill touted the importance of encouraging girls and women to become scientists and engineers. In her 2005 SWE interview, she sort of swept aside concerns about herself dealing with a lot of resistance as a woman engineer, but she spoke of challenges facing women generally in the male-dominated field. She commented that “the number of women in the National Academy of Engineering since I was elected [in 1987] progressed from a great tenth of one percent to three percent over almost twenty years. So it’s a very inch-y slow movement.” I hope that girls will be inspired to follow in Yvonne Brill’s footsteps.

Girls Get Science (and Invention)

On Saturday, March 23, I had the wonderful opportunity to participate in a special evening program called “Girls Get Science,” which was sponsored by The Great Adventure Lab and took place at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville, Maryland. The other panelists included my Smithsonian colleague Dr. Marguerite Toscano, a marine scientist and paleobiologist at the National Museum of Natural History, and Dr. Betsy Pugel, a physicist and electrical engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. The audience consisted of about 40 parents (some of whom are also teachers) from the DC metro area with about 40 of their daughters who are in grades 2-6.

Girls participating in nanotech activities.

Participating in nanotechnology activities in Spark!Lab.

The panelists and parents participated in a lively and thought-provoking 75-minute Q&A session facilitated by Great Adventure Lab president Joan Rigdon about how to support and encourage girls’ interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) activities and possibly inspire them to pursue related careers. We talked a lot about the importance of having female role models (such as my fellow panelists!) from science, invention, and related fields. We also discussed ways to make STEM experiences more fun, social, interdisciplinary (including art, which makes it STEAM), and relevant to the “real world” to keep girls engaged through their teen years when typically their enthusiasm and participation wanes due to social and cultural pressures. While parents were discussing their potential futures, the daughters were in nearby classrooms totally engrossed in hands-on activities about basic robotics, video game programming, and engineering.

Girls inventing robots in Spark!Lab.

Inventing robots in Spark!Lab.

After the official Q&A, the panelists and parents joined the girls to see their inventive creations and talk more on-one for about 45 minutes. Several parents told me they had loved spending time previously with their children in the Lemelson Center’s Spark!Lab and asked eagerly when it would reopen [answer: late spring 2015 when the National Museum of American History’s west wing first floor reopens]. A girl, about 7-8 years old I’d bet (a key age for budding inventors), came up to me and quietly shared that she had been working on an invention at home but it had failed. I explained to her that failure is an important, in fact essential, part of the invention process and all inventors have to fail in order to learn. Indeed Thomas Edison is quoted as saying, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Then I asked if she would go back to her invention and keep tinkering, and she said she would, she had a couple of ideas to try to make it work. While we were talking she was sticking a Spark!Lab pin onto her shirt very intently.

Stephanie Kwolek, inventor of Kevlar, portraying in "Invention at Play."

Stephanie Kwolek, inventor of Kevlar, portrayed in “Invention at Play.”

Since the Lemelson Center was founded in 1995, we’ve had the great fortune of researching, documenting, and highlighting an array of amazing historic and contemporary women inventors. One woman at the “Girls Get Science” event came up to tell me she was proud to know already about Kevlar® inventor Stephanie Kwolek, who I mentioned during the Q&A as one of my favorite women inventors I had the opportunity to meet. It turned out she learned about Kwolek while visiting the Center’s Invention at Play exhibition that I worked on as the project historian and later project director. Kwolek is one of 6 featured case studies in the exhibition, along with stories of other women inventors including Marjorie Stewart Joyner, Sally Fox, and Gertrude Elion, Patsy Sherman, Ruth Foster, Krysta Morlan, Ann Moore, and Lydia O’Leary, and Annetta Papadopoulos of the IDEO team.

Inventor Patricia Bath meets with female students.

Patricia Bath, inventor of the Laserphaco Probe, talks with female students during an Innovative Lives presentation.

Some of the women inventors above were participants in the Center’s Innovative Lives program series. You can read more about them there along with: Patricia Bath, inventor of the Laserphaco Probe for the treatment of cataracts; astronaut and electrical engineer Ellen Ochoa; and GirlTech founder Janese Swanson. For a sampling of additional stories, please read my colleagues’ thoughtful “Bright Ideas” blogs about Fresh Paper inventor Kavita Shukla and “Boater” diaper cover inventor Marion O’Brien Donovan, and referring to actress/inventor Hedy Lamarr at the end of a recent blog about Michael Jackson (yes, he was an inventor too!). Also, listen to some fascinating Inventive Voices podcasts both with women such as POPVOX.com co-founder Rachna Choudhry, NASA food scientist Vicki Kloeris, and neonatal products inventor Sharon Rogone, and about women like industrial psychologist Lillian Gilbreth, computer programmer Grace Hopper, and hair care products entrepreneur Madam C. J. Walker. Finally, for more historical perspective, check out a 1999 article by Center senior historian Joyce Bedi titled “Exploring the History of Women Inventors.”

The Lemelson Center is always looking for more and different stories from and about women inventors and is interested in documenting them throughout American history. If you have stories to share, let us know. Happy women’s history month!

Don’t make me get the flying monkeys

A souvenir "Chistery," the original flying monkey, soars on the breezes in my office, above a sign that reads, "Don't make me get the flying monkeys! — The Wicked Witch" (a gift from my sister years ago!). Photo by Joyce Bedi

OK, let’s get the confession out of the way. One of my favorite movies of all time is The Wizard of Oz. I know, I know. I should pick something more edgy, or more indie, or even something French. But I am an unabashed fan of the Emerald City gang. Even though I grew up in the era of black-and-white television, a local station showed Oz every year around Easter. Don’t ask me why. Maybe it was the Easter-egg hues of the film’s sets and costumes (even though we couldn’t see them). Maybe it was to mark the beginning of tornado season in the Midwest. I honestly don’t know. But my Mom and I looked forward to that broadcast each Spring. And when I finally saw the film in color in my college years, when I opened the Kansas farmhouse door and stepped into the Technicolor world of Oz for the first time, my addiction was complete, undeniable, and irreversible.

A year ago or so, I discovered a new dimension to the Oz story. I had seen Gregory Maguire’s book, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, in bookstores but never quite brought myself to buy it. I guess I could have gone to a public library, but that never happened, either. Then, I got an iPad and started delving into e-books, and one of the first I read was Wicked. What a great complement to the story I know so well. It had more in common with L. Frank Baum’s original book published in 1900 than the classic 1939 MGM film, and added new plot points from Maguire’s imagination. I really enjoyed this deeper glimpse into the history of Oz, if you can call it that.

So recently, when my husband and I saw an ad for performances of Wicked, the musical, I mentioned that I would like to see the play. Being the best husband in the world (no exaggeration), he announced a few days later that he planned to take me to a performance as part of our anniversary celebration! I wasn’t sure what to expect, and that turned out to be a good mental state to bring to the theater. The show was amazing. But my historian-of-technology’s eye couldn’t stop seeing the inventions and innovations that appeared as uncredited actors throughout the production.

Jeanna De Waal as Glinda and Christine Dwyer as Elphaba in Wicked. Photo by Joan Marcus

For example, in one scene, it begins to rain. It truly looked like rain, but it was all done with lighting and projections. The vaguely steampunk, clockwork design of the sets also displays innovative techniques, like the bicycle brakes and bass drum pedal used to manipulate the enormous Wizard’s-head puppet. Of course, there is the makeup that makes Elphaba (the alleged Wicked Witch of the West’s real name) her signature green. Makeup designer Joe Dulude II tweaked a commercially-available product from M.A.C. to give Elphaba a complexion that, as he put it, looks like skin, not makeup.

Mandy Gonzalez as Elphaba. Photo by Joan Marcus

Then there are the costumes created by Tony-award-winning designer Susan Hilferty. She calls her concept for Wicked “twisted Edwardian,” taking inspiration from Baum’s book and from the characters themselves. For Elphaba, a character she sees as rooted in the earth, she created a variation on the stereotypical witch’s black dress and hat, designing an asymmetrical costume of many dark colors, reminiscent of the hues found in coal, mica, and other minerals. Glinda the Good’s costume is the opposite—light and airy and “of the sky.” Then there are the flying monkeys, whose hand-painted costumes must allow them to move like, well, monkeys, but also to “fly,” with integrated mechanical wings.

The National Museum of American History recently collected Elphaba's dress, hat, and broom, a donation from Susan Hilferty. As soon as it went on display in the American Stories exhibition, I dashed up to see it. As great as it looked on stage, it was even more impressive up close. Smithsonian photo.

As I did a little research into these behind-the-scenes features of the show, I found that, not surprisingly, the creative process of the designers isn’t all that different from the inventive process that we document and teach at the Lemelson Center. In our Spark!Lab, we break down the invention process into a number of nonlinear steps:

  • Identify a problem or need (Think it)
  • Conduct research (Explore it)
  • Make sketches  (Sketch it)
  • Build prototypes (Create it)
  • Test the invention (Try it)
  • Refine it (Tweak it)
  • Market the invention (Sell it)

Susan Hilferty articulated a number of these same steps in talking about her design for Elphaba’s costume. “First of all,” she said” “I do a sketch and I have a very clear idea about what I want it to look like. And there is a draper who interprets my sketch. So we first look at in a . . . cheap fabric so I can look at what the draper has put together. . . While we’re doing that step, we’re talking about how it’s going to be fabricated . . . The skirt itself, for instance, takes about 40 yards of fabric where we piece it together. We take yards of fabric, rip it up, and piece it back together again, to make it feel like an organic material, which incorporates many, many different colors. Then they are stitched together by one person and it takes her about 40-60 hours stitching all of those layers on so they’re right up next to and around each other, almost like a topographical map.”

Susan Hilferty's sketch for the Elphaba costume was part of the donation to the Museum.

Imagining, sketching, prototyping, manufacturing, tweaking. These are activities with which inventors are intensely familiar. To modify an old chestnut (perhaps an appropriate thing to do during this holiday season), great creative minds think alike.

Podcast: Political Machines — Innovations that let people be heard

Laurel Fritzsch interviews Rachna Choudhry for our podcast series.

A lobbyist and a Congressional staffer walk into a dinner party. It sounds like the start of some sort of inside-the-Beltway joke; instead, it’s an invention story. Rachna Choudhry and Marci Harris found common ground on a vexing issue–when constituents write in to Congress, there is no way of the writer knowing if the message has been received or for Congressional staffers to know that it’s coming from a real person. The result of that conversation is Popvox, a web tool that verifies, aggregates, and simplifies communication with Congress.

Rachna sat down with Laurel Fritzsch to talk about the process behind developing Popvox in our latest podcast. Click here to listen in.

Note: This post is not an endorsement of any product.

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.