Over the last couple of years, the Lemelson Center has been looking at the variety of means invention mediates the interface between human beings and environment. We’ve learned of ways we interact with the world around us, but also, in more intimate terms, how we interact with devices on our bodies as well as implanted within us.
Last fall, we released the first of several anthologies examining the role of invention in society. Based upon the Lemelson Center’s 1998 symposium, our book Inventing for the Environment (MIT Press), describes those countless varieties of interaction between people and the natural and built environments. In particular, it examines how an innovation, invention or inventor created something that altered that environment to better suit the human condition. Equally important are the attendant cultural conditions for these innovations.
Our current theme, “Inventing Ourselves,” stems from “Inventing for the Environment” and asks, is there anything about humans that technology can’t mimic, replace, or alter? These questions took us from the environment outside to the landscape within our bodies. A look at robotics and cyborgs explored the border areas separating living from non-living—a boundary that we know is changing. From laser eye surgery on the consumer level, to cloning and gene therapy in the laboratory, advances and inventions are introduced rapidly, and sometimes without adequate discussion to bring greater understanding to their effects and meaning.
We continued with an examination of artificial extensions of the human body through prosthetic devices, which have a long and extraordinary history. (Our museum's collection of artificial limbs spans four centuries!) Moving to the present, comparing the high-tech engineering of the artificial limbs being fitted today to wounded soldiers with the stunning simplicity of inventor Van Phillips’ “cheetah" leg, we are able to see how innovation can follow both complex and simple paths to achieve marked improvement in people’s lives, restoring mobility and dexterity in ways out of reach only a few years ago.
This October, we search beneath the skin for a close-up look at artificial implants. Such technology brings improvements to the lives of those facing deteriorating health, or even death, from failing organs and body systems. Smithsonian collections document a rich history in this area. Dr. Robert Jarvik will join us for a “Portrait of Invention,” sharing with us his career and motivations as a pioneer in the field of implantable cardiac devices.
Where do we turn next? In 2005, we move outward again, exploring what historian Thomas P. Hughes calls the “human-built.” Our focus is on innovative sustainable architecture for the 21st Century and its historical antecedents. What are the inventions and innovations in architecture that embody a philosophy of social responsibility to people and the planet? Buildings are becoming more functional, responsive, and organic -- smart extensions of ourselves. The built environment is beginning to monitor the immediate needs of an individual, as well as the long-term needs of a society. As we must ask of all new technologies, will these innovations entail a cultural shift, much as the International Style in architecture ushered in modernism three-quarters of a century ago? We live with our technologies inside and out in ever-changing ways. How we change in response to our own inventions is one of the fascinating aspects of our evolving technological culture.
Originally published in Fall 2004.