As part of its mission to study the invention process, the Lemelson Center held a day-long workshop on April 27, 2007 to investigate best practices for conducting oral and video history interviews with inventors. This was the second in a series of workshops organized by the Center to better understand where documentation is created during the invention process and to establish best practices for preserving the history of invention. The first workshop, held in April 2006, was on the role of prototypes in the invention process.
Since the Center‘s founding in 1995, staff members have conducted and supported a number of oral and video history interviews with inventors. They have endeavored to follow established best practices in oral history methodology, and have started to develop their own understanding of how interviewing inventors presents unique challenges to oral history practice.
The workshop brought together an interdisciplinary group of participants who made presentations based on their experience and particular expertise, incorporating sample interviews and suggesting strategies for interviewing inventors (see Appendix A). Some topics discussed included:
- Developing interview strategies that explore the full complexity of the relationship between an inventor‘s life and his/her work, including education, childhood activities, the influence of family and other significant relationships.
- Exploring approaches to interviewing inventors, including the use of still photography and video, that help illuminate the invention process—thought processes, specific skills and technical knowledge, and activities such as drawing, writing, model building, working with materials, etc.
- Incorporating artifacts, pictures, drawings, and other material culture into interviews in order to gain further information about the invention process.
- Outlining strategies for eliciting information about the roles of other players in the invention process, e.g. business partners, family/friends, skilled assistants, patent lawyers, etc.
- Exploring interview questions designed to elicit information about what motivates and sustains inventors through the invention process.
Over the last thirty years, scholars have begun to analyze invention as a process. Beginning with the work of Thomas P. Hughes, historians and psychologists have sought to describe the methods and styles of different inventors.  For the most part, this analysis has been based largely on documents and not on the artifacts—the prototypes—created by inventors.  In large measure, this may be due to the fact that historians often lack the training (from material culture studies, engineering, or archaeology) or access to collections needed to analyze objects.
Until recently, historians studying the history of invention also have not had access to living inventors with whom to conduct interviews. Oral interviews (accompanied by material culture) are ideally part of research projects that conceptually explore invention not as a "eureka" moment but instead as an incremental process full of trials, errors, dead-ends, and incessant modifications.
Oral history is a research methodology that is widely employed for many uses. The workshop sought to help Center staff refine their methods for interviewing inventors and ultimately to improve awareness among scholars of invention of the potentials of oral interviews, suggesting particular interview strategies that would have especially fruitful results with inventors. We began with the position that oral interviews are an essential element for documenting the process of invention. Much of an inventor‘s work is intuitive, relying on implicit knowledge and insights that are not documented in the written or physical record of their work. The process itself is complex and non-linear, not lending itself to straightforward summaries. Inventors themselves are often influenced by internal and external motivations that can best be understood through a recorded conversation. Most of all, the invention process creates physical artifacts—prototypes, components, drawings, and final products—that require explanation, and are full of rich details not fully described in written documents created by the inventor.
The workshop indicated the importance of using the artifacts created by the inventors themselves as rich sources of questions and dialogue in the interview. Regardless of how these artifacts are captured during the interview (through still photography or video) the physical presence of the invention inspires dialogue on how it came to be the inspiration, the problems, and the solutions. Story-telling is encouraged by the opportunity to explain its various features, while also discouraging the simplistic narrative "we saw a problem and we solved it."
Workshop participants also identified several other key considerations for planning oral interviews with inventors. They agreed on the value of visual documentation in addition to standard audio recording, and suggested appropriate methods determined by the intended outcomes and available budget for the interview, principally whether it was intended for research purposes or instead for later use in a museum exhibition or documentary film. Cost and complexity rise if you want to use interviews later for presentations, as more visuals and better sound quality are necessary. Due to the importance of the visual component to interviews with inventors, thought must be given to how best to accomplish this goal.
The type and degree of technical knowledge held by inventors also reflected a challenge that needed to be addressed. Unlike similar institutions with oral history programs, the Lemelson Center interviews inventors working in a wide variety of technical fields, making it difficult to develop the content expertise required to conduct successful interviews. In addition, careful consideration of the intended audience for the interviews (general researchers or specialists) should determine how to prepare interviewers to ask informed questions about the technology, resulting in an interview that will be informative and understandable to the end user.
Workshop participants saw the life history approach to interviews as a good strategy for delving deeply into an inventor‘s motivations and training and also for pushing an interview beyond recitation of set stories and narrative. Group interviews were another standard oral history methodology that is particularly useful for understanding inventors working in teams.
Participants were intrigued by the need to understand the emotions that motivate inventors through trial and error, failure, efforts to secure funding, perhaps acquiring a patent, and promoting their product (for those who become entrepreneurs). However, suggestions for developing interview techniques to elicit this information varied greatly.
The workshop concluded with a discussion of the specific ethical demands of interviewing inventors, who often must protect secrets on unpatented technology. Therefore the need for ethical treatment of interviewees through explaining the purpose for which the interview is intended and securing proper consent for the release of the interview and a transcript is paramount.
Inventors and the Inventive Process
Workshop participants explored the need for interviewers to understand the process of invention in order to develop meaningful interview strategies. They agreed that understanding invention required going beyond the stock stories that move quickly from problem to solution. While uplifting and evocative, these stories often compress the uncertainty and indeterminacy that accompanied the initial inventive efforts and the complex stages between breakthrough, completion and distribution of the invention.
The Lemelson Center‘s interest in the workshop, and the use of oral history, reflects a relatively recent theory of invention as a problem-solving process in which there is rarely, if ever, a single "eureka" moment in which invention happens. Instead, invention is intimately tied to a series of both conceptual and incremental changes, including failures, dead-ends, and the introduction of new techniques, that are brought together to create a material object that truly can be called an "invention."
Participants urged the Lemelson Center to develop a bibliography to accompany this report that would reflect their perspectives on the invention process. Mary Palevsky, director of the Nevada Test Site Oral History Project, pointed out that during interviews inventors often simplify stories about their work by explaining, "this is what we had to solve and this is how we solved it." Instead Palevsky encouraged interview questions designed to identify "the process by which the problem was solved." It was understandable that inventors, often interviewed previously about their accomplishments, would "leave behind those things that don't carry us forth to the solution" in their recounting of past events. Interviewers need to be sensitive to this narrative structure and ask questions that help to broaden and deepen the narrative, at times simply by being brave enough to say, I don‘t understand; please explain. “Let your perplexity be your guide”, advised Palevsky.
The workshop discussion continued with a debate over who could be considered an inventor. Photographer and sociologist Douglas Harper‘s discussion of Willie, an auto mechanic in upstate New York, and videographer Brien Williams‘ presentation on artificial heart inventor Dr. Robert Jarvik highlighted the complexity of the seemingly simple category, "inventor." Lemelson Center director Art Molella reflected that invention and innovation should "be seen as a continuum rather than a division into different kinds of activities." Harper emphasized that inventors are people who engage in bricolage who use "already existing knowledge to make something new." Monica Smith, Lemelson Center lead project coordinator, pointed out that the Center has interviewed many people who do not think of themselves as inventors as they didn‘t feel they fit into the "heroic genius model."
Thinking more broadly about who is an inventor should lead projects to widen the scope of potential interviewees. Rather than just seeking the famous men (and occasionally women) credited with patenting a important device, inventors could also include the practical men and women of a community who through their tinkering created new devices, often practical in nature, and rarely patented or otherwise accorded legal status as an "invention." The type of invention and the field the inventor is working in determines the knowledge required by the interviewer, and should have a significant impact on planning the interview.
To get at the process of invention, interviewers should break down questioning into the many phases of inventing, such as the reason for seeking an invention; obstacles or false paths towards the invention; breakthrough moments; the process of refining initial breakthroughs; innovations on the original invention; and efforts to disseminate or market the device. There was wide consensus that the invention(s) as a physical artifact(s) become incorporated into the interview‘s agenda.
Bringing Material Culture into the Interview
The presentations by Brien Williams and Smithsonian curator David Allison presented the issue of how artifacts of all kinds (prototypes, materials, tools, drawings, and finished products) could be brought into the interview to elicit information about the invention process. Since many inventors create a number of prototypes and components, test materials, and use many tools during the invention process, these artifacts are a valuable asset in oral interviews. The artifacts are a means to delve more deeply into the technical features of an invention, and to permit elaboration of the standard stories that interviews are likely to yield. The artifacts also can place the person back in time, serving as a cue to move them to remember the person they were and the people they worked with when they were working on the invention. Particularly valuable is the way that an artifact tends to generate details of the invention process that questions alone might not elicit. Their use tends to encourage more complex descriptions of the inventive process, especially if the device is turned and handled so that particular features can be discussed.
David Allison, through examples from his interviews with computer engineers, pointed out that introducing the artifact creates a story of the relationship between the thing and the people who created it. Having the artifact in front of the interviewee, or failing that, a photograph of the device, allows interviewers to ask questions like, "What was the key point of the innovation? Can you show me what you understood when you finally figured out how to do this?" And if you ask these types of questions, the interviewee can use the artifact to illustrate their answers. Having the invention visibly present in the interview, in some manner, creates a different narrative than a conversation without its presence. Doing so encourages the interviewee to provide details that would otherwise be missing from their storytelling about‘ the invention. This may facilitate their thinking in new ways, crafting a more complex picture of the invention process.
Mary Palevsky stressed that focusing on the interviewee‘s relationship with the artifact facilitated moving past the claim "I‘m not an inventor." In addition then to helping document invention as a process, keeping the artifact front and center in the interview expanded the range of individuals who could be included in the category "inventor." With the object present in whatever form, questions can be formulated on what the person did on the project, e.g. How does this work?; How did you figure out how to make it work this way?; What materials did you use, and why? Doing so makes it irrelevant whether the person considers herself an inventor, as she will, in essence, document the work she did to create the artifact being discussed.
Use of historical photographs in oral interviews is a well-established practice. Photographs are evocative, creating associations in the interviewee‘s mind that spark memory and place those memories in time and context. Historical photographs can generate discussions of individuals who worked with the inventor, locations where they did their work, or examples of the invention themselves. David Allison often drew on photographs from the files of his interviewees. "Let‘s take a look at the picture," Allison suggested for an interview question, "and tell me what this image says."
As with artifacts, relying on photographs can determine an interview‘s direction. Images are powerful, especially if meaningful to the inventor, such that their use can influence the agenda and direction of the interview. Historical photographs may generate a series of discrete, disconnected stories pertaining to each image. Illustrative pictures tend to generate highly specific and detailed interviews focusing on the artifacts and methods of the inventor, and move the interview away from context and larger generalizations. Hence using pictures is best employed in conjunction with a more open-ended interview process.
Participants agreed that visual inclusion of artifacts, historical photographs, drawings, and written documents is an extremely valuable element in an oral interview. The interviewee‘s memory will be stronger if stimulated by the invention or images of that which s/he created, and anyone using the interview will benefit by seeing that which is discussed. We recommend working with the inventor before the interview to decide which items will be used and in what order they will be introduced; allowing the inventor to handle, take apart, compare, and explain the items during the interview; ask questions about materials, breakthroughs, dead-ends, failures, skill, etc.; and conduct the interview in separate segments with and without artifacts to avoid the pitfalls of the artifact driving the entire discussion. We went on to consider at great length strategies for using visual documentation that could accompany the recorded audio interview.
Photography and Video
The workshop participants discussed the uses of video and photography to document an interview at length and how each medium could add to understanding invention as a process. David Allison addressed the relative merits of both in his presentation and the subsequent discussion. He and others noted challenges to planning interviews that will include artifacts, photographs, and written documents; for example, it is especially critical to closely link these materials as they were discussed during the interview to the transcript of the recorded audio.
While photography is a relatively low-cost method for including visual documentation with an oral interview, video addressed some of the limitations of still photos as long as the project budget would support the cost for a professional videographer. Maggie Dennis pointed out that video has some clear benefits, such as eliminating "the problem of connecting the photo to the transcription." In cases where "somebody can take something apart and you have their voice going right along with what they're doing" it is relatively straightforward, as Palevsky explained, to visually connect the person to their work.
However, it is more difficult to control an artifact-based interview shot in video. Brien Williams expressed both excitement and frustration with his filming of an interview with Dr. Jarvik and a series of prototypes leading to the invention of the Jarvik-7 artificial heart. The presence of these prototypes allowed Dr. Jarvik to pick up one device after another, explaining the technical improvements of each. But he also occasionally paused to tell a related story rather than keeping to describing the physical artifacts, requiring Williams to repeatedly break away from the close- up shot of the device to capture the interviewee‘s face as he told his story. As a person familiar with presenting his story in a public setting, he was (as Palevsky pointed out) "constructing how he was going to tell you this story" or as Molella explained, presenting ―"his ideal of how this evolved." Palevsky suggested in such a case the interviewer should be prepared to go back— perhaps without the artifacts—to ask particular questions omitted due to the presence of artifacts in the camera‘s frame.
Williams explained that ideally these technical requirements of incorporating artifacts into a video interview would entail a team of several people and substantial equipment, having two cameras to capture the person‘s face and the artifact, professional lighting, and the resources to edit together a final product. David Allison cautioned that this approach mandates a careful strategy to decide when the effort—and expense—is worth the results. "I only use the video strategy when I'm really willing to invest a lot," he explained. "I don't go there unless I really know what I'm doing and get the lighting, the sound, and the video and put it in production mode." In his presentation and the subsequent discussion, Allison and the workshop participants distinguished between three types of interviews, the use of still photography or video in each determined by the intended outcome or final product.
The basic research interview. This interview is intended principally for research purposes. Its product includes either a transcript with an index or audio files keyed to a subject/time index and still photographs taken during the interview. The equipment for this project should include a cassette or digital sound recorder with microphones that can be placed near the interviewer and interviewee, and if feasible, a camera used to document the interviewee and any artifacts discussed during the interview.
The advanced research interview. This research interview introduces the use of video for specific documentation purposes to more fully document the invention process. In addition to the audio recording, written transcript, and still photographs, such an interview should seek to collect artifacts and other inventor records pertaining to the inventive process for the purposes of research and exhibition. Video may be used judiciously to capture processes, skills, or other elements that are difficult to capture with still photography alone. This video serves primarily as additional documentation, and is not necessarily production quality.
The interview for documentary film. These interviews include a video production team along with the interviewer(s) to create production quality video for broadcast. The technical demands of creating video for documentary purposes are not typically attainable by an interviewer whose primary task is generating a good interview. In fact, the demands of production will drive the interview and are unlikely to result in a research-grade interview. Therefore, it may be desirable to conduct a separate oral history interview off-camera. A transcript and indexed sound files are necessary, both for research purposes and to facilitate preparation of the documentary film.
With inventors, it is sometimes also possible to use photographs in an additional manner, to illustrate the inventor and associates at work. Doing so involves conducting photo shoots of the inventor at work, which are subsequently used in the interview to elicit information about his/her inventive process. This method is similar to incorporating historic photos into the interview described in the earlier section on material culture.
Douglas Harper relied on photographs he shot of auto mechanic Willie for his book Working Knowledge. Contemporary photography can become "part of the discussion" as Harper explained. Harper used close-ups of Willie at work to isolate elements of what he termed "invention in everyday life" that he could then draw into the interview questions. His strategy with Willie was to use photographs "to break his frame," to appreciate, for example, the question "What kind of knowledge is required when you're sharpening my chainsaw?" The result was a close discussion of hand knowledge and other forms of implicit knowledge of which Willie was fully aware but otherwise would not appreciate the need to explain.
Isolating tools, manipulation of materials, and hand movements will generate deep explanations on process, often sparking explanations that the interviewee would not otherwise offer. "In the case of big technology," such as the immense artifacts and landscape associated with atomic testing in Palevsky‘s study, photo elicitation can bring artifacts and processes into the interview in a manner that uniquely conveys information to the interviewer and future researchers.
While potentially a rich technique, use of "photographic elicitation" requires an intensive approach to the interview akin to ethnography. A trained photographer is needed in at least one session to take the pictures. Then the interviewer needs to select pictures carefully as they will function as questions, stimulating thoughts and comments from the interviewee.
Historical photographs can function similarly for "photographic elicitation" if they are sufficiently detailed, showing not just individuals but also elements of what they are doing with their hands or close details of the object. For a his book entitled Changing Works: Visions of a Lost Agriculture Harper obtained historical photos of farming practices from the 1940s and 1950s and used them to generate information from farmers. Even though these photos were not of the interviewees themselves, Harper recalled, incorporating them into the interview "turned taciturn farmers into poetic chroniclers" by stimulating their memories of work, family, and community life. "We couldn‘t sleep that night" some told Harper, due to the power of these images to reignite memories and to recall past practices.
The purpose of visual documentation is, in the end, to convey more richly invention as a problem solving process by bringing the invention itself into visible dialogue with its creator(s). Understanding the technological elements of the invention, however, is a matter of interviewing preparation and strategy. Regardless of the technique used to visually record the interview and artifact, it is necessary to have the technical knowledge sufficient to know what to ask.
Mastering sufficient technical knowledge for interviews with inventors is necessary for a successful project. Interviewers need to have a working familiarity with the functions of the invention and the technical principles on which it is based, as well as the historical context in which the inventor was working. Otherwise it will be hard to fashion perceptive questions on the invention process.
However, interviewers do not need to be scientists or engineers themselves with advanced degrees in pertinent subject areas, just as it is generally the case that oral historians do not have to be similar to the people they interview. Indeed some of the best interviews come when the interviewer is markedly different than the interviewee, as the interviewee is less likely to assume knowledge and therefore more inclined to engage in detailed explanations. Nonetheless, it is necessary to know enough to ask preliminary, basic questions that help to establish rapport.
Acquiring technical knowledge pertaining to a particular invention(s) can be achieved in several ways. Preferably the interviewer will study the life of the inventor, the history of the invention, and the technological and scientific knowledge required to understand its function. In some instances, interviewing teams may be necessary, with a technical advisor serving to train the interviewer or participating directly in the interview. But technical or scientific knowledge, while valuable, also can be deployed in nonproductive ways by the interviewer or interviewing team. Displaying too much knowledge can inadvertently encourage the interviewee to not discuss stages in the invention process that need to be explained for later users of the interview.
Audience is a critical question to address before commencing technical interviews. "Who's your audience and how technical are you going to be?" Palevsky asked the workshop group. "You could have a couple of specialists talking in great detail and this could be a very valuable interview for the history of science," she explained. "How detailed do you want Dr. Jarvik to get about the biology or the bio-mechanics behind" the artificial heart? While specialists might find such a discussion immensely interesting, "the non-specialist person would not be able to use that."
In the event the interview is intended for a non-specialist audience, care has to be taken to ensure the technical steps are explained sufficiently, avoiding the assumptions and shorthand that is common among scientists and engineers when talking among themselves. In some cases, Palevsky recalled, when technically knowledgeable interviewers structured an interview, "there was so much tacit understanding between them as experts that the interview transcript itself did not give me the kind of detail, useful detail, about what actually happened." So if a project relies on people with advanced technical knowledge to conduct the interview, "They have to have the ability to ask questions and bring out some of this tacit information." If the interviewer is not an expert in the subject of the interview, historian Kurt Beyer observed that s/he "can't be shy to say when they don't understand something and to try to elicit more explanation."
Technical knowledge can be particularly useful if deployed to "slow down" the interview‘s velocity, the tendency of inventors to "book end" the invention process with the narrative structure that problem x had to be solved, and it was solved with invention y. Such a typical construction needs to be unpacked with perceptive questions that generate discussions of the various stages of the invention process, to, as Kurt Beyer put it, "break down some of the internal technical aspects" of the process of invention. The challenge of surmounting technical obstacles, the strategies and insight employed to do so, and the complexity of these technical elements all speak to the problem-solving nature of invention and the incremental process, full of small and large breakthroughs, failures, and dead-ends, that results in a definable invention.
Interviewing for Emotion to Understand Motivation
The discussion of prompting for emotion in oral interviews was intended to develop interview methods that explore inventors‘ emotional connections to their work as a means of understanding motivation, i.e. why some inventors are able to get ―"from thought to thing" despite frustrations, failures, lack of support, etc. Monica Smith, who interviewed inventors for the Center‘s Invention at Play exhibition, was struck by how ―"they‘re passionate about their area, their pursuit." Many didn‘t really care about ―"being recognized." Instead they saw a problem or issue that intrigued them, and "they tinker with it." While some were highly interested in selling the results of their work, for ―"some of them it‘s just about their interest in their world." Her comments underlined the importance of this topic inventing was, in the end, a highly emotional project.
Sheila Henderson focused her presentation on the slippery topic of how to encourage interviewees to discuss the emotional elements of inventing. As a professional psychologist, her experience with interviews has been intended principally to understand the role of emotion in motivating inventors‘ work. Recognizing that historical interviews conducted by individuals without that specialized training would have to be different, participants nonetheless engaged with Henderson‘s agenda and tried to suggest interview methods that would stimulate emotional content.
These sort of personal motivations generally receive less attention in interviews with inventors. It usually is easier for interviewees to discuss extrinsic motivations, the competitive environment or workplace relationships that drive the inventing process. Yet inventors often are motivated by intrinsic desires, for the joy and satisfaction that invention gives them. Henderson conducted many interviews with inventors to explore their emotional worlds, and became increasingly curious ―"why they were having so much fun, when it was so much work." Her presentation on prompting for emotion sparked a lengthy discussion of what kind of emotions were associated with inventors, and strategies that could be employed to stimulate reflections and commentaries by the interviewees.
Henderson used the image of a motor boat to convey the relationship of emotion to intellect in the invention process: ―"if cognition is the steering wheel, then emotion is the engine." Looked at in this way, emotion is a motivating force that needs to be understood as part of the invention process. Indeed, this emotional connection to their work may help explain how inventors are able to take significant risks in their careers. They need to have a "tolerance of failure. Tolerance of ambiguity. Resilience. And then to be able to take risks." If invention is understood as a process, than appreciating the emotional motivations for a sustained effort, sometimes stretching over years, seems an important element for oral interviews.
Other workshop participants endorsed Henderson‘s assessment of the importance of emotional drive for inventors. Art Molella reflected that there are many cases where "personal passions" motivate inventors, for example those engaged in cancer research who have had family members die of cancer. In her interview with inventor Van Phillips, Maggie Dennis commented on how he "goes back and forth between frustration and elation and excitement" as he discusses his efforts to invent artificial limbs. Kurt Beyer, while agreeing with these opinions, cautioned that it was especially hard to uncover "the negative motivations that are driving them." Henderson extended this distinction by adding "intrinsic versus extrinsic" motivations. Intrinsic motivations, e.g. "the joy of inventing," tend to be creative and affirmative. But extrinsic drives, e.g. "beating the next guy to the patent office," are quite different and often have a negative or "dark" cast. Yet Henderson warned of looking for emotional content largely as a retrospective element, how an interview felt about past events from the standpoint of the present. The hardest challenge was "learning how to catch the emotion during the invention process" as doing so required relying on an interviewee‘s memory "about what he had been feeling at the time."
Accepting that motivation is important to document, workshop participants suggested a few strategies to explore emotions with an interviewee, beyond simply asking, ―"how did that make you feel?" Palevsky referred to this as part of the larger challenge of training interviewers to pick up on clues in the interview process and to follow up with questions—only in this case―"to watch for that emotional content in the moment" and "emotion laden terms" that called for further investigation. To avoid reading into ambiguous statements, Smith suggested the simple technique of repeating back a key word and asking what was meant by it. Doing so is a method often employed in oral history when an interviewer uses a word whose meaning is opaque, or with that word expressed a package of concepts and ideas that are not explicit, it is the interviewer‘s job to ask the interviewee to elaborate. In this case, the interviewer needs to be attentive to statements that have emotional implications, so that a follow-up question can be asked.
Roger Horowitz suggested that oral historian Alessandro Portelli‘s notion of velocity could be used to develop methods for prompting for emotion in interviews with inventors. In his essay, "What Makes Oral History Different," Portelli urges oral historians to attend to the oral character of interviews, in that they reflect patterns of speech rather than writing. Velocity refers to the tempo of speech and the story-telling strategy of relating some episodes at great length and detail while others, sometimes covering far longer periods, are told more quickly. Portelli observes that shifts in tempo often "reveal the narrators‘ emotions, their participation in the story, and the way the story affected them." Attending to these patterns by listening carefully to the interview, and its changes in velocity, can give clues to the interviewer to ask follow-up questions intended to draw out emotional content.
Henderson urged letting the interviewee know that questions would prompt for emotion, and that the emotional content of the inventing process was part of the story that the interview was intended to cover. In all cases, getting emotional content on record required close attention by the interviewer to those moments where emotions were present in a story even if not at the surface, and then asking questions to make the content explicit rather than implicit.
Life History Interviews
Participants endorsed the standard oral history method of the life history approach to research interviews as offering excellent tools to address the particular challenges of interviews with inventors. Doing so automatically broadens the influences the interviewee may use to explain her activities, disrupts rote stories of how invention took place, facilitates identifying motivation and emotion in the inventive process, and encourages interviewees to reflect broadly on the place of their work in the larger society. Such an approach would mean spending time early in the interview establishing family patterns, childhood experiences, youthful influences, education, etc.
Life history is a particularly useful technique for understanding motivation. Asking questions about early childhood experiences, favorite school subjects, games and toys, and influential adult figures provide context for choices made as an adult, e.g. chosen careers, preferred work methods, etc. Making these connections helps facilitate prompting for the emotional content of the invention process, as for many inventors these life experiences reinforce the patterns that motivate their work.
Group interviewing, another standard oral history technique, in some cases also could contribute to understanding invention as a problem-solving process. The group interview technique helps to get beyond the standard ―"lone inventor" story, and establish the interactive elements of the invention process, group dynamics, leadership, skill, etc. Re-assembling the team engaged in a joint project could highlight the relationships and interaction among the group, perhaps reigniting the dynamic teamwork that resulted in the invention. Brien Williams warned, though, of experiences interviewing groups where "the hierarchical structure of their team repossessed them, and everyone deferred to the boss." And Kurt Beyer had been in situations where the group character had obstructed uncovering the process of invention—at least in a way that would be intelligible to outsiders—as the discussion among the interviewees reflected "an inner knowledge of what you‘re interviewing them about" thereby reducing "the complexity of things to clichés." In the event group interviews take place, follow-up individual interviews should also be planned.
The candid nature of interviews makes ethical concerns of great importance for all oral historians. Interviews often contain information not otherwise available, and which can be used for a great many purposes, at times harmful or damaging to the interviewee. It is a maxim of oral history that the interviewer needs to be candid and forthright about the purposes for which an interview is intended and the form in which it will be made available to others. While there is a legal requirement to do so, there also is an ethical imperative that may go further than legal requirements. The interviewee is choosing to open up and offer information about his/her life; it is thus the responsibility of the interviewer to be unmistakably clear about the objective and outcome of the interview.
Inventors are often public figures with a stake—at times financial—in the stories they are telling about their inventions. This complicates the ethical responsibilities of interviewers. Interviewers should make clear to the interviewee that discussions of trade secrets or other information that could damage the inventor can be restricted from use. Comments of a potentially libelous nature about other individuals should be discouraged. If the interview is conducted with permission from a company or other institution and is with a current employee or board member, that information should be disclosed in a summary included with the interview so that researchers are aware of the potential impact of that relationship on interview content.
It is commonplace for oral history projects to permit interviewees to review the interview transcript and to make corrections before it is made available for research. This process of review is best used to ensure correct spelling of names and corrections of fact or transcription errors. This review process is particularly useful for addressing the technical knowledge inherent in inventors‘ work, and allowing the inventor/interviewee to review the transcript for accuracy of technical terms, scientific concepts, etc.
However, it is not unusual for interviewees to view this process differently, as a chance to rewrite the interview and change content at key points. For this reason some oral historians prefer not to include a process of transcript review, either by securing a release form prior to that point or dispensing with the transcript entirely. A more typical practice is to give the interviewee a clear deadline for indicating any changes in the transcript and guidelines for the kinds of changes that would be acceptable. If the transcript is not returned by the deadline then it stands as approved; if changes exceed the guidelines then there is a basis for discussion with the interviewee.
This report has stressed those elements of the Lemelson Center workshop that pertain especially to interviewing inventors. Oral interviews, however, are a widely applied technique that require an awareness of many other elements, including interview techniques, equipment, and analytic appreciation for the workings of memory. This report, then, is a partial guide of the best practices that are necessary to conduct interviews with documenting the process of invention, emphasizing the unusual character of interviews with inventors, not their similarity with other types of oral interviews.
This report also suggests a research agenda of which oral history can serve as only one element, though an essential one—documenting invention as a problem-solving process. Oral sources, especially if linked successfully with visual imagery and material culture, are well-suited to conveying the incremental process of invention, the reverses and dead-ends, as well as the ultimate successes. In doing so, oral histories have the potential to challenge, complicate and enrich the simple couplet of "problem identified – problem solved" that obscures the dynamism and indeterminacy of inventors‘ work. Pursuit of that story necessarily includes other sources, e.g. technical reports, company records, lab notebooks, etc., to the extent they exist. It is this aspect of invention that is not well-documented in the historical record and therefore wide open to new and exciting research.
To develop the conceptual and theoretical dimensions of "invention as a process" the Lemelson Center should continue expanding its agenda to conferences or other events that would serve as a scholarly investigation into how invention is understood. The Center should also continue to document living inventors for the historical record by conducting research grade oral history interviews alongside collecting efforts that include both inventors‘ papers and artifacts. Finally, the Center should explore outlets for sharing this expertise with other museums and repositories that document invention.
 See for example, Thomas P. Hughes, ―"Edison‘s Method" in Technology at the Turning Point, ed. W.B. Pickett (San Francisco: San Francisco Press, 1977), 5-22. Hughes developed his ideas about method and style more fully in American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm, 1870-1970 (New York: Viking, 1989). See also, Robert Friedel and Paul Israel, Edison’s Electric Light: Biography of an Invention (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1986 and Hounshell, D. & Smith, Jr., J.K. Science and Corporate Strategy: Du Pont R&D, 1902-1980. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988). For a treatment of the invention process from the standpoint of psychology, consult Robert J. Weber, Forks, Phonographs, and Hot Air Balloons: A Field Guide to Inventive Thinking (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992) and Robert J. Weber and David N. Perkins, Inventive Minds: Creativity in Technology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).
 For an example of a study which used prototypes to study the invention process, see W. Bernard Carlson Innovation as a Social Process: Elihu Thomson and the Rise of General Electric, 1870-1900 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991; Paperback Edition, 2002).
Appendix A: Workshop participants
David Allison is Chair of the Division of Information Technology and Communications at the National Museum of American History, and a member of the Lemelson Center‘s Advisory Committee. His research specialties include information technology and military history, and he was a participant in the Smithsonian/Sloan videohistory project. His presentation drew on his experiences interviewing scientists at naval research laboratories and his activities interviewing on computing history.
Joseph Anderson is Director of the Niels Bohr Library & Archives and Associate Director of the Center for History of Physics, American Institute of Physics. His previous positions include director of the Library & Archives, Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies in Philadelphia; and Archivist, Yale University Archives.
Kurt Beyer lives in San Francisco and is President and CEO of a small digital media company. He received a Ph.D. from the University of California-Berkeley, served as a Naval Aviator and in 2002 he returned to Annapolis as an assistant professor where he helped to establish the Academy's new Information Technology major.
Douglas Harper is Professor and Chair of the Department of Sociology at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA and is founding editor of Visual Sociology, the journal of the International Visual Sociology Association (IVSA). An accomplished photographer, Doug‘s presentation at the workshop drew on his books Working Knowledge: Skill and Community in a Small Shop and Changing Works: Visions of a Lost Agriculture to discuss the use of contemporary and historical photos in oral interviews.
Sheila J. Henderson is a licensed Counseling Psychologist, book and journal author, with many presentations on multicultural competency training, history of multicultural psychology, vocational counseling, positive psychology, as well as creative achievement in children and adult inventors. Sheila is Adjunct Faculty at the School of Holistic Studies, JFK University. Her presentation drew on her experience of interviewing for the purpose of prompting for emotion.
Roger Horowitz is associate director of the Center for the History of Business, Technology, and Society at the Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington, Delaware. An experienced oral historian who works in labor and business history, Horowitz helped to develop the workshop‘s agenda and to organize the discussion.
Mary Palevsky is the director of the Nevada Test Site Oral History Project, a multidisciplinary program in UNLV's College of Liberal Arts documenting the memories of persons affiliated with and impacted by Cold War nuclear testing. Her book, Atomic Fragments: A Daughter's Questions explored the moral legacy of the atomic bomb in the lives of its creators. Her presentation drew on interviews with scientists who worked on the nuclear weapons testing in Nevada and in the Pacific.
Brien Williams is a Washington-based videographer and oral historian and former historian of the American Red Cross. He holds a PhD from Northwestern University. He has collaborated with the Smithsonian on a variety of video projects. His presentation drew on a project conducted with the Lemelson Center interviewing artificial heart inventor Dr. Robert Jarvik.
Lemelson Center staff participating in the workshop included: Joyce Bedi, senior historian; Ben Bloom, web editor; Yolanda Brown, administrator; Maggie Dennis, historian and coordinator of this workshop; John Fleckner, associate director (emeritus); Arthur Molella, director; Alison Oswald, archivist; Monica Smith, lead project coordinator.
Appendix B: Bibliography of articles circulated in advance of workshop
Harper, Douglas. ―"Talking About Pictures: A Case for Photo Elicitation," Visual Studies, Vol. 17, No. 1, 2002, pgs. 13-26. This article discusses methods for using existing historical photos or photos taken by the interviewer to elicit more detailed and nuanced information from the interviewee. This practice comes largely out of anthropology and sociology.
Henderson, Sheila J. ―"Product Inventors and Creativity: The Finer Dimensions of Enjoyment," Creativity Research Journal, Vol. 16, Nos. 2 & 3, 2004, pgs. 293-312.
This article reports on a research project that utilized interview methods from counseling psychology and personality assessments to explore the emotional processes underlying an inventor‘s work.
Williams, Brien. "Recording Videohistory: A Perspective," in Terri A. Schorzman (ed.), A Practical Introduction to Videohistory: The Smithsonian Institution and Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Experiment. Krieger Publishing Co., Malabar, FL: 1993, pp. 138-154. This article discusses how video production is best used as a research tool in the practice of videohistory.
Doel, Ronald E. "Oral History of American Science: A Forty-Year Review," History of Science, xli (2003), pgs. 349-378. This article is mostly an overview of the use of oral history in the history of science. The final 10 pages discuss the value of these interviews for researchers, referring to those methodologies that seem to elicit the most useful information.
Allessandro Portelli, "What Makes Oral History Different?" in The Oral History Reader, Second edition, Robert Perks and Alistair Thomason, eds. Routledge: New York, 2006, pp. 32-42. This is a classic oral history article by a leading practitioner that addresses how to interpret the narrative qualities of interviews.