Why Place Matters
Whatever the scale—economist Richard Nelson’s “national innovation systems,” Peter Westwick’s system of national laboratories, Thomas Gieryn’s notion of the “city as a truth spot,” or the history of an individual laboratory—“interrogating the spaces of knowledge,” as architectural historian Carlo Yanni puts it, has become a shared goal for scholars of invention. Geographer Diarmid Finnegan has recently encouraged the “Spatial Turn” in the history of science. Finnegan is primarily concerned with the history of biology, but his ideas about mapping science can be applied equally well to the history of invention. Especially intriguing is Finnegan’s emphasis on the circulation of knowledge, how particular places are embedded within larger networks of institutions. Thomas Hughes, Wiebe Bijker, and others have long argued for technological systems as a fundamental unit of analysis, but they have been less attentive to the cultural geography of science and technology. Inventors, after all, simultaneously belong to many communities, with different boundaries and different senses of identity. Mapping invention then becomes a matter of studying connections across time and space, along several axes.
Notably absent from the “spatial turn” are studies of independent inventors. A half-century ago, in their classic study The Sources of Invention, John Jewkes, David Sawers, and Richard Stillerman pointed to the enduring importance of the independent inventor even in an era of growing dependence on corporate and government research and development. Drawing heavily on patent records, Jewkes, Sawers and Stillerman ignored one potentially telling source of invention, the places where those independent inventors did their work. In the years since, independent, though hardly “lone,” inventors have participated in the invention explosions seen in virtually every disciplinary field from biomedical and nanotechnology to microelectronics and mechanical engineering. While the success of competing government and corporate labs in this arena is not surprising, the unexpected continued success of the independent inventor could be explained in part by the personalized spaces created by these gifted and motivated tinkerers, free from the institutional and infrastructural constraints of the mega-labs.
Hewlett and Packard’s garage may be an icon of Silicon Valley, but Xerox PARC and Stanford have gotten the popular and scholarly attention. Indeed, we still know much more about 19th century places of invention, most famously Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park and Alexander Graham Bell’s boarding house “laboratory,” than we do about their 20th and 21st century counterparts. While there has been a growing awareness of the significance of place, such as AnnaLee Saxenian’s comparative study of Route 128 and Silicon Valley, the focus has been on a regional rather than individual level. If independent inventors are and continue to be vital sources of innovation, then some effort should be made to preserve as much as possible of their native habitats. Just as art historians have increasingly looked to the history of the studio rather than merely interpreting finished works of art, so historians of innovation must explore the inventive process where it happens.
Sociologists such as Gieryn have studied the design and architecture of particular laboratories, but always within the context of larger institutions. Similarly, some psychologists, who previously sought to understand the personal “spark of invention”, have, like Csikszentmihalyi, reconsidered “inspiring environments,” though not at the level of the workshop or laboratory bench. Some of these spaces look familiar. Others only become creative spaces once we begin to think about them imaginatively. Du Pont, General Electric, and Los Alamos and Livermore National Laboratories have left enormous paper trails, though in the digital age those documents present their own set of challenges. Without a deliberate attempt to identity and conserve the full complexity of the inventor’s workshop/studio, our understanding of innovation will suffer.
Diffusing Best Practice
Why reinvent the wheel? Many of the techniques of documentary photographers and filmmakers, of oral and cultural historians, can be applied or adapted to the study of places of invention. At the same time, a new set of digital tools emerging in literary studies and other humanities fields might be creatively deployed to capture the inventor at work. If English scholars can design a virtual map of the “cultural geography” of early modern London, or the spread of Irish American literature across the western United States, why shouldn’t studies of invention and innovation explore ways of digitally documenting, and even recreating, places of invention?
George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media has done more than any other institution to bring digital history to life, building sets of tools for identifying, gathering, and organizing digital resources and making those tools easily accessible to the scholarly community and to the public. Echo (Exploring and Collecting History Online) has been the Center’s primary foray into the history of science and technology so far. It’s not difficult to envision a web site designed specifically to guide future studies of inventive spaces. What new media can map most effectively is change over time? Figuring out how to document innovation as it happens, whether through selected digital photographs, digital video, or some other visual means, seems well worth exploring. Such a site could also include primers on traditional historical tools—how to use oral history, laboratory notebooks, photographs and images, patent applications—with specific examples of how these have been, and can be, used to study inventive places. The Nevada Test Site Oral History Project provides a superb prototype of enhancing a traditional technique with new media. In addition to a searchable database of interviews and images, the site includes tips for teaching and for reaching out to the community. “Exploring the Art and Science of Stopping Time: The Life and Work of Harold E. Edgerton,” an interactive CD-ROM, is another promising template, demonstrating that with the right sources, it is quite feasible to put together a close facsimile of a historic place of invention. Having the opportunity to (re)create a virtual inventor’s workshop or studio offers students as well as scholars a chance to think about creative spaces in creative ways.
Tapping Local Resources
If these walls could speak, what would they tell us? Or more fundamentally how can we, as historians, photographers, filmmakers, archivists, and educators, identity and give voice to creative spaces? To begin this conversation, the Lemelson Center sponsored a two-day workshop on “Places of Invention” April 4-5, 2008. Building on, and in many respects extending, its earlier workshops on oral history and prototypes, this workshop brought together a range of experts experienced in documenting invention and innovation, past and present.
The group spent the first day exploring two very different spaces of invention, the home basement workshop and laboratory of Chuck Popenoe, inventor of the SmartBolt and founder of Stress Indicators, Inc., and the Maryland Technology Development Center, a technology incubator specializing in biotechnology startups. Lemelson Center staff had identified Popenoe as a promising subject, and had previously visited him in his workshop. So he knew what to expect, and agreed to let us explore the shop and laboratory pretty much “as is.” Popenoe earned his degree in aerospace engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). He still uses a grinder he built by hand as one of his student projects, and vividly remembers his professors’ insistence that WPI students wear ties, even in the machine shop, since the students were being trained to be engineers, not machinists, and engineers wore ties. Popenoe’s first job out of college was with the Applied Physics Lab at Johns Hopkins University. He then spent twenty years as a physicist with the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institutes of Standards and Technology). He retired in 1987 to concentrate on independent invention.
Though Popenoe has explored a number of ideas, and come up with at least 35 inventions and 7 patents by his count, everything from a motorized kitchen slicer/dicer to a better doorknob, his most successful idea by far has been the SmartBolt, which indicates when the proper torque has been applied by a simple color change on the bolt head. Popenoe came up with the idea in 1968 after reading an article in Popular Mechanics about a bolt that indicated torque by breaking a small piece of glass. Figuring he could do better, he began developing a bolt with an easily visible and reversible color indicator. He devised several variations of his original idea, the latest being the High Resolution SmartBolt, with a yellow-green indicator, instead of the original red- black. He subcontracts their manufacture, and has built a successful business. His biggest customers include manufactures of farm equipment, wind turbines, and railroads. General Electric recently placed a very large order for SmartBolts for commercial electric bus connections, where over-tightening the assembly bolt can lead to excess heat and eventual failure. With SmartBolts, maintenance crews can identity improperly tightened bolts by eye, at some distance.
Popenoe’s basement offered the workshop participants a crash course in the challenges of documenting places of invention. “I have been accumulating tools and machines since in my teens,” he says. “I now have about everything that I need to create almost anything I can dream up, mechanical, optical, or electronic.” Located in an otherwise ordinary suburban house in Bethesda, Maryland, Popenoe’s shop and laboratory looked, to the untutored eye, disorganized— a hand-built experimental aircraft here, a vintage motorcycle there, fishing poles everywhere. Many workshop participants said they had a sense of déjà vu, a flashback to a father or uncle’s garage or workbench. Alongside an impressive collection of machine tools, acquired, Popenoe explained, mostly from estate sales and auctions, were bins and shelves filled with boxes of carefully labeled servo motors and dozens of other odds and ends. The space seemed to mirror the man, insatiable curiosity and meticulous organization. Popenoe has saved prototypes, not only of his successes, such as the first SmartBolt, but also what he called his “Rejects Rogue’s Galley” of fifteen flawed versions. Opposite welding equipment was a home brewing setup, India Pale Ale being a favorite. Classical music, the only genre he listens to, played over speakers throughout the basement.
The space began making sense when Popenoe talked us through one of his laboratory notebooks. In it he had recorded and dated his inventive ideas and had them witnessed by friends and family. In an interesting twist, he had returned to the book with some frequency years afterwards and pasted in advertisements for competitors products—mainly to remind himself that he had come up with the idea first. He constantly looks for ways to improve existing ideas (SmartBolts are a prime example) or to put older ideas to work in imaginative new ways.
Popenoe distinguishes between the shop and the lab, spatially and functionally, though without an expert guide it would have been difficult for a visitor to figure out the appropriate boundaries. He builds things in the shop, often in aluminum, a comfortable material for him, and then tests them in the adjoining lab. Whether he observes these distinctions in practice is an open question. Of special interest was a part of the lab devoted to music. He plays banjo and violin, sometimes a couple hours a day, for fun and relaxation but also, he says, to keep his fingers “busy” and limber. For Popenoe, invention is highly tactile. He seems most comfortable demonstrating rather than simply talking about his ideas, showing us, for example, how the stretch of a SmartBolt changes the color indicator. He’s restless, physically and intellectually. Though he is delighted with the financial success of his SmartBolts, he says he’d prefer to play with something new, and has turned over the business side of the company to his son Charles, who has an M.B.A.
During our visit, videographer Brien Williams informally documented Popenoe’s shop and laboratory with a small digital camera, and later shared his candid images with the workshop participants. What caught Williams’ eye was how the inventor and the space defined one another. Clearly the shop and laboratory represent the accumulation of a half-century of inventing, and the experience of trying to capture that history, however briefly, convinced Williams, despite his initial skepticism, that space really could be a “potent expression of personality.” At the same time, Williams acknowledged that capturing the moment of inspiration would be virtually impossible. At best Popenoe might be able to re-enact invention. Without Popenoe to animate and interpret the space, could anyone fully appreciate its unique characteristics?
Reflecting on the visit, we decided that what we did not see might be as significant as what we did see. Though Popenoe’s shop and laboratory were in some sense domestic spaces, they were also gendered spaces, virtually the definition of a “guy’s place.” We never saw the rest of the house, and wondered about the relationship between the two. Where did other members of Popenoe’s family fit into the picture? How and where do they interact with Popenoe? Fully documenting Popenoe’s shop and lab would require not only time, but also trust. At first glance, Popenoe may seem to be a classic “independent inventor,” but that certainly did not prove to the case. Understanding the invention of the SmartBolt would require some attention to Popenoe’s son and business partner, some knowledge of the subcontractors in Pennsylvania and New Jersey that manufacture SmartBolts, and a sense of why customers such as General Electric and John Deere are willing to pay such a premium price for them.
The group spent the afternoon touring a completely different creative space, the Maryland Technology Development Center (MTDC), one of four high-technology incubators established by the Montgomery County Department of Business and Economic Development to foster startup companies in biotechnology and other emerging fields. Hoping to capitalize (quite literally) on the research being done at the nearby National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Technology Development Center provides startup companies with wet-lab space, basic equipment such as ultra-low temperature refrigerators, and essential business services. Prospective tenants have to present formal applications and a business plan to a review committee and must have sufficient venture capital or federal contracts in place to be financially viable. In an intriguing twist, the rent increases 10% a year as an incentive for firms to outgrow the incubator and move into the market on their own, hopefully somewhere within the state. At any one time, several dozen companies share the facility, leasing one of more laboratories, depending on their needs. MTDC offers what it calls a “resource rich ecosystem” that encourages interaction among the tenants, including CEO roundtables and networking among companies, though these are aimed more at shared financial and marketing challenges rather than at divergent and often proprietary technologies.
Ruth Semple, the Business Development Specialist, gave us a short overview and tour of the incubator. We then met representatives from two startups, Andy Bristol, vice-president of R&D for Neogenix Oncology, and Madhvi Upender, scientific director of NeoDiagnostix. Both companies specialize in cancer diagnostics and therapeutics. Neogenix designs antigens for pancreatic and other cancers. NeoDiagnostix offers a more sophisticated version of a Pap smear, using DNA markers, intended for high-risk patients or when the initial test results are inconclusive. NeoDiagnostix is therefore more a testing facility than an R&D laboratory.
In line with MTDC’s expectations, the two companies grew out of research done by their principal scientists while post-docs at NIH. Both companies are very small, with two full-time researchers in one and four in the other, and almost completely independent of other firms in the incubator. Their independence is not that surprising given what Bristol described as the intense competition and secrecy in the industry. Upender relies on proprietary diagnostic technology since NIH holds the basic patents on gene detection. Like Popenoe, Bristol and Upender valued their relative independence, having made a deliberate decision not to work for large pharmaceutical companies, though Bristol began his career at Novartis and Upender seriously considered an offer from Pfizer. As a reminder of what he left behind, Bristol has a sign on a lab bench, “Are you lonely?...Call a meeting.” While the scientists said they felt most comfortable in an academic setting, their labs had clearly defined missions and a sharp focus on the numbers. Unlike Stress Indicators, a self-supporting operation, these companies rely on significant infusions of venture capital to support expensive clinical trials and to fulfill strict FDA testing protocols. As Bristol noted, however, these days academic laboratories, even the NIH, look a lot like small businesses and are expected to show a practical payoff. When asked why he chose to locate at MTDC, Bristol offered a revealing response: “We can’t work out of our garage.”
In stark contrast to the personal, even casual style of Stress Indicators, Noegenix and NeoDiagnostix seemed strictly business, in “cookie-cutter” labs that will be refitted for new tenants just as soon as these companies move out or fail. Here the pace seemed frenetic, deadlines and bottom lines almost visible. NeoDiagnostix had recently added an automated fluorescent microscope to speed up the turnaround time for its clinical tests. On one side of the room a lab tech counted cells while on the other an automated microscope ground through its slides at a pace no lab tech could match. For a place that claimed to be about collaboration, we found it surprising that so many doors were closed, so many windows papered over. The cafeteria and the bulletin boards gave a better sense of common space than anything we saw in the laboratories or the conference room. Where Popenoe’s work space was literally a home, the biotech labs were more akin to apartments or a “starter home” where an inventor might stay for a few years at most, then move on, leaving no visible trace behind.
If Popenoe’s lab might need an archeologist to do it justice, these biotech labs might require an accountant and a lawyer, since matters of venture capital and intellectual property seemed so pressing. Still, the workshop and the labs shared more than might be obvious from a quick visit. What we could not see at the incubator would be just critical in understanding the process of invention. Though small, these labs are part of a much bigger network that connects them to the NIH, to major medical schools, and to the FDA. Neogenix outsources the manufacturer of the biological material needed for its drug trials to a Florida company, and collaborates with researchers at the Medical College of South Carolina. The company’s CEO, a former oncologist at Sloan-Kettering, is in New York. NeoDiagnostix has to work closely with federal regulators, insurance companies, and HMOs to qualify its diagnostic techniques, and convince physicians that its test is worth the extra cost over a conventional Pap smear.
As it did in Popenoe’s home, gender caught our attention. NeoDiagnostix’s CEO and its chairman of the board may be men, but its scientific director is a woman, as are its lab techs, and it has chosen to specialize, at least to this point, on women’s health. Upender said that she found the Women in Biology events sponsored by MTDC very helpful.
MTDC’s goal of moving small companies into the open market as quickly as possible offers a significant documentary challenge, since what’s here today is expected to be gone tomorrow. At the same time, being able to compare independent invention in different spaces could help determine how much and in what ways place really matters. Odds are that most of the small companies in the incubator will either fail or end up being sold off to larger companies. There may be important lessons in studying failure. David Kirsch’s Digital Archive of the Birth of the Dot Com Era project at the University of Maryland identifies and archives records from hundreds of “dot bomb” companies that would otherwise disappear without a trace. A comparable study of failed inventors might be equally valuable. As distinguished inventor and engineer Charles Kettering, who spent half his career as an independent inventor and the other half as the head of research for General Motors, once put it: “The only time I don’t want to fail is the last time I try.” Similarly, engineering educator Henry Petroski insists that failure is the ultimate key to engineering achievement. These stories suggest that documenting failure may turn out to be as important as documenting success.
With the experiences of our tours firmly in mind, the workshop devoted its second day to short presentations on specific sites the participants had studied, and a wide-ranging discussion of the challenges of selecting and documenting diverse places of invention. The conversation touched on four principal themes: (1) identity; (2) community; (3) networks; and (4) tools and methods.
Old stereotypes about scientists and inventors can be difficult to break, and have not changed all that much since Margaret Mead’s pioneering studies of the 1950s. Asked then, or now, to draw a scientist or inventor, a middle-schooler nearly always comes up with some caricature of Einstein or Edison. One of the Lemelson Center’s goals is to define inventors and invention more inclusively. Certainly that might help to “inspire the innovator in everyone,” as the mission of the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose likes to say. Women and minority inventors often seem to be on the periphery in conventional studies of invention. Expand the definition of invention and innovation and what seems peripheral becomes more central. Where can we locate women and minority inventors and how are race, gender, and identity expressed in inventors’ workspaces?
Drawing on her studies of women scientists and inventors, historian Pam Henson pointed out the importance of considering “separate spheres of opportunity.” Just as women scientists could often be found in certain kinds of institutions, say in the Department of Agriculture or in schools of home economics, so women inventors often created and exploited distinct niches, whether in health care, beauty products, design and fashion, or food preparation. Henson cited the classic case of the Fannie Farmer cookbook, designed with simple directions, standardized measurements, and marketed to housewives at a time when other cookbooks were intended for professional chefs. As the recent exhibit on Julia Child at the National Museum of American History makes clear, the kitchen is a vital space of inventive creativity, and one everyone can appreciate. Why shouldn’t recipes, when written down in cookbooks, be as significant a marker of invention as patents? In her interviews, Henson has noticed that women scientists from an earlier era, the 1950s or 1960s, tend to dismiss the significance of the role of gender in trying to succeed in fields dominated by men. A younger generation seems more willing to consider how gender roles may have shaped their careers, in terms of educational and employment opportunities, access to venture capital, and mentoring.
Historian Ray Fouché, in studying African-American inventors, faces similar challenges in locating his subjects, in every sense. If African-American invention begins and ends with Benjamin Banneker, George Washington Carver, and the “real McCoy,” as it often has, then African-American inventors will continue to be seen as a marginal exception. Fouché, much like Henson, uses a wide-angle lens to broaden the focus. Jheri Redding’s hair care products and hip- hop record producers do not fit so easily within the conventional definition of inventor. Fouché has learned that self-identity is hardly static. Young African-American inventors rarely consider race to be a defining issue in their careers. Having grown up and been educated in predominantly white communities and schools, these inventors and engineers often resist being labeled in strictly racial terms, even when they are designing products primarily for an African American market. An older generation more openly acknowledges race, though its members are not necessarily any more eager to discuss it. That can make it more difficult for Fouché to probe questions about how the experience of African-American inventors might be distinctive in some significant way. He recognizes that his subjects often do not interpret questions of racial identity in the way he does. So instead of engaging the subject of race head-on, he asks questions designed to get his subjects to think about how racial identity affected other aspects of their lives, or the lives of people in their social or inventive network.
Henson and Fouché raised a crucial question about cross-cultural interviewing. Do the obvious advantages of a shared identity, being an insider, outweigh the advantages of a different perspective, being an outsider? Just as the only honest answer may be “it all depends,” it’s not always clear what being an insider or an outsider might mean, since race and gender are never the only dividing lines. One of those categories may run against the grain of the other, to say nothing of many other kinds of identity. Inventors, like everyone else, define themselves in multiple ways, including the always problematic category of inventor itself. As Fouché learned in his research on hip-hop music, Japanese enthusiasts brought a completely new set of identities into the mix, something closer to genuine cross-cultural interviewing. Henson said that in her experience, the best approach is to “embrace subjectivity,” since every interview has a unique dynamic with many identities are in play. Being aware of that is half the battle.
Mark Thomson’s photographic essays on “makers, breakers, and fixers” in the Australian outback underscored the importance of being sensitive to how inventors define themselves. Thomson finds himself in a continuing battle with his publishers about how to portray his subjects. His book publishers see more sales potential in framing them as eccentrics or crackpots, akin to Garrison Keillor’s fictional bachelor farmers. Thomson balances as best he can his publisher’s demands for “quirky characters” with genuine respect and admiration for these backyard inventors, trying never to appear condescending, either in the shots themselves or in the published photographs. Thomson shared several striking examples of images that may catch a reader’s eye, but did not, in his opinion, capture the essential character of the subject. His photographic essays also provided a reminder that inventors are no less susceptible to attention and flattery than the rest of us, and all too willing to play to the camera. In deciding whose workshop to document, we immediately find ourselves facing a version of the Uncertainty Principle, where the choice itself may influence what we discover.
Workshop participants concurred that finding women and minority inventors to document is half the battle. Developing interview techniques to uncover the role that race and gender play in careers and the invention process, as well as being self-aware of ones own tendencies to interpret that role in ways which the subject may not agree are important steps in understanding the complexities of social categories in professional life. Workshop participants spent less time discussing how researchers can learn to observe workspaces and processes in new ways in order to identify how these spaces influence and are influenced by the race and gender of their occupants. Developing new methodologies, perhaps borrowing techniques from sociologists and ethnographers, would greatly enhance efforts to document places of invention.
Even the most independent inventor is part of a larger community, whether a local neighborhood, a professional association, a business partnership, or a network of other inventors. The character of these wider communities, historian and curator Kathy Franz insisted, requires attention. That Popenoe’s house was in a residential suburb mattered. Similarly, Thomson’s shed mechanics have a well-defined place within their communities. They may be defiantly self-taught and self- sufficient, the ultimate “do-it-yourselfers,” recycling otherwise obsolete relics such as a B-17 generator or 1920s automobiles into efficient, reliable, labor-saving technologies. Thomson calls their sheds “museums to frugality.” At the same time, these men are very much nodes in a network of fellow tinkerers, which occasionally intersect with corporate invention. A couple of the shed inventors have made fortunes, one for the Triton Workbench, another for the HyShot Scramjet. Like Popenoe, they read widely, often draw inspiration from American magazines such as Popular Mechanics, and closely identity with the American “can-do” spirit these publications represent. These tinkerers provide such a vital asset for their friends and neighbors that even people who would otherwise like to see the sheds cleaned up or leveled frequently rely on the local “Mr. Fix-It” in a pinch.
Race and class obviously play a role in defining community, but not necessarily a decisive one. Archivist Jean Deken noted that Persis Drell, the current director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC), is frankly tired of being introduced as the first woman physicist to head a major national laboratory. She would rather be considered part of the international community of high-energy physicists, not the community of women scientists. Yet we know from Sharon Traweek’s anthropological study of SLAC and its Japanese counterpart that these laboratories are highly gendered spaces. What strategies might successfully negotiate between the subjects’ sense of community and how the historian/archivist would want to interpret issues of gender, race, and class? Fouché and Franz agreed that these spaces are as much a cultural places as a physical places. Tracing how our subjects situate themselves in multiple contexts might be effective in steering potentially uncomfortable questions in more productive directions. Asking questions about mentors and role models, for instance, may elicit responses that address matters of community in a less confrontational way.
Clearly, communities and networks of invention are worth considering beyond the study of underrepresented groups. In describing the invention and development of satellite manufacturing at RCA and General Electric, curator Martin Collins suggested that the histories of the surrounding communities in New Brunswick, NJ and Valley Forge, PA, where most of these space scientists and engineers lived, ought to be an integral part of the story. The value of bringing the community into the story is forcefully expressed in Beers’ Blue Sky Dream, a memoir of coming of age in an aerospace community in northern California during the Cold War. Beers’ father, an engineer for Lockheed, tried, but ultimately failed, to separate his work and home life, with serious consequences for his family and professional lives. Franz pointed out that the very title of Michael Pupin’s autobiography, From Immigrant to Inventor, suggests how invention can be a path to assimilation, an entree into a new community. Fouché explained that the community in Schenectady, NY where he had previously lived had once been home to many of General Electric’s top scientists and engineers. They often kept private attic laboratories. Undoubtedly perplexing to subsequent owners, these private workspaces still exist, sometimes in surprisingly good condition, testimony to a spirit of inventiveness that could not be constrained by a corporate laboratory. Locating inventors, requires identifying them, but also learning as much as possible about the communities in which they live and work.
Historian Joyce Bedi’s study of stroboscopic pioneer Harold Edgerton provided an instructive example of how one inventor moved through many different spaces—his academic laboratory at MIT, factories where he demonstrated his ideas to prospective clients, photographers’ studios where he demonstrated his high-speed photographic techniques, the MIT gymnasium, the Nevada Atomic Test Site, and in people’s homes. Edgerton was simultaneously a member of many different communities: of the MIT faculty; of Edgerton, Germeshausen and Grier, Inc. (an independent company focused on atomic testing founded with former MIT students Kenneth J. Germeshausen and Herbert E. Grier in 1947 and still in business today as a division of United Research Services); and even of an elite group of fine arts photographers, one of the handful to be featured in the Museum of Modern Art’s inaugural exhibit of photography. To focus only on his MIT laboratory would be to miss much of what defined his creativity. Reading these different settings and different self-representations requires experience and practice. Bedi recreated Edgerton’s famous MIT laboratory, known as Strobe Alley, on an interactive CD-ROM entitled “Exploring the Art and Science of Stopping Time: The Life and Work of Harold Edgerton.” Viewers can watch films of some of Edgerton’s most famous experiments, such as the milk drop coronet, and then reproduce those experiments using virtual stroboscopic equipment.
So legendary was Edgerton’s laboratory that MIT has tried to recapture some of the old magic by turning Strobe Alley, located on the fourth floor of Building 4, into the Corridor Lab. Part hands- on teaching tool, part community outreach, part science center, and part shrine, the Corridor Lab is intended as a living legacy of Edgerton’s engineering style. Under the watchful eye of two of Edgerton’s now-retired colleagues, the Corridor Lab may come as close to preserving this creative space as one could imagine, short of resurrecting Doc Edgerton himself. These contrasting interpretations of Strobe Alley, one historically accurate and the other in the pedagogical spirit of a master teacher, offer different templates for thinking about documenting invention. Is the point to replicate the past or re-envision it? Presumably, these goals could be complementary, even synergistic. What the CD-ROM and Corridor Lab do best is animate a creative space by putting something of the inventor back into it, while recognizing that Strobe Alley was always an integral part of the MIT community.
Jet Lowe’s photographic essays on Thomas Edison’s laboratory in West Orange, NJ and on the C.F. Martin Guitar Company in Nazareth, PA suggest the significance of community even for an icon of independent invention and for a family-owed maker of iconic guitars. Although historians long ago demolished the myth of the Wizard of Menlo Park as a lone genius, his subsequent West Orange complex may be the best-preserved as well as the most successful “invention factory” of the 19th century. Comparing the Henry Ford Museum’s reconstruction of the Menlo Park laboratory with its West Orange successor offers an instructive lesson in transition from what Hughes has described as the “inventor-entrepreneur” to the “systems builder,” though the full story would have to include a contrast with General Electric’s pioneering corporate research laboratory opened in 1901. All three places have been studied in some detail, but always with a bias toward the paper record. The material culture of the three spaces could be equally revealing, particularly for a general audience. Oddly enough, Ford and Edison faced the same challenge in trying to document a space of invention that we do, since by the time Ford decided to add the Menlo Park to his growing outdoor museum at Greenfield Village, Edison had long abandoned the site. So Menlo Park had to be recreated from surviving plans, photographs, and recollections.
Martin guitars are still sought out by musicians and fans alike for their legendary sound and feel. Lowe documented the time-honored skill that goes into every Martin instrument, but Martin is more a factory than a cloister of craftsmen. Innovation at Martin is a cumulative and collective process, just as it was at West Orange, and capturing it requires attention to the entire complex since key ideas may come from virtually anywhere, including customers looking for unique features for their instruments.
As a staff photographer for Historic American Building Survey/Historic American Engineering Record (HABS/HAER) Lowe had been assigned to re-photograph Edison’s laboratory, matching shot for shot an early inventory to record what, if anything, had changed. While the assignment set obvious constraints on the images, the inventory nonetheless contained an enormous amount of detail. Lowe called the large-formal negatives a Rosetta stone of information—dense, durable, and relatively permanent. For someone with a working knowledge of Edison and West Orange, the photographs provided key visual clues to interpret the site, the different designs of phonographs, how the machine shop had been arranged, views of the chemistry laboratory. Yet the images had a certain stiffness, as Lowe acknowledged, and did little to put Edison back into the picture, so to speak. In his study of the Martin Guitar, by contrast, Lowe used photographs to elicit responses from the craftsmen at the company. The photographs helped open us a dialog with the workers, who often explained subtleties that the images alone could not fully capture.
A prominent theme in recent studies of innovation has been the importance of networks. Economists increasingly focus on “national innovation systems,” defined most simply as “the flow of technology and information among people, enterprises, and institutions,” rather than the firm. Building on Hughes’ historical research on “networks of power” and on the insights of economic geographers, historians, and sociologists have traced the interconnections among spatially dispersed sites, what geographer Livingston has termed “geographies of scientific knowledge.” Though not addressed directly in this conference, the “geography of innovation” could be an important tool for studying independent invention, just as it has proven of value in understanding corporate research and development.
Historian Bill Leslie presented some of the results of his current project on the rise of postwar San Diego. He highlighted the synergies among corporate, academic, and government laboratories as part of a deliberate civic strategy begun in the late 1950s to make “San Diego the scientific capital of the world.” Despite a late start compared with Silicon Valley or Route 128, San Diego established itself as a major center for innovation in biomedicine, aerospace, and nuclear power in only a decade. One of the key elements in its success was attracting ventures such as the Salk Institute, Scripps Research Institute, and General Atomic, and then encouraging linkages between those independent laboratories and corresponding departments of the new campus of the University of California at San Diego (UCSD). In pursuing its goal of selective excellence, UCSD in turn looked for faculty prepared to collaborate with their counterparts in the private sector. Over time, San Diego has emerged as a hub of innovation where individual researchers may have joint appointments in several laboratories while UCSD graduate students have the opportunity for research experience at the Neurosciences Institute or Salk.
One of the challenges in documenting places of invention is setting appropriate boundaries. Too broad and the signal gets lost in the noise. Too narrow and it’s easy to lose sight of the larger networks in which all innovation is embedded. Maps provide a way to visualize the network without having to study all the nodes. A for-profit venture, SparkIP, whose founders include historian of science Tim Lenoir, is already mapping clusters of innovation using patents and patent applications to reveal patterns of intellectual and financial investment. A similar kind of analysis, for a different purpose, could be done for independent inventors, revealing larger patterns easy to miss with the focus on a single individual. A map of Stress Indicators would show its suppliers and customers, without having to do the intensive documentation required of Popenoe’s laboratory and workshop. A map of Neogenix would place it within the context of other biotech start-ups in the I-270 corridor, and could be as detailed (companies in oncology diagnostics) or broad (companies started by former NIH researchers) as desirable. Unlike SparkIP’s proprietary SparkClusters, these maps would be open source and other researchers would be encouraged to add to them so that over time the boundaries and character of an inventive community would emerge in its full complexity. The Lemelson Center, by adapting some of the digital mapping tools being developed by Pitney Bowes MapInfo and other companies and making them publicly available through its website, could gradually build a sophisticated database on places of invention that would complement its on-site studies. Such a project might be considered for a future workshop.
Tools and Methods
Documenting places of invention can certainly take advantage of many of the historian’s traditional tools. The tried-and-true techniques for audio and video interviews described in the previous Lemelson Center workshop on oral history, and in Henson’s presentation for this one, require little modification. Judging from our experience with Popenoe’s workshop and laboratory, however, it will be important for interviewers to ask their subjects to talk about aspects of spaces that have become so familiar as to seem obvious or trivial to the inventors themselves. Why is something here instead of there? How much time do you spend in this space? What’s this machine tool primarily used for? Why do you only listen to classical music? Just as a good oral history tries to get the subject to break out of a standard narrative and reconsider the story afresh, so studies of inventive places will require questions designed to direct the conservation in unexpected directions. As Fouché and Franz suggested, oblique questions might be best at probing matters of gender and race.
Jet Lowe and Brien Williams are both extremely experienced documentary photographers, Lowe in print, Williams in video. Lowe’s on-the-fly attempt to capture Popenoe’s shop and lab with a small digital camera inadvertently underscored his arguments for the continuing relevance of conventional photographs in an increasing digital world. Over decades as a HABS/HAER photographer shooting in large-format black and white, Lowe estimates he has lost less than a tenth of one percent of his images to technical glitches. A corrupted memory card wiped out every one of the sixty images he took at Popenoe’s place. Digital images, Lowe stressed, have many advantages. They can be manipulated in powerful ways, so that panoramas can be stitched together easily from still photographs, and classic fisheye views turned into a 360 degree view with rectilinear quality. The real trick, he emphasized, was to understand the difference between what the lens sees and what the human eye perceives, in any format, and adjust accordingly.
As a vidoegrapher, Williams most often chronicles professional inventors and engineers, usually for corporate or government clients. He provides the “chapters for someone else’s narrative,” as he put it. In that sense, his documentary work is closest to the oral history projects funded by the Smithsonian, the American Institute of Physics, and the Chemical Heritage Foundation, intended as general resources rather than created as byproducts of individual research. Though Williams sometimes videotapes in “real time,” for instance the last days of a Vermont slate mine before it moved from a manual to an automated production, more often he is recreating on film something that happened years earlier, asking an inventor to reenact the inventive process, over several takes. So the subjects know that history is looking over their shoulder. One important trick of the trade, Williams explained, is letting the camera come to the subject, holding the focus on key objects to slow down an animated scientist or engineer. He then splices in close-ups and detailed explanations later. Williams’ subjects, much like Popenoe, generally feel more comfortable dealing with objects rather than direct questions. Letting the camera roll puts them at ease and gives Williams a chance to capture less guarded moments. Williams believes that experience in electronic news gathering, which requires flexibility and going with the flow, is more valuable than experience in television and movie production, where set-up shots are the rule. For large- scale equipment, a video tour works well, essentially letting the subject direct the film “from the top,” quite literally, explaining each part of the machine as it comes into view on the monitor. Another successful strategy is to divide and conquer, letting the curator or historian ask the questions and letting the director and cameraman worry about the visual presentation.
As director of his own Institute of Backyard Studies, Mark Thomson considers himself a storyteller. He seeks to record a community of resourcefulness driven by the geographic isolation of the Australian outback. His motto (or at least the motto of his subjects): “I tinker, therefore I am.” The surprising commercial success of Thomson’s books on backyard inventors (at least surprising to him) has given him a celebrity within the shed culture of Australia, opening doors but at the same time making his subjects more self-conscious. He visits with his “makers, breakers, and fixers” several times, despite some daunting distances. Thomson says he gets his best photographs when his subjects feel most at ease. Instead of candid photos, he asks he subjects how they would like to be posed. To draw attention away from the camera, Thomson talks and takes notes while he photographs, and always sends copies of the final photographs to the subjects.
Winning a subject’s trust is just as important with a celebrity subject. Kathy Franz described her collaboration with David Macaulay, illustrator and author of “The Way Things Work,” for an exhibition at the National Building Museum. Macaulay’s books on cathedrals, mosques, mills, and castles are best-sellers, and instantly recognizable. In preparing for the exhibit, Franz observed Macaulay at work over a three-year period, and gained real insight into his distinctive style. Sometimes a good eye and an inquisitive mind are the best tools for studying invention, for Franz and for Macaulay. Macaulay begins each project with a clean studio, gradually filling it up with books and models and photographs and objects and thousands of sheets of tracing paper, slowly building to a creative crescendo, followed by an emphatic finis, the completed book. Macaulay’s studio, like the spaces it creates and describes, is transitory and dynamic. Yet that splendid isolation of the studio masks how much Macaulay immerses himself in the communities he studies. To understand the mosque, Macaulay traveled to Istanbul. For his study of the body, he briefly enrolled in medical school. His sketchbooks provide an invaluable record of his “inventions,” but only for someone like Franz with the experience to interpret them. Like an Edgerton photograph, his sketches capture but a brief moment in time. They are literal traces of, rather than an open window on, invention. Without Macaulay in it, the studio seemed static. For that reason Franz rejected the idea of putting a mock-up of the studio into the exhibition, and settled instead for a short video of Macaulay talking in and about his studio and work process. Macaulay felt awkward trying to explain what he was doing, and preferred drawing to a verbal description, a common experience with inventors. Franz and Macaulay often disagreed about how to interpret his work, leading back to the question of whose voice to privilege, or at least how to appropriately balance the inventor’s self-image with the outsider’s perspective.
Finding well-documented laboratories and workspaces is difficult enough, but will only become that much tougher when the records themselves are, in Jean Deken’s words, “born digital.” Bedi’s CD-ROM on Edgerton provided an unexpectedly instructive lesson in the pitfall of digital records. Just ten years old, the disk no longer runs on current versions of Quick Time, and now can only be viewed on an “antique” computer. That problem is familiar at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC), where Deken is the archivist. The physicists rarely consider what should go to the archives, and rarely welcome visits from the archivist, who is akin to the angel of death to a working scientist, or at least the harbinger of a smaller office. One consequence of digital records is that they can live almost anywhere—a laptop, a server, a cell phone—but never for long. Deken noted that hardware has a finite life, as does software and platforms. Migrating and preserving digital records is expensive, and archival budgets are always limited, so everything cannot be saved. The scientific community recognizes the importance of digital records for its future work (if not for their historical significance) and has funded the Persistent Archives Test Bed project in collaboration with the San Diego Super Computer Center. While the computer scientists sort out the technical details, historians and archivist will have to prioritize what digital records to save and how to preserve and make them accessible for future generations of researchers.
Exhibitions and Outreach
Figuring out how to make places of invention instructive and family-friendly offers the Lemelson Center staff a demanding if welcome challenge. The Center’s new 3500 square foot exhibit gallery is a relatively small space in which to make places of invention come to life, and appeal to the widest possible audience, from young school children to adults. With very limited examples, they must convey the “who, what, when, where, and why,” and the “so what?” of invention, with particular attention to the who and the where. One priority is to help visitors envision invention and the places of invention more broadly, not just as something that happens in a laboratory or a machine shop, but also in kitchens, garages and in surprising spaces as well. As Smith explained, one goal is to break down old stereotypes of invention. Visitors will bring with them certain images of inventors, as Edisons or eccentrics, and learn that invention has many different faces, some of them people they will recognize from their own experiences. Julia Child may not be a household name among younger visitors, but the kitchen as a creative space is something anyone can appreciate. Isn’t the kitchen just another laboratory? America’s Test Kitchen, with its own Tasting Lab, is a real place outside Boston, as well as a popular television show. Test Kitchens is the revealing name of market research firm in the middle of Silicon Valley. Drawing the parallels between high-tech and high-taste, between lab science and food science (an academic department at many land grant universities), underscores an important lesson about everyday invention, and offers unlimited opportunity for hands-on learning.
Similarly, the people in Thomson’s photographs will likely remind visitors of the Mr. Fix-It’s in their own families and neighborhoods. As education specialist Tricia Edwards pointed out, getting visitors to see people in their own communities as inventors would be an eye-opener. Thomson thought the right kind of hands-on activities might encourage young visitors to consider career choices they might never have thought about otherwise. Based on her exhibit on David Macaulay, Franz suggested a child’s room as a provocative comparison to an inventor’s workshop, a comfortable, personal space in which to imagine, think and create. Franz cautioned about the limits of trying to teach creativity in a museum. The Invention Station at The Henry Ford did not so much teach visitors to invent as to be cogs in a machine, a valuable though unintended take-home lesson.
Somehow conveying the improvisational quality of invention, which Thomson compared to jazz, will be vital. So will capturing the personality of the inventors chosen for the exhibit. The group reached no firm consensus on whether it made more sense to find the right inventor or the right invention. We did agree that an exhibit should not ignore conventional workspaces. Visitors should compare invention in several different kinds of spaces, including biotechnology incubators or large national or corporate laboratories.
Perhaps the best guide so far for studying places of invention is Stewart Brand’s classic How Buildings Learn. Brand documents several different kinds of spaces, including his own studio. Looking for the patterns behind inspiring spaces and creative dead-ends. He compares MIT’s famous Building 20, a “temporary” facility constructed for the Radiation Laboratory during World War II and occupied for the next five decades, with the architecturally distinguished but strangely sterile Media Laboratory designed by I.M. Pei. The Media Laboratory, intended to foster communication among different researchers, ended up isolating them instead. Judging from the complaints voiced by researchers reassigned from Building 20 to Frank Gehry’s new Staata Building, MIT’s administrators did not learn much from the limitations of the Media Laboratory, and simply replicated its mistakes on a grander scale. Had MIT been able to document its own spaces of invention, it might have avoided some costly errors. The right set of tools for documenting creative spaces might offer something valuable to architects, scientists, and engineers trying to envision new spaces, as well as preserving and interpreting existing spaces. Archivists routinely advise on appropriate strategies for collecting, evaluating, and maintaining future documents. Why couldn’t appropriate documentation strategies for spaces of invention be mobilized for planning the future as well as preserving the past?
Though it is clear that inventors shape the spaces in which they work, sometimes to the point where the space seems almost an extension of the inventor’s personality, it might be worthwhile to consider how particular spaces reinforce as well as reflect particular patterns of innovation. If some kinds of spaces foster creativity, the others may subtly discourage it. Studying a place over a long period of time could reveal not only how successful inventors adapt their workshops to changing strategies of innovation, but also how the design of space may set limits on creativity. A longitudinal study of a single inventor in multiple spaces could be instructive, for instance charting Edison’s inventive style from his personal workshop through Menlo Park and West Orange, with a focus on the arrangement of space. Similarly, comparing different kinds of spaces within a single corporation or federal agency might suggest why incremental innovation flourishes in some spaces, revolutionary innovation in others. IBM’s Watson Laboratory has a completely different design than its San Jose laboratory. How does each design affect the kind of inventive style of each lab? Though reflective of the corporate mission, the workspace itself may embody a distinctive style of creativity. At least IBM scientists and engineers think so. Or consider the difference between Xerox’s main research and engineering laboratories in Webster, NY and Xerox PARC in Silicon Valley.
Questions about gender and race could also be explored longitudinally. Percy Julian, the first African-American chemist inducted into the National Academy of Sciences, spent his career in two very different spaces, first the research laboratories of Glidden and later as the founder of Julian Laboratories. How did he shape each space, and how in turn did each shape his research style and that of his colleagues, a group which included several other African-American chemists and technicians? Margaret Rossitor’s study of women scientists in America pointed to particular spaces such as the laboratories of the USDA and agricultural experiment stations where women scientists flourished. What, if anything, was unusual about these spaces and how did they change over time?
Thomson’s shed culture of Australia has its obvious counterpart in the garage culture of Silicon Valley. Hewlett and Packard’s garage is a designated historic landmark, “the birthplace of the world’s first high-technology region,” recently restored and preserved by the company as an essential link to its past. Silicon Valley is a shed culture of unmatched implications, and an obvious candidate for documentation. The acclaimed MouseSite about Douglas Engelbart and the invention of the computer “mouse” would be even better with attention to space along with people, devices, and culture.
Just as we routinely consider questions about gender and race that almost no one thought to ask a generation ago, the “spatial turn” should become a standard part of the historian’s repertoire. Documenting space is more matter of perspective than a matter of tools, of noticing what is too easily overlooked. For historians, space may be the next, if not the final, frontier.
Places of Invention Workshop Participants
National Museum of American History Smithsonian Institution
Curator, Civilian Space Applications National Air and Space Museum Smithsonian Institution
Archivist, Stanford Linear Accelerator Center
Archives and History Office
National Museum of American History Smithsonian Institution
History and African American Studies University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Assistant Professor & Director of Public History
Department of History
Director, Institutional History Division Smithsonian Institution Archives
Stuart W. Leslie
History of Science and Technology The Johns Hopkins University
Historic American Engineering Record U.S. National Park Service
National Museum of American History Smithsonian Institution
Lead Project Coordinator
National Museum of American History Smithsonian Institution
Advanced Research Director
Australasian Institute of Backyard Studies
Oral historian and Video Producer
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Digital Archive of the Birth of the Dot Com Era, http://dotcomarchive.org/.
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Persistent Archives Test Bed Project, http://www.slac.stanford.edu/history/era.shtml. SparkIP, http://www.sparkip.com/#1;0.
Pitney Bowes MapInfo, http://www.mapinfo.com/.