In November 2020, I had the honor of moderating one of five panel sessions comprising the Lemelson Center’s “Black Inventors and Innovators: New Perspectives” webinar series. For session three on November 18, with a focus on Black inventors and innovators at work, I enjoyed a lively, thought-provoking, and challenging discussion with two inspiring inventors, Dr. Tyrone Grandison and Dr. Tahira Reid Smith (watch the video of the session).
Both inventors deserve more attention, but for this blog post, I will highlight Dr. Reid Smith because of her first invention—an automatic double-Dutch jump rope machine based on a childhood passion. We plan to feature her engaging story in Game Changers, a new exhibition currently in development by the Lemelson Center, alongside other diverse historical and contemporary inventors.
Growing up in the Bronx, New York, young Tahira Reid was encouraged to be creative by her extended Jamaican-American family, and also earned recognition and support from teachers for her math talent. As an undergraduate student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), she took a highly-rated class called “Introduction to Engineering Design” with Professor Burt Swersey, who became her mentor. With Swersey’s “game changer” guidance, Reid started to develop a double-Dutch jump rope machine—something she had first dreamt about in third grade and for which she had won a youth poster competition.
Reid’s idea developed into reality at RPI and led to two grants from the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (now VentureWell), funded by The Lemelson Foundation. In 2000, she demonstrated her automatic double-Dutch invention at the National Museum of American History as part of the Lemelson Center’s symposium, “The Playful Mind.” That was where I first met her and tried out the machine! (Wow, how time flies.)
Reid received her first patent for the double-Dutch device in 1999 (US Patent 5,961,425) and a second, US Patent 6,634,994, in 2003. Her mentor, Burt Swersey, is named as a co-inventor on the latter patent and, in part to his advocacy, Reid’s story gained national acclaim (there is a wonderful New York Times article about her childhood inspiration and invention process). The same year, Reid was featured on NBC’s Today Show, where she talked with co-hosts Katie Couric and Al Roker about how the machine works, while young jump ropers demonstrated their skills. Her story has been featured not only in two children’s books but also in the Spring 2017 New York State English and Language Arts exam for 4th graders. She is rightly proud of the use of her story as inspiration for other young potential inventors.
Reid received both her Bachelor’s (2000) and Master’s (2004) degrees in mechanical engineering from RPI, and in 2010 earned her PhD from the University of Michigan in design science, with mechanical engineering and psychology as her focus areas. Before joining Purdue University’s faculty in 2012, she worked as a STEM Future Faculty Postdoctoral Fellow in Iowa State University’s Department of Mechanical Engineering.
Today, using her married name Reid Smith, she is an Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering and also Director of the REID Lab at Purdue (REID stands for Research in Engineering and Interdisciplinary Design). Her research interests include product and conceptual design, decision-making and behavioral psychology, and integrating human judgments into the design process. With her lab team, Reid Smith applies these research interests to topics ranging from sustainability and healthcare/medicine to non-traditional applications.
To hear more directly from Reid Smith about her inventive life and career, be sure to check out her 2012 TEDx Purdue U Talk.