The Lemelson Center explores invention and innovation with diverse audiences of all ages through exhibitions and programs.
Places of Invention Exhibition
Places of Invention won the Smithsonian’s inaugural Excellence in Exhibition Award, which recognizes outstanding work in the field of exhibitions across the Institution. Secretary David Skorton presented the award to the Lemelson Center team on April 18. The National Museum of American History (NMAH) welcomed 4,090,331 visitors in 2018, and we anticipate that a majority of those visitors came to the Lemelson Hall of Invention and Innovation to explore the exhibition featuring six communities ranging from the best-known invention hotspot Silicon Valley, to the Bronx, NY, Fort Collins, CO, Hartford, CT, Hollywood, CA, and Medical Alley, MN. Since it launched in July 2015, the exhibition’s interactive map has received more than 25,000 total visitor story submissions about inventors and innovations around the world.
Game Changers Exhibition
While Places of Invention continues to wow visitors, the Lemelson-NMAH team is hard at work on research, planning, and evaluation for its Lemelson Hall successor, Game Changers. Thanks to a $150,000 grant from the Lemelson Foundation, we hired the highly-regarded evaluation firm Randi Korn & Associates to conduct front-end evaluation with Museum visitors and help us develop an evaluation plan for a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation’s Advancing Informal STEM Learning program. We hosted a design charrette on March 27, in which invited participants from within and outside the Smithsonian brainstormed exhibition goals, key messages, conceptual approaches, and organizational constructs. Beginning in the summer, Lemelson staff embarked on scholarly research, including consulting with NMAH curatorial staff regarding relevant collections, and conducted informal visitor studies to test ideas generated during the design charrette.
Inventive Minds Gallery
Inventive Minds is a changing exhibition gallery that introduces Museum visitors to the Lemelson Center’s work to document and study the history of invention and innovation. The gallery’s theme changes annually, with new objects added every four months. From September 2017 through August 2018, the gallery presented Inventive Minds: Sporting Inventions, with stories of inventors who changed the way Americans play.
Inventive Minds: Women Inventors was installed in September 2018 and continues throughout 2019. The exhibition showcases artifacts, archival materials, and videos that illustrate the creativity of women inventors over more than a century. Visitors to the exhibition are introduced to women inventors working in a wide range of fields, including Madam C. J. Walker, an African American inventor who created a highly successful business with her line of hair-care products; neonatal intensive care nurse Sharon Rogone, who invented medical supplies specifically for premature babies; and pro skateboarder Cindy Whitehead, whose brand, “Girl is NOT a 4 Letter Word,” is empowering girls and women in action sports. Inventive Minds: Women Inventors is a featured part of the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative, a Smithsonian-wide program aimed at documenting, researching, collecting, displaying, and sharing the compelling story of women.
Military Invention Day
Held at NMAH on May 19, Military Invention Day showcased thirty-five of today’s cuttingedge military inventions from the Air Force, Army, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, DARPA, Draper, Dynamis, and other military research organizations alongside historical technologies from the Museum’s world-class collections. This daylong festival celebrated the crucial role of invention for the military in areas of medicine, communications, robotics, and others, and gave visitors an opportunity to envision how advances in military technology will impact their daily lives in the future. The next Military Invention Day will be held on May 18, 2019.
Two Centuries of American Innovation and 10 Million Patents
On June 20, the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) issued patent number 10,000,000. These ten million utility patents represent two centuries of breakthroughs that transformed the United States into the world’s innovation leader. Panelists brought together by the Center, George Mason University Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property (CPIP), and the USPTO discussed the importance of patents to the work of inventors and how, over the past 200 years, inventions have moved from basements, garages, and university, government, and industrial labs to everyday use, in addition to what is changing about who invents and what is needed to unleash greater creativity across the United States and worldwide.
In collaboration with the USPTO, we hosted the 2018 National Trademark Exposition on Friday, July 27, and Saturday, July 28. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, NBA All-Star, New York Times best-selling author, and registered trademark owner, gave the opening keynote. The two-day exposition was a free, family friendly event where visitors learned about trademarks from more than 20 exhibitors representing government entities, nonprofits, small businesses, and corporations. Each day included engaging seminars, children’s activities, displays of authentic and counterfeit goods, and unique perspectives from the Museum’s curators and historians.
The Power of Patents and Prizes in American Inventing
What is the best way to stimulate innovation—patents or prizes? We asked our audience to consider this question during a panel discussion on September 28, held in collaboration with CPIP. Panelists drew upon historical evidence and contemporary experience to explore the advantages, disadvantages, and relative success of these two incentives for stimulating innovation.
Innovative Lives Public Programming
As part of the Lemelson Center’s vision of a more inventive world, Innovative Lives engages audiences of all ages and backgrounds in public conversations with diverse inventors, innovators, and entrepreneurs about their pioneering work and careers.
Innovative Lives: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Abdul-Jabbar joined us for a conversation exploring his motivation to write his recent children’s book What Color Is My World: The Lost History of African-American Inventors that highlights unsung heroes who shared a desire to improve people’s lives. The conversation included a deep dive into his passion for innovation, the contributions of black inventors to American history, and ways to encourage youth today to participate in technology and science to make a difference in the world. Rayvon Fouché, associate professor and director of American studies at Purdue University, moderated the program.
Innovative Lives: How Women Shaped the Alcohol Industry
Women were leaders in fermentation and brewing before the founding of our country. From brewing beer in the colonial era, to distilling whiskey for medicinal use, to playing important roles in prohibition, they helped shape the industry and continue to make an impact. The March 16 public program, in partnership with the Museum’s After Hours series, featured Carol Stoudt, founder of Stoudts Brewing Company; Emily Bruno and Julie Verratti, founders of Denizens Brewing Company; and Meredith Grelli, co-owner of Wigle Whiskey, in conversation with Heinz History Center curator Leslie Przybylek. Of course, there were beer and whiskey tastings, too!
Innovative Lives: Andy Hildebrand
Hildebrand is the mastermind behind Auto-Tune, a controversial yet globally adopted digital technology that corrects a singer’s pitch to make it in tune, in real time, revolutionizing vocal recording and performance. With a PhD in electrical engineering, his prolific career ranged from working as a geophysicist at Exxon to co-founding Landmark Graphics to starting Antares Audio Technologies where he developed Auto-Tune. Hildebrand was interviewed about his inventive life on April 19 by sound studies historian Trevor Pinch of Cornell University. This was the second annual program in the David H. Horowitz Music Innovation series, which examines musical creativity and innovation through a variety of formats.
Innovative Lives: The Genius of Play
On Wednesday, April 25, Lemelson Center head of exhibitions Monica Smith moderated a discussion with four panelists: entrepreneur Vikas Gupta, teacher Molly James, inventor James McLurkin, and Museum educator Jeri Robinson, about how playful tinkering, creative problem solving, and lots of fun can lead to powerful change, profitable businesses, and impactful learning opportunities. This program resulted in a 2018 report, "Raising a Generation of Inventors: How Play Fosters Creativity and Innovative Thinking in Children," published by The Genius of Play in collaboration with the Lemelson Center.
Innovative Lives: Susan Kare
Graphic designer Susan Kare has been called the “the Betsy Ross of the personal computer,” the “Queen of look and feel,” the “Matisse of computer icons,” and the “mother of the Mac trash can.” Kare is best known for designing the distinctive icons, typefaces, and other graphic elements that gave the Apple Macintosh its characteristic—and widely emulated—look and feel in the 1980s. Since then, Kare has spent the last three decades designing user interface elements for many of the leading software and Internet firms. If you have clicked on an icon to save a file or tapped your smartphone screen to launch a mobile app, then you have benefited from Kare’s designs. Lemelson Center historian Eric Hintz interviewed Kare about her fascinating career, followed by questions from the rapt audience.
Innovative Lives: Pioneers of Esports
Professional esports participants earn millions of dollars, participate in regimented training programs, and compete in jam-packed stadiums and arenas around the world. Esports is now being considered for inclusion as an Olympic sport. There is no question that esports is changing the cultural and social landscape and demolishing the boundary between technology, art, and competition—but is it truly a sport? Are esports competitors athletes? In collaboration with SportTechie, we invited Brandon Beck and Marc Merrill, co-founders of Riot Games and co-creators of League of Legends, to discuss their vision of esports and its future impact in the sports landscape on a panel moderated by DC sports radio personality Bram Weinstein.
Innovative Lives: Pioneers of Spacewar!
Spacewar!, a game coded by Dan Edwards, Martin Graetz, Steven Piner, Steve Russell, Peter Samson, Robert Saunders, and Wayne Wiitanen on a DEC PDP-1 at MIT starting in late 1961, proved wildly popular among the programming community of the time and inspired later arcade and home video games. Together for the first time since 1962, the game’s creators discussed inspirations and challenges encountered while bringing it to fruition, and reflected on the growth of computer games and the transformation of interactive technology over the past 60 years. Attendees heard from and interacted with the original coders, viewed a PDP-1, an original program tape, and other artifacts from the Museum’s collections, and played Spacewar! against each other and its inventors.