The Lemelson Center explores invention and innovation with diverse audiences of all ages through exhibitions and public programs.
Picturing Women Inventors
If you had to name an inventor, would it be a woman? Or did you first think of a man like Thomas Edison or Alexander Graham Bell? Women haven’t always had equal opportunities to be inventors, or received as much recognition. But throughout American history, women with diverse backgrounds and interests created inventions that change our lives every day.
Presented in bold wall murals, with text in English and Spanish, Picturing Women Inventors features historic and contemporary women inventors—women of color, immigrant women, women with disabilities, women from the early 20th century to contemporary women, women of various ages, and women working in engineering, science, sports, household technologies, child care, computing, medicine, and more. The exhibition is part of the Lemelson Center’s larger effort to focus research and outreach on recovering the stories of underrepresented inventors.
Picturing Women Inventors was installed during the museum’s closure in 2020 and is awaiting the return of visitors in 2021. The exhibition is made possible thanks to a collaboration with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, and with the support of Lyda Hill Philanthropies IF/THEN Initiative and Ericsson.
Places of Invention (ongoing)
Since 2015, the Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Hall of Invention and Innovation at the National Museum of American History has featured the award-winning exhibition, Places of Invention. Until the museum closed in March 2020 due to the pandemic, the exhibition welcomed thousands of visitors who explored the featured places—Silicon Valley, CA, in the 1970s-'80s; the Bronx, NY, birthplace of hip-hop in the 1970s; Medical Alley, MN, a hub for early pioneers in heart surgery and pacemakers in the 1950s; Hartford, CT, the center for mass manufacturing and interchangeable parts in the late 1800s; Hollywood, CA, the heart of Technicolor movie production in the 1930s; and Fort Collins, CO, a burgeoning center for clean energy and green technologies since the 2010s. We look forward to reopening the Lemelson Hall in 2021; until then, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org if a virtual tour is of interest to you or your organization.
Inventive Minds gallery (ongoing)
Inventive Minds is a changing exhibition gallery in the Lemelson Hall of Invention. The gallery’s thematic exhibitions introduce museum visitors to the Lemelson Center’s mission to foster an appreciation for the central role of invention and innovation in the history of the United States. Through first-person videos, artifacts, and archival materials, visitors to Inventive Minds learn about the traits that successful inventors share—insatiable curiosity, keen problem-solving skills, tenacity, and flexibility in the face of failure—and explore the creative spirit of American invention.
On February 27, Inventive Minds: Immigrant Inventors opened, featuring the stories of inventors who immigrated to the US from Germany, Hungary, India, Ireland, Mexico, and Poland. Later in 2021, the exhibition will include inventors from Argentina, Belgium, France, Germany, Russia, and South Korea.
Game Changers (in development)
In 2020, we advanced the development of the forthcoming Game Changers exhibition, which will follow Places of Invention in the Lemelson Hall of Invention in 2023. Game Changers explores the motivations that have inspired inventors and athletes to develop technologies that give a competitive advantage, make sports safer, ensure fair and accurate officiating, and provide greater access, opportunity, and enjoyment to all. Historical and contemporary figures highlighted in the exhibition represent a broad range of ages, genders, ethnicities, and physical abilities. Their personal stories about their motivations and problem-solving skills, complemented by intriguing museum artifacts, videos, and interactive experiences, will encourage visitors to see themselves as potential game-changing inventors and innovators of technologies that may not only influence how we play and engage with sports but also potentially impact other fields as well.
During 2020, the exhibition team made great progress from conceptual design through the halfway mark of schematic design, during which we are honing the stories, objects, interactives, videos, and other key exhibit elements that will inspire the “game changer” within each of our visitors. The exhibition’s priority audiences are girls and young women ages 10-17, Black youth ages 10-17, and people with disabilities. This project is made possible in part by a generous grant from the National Science Foundation.
The award-winning Innovative Lives program series engages audiences of all ages and backgrounds in public conversations with diverse inventors, innovators, and entrepreneurs about their pioneering work and careers. Due to the museum’s closure in mid-March, we canceled several Innovative Lives programs planned for late spring, but we did host two captivating events in person in early 2020.
On February 5, we welcomed 150 virtual guests to our first Innovative Lives of 2020. Adaptive Skateboarding, WCMX, and Inventing Your Own Path featured adaptive skateboarders Oscar Loreto Jr and Dan Mancina, and WCMX (Wheelchair Motocross) icon Aaron “Wheelz” Fotheringham. In a thought-provoking discussion moderated by Jeffrey Brodie, they shared personal stories exploring how innovation drives accessibility and the critical role of diversity, adaptability, and inclusion in skate and WCMX culture.
On March 4, Innovative Lives welcomed Jogbra inventors Lisa Lindahl, Hinda Miller, and Polly Palmer Smith. With about 100 people in attendance, Monica Smith moderated a lively discussion with the three women about their careers, inventive processes, motivations, challenges, and teamwork in developing the sports bra that helped revolutionize women’s participation in sports. Alison Oswald presented an “Objects Out of Storage” opportunity for audience members to view materials from the museum’s collections related to the Jogbra.
Researchers, scholars, and academics participate in lively talks that probe questions about invention and innovation.
Black Inventors and Innovators: New Perspectives
The events of 2020 heightened awareness of racial injustice and Black Americans’ complex relationship with technology. During the week of November 16-20, the Center convened its annual symposium on the theme of Black Inventors and Innovators: New Perspectives, focusing attention on historic and contemporary inventors of color and Black technology consumers and discussing strategies for building a more equitable innovation ecosystem. This week-long webinar series revisited themes we first explored in 1996, when the newly established Lemelson Center hosted one of its first scholarly workshops, Technology and the African American Experience: Needs and Opportunities. Through presentations by an interdisciplinary group of thought leaders and engaged discussions with our online audience, our 2020 “state of the field” workshop identified critical questions, introduced new case studies, and articulated conceptual themes to inform the next generation of research, archival collecting, museum exhibitions, and educational initiatives.
Black Inventors and Innovators: New Perspectives—our first virtual symposium—attracted more than 1,321 online visitors. To keep this content accessible, we have posted the session videos and resources for further study to our website; a conference report will be posted in Spring 2021. The Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center gratefully acknowledges The Lemelson Foundation for its generous support of the webinar series.
Patents on Life: Diamond v. Chakrabarty at 40
In June 1980, the US Supreme Court ruling in Diamond v. Chakrabarty authorized the first patent on an intentionally genetically modified organism and concluded that patents may be granted for “anything under the sun that is made by man.” The decision contributed to the rise of the modern biotechnology industry and reshaped the agriculture industry. Less well known, the Plant Patent Act of 1930 had previously allowed intellectual property protection for selectively bred and cloned plants.
On the 40th anniversary of Diamond v. Chakrabarty and the 90th anniversary of the Plant Protection Act, the Lemelson Center collaborated with the George Mason University Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property (CPIP) to convene a panel of experts who discussed breakthroughs in agricultural biotechnology and explored the impacts—economic and environmental—of these historical turning points. How did the rise of patented GMO crops change farming? How did the Supreme Court’s decision change the patent system? How did developments in biotechnology reshape America’s innovation system?
“Patents on Life” shed new light on the longer history of tensions over assigning intellectual property to life forms. Featuring the inventor and biomolecular scientist Ananda Chakrabarty, along with historian Daniel Kevles, science writer Dan Charles, farmer Jennie Schmidt, and IP scholar Sean O’Connor, the panel was moderated by Lemelson Center director Arthur Daemmrich. Curator Peter Liebhold ended the session with a virtual tour of museum collections related to GMO technology. A recording of the panel and virtual tour is available on our YouTube channel.
Stadiums of the Future
As part of SportTechie’s “The Way Back” series, the Stadiums of the Future program on June 24 began with the world premiere of 12 Game-Changing Stadiums in History, a short-form video developed by the Lemelson Center and SportTechie. The panel of historians, architects, and sports business professionals then discussed which stadium innovations were successful and which ones missed their mark. The panelists also explored the future of stadium design and construction innovations, especially in relation to a post COVID-19 world. The program concluded with the release of a second video, Grand Stands: Stadium Technology and the New Fan Experience, that explores how design innovations and new interactive technologies elevate the fan experience and build community at three of the world’s newest stadium projects: SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, California; seven new stadiums and a major renovation in Doha, Qatar; and the Chase Center in San Francisco, California.