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Above: A student discovers inventor Chuck Hoberman’s expanding sphere during an "Innovative Lives" program. Smithsonian photo by Eric Long.


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All articles > 104 total

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Notes from the Director: Eco-Cities--Can They Work?
Hundreds of eco-cities are now underway or about to be launched worldwide. But can these cities really do the job their advocates claim they will?
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Notes from the Director: Technology’s Promise: The View from E42
In modern society, technology is not only a tool but a potent symbol. I recently reflected on the display of invention and technology planned for the Esposizione Universale di Roma (EUR or, more commonly, E42), the 1942 World’s Fair that was to celebrate twenty years of Mussolini’s Fascist regime but never materialized because of World War II.
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A Primer on Intellectual Property
The Lemelson Center exists to promote invention and innovation. Suppose you invent something, a new tool or a new way of doing things. Suppose you innovate by writing a book, painting a picture, making a photograph, or designing a building. How do you make sure that any rewards from your efforts go only to you or to those you share your invention or innovation with?
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From the Collections: A History of Patent Law
But how can we distinguish between significant inventions worthy of receiving benefits and mere trivial improvements which might be used to establish a monopoly? What exactly is an invention?
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Notes from the Director: The Once-and Future Spirit of Discovery
I felt like a kid again. On the morning of April 17, I stood amid a crowd of fellow staffers on the rooftop terrace of the National Museum of American History, waiting expectantly for the flyover of space shuttle Discovery.
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Innovation in Engineering—What it is, and what it isn’t
When engineers discuss innovation, they sometimes miss the point entirely.
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From the Collections: Mobile Mechanics and Technological Convergence
Shown above are four technologies from the Museum’s collections—a revolver, a sewing machine, a bicycle, and an early-model electric automobile. A quiz, dear reader: What do these four very different technologies have in common?
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Notes from the Director: This Kodak Moment
Though not unexpected, the news still came as a shock: on January 19, 2012, the 133-year old Eastman Kodak company filed for bankruptcy protection against its creditors. Unable to keep up with competitors, it was the victim of a major technological revolution—the shift from chemical film cameras to the digital camera.
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Inventing American Photography
During the second week of November last year, the National Museum of American History hosted six diverse lectures under the theme, Inventing American Photography, 1835-1860.
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From the Collections: Prepared Minds
A recurring theme at the "Inventing American Photography" lecture series was how prepared many American scientists, craftsmen, and artists were for the 1839 announcement of Daguerre’s photographic process.
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Notes from the Director: Steve Jobs’s Italian Soul
As far as anybody knows, Steve Jobs did not have a drop of Italian blood, even by osmosis from his adoptive parents. Yet he clearly had a strong affinity for Italy.
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Trilled Rs and the Dawn of Recorded Sound in America
Until recently, the oldest recorded sounds of known date which anyone could hear had been captured in 1888 on the “perfected” phonograph introduced that year by Thomas Edison. But Edison had invented his original phonograph eleven years before that, in 1877—and recorded sound itself is even older.
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From the Collections: A Voice from the Past
In the early 1880s, three inventors—Alexander Graham Bell, Chichester Bell, and Charles Sumner Tainter, who collectively made up the Volta Laboratory Association—brought their creativity and expertise together in a laboratory on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C., to record sound.
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Notes from the Director: Traveling Light
How realistic is the possibility of visiting the solar system and beyond firsthand, perhaps even positioning ourselves to colonize other planets?
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From the Collections: Inventing the Spacesuit
American spacesuits have not one but three technological ancestors, and the National Air and Space Museum's collection illustrates this lineage of invention and reinvention since the middle of the last century.
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Notes from the Director: The Boys of Dogtown
You have heard of Silicon Valley, that iconic place of invention, right? But do you know about Dogtown?
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Carve, Grind, and Ollie: Better Skateboarding through Technology
The more technology you have the better you skate, right?
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From the Collections: Dude! Tony Hawk Skates into History
The evolution of skate culture can be read on the skateboard that Tony Hawk donated to the Museum.
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Notes from the Director: Shortcuts
With the rising cost of fuel and the impossible demands on our time these days, we are constantly looking for shortcuts.
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Invention, Time, and Navigation
It may not seem obvious, but if you want to know where you are, you need an accurate clock.
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From the Collections: The Surveyor's Vernier Compass
To make a compass suitable for use on land, a navigational compass was provided with two vertical sights.
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Notes from the Director: In the Nano-World, Anything Can Happen
It is a measure of the potential and newness of nanotechnology that the public knows of it mainly through fiction and films.
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A Brief History of Small
"Nano" has become a buzzword, a promise, and a threat, all in what may seem like a nanosecond. But this most current technology has a history more than half a century long.
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From the Collections: Miniature Autonomous Robotic Vehicles
The one-cubic-inch Miniature Autonomous Robotic Vehicle (MARV) developed by Sandia National Laboratories was donated to the Museum in April 2011.
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Notes from the Director: Science Fair Contestants Gird for Battle
Science fairs and competitions are often associated with a call to arms in periods of perceived national emergency.
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Creating a Nation of Innovators
How do we create a nation of innovators?
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From the Collections: Collecting Innovation in Science Education
While it's tempting to think that teaching physics has always remained the same, the changes that occurred are obvious and really quite surprising.
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Notes from the Director: This Is Futurama!
World's fairs, at least for the past century or so, have been all about material progress and imagining technological futures.
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Imagining Places of Invention
How does Wallace and Gromit's place of invention compare to the real thing?
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Sam and Friends Return to Their Place of Invention
Jane Henson and her five children have donated ten puppet figures to the Museum--the earliest examples of the global phenomenon known as the Muppets.
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Notes from the Director: Caofeidian--China's City of the Future or Urban Laboratory?
With more than 15 million people a year relocating from the countryside to the city, China is urbanizing faster than any other nation and is experimenting with urban solutions.
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The Birth of Hip-Hop: Innovation against the Odds
Sometimes a culture of innovation blossoms as a product of its environment ... and sometimes innovation flourishes in spite of its surroundings.
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Notes from the Director: Independent Inventors, Hiding in Plain Sight
Since the Lemelson Center began some fifteen years ago, it has become evident to me that independent inventors are everywhere, often hidden in plain sight.
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From the Collections: Lock It or Lose It--the Kryptonite Bike Lock Story
In 1972, Stanley Kaplan and Michael Zane changed the face of bicycle security with the Kryptonite lock.
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What I Did on My Summer Vacation: The Uriah Boyden Papers
When I began my Lemelson Center archival summer internship in June, I had no idea who Uriah Atherton Boyden was...
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From the Collections: The Small, but Significant, Inventions of John Vasquez
Opening a kitchen cabinet is a daily occurrence for most of us, and the familiar "click" of the magnet in the latch is something we take for granted. But where did this idea originate?
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Notes from the Director: The Knowledge Factor in Silicon Valley
Why does Silicon Valley continue to flourish and reinvent itself, despite periodic pronouncements of imminent decline or technological demise?
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Silicon Valley: Success, Failure, and a Bit of Luck
Perhaps the most emulated high-tech hot spot is Silicon Valley.
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From the Collections: Grosch's Law
An outspoken and controversial figure, Grosch is best known for formulating “Grosch's Law” around 1950.
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Notes from the Director: Bottling the Hot Spot
What causes a hot spot of innovation like Cambridge, Massachusetts, or Silicon Valley to form?
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MIT and World War II: Ingredients for a Hot Spot of Invention
The region surrounding Cambridge, Massachusetts, is known today as a vibrant place of invention. But an earlier hot spot started to form there in 1930, when Karl Taylor Compton became president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
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From the Collections: Seeing in the Dark
Many of us who work at the National Museum of American History have a favorite object or two. Mine is part of the photographic history collections.
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Notes from the Director: Back to the Eco-Future!
History can be a source of simple but elegant solutions to some of today's most intractable energy problems.
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Fort Collins, Colorado: This Hot Spot Glows Green
Fort Collins may have gained notoriety recently for the "balloon boy" hoax, but the northern Colorado city should be known instead as a hot spot of invention and innovation in the field of clean energy.
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From the Collections: Who Invented the Environment?
The words "environment" and "nature" conjure images for us, whether of pristine woodlands or polluted streams. The work of artists and scientists helps shape those ideas.
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Notes from the Director: Remarkable New Jersey!
New Jersey, or at least that part of it nearest New York City, has a long history as a technological region, born out of Thomas Edison's laboratories, the prototypes of all industrial research labs.
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Thomas Edison's Places of Invention
Rather than an enterprise of lone individuals, 19th-century invention involved communities of skilled operatives, machinists, superintendents, and manufacturers who drew on practical experience to design, build, and refine new technology.
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From the Collections: The Laser Turns 50
Even after half a century the word "laser" conjures up images of laboratories and high-tech complexity.
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Notes from the Director: Cracking the Genetic Code
Biomedical research lost one of its titans recently with the death of Marshall Nirenberg, the Nobel Prize-winning biochemist who cracked the genetic code in 1961.
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Transforming the Nation's Capital into a Place of Invention
Washington's Reconstruction-era status as a swampy, undeveloped town belied the visionary activity brewing there.
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From the Collections: Inventing for Business in Washington, D.C.
The federal government's support of scientific research and economic development resulted in a "creative class" that formed a network of invention and discovery. But some lesser-known inventors were also toiling away in the nation’s capital.
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Notes from the Director: Of Avatars and Inventors
Innovative effects from Hollywood's studios today are part of the continuum of filmmaking technology from the Lumiere brothers, through Thomas Edison and George Lucas, to James Cameron's "Avatar."
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The Ruby Slippers: Inventing an American Icon
Hollywood has become legendary for its ability "to reflect . . . the collective daydreams of America," as illustrated by the innovation that went into the creation of one iconic movie prop--Dorothy's ruby slippers in "The Wizard of Oz."
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Notes from the Director: "The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread"
Who hasn’t heard the phrase, “the best thing since sliced bread?” Bread is one of our oldest and most basic sources of nourishment … and one of our oldest food technologies.
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Hunting and Gathering for the Museum's Collections
When it comes to food-related collections at the National Museum of American History, it's a veritable feast. What began with a phone call about a Bundt pan ended in a treasure trove for people with wide-ranging appetites for history.
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Notes from the Director: American Indian Heritage Month
The dazzle of modern information and communication technologies can blind us to the almost unfathomable roots of invention as a quintessential human trait.
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The Talking Leaves
Sequoyah was a Cherokee trader, a silversmith, a blacksmith, an artist, and a Cherokee speaker who neither read nor wrote English. But he saw the power of those who could communicate using the “talking leaves.” It inspired him to invent one of the few known (and used) writing systems created entirely by an individual.
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Notes from the Director: Hispanic Heritage Month
America's future competiviteness and innovation will depend on its ability to draw Hispanics, who according to the U.S. Census Bureau, are the fastest-growing and already the largest minority population, into the ranks of scientists and engineers.
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Bittersweet Harvest
Chronicling an important but little-known chapter of American history, Bittersweet Harvest, a new traveling exhibition, tells the moving story of America’s largest guest-worker program.
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Notes from the Director: National Inventors' Month
Often overlooked are the little-known contributions of the rich and famous. Take the case of musicians and movie stars, for example. Even though they are creative in their own fields, it never occurs to us that they could also be inventors.
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The Invisible Inventor?
Why have inventors--once revered as heroes--become “invisible” while corporate brands have become increasingly associated with high-tech innovation?
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Solomon Adler: "Sew" Much More
Though best known for his sewing machine inventions, Solomon Adler created an extensive portfolio of ideas and patents in many fields.
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Notes from the Director: Music and Invention
This month we are exploring the symbiosis between music and invention.
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Revealing the Secrets of Stradivari
Antonio Stradivari is universally acknowledged as the most famous and influential of violinmakers. The Stradivari workmanship and the qualities of tone associated with his instruments are generally thought to be unsurpassed. What makes the Stradivari instrument unique?
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Notes from the Director: The Spirit of Invention
I'm very excited about the publication of Julie Fenster's intriguing new book, "The Spirit of Invention: The Story of the Thinkers, Creators, and Dreamers Who Formed Our Nation," published in collaboration with the Lemelson Center.
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Genius, Self-Taught
Elmer Gates (1859-1923) invented many things, including the familiar children's toy box with geometric pegs and holes. But his life work was "the experimental study of mind and the most successful ways of using it." Elmer Gates invented to study his own creative process.
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Notes from the Director: Of Nobel Prizes and Erector Sets
In accepting his appointment as secretary of energy, Steven Chu became the first Nobel science laureate to serve in a cabinet position. His selection was also a first for a Chinese American scientist, the type of societal breakthrough marked each May by Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.
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The Way the Ball Bounces
Asian people have been inventors and innovators for many centuries. But what's up with "race" and invention or innovation? And what can Asian Pacific Americans tell us about this issue?
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Notes from the Director: Eco-Cities
Today, the buzz is all about "sustainability," with an emphasis on alternative energies, renewable resources, and carbon-neutral technologies. Sustainability, however, has taken on a whole new dimension with the rise of the eco-city concept.
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"The Blue Marble"
The famous photograph of the whole Earth, dubbed "The Blue Marble," is one of the most iconic images of our time.
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Collecting Women's Ingenuity
Women's History Month is an appropriate time to explore how we have honored--or neglected--women inventors.
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Notes from the Director: The Diversity of Invention
Since we first began to document invention at the Lemelson Center, we have discovered immense diversity within the inventing community, embracing men and women from all ethnic and racial backgrounds.
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Hip-Hop and African American Innovation
African American innovators are creating new musical tools with traditional records and turntables.
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Notes from the Director: Presidents and Invention
Since the beginning of the republic, Americans have expected their political leaders to support and stand for innovation.
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Voting Machines, American Style
Because the Constitution gives states the job of running elections, voting in the United States has developed into a hodgepodge of manual, mechanical, and electronic balloting. Learn more about voting machines, American style.
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Notes from the Director: Documenting Invention in the Digital Age
Documenting invention in the digital age poses a number of challenges for today's curators and archivists.
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Ralph Baer: Recovering the History of the Video Game
Ralph Baer has earned the nickname of "father of the home video game." But the record of his ubiquitous invention was nearly lost.
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Notes from the Director: Reinventing the National Museum of American History
The reopening of the National Museum of American History features exciting new invention exhibits and activities from the Lemelson Center.
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Jerome Lemelson: Toying with Invention
Jerome Lemelson earned more than 600 patents--and about 10% of those are for toys!
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Akhil Madhani: Literally On the Cutting Edge of Robotics Inventors
Akhil Madhani's inventive career has taken him from the operating room to Disney World.
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Notes from the Director: Looking at the inventive side of urban planning
What happens when ideology and urban planning meet? Lemelson Center director Art Molella talks about the history of "invented edens."
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A Basement Workshop . . . and So Much More
Documenting the workspace of inventor Chuck Popenoe.
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Notes from the Director: Looking for solutions to world energy needs
When considering historical discoveries, Lemelson Center Director Art Molella wonders if the next big innovation for energy is on the cusp of discovery.
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On Invention, the Price at the Pump, and the Perils of Prognostication
What does technology tell us about today's gasoline prices?
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Invention and Science Across Generations
Lemelson Center Director Art Molella considers the possibility of inheriting an "invention gene."
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Cultures of Innovation
Lemelson Center Director Art Molella looks at the social climates receptive to and encouraging of invention and innovation.
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Living with Technology, Inside and Out
Lemelson Center Director Art Molella looks at the variety of means invention mediates the interface between human beings and environment.
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Inventing for Humanity
Uncertain times inspire a new altruistic mood among high-tech entrepreneurs and a focus on invention for the benefit of humanity.
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Yo Yo Ups and Downs
A folk toy from the Phillipines became a craze, thanks to Filipino émigré Pedro Flores and a Chicago businessman named Donald Duncan.
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The Straight Truth About the Flexible Drinking Straw
Sitting at a soda fountain in the 1930s, Joseph Friedman's young daughter struggled to drink a milkshake through a straight straw. So Friedman tackled her problem from a new angle.
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Papers Illustrate Woman Inventor's Life and Work
Marion O’Brien Donovan (1917-1998), whose inventions included the precursor to the disposable diaper, was one of the few commercially successful inventors of her time.
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A Fitting Place for the Brannock Device Company Records
If you’ve ever been fitted for a pair of shoes, you’ve been in close contact with Charles Brannock’s 1925 invention that measures overall length, width, and heel-to-ball length of the foot all at once.
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Donation to Archives Center Reveals One Inventor’s Life
The seed sorting machine invented by Everett Bickley illustrates a key moment in agricultural history when natural products were being commodified.
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Outfitted to Fight: Innovations from the Quartermaster Corps
The Quartermaster Corps combined new materials with innovative thinking during World War II to create gear for the combat soldier’s life in the field.
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Architecture and Innovation
Internationally renowned architects Douglas Cardinal and Santiago Calatrava offered their perspectives on the role of innovation, technology, and the creative process in architecture at the end of the 20th century.
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Electrified, Amplified, and Deified
Just the words “electric guitar” can conjure images in our minds, from Jimi Hendrix playing “The Star Spangled Banner” to the local garage band. In 1996, the Center spotlighted the inventors and players who plugged in and forever changed the sound of American music.
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The Colors of Invention
Color shapes our perception of the world. In 1997, the Center explored the interaction of technology, perception, and culture by considering why and how we create and use colors in “The Colors of Invention.”
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The Inventor and the Innovative Society
What do Renaissance Italy, 19th century New York City, and California’s Silicon Valley have in common? The Center’s first symposium explored how these societies nurtured and sustained the inventive impulse.
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Documenting Invention
Learn about the Center’s work in saving the records of living inventors through the Modern Inventors Documentation program.
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Unleashing Creativity
A keynote presentation by Paul B. MacCready at the Lemelson Center's symposium, "The Inventor and the Innovative Society."
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It's a Pleasure to Serve You: Lamson Cash Carrier System
Some mechanical inventions are so well thought out and trouble-free that they almost never need to be replaced. The Lamson cash carrier, a device that sent cash, sales slips, and receipts sailing over customers’ heads in 19th century retail shops, was such an invention.
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"Tantalus" Synchrotron Radiation Source
Through videohistory interviews with physicist Ednor Rowe and others, the Lemelson Center documented the human side of the "Tanatalus" particle accelerator.
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SmartLevel
Oral history interviews reveal Silicon Valley inventor's team approach to updating the traditional carpenter's level.
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Minerva, The Robotic Tour Guide
For the first time in the Smithsonian’s history, a high-tech robot gave tours to the public. Meet Minerva, the robot tour guide, who can perceive her environment and learn about it.
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