Past exhibitions :: Smithsonian Lemelson Center
Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, Smithsonian Beanie Illustration

Past exhibitions from the Lemelson Center

Invention at Play logo

Invention at Play

November 2008 — November 2011

What do the inventors behind Post-it Notes®, robotic ants, Kevlar®, and the telephone have in common with children? Play! And that was the subject of the Center's award-winning exhibition, Invention at Play.

Young girl on sailboard demonstration modelWith its highly interactive and engaging activities created especially for families, Invention at Play focused on the similarities between the ways children and adults play and the creative skills and processes used by inventors. Visitors of all ages experienced various playful habits of mind that underlie invention, such as curiosity, imagination, visual thinking, model building, and problem solving.

Visitors also “met” inventors and innovators through compelling personal stories, photos, and artifacts, and even had a chance to try windsurfing on the Sailboard Simulator, which is based on a design by sailboard inventor Newman Darby.

Though Invention at Play has closed, you can still visit the online version of the exhibition.


Charles Stark Draper's instrument lab at MIT

Charles Stark Draper (left) in the MIT engine laboratory, 1931. Courtesy of MIT Museum

Vannevar Bush (left) and Karl Taylor Compton at MIT

Karl Taylor Compton (right) appointed Vannevar Bush the first dean of the School of Engineering at MIT in 1932. Courtesy of MIT Museum

Hot Spots of Invention

November 2009 — October 2012

Invention happens everywhere. But sometimes a “hot spot of invention” takes shape when the right mix of creative people, resources, and inspiring surroundings come together.

In the 1930s, a hot spot began to form among the industrial labs and universities of New England when Karl Taylor Compton became president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He transformed the curriculum, raising the profile of science and promoting research partnerships with government.

Compton found a kindred spirit in Vannevar Bush, an electrical engineering professor and mentor to his students, and they continued to work together after Bush left MIT in 1939. When President Franklin Roosevelt—on Bush’s proposal—established the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) in 1940, he named Bush chairman. And Bush chose Compton to lead an NDRC division.

As World War II approached, the hot spot matured as the links between MIT and government grew stronger. The campus bustled with a growing network of inventive people and new research laboratories. Three of these—Charles Stark Draper’s instruments lab, the Radiation Laboratory, and Harold Edgerton’s strobe lab—contributed directly to the war effort and illustrate how the work of Compton and Bush turned Cambridge into a hot spot of invention.


Worker wheeling a microwave radar dish down the corridor of the MIT Rad Lab An employee pushes a microwave radar dish down a Rad Lab corridor. The name, Radiation Laboratory, was meant to suggest atomic research (then thought harmless) and conceal the Lab’s real work. Courtesy of MIT Museum




Jerome Lemelson: Toying with Invention

April 2008 — May 2012

Jerome Lemelson earned more than 600 patents, and about 70 of them describe toys—inflatable toys, jumping toys, toys with propellers, toys that run on tracks, target games, dolls, and more. In fact, Lemelson’s first patent, issued in 1953, was for a new kind of propeller beanie. The objects in this case are examples of Lemelson’s toy ideas and show some of the stages in inventing a new plaything.

For many inventors, sketching ideas in a notebook is a first step in the creative process. Prototypes, or models, demonstrate and test how the idea works. Patents are legal documents that describe inventions in words and drawings and give inventors exclusive rights to make and sell their work for several years.

Prototype of Lemelson's radio-controlled dinosaur toy
Prototype of Lemelson's radio-controlled dinosaur toy
Lemelson's invention notebook with sketch and description for a fishing gameLemelson's invention notebook with sketch and description for a fishing game

Person testing accessible snowboard prototype

Testing an accessible snowboard prototype. Courtesy of Lemelson Assistive Technology Development Center

Sporting Invention

December 2008 - October 2009

Sporting Invention traced the development of sports inventions through drawings and prototypes, revealing the little-known stories of invention behind familiar sports equipment and also highlighting aspects of universal design in sports technology development.

Objects featured included the skis and tennis racquets invented by Howard Head and an accessible snowboard for people with disabilities, developed by student inventors at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. By examining the inventive process through the inventors’ sketches and models, visitors gained a new appreciation for how inventors transform the way Americans play.

Howard Head playing tennis, about 1980. From the Howard Head Papers, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Howard Head playing tennis


Nobel Voices: Celebrating 100 Years of the Nobel Prize

April - October 2001

Nobel Voices told the human stories behind the Nobel Prizes, accenting the interdisciplinary creativity embodied by the laureates themselves and the connections among creative minds of any age.

The Nobel Prize has become an ongoing tradition that records and celebrates achievements that change the way we live. In his will, Alfred Nobel provided for prizes to be awarded "to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind." 2001 marked the 100th anniversary of the prizes, first awarded in 1901.


Nobel Voices exhibtion logo

Nobel Voices explored the motivation and vision of Nobel laureates and the history of Alfred Nobel and his prize. It featured personal video interviews of laureates, candid photographic portraits and original artifacts, including Albert Einstein's pipe and William Faulkner's tweed jacket and typewriter. Visitors to the exhibition passed through eight sections telling the story of the Nobel Prize and those who have achieved it.

The Nobel Prizes. In this section, visitors examined an actual Nobel Prize medal and saw artifacts relating to Nobel laureates from each of the six fields, including: Albert Einstein's (Physics 1921) pipe, Linus Pauling's (Chemistry 1954 and Peace 1962) models of protein structures, Barbara McClintock's (Medicine 1983) microscope, William Faulkner's (Literature 1949) typewriter, items from Martin Luther King Jr.'s (Peace 1964) 1963 civil rights march in Washington and Milton Friedman's (Economic Sciences 1976) briefcase.

Nobel Encounters.A series of original video interviews with Nobel laureates was featured in this section. Most of the interviews were conducted in June 2000 at a 50th-anniversary gathering of laureates in Lindau, Germany. Since 1951, laureates have met there and exchanged ideas with students. The interviews focus on such topics as the source of their youthful inspirations, what it is like to be thrust into the public eye when they win the Nobel Prize and their personal reflections on the mysteries of creativity and invention.

Inventing the Future. Visitors to this section learned how the work of Nobel Prize winners affects our everyday lives. Using examples from each of the six fields, it showed how scientists' discoveries and the creative work of authors and humanitarians provide the foundation for new inventions and innovations.

Alfred Nobel: The Man Behind the Prize. Alfred Nobel was an inventor, entrepreneur and philanthropist. The prize categories--physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace--grew out of his personal interests. The prize for economic sciences was added in 1968 in memory of Alfred Nobel. In this section, visitors got a glimpse of the man behind the prize and how the Nobel Prize became the international legacy it is today.

The World of the Laureates. An interactive world map showed birthplaces of laureates and the locations of the institutions where laureates worked at the time of the awards, as officially recorded by the Nobel Foundation.

Through Young Artists' Eyes. One of the most significant influences a prizewinner can have is inspiring future generations of Nobel laureates. In this section, artistic impressions of Nobel laureates by students in the Duke Ellington Youth Project showed the creative impact that the Nobel Prize can have on young people.

The Nobel Laureates in Lindau. More than 65 portraits of Nobel laureates taken by photographer Peter Badge were on display in this section. Most of the portraits were taken at the annual conference of Nobel laureates in Lindau, Germany. Since 1951, Nobel laureates and young people from around the world have gathered for a week of intellectual discussions to complete Nobel's vision of international harmony through knowledge.

Images of Nobel Prize Winners from the National Portrait Gallery. The Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery collects likenesses of Nobel Prize winners from around the world. On display in this section were 19 portraits including those of Albert Einstein, Mikhail Gorbachev, Nelson Mandela, Elie Wiesel and President Theodore Roosevelt.

After completing their visit to Nobel Voices, visitors could go on a "treasure hunt" for other Nobel artifacts in the National Museum of American History, such as Jack Kilby's (Physics 2000) integrated circuit--the microchip--and the Greensboro, North Carolina lunch counter that played a pivotal role in the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King (Peace 1964).

The Lemelson Center received generous support for Nobel Voices from the Lemelson Foundation. The exhibit was developed in collaboration with the Deutsches Museum Bonn in Germany and the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, with the cooperation of the Meetings of Nobel Prize Winners in Lindau, Germany, annually convened by Countess Sonja Bernadotte of Wisborg, Sweden.

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