The Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention & Innovation
Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, Smithsonian Beanie Illustration
Lemelson Institute

Places of Invention:
The First Lemelson Institute

Organized by the Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation

Lemelson Archives, Incline Village, Nevada

16-18 August 2007

» From the director
» Executive summary
» Mission & goals
» Setting the stage
The legacy of Jerome Lemelson
Getting the inventive juices flowing
The role of an inventor's style on places of invention
The power of place
» Framing the task
» Overview of research on places of invention
» Examining places of invention
Creative people: the people/place nexus
Creative places: the people/place nexus
Creating places of invention: regions and new spaces
Creating places of invention: adapting existing spaces
» Making ideas concrete: public dissemination
» Findings
» Participants
» Agenda
» Acknowledgments
» About the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation
» About the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution
»Appendix 1: "Places of Invention" syllabus (PDF)
»Appendix 2: "Astronomical Places of Invention" (PDF)

  Setting the stage

The legacy of Jerome Lemelson

Jerome Lemelson, known to his family and friends as “Jerry,” lived the quintessential American dream. The holder of more than 600 patents, Lemelson and his remarkably creative intellect touched almost every facet of our everyday lives. One of the 20th century’s most prolific inventors, Lemelson received an average of one patent a month for more than 40 years—all on his own, without support from established research institutions or corporate research and development departments.

Automated manufacturing systems and bar code readers, automatic teller machines and cordless phones, cassette players and camcorders, fax machines and personal computers—even crying baby dolls derived from Lemelson’s innovations. A universal robot that could measure, weld, rivet, transport, and even inspect for quality control utilized a new technology: machine vision. This was his breakthrough invention and the one of which he was most proud, despite the hundreds of others he produced during his 45-year career.

In his philanthropy, as in his professional work, Lemelson was devoted to invention. In the 1990s he and his wife Dorothy established the Lemelson Foundation, which began funding new programs that promote invention and entrepreneurship. One of these is the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, which was created through a $10 million gift to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.

A gifted and versatile inventor, Jerome Lemelson always stood by his belief that people who worked hard and believed in themselves would triumph. He devoted much of his life to championing the rights of the independent inventor, because above all he wanted to ensure that the United States thrived in a high-tech, global marketplace.

Lemelson passed away on October 1, 1997, at the age of 74.1 We dedicate this first Lemelson Institute to his memory. ^^

Getting the inventive juices flowing

In order to awaken the inventor in all of the participants from the Institute’s outset, the group split into teams at their opening dinner for an exercise in “grab bag inventing.” For this lighthearted yet purposeful activity, each team received a brown paper bag containing miscellaneous items—for example, pipe cleaners, balloons, tape, string, etc.—a time limit for the exercise, and a problem-based scenario to guide their work:

  • Scenario 1: You are an independent inventor working in your garage. You have a job outside your home, but enjoy tinkering and inventing during your free time. You are currently working on something that will address a household need.
  • Scenario 2: You are an inventor working in the developing world. You work with local residents to identify and help solve their most pressing problems. You are currently working with a group of farmers to invent something that will help them increase their crop yield.
  • Scenario 3: You are an inventor in a research lab in a large corporation. You are currently working to create an antigravity device using only the materials that you already have in your lab.

Later in the weekend, the teams reported on their process, their inventions, and on how place (in this case, a table in the hotel dining room) affected their work. One team took a humorous approach to Scenario 1 by defining the “household need” as encouraging unwanted houseguests to leave and created an escalating set of annoyances to accomplish the task.2 Another team addressed Scenario 2 by conceiving of a omnidirectional windmill that would power a well pump, providing a constant source of water for crop irrigation. A third team, comprised of academics and museum professionals, tackled Scenario 3 by incorporating scholarly knowledge into an invention that was easy to explain and understand visually; they stated that their balloon was filled with negative mass, making it defy gravity. On the overall experience, members of the teams commented on the pressure created by the limitations on time, materials, and workspace, and on the joy and freedom that they felt in using their imaginations to think about both plausible and fanciful solutions to the scenarios. ^^

The role of an inventor’s style on places of invention

Not all inventors are as driven and productive as Jerry Lemelson was, but some general characteristics can be traced through most inventors’ careers. One of these is a signature “style” of invention, about which Thomas Parke Hughes, a noted historian of technology, has written extensively.3 By this he refers to the common methodology that an inventor uses throughout his or her career to foster invention and creative thought. For example, he notes that Thomas Edison’s style of invention included “a rational and artful combination of scientific law, economic principles and facts, endless calculation, and tireless experimentation.”4 For this method to succeed, however, Edison also had to create the proper place to nurture these activities, surrounding himself with rich resources in terms of people, up-to-date information, physical plant, and financing in what he dubbed his “invention factory.”

Participants at the Lemelson Institute offered many examples of how inventors’ styles both inform and are shaped by their “places of invention.” Dorothy Lemelson’s description of how Jerry worked was particularly helpful as a reminder to the group that the mind is perhaps the ultimate place of invention. Regardless of where they lived, Dorothy told the group, Jerry set up his workspace in a consistent pattern, fashioning for himself what she described as an “inventor’s studio”:

He always had a lot of papers. He always put papers in boxes; no matter what situation he was in, he always had boxes of papers underneath his desk. . . . He did not file them, but he knew where each subject matter was in a drawer, so he could access it. And he always had to have someplace where he could be almost prone—his back would be up against something, his feet would be up, and he’d sit and write. And he had a desk and a drawing board. . . . That is the way Jerry worked. . . . The children never bothered him. He would listen, perhaps, to some music. He just lived within his mind, without any outside interference.5

Art Molella also shared his experience with Jerry’s inventive process. Jerry told him that he would look at things and see something missing in them, and he would think about how to improve them. That was where invention began, with solving a problem.

Similarly, independent inventor Saul Griffith, a participant in the Institute, talked about creating Squid Labs—his place of invention—and how the physical space corresponds to his invention “style.” Griffith and his colleagues share the control tower at the former Alameda, California, naval base airfield. The lab is characterized by a combination of sophisticated computer systems, hand tools, and music and art. Griffith stressed the importance of a healthy dose of chaos in a place of invention and of having resources on hand since, as he said, “You don’t know what you will invent tomorrow.”

From the impromptu to the planned, spaces are important elements in human creativity. Bodies of scholarship exist about the relationship of artists to their studios, or of scientists to their laboratories. However, inventors’ intimate relationships with their spaces have attracted little attention, perhaps because of the obscurity of the vast majority of inventors. ^^

The power of place

While the Lemelson Institute focused on places designed for invention, the location of the meeting lent its own aura of inspiration to the discussions. Designed by architect Roderick Ashley, the Lemelson Archives is the physical embodiment of Dorothy Lemelson’s creative sensibilities.

Nestled above majestic Lake Tahoe, the Lemelson Archives overlook the lake and the Sierra Nevada mountain range beyond. The immediate pine forest and dense undergrowth provide a serene environment where visitors can review the work of Jerome Lemelson, while also engaging in creative discussion about the act of inventing.

The Archives design is a simple architectural composition embodying subtle relationships between materials and environment that are unveiled as a person moves through the site. The project is composed of two pavilions—the archives and conference center and a guest residence—mirroring one another and connected via a raised wood boardwalk threaded through a graveled sculpture garden. This simple walkway acts as both a visual and physical connector between the buildings, bordered on the public side by a double allay of aspen trees and open to the garden and spectacular views on the other. The two buildings appear as bookends in a composition that is meant to both engage the surrounding landscape and contain the immediate gravel garden. These carefully crafted buildings are purposefully understated so that attention is directed to the exquisite natural and landscaped surroundings.

The Institute marked the installation of the first exhibit of Jerry Lemelson’s papers in the new Lemelson Archives space. To illustrate the breadth of Lemelson’s inventions, exhibit curator Joyce Bedi, Lemelson Center, selected materials that featured Lemelson’s industrial inventions in one case, and toy inventions in a second case. The notebooks, sketches, correspondence, and patent materials displayed highlighted the path of Lemelson’s invention process, showing the connections among the various ways in which he developed his inventions.

Brent Glass, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, commented that Jerry Lemelson embodied the American dream in the way he continually overcame barriers, believed in progress, and created opportunities for his inventive spirit. Glass commended Mrs. Lemelson for building the Lemelson Archives as a testament to her commitment not only to Jerry’s legacy but to future generations as well. ^^


  Framing the task

Discussion leader: Art Molella

Art Molella opened the proceedings of the Institute with some framing questions for the discussion. He asked the participants to consider what, if anything, makes a place designed for and devoted to invention different from other creative spaces? Are there specific features that are common to inventive places, whether they are individual workshops or geographic regions? How do creative people shape and interact with their spaces? In what ways do communities, cities, and regions support and/or constrain invention? How have these factors affecting inventive places changed over time?

Similarly, why are some places seemingly more fertile for invention than others? What is it about common, everyday places like kitchens, garages, and farms that inspire the inventive spirit? When does a workplace become a wellspring of invention? Can regions eager to foster invention and its economic benefits successfully emulate places like Silicon Valley?

The interdisciplinary group participating in the Lemelson Institute was brought together to ponder these questions and to inform the Lemelson Center’s future activities on the subject of places of invention, including publications, exhibitions, and documentation of contemporary inventors. ^^


  Overview of research on places of invention

Discussion leader: Jennifer Light

Jennifer Light, Northwestern University, oriented the group to current thinking, across disciplines, about the connections between place and invention. She presented a review of recent research in the form of a syllabus for a new course she would teach, aptly named “Places of Invention” (download the syllabus). She began by asking three fundamental questions, each targeted to examine assumptions about invention and place and to study their intersections:

  • What is invention?
  • How does place matter?
  • Why take a historical approach?

What is invention?

Invention, she paraphrased, is like pornography—scholars seem to know what it is, but they typically do not define it. She noted that while there is a growing literature across disciplines on inventiveness and innovation, frequently authors fail to explain their terms. As the group discussed this, they differentiated between scientific discovery and technological invention. The first consists of phenomena that existed but were previously unknown to humankind, while the second involves the creation of something that never existed before, particularly something having utility. The question of artistic invention was also raised, but was seen as a less useful concept than artistic creativity. An important point of agreement was that invention often results from cross-fertilization of ideas from different fields brought together to answer new questions. Members of the group offered illustrations of biomimicry (for example, studying the shape of a kingfisher’s beak in order to streamline the design of Japanese high speed trains); the transfer of knowledge (such as using the experience gained from steam engines to inform the field of thermodynamics); or fusing disciplines (for example, Howard Becker’s merging of art history and sociology in his book, Art Worlds).

How does place matter?

Light presented an overview of scholarship in several fields, noting three points that scholars have made in their assessments of the relationship between place and innovation. First, scholars have observed that individual leaders play a crucial role in fostering creative spaces. Architects for example, design workspaces that they believe will enhance communication and cross-disciplinary collaboration. Managers can contribute by “participating in idea generation rather than remaining on the sidelines, focusing more on the structure, timing, and objectives of projects than on the specific conduct of the work, allowing workers freedom and flexibility in how they go about accomplishing their mission, and developing the social skills to facilitate coordination among collaborators with different backgrounds and forms of expertise.”

In addition, social scientists in sociology, economics, and other fields have shown the importance of social and collaborative networks. Invention is often a process that spans disciplines, but even self-styled independent inventors have social networks that support and enhance their work. The group discussed what they perceived as an increase in access to multiple networks, facilitated by new and faster means of communication. This in turn increased exposure to ideas and techniques from multiple disciplines.

The third factor in the relationship between innovaton and place, illustrated by scholarship in legal and policy studies, emphasizes the importance of community codes. Government regulatory policies, for example, designed to foster invention and innovation, may in fact constrain them as well. The U.S. patent system illustrates this tension. Applying for and defending patents take time away from inventive work, yet a patent has both tangible and intangible value, protecting an inventor’s work and confering a cachet of genius. Evidence exists that the lack of a robust patent system hinders invention in developing nations.

Why take a historical approach?

Light reported that scholars have identified changes in the inventive process from the late 19th through the 20th centuries, suggesting the value of taking a historical approach to assess even contemporary innovation practices. These included moving from producer-defined processes to ones incorporating the response of consumers; from discreet to continuous activities; and from field-specific to multidisciplinary work. One specific departure in the late 20th century from traditional places of invention is the use of cyberspace for collaborative and distributed work. But surprisingly, scholars have not found that inventive activities conducted in cyberspace differ significantly from those in more traditional locations. “While cyberspace has diversified the venues in which participants in the innovative process can meet,” Light noted, research interpretations make the case that “there is as much continuity as change in the era of the Internet.”

Light’s overview of research in the field led her to propose two areas requiring further study. First, creating and sustaining places of invention are related but separate endeavors; places that first succeed as places of invention can fail in the long term. However, most scholarship considers only the creation of a place of invention. Second, existing studies of inventive spaces typically focus on the generation, not the reception, of ideas, but the latter is a critical phase of the inventive process. She noted there is an entire field of research on the diffusion of innovation that might be tapped for ideas. ^^


1 Abridged from the Lemelson Foundation Web site at
2 (1) noise irritation (2) placing a golf ball under the guest’s mattress in “Princess and the Pea” fashion; (3) replacing the guest toilet ball float so that it would take three hours to fill the toilet tank; (4) placing unacceptable political placards in the guest’s room
3 See, for example, Elmer Sperry: Inventor and Engineer (Johns Hopkins Press, 1971); American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm, 1870–1970 (Viking, 1989); and Rescuing Prometheus (Pantheon Books, 1998).
4 Thomas Parke Hughes, Thomas Edison: Professional Inventor (London: Science Museum, 1976), p. 24.
5 Lemelson Institute transcript, 1-1. In Einstein: His Life and Universe (Simon & Schuster, 2007), Walter Isaacson noted similar characteristics in Albert Einstein: “One of his strengths as a thinker, if not as a parent, was that he had the ability, and the inclination, to tune out all distractions, a category that to him sometimes included his children and family. ‘Even the loudest baby-crying didn’t seem to disturb Father,’ Hans Albert said. ‘He could go on with his work completely impervious to noise.’” (p. 161)


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Jerome Lemelson in high school

Jerry in high school. Photo courtesy the Lemelson family.

Participants work on invention activity

Jennifer Light, Lillian Hoddeson, and Robert Kargon work on their "grab bag inventions." Photo by Ben Bloom.


Robert Kargon explains his team's invention

Robert Kargon describes his team's invention. Photo by Ben Bloom.

Saul Griffith speaking

Saul Griffith spoke about his "place of invention." Photo by Ben Bloom.

Lemelson archives exterior

Lemelson archives conference room

Lemelson guest residence exterior

Top to bottom: exterior of the Lemelson Archives; the conference room; exterior of the guest residence. Photos by Stephen Cridland.


Above, Joyce Bedi talks about the exhibit of Jerry Lemelson's papers installed in the Archives. Below, the case containing materials related to Lemelson's industrial inventions. Photos by Ben Bloom.


Jennifer Light speaking

Jennifer Light presented an overview of current research on places of invention. Photo by Ben Bloom.


Last Update: 11 Apr 2008

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