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)

  Examining places of invention

Creative people: the people/place nexus
Discussion leader: Lillian Hoddeson

Lillian Hoddeson, University of Illinois, outlined her work on a number of research organizations that have produced significant inventions, including Bell laboratories, Fermilab, and Energy Conversion Devices. She noted several characteristics common to highly creative places: a clear mission that is supported by both leadership and researchers; minimal bureaucracy; research freedom; interdisciplinary (and in some cases cross-disciplinary) collaboration; adequate funding and other resources supportive of invention; a favorable balance between isolation from and interaction with the outside; and good morale.

This list of elements raised an immediate question for the group: are these points unique to invention, or are they universal for creative teamwork more generally? It did indeed appear that many types of creative places share these traits. Whether places of invention exhibit unique characteristics beyond the ones discussed here could not be answered in the discussion, although the group agreed that having a dramatic goal—winning a war, landing a man on the moon, or defeating polio—enhances the ability of a mission to drive inventive individuals and organizations. Effective managers, who go beyond leading with a soft touch to demonstrating a tolerance for failure and “creative anarchy,” appear to be essential to the inventive process. Often such managers become partners with researchers and inventors in successful places of invention.

Using the power of individual personalities to put a human face on invention, even when those individuals work within large organizations, is another feature of many inventive places. The “lone inventor” remains a cultural icon, thanks, in part, to the affirming value of prizes and patents awarded to individuals and the convenience this myth offers for helping the external world understand what inventors do.

One of the more curious characteristics of places of invention identified by the group, however, is their temporary nature. Places that experience periods of great inventiveness often later undergo creative decline, sometimes followed by a period of inventive rebirth. In general, the phases of inventiveness last about 20 years. Some causes of this “half life for creativity” were postulated. After roughly two decades, bureaucracy and hierarchy tend to solidify, which does not typically enhance inventiveness. Similarly, the reputation of a successful place of invention can come to overshadow the individuals who populate it. In short, some of the very features that make an organization successful at innovation can eventually impede its continued success.

The participants also stated a goal for current and future sites of invention. Recognizing the importance of diversity and concern that the majority of actors in the places of invention discussed were white males, the group stressed the importance of working toward enhancing diversity in spaces of invention. Various incentives to recruiting and keeping women and minorities in the invention workforce were discussed. One promising trend for young people in start-up cultures is that their tendency to hold a succession of jobs in a short time period is no longer seen as a disadvantage. Rather the implication is that the worker has seen failures in other companies and can bring that knowledge to bear in the current culture. ^^

Creative places: the people/place nexus
Discussion leader: Fred H. Gage

Fred H. Gage, Salk Institute, described his research into the plasticity of the brain and the fairly recent discovery that certain locations in the brain continue to grow functioning new cells throughout a person’s life. The striking part of this is that the birth and maturation of new cells into new neurons is regulated by experience. Experiments with animals show that enriched environments result in the production of more cells and those cells divide more readily and survive better when the animals experience complex environments. Furthermore, there is a relationship between learning and physical exercise in the creation of new cells: exercise enhances the proliferation of cells, while complex learning experiences aid the cells’ survival.

These results indicate that the brain continuously adapts to environments throughout a person’s lifetime, raising the question for the group: can architecture affect the structure of the brain? Since experience can change the structure of our brains, and architecture changes our experience, Gage offered the provocative hypothesis that buildings can change our brains by virtue of changes in spatial experience. Though Gage and his colleagues are currently involved in a study of workers in Washington, D.C., who are moving their work spaces to new buildings, more research is needed on the effect of architecture on the structure of brain to show if any particular design is better than another to enhance creativity.

However, Gage offered two examples of highly creative spaces as case studies. The first was architect Frank Gehry’s personal creative space—a spacious, hangar-like building—which Gage described as seemingly chaotic on the surface, with multiple projects in various states of completion, but clearly productive and creative. He then discussed the well-planned architecture of his home institution, the Salk Institute. Originally designed to include three towers, the plan was modified before construction to two towers and a central courtyard to facilitate communication and interaction among the staff. Inside the buildings, concealed trusses allowed unobstructed lab space, and, though the towers are each six stories high, there are only three lab floors. Between each of these floors is an interstitial space containing all the water, electricity, ducting, etc. Any of these utilities may be dropped from the ceiling, permitting multiple configurations of the space to match the work at hand. “So,” Gage reported, “periodically, and more often than you would think, we tear out whole sections of the soft wall spaces and just redesign it.” The common and essential characteristic of the two spaces, Gehry’s studio and the Salk Institute, was flexibility.

The group broadened the concept of flexible space and postulated that having the freedom to actually transform a space and make it one’s own might be a key to opening the doors of one’s creativity, doors that would remain closed if one were living in someone else’s space. ^^

Creating places of invention: regions and new spaces
Discussion leaders: Stuart W. Leslie and Robert Kargon

Stuart W. Leslie and Robert Kargon, both of Johns Hopkins University, compared and contrasted the role of formal planning for inventive regions and institutions. Leslie began with an overview of the literature on invention, business, and regions. He explained that for many years the predominant interpretation of the intersection of business and innovation ignored geography and instead concentrated on the firm, the entrepreneur, or the industry. The leading proponent of this approach was Alfred Chandler, whose ground-breaking studies examined where research and development happened within a corporation, but were not concerned with where the corporation was based.1 This began to change with the work of Charles Sabel and Michael Piore,2 who looked at individual regions of flexible production in several countries as an alternative to the methods of multinational corporations, and AnnaLee Saxenian,3 who compared the relative success and failure of Silicon Valley and Boston’s Route 128 corridor in terms of the interaction of firms within a region.

Historically defined by maps and physical geography, regions today could effectively be mapped according to the flow of capital and skilled workers. Understanding regions in this way helps to explain why some fail. A successful region combines talented workers, venture capital, and production. But regions may also fail because of regulatory antitrust policies designed, ironically, to protect competition. A third factor identified in the failure of regions is the often-tried exercise of replicating a successful model in an unsuitable new location: To succeed, institutions need to grow organically within their regional settings.

Successful regions, like successful research laboratories, often have a strong, mentoring personality guiding their development. Frederick Terman is widely seen as having played this role for Silicon Valley. Similarly, William Shockley receives credit for starting the semiconductor industry in California. A charismatic figure attracts talent and investors. Other models of course exist; for example, the creation of government-mandated economic regions in Germany offer a contrasting view.

The idea of lifespan applies to regions as well as to research organizations, though the productive period of regions is typically longer than the twenty-year average ascribed to laboratories. Lowell, Massachusetts, for example, remained at the forefront of the textile industry for roughly a century. However, the cycle is similar, and the group postulated that this may be a natural component of capitalism. New firms with new ideas are able to control those for a while, but once competition sets in, resources are not as plentiful. The places that survive the longest are the ones that are responsive to changes in society and technology as a whole and are therefore able to grow into new entities, sometimes bearing only a slight resemblance to their founding companies.

What kind of planning, then, would be most effective in building regions and institutions in which creative people may do what they want to do? There are a number of elements to consider. Removing legal, organizational, and financial barriers is essential. Tolerating controlled chaos, minimizing bureaucracy, and keeping spaces flexible are also important. One interesting idea discussed was the effect of temporary structures on creative work. Does planning for a near horizon, not for the long term, result in a more creative space? Does minimal planning actually deliver the desired results?

Los Alamos and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Radiation Laboratory were examined as exemplars of creative places that were meant to be temporary and therefore not thoroughly planned. The atmosphere of flexibility and impermanence that produced so much creative work indicated to the group that designers of places of invention might do well to begin the planning process with a test phase to see what does and does not work. Planning from the outset to build a permanent place of invention may mean that the seeds of its ultimate failure are present from the start. ^^

Creating places of invention: adapting existing spaces
Discussion leader: Merton Flemings

Merton Flemings, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, shared his experiences over 60 years at one of the foremost places of invention. MIT embodies many of the characteristics already identified as essential to creative places. It has a clearly stated and supported mission, leadership “with a light touch,” a strong commitment to interdisciplinary teaching and research, academic independence within research groups and among faculty, and tolerance for the sometimes chaotic and organizationally “messy” conditions that promote creativity.

MIT, however, adds other features to the mix. The Institute’s culture is intense, diverse, self-sufficient, a bit cocky in terms of expectations of success, and dedicated to hands-on experiences. This culture is nurtured in part by crowded work spaces and buildings connected by the “infinite corridor,” both of which promote interchange between and among faculty and students and facilitate not only unexpected but effective encounters. In addition, MIT’s tenure process promotes technological creativity and inventiveness through its emphasis on an individual’s ability to affect his or her field, either through publications that have influenced the work of others or through products created, including inventions.

Flemings’s observations on life at MIT suggested three factors that echo those identified earlier as necessary for creating successful places of invention. The first of these is, once again, flexibility and its corollary, impermanence. Flemings commented that, long after its expected lifespan was over, the buildings that had housed the Radiation Laboratory were still seen as desirable places to work. “Even later,” he said, “when other buildings began to go up around MIT, people still loved that lab. And not just from memory, they loved to work in it! . . . If they didn’t like a wall, they could knock it out! It didn’t take much more than sticking their foot through it.”

The interdisciplinary nature of MIT is indicative of a change throughout the university system in the United States. As institutions move away from an emphasis on core disciplines with their own methods—mathematics, history, physics, etc.—to embrace critical problems that transcend and demand the cooperation of many, “hybrid” disciplines (e.g., biochemistry) as well as multidisciplinary practices (e.g., public health, material science) are born. This combining of disciplines is also common in many successful places of invention.

Finally, proximity, with its implied tension between seclusion and inclusion, also factors in MIT’s creative life. The idea of the “infinite corridor” is not unique to MIT. The architecture of Bell Labs, the RAND Corporation, and General Atomic, to name only three, were all planned to maximize contact among the buildings’ inhabitants. However, individuals and their work styles differ and there is a strong need to balance the desire for privacy with ease of collaboration to the extent possible for the success of the work. But what does proximity mean in the Internet age? Is physical proximity still relevant and necessary, especially as more research is carried out by virtual teams working in disparate locations? The group did not arrive at a conclusive answer to this question, but pointed instead to companies that exist because of and for the Internet, like Google, but still have extensive physical campuses. Perhaps proximity is becoming less about communication and more about the inspiration that place provides. ^^

  Making ideas concrete: public dissemination

Discussion leaders: Peter Friess and Arthur Molella

Peter Friess, The Tech Museum of Innovation, and Art Molella, Lemelson Center, led the final discussion. Molella explained that the group would be asked to brainstorm and comment on two separate but related exhibit concepts. The first is “Places of Invention,” scheduled to open in the Lemelson Gallery at the National Museum of American History in 2011. The other exhibition, “Spirit of Silicon Valley,” will be installed at the Tech Museum.4 The target audience for “Places of Invention” is families with children aged 6 to 12, with special efforts made to bring in local families from the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area. “Spirit of Silicon Valley” is aimed at increasing tourist visitation to The Tech. The goal of both exhibitions is to develop a model for ways in which distant and organizationally separate institutions may work collaboratively and effectively on a major exhibition project.

Molella highlighted the objectives of the Smithsonian’s exhibition:

  • to explore the rich relationship among individuals, communities, and environments that foster inventive activity
  • to investigate the role of invention in shaping places and communities, including those that support sustainable lifestyles and positive social outcomes
  • to consider inventions within their social and historical context
  • to inspire people not only to learn about invention, but to consider how their choices affect the larger world and to see themselves as potential inventors

Some of the elements that will be used to meet these objectives include:

  • case studies of famous and also lesser-known inventors of diverse backgrounds and experiences who work in a variety of places across the United States, e.g., large laboratories, small businesses, homes, cities, rural areas, and communities
  • multidisciplinary perspectives including engineering, arts, science, and design
  • documentation of the process of invention, particularly the collaborative nature of the creative process

Friess then provided background on The Tech Museum of Innovation, whose core mission is, “Inspire the innovator in everyone.” He explained that currently the museum has no collections and is in the process of redoing all of its galleries, comprising roughly 40,000 square feet. He has established a new department to develop content for the outdated galleries, with the overall goal to make the museum relevant to Silicon Valley residents and tourists. Over the next five years, the museum will develop exhibits and experiment-centered presentations on Silicon Valley and its industries. Currently, “Spirit of Silicon Valley” is focused on three themes that relate to places of invention in general and Silicon Valley more specifically: the Valley itself, the people/teams behind the inventions created there, and the inventions/products themselves.

The discussion turned to suggestions from the group on people, places, and techniques that might be included in the exhibits.

  • Feature a Shaker community as a case study in innovation, design, and collective imagination in the context of agriculture and manufacturing.
  • Feature a historical community (e.g., the Anasazi) from the Southwest to illustrate farming techniques and the notion of collective invention; communal societies share characteristics with places of invention.
  • Include situations in people’s lives that lead them to invent or solve a problem in some way
  • Use “period rooms” to evoke a sense of place. They are popular with museum visitors. Perhaps GIS can be used to create a “period room” of a region.
  • Include an introductory film to define the exhibits’ objectives to visitors. Have fun with it; look at “The Simpsons” episode about Edison for ideas.
  • Use “exploded objects” to discuss regions and to show how many places had a hand in producing the object. Include labor history, environmental impact, defense components, negative consequences.
  • Include user communities in the stories told.
  • Pull visitors quickly from the familiar into the unfamiliar areas in which place has shaped invention and in which invention has shaped place; use objects, photographs and graphic materials to do this.
  • Keep the main focus on individuals; museum visitors relate to stories of individuals
  • Include something about the changing ethnic and economic demography of Silicon Valley
  • Tap into people’s personal interests in hobbies and where they participate in those (e.g., garages, sewing rooms, small studios); personal places of invention.
  • Challenge and expand on the mythological stories of the garage inventor, or the basement inventor.

The group also offered comments on the objectives of the exhibits:

  • Be clear that there is a difference between solving a problem, and inventing something. An invention is something new. Solving a problem, on the other hand, is a means to completing a specific task.
  • Be careful not to be too general when explaining what invention is and who is an inventor; do not let “invention” mean everything.
  • Take people back to the historical point where key inventions happened. Most people do not think about the fact that everything in their lives was invented.

Finally, the group provided some general advice:

  • Do audience testing early on; find out if the target audiences are as interested in the topic as this group is.
  • Do not avoid controversy, but put criticism in the voice of the participants, not the curators; incorporating first-person accounts is a useful technique.
  • Be sure to deal with failure.
  • Prototype!
  • Give the visitor some sense that there was an early understanding in the Constitution that people were going to be encouraged to be creative and to patent inventions. ^^


1 Chandler’s most influential book is The Visible Hand : The Managerial Revolution in American Business (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1977).
2 Charles Sabel and Michael Piore, The Second Industrial Divide: Possibilities for Prosperity, (New York: Basic Books, 1984)
3 AnnaLee Saxenian, Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994)
4 Exhibition titles are tentative.


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Lillian Hoddeson speaking

Lillian Hoddeson discussed her work on research labs. Photo by Ben Bloom.



Fred Gage speaking

Fred Gage talked about the brain's plasticity and possible connections between architecture and the brain's structure. Photo by Ben Bloom.



Bill Leslie speaking

Bob Kargon speaking

Bill Leslie (top) and Bob Kargon talked about creative regions and planning for creativity. Photos by Ben Bloom.



Merton Flemings speaking

Merton Flemings described his personal experience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Photo by Ben Bloom.



Art Molella and Peter Friess speaking

Art Molella (left) and Peter Friess discussed their institutions' respective exhibition projects on places of invention. Photos by Ben Bloom.


Last Update: 15 Jul 2010

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