The Inventor and the Innovative Society :: Smithsonian Lemelson Center
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New Perspectives on Invention and Innovation

"The Inventor and the Innovative Society," the first of an annual fall series on New Perspectives on Invention and Innovation, was presented by the Lemelson Center on 10-11 November 1995. This inaugural symposium, held at the National Museum of American History, explored the ways in which different societies have nurtured and sustained the inventive impulse. Comparing two distinct views of creativity, which may be seen on the one hand as a product of unique inspiration or, on the other, as a collaborative endeavor whose results are then attributed to specific individuals, the symposium focused on three "innovative societies"--Renaissance Italy, metropolitan New York in the late 19th century, and California's "Silicon Valley" in the latter 20th century. Men and women with varied perspectives on invention and innovation-historians, sociologists, inventors, entrepreneurs, graduate students, engineers, journalists, and patent experts-attended the conference and participated in the lively discussion.

On Friday evening, November 10, Paul MacCready, an internationally recognized authority on technological creativity, presented the keynote address. He talked about human beings' innate curiosity and creativity, which he felt was denied by many when they reached adulthood. He gave examples of the mental blinders people have that tend to thwart innovation and suggested ways to recognize and overcome these inhibiting influences.

Martin Kemp (University of Oxford) and Pamela Long (Johns Hopkins University) opened the first session of the conference on Saturday, November 11, with a discussion of Renaissance Italy of Leonardo's time. They addressed the concept of intellectual property and the role of public and private patronage in fostering creativity. In the two afternoon sessions on Edison's metropolitan New York and Frederick Terman's Silicon Valley, Thomas Bender (New York University), Robert Rosenberg (Thomas A. Edison Papers), AnnaLee Saxenian (University of California at Berkeley), and Stuart W. Leslie (Johns Hopkins University) raised issues about the heroic iconography of invention, the changing trajectory of the American patent system, the ambience of great metropolitan centers, and the reciprocal impact of technological innovation, rapid urbanization, and corporate growth. Throughout all three sessions, Robert Lucky (Bellcore) and Alex Roland (Duke University) provided counterpoint between the speakers and the audience.

Special events for both symposium participants and the general public included demonstrations by student "E-Teams" from Hampshire College in Amherst, MA, and the University of Nevada at Reno. Part of the Lemelson National Program, the "E-Teams" ("E" for excellence and entrepreneurship) nurture a new generation of inventors through student/faculty cooperation. The teams have developed inventions, including light-sensitive venetian blinds, harnesses for assistance dogs, and an electric rental-car system, and started them on the road to commercial viability. In addition to the E-Teams, a showing of the 1988 feature film, Tucker: The Man and His Dream capped off the weekend.

Originally published in Winter 1996

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