Article: Documenting Invention :: Smithsonian Lemelson Center
Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, Smithsonian Beanie Illustration
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Alison Oswald, Lemelson Center Archivist

To ensure that the rich history of invention is preserved  for the future, the Lemelson Center and the National Museum of American History (NMAH) Archives Center launched the Modern INventors Documentation (MIND) program in 1997.  Its goals are

  • to advance and diffuse knowledge about American invention;
  • to identify, acquire, and preserve the records of living inventors;
  • to serve as a clearinghouse for inventors seeking to preserve and donate their papers;
  • to increase access to and promote use of those records by scholars, students, and the general public; and
  • to identify inventors whose records and artifacts support and enhance the research and educational goals of the National Museum of American History.

At the heart of the MIND program is an initiative to promote the retention of the records and artifacts of invention and to facilitate their use.  A database of inventors' documents housed in archives, libraries, historical societies, and museums throughout the United States currently lists more than 1,000 collections and continues to be expanded and enriched.

Mexican-American inventor Victor Ochoa with his prototype “Ochoaplane,” which folded for compact storage, ca. 1910. He also invented and patented a reversible motor, various types of brakes, a wrench, and a windmill. Victor L. Ochoa Papers, NMAH Archives Center

A brochure complements the database, providing information for inventors who wish to donate their records. It outlines the donation process, giving advice on finding an appraiser and an appropriate repository and, for those who are not yet ready to donate their collections, on basic preservation techniques.  This information recently guided the family of a Mexican-American inventor, Victor L. Ochoa, on the donation of his papers.

In-depth documentation of invention-related artifacts in the Smithsonian’s collections is part of the MIND program as well. Members of the curatorial staff work with the Center on oral and video histories of inventors and inventions. NMAH specialist Peter Liebhold, for example, created a video history of the Sendzimir mill.  Invented by Polish immigrant Tadeusz Sendzimir (whose grandson was interviewed), the mill revolutionized the cold rolling of stainless steel.  Liebhold’s video not only traces the mill’s invention, but describes the process of technology transfer and consumer demand for the new product through conversations with the workers and managers who operated the mill. 

Martin Collins, curator at the National Air and Space Museum (NASM), recorded both oral and video histories with the creators of the Corona camera, the first space-based system to photograph the earth.  This technology, developed by Walter Levinson, Frank Madden, and F. Dow Smith, played an important role in U.S.–Soviet relations during the Cold War. It was declassified in 1995 and the camera is on exhibit at NASM.

Sketch for a hot oil bath for molding the first Head ski, 1947. Howard Head Papers, NMAH Archives Center

Another oral history project under way examines the invention and impact of exercise machines from the 19th century to the present.  Ellen Hughes, NMAH curator, researched exercise equipment patents and interviewed equipment developers such as Arthur Jones of Nautilus and Ed Pauls of Nordic Track. In addition, the late Howard Head’s collection has been donated to the Museum.

Through the MIND program, the next generation of archivists is learning about preserving the history of invention and making it accessible.  Summer internships for graduate students in archival programs offer these new professionals the invaluable opportunity of working with the rich collections on American technology, enterprise, and invention that are maintained in the Museum’s Archives Center—collections that document such diverse subjects as the history of radio, the development of Tupperware, and the issues surrounding the Superconducting Super Collider.  The interns learn to identify and manage these historical documents and to create effective finding aids so that others may use them.

To set goals and plan future directions in documenting the work of modern innovators and inventors, a documentary study was launched in the fall of 1997. Guided by an advisory group of scholars, archivists, curators, inventors, patent attorneys, and other experts, the study recorded the current state of scholarship in this field, set guidelines for future acquisitions by the Museum, and defined new research projects for Lemelson Center staff, interns, and scholars.

Originally published in Summer 1997.

Download the MIND program brochure.

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