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Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, Smithsonian Beanie Illustration
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Arthur Molella, Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Director

If you’ve had the opportunity to study some of the programs and activities sponsored by the Lemelson Center, you likely noticed that a lot of them are multigenerational and revolve around families. From creativity workshops at the National Museum of American History to our traveling Invention at Play exhibition, many of our offerings are designed to appeal to young and old alike, and to have all ages working together in discovery.

It gives pause to think about the age-old nature vs. nurture question. What if your dad or mom is the world’s greatest inventor? Are theirs the footsteps you would follow? Would you have a genetic advantage? Are people born inventors? Or are they made? 

It turns out that there are lots of examples of inventive talent crossing generations in families. The difficulty in examining this is that an invention almost always has to be commercialized or introduced in some way into society. In this sense, it is unlike a work of art, music, or scientific discovery, where one can occasionally rummage through history’s dustbin to find previously neglected gems, which can be polished and presented anew. A scientific or artistic discovery can count whether or not it received initial acceptance in society. Not so with invention, it seems. A recognized inventor may produce inventive sons and daughters, but if the latter fail to market their products, chances are they will not be remembered as inventors.

However, once we admit that inventive abilities can be passed through generations of families, whether via inheritance or environmental influence, we encounter some interesting things. First, a complex intra- and intergenerational dynamic almost always comes into play. Second, there is considerable evidence that invention is closely related to various forms of artistic creativity. In fact, the creative forms may be mutually transformable. Put another way, when creativity is passed down, it can blossom differently under different circumstances, sometimes as invention, sometimes as art, and sometimes as science.

Charles Darwin came from a family rich in invention, poetry, and philosophy. His paternal grandfather was Erasmus Darwin, a leading medical authority who was once invited to serve as the personal physician to King George III (he declined the position). Erasmus was a popular poet and natural philosopher whose poems anticipated evolution and inspired Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Erasmus was also a prolific inventor. On his mother’s side, Charles was the grandson of Josiah Wedgwood, founder of Wedgwood pottery and inventor of ovens and revolutionary ceramic materials. Erasmus Darwin devised a horizontal windmill to power the Wedgwood factory, and both he and Josiah Wedgwood were stalwarts of the Lunar Society of Birmingham, the famed discussion group of scientists and industrialists who helped usher in the Industrial Revolution.

Invention continued to follow Charles Darwin even as he joined the crew of the HMS Beagle, where he made the observations leading to his famous theory of natural selection. Robert FitzRoy, captain of the Beagle, brought on board the newest inventions, including novel devices to measure ocean depth and wind speed. He invented the FitzRoy barometer, a mainstay of Victorian meteorology.

In sum, Charles Darwin was surrounded by inventors and inventions all his life. Cross-fertilization between scientific and technological practice is familiar to historians. When the Darwin and Wedgwood families merged they created a hotbed of innovation, leading to discoveries in science, art, and technology.

N. C. Wyeth, the famous illustrator, fathered not only the painter Andrew Wyeth, but also two daughters who were painters and a third daughter who was a musician. Andrew in turn fathered painter James Wyeth.

Not so well-known is that N. C. had another son, a DuPont chemist and engineer named Nathaniel Wyeth—“Nat”—who showed mechanical talent by age three and was named after his engineer uncle, N. C. Wyeth’s brother Nathaniel.

Nat studied mechanical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, where, while still in college, he invented a hydroplane capable of going fifty mph. He spent his career at DuPont, where he earned numerous patents. His most famous invention is the colorful polymer PET (polyethylene terephthalate), a material strong enough to hold liquids under pressure; it’s used in the familiar plastic soda bottle. 

I had the privilege of meeting Nat Wyeth once at the Hotel du Pont in Wilmington, Delaware. We had lunch together in a dark-paneled room with walls covered in paintings by his famous brother Andrew. This occasion brought home to me the familial relationship between art and inventive talent. I wondered whether it was a coincidence that Nat’s chosen field was polymer chemistry, an artistic branch of the field, and that the polymer he invented held bright colors.

In choosing engineering over art, Nat was the family nonconformist, to the point that his father N. C. often overlooked his existence. He became known as “the Wyeth who doesn’t paint.” Yet he made efforts to stay close to his father and gifted siblings.

Edison with his children Madeline, Theo, and Charles; his wife, Mina; and the children's nurse, Lena; about 1902 National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

Thomas Edison provides a classic example of a great inventor’s influence on the next generation. Edison had a difficult relationship with his eldest sons by his first wife Mary Stilwell. Tom Jr. in particular had dreams of becoming an inventor, but grew to resent the father who intimidated him and felt he could never please Edison. He still fancied himself an inventor, trying to market a new “Edison Junior Improved” lightbulb. Mostly, however, he was used by investors who only wanted to market the Edison name. His father’s demands that he stop using his name as a calling card led to a final break between the two, and the son turned to chorus girls and drink. It seemed that Edison Sr. wanted no competing Edisons. He never staked his sons in business, believing this would make them lazy.

His sons by his second wife Mina Miller were a different story, however, largely due to Mina’s interventions. Theodore, for example, had great technical ability. After attending MIT, he joined his dad at the Edison labs and rose to become technical director. He then founded his own very successful R&D company, Calibron.

The differences between sons from his two marriages were marked. Attitudes toward education were a big factor. The older Edison sons were brought up when a need for college was not so clear, and Edison’s own aversions to education added to the problem. He never supported Tom Jr.’s education. By contrast, younger sons Charles and Theodore were brought up when education was deemed critical and their mother saw to it that they got the schooling they needed to go into business or technical fields. Mina seems to have made a critical difference.

Family Activities
We have seen that the transfer of invention to succeeding generations is never simple. It involves many internal and external contingencies. Because the commercial stakes of invention can be high, the dynamics of intergenerational transfer are often difficult and conflicted. The clash of inventive egos can also add to the problem.

Yet our examples also show that the family is an important incubator of the inventive spirit. This is especially true in creative family environments where the arts and sciences are also represented. And it fully supports our efforts at the Lemelson Center to create and present family invention programs and presentations that show relationships among invention, art, and science and enable young people to work and learn together in partnership with their parents or guardians.

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