Invention at Play

The Lemelson Center celebrates a decade of nurturing the inventor in each of us

By the summer of 1964, when the inventor of the sailboard, Newman Darby, launched his creation, he'd spent much of his life building boats and dreaming of making better ones. He was just 12 when he constructed his first. It sank, but he brought it ashore and turned it into a home for snakes. Two years later, he converted half a pup tent into a sail for a second boat and set off to explore the islands in the middle of the Susquehanna River, near where he grew up. Darby's early experiments with boats provided him with the knowledge of tools and materials that made his most successful inventions possible. Necessity may be the mother of some inventions, but it was boundless curiosity and persistence that fueled Darby's drive to invent, as it does for many innovators.

The Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation was established to study that process, and to document the stories of innovators and their exciting discoveries. Through its traveling exhibition "Invention at Play," the center encourages young people and their families to be creative, and teaches them about the history of invention; the show, which includes one of Darby's sailboards, has traveled to cities and small towns all across the country. "Invention at Play," like the Lemelson Center itself, which is part of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History (NMAH), makes the case that inventiveness and innovative thinking are not granted to a few inspired visionaries among us, but rather are qualities that are an inextricable part of being human. But they do need fostering, which is why the center reaches out to both adults and children, encouraging them to think of themselves as inventors.

This year, the Lemelson Center marks its tenth anniversary. Its mission is vital, for innovation is not only a recurring theme in American history but is also crucial to ensuring the sustained growth of the nation's economy. The center offers fellowships, conducts symposia and documentation projects, and disseminates cutting-edge scholarship through its book series with MIT Press. It has recognized the centenary of the Nobel Prize with an exhibition, a CD-ROM and an ambitious oral history project, and encouraged inventors to donate their papers, drawings and notebooks to libraries, archives and museums. Since 1995, the center's Innovative Lives program has brought inventors to the NMAH to speak to middle-school students and their teachers, and to be interviewed for posterity.

Jerome Lemelson was another inventor who found inspiration everywhere. As a boy, he helped his father, a physician, by designing an illuminated tongue depressor. In 1951, when he was in his late 20s, he attended a demonstration of a metal lathe controlled by a punch card, which prompted him to imagine the untapped possibilities of increased automation in factories and a not-too-distant future when robots would be capable of measuring, assembling and moving materials, as well as even inspecting the quality of the finished products. Lemelson, who died in 1997, holds 594 patents, including those for important parts of VCRs, ATMs and cordless phones, making him one of the five most prolific inventors in the country's history. His brilliant ideas underlie everything from camcorders to compact cassette players to fax machines. He invented talking systems that warn pilots of bad weather, more efficient ways to manufacture goods, and even toys, such as a beanie with a propeller, which rotates when its wearer blows air through a small straw. In 1995, a generous grant from the Lemelson Foundation established the Lemelson Center; subsequent gifts raised the foundation's support to $41.5 million, ensuring that the nation's most comprehensive program to promote innovation will continue its important work. In the next few years, as renovations at the NMAH are completed, the Lemelson Center will open its permanent exhibition space to visitors, young and old—inventors all.

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