Why Give an Award on Ingenuity?

Our editor-in-chief introduces the inaugural Smithsonian American Ingenuity Awards

Illustration By Vanessa Dell

It is no exaggeration to say that America was founded on innovation. It’s right there in the Constitution, itself an invention, which empowers Congress to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

“Our country was built on a culture of revolution and innovation,” is the way Art Molella puts it, and he should know. Molella is the founding director of the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation.

Molella, a historian of science, has an interesting history himself. He is the son of a General Electric engineer who tinkered with his own inventions at home in, yes, his garage. “We still parked the car in there, so you can guess how cramped it was,” says Molella. “My father loved gadgets and worked on all kinds—wraparound windshields, perpetual motion machines.”

Molella came to the Smithsonian to study the journals of Joseph Henry, the first Secretary, regarded in his time as the most important American scientist since Benjamin Franklin. Henry, who had claims to inventing the telegraph and the electric motor, helped define America’s early technological and scientific community. “The lone inventor was the great figure of American ingenuity then,” says Molella, “until the greatest American inventor, Thomas Edison, invented the research lab.”

The great research labs—GE, Bell, Kodak, DuPont—dominated innovation in the 20th century. But in the 1990s Molella saw the paradigm shifting again with the rise of the digital world. That’s when he came up with his own invention. “I was meeting with the inventor Jerry Lemelson,” Molella recalls, “and he was very concerned that America was losing its edge. So I proposed a place to document, celebrate and promote invention.” Since then the Lemelson Center has held exhibitions on “Toying with Invention,” “Invention at Play” and Spark! Lab, a popular hands-on children’s workshop. “Lemelson was a serious inventor, with over 600 patents, but he always valued the role of play,” says Molella. “His first patented invention was a beanie with a propeller on top that you spun by blowing into a tube.”

With all this history at the Smithsonian, it seemed appropriate for us to invent something of our own—an issue devoted to American ingenuity. We polled the brain trust of the Smithsonian to identify the most innovative individuals working in America today. To make sure we were skating on the cutting edge, we asked for candidates who had achieved a breakthrough that was influential and recent—ideally within the past year.

We commissioned the groundbreaking architect Thom Mayne to create our award, a new Oscar for innovation. And we added the ingenious technology of augmented reality, so that each of our winners can come alive on your smartphone or tablet.

We hope you’ll enjoy this issue and maybe even be inspired to wander out to your garage. After all, that perpetual motion machine has yet to be invented.

Michael Caruso, Editor in Chief
[email protected]

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