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Creating something from scratch involves so much more work than tweaking something that already exists. When we change out our Spark!Lab activities (3 times a year), each new set includes 6–8 activities. After three years of changes, we have had some highly successful activities and some big failures. There are also activities that fall in between—and those are great candidates for tweaking. The in-between activities possess something special: lessons learned and potential.  p

I have recently begun working on activities for our upcoming “Adapt” activity set, due to go live in December 2018. For this set, I plan to revive two previous activities—the adaptive vehicle activity and one we refer to as the prosthetic hand activity. The adaptive vehicle underwent some major tweaks before its last time on the floor. Now it is time to improve on the prosthetic hand. 


Connecting multiple fingers in version 1 of the prosthetic hand. © 2018 Smithsonian Institution; photo by Tim Pula

During its first iteration, the prosthetic hand had some success but was a little too buggy and complex for visitors to use. During its run, we tweaked building materials and mechanical and electrical components, and added a testing zone. In recent weeks I have been reflecting on the outcomes of these changes. I have also been interviewing staff and volunteers, who were here during the first iteration, about their experiences. Through this process, I have developed a plan to make this activity more accessible to visitors across the board. 

Among the biggest challenges we had were that the electrical connectors lacked durability and ease of use. The custom finger joints worked pretty well but had weak points. These weak points were due to peg holes designed into the parts so that they could interface with the LEGO Mindstorms expansion set. Each joint was connected via LEGO parts. After interviewing our staff and volunteers, I learned that visitors rarely used these holes. I also learned that visitors did not intuitively realize that these holes fit with LEGO parts. 


Prosthetic finger design with LEGO interface. © 2018 Smithsonian Institution; photo by Tim Pula

Given that the weak points could be removed, I decided to redesign the joints and appendages to make them smaller and more human-size. The parts in Version 1 created a finger that was nearly 7 inches in length. The new design would keep fingers under 4 ½ inches. This should create a more elegant, useful, and human-like outcome. 


Fingers version 1 and version 2. © 2018 Smithsonian Institution; photo by Tim Pula

Another challenge with the Version 1 parts was that including a way to build on them, though rarely used, added more complexity to an already complex activity. The new fingers will not have the LEGO attachments on the joints and along their length, removing that complexity and making the activity at least a step more accessible. 

Given the new design, without the holes, I am also able to experiment with the materials of production. Version 1 was created with 3D-printed, dual finger joints. The there was a hard component printed with PLA or ABS, and a soft component printed with flexible TPE (thermoplastic elastomer). This technique produced a single finger joint unit that was stiff in some areas and flexible in others. Our finger joints had no rotating hinges. The TPE worked like the cartilage between the joints in some areas and as flexible finger extenders in other areas. Using this design as a base, we are now poised to print the whole finger with two different flexible materials. I also now have the option to print solid parts on the inside to mimic bone, and flexible parts on the outside or where they are most needed. With what I have learned since we last had the prosthetic hand out on the Spark!Lab floor, I could even 3D print or carve molds that could be used to cast a better solution. These are only a few of the options available. 

Besides the mechanical redesign we also hope to solve some electrical issues. One of the most frustrating parts of this activity were the delicate electrical connectors. While creating Version 1 of the activity, I had set my mind on not having a large “control box” to handle the input and output functions. The control box had 5 output ports, 2 input ports, a microcontroller, programming port, and power connector. All of this, thanks to the tiny size of an Arduino Mini Pro, fit into a box that was 3”X 2” X 1 ¼”. Though I am not likely to make the controller any smaller, Version 2 of the prosthetic hand is primed for a possible electrical connector change what could eliminate those pesky delicate connectors. 


Prosthetic hand control box. © 2018 Smithsonian Institution; photo by Tim Pula

For years I have been on the hunt for small/micro-sized magnetic electrical connectors. Apple had this type of connector years ago on their laptops but nothing like it was available for general electronics use. For a season I tried to create them myself. Within the past year a product has hit the market that may solve that problem altogether. This product is a magnetic cell phone charger and data transfer cable. It consists of a small “dongle” and a USB cable. The dongle plugs into the port on your cell phone. Both the cable and dongle appear to have magnets on them. When connected, these magnets pull tiny electrical contact points in the end of the cable and the dongle together. The design seems robust, and since they are for cell phones, they come in a variety of colors. I have been taking apart a few of these connectors and cables with hopes to use them on the Version 2 of the prosthetic hand. 


Magnetic cell phone charge/data connector. © 2018 Smithsonian Institution; photo by Tim Pula

We learned a lot from the first prosthetic hand activity. It was an ambitious undertaking and proved to have quite a few less-than-ideal outcomes. Looking back on our first iteration is informing us on what we need to change for version 2. It is my hope that in its newest iteration the prosthetic hand will poove to be more intuitive, more durable, and more inspiring to the visitors that engage with it. 

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Over a year ago, Spark!Lab staff analyzed evaluation data we had taken since reopening the exhibition in 2015. During the course of this overview, we worked to make sense of a lot of information so we could identify broad trends in activity formulation and visitor behavior in our exhibit. As it turned out, from our data we found that we tend to create invention challenges that resemble three main categories: mechanical, technical, and design-based. Each one of these engages very different literacies in our visitor base.


Strictly pedagogically speaking, the term has in the past been tied to reading comprehension and writing skills. Students were considered “literate” if they understood high-level vocabulary words or if they constructed sentences fluently. However, 21st century interpretations tend to apply the word “literacy” more liberally. The focus has broadened to include students’ ability to comprehend not only written communication but all kinds of specific content areas—and, in turn, children are expressing their multiple literacies in ways that are more varied, interesting, and well-supported than ever before.

In the context of Spark!Lab’s learning activities, literacy looks a little different from the traditional definition. Children make sense of content and materials to solve problems we pose in the form of invention prompts. Play, experimentation, excitement, failure, triumph, and other forms of affective behavior abound. Given the nature of this experience, a child’s time in Spark!Lab tends to resemble informal play rather than rote memorization or quiet reading. As a result, when the inventor demonstrates comprehension and internalization of larger principles, this tends to resemble control over knowledge or skills in an actionable way. The process of making shows how much the inventor knows—what the inventor is thinking.

We’ve observed three ways in which the invention process tends to play out.


Many of our activities require assembly. No, seriously. The action being done when visitors come to many of our tables consists of taking seemingly random materials and putting them together. When you watch a child begin this undertaking, you’re really seeing multiple complex processes happening simultaneously. Even just looking at where their eyes go, you can watch them identify needs; identify possible uses, strategies, and combinations; identify workarounds; identify strong points as well as places for improvement; and identify an acceptable stopping point for their work. Mentally and physically, meanwhile, they are exploring, focusing, envisioning, tinkering, experimenting, reimagining, readjusting, and repeating. To assemble a mechanical thingamabob that carries out the function they desire, they have to demonstrate multiple competencies simultaneously, interchangeably, and repeatedly—all in rapid succession.


These kids had to think through several steps to come up with these composite inventions, but now they get to try out their wheeled sail vehicles. © Smithsonian Institution

That’s a lot to ask for a 6-to-12-year-old! It comes as no surprise that these inherently and intricately interrelated processes can be overwhelming at times. Volunteers wearing yellow aprons on the floor in Spark!Lab, our engineer at his workstation, and staff members brainstorming and creating materials and signage in our back offices all collaborate and cooperate to craft these self-contained activities (miniature learning environments unto themselves) so that the whole experience of inventing is cut up into digestible, well-paced steps. The human brain, especially that of a child, can only handle so much abstract thinking at once. In assembly-based activities, we tend to emphasize primarily the tinkering, combining, and creating aspects of inventing. Then, we introduce sharing, explaining, and selling as ways to continue to extend the experience later.


“This is a STEM lab, right?” Visitors who arrive assuming that invention is all about electricity, engineering, and computer coding are only partially correct. There are, of course, many other ways to demonstrate inventiveness! That said, we do always try to offer at least one activity on the floor of Spark!Lab that tests our more proficient audiences with a more technical challenge.


This mess of wires was a fun challenge for inventors to disentangle, interpret, decode, and utilize in creating a video game controller. © Smithsonian Institution

Hard skills and knowledge, typically learned in traditional schooling settings, sometimes come into play with the inventing kids do here. Kids reference familiar as well as new concepts as they connect electrical wires and plug them into power sources; test buttons, switches, and levers; and decipher technologies such as lasers, sonar, and DJ turntables. 

Often times, the invention prompt we provide relies on the inventors’ figuring out how devices work or harnessing the powers of these newly learned concepts. We hope that this approach encourages visitors to become comfortable with uncertainty when they receive a challenge and to figure it out gradually as time goes on. For example, certain activities from the past, such as “Design a Video Game Controller” or "Create a Prosthetic Hand,” have emphasized exploration, experimentation, repetitive action, and observing results in the lead-up to the stage at which they actually assemble their creation. These analytical processes equip them with the knowledge and confidence to move forward with their own ideas and interpretations.

The more technical activities are ripe with opportunity for older caregivers. Not only do they allow for younger visitors to test their competencies against an appropriate challenge; these moments also prove to be great teachable moments—chances for adults to demonstrate concepts they know and build upon what the kids have or have not previously learned.


At any given time, there also tends to be at least one activity in our exhibition that promotes designing. To this end, we have had kids develop their own wearable buttons with pictorial and textual messages; create the decorations on the exterior of a lunchbox; arrange the elements of a tactile map; and place bits of art on a special surface that plays sound when touched.


The Sketch It Station is set up as a game. Pick a prompt! Think about it! Draw a solution as it forms in your mind! © Smithsonian Institution

Fortuitously, design skillsets and ways of thinking closely resemble the steps of our invention process. One way to facilitate activities of this nature is to emphasize for young inventors the element of explaining one’s thought processes and decisions in coming up with the design. Kids practice their literacy in the skills of explaining, sharing, making connections, demonstrating, persuading, projecting their voices, and making good use of technology. (This dovetails effectively with our Sell It Station, a video-recording activity area where kids can promote their idea via a 90-second clip, and the Sketch It Station, where they play a game to draw their invention and label all its component parts.) Practice of these key, transferable skills—which will definitely be of use to kids in the real world one day—makes perfect.

Have you seen kids develop literacy in other ways as they explore their own inventiveness? Sound off, America! Tell us a story of comprehension and expression.

Draper Spark!Lab is located on the first floor, west wing, of the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. It is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day except Tuesdays and December 25. For more information, visit https://invention.si.edu/about-sparklab.

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By 2021-2022, our current exhibition, Places of Invention, will complete its run in the Lemelson Hall of Invention, and we have already started working on our next exhibition. Tentatively titled Sporting Invention, it will explore how inventions and new technologies shape how various constituents—incuding elite athletes, weekend warriors, and fans—engage in sport. The exhibition will challenge visitors to think about some interesting and provocative questions. For example, who invents new sports technologies and how do those innovations come to market? Do new inventions, like high-tech swimsuits, push the boundaries of human performance or undermine the competitive traditions of a given sport? How do technologies, like prosthetic legs or oversized tennis rackets, allow more people to participate in sports? How do innovations, like advanced baseball statistics or instant replay, enhance fans' enjoyment of sports?

Designing a new exhibition always presents a challenge: in a limited space, how do you decide which themes, stories, objects, and media elements should be included? It can be tempting to assume the authority of the expert curator, and say, essentially “Here’s what visitors need to know.” But that approach can come across as didactic; it does not respect the knowledge, experiences, and preferences our visitors bring with them into the museum. So it’s crucially important for any designer—of an exhibition, a consumer product, or a digital app—to step outside themselves and adopt a human-centered approach. To that end, the Lemelson Center is adopting the IPOP framework to help visitors guide our early thinking about Sporting Invention.

What is IPOP?

The team brainstormed several ideas for the kinds of people—including athletes, inventors, umpires, fans, and cheaters—we might want to include in the exhibition, 11 July 2018. © 2018 Smithsonian Institution; photo by Eric S. Hintz

IPOP is an acronym and model of experience preference developed by Andy Pekarik and his colleagues at the office for Smithsonian Organization and Audience Research (SOAR). By drawing on a database of more than 15,000 visitor surveys, interviews, and observations, Pekarik has determined that the preferences of Smithsonian visitors can be distilled into four major categories. In varying degrees, visitors are attracted to content featuring

  • I: Ideas, e.g., concepts, definitions, facts, abstractions
  • P: People, i.e., biographies, memoirs, social interactions, affective/emotional stories
  • O: Objects, i.e., artifacts, aesthetics, craftsmanship, visual language
  • P: Physical experiences, i.e., sensations that involve movement, touch, sound, smell 

But IPOP is not just an observation about visitor preferences; it is also a blueprint for effective exhibition design. To create an engaging exhibition with broad appeal, the IPOP framework suggests that exhibition developers incorporate the four IPOP elements—ideas, people, objects, and physical experiences—in near equilibrium. 

Applying IPOP to Sporting Invention

With these ideas in mind, the Sporting Invention team has been applying the IPOP framework to begin fleshing out what the exhibition might look like. Our challenge was to develop a deck of 48 cards—showing 12 ideas, 12 people, 12 objects, and 12 physical experiences—that might be included in Sporting Invention. While we still have big crowds during the summer busy season, we’ll ask visitors to sort the cards and tell us which ones they find appealing or relevant.


In 1965, University of Florida physician Dr. James Robert Cade developed “Gatorade,” the first sports drink scientifically formulated to meet the specific nutritional needs of athletes. Courtesy of the Cade Museum and Entertainment Designer

How did we come up with the 48 flash cards?  First, our exhibition team brainstormed and filled our conference room whiteboard with a super-set of 20-25 potential exhibition elements in each of the four IPOP categories. 

Then our intrepid colleague, Meg Maher, tracked down representative images for these concepts that would translate easily to a flash card. For example, in the People category, Meg found an image of Dr. James Robert Cade, a University of Florida physician who invented the familiar Gatorade sports drink to help athletes recover from dehydration. And in the Object category, Meg found an image of Arthur Ashe’s aluminum and fiberglass tennis racket; invented by Howard Head, the new racket was lighter and had a larger "sweet spot" than traditional wooden rackets.

Meg papered the Lemelson Center conference room with nearly 100 images. Each team member was asked to put a check mark next to his or her top 12 images in each of the four IPOP categories. After engaging in some spirited discussions, we reached consensus on the final set of 48 Sporting Invention flash cards to show visitors.

Here’s a sampling of our selections in each of the IPOP categories:

  • I: Ideas: Invention and technology make sports safer; Inventions and technologies that remove human error in officiating are good for sports
  • P: People: Frank Jobe, pioneer of “Tommy John” reconstructive elbow surgery; Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s NASCAR pit crew
  • O: Objects: Breezer 1, the first mountain bike; the Spalding-Evenflo microfiber synthetic basketball (rejected by NBA players after 3 months in 2006)
  • P: Physical experiences: allow visitors to touch different varieties of artificial turf; “You Make the Call” to test human eyes against the Hawk-Eye video officiating system


Arthur Ashe used this Head tennis racket to win at Wimbledon in 1975. Catalog No. 1991.0178.01, Division of Culture and the Arts, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian photo 95-5507-8

Beginning the week of Aug 20, the team will take a few sets of these flash cards onto the museum floor to engage visitors directly (“Hi! Would you like to help us develop our next exhibition?”). We’ll briefly describe Sporting Invention, show visitors the 48 IPOP flash cards, and ask them to sort the cards into two piles—their likes and dislikes. We'll then ask visitors to select the one card they believe is most important or relevant. After talking to a few dozen visitors, we should have a pretty good sense of which ideas, people, objects, and physical experiences will resonate in our future exhibit. If you’ll be in the museum during the next few weeks, please stop by and see us in front of the Lemelson Hall of Invention in 1West. Or leave us a comment below: considering IPOP, what kinds of ideas, people, objects, and physical experiences would you like to see in Sporting Invention?

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Years ago while conducting research for the Lemelson Center’s Invention at Play exhibition, I was surprised to learn that Lincoln Logs—one of my favorite childhood toys—were designed by John Lloyd Wright, son of world-famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Overshadowed by his father, John has received little attention beyond a brief 1982 biography now available online. And he certainly seemed reticent about telling his own story, instead publicly sharing only a few experiences as part of his short, impressionistic 1946 book about Frank titled My Father Who Is On Earth.


Left: John Lloyd Wright in Spring Green, Wisconsin, 1921, ICHi-173783. Right: Frank Lloyd Wright with son John Lloyd Wright, undated., i73784. Courtesy of Chicago History Museum

Turns out that John was both a successful toy designer and an architect in, dare I say it, his own right. Here is a brief overview of his story, including the origins of those ever-popular Lincoln Logs.

Born in 1892, John Kenneth (later changed to Lloyd) Wright was the second of Frank and Catherine Wright’s six children. John’s early years in Oak Park, Illinois, seemed happy; he reminisced about the fun times spent in the playroom of his childhood house—designed by his father, of course—and the lively parties hosted by his parents. When scandal erupted in 1909 because Frank deserted his family for a client’s wife, John struggled for a bit. He worked briefly on his great uncle’s farm and attended the University of Wisconsin for two years, but quit school to head West.

After doing odd jobs from Portland to San Diego, John decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and become an architect. He talked his way into being hired as a draftsman for the Pacific Building Company, and then earned a job as a designer for architect Harrison Albright. With a few commissions under his proverbial belt, John planned to continue his architectural education with Otto Wagner in Austria. However, when he asked his father for financial help to travel to Vienna, Frank telegraphed him: “I’d like to know what Otto Wagner can do for you that your father can’t do!” [My Father Who Is On Earth, page 67.]

With that indirect invitation, John returned to Chicago in 1913 to become his father’s apprentice and office manager. Four years later, John sailed with Frank to Japan to start work on a major commission, the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, where he served in the role of chief assistant developing working drawings and a plaster model. After 16 months in Japan, John argued with his father over his unpaid salary and was fired unceremoniously. So John returned on his own dime to Chicago, where he tried to make a living designing and selling wooden toys primarily to the local department store chain Marshall Field.

This is where Lincoln Logs come into the picture.


Lincoln Logs product box cover with slogan, “Interesting Play Things Typifying ‘The Spirit of America.’” Courtesy of Global Toy News

The famous construction toy was inspired by his father’s earthquake-resistant design for the Imperial Hotel. John apparently began tinkering with the toy idea while still in Japan. In 1920, he received US Patent 1,351,086 for his “Toy Cabin Construction.” In the patent specifications he wrote: “This invention relates to improvements in toys and more particularly to educational toys calculated to develop a child’s constructive inclinations.” Lesser known are John’s building blocks for which he received US Patent 1,894,605 in 1933. There were two sets of the latter, which were sold in boxes reading “John Lloyd Wright—inventor of Lincoln Logs—presents Wright Blocks” on the lid. However, they never caught on commercially like his previous construction toy.

According to the 1982 biography, “although he later sold the patent for Lincoln Logs [to Playskool around 1943], the product marketed today is substantially the same as his original design.” The original packaging included a log cabin drawing with an image of Abraham Lincoln and the slogan “Interesting playthings typifying the spirit of America.” It’s important to point out that Lincoln Logs weren’t the first log-based construction toy. Similar products dated back to the 19th century, including an 1865 “Log Cabin Play House” in the Museum’s collection that was made by Ellis, Britton, and Eaton in Vermont.


Wright Blocks, Number Two Set, around 1950.  Courtesy of Spencer Hopkins, Shutter Pop Photo

John returned to practicing architecture in the early 1920s, and eventually moved back to California partially to escape his father’s shadow. I found it interesting that John designed a number of buildings in my home town of San Diego, primarily after moving to Del Mar in 1947 with his third wife Frances. He died there on 20 December 1972 at the age of 80, and was buried alongside his five siblings in the Unity Chapel Cemetery near his father’s Taliesin home and school in Spring Green, Wisconsin.

Unfortunately, John Lloyd Wright didn’t live to see his Lincoln Logs inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 1999 alongside such classics as the Duncan Yo-Yo, Hula Hoop, Radio Flyer wagon, roller skates, and View-Master. 


At a “Discovery Day” in Laos, students adapted Lincoln Logs to build structures like this house on stilts—a common home design in Southeast Asia. Courtesy of Blue Plover, Wikimedia Commons, 2013.

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Everyone enjoyed the ribbon cutting that officially opened Spark!Lab at the Holland Museum. Courtesy of the Holland Museum

Walking into the Holland Museum, you’re surrounded by inventions. Some highlight the history of the area, with industries like furniture manufacturing and boat building flourishing in an area historically known for timber. Other inventions on display bring to light the creativity of the past—a treadmill for a dog, connected to a butter churn, is a favorite. 


Spark!Lab Holland features inventions from their collections, connecting inventors of the past with inventors of the future. Courtesy of the Holland Museum

As you talk with Holland’s residents, the region’s connection with invention becomes clearer. Stories of inventions of the past intermingle with those of the present, like an underground snowmelt system that keeps the downtown streets walkable in the winter. Some people venture into speculations about future inventions important to the community, looking at ways to protect the waterways enjoyed by so many residents and visitors.


Young inventors and their families enjoy creating and testing their inventions at the Spark!Lab Holland opening event. © 2018 Smithsonian Institution; photo by Nyssa Buning

That thread of invention, running from the past to the present and into the future, is what makes Spark!Lab’s presence in Holland so special. Opened at the Holland Museum on August 3, 2018, this tenth Spark!Lab National Network site focuses on invention’s place in the community throughout history. After welcoming remarks and a ribbon cutting, young inventors rushed into Spark!Lab. They transformed the room with their energy and creativity, diving into bins of materials fearlessly, trying and tweaking their creations. Orange feathers became fins attached to the paper cup body of a rocket tested in the Vertical Wind Tunnel. Two friends worked together to build a racecar out of PVC pipe, while a younger sibling and her mom read a book together in the reading corner, pointing out gears and gadgets to each other in the colorful illustrations. 


During training, interns and volunteers work to invent a way for a device to roll along a wire. © 2018 Smithsonian Institution; photo by Nyssa Buning

Staff, interns, and volunteers are there to help in Spark!Lab, but most visitors get started on their own. The inventor of the rocket with orange feather fins tested her invention in the wind tunnel, and caught it when it flew out the top. “How would you change your invention?” asked one of the Holland Museum’s interns. The rocket inventor looked at her, considered for a moment, and, without replying, got furiously back to work, adding pompoms with great deliberation. 

“Spark!Lab helps us really show what you can do as an inventor by showing what has been done right in our community beforehand,” says Ricki Levine, Executive Director of the Holland Museum. And with such a history of invention in Holland, the future looks bright. 

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Cover of Popular Neckanics Gagazine, December 1947. George H. Clark Collection (AC0055-0000122-01)

Hugo Gernsback (1886-1967), the “Father of Science Fiction,” was an editor, publisher, author, scientist, and inventor, best known for his books Ralph 124C 41+ (1911) and Ultimate World (1958), and the magazines Modern Science (1908) and Amazing Stories (1927), the first science fiction pulp magazine. Through these publications, he disseminated his thoughts on new scientific ideas and innovations. In total, Gernsback edited and published over 50 publications and founded the radio station WRNY in 1925. A self-proclaimed science prophet, he also predicted scientific developments—including radar and television. Among his more than thirty patents are a a combined electric hair brush and comb (US Patent 1,016,138), 1912; an ear cushion (US Patent 1,514,152), 1927; and a hydraulic fishery (US Patent 2,718,083), 1955. These and many more of Gernsback’s inventions would feel right home on the pages of his farcical publication Popular Neckanics Gagazine (1947), dedicated to “love and solving its great mystery.” 

In Popular Neckanics Gagazine, he wrote, “it was a sad state of affairs that the great mechanical and electronic engineering minds have been so remiss in tracing down love and solving its riddle.” Chastising scientists, he said, “instead they chase of all things, the atom and dissect and split that, when Love radiation is a far greater devastator than a million Atom bombs.” Gernsback lamented that he had become disgusted with science, even though he, too, was a scientist. 

On the lighter side, however, Popular Neckanics Gagazine, which was “requestered in the U.N. Potent Office and Canards” and cited Houg Sengbrack as the “exitor and rublisher,” highlighted how much Gernsback enjoyed a good play on words. The issue is filled with inventions and gadgets from robot-steered cars to squirrel sharpeners and is written “so you can’t understand it.” The Plaslastic Expanso Bag, TinCan-Can, Lamplifier, and Stovepipe Hair Dryer illustrate the ridiculous and yet practical. Who doesn’t need a bag that can carry groceries and a child? And reusing tin cans is a “green” approach. Gernsback was thinking about recycling long before it became popular. And the Lamplifier meets so many needs it just amplifies functional.


Lamplifier, Popular Neckanics Gagazine, December 1947. George H. Clark Collection (AC0055-0000122-05)


Plaslastic Expanso Bag, Popular Neckanics Gagazine, December 1947. George H. Clark Collection (AC0055-0000122-02)


Stovepipe Hairdryer, Popular Neckanics Gagazine, December 1947. George H. Clark Collection (AC0055-0000122-04)


TinCan-Can, Popular Neckanics Gagazine, December 1947. George H. Clark Collection (AC0055-0000122-03)

Other “tongue in cheek” efforts included Jolliers, the Notional Weakly (1948) dedicated to good old-fashioned merriness, and Radiocracy (1943), featuring a “topsy-turvy” post-war radio-electronics world," both of which he distributed around Christmas and New Year. 

The Hugo Gernsback Papers, 1908-1965 are located at Syracuse University Special Collections Research Center and University Archives, but several Gernsback gems are buried deep within the George H. Clark Collection. Clark (1881–1959), a railroad telegraph operator and electrical engineer, specialized in radio work. He was also a great collector of all things radio. Not surprisingly, Clark’s collection contains cartoons, poetry, jokes, and humorous stories about the radio, including three of Gernsback’s parody magazines.


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One of the teachers shows off his team’s innovation, adding a built-in pencil sharpener and other details to a combination water bottle and pencil holder developed by another group. © Smithsonian Institution; photo by Monica Smith

There’s nothing like seeing people’s eyes light up when they are experiencing inventive problem solving as members of a team. In this case, I enjoyed spending Saturday, June 2, 2018, watching teachers’ creative efforts during two “Grab Bag Inventing” workshops—part of a special DC STEM Fair Teacher Seminar at the University of the District of Columbia hosted by the TGR Foundation and DC STEM Network. The Lemelson Center’s main educational message is “everyone is inventive” and, once again, the 25 teachers in these workshops proved it.

Grab Bag Inventing is an open-ended, playful, problem-solving activity using common materials. Anyone can engage in it and flex their inventive muscles. I (as well as other Lemelson Center staff) have led this activity countless times with a wide range of audiences, from elementary and middle school teachers and kids in both urban and rural areas to parents, museum educators, historians, and other groups. The activity’s power lies in its simplicity. No special skills are needed; there are no right answers; there are unlimited outcomes; and it can be done almost anywhere with almost any materials.


This started out as a windmill and became a wind-up toy. © Smithsonian Institution; photo by Monica Smith

Here is the hands-on activity as I posed it to this DC STEM Fair group of teachers from primarily public and charter schools in the Washington, DC metro area...

After a brief introduction about the Lemelson Center, Spark!Lab, and our invention education approach, I launched into activity instructions.

  • First, I divided the teachers into teams of three to four people (depending on number of participants per session and where they were sitting).
  • Then I posed this question: What is a common problem that you’d like to solve? I told them that, once they agreed as a group on a problem, they should use the provided bag of materials to create a prototype of an invention to solve it.
  • I gave each team a brown paper lunch bag filled with an assortment of cups, straws, wooden stirring sticks, coffee filters, paper doilies, rubber bands, paper clips, clothespins, cotton balls, pipe cleaners, and pieces of cardboard. (You can really use any items that are easily found around your house, garage, office, or classroom—the key is to provide a variety of materials.)
  • I also provided some masking tape and scissors, and they were good to go.

The teams worked on their invention prototypes for about 20 minutes, and then gave presentations to the rest of the group about the problem they were trying to solve, the team’s inventive process, and how the resulting prototype was meant to work. There were a total of eight teams in the two workshops and, according to five of them, students' lost pencils is a widespread issue that needed an inventive solution. Who knew that students forgetting or misplacing their pencils was such a common school problem?! Well, maybe if you’re a teacher you did, but I was certainly surprised.


One of the teachers demonstrates a personalized neck lanyard with retractable pencil and eraser attachment so students will always have these basic tools at the ready. © Smithsonian Institution; photo by Monica Smith

Once I had congratulated them on their inventions, the teachers were delighted to hear about an unexpected next step: each team must pass their creation to a neighboring team. Now teams had about 15 minutes to “innovate” upon the invention they received, either by improving upon it directly or using those materials to create something new. I should point out that several teams did indeed continue to tinker with the pencil-related prototypes; clearly there is a big need out there. It was during this phase two that I could really see those proverbial lightbulbs flashing in their heads.

After the teams had presented their innovations, we discussed the activity. Everyone agreed that the two-part process was an especially fun, easy, and easily replicable way to get their own and their students’ inventive juices flowing. They were bubbling with ideas about how to incorporate this activity into their classrooms and after-school workshops. Several STEAM (A is for Art) teachers talked about doing this activity with recyclable materials and maybe spreading it over two days, first focusing on the initial invention activity in the classroom and then having kids bring in their own materials for the innovation part. A literacy teacher thought she could adapt it for her students by having them write stories in a similar two-step fashion, innovating upon what others wrote. The general consensus seemed to be that kids with different learning styles  and interests would enjoy this activity and also build confidence about their own inventive skills.

Happy inventing!


This team innovated upon another group’s invention by adding a water piping and recycling system to a village water pump and collection system that works using wind power. © Smithsonian Institution; photo by Monica Smith

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On Tuesday, June 19, 2018, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) will issue its 10 millionth utility patent (9,957 unnumbered patents were issued before starting a numbering system on July 13, 1836, so the occasion will mark the issuance of US Patent 10,000,000). One imagines that this milestone of human ingenuity exceeds even the founding fathers’ expectations when they called for a patent system in the Constitution “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.” The identity of the inventor and the nature of the 10 millionth patent are closely held secrets, but we do know that the USPTO will mark the occasion with a special White House ceremony. 

On the following day, Wednesday, June 20, 2018, from 1:00 to 2:30 p.m., the Lemelson Center will co-host its own public program to celebrate this milestone. “Two Centuries of American Innovation and 10 Million Patents” is co-sponsored by the USPTO and the Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property (CPIP) at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School. The panelists will discuss the patent system’s changing role in the American economy; describe the increasing participation of women, minorities, and foreign patentees in the patent system; and predict how the nature of invention and patenting might evolve in the future. The program takes place in the museum’s Coulter Performance Plaza, First Floor West; it is free and open to the public.

The Panelists:

  • Susie Armstrong, Senior Vice President of Engineering, Qualcomm, and inventor of methods that permit your cell phone to connect to the Internet
  • James West, Professor, Whiting School of Engineering, Johns Hopkins University, and inventor of the foil electret microphone (while previously at Bell Labs)
  • Drew Hirshfeld, Commissioner for Patents, USPTO
  • Adam Mossoff, Professor, Antonin Scalia Law School, George Mason University
  • Moderator: Arthur Daemmrich, Director, Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, Smithsonian Institution 

To accompany the event, we thought it would be fun to consider the history of patent models, describe the Smithsonian’s collection of 10,000 models, and highlight ten of the most extraordinary patent models and prototypes currently on display at the National Museum of American History.

South Hall, Museum of Models, Patent Office. The Patent Office encouraged ordinary citizens to examine its museum of patent models as a source of national pride and inventive inspiration. Illustration from Joseph West Moore, Picturesque Washington: Pen and Pencil Sketches, 1887, SI-2008-4988. © 2008 Smithsonian Institution; photo by John Dillaber


Congress passed the Patent Act of 1790 to help stimulate the development of new technologies. Between 1790 and 1880, the US Patent Office required inventors to submit both a written specification and a three-dimensional physical model with their patent applications. The model could be a miniature representation of a large invention (e.g., a printing press or plow), or a full-scale example of the manufactured product (e.g., a sewing machine or firearm). To save space, the Patent Office preferred the miniature models and asked that models not exceed one foot long in any dimension. The models did not have to actually work, but often they did.

The models of patented inventions were displayed publicly in four halls of the Patent Office in Washington, DC. Patent examiners referred to the models as a record of previous inventions, while aspiring inventors used the displays as a source of inspiration. And, as the image above illustrates, the Patent Office Museum of Models was a popular tourist attraction in Victorian-era Washington, DC. In his 1888 guidebook, Picturesque Washington, Joseph West Moore wrote:

The Museum of Models is contained in four lofty, magnificent halls, extending throughout the second story of the department building [the Patent Office]. Here are to be seen 300,000 models of patented articles, arranged in classes and subdivisions, and filling hundreds of spacious cases, all properly labeled and indexed. By means of these models one can trace the progress of every line of industry, from crude designs to the perfected machine, wonderful in construction and almost human in action. Here is the result of the profound study of countless men diligently working in all the industrial fields through many years, and it is a marvelous exhibition of human capability, and can be inspected for hours, even days, with plentiful profit and enjoyment.

The Patent Office suffered devastating fires in 1836 and 1877 and many models and patent records were lost. In 1880, the Patent Office rescinded the model requirement for new applications, citing the fire hazard and concerns of limited space. The model room remained open for another decade, but public interest eventually waned and the models were crated up and stored offsite.


In June 1908 (110 years ago this month), the Smithsonian sent its horse-drawn wagon over to the Patent Office Building (now the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery) to make its first accession of 284 patent models. By the end of the summer, the Smithsonian had acquired approximately 1,000 models. In 1926, Congress passed a bill to dispose of the Patent Office’s remaining models, giving the Smithsonian first choice. Smithsonian Secretary Charles Doolittle Walcott appointed two curators, Frederick Lewton and Carl Mitman, to make the selections. The Smithsonian ultimately retained about 10,000 patent models, and the federal government sold the rest at auction.

The National Museum of American History (NMAH) still cares for those 10,000 patent models. Exhibitions change frequently, but an informal walking tour of the museum suggests that there are approximately fifty patent models currently on display in June 2018. The models represent the leading edge of nineteenth-century technology; they also reflect the homogeneity of the white, male inventors of the period. Yet it is breathtaking to approach the models and realize that Thomas Edison or Isaac Singer had once held these objects in their hands.


Without further ado, here are ten of my favorite patent models and prototypes currently on display at NMAH:

Isaac M. Singer, “Sewing Machine,” US Patent 8,294 (1851). On display in American Enterprise (1 West). ID No. TE.T06054, JN2014-3603.jpg, Division of Home and Community Life, National Museum of American History. © 2014 Smithsonian Institution; photo by Jaclyn Nash

Singer’s patented sewing machine employed a straight needle, operating in a vertical, reciprocating motion to create a lock stitch. To avoid ruinous litigation, Singer joined with Elias Howe and other sewing machine inventors to form the Sewing Machine Combination, the first patent pool.

Thomas A. Edison, “Improvement in Printing Telegraphs,” US Patent 140,488 (1873). On display in American Enterprise (1 West). ID No. EM.252616, JN2014-3625.jpg, Division of Work and Industry, National Museum of American History. © 2014 Smithsonian Institution; photo by Jaclyn Nash

Thomas Edison made his early reputation as an inventor by designing an improved stock ticker for the Gold & Stock Telegraph Company. The modified telegraph receiver printed a company’s alphabetical stock symbol and current stock price on a paper roll called a ticker tape.

William N. Whiteley, “Improvement in Harvesters,” US Patent 197,192 (1877). On display in American Enterprise (1 West). ID No. AG.197192, JN2014-4149.jpg, Division of Work and Industry, National Museum of American History. © 2014 Smithsonian Institution; photo by Jaclyn Nash

Whiteley’s multifunction harvester reflected the mechanization of agriculture. It had a single large wheel and driver’s seat for steering the horses and manipulating the mower, reaper, and rake attachments. It was marketed under the brand name “Champion.”

Christian Sharps, “Sliding Breech-Pin and Self-Capping Gun,” US Patent 5,763 (1848). On display in Places of Invention (1 West), ID No. AF.251117, JN2014-3190.tif, Division of Armed Forces History, National Museum of American History. © 2014 Smithsonian Institution; photo by Jaclyn Nash

The patented breech-loading rifle invented by Hartford gun-maker Christian Sharps was used widely during the Civil War and helped popularize the term “Sharps-shooters.”

John I. Howe, “Machine for Making Pins,” US Patent 2,013 (1841). On display in Inventing in America (1 West Gateway). ID No. MC.308788, JN2015-5114.jpg, Division of Work and Industry, National Museum of American History. © 2015 Smithsonian Institution; photo by Jaclyn Nash

Howe’s machine automated the previously labor-intensive process of making pins used to hold and stitch clothing or to shred cotton fibers. Howe’s rotary process to draw metal, sharpen a point, and form a blunt head from a single strand of wire was a breakthrough that helped reduce clothing costs and contributed to an industrializing America.

Samuel F. B. Morse, “Improvement in the Mode of Communicating Information by Signals by the Application of Electro-Magnetism,” US Patent 1,647 (1840). On display in Inventing in America (1 West Gateway). ID No. EM.181250.01, N2015-5065.jpg, Division of Work and Industry, National Museum of American History. © 2015 Smithsonian Institution; photo by Jaclyn Nash

In 1837, Morse, a portrait painter, converted an artist’s canvas stretcher into a telegraph receiver that recorded a message as a wavy line on a strip of paper. His associated transmitter sent electric pulses representing letters and numbers that activated an electromagnet on the receiver. His telegraph and “Morse code” initiated near-instantaneous long-distance communications for an expanding nation.  

Abraham Lincoln, “Buoying Vessels Over Shoals,” US Patent 6,469 (1849). On display in On the Water (1 East). ID No. TR.336769, ET2013-15811.jpg, Division of Work and Industry, National Museum of American History. © 2013 Smithsonian Institution; photo by Hugh Talman

Mariners on America’s western rivers often ran aground in shallow water. Abraham Lincoln, an attorney from Springfield, Illinois, invented a system of inflatable rubber-cloth chambers to make boats more buoyant on demand. Although his "adjustable buoyant chambers" proved impractical, Lincoln retains the distinction of being the only US President to be issued a patent.

George J. Weber, “Improvement in Wheeled Scrapers,” US Patent 216,588 (1879). On display in America on the Move (1 East). ID No. MC.329174, 2003-19275.jpg, Division of Work and Industry, National Museum of American History. © 2003 Smithsonian Institution; photo by Richard Strauss

As the “good roads” movement gathered strength at the end of the 19th century, inventors developed a host of horse-drawn machines to drag, level, and scrape dirt to build and maintain the nation's roadways.

Eli Whitney, "Cotton Gin,” US Patent 72-X, (1794). On display in American Stories (2 East). Reproduction, ID No. TE.T08791.000, 2006-7440.jpg, Division of Home and Community Life, National Museum of American History. © 2006 Smithsonian Institution; photo by Harold Dorwin, 2006

Whitney’s cotton gin used rotating brushes and teeth to remove the seeds from cotton. His invention helped make cotton a more profitable cash crop and encouraged the intensification of southern slave labor. After an 1836 fire destroyed the Patent Office, officials re-created some of the records and models, including this 1845 reproduction.

George Selden, “Road-Engine,” US Patent 549,160 (1895). On display in American Stories (2 East). ID No. TR.252678, MAH-30399.jpg, Division of Work and Industry, National Museum of American History. © Smithsonian Institution.

Selden filed his patent application and submitted this model in 1879, then continuously amended the application. The long-pending patent eventually issued in 1895, placing all of the early automakers in jeopardy of infringement. Selden never manufactured his invention and instead extracted royalties from the industry; he is arguably the first “patent troll.”  Henry Ford challenged and overturned the patent in 1911.


We hope you will attend “Two Centuries of American Innovation and 10 Million Patents” on Wednesday, June 20, at 1:00 p.m. at NMAH. And like the Victorian-era visitors to the Patent Office’s Museum of Models, we hope you will stroll the halls of the museum to enjoy our remarkable collection of historic patent models.



Barbara Suit Janssen, ed. Patent Model Index: Guide to the Collections of the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, 2 vols. (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, 2010), 1: v-xv.

Joseph West Moore, Picturesque Washington: Pen and Pencil Sketches (Providence: J.A. and R.A. Reid, 1888), 212-224, quotation p. 216.

United States Patent and Trademark Office, “10 Million Patents,” June 2018, https://10millionpatents.uspto.gov/.

…and the individual NMAH object records for the ten patent models, June 2018, searchable at http://americanhistory.si.edu/collections

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