“Places of Invention” Explores Invention Hotspots Throughout American History

Lemelson Hall of Invention and Innovation Opens at the Smithsonian July 1
June 18, 2015

“Places of Invention,” the latest exhibition from the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, opens at the National Museum of American History July 1. It examines six American invention hotspots across the country and throughout history, asking “Why here? Why now?”

The answer may be surprising. Starting with Silicon Valley and the rise of the personal computer in the 1970s and 1980s, perhaps the most quintessential hotspot, “Places of Invention” reveals that while there is no recipe, invention and innovation can thrive anywhere when the right mix of inventive people, untapped resources and inspiring surroundings come together.

Visitors to “Places of Invention” will discover the stories of people who lived, worked, played, collaborated, adapted, took risks, solved problems and sometimes failed—all in the pursuit of something new. In addition to Silicon Valley and the personal computer, the exhibition features the stories of

  • hip-hop’s birth in the Bronx, N.Y., in the 1970s;
  • cardiac innovations in Medical Alley, Minn., in the 1950s;
  • precision manufacturing in Hartford, Conn., in the late 1800s;
  • Technicolor in Hollywood, Calif., in the 1930s;
  • and clean-energy innovations in Fort Collins, Colo., happening today.

“Understanding America’s rich invention history is key to inspiring the next generation of inventors and innovators,” said Art Molella, director of the center. “After visiting and participating in ‘Places of Invention,’ we hope Americans will not only appreciate this history, but will also come to see themselves and their communities as inventive.”

A large interactive map—accessible in the gallery at the museum and online at http://invention.si.edu/map—will feature text, images and video highlighting innovative communities across the country and around the world. The map will grow exponentially over time as visitors, both on-site and online, contribute their own stories. Highlighted on the map are stories researched and documented by 12 Smithsonian Affiliate museums and their community partners, with Lemelson Center guidance.         

The exhibition features 37 objects illustrating the inventions at the heart of each case study. Highlighted objects include an the Technicolor camera used to film The Wizard of Oz, a turntable used by Grandmaster Flash, the prototype of the first computer mouse invented by Douglas Engelbart at the Stanford Research Institute (on loan from SRI International), 1886 Columbia Light Roadster men’s high-wheel bicycle, an example of the Medtronic 5800 Model External Pacemaker invented by Earl Bakken, and several prototypes representing cutting-edge clean energy inventions coming out of Fort Collins. In addition to the interactive map, “Places of Invention” includes five interactive stations where visitors can participate in fun, hands-on learning experiences. For example, in the Silicon Valley section, visitors can design their own eight-bit icon, while in the Bronx section, they can learn to and practice their DJ “scratching” skills.

Adjacent to “Places of Invention” in the Lemelson Hall of Invention and Innovation is a small gallery called “Inventive Minds,” which introduces visitors to the work of the Lemelson Center, particularly its efforts to document diverse American inventors. Brief video interviews, complemented by archival materials and artifacts, put the focus on inventors and their processes, telling their stories in their own words. The gallery also highlights the inventive creativity of Jerome Lemelson and the vision of Jerome and Dorothy in founding the Center in 1995.

"Places of Invention” is a signature part of the National Museum of American History’s 45,000-square-foot space centered on the theme of innovation, where the museum is transforming how its audiences will experience history. “Places of Invention” is the physical embodiment of 20 years of research by the Lemelson Center and is made possible by the National Science Foundation, Intel, the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory and the Lemelson Foundation. A companion book will be available through the Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press June 30.

About the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation

The Lemelson Center has led the study of invention and innovation at the Smithsonian since 1995. The center’s activities advance scholarship on the history of invention, share stories about inventors and their work and nurture creativity in young people. The Lemelson Hall of Invention and Innovation opens July 1 and will feature “Places of Invention,” Draper Spark!Lab and “Inventive Minds.” The center is supported by The Lemelson Foundation and located in the National Museum of American History. For more information, visit invention.si.edu.