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3 hot spots of innovation and an invitation to share YOUR place of invention

Having worked at the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation for seven years, I see invention and innovation all around me. Before, my ears might not have perked up when a local brewmaster mentions that they've patented part of their beer-making process and it would have never occurred to me that my favorite office supply didn't just emerge out of a vacuum—someone had to invent Post-its!

One reason why I see invention and innovation everywhere is that it IS everywhere. Innovation can happen almost anywhere if the right mix of inventive people, untapped resources, and inspiring surroundings come together. That's what we hope our new exhibition, Places of Invention, will help visitors to realize as well. The exhibition uses six case studies representing various time periods, industries, and places around the U.S. to demonstrate the breadth and diversity of invention.

Places of Invention sigh

Here is a sneak peek at the exhibition through three of my favorite objects:

Hartford, Connecticut, late 1800s: Factory town puts the pieces together in explosive new ways

You may be familiar with the story of Samuel Colt and his namesake revolver. You may be less familiar with what is arguably his greatest innovation—introducing mass production to the firearms industry. Prior to Colt, arms were produced by hand. If they broke down in the field, you needed a gunsmith on hand to repair. Mass production allowed for spare, interchangeable parts to be carried into battle, an important innovation.

Milling machine with cranks and gears and four feet, table sized

What I find interesting about this story is that it goes beyond the Colt Armory, even teaching this native Connecticutian a few things. After learning precision manufacturing at the Colt Armory, many Hartford mechanics would spin off and start their own companies, often in completely different industries. Whether producing arms, bicycles, sewing machines, or even automobiles, the skills and the machinery stayed the same. This Lincoln Milling Machine (1861) was manufactured by tool builder George S. Lincoln of Hartford's Phoenix Iron Works and was used in nearly every Hartford factory. Its high-speed rotary cutting blade shaved excess material from a metal workpiece.

Hollywood, California, 1930s: Young town gives birth to the movies' Golden Age

Somehow, I missed out on seeing The Wizard of Oz until I was in college. Even though I was well-accustomed to high-tech special effects and color films, I was still dazzled by Technicolor.

Initially the work of Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduates Herbert Kalmus and Daniel Comstock, along with W. Burton Wescott, Technicolor joined the rest of the burgeoning American film industry in leaving the east coast for the cheap land, varied scenery, mild climate, and reliable sunlight of Hollywood in the 1930s.

Technicolor camera with lens on front, wheels, blue casing

This Technicolor camera (1937) was used to film The Wizard of Oz and is based on the patent received by Joseph A. Ball and Gerald F. Rackett in 1937 for the three-strip process, which provided a full range of color. Previous versions only rendered shades of blue-green and red-orange. The three-strip process is what allowed Dorothy to leave behind the grays and browns of Kansas for the new world of rainbow hues in Oz.

Medical Alley, Minnesota, 1950s: Tight-knit community of tinkerers keeps hearts ticking

When you boil it down, invention is really about problem-solving. In 1957, Dr. C. Walton Lillehei, "the father of open-heart surgery," had a problem: How could he keep a patient's heartbeat steady and regular in the weeks immediately after surgery? Fortunately, engineer Earl Bakken was a fixture at the University of Minnesota hospital and qualified to help solve this problem in a few ways. First, he was a risk-taking electrical engineer and co-founder of a (then) small company called Medtronic, Inc. that often repaired hospital machines. Second, he didn't mind the sight of blood.

Inspired by a Popular Electronics article about a metronome circuit that used the newly-invented transistor, Earl got to tinkering in his garage. After four weeks, he emerged with a prototype external cardiac pacemaker, which was put into use just days later by Lillehei on a young patient.

Pace maker with handle on left side and two knobs on front, rectangle shaped

This Medtronic 5800 Model External Pacemaker might be from 1972, but it debuted in 1958 and was the first commercial version of Earl Bakken's external transistorized cardiac pacemaker. It connected to the patient's heart through the skin and was worn in a sling.

Your turn: Places of Invention Interactive Map

At the heart of the Places of Invention exhibition—both in the gallery here at the National Museum of American History and on our website —is a very cool object, one that was created by the Lemelson Center (and some very amazing designers and coders). The interactive map features text, images, and video highlighting innovative communities across the country and around the globe and the factors that made them so.

Screenshot of website featuring a map of US and other parts of the globe with hot spot pins on it

We are sharing the stories we've researched—the ones I've previewed for you here, as well as some other great stories that didn't make it into the final exhibition—but we need your help to fill it up! We know that there is an invention story in almost every community out there. The idea of the map is that it will grow exponentially over time as visitors, both on-site and online, contribute their own stories. Is your friend or community known for an innovation or invention?

How can you add a story to the map? Think about the following three questions:

  • Invention: How was it invented?
  • People: Whose idea was it?
  • Place: Why here, why now? What was special about the place?

Then visit the map. After you browse around and see what other people have shared (you can comment on stories too!), click the "Add A Place of Invention Story." This will take you to a short form. Fill it out, then check back in a couple of days to see your story on the map.

We hope you'll join us in our exploration of the relationship between place and invention. Visit Places of Invention when it opens at the Museum in the Lemelson Hall of Invention and Innovation on July 1, and make sure your community is represented on the exhibition’s map!

Kate Wiley is the communications manager for the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation.