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Inventing for the public good

New posters around the museum remind us as we come to work each morning that our theme this year is "America Participates." This lens offers interesting new ways to explore our collections and we were curious how last year's theme, "America Innovates," connects to this year's. We spoke with Arthur Daemmrich, the new director of our Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation.

Two posters with text "Connect!" and "Vote!"

Inventors are often inspired to address real-life problems experienced by the public. What has motivated inventors to work toward the public good?

Few inventors are motivated solely by a quest for abstract knowledge or a search for why the natural world or mechanical devices work. Instead, many of the inventors we study at the Lemelson Center seek to solve the real-world problems of their time. Some are visionary, developing devices, tools, or concepts that cannot be realized until other technological changes occur. Others are pragmatic, creating, refining, and marketing products useful from day one.

Glitzy devices, such as iPhones, and breakthrough medicines, such as new cancer therapies, often capture public enthusiasm. But innovations in public health and basic infrastructure have sustained and broad impact. For example, safe, drinkable water is important to everyone, yet it often goes ignored—except for in tragic cases such as in Flint, Michigan, at present. Water safety has a longer history; in the early 1940s, Clifford and Kathryn ("Kitty") Hach invented new test kits and supplies for municipal water providers. To help people that lacked training in water testing, typically in smaller cities and towns across the Midwest, they designed their kits to be easy to use and provided nontechnical directions.

Patent with black and white illustration

What motivates inventors and entrepreneurs like the Hachs? Their inherent enthusiasm, market opportunities, and the public good. When those three forces align, inventors are unstoppable. If only one or two of the three are present, inventions with real impact are less likely to come to fruition.

Investing in breakthroughs and impact inventing is important—it doesn't have to be an either-or choice. For example, we need to build new infrastructure designed with greater flexibility for future inventions, rather than locking in tightly coupled systems that cannot adapt.

As a museum, we've said we want to inspire people to participate in innovation. How can people participate?

People participate in innovation all the time, both knowingly and unknowingly. For example, people take part in clinical trials out of a mix of altruistic and self-interested motivations. To a remarkable degree, trial participants want to help produce better information about the safety and efficacy of new drugs. Research subjects are putting themselves at risk; harmful side effects are not always predicted by lab or animal tests. Other times, patients are taking part because they have a disease and hope a new drug will help. In that situation, they are subjecting themselves to uncertainty and stress about whether they are getting the experimental drug, a placebo, or an active control. Participation in biomedicine can present risks, yet without it there would be no ethical basis for mass-marketing new therapies.

A second type of sometimes overlooked participation is user-shaped innovation. In areas such as software, apps, and games, people who don't think of themselves as inventors—typically because they think inventors need to be engineers or scientists—create, test, and refine new products.

In fact, studies have found that the majority of innovations come from a back-and-forth between lead users and manufacturers. At the Lemelson Center, our project on innovation in skateboarding highlights how skaters have worked with new materials to redesign boards and other equipment, even as they invented new moves and tricks. Ideas move upstream to materials scientists and engineers who learn of the need for new kinds of wheels, bearings, and other components.

Photo taken outside the museum, where a skateboarding space has been set up. A young woman skateboards on it, wearing a helmet. Camera person and audience watching. Sunny, clear day.

Third, people participate by becoming independent inventors and innovators in larger research groups in industry or academia. Independent inventors earn about 20,000 patents annually (6% of all U.S. patents issued 2015).

People in democratic societies have participative choices about the kind of society they want to live in and how their taxes should be spent. It takes a society-wide consensus to invest in science, engineering, and innovation to raise and sustain a higher standard of living. An innovative society takes money from the present and spends it on research that will come to fruition in the future. It is not always easy to convince the public that this is the right approach—a challenge we undoubtedly will see play out in the present U.S. election cycle.

How do you encourage museum visitors and students to participate in innovation?

The Lemelson Center brings a unique perspective and distinctive approach to engaging, educating, and empowering museum visitors to see themselves as inventive and as participants in our current innovation era. The key to our approach is to engage people with insights from history.

In Spark!Lab, visitors—especially children aged 6-12—invent solutions to rotating challenges we design. Recently, the focus was on sound-producing inventions, ranging from a new musical instrument to a security alarm. For inspiration, visitors looked to the walls, which display a guitar rewired and reconfigured by Eddie Van Halen, a prototype of the first transistor radio, and other artifacts. (Find out about the latest activities in Spark!Lab.)

Similarly, in public programming featuring contemporary inventors, we often showcase objects from the museum's historical collections. Invention involves creating solutions to problems, gaps, inconveniences, and hazards, but people gain inspiration by looking at past solutions and learning about the struggles of inventors and how they were overcome.

Why is it important to get young people involved in innovating?

In studying inventors there are few predictive factors—being an inventor is not inherited, does not necessarily arise from a childhood of privilege or of adversity, and it is not learned in the same way as math or language. Great inventions come out of basements (Ralph Baer pioneering video games), kitchens (Wilbert and Robert Gore creating Gore-Tex), large laboratories, and even new maker spaces (do-it-yourself locations where people gather to create, invent, and learn from one another). But minorities and people from poorer communities encounter greater barriers to building prototypes, testing them, and getting products to market. The loss to them—and society—is tragic and should bother all of us. The Lemelson Center is aiming to empower people from all communities to pursue their innovativeness by gaining inspiration from past inventions and from learning about diverse inventors.

Erin Blasco is an education specialist in the New Media Department. Kate Wiley is public affairs specialist for the Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation.