The Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention & Innovation
Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, Smithsonian Beanie Illustration
Centerpieces   Places of Invention
An exhibition under development

Places of Invention tells the stories of historic and modern communities where people, resources, and spaces have come together to spark inventiveness.

Invention hot spot:
Green energy in Fort Collins, Colorado, today

Staff and students inside the Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory at Colorado State University

Staff and students inside the Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory at Colorado State University. Courtesy of Bryan Willson.

Agricultural College of Colorado, 1886

The Agricultural College of Colorado, 1886. Courtesy of Denver Public Library, Western History Collection, call #10010904.

Bryan Willson speaking

Bryan Willson speaking at the Lemelson Center’s "Hot Spots of Invention" symposium, 2009. Smithsonian © 2009, photo by Harold Dorwin.

Fort Collins may have gained notoriety recently for the "balloon boy" hoax, but the northern Colorado city should be known instead as a hot spot of invention and innovation in the field of clean energy. Its transformation from a small college town into a major player in today's energy economy began in the 1990s, stimulated by research at Colorado State University (CSU) and collaborations among the university, local government, and business. The city's connections to education, economics, and the environment, however, stretch far back into the region's history.

Located on the Cache la Poudre River at the base of the Rocky Mountains on the rich agricultural land of the Great Plains, Fort Collins traces its roots to the 1858-59 gold rush and a settlement that grew up around a short-lived military camp commanded by Lieutenant Colonel William O. Collins (for whom the town was named). Farmers and ranchers, as well as miners and traders, flocked to the area to take advantage of its bountiful natural resources. With the arrival of the railroad in 1877, Fort Collins quickly grew as the region's commercial center.

At the same time, Fort Collins was also becoming an important educational center; the Agricultural College of Colorado was founded there as a land grant institution in 1870, six years before the Colorado Territory became a state. The College welcomed its first students in September 1879 and President Elijah Edwards began to reach out to the agricultural community almost immediately with a series of farmers' institutes. His successor, Charles Ingersoll, continued this outreach and bolstered research programs as well. The school underwent name changes--to Colorado A&M in 1935 and then to Colorado State University in 1957--but a dedication to teaching, research, and outreach remained at its core.

The work of Bryan Willson demonstrates this philosophy. He founded CSU's Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory (EECL) in 1992 in the then-vacant 1936 Fort Collins Power Plant, and explained in a Lemelson Center interview that "for the first ten years, we really focused on the first part of our name [engines]. We do that at a scale still larger than anyone else in the world." Since then, he and his colleagues have broadened EECL's research program to encompass not only new technologies, such as algae biofuels and smart-grid power distribution systems, but also solutions to global environmental issues, including designs for more efficient cook stoves for the developing world. Willson noted in his New Perspectives presentation that a "key factor in [EECL's] success is the huge role that [CSU undergraduate and graduate] students play" in developing these real-world innovations.

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-- Monica Smith

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