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.

Reflections from the exhibition team

Grandmaster Flash MixerEarl Bakken in his garage, 1955. Courtesy of University of Minnesota

Much More than a Garage, a Place of Invention
Posted 14 June 2012

Early in May, as spring rain deluged the car, I quickly lowered the window to snap one photo of a modest garage on 19th Avenue Northeast in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Surely observers would have wondered what was notable about this particular garage. Well, nothing actually, but formerly it was the site of the Hermundslie family's garage where Medtronic, now a leading multinational medical technology company, was born. Like more famous garages in Silicon Valley that begat Apple and Hewlett Packard, the former 800-square-foot garage (made out of two railway boxcars!) served as a convenient, no-rent location for brothers-in-law Palmer Hermundslie and Earl Bakken to found their company in 1949. Their primary business was servicing electrical medical equipment, earning manager Palmer and technician Earl a whopping $8 in revenue during their company's first year.

Inside the humble garage in 1957, Earl drew schematics on envelopes and grocery bags during an unbelievably short four-week development process of the first wearable, external, battery-powered transistorized pacemaker at the behest of Dr. C. Walton Lillehei, "the father of open-heart surgery" at the University of Minnesota's Variety Heart Hospital. "[The] prototype, housed in aluminum and containing only two transistors, had been intended for tests with dogs but was used on human patients within days of its invention. Soon afterward, Bakken and his employees introduced a more refined version of the transistor pacemaker in a black plastic shell; about ten of these went into clinical use at the University. Later in 1958, Medtronic began manufacturing a commercial version in white plastic--the '5800'. All three versions were essentially identical in circuitry and other interior features." [1] This was just the beginning, as Medtronic really boomed after purchasing rights in 1960 to produce and market the implantable pacemaker developed by and named for inventor Wilson Greatbatch and surgeon Dr. William Chardack.

Our garage drive-by was the first stop during a tour of Earl Bakken and Medtronic history-related sites courtesy of my expert guide, Dr. David Rhees, Executive Director of The Bakken Museum. David is a long-time advisor to the Museum's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation where I work, and he was thrilled that we plan to feature Minneapolis/St. Paul, a.k.a. "Medical Alley," in our Places of Invention exhibition. Since this case study highlights the invention of the wearable pacemaker by Earl Bakken, I was interested in learning more about key sites in Earl's life and work as part of my research about Medical Alley.

One of my favorite stories is about how young Earl (born in 1924) was inspired to become an electrical engineer after seeing Boris Karloff's 1931 "Frankenstein" at the Heights Theatre on Central Avenue near his childhood home in Minneapolis. So in the pouring rain David drove me by Earl's house and then on to the now-renovated theatre to take photos. He told me about how fun it was to help Earl celebrate his 85th birthday with a special screening of the 1931 movie there. Our next stop was at Medtronic's world headquarters where Earl still maintains an office even though he is nominally retired and lives in Hawaii. I got a kick out of seeing two Frankenstein figures on his desk.

Although my Places of Invention exhibition research has been focusing on the 1950s and 1960s and particularly this pacemaker invention story, I enjoy learning more about how Medical Alley, Minnesota has continued to grow and change as a hot spot for medical technology through today. Again, David proved to be an excellent guide, arranging a meeting with Dale Wahlstrom, President and CEO of LifeScience Alley (formerly Medical Alley, which merged with Minnesota's Biotechnology Industry Organization in 2005), and his colleagues Liz Rammer and Ryan Baird, who shared information and insights into the "ecosystem" in Minnesota that continues to support and encourage invention and innovation. David also introduced me to Minnetronix staff, including President and CEO Rich Nazarian and Vice President for Corporate Affairs Jonathan Pierce, who were visiting The Bakken Museum that day, giving me the opportunity to ask them directly about what it is like living and working today in Medical Alley.

A key message that came through loud and clear during my tour with David and talks with others is that the medical industry in the Twin Cities was and is a "tight-knit community" that combines the "delivery and technology sides" of medical innovation. [2] While I continue to study its history, I look forward to keeping an eye on the future of Medical Alley, Minnesota and seeing what amazing new technologies may emerge from this fascinating place of invention.

-- Monica Smith, Exhibition Program Manager

[1] David Rhees and Kirk Jeffrey, "Earl Bakken's Little White Box: The Complex Meanings of the First Transistorized Pacing and Pacemaker." In Bernard Finn, ed., Exposing Electronics (London: Harwood, 2000), p. 1.

[2] Quotes from Dale Wahlstrom, LifeScience Alley, and Rich Nazarian, Minnetronix, respectively (Monica Smith interview, 3 May 2012).

Grandmaster Flash MixerMixer donated by Grandmaster Flash. Object ID 2006.0060.04, image NMAH-2007-5950. Photo by Hugh Talman, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

My Trip Behind the Scenes of the NMAH's Hip-Hop Collection
Posted 11 June 2012

It's always exciting going into the vaults of a museum's collection. Ok, so actually they're rarely "vaults," but it's still exciting to open collection cabinets and discover what objects may lie inside. On this particular occasion, National Museum of American History curator Eric Jentsch was showing me items in the Museum's hip-hop collection. Although for several months I've been reading about hip-hop culture and technology, and looking at images related to it, this was my first opportunity to handle the objects themselves.

Eric opened up a cabinet and before me was an outfit worn by hip-hop advocate and community leader Afrika Bambaataa. Bambaataa was a pioneering hip-hop DJ known for playing obscure records, but his key contribution to the early hip-hop movement was bringing peace to a drug and gang riddled Bronx. He was a founding member of a gang in the Bronx River Projects but had a transformative experience when he visited Africa. He returned with a desire to provide his community with peaceful alternatives to gangs. Bambaattaa turned his turf-building skills into peacemaking skills and used them while performing grassroots promotion for hip-hop parties. In the 1970s he formed first the Bronx River Organization and then the Universal Zulu Nation, an awareness group of reformed gang members who organized hip-hop parties for youth to provide peaceful and fun havens away from violence.

Despite having read all of this about Bambaataa I lacked a sense of what he was like in person. But by holding one of his jackets, I could better comprehend him. From the jacket's size I got a better idea of how big he was. From seeing the outfit's colors and examining the quality of its workmanship I got an idea of his taste. Taking it all in together I could picture him filling out the jacket and was better able to get a sense of what it would have been like to be in his presence.

My visit to the collections also gave me information about the technological advances of hip-hop music. I have virtually no experience with sound mixing, so attempting to comprehend the evolution of mixing equipment from a record player to a mixing board has been a bit mind boggling. For example, DJ Grandmaster Flash invented a mixer from spare parts. According to him, "today you can buy turntables, needles and mixers that are equipped to do whatever. But at that particular time, I had to build it. I had to take microphone mixers and turn them into turntable mixers. I was taking speakers out of abandoned cars and using people's thrown-away stereos."

Once hip-hop became popular, the music industry took notice of the technologies artists invented to produce hip-hop's sound. The Rane Corporation worked with Grandmaster Flash to develop a mixer that in Flash's opinion, corrected the various problems he encountered as a DJ. The Rane mixer in the NMAH's collection was donated by Flash. I was surprised by its appearance. Having read about the heavy use hip-hop equipment got, and how even after mixers no longer functioned they were re-purposed, this Rane mixer was in nearly mint condition. I expected something with heavy wear and tear and mis-matched parts. I was also surprised by its complexity. I didn't think it would look so much like the mixers currently in use. Seeing this mixer designed (and donated) by Flash really impressed upon me how rapidly mixing technology improved.

I think that sometimes people undervalue doing research in museum collections, but it's something that I have found useful in my research. At the very least, it's exciting to handle objects used by the people you've been researching. I look forward to delving deeper into the Museum's hip-hop collection as research for Places of Invention continues.

-- Laurel Fritzsch, Project Curator

Link to Natalie Kalmus digital story

Watch the digital story »

Hollywood: Telling Stories in the Digital Age
Posted 13 April 2012

We want visitors to tell their own "places of invention" stories--both within the exhibition gallery and through the Web--so the exhibition team sometimes tries out different storytelling techniques firsthand. I was lucky enough to be one of those testers recently, when I participated in a digital storytelling workshop led by the New Media Studio at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

What's digital storytelling? At its most basic, it is combining a personal story with images and audio in a short, simple movie. Since I'm researching Hollywood in the 1930s and '40s for the exhibition, I decided to turn my digital story into a movie about the movies.

I grew up on movies. My Mom loves them. She tells me about spending long afternoons as a teenager in a darkened theater with her best friend. Growing up, the only times that I was allowed to stay up past midnight were New Year’s Eve . . . and the night of the Academy Awards.

I still love movies. One of my favorites is The Wizard of Oz. I know, not very original. But the reason I never tire of it isn't the over-the-rainbow, there's-no-place-like-home storyline. It's the color.

That hurt-your-eyes Technicolor was the invention of two MIT grads (the "Tech" in "Technicolor") named Herbert Kalmus and Daniel Comstock and technician W. Burton Wescott. Their first lab was in a railroad car in Boston. Technicolor went through several iterations before it bloomed so gloriously in The Wizard of Oz. And outside the lab, one person made Technicolor movies consistent, spectacular, and lush productions in the Golden Age of Hollywood. That person was Natalie Kalmus, Herbert's ex-wife.

A former art student, Natalie was the color authority on the set. She made decisions about makeup, costumes, sets, and lighting, and even went behind the camera as a cinematographer a few times. She controlled (some say with an iron fist) the aura of Technicolor.

Natalie Kalmus was the ultimate mediator between the lab and the silver screen, unwavering in her commitment to make Technicolor shine. Her vision was behind some of the most gorgeous films ever made.

My Mom and I still watch The Wizard of Oz together when we can. And I always point out Natalie’s credit line at the beginning of the film. Ironically, it’s not in Technicolor.

-- Joyce Bedi, Senior Historian

Samuel Colt patent U.S. X9430

Samuel Colt's 1836 patent for a "revolving gun." U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

Colt Armory Workers, around 1876

Above, an 1876 photo of Colt employees standing in front of the armory and office building. The blue starred dome is visible in the distance and railroad tracks can be seen in the foreground. Connecticut State Library

Below, a view of the Armory complex in late 2011. Photo by Monica Smith.

Colt Armory complex, 2011


Colt Armory Dome, 2011

The Colt Armory’s onion dome (a replica) is painted blue with gold stars and topped with a gold orb and a "rampant" colt on its hind legs--the Armory’s trademark. Photo by Monica Smith

Coltsville Potsdam Village, around 1890

Above, Potsdam Village, Curcombe Street, Hartford, around 1900. Nine Swiss chalet style houses were built in 1858 by Samuel Colt for German workers whom he brought to Hartford from Potsdam, Germany to make furniture from willow trees that grew along the Connecticut River. Connecticut Historical Society

Below, one of the surviving houses in 2011. Photo by Monica Smith

Coltsville Potsdam house, 2011


Colt's home, Armsmear, 2011

Colt's Italianate mansion, Armsmear, has been converted to retirement housing. Photo by Monica Smith

Colt monument, 2011

Monument to Samuel Colt, erected by his wife Elizabeth. Photo by Monica Smith

Hartford's Pope Park, around 1908

Above, children playing in Pope Park in 1908. Connecticut Historical Society

Below, the gates to Pope Park in 2011. Photo by Monica Smith

Hartford's Pope Park, 2011


Capitol Avenue, Harford, 2011

Former factory buildings along Capitol Avenue now house state government offices. Photo by Monica Smith

Hartford's Keller District, 2011

Surviving row houses that were originally built in the 1880s for employees of the Capitol Avenue factories. Photo by Monica Smith

Mark Twain's house, Hartford, 2011

Mark Twain's house in 2011. Photo by Monica Smith

Mark Twain's patent, US 121,992

Samuel Clemens's (Mark Twain) 1871 patent for an "improvement in adjustable and detachable straps for garments." U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

Hartford, Connecticut, Then and Now
Posted 4 January 2012

As I drove down an unfamiliar street in Connecticut’s capital city, I wondered whether a self-guided tour of Hartford’s 19th-century "places of invention" was practical. It had seemed so easy when I looked at a map and plotted out addresses I’d gathered from my colleague Eric Hintz, the Lemelson Center historian now researching the inventive history of Hartford for our Places of Invention exhibition. I had even consulted an interesting book, In and About Hartford: Tours and Tales, which provided helpful maps, sketches, and descriptions of historical sites within the modern city [1]. Fortunately, since our exhibition focus is on mid-to-late 19th-century Hartford, which was much smaller than the city today, the factories, houses, parks, and other community locations I sought were in fairly close proximity.

I traveled to Hartford specifically to give a presentation at a museum conference, but wanted to maximize my visit by photo-documenting some local historic sites we have been studying for the exhibition project. Among other things, it was an opportunity to experiment with an idea we’ve discussed about doing mobile app tours of historic, invention-related sites in cities today, based on contemporary and historic photos, sketches, narrative descriptions, and other primary and secondary resources. Obviously, many buildings have been altered or replaced between, say, 1861 and 2011, and the surrounding landscape has changed significantly. However, I was pleasantly surprised to see how much remained recognizable from the 19th century [2].

I focused primarily on places associated with inventor Samuel Colt (1814-1862), best known for his single-barrel, revolving-cylinder revolver. During the Mexican American War of 1846-1848, the Colt revolver gained fame, and soon became popular not only in the U.S. but also abroad--the Russian Czar Alexander II was one of Colt’s best customers! The original Colt Armory was built in 1855, but was destroyed by fire and rebuilt shortly after Colt’s death. I took photos of the existing Colt complex, which is located in the now-designated National Historic District of Coltsville and is undergoing large-scale adaptive reuse [3]. One remarkable architectural element is the Armory’s onion dome (a replica) that is painted blue with gold stars topped with a gold orb and, appropriately, a "rampant" colt on its hind legs--the Armory’s trademark. There are several theories about why Samuel Colt chose an Eastern-style dome--a tribute to the Russians or Turks who purchased his guns? Or just a marketing ploy? Regardless, the striking landmark, which can be spotted from highway I-91, continues to attract attention to the area, and Connecticut legislators are actively lobbying to get Coltsville designated as a National Park [4].

Other important remnants of Coltsville are less obvious to the casual observer. I was thrilled to photograph a row of the original Potsdam Village houses that Colt had built for craftsmen recruited from Germany to help them feel more at home in Hartford. They certainly pale in comparison to Colt’s nearby Italianate mansion, Armsmear, built in 1857, which was converted into retirement housing in the 20th century. Right next door is Colt Park with a very grandiose memorial to the famous inventor courtesy of his beloved wife, Elizabeth, who helped manage Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company after Samuel’s death at age 47. Elizabeth was determined to ensure his legacy by having civic monuments like this one erected around the city of Hartford.

Another place I visited was Pope Park, named in honor of Albert E. Pope (1843-1909) whose Hartford-based Pope Manufacturing Company produced Columbia brand high-wheel and standard "safety" bicycles, as well as steam, electrical, and gasoline-powered automobiles. Like the ball fields and parade grounds of Coltsville, Pope planned this park to provide outdoor recreation space for his workers and local residents. Pope Park was designed by Hartford’s Olmsted Brothers Landscape Architects, who famously developed New York’s Central Park and the lakefront sites for Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition [5]. Today its gates feature a high-wheel bicycle. Pope was wise to locate his factory and namesake park where he did. As one scholar has noted: "His factories borrowed all of the precision manufacturing techniques employed in Hartford by the Colt armory, Weed [Sewing Machine Company] and the city’s various machine tool firms; they also pioneered new techniques like metal stamping and electrical resistance welding" [6].

Other sites I photo-documented included a series of the factory buildings along the 400-500 blocks of Capitol Avenue. Now home to Connecticut state government offices, this area was a major industrial hub during Hartford’s 19th-century heyday when Colt, Pope, Weed, Pratt and Whitney, Hartford Machine Screw, and other factories were producing guns, sewing machines, bicycles, typewriters, and more. Inadvertently, I parked on a side street lined with beautiful Queen Anne-style row houses built in the 1880s for employees of these former Capitol Avenue factories.

Perhaps readers might be surprised to hear that I also visited the Hartford home of Samuel Clemens (better known by his pen name Mark Twain). Here in the fashionable Nook Farm neighborhood, Clemens wrote some of his most famous books, including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). What does this have to do with invention, you might ask? Well, as it turns out, Clemens held three patents for his own inventions--one was for adjustable garment straps--and was also an avid investor in technologies being developed by local industries [7]. Unfortunately, Clemens lost his proverbial shirt investing in the failed Paige Typesetter, almost went bankrupt, and had to move away from Hartford to raise money on a European book tour.

Besides being a fascinating opportunity for me to explore both historic and contemporary Hartford, this experience excited me about the prospect of lots of people carrying out this same type of "places of invention" tour through other towns and cities across the United States. Inventive places are indeed all around us.

-- Monica Smith, Exhibition Program Manager

[1] Marion Hepburn Grant, In and About Hartford: Tours and Tales (Hartford, CT: Connecticut Historical Society, 1978).

[2] Historic Buildings of Connecticut. Accessed December 21, 2011.

[3] National Park Service, United States Department of the Interior, "Coltsville Special Resources Study." Accessed December 21, 2011. Documenta Surveys, "The Colt Factory Complex Redevelopment." Accessed December 21, 2011.

[4] Deirdre Shesgreen, "Are the Stars Aligning Over Coltsville?" The CT Mirror (October 7, 2011). Accessed December 21, 2011.

[5] Pope Park, "History." Accessed December 21, 2011.

[6] David A. Hounshell, From the American System to Mass Production, 1900-1932 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984): Chapter 5.

[7] Bill Clayton, "Mark Twain--Author, Inventor and Entrepreneur," Michigan Engineering Forum (November 13, 2009). Accessed December 21, 2011.

Colorado's Rocky Mountains

A view of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. Photo by Monica Smith

Outside the Engines and Energy Conversion Lab

CSU's Engines and Energy Conversion Lab. Photo by Monica Smith

Engines in the EECL

Engines in the lab. Photo by Monica Smith

Coopersmith's Pub and Brewing in Fort Collins

Coppersmith's Pub and Brewing. Photo by Monica Smith

Fort Collins, a Place of Invention
Posted 8 August 2011

I love talking with inventors about their creative lives and careers. Better yet, I love speaking with them at their workplaces. There is nothing like visiting their personalized spaces, meeting their colleagues, seeing the tools they use, and, in some cases, hearing (and smelling) machines humming in the background.

Recently, I had the good fortune to visit Colorado State University’s Engines and Energy Conversion Lab in Fort Collins and meet Dr. Morgan DeFoort. He is co-director of the EECL with Dr. Bryan Willson, who has been featured in the Lemelson Center’s Inventive Voices podcast series. Morgan gave me an in-depth tour of the lab, an enormous, open space located inside an Art Deco building that began life in 1936 as the Fort Collins Power Plant.

The workshop, which is dominated by huge engines (up to 2500 hp) and has high windows, was buzzing with graduate students and industry professionals working side-by-side on various projects. Machines of all sizes were in operation; the space smelled more like an auto repair shop than a "clean energy" lab. Nevertheless,EECL is a major player in developing not only cleaner engines but also technologies like smart grid power systems, algae biofuels, and efficient cook stoves. How does such a diverse team of assembled talents and backgrounds work together and complement each other in terms of innovation and creativity?

The Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation is planning to highlight wellsprings of creativity like Fort Collins through Places of Invention, an interactive exhibition that tells the stories of historic and modern communities where people, resources, and spaces have come together to spark inventiveness. The exhibition builds on Lemelson Center research, including the findings of our 2007 Lemelson Institute, at which an interdisciplinary group of scholars and practitioners discussed questions like: What is it about a particular place that excites a creative mind? How do creative people shape the spaces in which they work? For the exhibition, we are interested in exploring the social, psychological, and spatial dimensions of "place" that support the work of inventors and innovators in diverse fields.

During my visit to the EECL, I inquired about the people working there, and Morgan said that the lab looks for women and men with technical skills (e.g., farm kids and bike mechanics) who love to create, test, and fix things. The lab space is certainly well supplied with materials and tools. EECL has a yearly "1Mpact Challenge" during which everyone in the lab has to stop what they’re doing, form small teams of about eight people, and spend twelve hours in the lab developing a working prototype of an invention that must impact a million people. It’s amazing what can be created in a single day!

EECL is building additional space that will more than double its size, which is not without its drawbacks. As Morgan observed, many of the discoveries in the lab happen by chance because the current space is conducive to having many different people and projects in close proximity. Even in this electronic age, innovation thrives on people running into each other, asking questions, and sharing ideas; with this consideration in mind, the new building design will seek to continue encouraging face-to-face interaction.

I asked Morgan why EECL fits so well in Fort Collins. Among other things, he cited Colorado State University’s collaborative culture, the city’s progressive ethos, a regional emphasis on environmental issues, the year-round outdoor lifestyle (with easy access to the Rockies and an emphasis on active sports like skiing, hiking, and biking), and even the area’s brew pub culture. A favorite gathering spot for the lab team is Coopersmith’s Pub and Brewing, nearby in the city’s historic district. As Morgan summed it up, Fort Collins is an optimal place of invention because it boasts "the culture of the Wild West," a you-can-do-it attitude, and values balancing hard work with a good lifestyle.

Cheers to that!

-- Monica Smith, Exhibition Program Manager

Tampere, Finland

Skyline of Tampere, Finland. Photo by Joseph Tatarewicz

Werla Mill, Finland

Above and below: The Verla Mill Museum. Photos by Joyce Bedi

Werla Mill, Finland

Cardboard sheets drying at the Werla Mill, Finland

Sheets of cardboard drying at the Werla Mill. Photo by Joyce Bedi

The Power of Place
Posted 3 Feb 2011

It was all there--rushing rapids and waterfalls, sturdy brick mill buildings, and stories of immigrant entrepreneurs and innovators who built a successful textile industry in a burgeoning industrial countryside. I might have been in any number of old mill towns in New England. But this familiar technological landscape is preserved in the city of Tampere, Finland.

I went to Finland last summer to give a talk about some of my research for the Lemelson Center’s "Places of Invention" project at the joint conference of the International Committee for the History of Technology and the International Committee for the Conservation of the Industrial Heritage. The conference theme--"reusing the industrial past"--suited Tampere perfectly. The old mill buildings are now home to museums, theaters, restaurants, shops, apartments, and more, and the bustling downtown scene is enticing people to move back to the city from the suburbs.

Seeing the effective way that Tampere is indeed reusing its industrial past taught me a few things about places of invention, whether in Finland or elsewhere. As a historian, I thrive on writing about the past, but I found that it takes more than words and images to understand the role of "place." When all of my senses are engaged and I can touch the bricks of the mill walls, hear the floors creak and the machinery rumble, and smell the oil and dust, my grasp of how people in the past interacted with these places becomes tangible. Combine that nonverbal experience with the narratives of real people who lived, worked, and played in these places, and lasting memories are made.

At the Verla Mill Museum in southeast Finland, the guide pointed out two depressions in the floorboards. They were made by the feet of a woman who stood in the same spot, doing the same job, for over 50 years. Even when she was nearly blind, she didn’t want to stop working. Now that’s a statement about the power of place that I won’t soon forget.

-- Joyce Bedi, Senior Historian

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