Notes from the Director: The Spirit of Invention :: Smithsonian Lemelson Center
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Arthur Molella, Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Director

I’m very excited about the publication of Julie Fenster’s intriguing new book, The Spirit of Invention: The Story of the Thinkers, Creators, and Dreamers Who Formed Our Nation, published in collaboration with the Lemelson Center. An award-winning author, Fenster focuses her attention not on well-known inventors, but on the legions of obscure figures who collectively have transformed our world--the “little guys,” men and women alike, that Jerry Lemelson himself championed.

Actually, I love to read the stories of inventors of all types, regardless of their fame or obscurity. Why? Because, successful or not, they almost all lead fascinating lives. In pursuing their chosen calling--and I believe that invention has to be seen as just that--they have had in one way or another to invent or reinvent themselves. Practically none of them has taken the well-worn path. Who would have expected a 19th-century American painter, Samuel F. B. Morse, to claim fame for the invention of the telegraph? And in his spectacular rise from telegraph operator to the most famous inventor since Leonardo, Thomas Edison not only invented a career, but his persona as the “Wizard of Menlo Park.”

The famous were not alone in their unusual lives. Pick up Fenster’s book and find out about the improbable and little-known career of Robert Switzer, a Berkeley student who made a hobby of magic tricks. In 1932, an accident in a part-time job at Safeway put him into a coma, from which he slowly recovered in an unlit room. To amuse himself in this darkened convalescence, he played with the spectacular rainbow emissions from fluorescent rocks. Turning on another light in his mind, this led to his invention of glow-in-the-dark paints that he and his brother marketed at first to magicians. Soon after, dropping out of college, the Switzers discovered a way to use ordinary sunlight to bring out fluorescent colors--DayGlo, patented in 1947.

In contrast, Howard Head started on a more conventional path as a project engineer at the Glenn L. Martin aircraft company during World War II. Thereafter, however, things took a different turn--as in, ski turns. An intense desire to excel in sports coupled with a sad lack of athletic ability motivated Head to seek technological advantage in sports equipment. He applied his knowledge of aircraft construction to the invention of futuristic skis, much lighter and holding sharper edges than the conventional wooden variety; this ended up revolutionizing the sport for amateurs and professionals alike. He later did the same thing for the game of tennis, introducing the oversized racket that has since become the standard.

You can dip into Fenster’s book almost anywhere to find equally compelling stories about common people, driven by an uncommon inventive spirit, who have changed the colors, textures, and other basic aspects of our world.

From Prototype, June 2009

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