In July 2015, the Lemelson Center opened its award-winning exhibition, Places of Invention. Visitors encounter six locations, diverse geographically and chronologically, that consider a fundamental question: What kind of place stimulates creative minds and sparks a surge of invention and innovation?
Those six stories—
- Bronx, New York, and the invention of hip-hop in the 1970s;
- Fort Collins, Colorado, spearheading breakthrough inventions in clean energy today;
- Hartford, Connecticut, and the rise of mass production manufacturing in the 19th century;
- Hollywood, California, and the invention of Technicolor in the 1930s;
- Minnesota's Twin Cities in the 1950s, renowned for medical inventions developed in "Medical Alley," including the external transistorized pacemaker; and of course, that iconic place of invention,
- Silicon Valley and the rise of the personal computer in the 1970s–80s
—take visitors on a journey through time and place to meet people who lived, worked, played, collaborated, adapted, took risks, solved problems, and sometimes failed—all in the pursuit of something new.
In many ways, the exhibition is the continuation of research that has piqued the interest of us at the Lemelson Center since our founding in 1995. Indeed, our first symposium was on “The Inventor and the Innovative Society.” Speakers examined the work and workplaces of Leonardo da Vinci in 15th century Florence, Thomas Edison in 19th century metropolitan New York, and Frederick Terman in the 20th century at the birth of Silicon Valley. In each case, they found a synergy among evolving ideas about intellectual property, the ambience of great metropolitan centers, and the reciprocal impact of technological innovation, rapid urbanization, and corporate growth.
For example, many readers will be familiar with Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory complex—a site chosen, in part, because land was cheap and the hamlet was on a rail line, making it accessible from New York and Philadelphia. He moved into larger accommodations in a purpose-built laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey, in 1887 (now the Thomas Edison National Historical Park). Edison’s empire, however, also grew in places like Newark, New Jersey, where skilled labor was readily available, and in New York City, home to investors like J. P. Morgan.
Ten years after our first symposium, we convened a workshop on “Cultures of Innovation.” Moving beyond the legendary figures of Leonardo, Edison, and Terman, this gathering expanded the basic question of how various societies, past and present, can nurture or, in some cases, hinder innovation. Workshop participants, comprising some two dozen historians, inventors, scientists, engineers, educators, policy specialists, anthropologists, social scientists, and other observers and practitioners of invention and innovation, recounted the experiences of inventors outside the U.S., from Costa Rica to Taiwan to India to Indonesia to Saudi Arabia to Sub-Saharan Africa. These case studies highlighted the impact that different cultural norms have on the process of invention. One speaker, for example, talked about the pressure to not stand out, while another spoke of motivations to serve the community over personal gain.
Then, in 2007, we took our deepest dive yet into teasing out the connections between place and invention. During the Places of Invention Lemelson Institute, an invited interdisciplinary group of scholars and practitioners presented case studies of both historical and contemporary places of invention and examined what made them successful . . . or not. The report from that workshop didn’t provide a recipe for success but rather a list of ingredients common to vibrant places of invention. These included:
- Flexible spaces that are easily reconfigured, modular, and responsive to the needs of different people and different projects.
- Leadership by managers who articulate and promote a clear mission, support individuals’ research freedom in pursuit of that mission, encourage interdisciplinary teams, and manage with a “soft touch,” characterized by minimal hierarchy and bureaucracy.
- Communication that makes it easy for people to discuss, share, and argue ideas, whether in the laboratory or the cafeteria.
- Balance between the needs for solitude and interaction with others, often manifested by individual private, personal workspaces alongside inviting communal spaces, especially those that foster interdisciplinary and multigenerational interaction.
We took what we had learned over the years about places of invention and applied it, first to defining best practices for documenting inventors’ labs, workshops, and creative spaces. Then the serious work on the Places of Invention exhibition began.
As we considered stories to include, we quickly became overwhelmed by the wealth of possibilities (a good problem to have!). Knowing that we had a finite number of square feet (and a finite number of dollars) for the exhibition, we developed criteria for evaluating contenders for inclusion. We wanted the stories we told to be accessible and visually appealing to museum visitors. We wanted the exhibition to showcase diverse places, both in terms of geography and chronology, and diverse inventors as well. We also wanted a mix of well-known places, like Silicon Valley, and some that would be surprising for visitors, like the Bronx. And we wanted to include a place where invention is happening and evolving right now—a place that could hold a mirror to the ideas we presented in the historical case studies. We selected Fort Collins as that contemporary place.
One unique feature of the exhibition is the inclusion of “skill spots” that directly reflect our research, highlighting the intersection of individual inventors’ traits and the places in which they work. Collaboration, adaptability, communication, risk-taking, creativity, and problem-solving permeate places of invention as well as the personalities of the inventors who create them.
Now, after eight years, Places of Invention is about to close. To mark this milestone, the Lemelson Center’s Innovative Lives programs this spring have featured inventors reflecting on some of the places in the exhibition. In March, chemist Beverly Wood shared fascinating examples of her work on color enhancement for motion pictures, from chemical to digital technologies. (With Hollywood credits ranging from the films Se7en to Skyfall, Wood feels a strong connection to Natalie Kalmus, the original Technicolor color consultant who is featured in the Hollywood section of Places of Invention.) In April, inventor-entrepreneurs Amy Prieto and Sunil Cherian, featured in the Fort Collins, Colorado, section of Places of Invention, brought us up-to-date on their work in sustainable energy. For the final Innovative Lives program this year, however, we are welcoming inventors who work in places beyond those highlighted in the exhibition, specifically asking them how they chose their places of invention.
As a graduate student, Theresa Dankovich invented germ-killing, low-cost, biodegradable water filters, made of paper embedded with silver nanoparticles, which are lethal to microbes. She co-founded her company, Folia Water, in 2016 to scale up production. Then, in response to COVID-19, Dankovich used the same low-cost antimicrobial paper to create an antiviral 3-ply face mask. She also has a patent application pending for microwaveable paper food packaging embedded with metal nanoparticles that absorb microwave radiation and convert it into heat. Her invention will provide better browning and crisping results than the typical “sleeve” included with some microwaveable foods.
Madison Maxey has always loved making things—from clothing to stretchy inks that conduct electricity. She started sewing when she was eight years old and began her design career by interning in the fashion industry. She has since broadened her exploration of how technology and design can work together through innovations in electronic textiles (e-textiles). Maxey and her company, LOOMIA, create fabrics that act like circuit boards for innovative products that range from medical wearables for monitoring patients to heated ski gear.
Dankovich and Maxey (who are both featured in the Lemelson Center’s exhibition, Picturing Women Inventors), have called multiple locations their “place of invention.” What factored into selecting the spots they chose? And what made them move on? Check out this recording from our live Innovative Lives program featuring Dankovich and Maxey on May 10, 2023, to find out!
Investigating the topic of places of invention has been rich and rewarding—and surprising—for us at the Lemelson Center. We still have much to learn. And we will continue to ask, what can happen when the right mix of inventive people, untapped resources, and inspiring surroundings come together?