Invention At Play


of an Exhibition

by Kelly Brisbois

Published on July 27, 2009, Modified on August 05, 2009

  • Description:

    Invention At Play: The story of American invention

    Look around, whether you are at home or work (or elsewhere using your portable web enabled device). Virtually every thing you can see and touch was invented by someone. I learned how the Smithsonian is contributing to a collective history of American inventors during a summer visit to Washington D.C.

    Oral history is the foundation of my work as a museum educator. When I visit history museums, I look for ways that stories are developed and interpreted to build understanding for visitors. Through a colleague, I was introduced to an historian in D.C., Maggie Dennis. Maggie is an historian at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH) and was kind enough to take a few hours with me and talk about the oral history applications to their collections and exhibitions.

    Maggie works at the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation located at NMAH. She has developed expertise interviewing American inventors and documenting their stories, creating an historic record with important perspectives on the process of invention. I, in turn, interviewed Maggie to explore the process of oral history as it applies to history museums. (An MP3 excerpt from this interview is included here. To listen to the entire interview, visit my website at .)

    Jerome Lemelson, a prolific American inventor, founded the Lemelson Center in 1995. He started a number of centers to promote and support innovation in the U.S., with a focus on its history at the Smithsonian. ( The Lemelson Center documents the history of invention by recording oral history interviews with inventors and facilitating the acquisition of inventor’s records for the Smithsonian’s collections. The Center shares this history with the public through their website, which has diverse stories from inventors in a series of podcast interviews. (

    To prepare for my interview with Maggie, I studied several exhibits at NMAH, with a focus on the Lemelson Center’s exhibit: Invention At Play. ( Framed around the stories of five contemporary inventors and one design team, the exhibit teaches children and families about the process of invention and engages children in hands-on activities that spark the process itself. One of the objectives of the Lemelson Center and its exhibit is to inspire new generations of inventors.

    The Exhibit
    Was I inspired? Yes, on many levels. Having raised two children, now in their late teens, I intuitively understand the role that play has in the development of a child’s physical and mental development. The exhibit, Invention At Play, taps into our intuitive understanding of play, and goes further to explore how play makes new connections in a child’s mind, providing a foundation for lifelong habits and talents.

    Examples of play and its connection to the creative process of invention are seen throughout the exhibit. Contemporary inventors are featured, each with an invention theme, such as: Newman Darby, the inventor of the sailboard; James McLurkin, inventor of “robotic ants”, and Stephanie Kwolek who discovered a super strong, super light synthetic fiber called Kevlar. Their displays include childhood stories. As an example, Kwolek’s display shows the current applications of Kevlar while it incorporates Kwolek’s own words as her childhood story is shared through small flip charts describing her history of play and experimentation.

    As a girl, Kwolek developed her creative approach to solving problems as she designed and sewed her own clothes, and as she explored nature through walks in the woods. The message to families and children from Kwolek’s story is “recognize the unusual.” As she experimented with plastic solutions, she realized one of the solutions was acting “different.” It was this different behavior that she experimented with in order to create the incredibly strong fiber, now widely used for safety gear and protective clothing by police, loggers, and firemen (see attached photos).

    Invention At Play offers hands-on experiences to children, the most effective of which is based on a classic arcade game, “pinball”. The exhibit’s pinball course uses household items, like spoons and spatulas, for children to move, forming a gravity course for the ball to bounce down to the “goal” at the bottom (see attached photos).

    The Interview
    Maggie Dennis and her colleagues want to better understand the process of invention, and document evidence of the creative process itself. Evidence of invention can include prototypes, sketches, diagrams, photographs, building materials and even the “work place” of an inventor. Maggie uses oral history to augment the historic record on the process of creating and inventing and has developed an interviewing technique to better understand it. She uses “photo elicitation” during interviews, using photographs to jog the memory of inventors in order to get them back into the mindset they were in while inventing. She asks questions about their skills, and the variety of ways inventors develop and use them to create.

    Motivation and emotion are also topics she explores, posing a challenge as the interviewer. Investigating the topic of motivation involves dialogue on the inventor’s willingness to start a project and continue with it despite many failures in the journey toward a solution. “To get from ‘thought to thing’ is a long, difficult process,” she explains, “and yet when you talk to inventors they are very excited and motivated, and they don’t give up. So trying to understand what that motivation is . . . what keeps them going . . . is part of what we are trying to capture.”

    For example, during an interview with Van Phillips, inventor of prosthetic limbs for amputees, Maggie was mindful of looking for cues from him that prompted her to ask follow up questions about emotion and motivation. He had already told the story many times to the media about losing his own foot. Where he showed animation and emotion during her interview was when he described the first prototype that he could actually run on himself. As he ran with the prosthesis through his apartment building, he shouted, “I’m running, I’m running!” ( Phillips made many prototypes that didn’t work, yet he didn’t give up. She learned from his interview that emotional cues are important to pick up on as an opportunity to explore the topic of motivation further.

    The emotions shared during her interviews are genuine, and add depth to our understanding of the invention process. “We want to take them off the pedestal,” said Maggie, “and get into this process so that the next generation can learn and become inspired.”

    Maggie has found that, as in Van Phillips interview, most inventors have already told their story to the media many times over. Her approach is to let them tell the “canned” story they are accustomed to telling, and then take the opportunity to deconstruct it thoughtfully with follow up questions.

    Intention is reflected in all forms of museum work, and is important to be conscious of because of the consequential outcomes that will flow from that intention, including the intent behind an oral history interview. Maggie and I talked about the intent of her interviews, which is to explore the creative process thoroughly with patient listening. Preparation is therefore important, and so we discussed how she prepares for an interview. Invention happens across all disciplines, making it challenging to prepare.

    She prepares with research initially from secondary sources, including published books and journal articles, as well as online research and contemporary articles in the popular press. She often works with a curator at the Smithsonian who is a specialist in the particular subject at-hand, whether it is within the field of medicine, music/art, science, physics, etc. Sometimes she does joint interviews with a curator who has this expertise, and finds it is useful not to be an expert in the topic herself; in this way, she is able to get the interviewer to share in more detail about the process, which may be assumed otherwise.

    In addition, she creates a timeline with any information she can find about the inventor, including current events at the time that may have played a role in the process. By creating a timeline she can determine what she doesn’t know and would like to explore during an interview. She develops a list of topics she wishes to cover, but no longer makes a specific list of questions, as she did starting out in oral history. Maggie explained that she becomes absorbed in her interviews, and tries to listen for the moments that tell her what the follow-up questions are on a topic.

    The Lemelson Center uses a broad definition of “inventor,” going beyond the traditional view of an inventor as one who owns a patent on a device. The Lemelson Center’s MIND database lists invention-related collections held in repositories across the United States and Canada ( During its development it became clear that women and minority inventors have been underrepresented in the historical record. Maggie expressed the importance of documenting diverse stories, stating this is an important area for the Lemelson Center to make a contribution. As an example, she would like to interview Grand Master Flash who worked with turntable technology to create the early Hip Hop sounds, altering the technology of the time to create new sounds. This isn’t a patented technology, but she considers his work to be that of an inventor. There are others like him creating new techniques and products that haven’t been documented.

    Technology for recording interviews can be both a blessing and a curse it seems, especially if we are not mindful of our objectives in using it. So, Maggie and I discussed the audio and video options for recording interviews. She is primarily using digital audio recordings to document oral histories, and is experimenting with video because of the time and expense involved. She uses video when there is funding available and when there is a reason to hire a videographer or film team. One of the advantages of video is it can capture an inventor’s work space and environment and capture his/her skills and work methods to form a visual record as a supplement to the oral history record, or to use in an exhibit.

    Diverse stories of American inventors and innovators are on the Lemelson Center website: The podcast interviews are usually conducted separately from the oral history program. They are short and more journalistic in nature, and are therefore much easier to understand and digest than a full oral history interview, which can total several hours.

    I want to thank Maggie Dennis for her time with me. This experience was informative to me on many levels: 1) The use of oral history to document and add to our collective memory; 2) The use of oral history interpretation in museum exhibits; and 3) The application of audio and video online with accessible formats for the public, educators, and families.

Latest Comments (1)

Exhibition as focal point

by Wendy Pollock - July 30, 2009

This contribution is a reminder that a major exhibition like Invention at Play can serve as a focal point for a whole swirl of activities and can call attention to the ongoing work of a center like the Lemelson. For more about this NSF-funded exhibition, see Gretchen Jennings’s case study at

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