Explainer: Spark your trip with invention-focused museums
The first ice-making machine, a light bulb Thomas Edison used in demonstrations and the prototype Apple 1 computer.
Surprise finds on the “Antique Roadshow” TV program? Nope. Just some innovative treasures you might discover if your travel itinerary includes invention-focused museums.
“What’s cool about these places is that it makes you appreciate that these things didn’t just appear out of thin air,” says Doug Kirby, publisher of RoadsideAmerica.com. “For example, at the John Gorrie Museum in Florida, even kids immediately understand the difference the invention of air conditioning made in their lives.”
Of course, traveling by invention isn’t just for kids. Or just for tourists. "It is common for members of a community — even long-time residents — to be unfamiliar with the hidden history that surrounds them," said Ford W. Bell, president of the American Association of Museums (AAM). So consider adding some of these museums to your next local or long-distance vacation.
National Inventors Hall of Fame and Museum
The National Inventors Hall of Fame and Museum in Alexandria, Va., is an ideal spot to get an overview of American inventors and their creations. Located in the same building that houses the headquarters of the United States Patent and Trademarks Office, the museum has a gallery filled with interactive electronic portraits of Thomas Edison and other noted inventors as well as exhibits that change annually. The invention of Jell-O, Borden’s Condensed Milk and the commercial microwave oven are explored in the current exhibit, “Inventive Eats: Incredible Food Innovations.” The museum’s sister institution, the Invent Now Museum, in Akron, Ohio, has an exhibit titled “The Art of Invention.” Admission to both museums is free.
National World War II Museum
In addition to a Sherman Tank and other war-related artifacts, visitors to the National World War II Museumin New Orleans can inspect two Higgins Boats (one restored; one built from original blueprints), the iconic landing craft Dwight D. Eisenhower credited with helping to win the war. The legendary boats were designed by shipbuilder Andrew Higgins and built in the Crescent City.
Schenectady Museum & Suits-Bueche
The Power House exhibit at New York’s Schenectady Museum & Suits-Bueche Planetarium explores inventions and innovations credited to General Electric and other companies based in New York’s Capital Region. According to curator Chris Hunter, the list includes cloud seeding (artificial snow), television, superconducting cable, artificial diamonds and lasers, as well as wind and solar technology. The exhibit also stakes Schenectady’s claim to being the accidental birthplace of Silly Putty — during experiments with silicone — during World War II. “The official Silly Putty site says that James Wright developed Silly Putty in New Haven, Conn., but General Electric never had a lab in New Haven. Wright’s silicone patents list his residence as Schenectady or [nearby] Alplaus,” said Hunter.
John Gorrie Museum State Park
He’s technically the father of modern air conditioning, but you may call him Mr. Cool. In the mid-1800s, John Gorrie was a young physician in Florida fretting over how to cool the rooms of patients suffering from yellow fever. His solution: a machine that could make ice. In 1851, Gorrie received the first U.S. patent for mechanical refrigeration and today his contribution to cooling is celebrated in Apalachicola, Fla., at John Gorrie Museum State Park. The museum displays a full-size replica of Gorrie’s patented ice-maker and the facility is, as you’d expect in a town where summer temperatures can top 100 degrees, fully air conditioned.
American Museum of Radio and Electricity
In addition to a collection of rare and remarkable radios, the American Museum of Radio and Electricity in Bellingham, Wash., documents what museum president John Jenkins describes as “the incredible number of electrical inventions produced in the relatively short time since Benjamin Franklin first described his famous Kite experiment.” Displays follow the electrical arc from Franklin through to the invention of radio and television and include the world’s first batteries, electrical motors, electric lights, telephony, telegraphy and assorted medicinal devices. The Electricity Sparks Invention gallery, for example, displays perpetual motion machines, a telephone used in the first transatlantic call and experimental light bulbs used in Thomas Edison’s laboratory in Menlo Park, N.J.
Computer History Museum
From its Mountain View, Calif., home in Silicon Valley, the Computer History Museum uses artifacts that reach back to the abacus to tell the story of computing and its impact on society. Among the collection’s more than 1,000 items are inventions that include the first disk drive, the first microprocessor, the first video games, the first computer mouse, the prototype for the original Apple iPod and one of Google’s first servers. Not everything is run by micro-processors: Also on display is the large punch card tabulator Herman Hollerith invented in 1890 that made it possible to shave seven years off the 10 it took back then to tally the results of the U.S. census.
Corning Museum of Glass
The Corning Museum of Glass, in Corning, N.Y., exhibits objects from glass history reaching back more than 3,500 years. Also on display are a variety of Corning’s high tech, glass-based inventions such as the glass “envelope” that made Edison’s light bulbs possible in 1879, unbreakable Pyrex dishware introduced in 1915 and, from 1970, the optical fiber that essentially threw the “on” switch for the modern telecommunications revolution.
Heinz History Center
The Heinz History Center’s long-term exhibition, “Pittsburgh: A Tradition of Innovation,” celebrates home-grown inventions that include Jonas Salk’s invention of the Polio vaccine, the Big Mac, the world’s first Jeep (built in nearby Butler) and the first Ice Capades. Displays include an original transmitter from the world’s first commercial radio station, KDKA, and a model of the local iron foundry that built the world's largest cannon. Also on display: a movable model of the giant wheel designed by Pittsburgh bridge engineer, George Ferris, for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The Ferris Wheel was almost 50 feet tall and rotated on a 71-ton, made-in-Pittsburgh axle.
In addition to a vast photography and motion picture collection, the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography & Film in Rochester, N.Y., has an extensive technology collection. Notable inventions and innovations on display include the earliest commercial-produced cameras and motion picture machines and a lunar orbiter camera created by Kodak for NASA. The museum also exhibits early Brownie cameras, which were the inexpensive and incredibly popular cameras Kodak made from 1900 to 1970. A Brownie that Ansel Adams used to take photographs in Yosemite National Park is part of the museum’s collection.
In 1831, Cyrus McCormick invented a mechanized grain reaper that saved farmers time by combining the work of several harvesting machines into one. The invention was patented in 1834 and the small company that began manufacturing reapers eventually grew into the giant International Harvester Company. The 620-acre McCormick Farm, where the reaper was developed, now serves as an agricultural research center for Virginia Tech University. Among the exhibits inside the center’s museum are 14 miniature reaper models like the ones salesmen of the late 1800s would take out on the road.
Connecticut Historical Society
In New Haven, the Connecticut Historical Society is putting finishing touches on its “Making Connecticut” exhibit, which opens in May 2011. Included among the 500-items on display will be things invented and made in the Nutmeg State. According to museum spokesperson Ed Main, that list includes the first portable typewriter, the first American cookbook, the first telephone directory, Wiffle balls, Pez, Frisbees, Erector sets and Cabbage Patch dolls. Although Schenectady, N.Y., has staked a claim to being the birthplace of Silly Putty, Main insists Silly Putty was born in New Haven. “Other putties may have been invented, but ‘Silly Putty’ [the company website] states it was created in New Haven.”