(Photo by Lalita Clozel)
On Wednesday morning, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History is unveiling a new exhibition on enterprise and innovation in the U.S. — spanning from the Red River Cart of the mid-1800s to today’s iPhone.
The stories behind American inventions help us “really understand who we are as a country,” said curator Peter Liebhold.
The 8,000-square-foot “American Enterprise” exhibition showcases the history of innovation via 600 artifacts dating back to four different time periods: the merchant era (1770s-1850s), the corporate era (1860s-1930s), the consumer era (1940s-1970s) and the global era (1980s-2010s).
Recent objects include the iPhone journalist Andy Carvin used to document the Arab Spring from afar, a 1989 Game Boy and an original Google server that had been “cobbled together from cheap parts that could be easily replaced,” noted Liebhold. “Instead of building eloquently, it was built inexpensively.”
But much earlier objects will also strike a chord for modern entrepreneurs.
Eli Whitney’s mechanical cotton gin, for instance, is both famous for transforming the cotton industry and serving as a warning tale of patent nightmares. “He would win the battles, but not the war,” said Liebhold.
The cash register grew out of scaling dynamics; traditionally family-run businesses were overtaken by companies that hired outside help. Saloon owner James Ritty created a first prototype to “stop paid assistants from taking money,” said Liebhold.
And it turns out that Thomas Edison, the inventor with more than 1,000 patents to his name who is responsible for engineering the first public display of electric light and pioneering sound recording technology, also tried to peddle a talking doll that will give you nightmares.
It stands quietly inside its glass casing, under cover of Edison’s 1879 “New Year’s Eve” light bulb.
“We call it the creepy baby doll,” said Liebhold.
The wind-up phonograph camouflaged inside its body delivers disquieting results. “You’d hear this scratchy noise of a woman singing a nursery rhyme,” said Liebhold. And its clunkiness makes the doll “almost as big as a small child that would hold it.”
“It was heavy, it was big, it was drastically expensive,” concluded Liebhold. So, yeah, “it was not very popular”
Fear not though, the exhibition is a great playground for modern-day children.
Thirty-four electronic interactives including six different touchscreens that make the stories come to life.
“Instead of just lecturing to them and forcing history down their mouth, we’re making history much more fun,” said Liebhold.
- The Biography Wall, a touchscreen designed by McLean-based Cortina Productions and the History Channel, features dozens of entrepreneurs, from Alexander Graham Bell to Oprah Winfrey.
- The Tower of Power, a game where a judicious mix of collaboration and competition will allow you to raise your colorful light to the top before everyone else’s.
- A “graphic novel” touchscreen that allows viewers to dive into the story of each individual portrayed in Christian Schussele’s Men of Progress painting.
- A game that uses players’ footwork to conduct polls, like a more instructive version of Dance Dance Revolution.
- A cat food business simulator meant to educate you about the “triple bottom line.”
The exhibition is located inside the “Innovation Wing,” a newly renovated 45,000-square-foot space. Other exciting spots include a demo kitchen with a righteously enormous vent, a “Places of Invention” gallery that explores how certain areas — like Silicon Valley — have shaped industries and the Spark! Lab invention workshop.
Oh, and did we mention the wing’s centerpiece, a reconstitution of legendary video games inventor Ralph Baer’s basement? “We went up to his house and took everything out of his basement and recreated it here,” said Liebhold.
To fund the Innovation Wing, the museum raised $63 million, including $43 million from corporate donors, such as Mars Incorporated, SC Johnson and Monsanto.