September 2, 2010
Sadly, summer is whizzing by. August has come and gone, and we have yet to acknowledge National Inventors Month! So happy belated! We bring you our the Around the Mall Blog team’s “Top Ten Inventions from the National Museum of American History’s Collections.” The museum, after all, is home to the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, which celebrates National Inventors Month every year.
1. Thomas Edison’s Incandescent Light Bulb
“The Wizard of Menlo Park” has many inventions to his credit—an electric vote recorder, the phonograph, a telephone transmitter—but his most famous was the light bulb. He scribbled more than 40,000 pages full of notes and tested more than 1,600 materials, everything from hairs from man’s beard to coconut fiber, in his attempts to find the perfect filament. In 1879, he finally landed on carbonized bamboo and created the first modern-looking light bulb—filament, glass bulb, screw base and all. The light bulb was manufactured by Corning, a leader in glass and ceramics for the last 159 years.
2. Alexander Graham Bell’s Large Box Telephone
In its collection, the NMAH has one of two telephones Alexander Graham Bell used to conduct a call from Boston to Salem on November 26, 1876. The system, which worked when sound waves induced a current in electromagnets that was conducted over wires to another telephone where the current produced audible air vibrations, was used commercially starting in 1877.
3. Abraham Lincoln’s Patent Model for a Device for Raising Boats off Sand Bars
As a 40-year-old lawyer in Illinois, Abraham Lincoln designed floats that could be employed alongside a river boat to help it avoid getting caught in shallow waters. He was granted a patent from the U.S. Patent Office on May 22, 1849. The product never came to fruition, but Lincoln remains the only U.S. president to hold a patent.
4. Sewing Machine Patent Model
Though not the first sewing machine, John Bachelder’s version, patented on May 8, 1849, was an improvement on the original. It was rigged with a leather conveyor belt that kept the fabric moving as it was being sewn. The patent was purchased by sewing machine giant I. M. Singer and became part of a pool of patents used to barter the Sewing Machine Combination, a team of three sewing machine manufacturers including the I. M. Singer Co. that propelled the industry forward.
5. Morse Daguerrotype Camera
Perhaps the first camera in the United States, this one made the trip from Paris with its owner Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph. Morse and French artist Louis Daguerre, who invented the daguerreotype process for photography, brainstormed invention ideas together.
(AND SOME SURPRISES…)
6. Magnavox Odyssey Video Game Unit
Months before Pong, the ping-pong game by Atari, overtook the video game scene in 1972, Magnavox Odyssey, the first home video game system, was released. The system merged traditional board games with the new video game concept by incorporating things like dice, paper money and cards. (Watch inventors Ralph Baer and Bill Harrison play a video game here, at the Smithsonian Lemelson Center’s 2009 National Inventors Month celebration.) Success, however, wasn’t in the cards. Less than 200,000 units were sold, while Pong sales skyrocketed. Baer went on to invent Simon, the electronic memory game.
7. The Rickenbacker Frying Pan, the First Electric Guitar
Musicians had been experimenting with using electricity to amplify the sound of string instruments for decades, but it was George Beauchamp and Adolph Rickenbacker who built the first commercial electric guitar around 1931. The electric guitar had its critics, who argued that it didn’t create an “authentic” musical sound, but it found its place with the rock and roll genre.
8. AbioCor Total Artificial Heart
Cardiac surgeons Laman Gray and Robert Dowling replaced patient Robert Tools diseased heart with an AbioCor Total Artificial Heart on July 2, 2001, at Jewish Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, making it the first electro-hydraulic heart implanted in a human. The battery-powered heart is capable of pumping more than 2.5 gallons of blood a minute to the lungs and the rest of the body. The invention was in clinical trials at the time of Tools’ surgery. He only lived for five months with the artificial heart, but even that, was well beyond the experimental goal of 60 days.
9. Krispy Automatic Ring-King Junior Doughnut Machine
Used by the Krispy Kreme Doughnut Corporation in the 1950s and ’60s, the Ring-King Junior could spit out about 720 doughnuts an hour! The miraculous machine and other Krispy Kreme artifacts were donated to the museum in 1997 on the 60th anniversary of the doughnut maker.
10. And last but not least, The World’s First Frozen Margarita Machine
As we savor the last days of summer, this one had to make the list. In 2005, the museum acquired the first-ever frozen margarita machine, invented by Dallas restaurateur Mariano Martinez in 1971. Museum director Brent Glass called the invention a “classic example of the American entrepreneurial spirit.” With the advent of the machine, margaritas became as standard as chips and salsa at Tex-Mex restaurants. (Next time I have one, I shall toast Mariano!)
What’s your favorite invention represented in the museum’s collections?
Update: This post has been updated to clarify that this list reflects the editorial whims of the Around the Mall blog team and is not an official ranking created by the National Museum of American History.
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