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Smithsonian Magazine

On May 26, the Smithsonian Institution convened a group of thought leaders to address the most pressing challenges facing the planet. One theme was the role—and limitations—of technological innovation in mitigating the effects of the Anthropocene. Highlights from that conversation are below. 

Catrina Rorke

“This idea, that humans can't solve a problem that we're presented with? I think we have no data for that. Humans are marvelous at treating problems, especially aggressive problems like this, quite well. That's why agricultural productivity is up. … that's why we're going to solve the climate challenge.”

“I'm a huge believer in technology… we're already solving these problems today, sure energy might be a small example, but you can see this footprint of innovation allowing us to leapfrog a lot of the obstacles that we faced in the developed world to just skip over a lot of the problems we've generated for ourselves. And so I'm optimistic, because I think we're gonna keep inventing really cool things.”

Tuck Hines

"It may be that technology will get to the point where it's acknowledging and solving a way to live within those limits, but it isn't scientifically, I will say, possible for an infinite growth of the human population on the planet." 

“The question of whether technology, or innovation, can solve the problems that we're facing with is a somewhat different question. But at the grossest level, there's only so many square meters on the planet, and if everybody's standing on all those square meters, then you’ve got a problem that technology isn't going to solve.”

Mary Tucker

“Technology is necessary, but not sufficient, which is what I think we're all saying. … I think technology as a solution alone is a misplaced notion, but especially without a precautionary principle. What are the implications for these technologies that we're releasing?”

Steve Monfort

"I think people are too reliant on quick fixes through technology and it makes them complacent [in] not dealing with the immediate threats to biodiversity that we can solve right now. ... It's a great tool. But in and of itself, it's not going to solve anything."

“If there was more consensus or action around policy, we probably would be on our way to making the change that's needed. But technology in itself is also a risk if people become disconnected with nature. And I think that's a huge issue with our generation ... this idea that you can substitute that for going out in the field and discovering biodiversity and understanding how those systems function? Those can't be done by robots, or, human beings, working with their hands, in the field, need to be doing that. And people are not going to protect. It sounds cliché, but what they don't love (they) don't understand.”

Denise Fairchild:

"Technology is a tool, but I don't think it's going to get us out of our climate challenge."

"I believe that it is an ethical challenge that we're facing. I do believe we're two and a half times past carrying capacity in the earth. That we cannot continue to produce and consume at the level that we are now. ... We're finding some tools to help solve, to mediate, to mitigate some of the problems, but I don't think it's going to solve (problem of) climate change." 

Energy Innovation

Smithsonian Magazine

When Patents Cramp Innovation

Smithsonian Magazine

When Innovation Flows Uphill

Smithsonian Magazine

The Cheshire innovation

National Museum of American History
"'I wish you wouldn't keep appearing and vanishing so suddenly: you make one quite giddy.'

"'All right,' said the Cat; and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone.

"'Well! I've often seen a cat without a grin,' thought Alice, 'but a grin without a cat! It's the most curious thing I ever saw in all my life.'"

- Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland (Book-of-the-Month Club Inc., 1994; originally published 1865), 88-89.

People have become used to technologies that seemingly disappear. Devices whose presence so fades into the background of our daily lives that we use them without thought, noticing them only when they fail. Despite that, when those devices demand our attention, typically there's still something to see—a burned-out light bulb or a dead cell phone.

We recently received a donation of materials related to the work of inventor Ray M. Dolby (1933-2013). Dolby Laboratories, the company Ray founded, is celebrating its Golden Anniversary so we decided this would be a good time to bring examples of Ray's work into the national collections. The influence of Dolby's contributions to sound engineering is of unquestioned significance and we had very few pieces to document the history of that technology.

While many people have heard the Dolby name and seen it on their radio or video devices, for most consumers there's little else to see of Ray's work. As I reviewed the history and considered what we might collect, I realized that, like the Cheshire Cat, the technology invented by Dolby and his company slowly vanished into tape decks, radios, televisions, and studio sound systems, leaving behind not a grin but a logo.

Ray Dolby's earliest commercial work came as a nineteen-year-old member of the Ampex team that developed the VR-1000, the first commercially successful video recorder. Ray helped design the recording head for the 1956 studio device and we have the first production unit in the collections. However, Ray's signature achievement was the invention of the sound compander. This device reduced the extra noise that recording and reproducing equipment added to sound recordings.

Six men with machine

Unwanted noise introduced by the equipment degrades sound recordings' quality. The crackle made by a stylus moving in a groove, the hiss of tape passing over a magnetic head, electrical effects that distort a signal—these all make recordings less accurate than the original sounds. Inventors have striven for better sound quality or "high fidelity" ever since Thomas Edison introduced his phonograph in 1876. Ray Dolby devised a way to reduce unwanted noise by compressing and then expanding the audio signal. Hence the term, sound companding. Ray's compander dramatically improved the quality of sound recordings. He and his company have spent the last fifty years building on that work.

Ray's early noise reduction systems, like this prototype model 301 from 1966, were by no means invisible. Dolby intended the model 301 to be a commercial-grade product for professional sound studios and designed the unit in his London laboratory. Dolby referred to this as his type A system.

Dolby 301 unit

In 1967, Dolby made a deal with Henry Kloss (1929-2002), another audio inventor and a maker of Advent tape recorders for the consumer market. This Dolby type B noise reduction unit was designed to work with Kloss' recorders, although this unit was for playback use only. The now familiar double-D logo appears in the upper left corner.

Dolby type B

The 1968 model 100, a rack-mounted unit worked in both record and playback modes. An electrical schematic on the bottom of this piece is an especially nice feature from a museum standpoint since it helps document exactly how the device was used. A note indicating that this device was "not licensed for use in the mass production of recordings" indicates Dolby's intended market for this unit: consumers, not studios.

Dolby model 100

By the early 1970s, Dolby's technology moved from being an add-on accessory to an integral part of the Advent recorder. This model 201 cassette deck features a switch to activate the noise reduction system. Aside from the switch, only the logo shows the presence of Ray's invention. The recorder also included a switch that allowed the use of chromium oxide tapes. The CrO2 tapes gave superior performance than ordinary ferrite oxide tapes but the sound properties could change over time. The switch helped the Dolby system compensate.

Cassette deck

During the 1980s and 1990s, users no longer needed to throw a switch. Dolby's noise reduction system simply turned-on with the device. Ray and his company adapted the technology for new audio media and continued to design circuits for both consumer and professional markets. This Type S system board from 1989 shows how Dolby's technology continued to shrink and be integrated at the component level.

Dolby type S board

Today, like the Cheshire Cat in his tree, Dolby's noise reduction system sits invisibly within users' audio equipment. Only the logo remains to mark its presence. The first rule here is "you can't collect it all," so curators weigh many factors when considering what to collect. I wanted to document the history of Ray and his company while also considering how we might present that history to our audiences, a difficult task with black box inventions. We already had several objects with little for visitors to see except the logo. By selecting these pieces, I can show how Ray's technology morphed from a large, discrete component into something that most users never even know is there. As Alice might say, a curious thing indeed.

Harold Wallace, curator in the Division of Work and Industry, has also blogged about an 1883 electrical disaster and a Korean War telegraph.

Want more stories of American innovation and inventiveness? Join us to explore the theme of American innovation through blog postsexhibitions, collections, programs, and more.

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Solidarity / Diversity / Innovation

National Museum of American History

Castle Innovation Waltz

National Portrait Gallery

10 Gifts to Celebrate Innovation

Smithsonian Magazine

Rodney Mullen on Innovation

Lemelson Center, National Museum of American History
In August of 2012, the Lemelson Center invited Rodney Mullen, the unquestioned leader and pioneer of street skating, to visit us to discuss the role of invention and innovation in American life. We exchanged ideas and views not only about skateboarding, but about the role and importance of creativity and innovation to building a better society.

Draw & Discover: Miniature Innovation

Smithsonian American Art Museum
ThumbnailThe Luce Foundation Center’s Mary Tait who leads the weekly sketching program, Draw & Discover, recently discovered that one of the regular participants, C. Pamela Palco, is a miniature artist.

Introducing a Special Report on Energy Innovation

Smithsonian Magazine

Rare are the moments in history when the need for energy innovation has been greater. Roughly 1.3 billion people live without access to electricity, a basic ingredient for economic growth, and twice that number live without access to clean cooking fuel. Meanwhile, American households are spending a greater percentage of their income (4 percent) on gasoline now than they have at any time in nearly 30 years, with the exception of 2008. Political turbulence in the Middle East has fueled a spike in global energy prices. Climate change has brought about warming waters, increasing air temperatures, decreasing water availability, more frequent floods and severe storms. Left unchecked, these trends are expected to intensify, with potentially serious consequences for the energy sector. They have already disrupted fuel supplies and increased the risk of blackouts.

Fortunately, necessity—that ever-loving mother of invention—now has an equal partner in opportunity. Today's engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs and big thinkers possess a growing set of tools to transform the energy landscape at a massive scale and are beginning to solve the problems of energy security, sustainability, energy poverty and climate change.  Cross-pollination and collaboration across distances is getting easier, and many tools are cheaper than ever.

In this special report, takes a look at those tools—robotics, computing power, sensors, advanced materials, 3D printing and more—as well as some of the most promising solutions, moon-shot ideas, leading innovators and the science behind the breakthroughs. has assembled a collection of articles, interviews and interactive features highlighting how innovation is unfolding around the world and what it means for our energy future.

We explore the possibilities of a next-generation electric system in Kenya that could skip right over the troubles of fossil fuels and foster a robust low-carbon economy. We highlight companies that are putting robots to work for cheaper renewable energy, and other technologies that are showing that creativity applied to even the most time-tested elements—air, water, gravity, and basic mechanics—can yield important advances for the power grid. And we peek inside the workspaces of a few inventors who paved the way for today’s energy innovators, from physicist Michael Faraday’s laboratory in London to Thomas Alva Edison’s collaborative workspace in rural New Jersey.

As inventor Saul Griffith, founder and CEO of the San Francisco research and development company Otherlab, tells, “It’s worth fighting for the world that you would like to create.” Because with enough people fighting on the side of solutions, he says, “Maybe we’ll pull it off.” In the coming months, we’ll bring you more from Griffith and other stories about energy problem solvers and their innovations.


Josie Garthwaite is a freelance science writer and editor based in San Francisco, California.

Innovation and industry on TV

National Museum of American History

Invention & Innovation with the USPTO

Smithsonian Latino Center
Learn about invention and innovation from our collaborators at the United States Patent and Trademark Office and Descubra: Meet the Science Expert. ¡Descubra! is made possible, in part, through program support provided by NBCUniversal Telemundo Enterprises.

250 Years of Pittsburgh Innovation

Smithsonian Education
Let Andrew Masich, president and CEO of the Senator John Heinz History Center, a Smithsonian Affiliate in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, take you on a journey through the history of Pittsburgh innovation. Learn more at /

"Tapping" into innovation

National Museum of American History

What Skateboarding Tells Us About Innovation

Smithsonian Magazine

Rodney Mullen tore his own hip joint apart on purpose. “Sheer desperation,” he says by way of explanation. “Doctors would not recommend it.” 

By 2003, after nearly 30 years of skateboarding—if you’ve ever seen kids skating, you’ve seen tricks Mullen devised—the legendary athlete had pummeled his right hip joint so much that scar tissue and the grinding of bone on bone had gotten the joint stuck in a single track.

He couldn’t skate. He couldn’t stand it.

Mullen says his doctors told him there was a treatment for smaller joints that get stuck like this. But a hip joint was too big and too risky. “They put you to sleep and they put something like a boat clamp to you and they chhhkk,” he says, with a snapping motion. 

“They don't want to go bigger than shoulders,” he says. He feared that without treatment, he wouldn't be able to skate again. Eventually he got desperate enough to try doing it himself.

He started exerting huge amounts of painful pressure on his own joint, hoping to tear the scar tissue a tiny bit at a time. He braced himself against shopping cart racks, fire hydrants, and the wheel well of his truck. Twice while he was doing this, police came by to investigate because he was screaming so loudly they thought someone was being mugged.

The whole process took about seven years. “A grain of sand at a time,” he says. “Just a little bit, without being put to sleep, or just tearing myself. It was horrible. But you get through it, you know?” He did get through it, and by 2010 had recovered full rotation in his right hip.

Self-administering an unprecedented medical procedure isn’t exactly something most people aspire to, but in Mullen’s life, desperation is far from the only thing that’s led to innovation.

Mullen, now 50, has been skateboarding since he was ten, and it’s no exaggeration to say that he created modern skateboarding. He invented the foundational tricks of the sport, like the flatground ollie, in which a skater levitates her board using nothing but her feet. He’s self-deprecating and soft-spoken, but seeing him, for a skateboarder, is like a sandwich aficionado meeting the inventor of bread. 

“What Rodney won’t tell you is that he invented 80, 90 percent of what modern street skateboarding is: the tricks that kids do all over the world today,” says Josh Friedberg, secretary general of the International Skateboarding Federation.

Mullen recently spoke at this year’s Innoskate, a program co-sponsored by the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, at which Christian Hosoi and Steve Van Doren also donated two historically important skateboarding objects—an original 1985 Hosoi Hammerhead Pro Model Deck skateboard and the original industrial mold used to produce the Vans waffle sole shoe, which became the iconic skateboarding shoe—to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

Steve Van Doren of Vans, Inc (right) signs a deed of gift, giving the Smithsonian an original industrial production mold used to make the iconic waffle soles for the Vans shoes and several pairs of Vans from the 1970s and 80s. (NMAH)

Mullen discussed his sources of invention in skateboarding—a combination of deep knowledge of trick structure, deliberate experimentation and sharp shoves into uncharted territory—with a panel of scientists, photographers and filmmakers at MIT. 

When Mullen first started skateboarding, the timing was perfect for invention. He considers himself lucky to have started at a time when his inspiration was the kid down the street rather than an accomplished skating expert, and a time when the sport was still coalescing. “It wasn't like I analytically looked to see, this is a nascent sport and I have this opportunity—it’s not like that. You just look around, like, ‘That looks cool, and I bet I can do all kinds of cool stuff with this. This is wide open.’

“Whereas I think it would be really intimidating right now. You walk in starting fresh, these kids are like, where to start now? And you look and it's all this crazy polished stuff and each one looks like it would take years, like watching gymnasts and stuff. And that's so intimidating to me. It wasn't like that when I started.”

Now, with more experience, Mullen sees skateboarding tricks like syllables that he can string together into different words and sentences. He says that to create a new trick, he tries to “nurture the nodes” of connection between different components. “You tweak the heads and tails of the syllables,” he says, “In a very physical way. It’s very real—it’s all energy.” Some combinations flow better than others. 

But for Mullen, deliberate experimentation isn’t the whole story. “Innovation or creativity, it comes not so much by logical deduction. You can only go so far with that. Real new ideas are always in the form of epiphanies. They just snap.”

Christian Hosoi donates his original 1985 Hosoi Hammerhead Pro Model Deck (NMAH)

“If you tinker with the nodes,” Mullen says, “all you're doing is tinkering, and then you take it someplace new,” for example, a steeper or gentler slope, which changes the skateboard’s momentum. “And it's as though you're giving a new force to punch it, and it will break out into this new beautiful singular new trick: a fracture. That's singular and unique. In fact, it was being nurtured the whole time...It just takes one little touch for it all to snap into place.”

“A new trick, it's a lightning strike.” 

Most recently, the new place where Mullen took many of his tricks was a dome filled with 100 cameras in a 360-degree array, the brainchild of filmmaker Steven Sebring. The result of Mullen and Sebring’s collaboration is the short 360-degree film Liminal, which includes some tricks that Mullen invented in the claustrophobic dome.

“When I got in there, immediately I was enthralled with how beautiful it looked,” says Mullen. It was also disorienting, which was part of the beauty. “It’s a little space capsule, it's all black,” he says. Being in the confines of the dome took his tricks out of historical context, which helped him recombine them in new ways. “I thought, ‘What if there could be a fusion of eras, from the oldest of the freestyle stuff, stuff that I hadn't done in 20 years, to the most modern that I'm still trying to work out?”

The highlight of the Innoskate Cambridge 2016 program with 1,500 attending the two-day program was the best trick contest. (NMAH)

Collaborating with filmmakers was also a revelation. “The editor. . .created this living piece of just the rejects of stuff that was embarrassing to me,” says Mullen, “made of stuff that from a skater’s perspective it hurt how bad it was. It creates something beautiful that tells the story of the skating and the failure too. The epiphany is. . .what’s hard is different than what’s beautiful.”

Sebring and Mullen’s project is especially resonant given the role that video and video games have played in skateboarding innovation. 

“What's happened in skateboarding is these pro skater video games came out,” like Tony Hawk Pro Skater, Friedberg explains. “And there are people doing tricks in these games that no one had done on a skateboard, because it's a physics engine and it can flip the board and do this trick.” As a result, skaters suddenly saw new tricks that were technically possible, but that no human had ever done.

There was already a strong culture of videotaping tricks in skateboarding, and the filming had already changed how skateboarders learned, Friedberg says. Kids would watch a video of a pro skater and it would change what they thought they themselves were capable of learning, to the point where it would actually help them learn faster. “Kids see videos of Tony Hawk and they go, ‘Oh, all that stuff's possible.’ So now you have nine-year-olds who are doing 900s on a ramp. That was something that took the skate community two and a half decades to do.”

“It’s so fundamental to what we do, breaking through this barrier of disbelief,” Mullen says. “That's the biggest obstacle to creativity. It’s rarely a question of ability; it's rarely a question of tactic or studying motion. We all study motion, but that's usually not what makes the difference if you're like the top ten or 20 best guys trying a trick. You just have to watch someone make it, the fact that he made it, and then the rest come like lemming, they really do. They just—kids that are not even that good are outdoing guys who've spent their whole life doing this, you know? And because they see, it's just smashing the barriers of disbelief.”

Mullen’s gift is a kind of visual and kinetic imagination—being able to see things in his mind that don't exist, things that the rest of us have to see to believe.

Most recently, the new place where Mullen took many of his tricks was a dome filled with 100 cameras in a 360-degree array, the brainchild of filmmaker Steven Sebring. (NMAH)

The Best Books About Innovation of 2016

Smithsonian Magazine

As one year draws to a close and another begins, it's a time to be reflective, and also freshly inspired. These eight books strike the perfect balance, with authors ruminating on the history of invention and how our times will be studied centuries from now, making predictions about where technology is taking us, and telling stirring stories of dreamers accomplishing great things.

Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World

If necessity is the mother of invention, then play is its father, argues Steven Johnson in his latest book. The bestselling author looks at innovations in six areas—fashion, music, taste, illusions, games and public space—that were considered mere play things in their time, but turned out to be precursors to serious inventions, calling them “artifacts of the future.” You’ve probably never thought of music boxes as a herald for the dawn of computers. (See’s Q&A with Johnson.)

But What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past

What would the present day look like if we were viewing it from a few centuries in the future? That’s the question Chuck Klosterman asks in his latest philosophical tome. The American pop culture magnate speculates that we are mistaken on many things, as we think and feel about them now. Time might reveal the Melvilles, Kafkas and Van Goghs of today, whose brilliance will only be recognized posthumously, and surprising truths about everything from physics to democracy to sports. Klosterman invites scintillating characters—David Byrne, Junot Díaz, Neil deGrasse Tyson, among others—to muse with him.

The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future

Wired magazine cofounder Kevin Kelly is optimistic about the next 30 years. From “screening,” “accessing” and “sharing” to “filtering,” “tracking,” “remixing” and “interacting,” he takes a look at 12 powerful trends in our use of technology. “I want people to embrace the general direction while deciding and choosing the specifics,” he told (See this Q&A with Kelly.)

 The Geography of Genius: A Search for the World’s Most Creative Places from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley

When artists, inventors and entrepreneurs spring up in the same location, we think there must be something in the water. But that fluffy line isn’t enough for travel writer Eric Weiner. For his latest book, he tramps across place and time—from ancient Athens to Renaissance Florence, and turn-of-the-19th-century Calcutta to today’s Silicon Valley—to better understand how certain localities become hotspots for ingenuity.

Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art

As The New York Times put it in a review, Virginia Heffernan gives readers of her latest book a tour through an imagined Smithsonian Natural Museum of Internet History. She critically assesses the internet as an art form, celebrating the magic of it—online messaging boards connecting strangers and YouTube—and mourning the technologies and experiences it’s trampled in its rise. (See’s Q&A with Heffernan.)

From Silk to Silicon: The Story of Globalization Through Ten Extraordinary Lives

The story of globalization is often told through industries and political policies, but Yale economic historian Jeffrey E. Garten has a different take: people. Garten, who held senior positions in four presidential administrations, identifies ten military leaders, businessmen and politicians—from Genghis Khan to Margaret Thatcher—that, in their actions in the past 1,000 years, connected the wide world in ways that made it feel just a little bit smaller.

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

To use author Angela Duckworth’s definition, “grit” is “the combination of perseverance and passion for especially long-term and meaningful goals.” And the trait, she says, is more indicative of success than talent or IQ. The University of Pennsylvania psychologist has interviewed high profile CEOs and coaches, and studied various subcultures, from West Point cadets to National Spelling Bee finalists, and found that the gritty prevail. So how gritty are you? Take Duckworth’s quiz to find out. (See’s Q&A with Duckworth.)

How To Make a Spaceship: A Band of Renegades, an Epic Race, and the Birth of Private Space Flight

San Francisco journalist Julian Guthrie has penned a book for dreamers. With XPRIZE Foundation founder Peter Diamandis as her protagonist, she tells the thrilling story of the entrepreneurs, engineers and aviators competing for the Ansari X Prize, the $10 million booty promised to the first private company to propel a spaceship past the Karman line, or the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space.

Giant wind tunnel sped aircraft innovation

Smithsonian Insider

National Air and Space Museum Curator John Anderson describes major flight innovations made possible by the Full Scale Tunnel, built in 1931 at the National […]

The post Giant wind tunnel sped aircraft innovation appeared first on Smithsonian Insider.

Game Changers: Liz Ogbu on Social Innovation

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Liz Ogbu in conversation with Curator of Socially Responsible Design at Cooper Hewitt Cynthia E. Smith. From designing shelters for immigrant day laborers in the United States to a water and health social enterprise for low-income Kenyans, Liz Ogbu has a long history of working with communities in need to leverage the power of design to deliver social impact. A designer, urbanist, and social innovator, she is founder and principal of Studio O, a multidisciplinary design and innovation firm, as well as adjunct faculty at UC Berkeley and Stanford’s Previous roles include first ever Scholar-in-Residence at the Center for Art & Public Life at California College of the Arts, Innovator-in-Residence through the inaugural Fellowship, and Design Director at the nonprofit Public Architecture. Game Changers is made possible by support from IDEO.
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