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Pocket Notebook of Inventions

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Button, Great Inventions

National Museum of American History
This circular button has white text on a red background that reads: Great Inventions. A mark in black ink on the reverse reads: NW 2/90.


When Animals Inspire Inventions

Smithsonian Magazine

Great inventions, by Charles Greeley Abbot ..

Smithsonian Libraries
"Primitive inventions ... have already been covered in volume 7 of this series ... My purpose was rather to select and explain the operation in their simpler forms of a few inventions, conceived mainly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries." - Pref.

Errata slip mounted on p. 228.

Ordinary objects or incredible inventions?

National Museum of American History

According to a recent report by Mintel, a marketing research agency, few millennials use bar soap. Don't be alarmed, though. They aren't running around filthy. They just prefer liquid soap. Though we don’t typically think about it, liquid soap is an invention that has made quite the impact on our daily lives.

On August 22, 1865, William Sheppard filed one of the first patents for liquid soap, titled "Improved Liquid Soap." Sheppard's "new and Improved Liquid Soap" formula produced a soap with "superior detergent qualities . . . made at a small cost" and was "very convenient for use" It is quite possible that this pitch is why millennials seem to be favoring it today.

A bottle with a label. The label is yellowed with age and and has writing on it. The words "pharmaceut" and "Berlin" are evident. Inside the bottle is a brown liquid.

If we think about items like liquid soap as inventions we learn fascinating things. This is part of what we teach at the Draper Spark!Lab, a hands-on space at the National Museum of American History where kids learn about the invention process and create their own inventions. This helps them develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills by identifying problems, thinking about how past inventors have solved them, and then tweaking inventions to make them better.

A large room with a light up sign that says "Spark Lab". There are tables with objects on them. The edges of the room have cases with old objects.
According to Laurel Miller, Spark!Lab's manager, it is important for kids to think of objects as inventions.

"It is how we begin to see ourselves participating in the invention process," Miller said. "We may start out as just the user or observer, but it can quickly progress to how you would tweak something to make it better. Or, you learn more about the inventor behind the object, and something in the inventor's story resonates with you personally. Or, you notice that not all inventions are super high-tech."

Take liquid soap, for example.

Other inventors continued to tweak liquid soap's formula, including Kurt Stickdorn who, according to his 1933 patent, used coconut oil to make the soap more effective. Beginning in the early 1900s, liquid hand soap became popular in public spaces, but it took a long time—more than a century—for it to be a common item in homes. In 1980, Minnetonka, a small company, released the first successful mass-produced liquid hand soap, Softsoap, beating out larger companies by buying all the available soap bottle pumps. Few companies made the pumps in the U.S. and the patent was kept secret, so other companies couldn't easily get in the business. Minnetonka bought the whole supply of pumps, nearly 100,000,000, in hopes of building a loyal consumer base before other companies could break into the market. Their bold strategy was a success at first, but larger companies, such as Ivory, quickly developed their own liquid hand soaps and broke into the market within a couple of years. Since then, liquid soap has only gained popularity.

An advertisement announcing Ivory soap pumps now come in four colors: magenta, light blue, robin's egg blue, and tan.

Learning liquid soap's story—and stories of other inventions—helps us see that everyday objects can still be improved and improve our problem-solving skills.

"All of a sudden, invention isn't so mysterious and inventors aren't so intimidating," Miller said. "You see your own contributions and ideas as valuable, and you see invention as something that solves a problem."

Objects created out of cardboard, pipe cleaners, masking tape, brads and straws.

Examine an invention with a kid in your life

Even if you can't visit us here at the Draper Spark!Lab, you can get your kids involved in the invention process and thinking about the history of invention. Here are some tips to get you started. They can be used to help kids explore the objects around them and think about how they can be inventive problem-solvers, too.

Ask open-ended questions. This helps kids think about problem-solving and the different techniques that past inventors have used that they can also use to create inventions at home.

Be encouraging! Say "That's a great idea! What about . . .?" instead of telling kids they're wrong.

When thinking about what problem the object solves:

  • Why is this invention needed?
  • Who would use this invention?

When thinking about how the invention was created and how to improve it:

  • What is the invention made of?
  • How could you tweak this invention?

Ask a specific question about part of an object. This helps kids discover what an unknown object is or why an invention looks different from what they might expect. For example: 

  • Why do liquid soap bottles have a pump? 
  • Did soap bars need a pump bottle?

Don't worry if you get a "wrong" answer. Some of the best conversations we have at Draper Spark!Lab about objects have nothing to do with the invention's actual use. Even if kids don't know what the invention does, they're thinking creatively.

The next time you visit a museum or walk to the playground, think about the inventions around you and the stories they can tell. You might inspire a kid in your life to become more inventive.

Emma Glaser and Sarah Rosenkrans completed internships at the Draper Spark!Lab in 2017. Emma is working on her Masters in Museum Studies at the Cooperstown Graduate Program at SUNY Oneonta and Sarah is working on her Masters in Museum Exhibition Planning + Design at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

Author(s): 
Emma Glaser and Sarah Rosenkrans
Posted Date: 
Monday, November 20, 2017 - 07:00
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26 Inventions Mothers Can Appreciate

Smithsonian Magazine

Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say—and consequently there are inventions to meet just about every mother's need.

A system for analyzing a baby's cry, patented in 2002, claims to diagnose the cause of the wail. To soothe a crying baby, there is any number of products—a blanket with a built-in heartbeat simulator and a pacifier with a convenient remote control that allows parents to locate it using light or sound, to name a couple. Certainly some of the gear created for infants and their caregivers is questionable—a remote controlled and motorized baby walker? But those inventions that make it onto shelves are there for consideration. The market for baby care products alone is expected to climb to $66.8 billion by 2017, from $44.7 billion in 2011.

There are gizmos for every stage of development. A special toilet paper dispenser, patented in 1988, keeps toddlers from unraveling rolls. A smart timer with entertaining trivia questions limits the length of teenagers' showers.

A search through the United States Patent and Trademark Office archives turns up loads of inventions meant to make a parent's life simpler. Mamas, you may not approve of all 27 ideas here but chances are you can understand the desire for them.

32c Rube Goldberg's Inventions single

National Postal Museum
mint

Sneaky 1960s rabies prevention inventions

National Museum of American History

Antibodies are always looking out for us, and this week we're taking a closer look at them. Antibody-based tests, vaccines, and drugs have dramatically influenced American history, culture, and quality of life. Smallpox, polio, and syphilis, once constant threats, are now distant memories for many, and recent antibody-based therapies continue to further the human battle against disease. Read our Antibodies Week posts on pregnancy testsan-tee-bodies t-shirts, plague, and healthy hogs

Anyone who endured a terrifying childhood screening of Old Yeller can testify that the ghastly symptoms of rabies, as well as its transmission via the bite of an infected animal, make rabies a particularly feared and fabled disease. Vaccines have ensured that the symptoms of many infectious diseases are unfamiliar to Americans—we might have heard about the symptoms, but we can't really picture what it would be like to suffer them. That is not the case for rabies.

Illustrated poster with red and black text: "The fox can transmit rabies." Illustrated image of a red/orange fox with bared teeth on a fallen log. Trees and leaves.
 
Rabies is a viral disease that infects the nervous system. It is transmitted through saliva, as well as brain and nervous system tissue. At first, an infected victim might experience malaise, and a slight tingling at the site of the bite wound. But soon, the virus infects the brain, eventually causing hallucinations, severe agitation, strange or violent behavior, and hydrophobia—the fear of and inability to drink water—coupled with extreme thirst. The manifestation of these later symptoms indicates that it is probably too late to begin successful treatment, and the victim will almost surely die. Rabies is a horrific disease for any animal to suffer.
 
Rectangular cardboard box labeled "Rabies Vaccine (Duck Embryo)" in a printed label. It is half open. Inside, vials with liquid are visible.

Happily, we now have very effective vaccines that prevent rabies in humans and other animals. Even if you are bitten by a non-vaccinated, rabid animal, quick administration of antibody-based therapies can now save your life. There is no reason that anyone, canine or human, has to die from rabies. Yet, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), every year more than 50,000 people worldwide die from rabies. Why?

Human vaccination and post-bite treatment for rabies is expensive and complex. The best strategy for rabies prevention is to vaccinate the wild and pet animal populations that transmit rabies. But how do we vaccinate wild animals?

One possibility is that we don't vaccinate them . . . we let them vaccinate themselves.

In the United States, wild animal populations, such as foxes, bats, and raccoons, are the most common carriers of the rabies virus. During the 1960s, investigators at the CDC attempted to develop a device that would allow these animals to "self-vaccinate." The scientists modified earlier devices—which had been used by trappers and ranchers—so that they would vaccinate, rather than kill, the coyotes or raccoons that happened upon them.

One of these early devices that the CDC sought to tweak was the questionably named "Humane Coyote Getter." The Getter had originally been patented in 1934 as a commercial device "for killing fur-bearing animals." It was a spring-loaded tube gun weaponized with a live shell of poisonous cyanide. Trappers set the device by partially burying it, then covering with bait—a piece of scented wool. When a coyote bit at the wool, the device shot a stream of cyanide into the coyote's mouth. It was a cruel device.

Ad in black and green for Humane Coyote Getter. Image of coyote sniffing product. Image of product, a spike-looking thing with wings.

Diagram in black and white showing spike-like mechanism.

CDC researchers sought to refashion the "Getter" into a truly humane device: they rigged it with shells of an oral rabies vaccine, rather than cyanide. Unfortunately, testing showed that the altered device sometimes wounded the animal's mouth. Further, the oral vaccine failed to create an acceptable level of immunity to rabies. Thus, both the vaccine and the device were deemed failures.

Photo: Metal device with small hook.

Illustration showing how a Vac-Trap works. Green grass, syringe, arm, and trigger pan shown.

Another device tested by the CDC was the Vac-Trap. This trap was inspired by a common device used by trappers: an animal would spring the trap by stepping on a metal pressure plate, triggering the device to close on the leg of the animal. The researchers modified this design so that when an animal stepped on the trigger plate a syringe full of vaccine swung around and jabbed the animal's body. Vaccinated, the animal continued on its merry way.

Device

Both the Humane Coyote Getter and the Vac-Trap illustrate that the struggle against rabies has been twofold: first, to devise safe and effective vaccines and therapies; second, to develop effective methods to deliver those vaccines to vulnerable populations, whether human or animal.

More recently, attempts to stop the spread of rabies have focused on a different kind of hacked self-vaccination device: food laden with a recombinant virus. Scientists have modified the world's oldest vaccine—the vaccinia virus vaccine, used to eradicate smallpox—in order to create new rabies vaccines. These genetically engineered recombinant vaccines are created by inserting a harmless gene from the rabies virus into the vaccinia virus. The vaccinia acts as the delivery device, while the rabies gene triggers the production of antibodies.

Tubular container with small sticks inside of it.

When put into food, animals eat the new vaccine, orally vaccinating themselves. The method has been used successfully in some wild animal populations, and scientists hope to apply it in areas with abundant populations of non-vaccinated stray dogs, as those animals are a main cause of human rabies infection. Perhaps, with a bit of clever hacking, the same vaccine that eradicated smallpox will now help to eradicate rabies.

Rachel Anderson is a research and project assistant in the Division of Medicine and Science.

Explore the Antibody Initiative website to see the museum's rich collections, which span the entire history of antibody-based therapies and diagnostics. 

The Antibody Initiative was made possible through the generous support of Genentech.

 

Posted Date: 
Thursday, October 19, 2017 - 07:00
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Inventions of the rich and famous

National Museum of American History

The book boom: Early bookbinding inventions

National Museum of American History

American inventions associated with the book were having a bit of a boom between the 1850s and the 1880s. The number of books published annually in the United States grew from 2,600 in 1869 to 4,500 in 1890.

What boosted the American book production and publishing trades? Circumstances included a growing population, interest in bolstering the distribution of information, advancements in printing technologies, the establishment of new paper mills, and inclinations toward competition and entrepreneurship.

Black and white illustration of woman and girl using machine

Did we have books before the boom? Yes, but most were imported from Europe. The few early American firms that produced and published books tended to be located in East Coast states, such as New York and Pennsylvania. The mid- to late-19th century boom encouraged the expansion of the book trade across the country with the increased availability there of supplies such as paper, machinery, and skilled workers, including papermakers, printers, and bookbinders.

America was at a turning point and eager to equal—and even outdo—all things European, including the production of consumer goods.

One of the most prolific inventors associated with the book trade was Irish-born David McConnell Smyth (1833—1907). Smyth's best-known invention was the first book-sewing machine. Granted patent number 74948 in 1868, the invention reworked and mechanized some of the systems and skills of the trade. According to Frank E. Comparato's Books for the Millions, the invention "incorporated a number of vertical straight needles—long and fragile . . . the notched (sewn) signatures, open and flat, were fed by hand above the needles . . . a spring-loaded, hand-operated rod passed thread to the hooked needles and retracted. The attendant had then to refold the signature, closing it over the stitch, before feeding another."

Smyth is noted for having been granted patents for some forty inventions for clothing and book sewing, as well as mining and irrigation machines. He is memorialized with the term "Smyth sewn" or "Smyth sewing," which refers to his inventions having to do with the "method of sewing together folded, gathered, and collated signatures with a single thread sewn through the folds of individual signatures." His many inventions inspired the formation in the 1880s of The Smyth Manufacturing Company in Hartford, Connecticut, which successfully produced examples of his machines for the market.

Patent drawing

Of the some 10,000 patent models in this museum's collections, about forty are listed with titles including the word "book," representing some thirty inventors. They include machines invented for book sewing and stitching, book trimming, a bookbinders' sewing table, a bookbinders' arming press, a bookbinders' finishing roll, machines for rounding and backing books, and sheet-feeding apparatuses for bookbinding. Nine of Smyth's models are represented in the collections across the museum.

The museum's patent models having to do with printing, type, and books reside in the Graphic Arts Collection. You can explore them online. If you have research that could help us better document our collections, we'd love to hear from you by e-mail.

Joan Boudreau is a curator in the Graphic Arts Collection at the National Museum of American History. She has also blogged about the "Pony" printing press.

Posted Date: 
Thursday, October 1, 2015 - 08:00
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Ten Inventions That Inadvertently Transformed Warfare

Smithsonian Magazine

Bayonet: In the early 17th century, sportsmen in France and Spain adopted the practice of attaching knives to their muskets when hunting dangerous game, such as wild boar. The hunters particularly favored knives that were made in Bayonne—a small French town near the Spanish border long renowned for its quality cutlery.

The French were the first to adopt the “bayonet” for military use in 1671—and the weapon became standard issue for infantry throughout Europe by the turn of the 17th century. Previously, military units had relied on pikemen to defend musketeers from attack while they reloaded. With the introduction of the bayonet, each soldier could be both pikeman and musketeer.

Even as modern weaponry rendered bayonets increasingly obsolete, they endured into the 20th century—in part because they were deemed effective as psychological weapons. As one British officer noted, regiments “charging with the bayonet never meet and struggle hand to hand and foot to foot; and this for the best possible reason—that one side turns and runs away as soon as the other comes close enough to do mischief.”

Barbed Wire: Invented in the late 19th century as a means to contain cattle in the American West, barbed wire soon found military applications—notably during the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) in what is now South Africa. As the conflict escalated, the British Army adopted increasingly severe measures to suppress the insurgency led by Dutch settlers.

One such measure was constructing a network of fortified blockhouses connected by barbed wire, which limited the movement of the Boers in the veldt. When British forces initiated a scorched-earth campaign—destroying farms to deny the guerrillas a means of support—barbed wire facilitated the construction of what was then termed “concentration camps,” in which British forces confined women and children.

More than a decade later, barbed wire would span the battlefields of World War I as a countermeasure against advancing infantry. A U.S. Army College pamphlet published in 1917 succinctly summarized the advantages of a barbed-wire entanglement:

“1. It is easily and quickly made.
2. It is difficult to destroy.
3. It is difficult to get through.
4. It offers no obstruction to the view and fire of the defense.”

Steamship: “The employment of steam as a motive power in the warlike navies of all maritime nations, is a vast and sudden change in the means of engaging in action on the seas, which must produce an entire revolution in naval warfare,” wrote British Gen. Sir Howard Douglas in an 1858 military treatise.

He was correct, although this revolution in naval warfare was preceded by a gradual evolution. The early commercial steamships were propelled by paddle wheels mounted on both sides of the vessel—which reduced the number of cannons a warship could deploy and exposed the engine to enemy fire. And a steamship would need to pull into port every few hundred miles to replenish its supply of coal.

Still, steamships offered significant advantages: They were not dependent upon the wind for propulsion. They were fast. And they were more maneuverable than sailing ships, particularly along coastlines, where they could bombard forts and cities.

Arguably the most important enabler of steam-powered warships was the 1836 invention of the screw propeller, which replaced the paddle wheel. The next major breakthrough was the invention of the modern steam turbine engine in 1884, which was smaller, more powerful and easier to maintain than the old piston-and-cylinder design.

Locomotive: Justus Scheibert, an officer in the Royal Prussian Engineers, spent seven months with the Confederate Army observing military campaigns during the Civil War. “Railroads counted in both sides’ strategies,” he quickly concluded. “Trains delivered provisions until the final moments. Therefore the Confederacy spared nothing to rebuild tracks as fast as the enemy destroyed them.”

Although railroads had been occasionally used during the Crimean War (1853-1856), the Civil War was the first conflict where the locomotive demonstrated its pivotal role in rapidly deploying troops and material. Mules and horses could do the work, though far less efficiently; a contingent of 100,000 men would require 40,000 draft animals.

Civil War historians David and Jeanne Heidler write that, “Had the war broken out ten years before it did, the South’s chances of winning would have been markedly better because the inequality between its region’s railroads and those of the North would not have been as great.”

But, by the time war did break out, the North had laid more than 21,000 miles of railroad tracks—the South had only about a third of that amount.

Telegraph: The Civil War was the first conflict in which the telegraph played a major role. Private telegraph companies had been in operation since the 1840s—a network of more than 50,000 miles of telegraph wire connected cities and towns across the United States when war erupted.

Although some 90 percent of telegraph services were located in the North, the Confederates were also able to put the device to good use. Field commanders issued orders to rapidly concentrate forces to confront Union advances—a tactic that led to victory in the First Battle of Bull Run, in 1861.

Arguably the most revolutionary aspect of the device was how it transformed the relationship between the executive branch and the military. Before, important battlefield decisions were left to the discretion of field generals. Now, however, the president could fully exercise his prerogative as commander in chief.

“Lincoln used the telegraph to put starch in the spine of his often all too timid generals and to propel his leadership vision to the front,” writes historian Tom Wheeler, author of Mr. Lincoln’s T-Mails. “[He] applied its dots and dashes as an essential tool for winning the Civil War.”

Image by Bettmann / Corbis. DDT proved to be so effective at relieving insect-borne diseases that some historians believe World War II was the first conflict where more soldiers died in combat than from disease. (original image)

Image by Bettmann / Corbis. Invented in the late 19th century as a means to contain cattle in the American West, barbed wire soon found military applications. (original image)

Image by Corbis. The French were the first to adopt the "bayonet" for military use in 1671—and the weapon became standard issue for infantry throughout Europe by the turn of the 17th century. (original image)

Image by Medford Historical Society Collection / Corbis. Although railroads had been occasionally used during the Crimean War, the Civil War was the first conflict where the locomotive demonstrated its pivotal role in rapidly deploying troops and material. (original image)

Caterpillar tractor: During World War I, engineers sought to design a war machine robust enough to crush barbed wire and withstand enemy fire, yet agile enough to traverse the trench-filled terrain of no man’s land. The inspiration for this armored behemoth was the American tractor.

Or, more specifically, the caterpillar tractor invented in 1904 by Benjamin Holt. Since the 1880s, Holt’s company, based in Stockton, California, had manufactured massive, steam-powered grain harvesters. To allow the heavy machines to traverse the steep, muddy inclines of fertile river deltas, Holt instructed his mechanics to replace the drive wheels with “track shoes” made from wooden planks.

Later, Holt sought to sell his invention to government agencies in the United States and Europe as a reliable means for transporting artillery and supplies to the front lines during wartime.

One person who saw the tractor in action was a friend of Col. E. D. Swinton of the Engineering Corps of the British Army. He wrote a letter to Swinton in July 1914 describing “a Yankee machine” that “climbs like hell.” Less than a year later, Swinton drafted specifications for a tank—with a rhomboid shape and caterpillar treads—designed to cross wide trenches. It later became known as “Big Willie.” The tanks made their combat debut during the Battle of the Somme on September 15, 1916.

As historian Reynold Wik has noted, “the first military tanks had no American parts, neither motors, tracks, nor armament. However. . . the technological innovation which occurred in Stockton in November 1904 had proved that heavy machines could be moved over difficult terrain with the use of track-type treads.”

Camera: Aerial photographic reconnaissance came of age in World War I, thanks to higher-flying planes and better cameras. Initially, planes were deployed to help target artillery fire more accurately. Later, they were used to produce detailed maps of enemy trenches and defenses, assess damage after attacks and even scout “rear echelon” activities to glean insights into enemy battle plans. Baron Manfred von Richthofen—“the Red Baron”—said that one photoreconnaissance plane was often more valuable than an entire fighter squadron.

The opposing armies took measures to thwart photographic reconnaissance. Potential ground targets were disguised with painted camouflage patterns. (The French, naturalment, enlisted the help of Cubist artists.)

Of course, the most effective countermeasure was to mount guns on planes and shoot down the observation aircraft. To provide protection, fighter planes escorted reconnaissance craft on their missions. The era of the “dogfight” began—and with it the transformation of the airplane into a weapon of warfare.

Chlorine: Historians generally agree that the first instance of modern chemical warfare occurred on April 22, 1915—when German soldiers opened 5,730 canisters of poisonous chlorine gas on the battlefield at Ypres, Belgium. British records indicate there were 7,000 casualties, 350 of which were lethal.

German chemist Fritz Haber recognized that the characteristics of chlorine—an inexpensive chemical used by the German dye industry—made it an ideal battlefield weapon. Chlorine would remain in its gaseous form even in winter temperatures well below zero degrees Fahrenheit and, because chlorine is 2.5 times heavier than air, it would sink into enemy trenches. When inhaled, chlorine attacks the lungs, causing them to fill with fluid so that the victim literally drowns.

In response, all sides sought even more lethal gases throughout the remainder of the conflict. Chlorine was an essential ingredient in manufacturing some of those gases—including the nearly odorless phosgene, which was responsible for an estimated 80 percent of all gas-related deaths in World War I.

DDT: In the late 1930s, with war on the horizon, the U.S. military undertook preparations to defend soldiers against one of the most lethal enemies on the battlefield: insect-borne diseases. During World War I, typhus—a bacterial disease spread by lice—had killed 2.5 million people (military and civilian) at the eastern front alone. Health specialists also worried about the prospect of mosquito-borne diseases, such as yellow fever and malaria, in the tropics.

The military needed an insecticide that could be safely applied as a powder to clothes and blankets. Initially synthesized by an Austrian student in 1873, DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) remained a laboratory oddity until 1939, when Swiss chemist Paul Müller discovered its insecticidal properties while researching ways to mothproof wool clothing. After the military screened thousands of chemical compounds, DDT eventually emerged as the insecticide of choice: it worked at low dosages, it worked immediately and it kept working.

DDT proved to be so effective that some historians believe World War II was the first conflict where more soldiers died in combat than from disease. Yet, even before the war ended, entomologists and medical researchers warned that the insecticide could have long-term, dangerous effects on public health and the environment. The United States banned DDT in 1972.

Tide-Predicting Machine: As the Allies planned their invasion of Europe in 1944, they faced a dilemma: Should they land on the beaches of Normandy at high tide or low tide?

The argument in favor of high tide was that troops would have less terrain to cross as they were subjected to enemy fire. However, German Gen. Erwin Rommel had spent months overseeing the construction of obstacles and booby traps—which he called a “devil’s garden”—to thwart a potential Allied landing. During high tide, the devil’s garden would be submerged and virtually invisible; but during low tide it would be exposed.

Ultimately, military planners concluded that the best conditions for an invasion would be a day with an early-morning (but steadily rising) low tide. That way, landing craft could avoid the German obstacles, and Army engineers could begin clearing them away for subsequent landings.

To complicate matters, the Allies also wanted a date when, prior to the dawn invasion, there would be sufficient moonlight to aid pilots in landing paratroopers.

So the Allies consulted meteorologists and other experts to calculate the dates when the tides and the moon would meet the ideal conditions. Among those experts was Arthur Thomas Doodson, a British mathematician who had constructed one of the world’s most precise tide-predicting machines—which reduced the risk of ships running aground when entering a harbor. Doodson’s machine was essentially a primitive computer that produced calculations using dozens of pulley wheels. Doodson himself calculated the ideal dates for the D-Day invasion—a narrow set of options that included June 5-7, 1944. The Allied invasion of Europe commenced on June 6.

Artificial Inventions that have changed thousands of lives

Smithsonian Insider

In the last century, science has led to developments in medical diagnosis, treatment and inventions that have changed the lives of thousands of people with […]

The post Artificial Inventions that have changed thousands of lives appeared first on Smithsonian Insider.

10 Victorian Inventions That Never Quite Took Off

Smithsonian Magazine

In the attempt to hit a home run, there are many, many foul balls. Just consider the inventions that came out of Victorian England. For every telephone and sewing machine, there was a “ventilating top hat,” “reversible trowsers” and a “corset with expansible busts.”

Julie Halls, a records specialist at the National Archives in London, is quite familiar with the harebrained schemes of 19th century British inventors. Many tinkerers hoping to make a buck off of gizmos meant to ease all sorts of tasks—from picking fruit to pulling off boots—filed detailed sketches to the United Kingdom's Designs Registry, an arm of the Board of Trade. For 10 pounds, the designer could obtain a copyright that lasted three years—a process that proved more surmountable than securing a patent. The Registry kept copies of the designs in leather-bound books, now part of the National Archives' collection.

Nosing through these tomes, Halls found the inventions, most never seen by the public, to be an interesting window into the era. She features more than 200 of the beautifully drawn products in her new book, Inventions That Didn't Change the World. Patent and registration agents, many engineers by training, often produced the drawings to the inventors' specifications or hired draftsmen to do so, according to Halls.

"Some seemingly inexplicable inventions make sense within their historical context," she writes. "One example is the 'Design for a Flying or Aerial Machine for the Artic Regions', which was registered at a time when exploration of the Arctic, and in particular attempts to find a trade route through the Northwest Passage, was the subject of sensational news stories. There are several designs registered around the time of the gold rushes, and the 'Anti-Garotting Cravat' coincided with a national scare about incidents of robbery."

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Inventions That Didn't Change the World

~ Julie Halls (author) More about this product
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While no single gadget in the book changed life as we know it, collectively they shaped an outlook on innovation that exists even today.

"The 19th century really invented invention itself, not just the production of occasional new devices but the unremitting, self-reinforcing stream of novelties that generated our present expectation of innovation as the normal state of affairs," writes Peter Pesic in the Wall Street Journal.

14 Easter Inventions That Never Quite Took Off

Smithsonian Magazine

When the first German immigrants settled in Pennsylvania in the late 17th century, they brought with them all types of traditions, including the Easter Bunny (which they called the Easter Hare) and along with that, a holiday ritual of building birds' nests of grass. The Easter Hare would surreptitiously drop eggs in the nests for children.

Over the centuries, the custom has evolved to the point where now many Americans typically lay a bed of grass inside of a basket, where the "Easter Bunny" leaves eggs, candy and other treats. And while some companies are selling organic hay and kits to grow your own grass as eco-friendly options, most use bundles of plastic grass.

It turns out people have strong opinions about the synthetic stuff. Beyond being wasteful, the petroleum-based plastic grass is a pesky product that has a way of getting everywhere. A search through the United States Patent and Trademark Office archives turns up several patents by disgruntled parents. There was a patent filed in 1990 for a mesh bag to keep the plastic grass contained and another from 1997 for a bunch of connected strands of decorative grass that can also attach to the rim of a basket, to prevent blades from coming loose. A group of inventors in 1993 even came up with an elaborate method for reducing the static charge on Easter grass.

Click through the gallery above for more products that never exactly made it mainstream.

Correction: The image gallery originally included a fun pair of bunny heels invented by Pamela Ohlsson Barras and sold by Streetzie's High Heel Bunny Slippers. The heels were not inspired by Easter and have seen commercial success. We are sorry for the error.

"Inventions" - Women's History Month Family Day 2012 Video Interviews

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
During the 2012 Women's History Month Family Day: A Celebration of Innovation and Invention, held at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, a team of ARTLAB+ teens filmed video interviews, asking festival goers about what they would like to invent. To learn more about ARTLAB+ Production Teams and other programs, visit artlabplus.si.edu.

17 Inventions That Will Put You in the Halloween Mood

Smithsonian Magazine

The National Retail Federation suspects that Americans will spend $6.9 billion this Halloween. About $2.5 billion will go toward store-bought costumes and the props, pieces and fabric for homemade guises—this includes a frightening $350 million for gussying up our pets. People will shell out a total of $2.1 billion for candy and another $1.9 billion for pumpkins, corn stalks and kitschy decorations. The remainder—a not-so-insignificant $330 million—will be spent on greeting cards.

So it should be no surprise that a search through the United States Patent and Trademark Office archives turns up an enticing array of inventions fit for Halloween. Whether or not they were intended for the holiday, deliver on their promise or even made it to market, these 17 products—gruesome chocolate molds and levitating furniture, spooky noisemakers and aggressive face tattoos—should get you in the spirit.

Image by USPTO. House party guests, beware! This flush responsive audio player will get you. "Boo!" (original image)

Image by USPTO. You could hand out Kit Kats and Snickers—or, better yet, chocolate thumbs. (original image)

Image by USPTO. Ah, ah, ah. Put the candy down. In the era before food diaries on your smartphone, sensors in this wristwatch-like device, patented in 1990, detected when your hand was near your mouth and activated an alarm each time. A sophisticated version came equipped with a calorie counter where the wearer could manually enter the calorie amount for those foods they chose to eat. (original image)

Image by USPTO. This lighter-than-air bed, patented in 1989, is perfect for a tiny, studio apartment—or a haunted house! The helium-filled mattress levitates, until a user pulls it down with a tether and lies on it. (original image)

Image by USPTO. Pump the handle on this candy collecting device and the rat perched on the bag's rim springs up. Surprise! (original image)

Image by USPTO. For Halloween, why not be a caricature of yourself? (original image)

Image by USPTO. This creeping doll, patented in 1871, is downright creepy. Perfect for a haunted house, its limbs move while concealed wheels propel the doll forward. (original image)

Image by USPTO. This handy "Halloween backpack" has a chute over one shoulder for collecting treats. (original image)

Image by USPTO. For the Starburst-eyed kids looking to collect a big haul, there is this pumpkin container on a wheels. (original image)

Image by USPTO. Forget the makeup and face paint. Instead, apply this "wild" temporary facial tattoo. (original image)

Image by USPTO. In 1996, inventor Donald W. Nutting of Boulder, Colorado, received a patent for a temporary fang and the method for attaching it with thermoplastic material to an actual tooth. (original image)

Image by USPTO. Richard Tweddell, III, of Cincinnati, Ohio, received a patent in 1989 for a a method and apparatus for molding fruit. A home gardener could close one of Tweddell's molds—shaped like a heart, a Christmas tree ornament, even a celebrity—around, say, a pumpkin, squash or gourd and it would grow against the mold and conform to its details. "A zucchini in the likeness of Clark Gable, for example, complete with mustache, would be no ordinary sight on the dinner table," reads the patent. (original image)

Image by USPTO. Inventors Hugh Huffman and Ernest Peck received a patent in 1916 for a scarecrow that was far better, in their opinion, than the "crude affairs" being used at the time to keep birds and other animals away from crops. "One of the main objects of our invention is to provide a more efficient form of scare crow consisting of a figure formed to resemble a living animal in the posture of approaching its prey." This one is a pouncing cat. (original image)

Image by USPTO. If a Halloween blizzard dumps record-breaking amounts of snow, causing towns to cancel the holiday, house-bound trick-or-treaters could play this Halloween board game. Players navigate a graveyard, haunted house, pumpkin patch and corn field and collect popcorn, candy corn, apples, oranges, doughnuts, lollipops and candy bars. (original image)

Image by USPTO. Everybody's gone surfin'—even Fido. (original image)

Image by USPTO. With a click of a remote control, parents hanging back in the street can remind their kids to say "trick or treat" or "thank you." This bag plays a recorded message. (original image)

Image by USPTO. This pizza slice costume might provide some last-minute costume inspiration. (original image)

Invention for Improvement in Dulcimers

National Museum of American History
Durand's improvement in "Dulcimers" was his only patent. He owned a dulcimer shop in Connecticut and offered instructional literature in the use of the instrument.

Edison Invents

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Online exhibit about Thomas Alva Edison's creative genius. He gave us electric lights in our home; a system to produce and deliver electric power; was the first to record sound and started the recording industry; and he developed the first movie camera and produced the first movies. The exhibit includes a biography of Edison, instructions on how to make a light bulb, an interactive game and a list of recommended resources.

Invented Worlds

Smithsonian Magazine
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