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Invention at Play

By Gretchen Jennings
By Monica M. Smith

Invention at Play, a hands-on exhibition created by the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center and the Science Museum of Minnesota, takes a new look at invention by exploring its relationship to play in the past, present, and future. The traveling exhibition investigates the role of play—the ordinary and everyday “work of childhood”—in the creative impulse of both historic and contemporary inventors.

In developing this exhibition, we faced two challenges. The first was to create an exhibition that looked at invention in an innovative way. The second was to create an exhibition that would encourage visitors to make connections between their own lives and abilities and those of well-known and accomplished inventors—to see that their inventive abilities may differ in degree but not in kind from the talents of people like Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. We decided to examine the role of play in the invention process, a relationship that has not been widely explored.

Play is a universal and very familiar activity, one that might help museum visitors find the link between their own experiences and those of the famed inventors.Play is a universal and very familiar activity, one that might help museum visitors find the link between their own experiences and those of the famed inventors. Through play, children gain important creative-thinking abilities, physical skills, and knowledge of tools and materials. And although tools and materials change over time, the habits of mind fostered by play have persisted in the work of inventive adults throughout history.

Play a New Way with the Everyday
Play is something most of us, especially children, engage in naturally, wholeheartedly, and as often as possible. Though deeply satisfying, play is not always “fun”; it can sometimes be arduous, frightening, and time-consuming. Research in many fields indicates a vital evolutionary link between play and development. This is true of all species whose members are born helpless and have a relatively long period of growth.

When asked what inspired them to become inventors, many adults tell stories about playing as children. Among their most frequently cited childhood play experiences are: mechanical tinkering, fiddling with construction toys, reflecting about nature, and drawing or engaging in visual modeling. There is something about the skills fostered by play that inventors value and keep using as part of their working lives.

The playful approaches cited by creative adults form an interesting parallel to the four kinds of children’s play that child-development experts identify as more or less universal.

Children’s Play Inventors’ Playful Approaches
Exploring with all the senses Tinkering, experimenting
Imagining, pretending Visualizing, modeling, drawing analogies
Social play, communicating Brainstorming, role playing, teamwork
Playing with puzzles and patterns Problem solving, thinking in and out of the box


Playful Inventors
The abilities humans develop through play—curiosity, persistence, imagination, communication, problem solving—have been and continue to be an important part of the inventor’s tool kit. Diaries and notebooks of 19th- and early-20th-century inventors and their colleagues and families provide historical evidence of the role of play in the invention process. Interviews and oral histories of contemporary inventors add to this record.

The exhibition is divided into thematic clusters that provide clues to some playful approaches to invention, such as “Borrow from Nature” or “Recognize the Unusual.” Within these “creativity headers” (found both in the exhibition and on our website - inventionatplay.org) are stories of a wide range of inventors, both famous and little-known, whose creative habits of mind began in childhood play and resulted in a variety of useful contributions.

There are things all around us, and right at our very feet, that we have never seen; because we have never really looked.Borrow from Nature
“We are all too much inclined to walk through life with our eyes shut. There are things all around us, and right at our very feet, that we have never seen; because we have never really looked.” - Alexander Graham Bell, Telephone Inventor

A burr clinging to clothing, the sight of birds soaring in the wind, the grooved surface on the bottom of a dog’s paw—these everyday natural phenomena inspired such varied inventions as Velcro, human-powered flight, and deck shoes.

Many inventors, even those working with highly mechanical tools and materials, have borrowed from nature. Sometimes this is a deliberate technique, as in turbine inventor Roman Szpur’s observation of the way wind circulates around curved surfaces like feathers or eggshells. At other times, the natural world serves as a place for reflection and daydreaming, as did the bluff-side “dreaming place” where the idea of the telephone came to Bell. The inventors in this exhibit section demonstrate the ability to make imaginative and unlikely connections, a skill all of us begin to develop in our early efforts at make believe and pretend play.

Keep Making It Better
“My hobby is building and inventing things. I’m still building, and I will keep on building.” - Newman Darby, Sailboard Inventor

Watch a young child examine something he or she has not seen before. Whether or not it was made to be tasted, heard, or shaken, the object will likely be explored with every sense. Inventors are people who retain and foster the curiosity and sense of exploration through which all of us first learned about our world. While some inventors learn their craft in academic settings, many develop their expertise through continual experimentation with their tools and materials. The inventors in this exhibit section are notable for their lifelong curiosity and persistent problem solving.

In some cases, as with Newman Darby, a single type of invention—individually piloted watercraft—has been the focus of a lifetime. For others, such as Garrett Morgan, wide-ranging interests led to a variety of inventions such as the gas mask and the first traffic signal with a “caution” sign. The inventors here demonstrate a passion to improve, and improve some more.

“All sorts of things can happen when you’re open to new ideas and playing around with things.” Recognize the Unusual
“All sorts of things can happen when you’re open to new ideas and playing around with things.” - Stephanie Kwolek, Kevlar® Inventor

One day in 1965, as DuPont chemist Stephanie Kwolek was trying to dissolve a substance called a polymer, something strange happened. Instead of a clear molasses-like solution, this polymer was cloudy and poured like water. Intrigued with these unusual properties, Kwolek had to persuade her colleagues to keep testing the material despite the fact that it did not fit the expected pattern. The result was a strong yet lightweight fiber named Kevlar with a multiplicity of uses.

Kwolek’s ability to recognize possibilities where others did not is a quality she shares with many inventors. This tendency to see non-obvious connections and relationships often leads inventors to the key insight that is the basis for their invention. Sometimes it seems as if an inventor had a flash of inspiration or a “Eureka!” moment. But often these instances are examples of a lifetime habit, begun in childhood, of curiosity, exploration, and a refusal to give up at the first sign of failure. Other inventor stories in this section include the microwave oven, Post-it Notes, and the implantable cardiac pacemaker, whose creators had the ability to recognize unexpected possibilities.

Jump the Tracks
“We can use biology as a lever to pry open the secrets of intelligence. We could then take robots and possibly change things about biology.” - James McLurkin, Robotic Ants Inventor

Have you ever watched a child use a cup for a hat? Or a hat for a bowl? Because they don’t necessarily know the accepted uses of many things, children invent their own. And often, even when they learn the “right” use, kids find new and imaginative ways to play with familiar things. The inventors in this exhibit section retained this spirit of improvisation, combining it with expertise in one or multiple fields.

For example, one might wonder what ants have to do with robots, or art supplies with the telegraph. James McLurkin models the communication patterns of his tiny robots on the behavior of swarming insects like ants and bees. Samuel Morse, a portrait artist by training, built the first electric telegraph out of a canvas stretcher and materials from his brother’s print shop. These inventors stepped over the boundaries of one field to adopt the tools or strategies of another.

I think playing is critical for coming up with new ideas. It’s something we try to encourage here at the office. The play state is inherently creative.Many Heads Are Better than One
“I think playing is critical for coming up with new ideas. It’s something we try to encourage here at the office. The play state is inherently creative.” - David Kelley, Founder and Chairman of IDEO

While the standard image of an inventor is someone working alone in his basement or garage, many inventors, especially today, work in teams. At IDEO, a design firm, experts from a variety of fields come together to design new products, services, environments, and digital experiences. IDEO’s design philosophy is that teamwork boosts the firm’s efforts in innovation and creativity. Teams share and improve ideas, building on their members’ skills and provide more opportunities for problem solving. Being part of a team allows each member to engage in interdisciplinary, simultaneous innovation.

This exhibit section features inventors such as Linus Torvalds, inventor of the Linux computer operating system, and car designer Jerry Hirshberg, founder of Nissan Design International. The collaborative approaches of these inventors follow in the footsteps of Thomas Edison. Although often viewed as the quintessential lone genius inventor, Edison’s most important innovation may be his Menlo Park, New Jersey, lab, where he developed inventions with a team of scientists, machinists, carpenters, glassworkers, and others. His laboratory expanded the 19th-century craft-shop model of invention, pointing toward the corporate research-and-development labs to come.

Shape Your Thinking through Play
  • How have attitudes toward play changed over time?
  • What kinds of toys did inventors play with as children?
  • Is the quality and quantity of children’s play changing?
  • How do new electronic and digital technologies affect children at play?
  • How can new technologies provide rich motor and sensory experiences?
  • If play is changing, how will that affect invention?

Working on this exhibition raised many questions about the impact of new inventions and technology on the inventive process. As historians, we believe it is too soon to give definitive answers. Children’s relationships to technology are definitely changing, and this is certainly affecting how they play. In the exhibition (and on the website) we include text and video conversations about the changing nature of play by a variety of educators, historians, and inventors. We hope that their insights will encourage our audiences to ponder these issues for themselves and for their children.

Exhibition Schedule and Resources
Invention at Play is a traveling exhibition. The Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC) manages its national tour. Check the Exhibition Services information on the ASTC website at www.astc.org to find out where the exhibition will be on display.

Check out inventionatplay.org to:

  • Engage in playful and inventive activities inside the Invention Playhouse
  • Explore the stories of diverse historic and contemporary inventors
  • Watch educational videos about the relationship among play, creativity, and invention in the Does Play Matter? Section
  • Download an activity guide for families and a manual for educators (including parents!)
  • Find additional information and educational materials about invention on the Lemelson Center’s Web site at invention.smithsonian.org

Invention at Play was developed by the Lemelson Center at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in partnership with the Science Museum of Minnesota. The exhibition, its related programs and materials, and its national tour are supported by The Lemelson Foundation and by the National Science Foundation.

National Science Foundation      Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation


Encouraging Invention
Books, toys, games, and DVDs that will inspire and encourage your child's inventive personalities to blossom.

The Undiscovered Obvious
Free your mind of preconceptions of what toys should look like; think of how children play. Then head for the nearest supermarket, an old-fashioned five and dime (if you're lucky enough to find one; otherwise, try a craft or discount store), or even the hardware store.


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