Arthur Molella is director of the Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. The Center is helping this magazine promote our youth essay contest for National Inventors Month. Molella also is co-editor of Inventing for the Environment (The MIT Press, September 2003), which describes the many ways in which invention affects the environment and suggests ways to put the past to use for the common good. Art was kind enough to chat with us for this installment.
ID: What gives you hope for the future and what keeps you up at night?
AM: Chuckles. My hope is that invention has undergone a revival, a renaissance of sorts especially among independents. What strikes me about this activity is the passion, the care that’s put into inventing. So many believe invention as a calling.
What keeps me up and night? Good question. I’m concerned about technology – it can be double-edged. But there are so many who are interested in innovating for social good. People are interested in helping people, in the U.S. and abroad. I just attended a talk by Dean Kamen (see our cover story, The Dean of Innovation Speaks, August 2009). He’s looking for investors or backers for his water-purification system to help the developing world. These kinds of things really give me hope.
ID: How has the Lemelson Center’s mission changed or evolved since its founding in 1995?
AM: The mission has basically stayed the same because it was so broad. We essentially have an education mission, using history as a portal.
What’s changed over time is how we’re delivering the information. A lot has happened in the digital realm since 1995. Technology provides wonderful ways to get our message out. We have a new e-newsletter. Our Web site is pretty interactive. We do podcasts, mostly profiling inventors past and present. We’re always looking for new ways to get information out.
We now have two exhibits in the museum – Spark Lab and Invention at Play, which has been traveling. Having a home base for exhibits at the Smithsonian has been an exciting challenge for us.
We’re very interested in getting minorities and women into our documentation program. We hope to expand that pool. Inventing is a human activity, this is what all humans do. You can’t leave out half of the population.
ID: What do you like most and least about your job?
AM: God, I love my job. I’m dealing with a topic I’ve dealt with my entire career. I’m fascinated by invention in American and world history. The intellectual challenge is tremendous. And the people I deal with – every day is a field trip for me. You start studying invention and eventually it works its way into your daily life.
What do I dislike the most? I meet these intensely inventive people and that forcibly reminds me I’m not an inventor myself. Sometimes I think of it as a lost opportunity. My dad was an inventor. He never got a patent, but he was constantly tinkering with things.
ID: How do you evaluate what to exhibit or showcase?
AM: Exhibits are really an art form. We are a history museum and that’s our business. We use that as an entry point into invention and have amazing resources to draw upon at the (Smithsonian) history museum. Our exhibits are built around themes like “invention at play”; we integrate invention themes into a broader historical context.
We have looked at inventors at play and now were are exploring “places of invention” – where inventors do their work, their natural habitat, if you will. We try to make our exhibitions very hands-on and interactive. We prototype them, try to find out what kids and families are interested in. Then we evaluate what people are getting out of them.
ID: Your expertise involves the intersection of history and innovation. What do you think is history’s greatest invention and why?
AM: In my view, writing is the greatest invention. It transformed the human species., From the printing press to the Internet, there’s a continuum of development and knowledge and it’s shaped and continues to shape innovation.