Impact Spotlights

The Lemelson Center’s Invention at Play

June 12, 2013
Curiosity, imagination, visual thinking, model building, and problem solving all underlay invention and the inventive mind.

What do the inventors behind Post-it Notes©, Kevlar©, Velcro©, and the microwave oven have in common with children? Play! Play and its connection to the innovative mind was explored in "Invention at Play," an interactive exhibition by the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Since opening in 2002, Invention at Play and a small touring version were enjoyed by 3.7 million visitors at the Museum and at 22 other venues around the United States and Canada.

The exhibition, developed in partnership with the Science Museum of Minnesota and the National Science Foundation, focused on the similarities between the way children and adults play and the creative processes used by innovators in science and technology. Visitors of all ages experienced various playful habits of mind that underlay invention—curiosity, imagination, visual thinking, model building, and problem solving—the very habits that inventors find key today. Working with kitchen utensils to guide a rolling ball down a ramp, creating block towers on a wobbly surface, and devising wind-powered devices and tessellation patterns gave visitors a feel for the problem-solving skills integral to invention.

Through photos, stories, and artifacts from the Museum, visitors were introduced to inventors and innovators who have used playful and creative techniques in their work, including Stephanie Kwolek, the chemist who invented Kevlar (a strong and lightweight substance used in bullet-resistant vests and cable, among other things); Newman Darby, inventor of the sailboard; Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone; and IDEO, a design company renowned for its creative team-centered processes.

Invention at Play was the first hands-on exhibition of its kind at the Smithsonian, setting a new standard for interactivity, and was the first exhibition to be featuring in the Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Hall of Invention, beginning in 2008. For excellence in all aspects of public presentation, the travelling version of Invention at Play was awarded a 2003 Excellence in Exhibition Award, one of only five issued nationally. Invention at Play also received a separate MUSE Gold Award for its companion Web site, inventionatplay.org. Both awards are issued annually by professional committees of the American Association of Museums.

After nearly 10 years, Invention at Play closed in November 2011 in anticipation of the renovations to the Museum’s west exhibition wing. The smaller version of the exhibition is now on view at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, California.

The Lemelson Center is endowed through a gift from The Lemelson Foundation, and was established by Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History in 1995 as a means of exploring the role of invention in history and encouraging inventive creativity in young people.