Innovative Lives: 25 Years of Innovative Lives
- Hi, and welcome, good afternoon to those of you on the East Coast and welcome to everyone from whatever time zone you're in. I'm Arthur Daemmrich Director of the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. And I'm really thrilled to welcome everyone to the first Innovative Lives program of 2021. This is in fact, the first program in our 25th year at the National Museum of American History. We welcome you all to following kind of Zoom protocols, we invite you to use the Q&A box, if you'd click that, you can enter questions that our moderator will bring to the panelists. And I also want to bring to your awareness that we have closed captioning for those of you who would like to make use of that technology.
And finally, the program is being recorded and I would just note that none of you are being recorded and that your screens will not be on and will not be recorded. But the panelists have generously agreed to be recorded and we will put that program up on the website in due course. Excellent, so the Lemelson Center, which is the host of today's program was founded thanks to the generosity of Jerome Lemelson, prolific independent inventor and his family and our purpose, the reason we were founded is to really inspire inventiveness in young people and to bring insights from research into the history of invention and innovation to broaden diverse publics.
So we like to say our mission is to engage, educate and empower people to be inventive and to participate in innovation. We live in a period of amazingly rapid technological change but it's not the only one in history like it and perspectives from the past can often help how we understand and see what's going on today. We all need to be engaged in managing the technologies in our lives. It's not a situation of technology washing over us it's us selecting and managing how we use technology and participate in the creation of new technologies and in regulating and managing how they're used in our daily lives. And so to do that, the Lemelson Center very much likes to feature inventors as people and inspire the lay public.
Everyone who's attending today to themselves be more inventive in their daily lives. Next slide, please. The center has been hosting Innovative Lives programs, as I mentioned since the beginning, basically since 1996. And these were among some of the very first programs created by the center. And actually I want to take a moment and call out several of my colleagues who are here from the beginning. So the founding Director, Arthur Molella, my current colleagues, Joyce Bedi, Alison Oswald, and Monica Smith have all been with the center from its very early days and helped create some of these programs.
What you're seeing here are a set of inventors we feature, unfortunately, who have passed and so piece of why we record programs and why preserve and document the history of inventing is to be able to tell these stories for years to come and to shape our future historians and scholars write about the inventors of the present day. These programs also focus on the diversity of who inventors are, the diversity of their backgrounds, their upbringings as well as the other demographic diversity. Inventors who we know are not just white males even though that's who is predominantly been featured throughout history. Innovative Lives have also featured invention as a process. The process that's open to all, it takes hard work, it takes exploring ideas, building prototypes, tinkering and tweaking things we do in our Spark!Lab. And that's a piece of what we want to convey in this program is how inventors think and work.
These programs have also featured invention as the process, something that's really open to everyone. And my last point would be to say, invention is a calling. It is in fact, a unique and transformative thing to become an inventor.
It's transformative for the individual, it's transformative for our society. So even as we try to make invention accessible to everyone I would say it takes a special person to become an inventor and so we're thrilled to have today's panel. With that I want to introduce my colleague Monica Smith who is moderating the panel today. She's the Head of Exhibitions and Interpretation for the Lemelson Center and has led major museum exhibits including our current places of invention and the predecessor Invention at Play. She's also published numerous articles in museum studies and in the history of technology.
Monica, over to you. - Great, thanks so much, Arthur. It really is an honor especially, as one of the first Lemelson Center staff members who've been involved in the development and growth of our Innovative Lives program over these past 25 years, to be able to be the one who gets to introduce our panelists.
I will give brief introductions for each of them, then one by one they will give about five minutes introduction just so you have a little more context about their work and who they are. And then I will facilitate a discussion with all four speakers about issues around constraints and invention, challenges faced, things overcome and how you can be even more creative sometimes in light of constraints. So I hope it'll be an exciting discussion for all of you, please do put your questions in the chat, I will refer to them as much as I can during the facilitation. And so now let me go ahead and introduce our four speakers.
First up, we have Lonnie Johnson. He is best known for the Super Soaker water gun and he also worked on high-performance Nerf guns. But he has BS and Ms degrees in mechanical and nuclear engineering, respectively and an honorary PhD from Tuskegee. His career includes working at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the U.S Air Force and NASA Jet Propulsion Lab.
And he left APL to work on this invention of the Super Soaker water gun but he has also really dedicated his life to working on solving complex technological problems. And today is the President and Founder of Johnson Research and Development, and it's spinoff companies. And I would just add that he's received more than a hundred patents many of which are related to clean energy. Lonnie, do you want to go ahead and speak? - Hello everyone, it's a pleasure to have this opportunity to speak with you all. Hopefully something that I will have to say will inspire you if you're interested in inventing and creating.
I do have with you to share it, if I could have a camera back, I have a picture I'd like to share with the audience if that's possible. This is me in high school, I don't know if you can see that or not? That's a robot, that was built in 1968. So I've been a tinker and a builder for a very long time, I've always been interested in how things work as far back as I can remember. As Monica stated I have a master's degree in nuclear engineering and my invention of the Super Soaker water gun became a very successful toy, it was the number one selling toy in the world. And when that became successful, I decided to take on another challenge.
There were these Nerf toy guns out there that were already on the market and I decided I wanted to be the king of all toy guns. And so I started in Nerf dart guns and I invented a whole line of guns all of which outperformed the products that Hasbro had on the market at the time. And then I went and presented that line of products to Hasbro, and I guess, because it was so comprehensive and the guns work so well, they decided to do a deal with me. And that came the strike of Nerf gun products which was a huge, huge list, successful product line. So at that point, both Super Soaker and Nerf dart guns were my oyster and resulted in a lot of success.
People ask me, well, they talk about my background having worked on space missions such as the Cassini mission, the Saturn that was the fault protection engineer on that mission that was the power systems engineer on the Gallo mission to Jupiter. In fact, I have an invention on that spacecraft, I had one before it was crashed into the planet. And Mars observer, people ask me, well how did I go from toys to space systems? Well, it was actually the other way around. I was working on space systems and working on the Super Soaker and other personal inventions was what I would do in the evenings when I came home. So I had a day job, I kept my day job until Super Soaker was successful. At one point when I left the Air Force for the second time, I literally was intending to launch and strike out on my own as an independent inventor and I fell flat on my face, found myself without a job, without a home, a family of five to feed and it was a stressful time.
But I eventually got myself back together and established my relationship with JPL and then struck out on my own as soon as I was stable again and the second time I have not looked back. So the idea of persevering and really keeping your focus on what you want to accomplish says it all in my mind, perseverance really is what it takes to overcome the challenges, the many challenges that the inventors will face. There is no clear recipe for how to get from A to B is all the problems and all the challenges are always different. So my message to the group here would be to persevere, remain focused on what you're trying to accomplish, because it's really hard to get other people to see your vision to understand what you have in mind, when you say you have an invention.
What I've learned is that it's having a prototype and having something that you can show and defend really makes a huge difference. - Great, thank you so much, Lonnie, look forward to bringing you back in for the panel discussion but next I'm going to go ahead and introduce Dr. Tiffany Kelley. She has multiple degrees in nursing, emergency administration, MBA, and a PhD and she has working years of nursing experience where she found her colleagues writing details about the patients on scraps of paper and in other very informal and inefficient ways and often verbally then relating these changes. And with her experience in nursing informatics she identified the need to start what is now Nightingale Apps and create the initial product called Know My Patient. This is to support nurses in knowing their patients within the context of their workflows.
So Tiffany, if you want to take it away and give a brief introduction. - Sure, happy to do so, thank you for having me here today. As you shared I am a nurse, I started my career as a nurse 20 years ago, and very soon into my nursing career, recognized that there were a lot of inefficiencies in healthcare delivery. And those inefficiencies really got under my skin, I started to think about how do we start to solve these problems that I was facing as a nurse but I didn't really understand how to do that at that point. Through what I would say, a series of serendipitous events, I found myself working on electronic health record project at Boston Children's Hospital in the early 2000s.
I knew nothing about technology at the time but I knew clinical workflows and I understood what a nurse needed to know and how a nursing workflow went. What led me down my path was really the recognition that the electronic health records that we're implementing which now are pretty mainstream across the nation, I wasn't convinced they were truly driving the high quality safe care that we were continually talking about. And that led me to my doctoral program at Duke University, where I took on the project of understanding what are the information needs of nurses and what's happening before and after an electronic health record implementation? Because to me hearing nurses say I feel like I don't know my patients anymore, I felt that as a nurse, and I also knew that that was a bit of a problem for me to sit with.
So through a series of events, my research, to Lonnie's point about persevering, at that time it seems almost unbelievable now but the late 2000s, like 2008, 2009 talking about studying an electronic health worker from the perspective of nurses was not a popular idea. And it was challenging to convince funding agencies and others that this was something that was essential but I stuck to my guns and through a series of events started to recognize that the core of what nurses need to know lives on scrap pieces of paper. And just see they're in one of the photos that's a paper towel with vital signs on it, and that is pervasive. It's pervasive across the profession and it can include anything from paper towels, writing on your hand, post-it notes scrap pieces of paper, et cetera. And when I started to look at it, I thought, well we've got these mobile devices that are emerging and I understood how electronic health records work.
I thought there's got to be a way we can provide a tool that really addresses the safety efficiency timeliness and patient-centeredness of care needs. So again you heard me say I started in an electronic health record project with really no technical experience, and then I decided I wanted to pursue this and form an invention and begin to start a company. And so I did that following my doctoral program and over the series of the last several years I've been working on this invention as well as demonstrating the need for something like this. I think to Arthur's point about inventorship everyone can identify a problem that they have, and it's really also perseverance on recognizing that it's going to take multiple attempts and also recognizing that others may not know what you see at that moment in time of being comfortable with having to be at the front of the curve at times.
So I'll stop there, I'm sure we'll get into more details but it's been an adventure for me. - Thank you so much, Tiffany, it'll be fun to have you and Lonnie and others, I believe who I'm sure we'll want to talk about perseverance as well 'cause that does seem to be a theme. Next up I'm going to introduce Mike Augspurger. Mike is one of our early Innovative Lives presenters and we were excited to bring him back and learn what now he's doing now. He attended motorcycle mechanic school, worked in machine shops, has a BA from Hampshire and also competed nationally himself and bicycle, so bicycles have clearly been a big part of his life.
After starting his own bicycle company. Augspurger wanted to explore the possibility of an off-road hand cycle for wheelchair athletes. And so he designed his one off-hand cycle which he demonstrated here years ago for wheelchair athletes let riders with disabilities couple with their arms and steer with their chest.
After about 17 years of building these, he has moved now to another program that he's doing at the old Stone Mill Center in a zero waste maker-space which I look forward to hearing more about, working with kids, participating in local after-school programs fixing up old bikes, doing other work around bikes and a really important recent project which I want to hear more about is rescuing bikes from landfill, adding restarting racks on them for carrying loads and then shipping them to currently, to the Republic of Congo. So Mike take it away. Emma can you unmute him please? - Hello, it's an honor to be here, thanks for inviting me. Monica you sort of just told my story there, I guess I'm going to be repeating some of it but I guess I would say my work life has always been about making things, from my grandfather and my dad and then various jobs in machine shops, it was always about making things. And then in about 1982, living in the Boston area when mountain bikes first appeared, I just fell in love.
I just love the idea of riding your bicycle off-road rather than just on the bike path. And then my work-life focus narrowed down from just making things to what I would call making bicycles better. And then that to after working at a place called Fat City Cycles in Somerville where we made high-end mountain bikes then I went out on my own and started making titanium...
Well, three of us went out and started Merlin Metalworks, we made titanium bikes and that was a lot of fun for a while a really interesting bike industry time. And while at Merlin, making titanium bikes, I met a guy down the road named Bob Hall who was the first person to enter the Boston Marathon in a wheelchair, really ripe area for making bikes better, worked with him for awhile then I started on my own custom titanium bike frames called One-Off and then eventually I was able to go back about 10 years later, go back to the wheelchair industry which I always thought was very ripe for invention and then I made my own design, you can see in the picture there, I think the three wheeled one offhand cycle which for 17 years, I made 190 of those. They've been all over the world, climbed various mountain peaks. And so after about 10 years of making those, well let me back up a bit.
When I first met Bob Hall, my introduction to the wheelchair industry was fun in that he was quite the celebrity, he was just down the road from us and he was the first person to enter the Boston Marathon in a wheelchair. And he was also, interestingly enough he was the first person in a wheelchair to beat all the runners. And I thought that was an excellent example of making the bikes better because he wasn't that much more fit that year, he just made it wheelchair a little better, he made improvements in the casters. But imagine what a day that was to start with all the runners and for the first time ever to have someone in a wheelchair becoming first, so that was quite inspiring. So now, as she mentioned, I've stopped making and one off hand cycles and my wife and I bought a large mill building in Adams, Massachusetts which gives us a huge space to take in donations.
And so now I have a couple of hundred bicycles that would have been in the landfill and I'm having a great time fitting them with maybe you can see the bike behind me that's a little tiny 16 inch wheel bike that has a rack on it that's sturdy enough to carry a person because that's what happens in developing countries. Low resource countries often have bikes for adults and they're often really large bikes and they get used of course, for utilitarian reasons not for what they call sport. But I happen luckily enough to meet a woman directly who's from Congo and she came to visit us and saw all the bikes and we started talking about how we might send bikes there and I suggested that I have a whole lot of little kids bikes.
And she said, that would be her phrase was that would be a revolutionary act to send little kids bikes there because they just don't have them. They literally don't have them, the bikes that they have there are generally the Chinese brands Flying Pigeon and Phoenix that are just huge. So I've been collecting photos, recently, of little kids pushing a giant bike with a big hundred pounds of bananas on the back of it or something they're nowhere near tall enough to ride the bike, but they just walk beside it.
So what fun would it be to go there and give one of these little kids, a bike they can actually ride and carry water maybe for their family. And it's always a challenge to know if you're actually helping people in low resource countries, they say nothing about us without us and it's always really hard to know. But because of this wonderful, direct personal connection we managed to find to the Congo it's working really well and I'm looking so forward to hearing about and seeing photos from these little bikes in action when they get there. Thanks.
- Oh, that's great Mike. I think this is this would be an interesting discussion, we could do just this whole separate one. It's about the world invention both locally and for that market and all the issues and challenges around it.
But I will not now go to my colleague, last but not least Tim Pula and introduce him. He's our interpretive exhibits and venture at Lemelson Center and we like to call him our in-house inventor. He works in the Lemelson Center of Spark!Lab which is a hands-on invention gallery space here at the National Museum of American History currently closed of course, due to COVID but we hope to reopen sometime in 2021. Tim is self taught in activity design and passionate about the use of manufacturing equipment and the tools of all kinds.
So if you see his office at work, it's really quite an impressive space. Tim uses his passion to rapidly turn ideas into functional and engaging activities for the large volume audiences that we get at Spark!Lab particularly families with kids at the age of six to 12. So in his current role, he specializes in creating these activities not only in the space, but now of course virtually, now that we are working virtually as a museum.
And so he's been working on instructables and other projects. And so I'll let him talk a little more about his work, Tim. - Thank you and it is great to be here with all these inventive minds, I appreciate this and I just want to say that I think it's best said when people tell me I have the best job in the world, 'cause I really do. I get to play with a lot of things and invent and create anything that comes into my head, which is fantastic. I'll start out with a little background. Growing up I was a tinker, much like pretty much everybody on this panel.
I tinkered with a lot of little things from remote control cars to building sets, things like that even took little dives into model rocketry, all these different types of things and it was just always so much fun. The great part though was I know a lot of kids had gotten involved in many of these different hobbies and crafts and stuff and they would be happy with what they had. I never was, it had to change, it had to be made better, it had to be something that was unique or created as my own and that was just a passion that I had. Also I wasn't much of a good student, but I love museums and informal education. And I kind of went down that path and ended up in informal education, spent many years in science museums doing chemistry demos and STEM demonstrations, creating STEM activities for students and creating chemistry based activities for students. And it's just so much fun to inspire a young person to really dive into things that they otherwise wouldn't be able to or would have never thought that they could have.
One of the things that has been fantastic out of my career, I think the best thing has been fantastic is coming to the Lemelson Center and actually starting to learn and see that a lot of what I've been doing for those that many years was invention and inventive. And those new ways of reaching people, those new ways of getting kids engaged in different subject matters, it was done in an inventive way and I've really enjoyed taking that on and actually taking on that name of being an inventor. It was hard at first to to take on that name, but now I readily accept it, which has been fantastic. Another thing that I love is the outreach, the opportunities to do outreach.
Like you see on the screen, there are Spark!Lab sessions set up at the Escape in London. That was a whole lot of fun and it's really nice to be able to go, wow this is a whole nother culture, skateboarding itself is a whole nother culture but I get to engage with kids who are in that culture and adults who are in that culture and the inventive process in that. And then you'll also see a little clip from our little image there from our Draper Spark!Lab where that's one of the activities that we created and that has been just so amazing to be able to do that. And it's always need to figure out how to make things happen. That activity itself is one that's it's an adaptive vehicle.
Basically kids would sit down and learn how to create a vehicle for somebody who may not have use of their legs or may not have use of one of their arms and that's what that activity is there. It happens be broken down and I got to engage one of our volunteers in the repair process which was a lot of fun as well. But I look forward to today, really discussing what invention's like and thinking more about those different constraints that come up. Of course, being a public museum space like Monica said, we're closed, so we had to figure out how do we turn a hands-on space into a digital space so now I get to explore digital means and digital avenues for engaging inventors and kids in that process which is just a passion of mine.
- Great, thank you so much, Tim. All right, well, now we get to actually jump in here and chat with all four of them panelists. I'm really struck by some of the similar messages, I think for the audience I hope you noticed that we did select people who represent different backgrounds, scale of invention, types of invention, demographic backgrounds, because I think it's really important to see that really everyone can be inventive and to see role models and to get to hear directly from inventors about their processes, their challenges, their successes and the skills that they use every day that practically most of us do and we don't think of ourselves as inventive much to Tim's point, I think. So I'd like to delve a little bit before we get into the stream, I'm just going to bring up that I was struck that each of you at some level brought up perseverance is a big one obviously problem solving, risk-taking too, I think all of us try being willing to try something new push the envelope, as Tiffany said, and sort of real world hands-on experience and thinking about the audience that you're problem solving for and having some experience with that obviously is helpful. So I was wondering if any of you want to kind of take up the mantle of what do you think are some other maybe really important inventive skills that a lot of people probably have and don't realize that those are considered inventive creative skills that they could use in the kind of work you do. Anyone want to jump in or do I have to name names? - Well, certainly seeing a problem and recognizing it and envisioning how it could be better.
I think I'm trying to remember it was either Einstein or Thomas one of them said that imagination I think was no, it was Einstein, imagination is far more important than knowledge. And I think one of the things I've learned in inventing is that when you start building one thing one thing just leads to another, formation problems are solved here, eventually you run into another problem maybe even years later, but something you learned back sometime ago will actually give you some insight in terms of how to solve that. - I think another great thing about that too is that like with invention, I think that people have to figure out how to convey that invention because I think everybody in this group has said it that when you come up with this new idea you try and talk about it to people and it's so foreign because it's in here and you have to get it out so that people really understand where you're going, where that direction is because it's not something that they're familiar with. - That's what can invention would be, right? Something that no one else has yet. I would refer to what I love to say, the five phases of an invention. I forget where this started but the first phase is that everyone says you're crazy, you must be insane.
The second phase is that you become annoying and people say, oh, well maybe they'll just get it out of their system. The third phase is they say, I might be able to help with that and the fourth phase is, oh, that's obvious, I thought of that years ago. And you got to get used to that, there's no getting around that. And I've certainly learned that working on the hand cycle and it's rather painful actually and then if you keep going there's the fifth phase, which I unfortunately discovered which is the fifth phase is after people say it's obvious then they say, oh, it's obvious, I thought of that years ago, except I would have done it right. - Oh, wow, slap, slap, slap.
(laughing) - Can you relate to that Lonnie? (laughing) - I think one of the problems you really run into also and I think Tiffany's touched on this is the not invented here or people don't want to change. And there's just this fundamental resistance in design. You're comfortable the way things are and when you start telling people they need to change this pushback just comes naturally. - Yeah, I agree.
And the resistance I was asked this recently have I ever encountered resistance? and I said, that is what this is, you're living a life of trying to show people what you see well in advance of which they can see and finding that common ground as to where they might fall on. I'll bring in Roger's diffusion of innovation, like which of the five categories they're living in, tells you how long it's going to take for them to recognize the need or feel the pain for that in the end. I think for me, when I first got started, hearing, no the first few times it was really discouraging but the more that I learned that I'm going to hear that for a long period of time, so I got started, then you just come to accept that not everyone's going to see what you see at first and not sort of your role is to lead that pathway. And it is very uncomfortable as Mike said, but eventually with the right mindset you can sort of find ways to minimize the uncomfort levels, disomfort levels.
- Yeah, it just kind of reminds me of when I was at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory working on the Galileo project and keep in mind though, this is like, I've arrived, I'm working with some of the top engineers in the country, these guys are all hand picked. And then I come up with this harebrained idea for how to protect power to ensure the power will always be available to the spacecraft members so if there's a short circuit to something we don't lose the spacecraft and the computer will always have a program. And I told the chief engineer, I said, and I anticipated this, when we present this to the team they're going to say, oh, that won't work and when they say that, let me know, I'll go home and build one in my garage and bring it in and demonstrate it. That was all I needed to say because he made a serious pitch to really take a serious look at this because they didn't want to be embarrassed by me bringing something in from my garage. (laughing) To your point, afterwards, after we got it working and everybody was really excited about it and say, hey this was a great solution and blah, blah, blah, one of my coworkers came up to me and said, Lonnie, in very very cheapest tone, voice and said, "I just want to apologize to you for all the things that I said about your idea behind your back." And I had nobody ever told me anything he had said.
(laughing) So I said, Pete, what did you say? Oh no, no. So to this day I have no idea, (laughs), (indistinct). - I take back all the bad things I said about you.
(laughing) When I did, it's still annoying to me that people didn't get what I was saying that the one solution which I advocate for sure is a contest. If you want to keep track of nurses' notes or if you want to know make a better squirt, have a contest and see who wins the race is the other way that's referred, so that's what I did. I said, let's have an off-road hand cycle race, is open to everyone and so that's the appeal to justice that I really like, I like having it, not a matter of judgment, not a matter of a personal taste, but a race, a contest. A good fan of a justice.
- Amen to that one. I was working in the airport on a lot of really challenging engineering problems and inventions and ideas and wanting to be an inventor and feeling frustrated because I couldn't get the financial support and investments to be able to strike out on my own. And when I came up with the idea, I was working on a different idea and I decided to switch and focus on this toy water gun because I felt that anybody could see it and appreciate it. And when I put it together and it worked when I presented it to the toy company and the president of the company looked at the way it worked and said, wow, he was really impressed.
And it spoke for itself, you didn't have to do a bunch of descriptions and Sony has to try and convey the idea because it was it was real and it was functional. Fortunately, I was able to build a model and be able to present it that way so that's one of the advantages that I've had is my ability to make things. (indistinct) - Yeah, can I actually, oh, sorry, Tim did you want to say something before I- - One thing I'd like ask everyone in the group pretty much along those lines too is sometimes people don't understand the invention that you have in your head, but also sometimes people come to you and say, oh, well, you should just do this and they make it sound so easy. And like with where I am so we should just do an activity where kids can create a prosthetic hand. It's like, oh yeah, that sounds great, kids come in, it's a fantastic idea but you don't know what their background is how much information they know, so how do you work in, what works and what doesn't and does anybody here have you experienced that? Where people were like, well you know how to do these kinds of things, it's obviously super easy, go ahead and do it - [Tiffany] Go ahead, go ahead Lonnie. - Yeah, my experience with that was, well, I really got pissed and annoyed because when I was in the Air Force, I came up with this idea that was really, really, I felt far out challenging.
I started talking to some of my coworkers and senior officers about it and he says, oh yeah, well eventually all those ideas will be solved and this'll be doing this and we'll be doing that and blah blah, blah. And when he was saying that, taking for granted that ingenuity and problem solving always seems to be brought to bear. And I'm like, well, but no, that's my bread and butter, that's my thing and you're taking it for granted (laughs). So I think sometimes people just don't appreciate the challenge in some of the innovation that goes into problem solving, but one always likes to be appreciated. (indistinct) around here, sometimes they tell me that what I do is make things work in PowerPoint and then I give it to them to make it work in reality (indistinct) describe in enough detail that people get it.
- What were you going to say Tiffany? - To the question of it just must be easy or that's sort of what I got from Tim to an extent. And I think I've not gotten that direct sort of perspective but at times there's a sense that maybe there isn't a science behind this, or it's magic, that just magically these things appear. And if you look into the research the history behind all of the theories around innovation and how people come to create things it really is at the user level of who sees the problem, feels the problem and works to create that first prototype as Lonnie was talking about, that it then is able to scale and be brought to market. So for me, I sometimes, I have to gauge how much time I have with someone. When questions come up like this to see how far I can go and describing that there is a process to this much like any other science and that for me I think should be appreciated more deeply than I feel it is at times.
- Well, on that point, I think we run into this a lot at Lemelson Center where we're trying, you were saying you too can be inventive but people see the capital I inventor. Like they think, well, I'm not an Edison so I'm not an inventor because I'm not going to change the world because of this idea that just comes out of nowhere and well, of course that's not how it works. I mean, Edison just like everybody else had to work long and hard, persevere, had problems, faced challenges took risks and get along to a working for him too. So these things take a long time but I think we've tended to do a disservice to how we talk about invention as though that Eureka moments, the aha and it just sort of happens.
So how do you get over that beyond. like basically trying to have more time with them Tiffany or do it in a way that gets them to understand that it really does take time and effort and knowledge but also just a willingness to keep plugging away and trying things. - Well, I mean, I think the first thing that I try to talk about is, yeah, inventorship is derived from a problem. And I think Lonnie talked about that, Arthur, talk about that, I think everybody talked about that today.
And where I see people stop, is everyone everyone's able to figure out problems, we all feel when things don't work right, we know we don't like the way something works or doesn't work. And so we recognize those problems, but I find that it stops there a lot of times and like I'll call it complaining will start to emerge. And depending upon the severity of it and how many are there, that's an opportunity to say, huh, are other people feeling this pain? And for me, it's almost like a light switch that you can almost tell when people are able to recognize, like there's another step behind that process.
And if I can get folks to think there, then the other process, the seeds will come forward. But I think it also is sort of seeing where somebody is at. I'll have people come to me, they've already started ideas or inventions and just need like to know what do I do next or what's the next step? Once you're in it, you start to realize that it is going to take a little bit of time. But for me, it's really just getting people to see beyond problem identification and knowing that they might be able to solve it, that seems to be the missing link. - Yeah, I agree with that wholeheartedly.
In fact what I have done is look for the problems to solve and rather than trying to convince people that this is a problem because a lot of times when you come up with an idea then you've got to convince people that it's useful and people will need it and it will have value. So right now I'm working on advanced energy technology, I'm developing high performance batteries so I'm developing a battery that will store 10 times the energy of lithium ion. So it's a challenging project with a lot of risks but the pay off so tremendous.
I mean, being in a new engine that converts heat directly to the city that would be very efficient as well. Those things are needed to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels of course, and everybody recognizes that these kinds of inventions or solutions are needed. So if I can come up with something that works and works very well and convincing people to be interested in becomes less of a challenge. - I wonder if I can ask Lonnie, are you doing this all alone? It sounds like a really big, do you have a team? How do you tackle such a large project? - I have a team, I started out by myself obviously. Super Soaker allowed me to be able to afford to take on some of the challenging interests that I have.
So people ask me all the time as an inventor, well, you became successful, you made a bunch of money, why don't you just take it easy go lay on the beach and enjoy your success? I'm like, I'd go crazy (laughs). - And you wouldn't get to work with a lot of interesting people. (laughing) - Yeah, I have a team of scientists and it's kind of, I enjoy it because I (indistinct) off these guys and they can give me useful feedback.
And with my new experience, I've done a lot of hands-on work over the years as well as conceptual work so I'm able to cover the full spectrum. - So that brings a bit of string point, for someone like you, Mike, like how much are you able to get other people's help? How much is it working with the community for their support? Maybe each of you can talk a little bit about your communities, Lonnie's got the big R and D lab, but the rest of you don't, so how do you get the help you need when you need it? - Well, when I first started working with people in wheelchairs, they're fairly rare particularly athletes who are willing to do dangerous things that I was asking them to do. And so I just said, oh, I'll just relax from the waist down, and so that clearly didn't work. You can't really imagine you can't really... So I had to get help for sure.
Luckily, there were some amazing wheelchair athletes who live nearby me and I called them up and said, hey, my name is Mike and I'm working on a new handcycle design and wonder if you'd come by and tell me what you think. And they would inevitably say, I'll be right there. So yeah, it's rare, very rare that you can do it completely by yourself, it's hard to imagine how that would even be. - I agree when people recognize that you're working on something, that's going to help a problem that they feel, I think that there's interest and energy that people will want to help and participate and see how they can contribute to bringing whatever it is you're working on and making it a better version.
And then there's also individuals that you'll need in different areas of expertise and one of my professors said to me, he actually was one of the first to have invented the electronic health record and I asked him the last time I saw him recently, I said how did you, you know it took 50 years for the conceptualization to mass adoption. And I said, how did you manage that? And that's another answer that I'll give in a minute but he had shared with me that he doesn't... The statement I think he shared with me in his office one day was I don't need to know everything, I just need to know who I need to go to to help me move to the next step and his name was Ed Hammond, I don't think I shared that. And that's stuck with me through the years, so you recognize like what expertise do you have and what do you need, but to his answer about how did he know that electronic health records and stay on, he just knew it was the right thing. And so I think finding others that are interested in what you're working towards, it's the right people, it sometimes can be hard to find, but they're out there.
(indistinct) - Yeah, we see that in our space too. I mean, our goal was to create really innovative ways to get kids invested in and actually engage in the process of invention in a hands-on way. And we've had a number of people from different industries come through like advanced manufacturing companies and things like that who have come through and they see what we're doing and they're like, "Hey, would you like one of these."
Or "Are you interested in this technology?" And as soon as we say, yes, the great thing is that opens up a whole nother realm of things that we can do. It takes what we're doing at one level and allows us to just explode it to another level and we just keep building off of that and it's super helpful to be able to advance those ideas. - And what about Tim from the audience perspective? What do you learn from visitors that helps you in your creative process then to the next (indistinct)? - So that's a good question.
Our audiences kids and they're honest, so that's the big thing that we learned. They're honest if something's no fun, they'll walk away, if something's disinteresting, they'll walk away, if it's boring, they'll walk away. So that's one thing plus we have a great team of volunteers and staff who give feedback on how people engage with our activities, which are inventions, there are little inventions in each one of the activities generally.
And the feedback that we get from the visitors and from our staff on what works and what doesn't is what's great. Our biggest thing though, is if we can get a kid to try something out where they're actually engaging in the process of invention, in really engaging in it and we're seeing those processes come through and they're staying there a long time we know we've got to hit. - And what about for Mike, especially for your recent project, how are you getting feedback from your sort of audience and how is that maybe helping changing or not impacting your invention? - Well, so far I haven't gotten any feedback at all, except for looking at pictures on the Internet of little kid who's four feet tall, trying to carry around this load of water with a bike that's for somebody who's five, 10. And that's what I'm looking forward to is sending these various sizes of bikes with very sturdy racks on the back.
And it's part of the deal, is the reason I'm agreeing to do this is that I hope to get some feedback and see, I mean, it's such a huge field that I'm sure we've all seen photos of people with the whole family on one bike. My record is seven people on one little motorcycle and there's no place for them to hang on, it's dangerous for their feet, they don't have that many sets of foot pegs. And so I'm hoping to get feedback because of this great connection in the Congo. And I can see, okay, here's where they put their feet, or here's where they're hanging on and then I can make more or help them make more. So right now I'm kind of flying blind just using the photos I see on the Internet.
- What about the kids you work with in your workshop at the mill? Have you learned things from watching them in terms of their work? - Yeah, I didn't mention, but I've been doing a lot of work with very high quality kids' bikes in the town in Massachusetts where we are there's an afterschool program and we've been going there for three years at least up until the pandemic and we would bring a whole load of various kinds of bikes. I've made all kinds of weird bikes for them to experiment and people will say, "Well, does that work?" Or "How do the kids like that?" And I'll say, I'll let you know, I'll take it next week and we'll see what happens. Do they break it or do they hurt each other with it? Or do they fight over it? That's usually the case. We have a couple of bikes we called the fight bikes because they all want to ride it. And so, yeah, that's been great fun in contrast, I guess to the kids in the Congo, the kids in our area, I do have a great connection with. In fact, we just had last week because I was making these little tiny bikes and I'm too tall to ride a 16 inch wheel bike and I wonder, is there a heel going to hit the rack or can she actually give her little sister a ride on the back, what's that like? And so I got to do that last week in spite of the pandemic we had some people come over and we have a big building where we can ride indoors.
And so that was great fun, so that's been working well. - And what about you Tiffany, with nurses? How do you get feedback for your inventions and how does that impact your work? - Finding nurses to show, I've shown Know My Patient to certain nurses and gotten feedback and what I'm looking for are a few things. Like, I want to see how obviously their acceptance of it but also I'm looking to see like how easy does it seem for them to be able to use? And the other thing that I noticed that happened is there would be more requests for other functions. And I was like, okay, well, that's a good sign but on the other side, it stresses you out a little bit 'cause you're like, well, it took a lot to get here so we need to slow down a little bit and set expectations.
So I've not had trouble finding nurses who are interested in feedback and I think there's almost few times, like I could see like a sign of relief and that was really what brought me into creating it, was I was frustrated at looking at nurses struggle with trying to care for their patients by trying to navigate computers and really a lack of access to up-to-date information on the go. And so it became this struggle and kind of crossed over into this new world that as a nurse, we go in the field to take care of patients, we're not going in to necessarily take care of a computer but now we've got both. And so trying to bridge that gap and being able to really empathize with what their priorities are and solve for that has been important for me. So that those are some of the things that I look for is just their reaction and watching their behaviors when they try to use the tool.
- So I guess I've to ask Lonnie, then on your scale how do you work with, companies or industries to convince them that you're the path to follow? (laughing) - You know, what's interesting about that and I think it's true at whatever level the first thing you do normally if you're approaching a company with an idea normally you're going to come in at the level talking to engineers on it, within that company whose job it is to develop or even find technologies often just to develop technologies. And so they're going to be resisted right off the bat because of the not invented here, which is their realm. So getting past that is a challenge and then just convincing them that you have a solution, even getting to convince them that it's worth their time to talk to you. So getting introduced properly so that people will take the time to understand what you're presenting so it's always a challenge, a challenge at all levels. - So to get to some of the core questions that we asked to initially and sort of brought up in the initial invite was what are some other constraints that you either faced earlier in your career or you feel like you just face constantly besides the sort of not invented here problem but maybe lack of being ready for change or whatever, but are there other besides the obvious financial issues are there other levels of discrimination you face? And that can be as a woman, as a minority, as a independent inventor, as a person who is trying to work in a field that's often dominated by huge labs with lots, lots of money. What are some of the other challenges you face? - Well, I think I'd like to take an initial stab at that one, I grew up in the '60s in Alabama, in Mobile, Alabama in the South, and discrimination was just a way of life.
I graduated from an all black high school, discrimination was legal for most of my school years. It wasn't until after I graduated that my high school was being integrated. So the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing during those years, so the robot that I showed earlier I'm particularly proud of it because some of you, I'm sure you're aware that back in the '60s one of the things that happened in Alabama was the Governor, George Wallace stood in the door of the University of Alabama and said that no blacks will ever attend this university. A few years later, my senior year in high school it took me about a year to build that robot and I didn't have a lot of mentors and people that I could go to to help me solve some of the problems that I ran into. And eventually I really completed and I was ready to enter them into a science fair and the last science fair that was current that year was at University of Alabama, it was the Junior Engineering Technical Society exposition and conference and I thought while had a really high (indistinct) name and I was really as a high school student thought that was a big deal and I was going to go in and enter my robot.
Well, (indistinct) he's my alter ego, so I named him Linex (laughs) he won first place. We were the only black students there, there were kids from all over the Southeast region of the country and that was a real moral victory, realizing that we had achieved that. I didn't get approached or asked by anybody there, it was sponsored by the School of Engineering at the University of Alabama.
No one asked what my grades were, I was interested in going to college there or anything like that but I didn't (indistinct). My education that I received at Tuskegee was superior, has certainly prepared me to be very successful. And so I count my blessings because my social development at Tuskegee was second to none, I really enjoyed my college years.
- That's great, that's a really important story to tell. And I think personally, a lot of people are still facing that kind of discrimination and maybe in some places in more subtle ways. - Yeah, it seems like the same battles we fight over and over again. And ugliness raise its head and lately it's raised its head in a very big way. - Yeah, still there.
- What about you, Tiffany? Have you found that you and you run into any kind of- - You know, it's interesting, one of the first hurdles I ran into was I was gung-ho like, we're going to make this and we're just going to keep going and that's just my personality. And the first three times I would present whether on a phone call or a pitch deck or whatever it was happened to be but I don't understand you're a nurse and you're doing this? And it really caught me by surprise because I thought, why is that a question? Why is that a concern and why couldn't I do this? And so I got frustrated, this happened repeatedly, it happened with nurses, it happened with business individuals, anyone I would come in contact with, it was like the first question. I don't understand you're nurse and it wasn't like, well, I've got my PhD in this science, I've written a textbook on this, like I have the education and background around this. And the focal point was that I was a nurse and it led me down a path of really advocating for nurses to feel as though that they were capable of doing whatever it was they were called to and in this case, solving problems that were affecting other nurses. And that's been an opportunity that's led me in many different directions in nursing and healthcare which I'm grateful for. And so I take that as, whenever I come into these moments they're frustrating and you're surprised by them, but I sort of look at it as a knowledge deficit and in nursing that's a nursing diagnosis of knowledge deficit related to whatever the fill in the blank is.
And so what is the knowledge deficit? So now I have to educate but it slows you down in the process. And then there's also this what is it like to be a female entrepreneur? And that's not a favorite question of mine because I don't think that when I act it's not based on my gender, it's based on what is the problem I'm trying to solve. So it does happen but I think that it gives you opportunities to become stronger and refine how you present yourself and recognize where people's initial questions are going to be so you kind of know where you're going in that conversation. Those are a couple of things that have happened over the years with me. - Yeah, I'd like to echo that.
I mean there are times when I have made presentations where people will look at me and say, "Well, how did you get this?" Like why do you have the solution here? And it's like, you're not supposed to. And it's, it's kind of striking fortunately lately though because I have somewhat of a reputation. People are more open to hear what I have to say. I do recall when I was in the Air Force and I was talking to a coworker and I was telling him I want to be an inventor. I want to be an independent inventor.
And they looked at me and he says, no those guys are like celebrities, you'll never become an (indistinct) (laughs). - It's 'cause they're so rare, right? They are successful, it's very hard to be independent. Which brings me to Mike, like, you must face some challenges here being sort of an individual trying to do this and have a major impact. - Well, I actually, I have it pretty easy I think in comparison, when I first heard Emma's idea about talking about how constraints are involved in the invention process, I thought, ooh, that's all bad, I don't want that, I don't want any constraints. I want as much time and money and I want all the tools I could ever want and constraints that would be all bad.
And I almost have been able to do that, that way, I haven't had much help, haven't had expert help, but I always wonder whether that even is a real thing. So from the constraints topic it was something I totally struggled with, I haven't had that, hasn't been a problem for me. I've almost always been able to buy whatever tools I needed or shop space, I'm fairly low budget, so it's not a big deal but I'm thinking of constraints as all bad. - Well, they don't have to be, I think Tim would argue, so I want to hear from Tim 'cause I know you have pushed to make our activities the Spark!Lab, as inexpensive as possible and yet really robust and for a lot of audiences and all that, so how do you say sort of the some of the resource or other challenges that you have? - Well, yeah, it was difficult in the start.
I know when I first started at the center within the first two weeks of my job I went to our deputy director, actually I went to my supervisor and our deputy director I said, I'd like a 3D printer. And then they looked at me and they're like, those are expensive and you just started here and what are you going to do with those? Make Yoda heads? And my response was I'm going to make parts for our activities, I'm going to engineer those things for our activities so that we can engage people in different ways and to give them something unique that they haven't seen before. And it's been great because really working when I thought about constraints, working in that, as just getting tools that allow you to overcome those constraints have been helpful for me. We've gotten some rapid manufacturing equipment and 3D printers, CNC, things like that. And that's actually allowed us to be able to prototype and create and get things in the hands of visitors that are durable and almost production quality really quickly and really cheaply. To put an activity set out that, is made up of two by fours and nuts and bolts and a few 3D printed parts and a couple of cheap sensors that we can do that really fast now because we have that type of technology.
Before we did, the environment was different, it looked different, it felt different and as those constraints were lifted, as with anyone here is as each constraint kind of gets pushed away or broken away whether it's through building of your reputation or people getting to try your invention and really work with it, then you begin to be able to do more and more as those drop off as more materials or more money or more interest comes your way. - [Woman] Sorry I've been on mute. - You know, Super Soaker my dream of being an inventor, one of my first tools was a Unimat. Mike may be familiar with the Unimat (indistinct) nearly machine that's (indistinct), it's about maybe about 18 inches between a foot and 18 inches long and you can convert it into a meal it's kind of- - Right, you can convert from vertical- - Sewing machine, it could fit it on a tabletop and that was the tool that I used to make the first Super Soaker. It cost about $300, but I had to machine all the components and the valves and everything and joints and connections and so I was able to make this thing out of plastic, but then now with the success of that and the revenue that is generated I've been able to afford big plates, big machines (laughing) - Bigger and more fun tools (laughs). - That reminds me of the expression, I'm sure you've always heard, "The only difference between men and boys is the price of their toys."
(laughing) (indistinct) That's an old expression, I guess it (indistinct) it should be adults and children. (laughing) - This new shop I'm setting up now in this mill building that we bought, it's going to be a second full machine shop and it's actually quite inexpensive to go to use machine machinery dealers and machine shop auctions and it's not much money at all. And I have full machine shop there, but we're going to call it a Makerspace, we're calling it a zero waste Makerspace. So if you Google Makerspace you get 3D printer or you get a laser cutter. And so just to be devil's advocate what I do just to be annoying is I tell people that we're looking for somebody to come in to our new Makerspace, with their 3D printer so we have somebody to laugh at because we really make things because so many examples of so many times I've seen these 3D printers where I swear that kids at Hampshire College anyway where I worked, they think they make this drawing and they push print and they think they've made something.
And I'm there to say that I'm not impressed. (laughing) The 3D printers are coming along so well now, I'm having to back off on that one I'm afraid. - Yeah, I was about to say that. So mine is Oak Ridge National Laboratory has 3D printed an entire automobile.
- It's coming along, yeah. - Printing metal as well as other materials. - Well, given the time we have, I want to be sensitive to the fact that we have an audience here who are starting to ask some questions that I've not addressed yet.
So I'm going to address the ones that are in, and I hope that other people listening will add questions here so we can have at least a good 15 minutes before we wrap up. So, one of the questions, 'cause I was interested in this too is how has the current situation was COVID added maybe new or different challenges of stresses, or are they similar to ones that inventors are under a lot of the time anyway? - Well, I've had my test riders, little kid test riders, it's been cut right off. I have to make special arrangement, I have to get permission from their parents and they have to wear a mask and so that's been hard for me. - I don't know for us our space closed So our physical hands-on space closed so we we've lost all of our ability to work with kids one-on-one. We've really converted our ideas to digital now but at the same time on the digital end because there's so much on that end with privacy issues and such that we really don't get the feedback we used to get when we were in the space. In the space we get that live feedback from the users and the visitors but we're missing that now.
- Yeah, this is general, it slowed things down and makes everything a little bit harder. - How about you Tiffany. - Yeah, I would agree with that.
From a digital perspective it's not really been impacted too much but from design, but I do have others that I've worked with that they've had to really sort of rethink what are their next steps and how are they going to do what they are trying to do. For me and just, yeah, I've noticed that I'm home obviously a lot more, and I'm seeing things that I wouldn't have paid attention to before and sort of recognizing other potential opportunities. So as much as there are constraints, I'm also uncovering things that are problems that I've not really been engrossed in, that could be added to a list to work through at some point as well.
So I think there's benefits in that regard but also some challenges in trying to move some things forward. - When in the healthcare field, you get to be all our hero. - Yeah, we're behind you. - I think that's another element of balancing, not wanting to add additional stress for the healthcare professionals right now. I mean, if something's going to be beneficial, that's fantastic but if you're trying to test out a new product, is this really the time to sort of add another layer of stress? And so that's something that I've had a lot of discussions about with others and when's the right tim