Exploring the Past, Inventing the Future: The Smithsonian Innovation Wing


I feel a great deal of pride about the legacy of innovation that the United States features in its history. From Edison and Franklin to the Wright brothers, to Ford and Kroc, and on up through Gates and Jobs, Americans have a long history of inventiveness and entrepreneurship. Our nation has consistently tried different practices, searched for the next great adventure, and looked for solutions to problems both big and small. 

What's greater, this entrepreneurial spirit has resonated throughout the world to attract some of the hardest workers and greatest minds to our country. Millions and millions of immigrants left all they knew — home, family, friends — in the hope of realizing the American dream of freedom and prosperity. American history is a portrait of one monumental, disruptive innovation after the next. Gary Shapiro, CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, concurs in an article for Forbes,

“America’s culture, which fosters entrepreneurship and risk-taking, is the key ingredient that allows it to be one of the most innovative nations on earth… We create new business models and they succeed. And then newer models come along and destroy them.”

America has been and likely always will be a land of innovation. And now, I'm happy to say, there is a place where this inventiveness and ingenuity can be celebrated. 

A Tremendous Tribute

On July 1st, The Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington D.C. celebrated the grand opening of its new Innovation Wing. The wing includes dozens of influential inventions that have shaped the development of American history. Brett Zongker, a columnist for the Washington Star Tribune, explains, 

“A wide range of innovations from Eli Whitney's cotton gin and Thomas Edison's light bulb to the early Google servers and Apple's iPhone have been brought together to tell a broad story of American business history for the first time at the Smithsonian Institution.”

Construction of the innovation wing, which began in early 2012, is the first part in a six year overhaul of the Smithsonian museum. This new wing is now one of the most comprehensive and eclectic collections of American innovations in the world.  

A Lengthy History 

It is extremely rare for museums to have such a wide and varied collection of objects organized into one exhibit. The exhibit strives to shed light on American's history, but does so with a much more business-oriented approach. Zongker explains,

“A major exhibition about 'American Enterprise' will trace the interaction of capitalism and democracy since the mid-1700s, including conflicting views from some founding fathers.”

The major exhibition guides readers through the nation's history, highlighting some of the most influential businesses and innovations that have shaped our country. It explores some of the greatest risk-takers our nation has ever seen while simultaneously leading the visitor on a journey through America's past — underscoring our nation's change from what Zongker refers to as, “a small, dependent nation to being one of the world's most vibrant and trend-setting economies.”

The Chronology of Invention

The innovation wing features a chronological history of business and inventiveness throughout American history, complete with the biographies of the inventive men and women whose creations changed the way America operates.

Some of the most influential products of all time —  Whitney's cotton gin, Fordson's first gas-powered tractor, the Altair 8800 (the first microcomputer) — are combined into one interactive exhibit that highlights the best that America has to offer. Zongker states, 

“The exhibit looks back at the nation's merchant era from the 1700s and early 1800s, followed by the corporate era and industrial revolution through the 1930s. Next came the consumer era and a production boom after World War II and most recently the global era since the 1980s.”

Presenting these innovations and the stories of their creators on a timeline is a really incredible way to see where we've come from and be able to imagine where we might go next. If you're looking to get inspired, I bet this is a great place to visit.

The Lessons We've Learned

One of the things that I'm struck by is the enormous risks that these innovators were willing to take and the resilience they displayed when those risks didn't always pay off. The Innovation Wing serves as a great reminder of the fortitude possessed by the men and women who contributed so much to this country and the world. Kathleen Franz, a guest curator and associate professor at American University, says in an interview, 

“We show the stories here of people taking risks, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing… You can't separate American history from business history because business was there from the beginning, and it's what builds the nation.”

These stories remind me that in order to make great changes, we must occasionally suffer great setbacks. Taking risks involves both creativity and resilience. Remember, if you have experienced failure in business or entrepreneurship, then you're in great company with some of the most innovative minds in American history. 

I look forward to seeing this exhibit in person and I hope that if you have the opportunity to do so, you'll visit as well. This major exhibition is a fantastic reminder of the ingenuity of past Americans, and may inspire some of our future innovators to create the future's “next big thing.” Innovation has long been a part of the fabric of our country, and the Smithsonian Innovation Wing underscores many Americans' creativity, perseverance, and determination in the hopes of inspiring others to follow their dreams to the next great disruptive innovation. 

What does the history of innovation inspire in you? Join the conversation by tweeting @EidsonPartners!

(image credit: http://www.smithsonianmag.com)

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