The Smithsonian explores the inventive side of play and the playful side of invention

What do the inventors behind Post-it Notes®, Kevlar®, Velcro® and the microwave oven have in common with children? Play!

From Thomas Edison’s notebooks and Alexander Graham Bell’s prototypes to Newman Darby’s sailboard to Stephanie Kwolek’s Kevlar®, the play impulse is unmistakable. In fact, it is remarkable how frequently inventors speak about their work in terms of play.

John Fabel, inventor of the Ecotrek® backpack, which incorporates a hip belt to transfer weight from the shoulders to the back, recounts: “I really think it was the process of playing with things and turning them into new kinds of things that gave me a sense of how things go together. Making, playing, and modifying things over and over not only taught me what’s possible, it also taught me how it’s possible.

Similarly, James McLurkin, a young engineer applying biological principles to innovations in robotic technology through his “robotic ants” states: “An advisor once told me, ‘A wise man finds no distinction between work and play.’ I definitely agree with that.”

Sociobiologist, E.O. Wilson, recounts, “My favorite toy by far (I can hardly remember any other): a butterfly net, which I first took up at age 9. My parents helped me build my first one from a broomstick, coat hanger, and piece of cheesecloth. It turned me first into a hunter and then a naturalist.”

Building, tinkering and transforming everyday materials into new objects are behaviors recounted by a number of inventors. Geneticist Craig Venter, states, “My favorite toys were hammers, nails, saws, and scavenged lumber that I used for building forts, airplanes, and boats—although you had to use your imagination to know what they were on completion.” Similarly, Walter Rudolph Hess, medical devices inventor shares, “During my free time I used to make such toys as bows and arrows, sailboats, and airplanes from improvised materials to be found in and around the house. This did much to develop not only manual skills, but a certain practical sense and inventiveness.”

Clearly, many inventors have retained enthusiasms from childhood in their current work. Paul MacCready inventor of the Gossamer Condor and Gossamer Albatross as well as solar-powered airplanes, cars and other hybrid vehicles and battery-assisted bicycles recollects, “I found myself instinctively drawn to working on [model] ornithopters, autogyros, helicopters, indoor models, outdoor models, hand-launch gliders….In a few cases I set some records in some new category, which was fun. It was just plain enjoyable to do something that was new and different that hadn’t been done before.”

Similarly, Newman Darby, inventor of the sailboard says, “I thought about sailing all the time. I wanted to explore. I couldn’t drive, but I could row a boat. I used half of a pup tent for a sail and had a great time.”

A playful mindset helps the inventor see patterns and possibilities that others may not notice. Stephanie Kwolek, the DuPont chemist who invented the Kevlar® fiber, exemplifies this attribute. Kwolek’s discovery of Kevlar occurred when an experiment with molecules produced a strange, unexpected result—a strong, stiff, lightweight fiber that would eventually be used in bullet-resistant vest, fiber-optic cables, helmets, tires and even on the outer shell of the Destiny lab on the International Space Station.

George de Mestral received his inspiration for Velcro from nature. Cockleburs caught in his clothes and his dog’s fur sparked his curiosity as to how burs stick. These playful approaches to invention demonstrate play as a fundamental element in scientific inventiveness and underscores the fact that play is an important factor in the development of creative and inventive talents among children and adults.

Play and its connection to the innovative mind will be explored in “Invention at Play,” a new interactive exhibition opening July 19 and continuing through December at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The exhibition, developed by the museum’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation in partnership with the Science Museum of Minnesota and the National Science Foundation, focuses on the similarities between the way children and adults play and the creative processes used by innovators in science and technology.

According to Arthur Molella, Lemelson Center Director, “Play is serious business. At stake for us are the ways we socialize and teach future generations of scientists, inventors, artists, explorers, and other individuals who will shape the work in which we live. It is safe to say that humans, as a species, have always had a concept of play. But only recently has play begun getting the serious attention it deserves as a source of discovery. The exhibition presents an opportunity to explore play as a fundamental need and an indispensable aspect of our own inventiveness.”

The Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center is dedicated to exploring invention in history and encouraging inventive creativity in young people.

Thanks to Christine Broda-Bahm for contributing this story.