One of my favorite museums has always been the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. It’s been a long time, however, since I’ve lived close enough to Washington, D.C. to make such a visit practical. So I was very happy to discover one of their traveling exhibits nearby – on my computer screen.
It started because I was looking up the meaning of “industrial design.” I’ve read enough books on inventions that I had a rough idea, but I wanted to see whether to classify it as a subset of engineering. Part of my job is to update our asset database, so we know where all our computer equipment is, by location, department, and user. Generally I’m just told a user name when the equipment is assigned, and I can look up either in Active Directory or our human resources application to find out the person’s location and department.
The problem is, there are only so many department descriptions in the database to choose from, and a very wide variety of job titles, some of which are not very informative – at least not to me. (My own title, IT Production Control, is a holdover from when I worked for a different manager, and tells virtually nothing about what I do. But at least it shows that I’m in the IT department.) I have figured out the “product management” means Marketing, and that internal audit is considered part of Accounting. Operations Coordination and Project Management can be safely categorized in the catchall descriptoin of “Administration.”
But what about “Industrial Design”? The title sounds a lot like “Industrial Engineering” but I know that the people with that title work at a different location, in our Technology Center. Last year I had him listed as Marketing – does that mean that Industrial Design is Marketing, or that he changed jobs? I decided to try to get a better definition of the term.
Wikipedia helpfully – or unhelpfully, depending on your point of view – points out that industrial design fits somewhere in between Engineering and Marketing, and requires some of both kinds of skills and good communication with both departments. I’m somewhat tempted to create a new department in the database for Industrial Design, but if I did that for every group that doesn’t fit nicely in the current scheme, I’d soon have so many departments the list could become unmanageable. So I left the Marketing label on the asset record.
Back on the wikipedia page, however, I couldn’t help noticing, under External Links, an interesting title: Doodles, Drafts and Designs: Industrial Drawings from the Smithsonian. I followed the link, not hoping for much – perhaps a blurb about some exhibit at the Smithsonian. I was very pleasantly surprised to find the the exhibits themselves are on this website. Since it’s all about drawings, of course those are the kind of exhibits most easily converted to electronic form. Each drawing is accompanied by a brief explanation of who made it, when, and why.
As I am most definitely not an engineer, the details of the drawings mean little to me. It’s the text explanations that I find most interesting. But the text would probably be dull to read without the visual component. A diagram of the device used to measure feet at shoestores, for instance, shows me exactly what invention is being discussed in the accompanying text. I’ve used those things more times than I can possibly remember, both on myself and on my sons’ feet.
There are small history lessons sprinkled throughout, such as the origin of the Ferris wheel (the drawing pictured is not of that but of another engineer’s idea, never realized, of a “monumental work for the Chicago fair that would rival the Eiffel Tower”). Other drawings illustrate the increasing emphasis on standardization, precise calibration, and attention to not only the finished product but also the manufacturing process. One unusual item, a “pigeon vest,” offers fascinating information on how carrier pigeons were used during WWII to deliver news of whether paratroopers had successfully landed behind enemy lines.
There is a patent drawing for a Maidenform brassiere, made in 1938. I had never thought about the many parts and measurements that go into this particular undergarment. Also pictured is a patent drawing for a plastic bowl and lid, made to provide an air-tight, water-tight seal, submitted by inventor and businessman Earl S. Tupper for whom the products would be named.
An additional section goes into more details on the lives of eight inventors whose products have come into everyday use. I’ve used Crayola crayons (and still consider them the best crayons around) a great many times in my life, but never knew a thing about Edwin Binney or C. Harold Smith, or the origins of their best-known product. Nor had I ever heard (that I can remember) of Ida Rosenthal, who – together with her husband – developed the first “cupped” brassiere, and whose Maidenform company was the first to advertise intimate apparel.
Amazing what you can find out just by trying to figure out how to update a record.