National Inventors Hall of Fame and Museum

National Inventors Hall of Fame and Museum photo
Larry Morris - The Washington Post

Editorial Review

When it comes to inventors, we all know Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell and Samuel Morse. But how much do you know about Michael Owens, William Painter and Waldo Semon?

If you have ever taken a sip of beer from a frosty bottle, then you know their inventions: the automated glass bottle-making machine (Owens), the bottle cap (Painter) and the rubberlike substance for the inside of bottle caps (Semon).

You can learn more about these men at the National Inventors Hall of Fame and Museum, a shrine to inventors, from the most popular to the most obscure. Tucked inside the massive, imposing government complex that is the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Madison Building in Alexandria, the museum has become a mecca of sorts for inventors, including Nancy Goodman Torpey and Peter Torpey. They each claim to have 15 to 20 patents.

"We like seeing novel, techie things," Goodman Torpey said during a recent visit.

"Novel" and "techie" are accurate words to describe the museum with curving, orange walls festooned with inventive exploits. Earlier this month, Post-it inventors Arthur Fry and Spencer Silver were inducted into its Hall of Fame.

Begin your self-guided tour at the wall where portraits of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Edison and other inventors hang. Don't expect the stiff oils of a gallery, however; these six portraits talk.

"Am I hanging on the right wall?" Jefferson asks the portrait of David Kappos, director of the USPTO.

"The name has changed, President Jefferson, but this is the very same patent office you started over 200 years ago," Kappos replies.

"Two hundred years!" Madison exclaims. "Thomas, I think we've been framed!"

The corny but good-natured exchanges continue to bend the time-space continuum. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak confounds Madison by mentioning a computer. Chemist Helen Free tells the exasperated former president that women have become inventors, too.

In the theater there is a short movie about how modern inventors are changing the X Games. Product designers from Roxy, Mongoose and Armada Skis brag about their inventions, including a stylish jacket that incorporates an iPod, a bicycle with handlebars that spin 360 degrees and a new design for skis that helps skiers better tackle powdery snow. Their words are married with images of athletes performing incredible stunts.

The aim of the glamorized, kid-friendly movie isn't lost on the gray-haired, bespectacled Goodman Torpey.

"You don't have to look like us to be inventors," she said with a laugh.

The main exhibit is "Inventive Links," a wall of rectangles with images of inventors and their inventions. The rectangles are grouped together by color to show how one invention -- a glass bottle-making machine, say -- can lead to another -- superglue.

"Of course, it is inspirational," said inventor Craig Miller of Alexandria after finding some of his idols on the wall. Later adding, "Everybody's got ideas, but what is extraordinary about them is they made the long, hard effort to make them reality."

-- Amy Orndorff (April 23, 2010)