In a nod to past inventive achievements and with an eye to all that remains unimagined, an exhibit of nearly 100 ideas that have transformed the way we live -- from the telephone to the toothbrush to TiVo -- is on display in a bright and airy museum at the new U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria.
The USPTO Museum, which for 10 years occupied space in Crystal City, is in the Madison Building at the agency's new headquarters at 600 Dulany St. The museum opened to the public on July 14.
In a modern style that belies the agency's 200-year-old origins, dozens of flat-panel screens enclosed in fiberglass boxes tell the stories behind some of the world's best-known inventions, such as the hair dryer, the skateboard and the Slinky.
"Since the beginning of time, people have looked for better ways to do things. . . . The American patent and trademark system has helped protect and encourage that innovation, so that everyone benefits," said Jon Dudas, under secretary of commerce for intellectual property and director of the USPTO, at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. "That story is told well in our exhibit."
The interactive exhibit, "The Invention Machine: A Day in My Life," showcases ways in which inventors have for two centuries made daily life more efficient -- and enjoyable, Dudas said. For example, visitors can touch a monitor and hear sounds from an electric guitar, with the voice of famous guitar designer and player Les Paul prodding them along.
"You can see firsthand how intellectual property is in your daily routine, your travel, your health care and even in the ways you relax and play," Dudas said.
The $2 million museum redesign is part of an ongoing series of educational projects undertaken with the National Inventors Hall of Fame Foundation. Funding for the joint effort is granted annually by Congress. The museum expects to unveil two more exhibits over the next year, including computer-controlled animated portraits of inventors, some long dead and others still alive, as well as U.S. patent officials -- including Dudas and one of his most famous predecessors, Thomas Jefferson, the country's first patent examiner.
A small theater will show films about the patent and trademark system.
"The idea behind the museum was that this office is as old as the country, and the story of America is closely tied to invention," Patent and Trademark Office spokesman Richard Maulsby said. "This office was founded on the idea that creativity and innovation should be encouraged, and you can actually see that here."
The museum displays are designed with a "shoebox" theme -- in a nod to the patent examiners who in the 1800s would go "to the shoes," as the storage files were called, in search of previously approved patent applications, and to Jefferson, who was known to store all of the earliest patents under his bed in shoe boxes.
Inside the 80 "shoe" compartments, reminiscent of library card catalog files, the stories unfold.
One glass-enclosed display is a window into the evolution of washing machines. Miniature models of the machines are accompanied by depictions of historical and present-day use -- from a group of women in cumbersome old-fashioned dresses doing laundry using a wooden basin to a young father, a child tucked under one arm, tossing a shirt into a modern washer.
A few steps away is a replica of the telephone that Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated before crowds in 1876. The display notes the first words Bell spoke into the device: "Mr. Watson, come here; I want you."
A Converse sneaker, created in 1908, appears alongside a leather basketball, created in 1929. Nearby is the motherboard for the first Apple computer built by Steve Wozniak. And numerous trademarks -- from Tony the Tiger to Morris the Cat to the golden arches of McDonald's -- are scattered throughout the museum, their histories illustrated on flat-screen monitors and poster boards.
Generations of children have grown up with some of the toys on display. More than 250 million Slinkys, patent No. 4,515,705, have been sold since the toy's creation in 1945. Pez candy dispensers, patent No. 2,620,061, are still available today and are a popular collector's item.
There is a display about the light bulb, patent No. 223,898. Even the now-ubiquitous grocery store was patented -- in 1917 by Clarence Saunders, who opened the first Piggly Wiggly with the concept of a "self-service grocery store."
Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille (D) said the museum infuses the city with a new flavor, one that can introduce tourists and Washington-area residents to its many offerings. The city, already known for tourist attractions such as its waterfront, Gadsby's Tavern Museum and the Lyceum, now is also the headquarters of what Euille described as "an important institution."
"We take so much for granted, in our products and services and foods, and you never stop to think, 'Who was behind this?' or 'How did this come to be?' This museum answers those questions," he said.
Equally exciting as the museum, Euille said, is the Patent and Trademark Office's new U-shaped campus in Alexandria, a 2.4 million-square-foot leased space that houses the agency's 7,000 employees in five connected buildings. The agency consolidated its operations and relocated to Alexandria from Crystal City, where its operations were scattered among 18 buildings.
The campus's centerpiece, a lofty, sunny building with a 10-story atrium, is named after James Madison. The atrium is where the museum is located and where many of the agency's employees gather to eat lunch or walk the wide halls during their breaks.
During his lunch hour one afternoon last week, Tom Hickok, a software development programmer with the trademark office, wandered the exhibit. He peeked into the compartments and, squinting and smiling, read about the innovations and their inventors.
Leaning toward a theremin -- one of the earliest examples of an electronic musical instrument, whose tone and volume are controlled by moving the hands through the air at varying distances from two antennas -- Hickok, 52, termed the museum "sophisticated."
"I'm really impressed so far," he said as he tried to play the theremin, the eerie, high-pitched noises of which were used to score many sci-fi flicks. "I'm just fascinated with this."
Aside from educating and entertaining visitors with accounts of the numerous well-known inventions, the museum explains the patent and trademark application process. For example, there are three types of patents: A utility patent recognizes a mechanical, electrical or chemical invention, such as the pop-up toaster; a design patent recognizes items unique in appearance or style, such as Lady Liberty; and a plant patent is applied to new discoveries in botany.
The rose, for example, has 1,500 different patents. A patent for the plum was granted in 1934. Four years earlier, the peach was formalized in plant patent No. 15.
"These are the everyday inventions that recognize all walks of life," said Shawn V. Loman, director of project management for the National Inventors Hall of Fame Foundation, which designed and will manage the museum. "You will recognize these inventions because you use them most days, or they have been used to make life easier or more fun."
The USPTO Museum is in the atrium of the Madison Building at 600 Dulany St. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, and noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays. The museum is closed Sundays and holidays.