At the National Inventors Hall of Fame and Museum in Alexandria, Virginia, Alex Pintilie, 6, compares a waffle-iron grid with the sole of a running shoe. (Photo by Ann Cameron Siegal)

Forty-five years ago, while enjoying waffles for breakfast, track coach Bill Bowerman had an inspirational moment. Maybe putting a waffle-like pattern on the soles of running shoes would give them better traction. Bowerman became the co-founder of Nike shoes.

The National Inventors Hall of Fame Museum, in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, Virginia, is full of such stories about inventors and their inventions.

Visitors can see how inventors learn from the past as they view the changes in cellphones and cameras over the years, or compare the designs of a 1965 and a 2015 Ford Mustang.


Visitors can compare Ford Mustangs from 1965, left, and 2015 at the “frankencar.” (Photo by Ann Cameron Siegal)

And this is the place to discover your inventor superpower on an interactive touch screen. Try to tell genuine products from counterfeit, or fake, ones as you learn why trademarks are important.

Alex Pintilie, 6, and his brother Danny, 5, of Cary, N.C., enjoyed testing Optibots — small, self-driving robots that detect changes in light — to learn how biosensors work. Despite instructions to draw solid lines, Danny experimented and found his Optibot also worked well on a series of unconnected dark dots. “It works,” he exclaimed happily.


Danny Pintilie, 5, experiments with different shapes, lines and spacing in testing out an Optibot's sensors.

Humans have always been inventors — solving problems and facing challenges. Patents protect the inventor’s creativity and ownership. No one else can make, use or sell a patented item without the inventor’s permission. These U.S. protections, first established in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, are good for 20 years.

Thomas Edison didn’t invent the first lightbulb, but his patent in 1880 demonstrated major improvements to an existing invention.

The Patent and Trademark Office will issue its 10 millionth patent this summer, but only 562 recipients, including Edison, have been inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame for making significant changes in our lives.

We owe our indoor comfort to Warren Johnson, one of this year’s inductees, because of his invention of the electric thermostat. (Patent 281,884, from 1883).

In 1850, Margaret Knight, 12, invented a stop-motion device to make powered looms in textile mills safer, but years and many patents later, her name was added to the Hall of Fame for inventing a machine that made flat-bottomed paper bags. (Patent 9202).

Hall of Famer Milton Bradley, inventor of such board games as the Game of Life, sought to give people some enjoyment during the rough years of the Civil War. (Patent 53561).

Stan Honey, a 2018 inductee, invented the Virtual Yellow 1st & Ten line, seen on televised football games. At the museum, you can step onto a replica of a football field section to see how it works.

Abraham Lincoln, the only president to hold a patent (No. 6469, issued in May 1849), never got Hall of Fame recognition because his idea for a boat-lifting system was never produced.


One exhibit at the museum asks which of two basketballs is fake. (It’s the one on the left.) (Photo by Ann Cameron Siegal)

And, Hall of Fame status eluded Frank Epperson, who in 1905 at age 11, left a soda-like drink, with a stirring stick in it, outside on a very cold night. By morning, he used the stick as a handle as he licked his yummy frozen treat. Years later, Epperson applied for and was granted a patent (1505592) for what is now called the Popsicle.

Inventors don’t have to be scientists. They “think outside of the box,” looking at things in different ways. They are creative. And, they are persistent, because inventions are never perfect on the first try.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Danny and Alex Pintilie. The story has been updated.

IF YOU GO

What: National Inventors Hall of Fame Museum

Where: 600 Dulany Street, Alexandria, Virginia

When: Open Monday-Friday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Closed Sundays and federal holidays.

How much: Free.

For visitor information: Call 571-272-0095 or visit invent.org/honor/hall-of-fame-museum.

Learn more: uspto.gov/kids/kids.html