- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 22, 2002

Watching birds fly. Spinning a top. Doing a puzzle.

What seems like play actually has inspired a life's work for some inventors. "Invention at Play," a new exhibit at the Smithsonian Institutions' National Museum of American History, seeks to show the relationship between child's play and an inventor's work. Both involve curiosity, imagination, visual thinking, model building and problem solving.

"The exhibit conveys the way an inventor approaches work is similar to the way we all play," says Gretchen Jennings, project director for "Invention at Play." "Play is an important part of life. It is the root of creativity. Here, visitors can make that connection."

While they are making that connection, they also can have a lot of fun, well, playing. The exhibit is very much hands-on, with activities to entertain the youngest visitors and possibly inspire older, school-age children.

Among the most popular stops at the exhibit is the Invention Playhouse, where a large magnet wall offers challenges such as creating faces, spelling names or creating a ramp for a magnetized ball. The building blocks for these challenges are kitchen utensils.

Building a ramp was one of the highlights of a recent visit for Coby Argain and Matt Martin, 11-year-old friends from North Potomac.

"We used the pieces to make a ramp," Coby said. "I also liked learning about sound waves."

In Rocky Blocks, another challenge at the playhouse, visitors build a tower of blocks on a wobbly surface. This tests complex problem-solving skills involving balance, center of gravity and heights, Ms. Jennings says.

Visitors also can make whirligigs and test their devices in front of blowing fans. Other block games and puzzles also test their problem-solving ability.

A good portion of the exhibit, developed in part by the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, shows the process some inventors followed. Alexander Graham Bell, for instance, got the idea for the telephone by studying the human ear and watching birds fly.

Featured in the exhibit is a photo mural of Bell's "dreaming place," where he sat and observed wildlife and daydreamed. Visitors can see Bell's theories in action by speaking into a tube and watching how the sound waves make a pattern.

Visitors also will learn that Howard Head, developer of Head skis, used his training as an aircraft engineer to develop his skis, which revolutionized the ski industry by using a metal-and-wood "sandwich" construction.

Stephanie Kwolek, a DuPont chemist, mixed polymer and water one day in 1965 and came up with Kevlar, a strong, lightweight material that has made a generation of wheelchairs lighter and more flexible.

The design team hired by Evenflo to make a combination car-seat-stroller watched parents and infants in malls and zoos, then created a prototype out of Legos.

Newman Darby, an artist and avid inventor, worked nearly 20 years to create the windsurfer, refitting an old sailboat with various materials and attachments. Eventually, he discovered that a universal joint, which would allow sailors to control the boat from a joysticklike center, was key to capturing the wind. Visitors can see Mr. Darby's prototype and also test their balance on a sailboard.

Toys are given an important tribute here. The first Mr. Potato Head came to be in 1952; before that, children were sticking pins and small objects into a potato and calling it a toy. In one display, some of today's inventors and industrial designers explain what their favorite childhood toys were.

"When we talked to inventors, they were not at all insulted when we asked if they had a playful side," Ms. Jennings says. "When asked what inspired them to become inventors, many adults tell stories about playing as children. There is something about the skills fostered by play that inventors value and keep using as part of their working lives."

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