My first museum project was a big one—scripting the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Now, this was a “museum” that had no existing collection, no photographs and little to no research on its 130+ inductees, so our team had to build it all from scratch back in 1993, when you couldn’t just run to the internet for all your informational needs. That meant we had to dig through attics, unearth dusty boxes in company archives, sift through the amazing filing cabinets of Corbis, and speak to actual humans. To a person, everyone we contacted—every descendent, archivist and inventor—was kind, helpful and chockablock with interesting stories and points of view about invention in America. Frankly, it was huge fun for an information junkie such as myself.
But, that was almost 20 years ago now. Many other projects have come and gone, and that one had faded from memory until today, when, out of the blue, I was asked to throw together a list of inventors with whom I had spoken during exhibition development. There may have been others, but these are the ones I could remember:
- Wilson Greatbatch, who gave us the pacemaker, which he invented in a barn.
- Ray Damadian, who invented the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner. His lab assistant volunteered to test it because he was the only one skinny enough to fit. And he volunteered even though none of them knew if the machine would kill him instantly. They never admitted it, but I’m convinced they were all drunk off their asses.
- Gertrude Elion? She invented the first drug to treat leukemia, drugs to cure malaria and meningitis and a few others to keep the body from rejecting transplanted organs, along with a research method that led to the development of AZT. She got a Nobel Prize, like you do.
- James Hillier, who made a thing called the electron microscope and accidentally created an entire world of awesome alien images that show up on Tumblr rather often.
- Willem Kolff, who invented one of the first artificial hearts. But only after he invented kidney dialysis out of orange juice cans, barrel staves and sausage casings while being oppressed by the Nazis in the Netherlands. Seriously. How bad-ass can you be?
- Peter Schultz, who with two other gentlemen created this crazy little thing called “optical fiber.” Fiber optics? Feh, that will never go anywhere…
- Ted Maiman? Made the first working laser. And then he mailed me parts of it in a little cardboard box. The world’s first laser was in a cardboard box. ON MY DESK.
- Carl Djerassi, inventor of the oral contraceptive and an entirely new chapter in human history that we’ve barely begun to write, let alone understand. He had a sense of humor about it.
- Jack Kilby, who invented a thing called the Integrated Circuit while everyone else at Texas Instruments was on vacation. Bored, I guess.
- Robert Rines? High-res radar and sonar, which he then used to look for the Loch Ness Monster, because why the hell not. And he got an Emmy for music in his spare time. Who does that?
How lucky I am to have brushed up against that much world-altering genius in my tiny little life.