National Inventors Hall of Fame and Museum in Virginia

The National Inventor's Hall of Fame and Museum in Alexandria, Virginia.
The National Inventor’s Hall of Fame and Museum in Alexandria, Virginia.

In Alexandria, Virginia, Explore the Beginnings of Many Great Ideas

By Jared Shein

Bill Warner with his whistle system
Bill Warner with his whistle system

Bill Warner woke up in the hospital.  He got out of bed and went to the bathroom.  He turned on the light, brushed his teeth, then walked back to bed.

He was hospitalized by a car crash but was still able to do basics tasks with ease.  His hospital roommate, however, wasn’t so fortunate. He was a quadriplegic and therefore couldn’t walk, and the more time Bill spent with him, the more he thought about ways to ease the lives of his roommate and other quadriplegics.

Warners Whistle System

The 70's exhibit, featuring the Warner Whistle System
The 70’s exhibit, featuring the Warner Whistle System

Years later, you can now experience Bill’s innovation at the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Alexandria, Virginia.

The museum is currently displaying a 70’s exhibit that features recent inductee Bill Warner’s whistle system.

The whistle system allows users to control various appliances by whistling (in the exhibit, you can use it to control the lights, a TV and desk fan) and has vastly improved the lives of many quadriplegics.

Gallery of Icons

Along with Warner, the museum has inducted over 600 other inventors spanning three centuries of lifetimes into its Gallery of Icons exhibit in the center of the museum.

The Gallery of Icons

In the gallery, inductees are organized by patent number which, According to museum manager Brandon Allton allows you to, “See how technology has changed and how earlier patents influenced later patents,” as well as how these inventors and patents have shaped American history, as the exhibit features patent numbers from as early as 1790.

The Gallery of Icons
The Gallery of Icons

Notable inductees include Thomas Edison (light bulb), Nikola Tesla (AC induction motor), Orville and Wilbur Wright (Airplane) and are each displayed on a hexagonal panel in the museum’s Gallery of Icons exhibit.

This hexagonal tessellation design (made to resemble a beehive) was invented and patented by National Inventors Hall of Fame (when asked if the museum would ever consider nominating itself for this design, Allton answered, “We would like to, but I don’t think it would ever happen”), and is one of the many stunning visual and interactive exhibits in the museum.

Intellectual Property Power Exhibit

Another popular current exhibit is the Intellectual Property Power exhibit sponsored by Ford and Qualcomm.

Half and half mustang at the Intellectual Property Power exhibit
Half and half mustang at the Intellectual Property Power exhibit

This exhibit, “Focuses on revolutionary Intellectual Property that has made a significant impact in our daily lives,” and features all kinds of milestone patents and inventions, but highlights cars and phones.

The big-ticket item in this exhibit is a half 1965, half 2015 Ford mustang.  Both halves of the car are fully functional electronically, making it easy to compare the interior displays of old and new versions of this classic car.

More Exhibits: Past and Present

Other current exhibits include the 1st & Ten Line Stadium exhibit (featuring an interactive that lets you control the 1st down the line you see while watching football games on TV), the aforementioned 70’s exhibit, as well as many interactive kiosks which test your knowledge of inventors and their inventions.

The 1st & 10 Line Stadium Exhibit
The 1st & 10 Line Stadium Exhibit

The museum has also featured many cool things in past exhibits, most notably (and Allton’s all-time favorite) the Higgins boat; a war vessel invented by recent inductee Andrew Higgins.

The Higgins boat was used in the Pacific theater in WWII and is most famous for taking Allied troops to the beaches of Normandy on D-Day.

Higgins was inducted this past summer, and in honor of him, and the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the museum was able to get access to a Higgins boat which they displayed for three months right outside the museum.

The boat was a smashing success.  According to Allton, “You could get on the boat, explore it, and learn about the history of the boat and Andrew Higgins.  It was a lot of fun, and probably my favorite exhibit and our [the museums] most popular exhibit.”

Emphasis on Interaction

The thing that struck me most in our discussion about the Higgins boat was that the museum didn’t just bring in some artifacts for people to look at; they actually brought in a real boat for people to climb on and interact with.

An exhibit at the NIHF
An exhibit at the NIHF

I noted to Allton how I thought that it was cool that the museum had so many different interactives, and he agreed.

“We are very intentional in creating interactive exhibits whenever possible,” said Allton, “Interactivity helps our visitors to connect with the content in the museum in a meaningful way and enables us to better relate to a broader range of visitor types, from grade school students to IP attorneys to grandparents, and everyone in between.”

Community outreach

Interactive exhibits aside, there are also many other ways that the museum works to get young people inspired and involved.

The museum also has a large outreach program that specifically targets youth in the area, as well as in the US as a whole.

The community outreach program offers guided tours for school districts, student groups and other organizations, as well as sponsors extracurricular type programs in schools throughout all 50 states and Puerto Rico.

College students learning at the museum
College students learning at the museum

According to Allton the tours aim to teach about, “The power and importance of intellectual property, and tries to raise up our inductees as role models for the next generation of innovators.”

The museum also aims to instill these values in youth participants through week-long summer camps, as well as enrichment after school programs during the school year.

These programs serve children from kindergarten to middle school, and according to Allton, “Focus on STEM and inquiry-based learning, and are more open-ended rather than what your normal structured classroom looks like.”

They also have a focus on entrepreneurship and teach kids not just how to invent, but also how to get a new invention or product to market.

Future Events, CIC

Another cool youth event held at the museum is the Collegiate Inventors Competition which will be held on October 29th and 30th at the museums and the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

For this event, the museum brings graduate and undergraduate inventors from top universities together with National Inventors Hall of Fame Inductees and content experts for two days of presentations and judging.

The winners receive cash prizes, but more importantly, as Allton made sure to note to me, “The opportunity to connect with our Inductees and USPTO policymakers for mentorship and to learn about the importance of Intellectual Property and taking their products to market.”

Alexandria, VA

A visit to the NIHF can easily be incorporated into a trip to the area as Alexandria, VA is only a short train ride away from Washington D.C.  Old Town Alexandria also features other museums (most notably the George Washington Masonic Temple) as well as shopping, and a vibrant restaurant scene.

Tickets and Info

The museum’s address is 600 Dulany St, Alexandria, VA, admission is free of charge.  Operating hours are 10-5 during the week and 11-3 on Saturdays.

The museum is closed on Sundays.  For more information, visit the museums’ website.

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