American Innovations in an Age of Discovery

The American Innovations in an Age of Discovery initiative is a collaborative effort among the Smithsonian Institution, the Joseph Henry Project for Historical Reconstruction at Princeton, and the Laboratory School for Advanced Manufacturing. The goal of the initiative is to reconstruct and fabricate key inventions that shaped the world. This is accomplished through development of open source Smithsonian Invention Kits that permit students to understand and re-create working inventions. The goal for the students is not to create an exact physical replica, but to reinterpret and reinvent the device using modern manufacturing technology. The ultimate objective is to inspire and inform a new generation of designers, and to underscore the power of new ideas rooted in fundamental principles of science and engineering.

The original Charles Page “Electromagnetic Engine” (left) and the recreated electric motor invention kit (right).

Invention Kits

An invention kit explores the way that the United States became the nation that it is today. It tells this story through the lens of inventions that changed the world – such as the electric motor, the telegraph, the telephone, the electric light, the electrical power grid, and radio. Each of these innovations were developed by American inventors throughout the 19th and early 20th century.

3D CAD Model of Charles Page's "Electromagnetic Engine"

The digitized inventions can be viewed in a 3D browser, with web-based tools to measure and analyze them. The goal is to enable others to reconstruct these inventions using advanced manufacturing technologies such as 3D printers and digital die cutters. The approach employed draws on methods developed by Michael Littman, a professor of engineering at Princeton University who is principal investigator of the Joseph Henry Apparatus Project.

The Invention Kits will include:

3D digital scans of the original artifact in the Smithsonian collections.

CAD files of the original artifact and the modern recreation.

Animations depicting operation of the invention and its moving parts.

Instructional video tutorials.

Teacher guides for the classroom.

All files and documents will be freely available for non-commercial educational use by teachers and students. The Invention Kit will also provide primary source documents such as patent descriptions, associated pedagogical materials and teacher guides.

Laboratory School for Advanced Manufacturing

Invention Kits are being piloted in the Laboratory School for Advanced Manufacturing (Lab School) prior to national dissemination via the Smithsonian web site. The Lab School was established to develop effective educational practices for advanced manufacturing technologies in schools. The Lab School is a joint venture by the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and School of Engineering and Applied Science in collaboration with the Charlottesville City Schools and the Albemarle County Public Schools.

Buford Middle School (top), lab bench (left), and students working on electric motor (right). 

The Lab School maxim, Make to Learn, is grounded in the premise that students can learn through the design and fabrication process.  A series of guiding questions provides an interdisciplinary framework for the Lab School. This framework is adapted from a course, Engineering in the Modern World, developed by Michael Littman and David Billington at Princeton. The adapted framework incorporates the following questions considered in science, engineering, and history classes:

Scientists analyze, asking, “How does it work?”

Engineers invent, asking, “What is it good for?”

Historians reflect, asking, “What is the impact?”

These guiding questions motivate a cycle of “Discover, Make, Learn” that takes place across science, engineering, and history classes respectively.  The process is not linear. Students in engineering class may reconstruct an invention such as the Charles Page “Electromagnetic Engine” (electric motor) patented in 1854 that is subsequently used for experiments in science classes.

A Lab School teacher collaborates with students on reconstruction of the electric motor.

In history classes, students then retrospectively study patterns of innovation to understand the way in which this process occurs and its impact on the world at large. An understanding of this process can inform ways in which future innovations are adopted and facilitate students’ development of their own innovations after they master foundational skills.

The Inventions


Electric Current Meter

Telegraph & Relay

Electric Motor


Electric Light