By Ned Rauch-Mannino
The National Museum of Industrial History, the original Smithsonian affiliate located on the successfully redeveloped former brownfield that was once Bethlehem Steel, opened its doors this month.
Dedicated to recognizing America's industrial heritage, features include the 1876 Centennial collection, on loan from the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, crowning achievements of Industrial Revolution ingenuity. The first-made, last-produced, oldest-surviving, and longest-running inventions in U.S. history are among the institution's additional 200 artifacts on display.
A landmark in the making, the museum is more than a hat tip to the past: key to its core mission, the institution serves as a bridge between the nation's industrial beginnings and the innovations of tomorrow. It's an institutional resource: This new attraction will connect STEAM activities - programs teaching science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics - to the next generation of inventors, create mentorship opportunities with industry leaders, and foster conversations to inspire future visionaries to follow examples of the past.
The museum is a poignant reminder of America's entrepreneurial spirit - and motivation for greater support to embrace the same drive to innovate that served our industrial prominence of the 19th and 20th centuries.
As an international leader of cultivating innovation culture, Philadelphia should find itself quite motivated.
Bethlehem Iron's steam hammer, the Phoenix Column, and "Class A" steel armor were among the Pennsylvania-born innovations affording our nation its greatest technological advantages. Perhaps a hundred years from today the same will be said for concepts and products created in University City, North Broad, and the Navy Yard.
After all, the advances in fuel-cell technology today may very well be the Corliss engine of the 19th century. Nanotechnology, skin-thin wearable monitoring devices, and genetic testing are having a remarkable impact on modern medicine, just as inhalational anesthetics, the electric hearing aid and the flexible catheter - a Ben Franklin invention - changed health care in their time. With roots in the once-groundbreaking telegraph, continued exploration of the electromagnetic spectrum positions the telecommunications industry for its next definitive invention.
These are possibilities, and with deliberate action can become the next chapter of our industrial legacy. But writing this chapter will require collaboration, greater dialogue, and a bipartisan investment in innovation.
Chiefly, Congress is presently weighing reauthorization of two critical initiatives, the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program. They fund early-stage small businesses with an emphasis on medical technology, and enable aspiring enterprises to participate in the federal research and development community.
Programs like SBIR and STTR, which expire in 2017, are important examples of where public leadership can directly assist private and nonprofit efforts. The support also provides for greater competition, equipping small firms with the necessary resources to make a difference.
Additional measures to reinforce innovation would find increased support from the National Science Foundation and other federal grant-makers, allowing collaborative efforts and intermediaries the opportunity to apply for awards and contracts - inviting new perspectives and approaches to the process. These activities can prove particularly helpful to the Philadelphia region, which boasts internationally acclaimed innovation districts, a vibrant research and development community, and a leading collection of higher education institutions.
There is a role for collaboration, as well. Efficiencies and needs-to-fill emerge when industry leaders come together, and in a region so well-represented by a diversity of economic activity, Philadelphia is able to host an unprecedented exchange of ideas. Information technology and health care, energy and advanced manufacturing: the right forums can introduce these industries to one another for focused conversations and greater outcomes.
Positioning our best ideas to succeed is a nonpartisan issue, and reaffirms our commitment to an industrial history responsible for advancing the United States to its role as the global leader in innovation. By taking inspiration from our past we can best prepare dedicated, creative entrepreneurs for the future.
Welcoming Pennsylvania's newest institutional asset in Bethlehem, we look forward to celebrating both prior accomplishments and their connection to the next, great industrial achievement.