University of Minnesota
School of Physics & Astronomy

History of Science and Technology/Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science Colloquium

Friday, May 1st 2009
Speaker: Kathryn Steen, Department of History & Politics, Drexel University
Subject: What's 'The Big Idea'?: Patents and the Ideology of Invention
Refreshments served in Room 216 Physics at 3:15 p.m.

Through much of the 1950s, Philadelphia was home to a live television show, "The Big Idea," which was aired every Sunday afternoon since 1948. Some communications scholars refer to Philadelphia as the "Hollywood" of early television production, the place where people experimented with the new medium, not quite certain what shows would appeal. The creator and host of "The Big Idea," Donn Bennett, believed television could be a medium not only for education but also for other socially valuable purposes--such as promoting invention. Inventors appeared on his show with a model of their invention, demonstrating it before a panel of engineers and the viewers; the targeted television audience were investors who Bennett and the inventors hoped would help bring the invention to market. Bennett and his assistants fielded about 5000 inquiries per year from inventors; as of 1955, about 500 inventions had been marketed. Bennett's role went far beyond hosting his television show, however. He helped the inventors find model builders or patent lawyers; he helped at least one immigrant get citizenship. He also testified before Congress on matters of patent law and invention, emphasizing the need to protect and help inventors. Both through his show and his wider activities, Bennett participated in a public debate about invention, patents, and their significance to American society, a debate that took place in the context of a resurgent consumer society and great faith in corporate R&D. Sources include newspapers and magazines, family-owned materials, and government documents.

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