From Turbines to Tupperware (cont.)

The engineers’ notebooks and architects’ plans demonstrate how drawing aids the process of invention—how it helps an idea become reality. Drawings can sell a concept or a product. The illustrated beauty of a façade can persuade a building committee to go ahead with construction; the carefully depicted cleverness of a water wheel can persuade someone to manufacture it. Drawings can control production: by telling workers what the product should look like, or by motivating workers to put their best efforts into the job. They can also control how a product is used: Tupper’s patent drawing shows how the innovative sealing lid is to be applied to the bowl. And the most basic use of a drawing is to establish a record: to assert ownership in the case of patent drawings, or to supply a reference in case repairs are needed.

The most interesting question, Lubar said, is why these drawings are aesthetically appealing. Part of the answer is technique—they were done by people who knew how to draw and who took pleasure in it. The drawings have more style than is necessary for the practical purpose to which they were put. Another part of it is the power of abstraction: the drawings are designed to call attention to what is important; they turn objects into edges; they remove context and clutter; they appeal to truth. And part of it is the sheer sense of power: many of the objects depicted were realized (that is, they were made real) and they were sold, sometimes through the very agency of these drawings.

The exhibition was organized by the National Museum of American History’s curatorial team of Peter Liebhold, Steven Lubar, Alison Oswald, and William Worthington, and co-sponsored by the National Museum of Industrial History.

The Payne Gallery, with newly installed lighting and climate control, new walls for the display of works of art, and new landscaping, provided a fitting venue for this important collaboration with the nation’s premier museum system.

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Cover of trade catalog of C. J. Potter & Co., late nineteenth century.
Samuel P. Howd's patent drawing for a water wheel, Geneva, N.Y., 1838.
Earl S. Tupper's patent drawing for Tupperware bowl, demonstrating the self-sealing lid, 1957.
Illustrations courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution