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Q & A / ROGER KENNEDY

Turning the Wheels of 'Invention'

September 30, 1990|DANIEL CERONE | Times Staff Writer

Roger Kennedy, 64, believes that the wonder years are a perpetual state of mind. As a historian and director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, he relates landmark discoveries and historical events with the delight of a boy bringing home his first bug in a glass jar.

In the new series "Invention" on cable's Discovery Channel, debuting Tuesday night, Kennedy is right at home commenting on some of the more curious, whimsical and futuristic discoveries found among the estimated 137 million objects, works of art and specimens in the Smithsonian's worldwide network.

The magazine-format show, hosted by Lucky Severson, looks at inventors such as Dr. Yoshiro NakaMats, the Japanese "Edison" who has 2,360 patents for items ranging from the floppy disc to the digital watch, and at inventions ranging from an automobile that hovers to one that runs on vegetable oil, from the paper clip to the electric guitar.

For Kennedy, "Invention" is little more than a personal playground. It is inspirational programming for a man whose self-appointed mission is to unlock America's imagination.

Daniel Cerone talked to Kennedy about "Invention," which is co-produced by the Smithsonian Institution.

Whose idea was it to create "Invention"?

If it's a good show it will have a thousand fathers.

Why did the Smithsonian Institution get involved in this project?

The Smithsonian Institution is dedicated to research and to communicating that research to a large public. So we used all the media at our disposal to do that. "Invention" seemed like an interesting way to communicate to a larger number of people the excitement of making things. We want to show some of the quirky joys of creation, and not in a pedagogical or heavy-handed way. The objective is to have some fun and at the same time convey information.

Then "Invention" is an educational program?

Personally, I'm not a bit interested in entertainment; I'm interested in entertainment that has a result. Life is too short to fuss around beguiling people. What you want to do is produce benign action.

Is that the goal of "Invention"?

The goal of the show is to inform people about past inventions and thereby induce people to take the additional risk, the additional erg, to go do something useful. I suppose that's very old-fashioned.

On the historical curve, are new inventions on the rise or decline?

I think all countries, all so-called developed countries, also have developed bureaucracies. Bureaucracies are deadly generals. The weight of bureaucracies is oppressive to creative spirits. That's just as true in Japan or Germany as in the United States. My own interest is in encouraging individuals to be disruptive of routine.

What does the Smithsonian Institution have to do with inventions?

We have tens of thousands of patent models here, models people present when they apply for a patent. We have a huge array of objects pertaining to inventions. The objects that record the new things. The famous ones are all here--Edison, Morse, Jefferson, Franklin. But we're interested in encouraging people to go do it as well as observe it.

We don't think of ourselves as a mortuary, or a place for technological taxidermy. We don't like stuffed animals; we like live animals. Therefore this show is an expression, at its best, of how much fun it is to make something new, with the hope of getting people to say, 'Geez, I have this crazy idea of something that might work,' and hopefully encouraging them to do it.

Exactly what is the the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History?

When the original endowment was given to the nation by James Smithsonian some 150 years ago, his intention was that it would encourage scientific research and technology. He didn't have in mind a collection of museums at all, so far as we can tell. What museums do is to present the consequences of new ideas. Ours in particular has essentially been the National Museum of Science and Technology. We call it American History because it makes it easier to understand we also do other things.

Why did the Smithsonian Institution decide to go with the Discovery Channel on "Invention"?

I think people at the Discovery Channel are trying to make money by producing a decent product they're proud of. I think they really do mean to be able at the end of every month to say, 'We did something that nobody else would do.' Otherwise we wouldn't fiddle with them.

Are you working on any other television shows with the Discovery Channel?

We just finished a pilot for a show called "Rediscovering America," based on a book of mine being published this fall. It's about an effort to encourage people to look freshly around themselves wherever they are, and re-examine every cliche they've learned about the American past. It's a feisty, irreverent look at the under-appreciated or the unknown aspect of the American experience.

"Invention" airs Tuesdays 6:30-7 p.m., and repeats Wednesdays 8:30-9 p.m.

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