The Founder's Collection: Delightfully Different Devices

March 12, 1999 - July 4, 1999

During the decades between 1870 and 1940 the Machine emerged from America's factories and fields and claimed the home and office. Museum of American Heritage Founder, Frank Livermore's collection of unusual machinery reflects this expansion into daily life. Although the Machine Age spanned nearly three-quarters of a century, we present this display as an historical "moment", that critical time when machinery stepped beyond the realm of work into play. The Collector

Born in Palo Alto in 1919, Frank Livermore has lived for many years in Menlo Park (aptly named for the hometown of inventor Thomas Alva Edison). After military service during World War II, Frank worked as a bookkeeper, most notably for a local radio station.Over the years Frank bought stock in a broadcast company that owned stations all over the nation. The company then offered to buy back stock at good prices which brought Frank some additional profits. Now with a little extra cash, when Frank traveled to other cities for his work he began to frequent junk shops and second hand stores. He became fascinated by some of the functional cast-offs he found there. Back at home he also discovered garage sales and flea markets, those wondrous places where American alchemists hope to turn a family's rubbish into collector's gold. Frank gathered what others considered worthless: manual typewriters and vacuum cleaners, gramophone horns, office Dictaphones - the ingenious objects that new technology had left behind. Many collectors are modest sorts who find it difficult to express why an object appeals to them. Frank's most common explanation for a purchase is, "It caught my eye," or "it was different." Many collectors covet things they grew up with.  Collectors of machinery are often would-be engineers, fascinated by the workings of the objects they gather.
As you can see by surveying this exhibit, Frank Livermore's objects reflect his interest in mechanical and electrical devices. Within that category his collection is eclectic, ranging from adding machines to cameras, toasters to curling irons. But almost without exception, each of these has something in common: they are delightfully different devices.

The Museum Exhibit: Work and Play

These selections from Frank Livermore's collection divide naturally into two categories: office equipment and home entertainment devices. The differences are obvious, but the similarities are more subtle and illuminate important parts of American culture.Both of these types of machines followed a similar path, whether that path ended in a home or an office. An individual inventor, usually attempting to make his own job easier, links up with an entrepreneur who licenses the product, then throws marketing ingenuity at it. Consider as an example James M. Spengler, a janitor who was allergic to dust. His personal solution to the problem was a practical vacuum cleaner that could be operated by one person. Spengler teamed up with an entrepreneurial sort, a Mr. Hoover, and the rest is history.

Most inventions followed a similar process: licensing, accompanied by demonstrations, training programs, and the offer of service and support. Owners plowed profits back into the company's research and development divisions. By 1920 this process resulted in the emergence of a few extremely large companies that dominated each product and helped to define and manage all subsequent improvements. One contemporary example, Microsoft, shows the same pattern today in Silicon Valley's temple of high tech innovation.

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This page last updated October 1, 2000
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