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Smithsonian exhibit includes video about Rogue innovators

Five local inventors working in the field of electronic vehicles are featured in a video that’s part of a big Smithsonian exhibit, “Places of Invention,” which opened July 1. The video was produced by ScienceWorks and the Southern Oregon Historical Society with a $10,000 grant from the Smithsonian.

The exhibit, at the National Museum of American History, focuses on certain places that become incubators for groups of innovators and inventors sharing ideas and technologies to create new dreams that blossom out to the country, much as Silicon Valley did.

Such is the relationship with high-performance e-vehicles and the Rogue Valley, says the interactive video, at http://invention.si.edu/places-invention/map#/map/story/4417.

It shows “what can happen when the right mix of inventive people, resources and inspiring surroundings come together and spark invention and innovation,” says Chip Lindsey, executive director of ScienceWorks.

After a review of Rogue Valley history, including such pioneers as Harry & David and Tucker Sno-Cat, the video highlights: 

  • Ely Schless, a former Hollywood special effects engineer who worked on electric cars for General Motors in Los Angeles then moved to Ashland to help create the electric motocross bike movement.
  • Damon Crockett, an electrical engineer creating motor controllers for dragsters and golf carts.
  • Craig Bramscher, developer of electronic street bikes, at Brammo. He used the skills of Schless and Crockett to help.
  • Melissa Brandao of Medford, a former Apple executive, creator of an all-terrain robotic vehicle for small farms. It is being engineered to be autonomous, that is, able to carry out farm tasks with no one driving it.
  • Boeing aero engineer Stephan Boutenko, developer of a new class of electric, light-sport aircraft using carbon-fiber composites.

The 5,000-square-foot exhibit invites the public to add their own stories of invention and innovation.

The latest addition to the valley’s e-vehicle movement is Brandao’s so-called “farm dog,” which should be able to do farm chores, such as hauling grapes or spraying fields, without a driver by this summer, she says.

“I’m absolutely so pleased and proud of the video and the amazing pioneers working in this field now, says Brandao. “It’s the coolest thing ever.”

In the video, ScienceWorks and SOHS tried to answer the questions, “why here and why now” did this e-vehicle revolution take place?

“That’s the big question. The Smithsonian really wanted us to get into this: what is the secret sauce that happens at different times and places in the country?” Brandao said. “Those necessary and sufficient ingredients happen. It’s not the lone inventor working in the basement. It’s a community of people of different backgrounds hatching and sharing those ideas. Then something magic happens, like in Silicon Valley. It’s a function of environment and culture and the people there.”

Brandao says, “It’s the combination of culture and technology and an outdoorsy personality we have, seeded by Ely Schless as a source of innovation. We were able to work and make it even more exciting, as a cluster, in the true sense of the word.”

Lindsey notes that the Smithsonian was delighted to find Brandao on the video, as all the rest of the exhibits were about white males.

“It’s about teaching women in science and engineering and here, Melissa’s vehicle is grounded in our small-scale organic farming,” Lindsey said, “not in a giant agricultural complex.”

Brandao said she is “proud to represent my gender in this and I feel heartened this is the tip of the spear and we’ll see significant growth of that.”

Other exhibits show the birth of Technicolor movies in Hollywood in the 1930s, clean-energy innovations in Fort Collins, Colorado, cardiac innovations in Medical Alley, Minn, and the birth of hip-hop in the Bronx of the 1970s, an innovation that changed music.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.