This post was researched by Kathleen Lauer, a Visitor Guide at the United States Capitol Visitor Center. She worked with the Informal Learning Office during a detail with the Library of Congress in 2022.
With the new year, it’s time to start making resolutions. If your kid likes solving problems, science, and technology, they might want to try making an invention in 2023. Here are three child inventors featured in the Library of Congress’s collection for inspiration!
Robert “Buddy” Patch was only five years old when he invented a new type of toy truck, a “convertible” that could be played with three ways—as a dump truck, a closed van, or a pick-up truck. According to the 1963 Washington Evening Star article, Buddy was a natural tinkerer who learned about toys by mending his classmate’s broken playthings. He made his invention from materials found at home— two old shoe boxes, bottle caps, nails, and scotch tape. Luckily for Buddy, his father was a patent attorney—leading him to become the youngest inventor awarded a patent at the time this article was published. The Library doesn’t collect patents, but you can head over to the United States Patent Office’s website to see Buddy’s patent.
Have you ever wondered how paper bags came to be? According to this Washington Times article from 1913, “the square paper bag, probably the commonest article in the household, was invented in 1871 by an Englishwoman, Miss Margaret Knight”. Although this article incorrectly identified Knight’s background, as she was an American who lived her entire life in New England, it correctly identified her ingenuity and inventing prowess. Knight was born in 1838, and figured out her first invention when she was only 12 years old. She identified a problem after seeing her friend—a child mill worker like the ones pictured by Lewis Hines to the right—get hurt. Her solution was a special type of loom with a safety cover, which was “in universal use in all cotton mills” by 1913.
Though Knight was clearly an inventing maven, she still endured gender-based discrimination. This article published in Maryland Suffrage News demonstrates how inventors played a part in changing the public perception of what women could do.
Not all inventions are machines! Louis Braille was 3 years old when he lost his sight. When he was 15, he developed a system of raised dots that people who have low-vision or other sight-based disabilities can use to read books.
As early as 1897, the Library of Congress had a small collection of “raised dot” books and music in a reading room for users with vision-based disabilities. The National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled (NLS) was founded in 1931, expanding the Library’s work across the country. Today, NLS works with a national network of libraries to circulate books and magazines in Braille and audio formats. This free service is available for children and adults with temporary or permanent low vision, blindness, or a physical, perceptual, or reading disability that prevents them from using regular print materials.
If you want to learn more about Louis Braille’s work and life, check out this online exhibition and these handouts for kids. The Library also has several resources relating to Braille, including this short video about Braille music, and several images of people reading and writing in Braille in our Prints and Photographs collection.
Activity: Make Your Own Invention
To turn the examples of young inventors Robert “Buddy” Patch, Margaret Knight, and Louis Braille into inspiration for real-life inventions, try the following activities with your children!
Identify a problem
Margaret’s first invention was based on a problem she encountered—a dangerous machine that hurt her friend. To spark some ideas:
- Ask your child to identify several issues in their school or community.
- Discuss specifics about each problem, and brainstorm potential solutions.
- Cross out problems that might be too big to solve with one invention.
- As a jumping- off point, narrow the list down to 2 or 3 problems their inventions could realistically solve.
According to the newspaper article above, Buddy Patch invented his specialized toy truck after playing around with his friends’ toys. After your child has identified a problem and come up with potential solutions, encourage them to tinker! Some tips:
- Flip through user manuals for technology that you might own as a start.
- If you have discarded technology—such as old cell phones, TV remotes, or computers—encourage your child to safely take items apart and put them back together.
- Do they see anything that surprises them? Does it spark any ideas related to the problem they identified?
Prototype a solution
Louis Braille’s first raised-dot visual alphabet contained dashes. Over time, he eliminated these, as he found through testing with other blind people that they were difficult to read. Inventors often try to figure out what works—and what doesn’t—by making prototypes.
- Young inventors might draw their potential invention, like 13-year old Carl Sagan did when imagining the evolution of interstellar space flight.
- Modeling clay, chenille stems, and other art supplies are also great materials to make three-dimensional prototypes from.
- Identify people who could be helped by your invention. Ask them about what their needs are before building a prototype, and invite them to check out your prototypes.
Additional Resources about Invention at the Library
- The Role of Invention in Our Daily Lives, Thomas Edison’s Favorite Invention- the Phonograph, and Mathematical Rough Drafts and Alexander Graham Bell’s Experimental Notebooks contain classroom lesson activities which can be modified for home and family use
- Check out this introduction to Science, Medicine, Exploration and Invention in the Manuscript Division
- The Library has assembled research guides for specific inventions, such as the Invention of the Telephone
Have your children come up with their own inventions, or do you know of any youth inventors we should be aware of? Let us know in the comments!