Remarks by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker at the 2016 National Inventors Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker

May 5, 2016, 7 p.m.

NIHF Induction

Kogod Courtyard, Smithsonian American Art Museum

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery


Thank you, Russ, for that kind introduction. I want to thank the executives and board of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, who made tonight’s celebration of discovery and invention possible. Please give them a round of applause.

I also want to recognize Under Secretary Michelle Lee, Director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.  Last year, Politico named Michelle one of their “50 Most Influential Visionaries in American Public Policy.” We are so fortunate to have her in a leadership role at the Department of Commerce. 

Tonight’s ceremony takes place right beside the National Portrait Gallery – home to the first U.S. Patent Office.  In the 1800s, people called this building a “Temple of Innovation.” During the Civil War, it even served as a military hospital.  Just imagine the famous American poet, Walt Whitman, here in this building, reading to our wounded soldiers as they rested alongside the pristine models and patent applications submitted by American inventors. I like to think that this scene is what inspired Whitman to call the Old Patent Office the "noblest of Washington buildings.”

The location may have changed, but at Commerce we still believe our Patent Office advances one of America’s noblest callings: to promote innovation, economic growth, and human progress. Our Founders saw discovery and invention as the highest pursuits of a free people.  They enshrined in our Constitution a clause to “promote the progress of science and the useful arts” by securing rights for “authors and inventors.”  Decades later, Abraham Lincoln – our only President to hold a patent – described our patent system as adding – and I quote – “the fuel of interest to the fire of genius in the discovery and production of new and useful things.”

This year’s inductees did far more than discover new and useful things. Each unleashed ripples of innovation throughout our economy and our society at large.  Take Dr. Victor Lawrence of Bell Labs. Long before fiber-optics and wireless broadband, he pioneered a way to move data quickly through phone lines. In doing so, he made it possible for DSL technology to connect millions of homes and businesses to high-speed Internet for the first time.

Or consider one of our posthumous inductees, Harriet Strong. In 1887, she patented a method to strengthen dams using the actual water itself, which made the Hoover Dam possible.  Harriet Strong’s invention helped transform our nation’s deserts into our nation’s breadbasket, paving the way for decades of advancement in agriculture.

When we think of all the innovations pioneered by tonight’s inductees – from electronic ink to modern dental implants – we understand what our Founders meant by progress. They meant transforming our world for the better. And that is exactly what our recipients have done. Their discoveries, and the ripples of innovation that followed, have helped create a healthier, more productive world.

The Commerce Department is proud to not only celebrate tonight’s inductees, but to also provide resources to the National Inventors Hall of Fame year-round.  We support your efforts to celebrate America’s “virtuous cycle of innovation” by encouraging the innovators of today to inspire the innovators of tomorrow. This summer, previous Hall of Famers will challenge young children to make their own discoveries at Camp Invention. From building solar-powered robots to designing 3D printer prototypes, children at Camp Invention learn how to solve problems by thinking like inventors.

Other inductees will judge the annual Collegiate Inventors Competition.  Last year’s undergraduate winners pioneered more affordable respiratory technology for hospitals in developing nations.  Likewise, our winning graduate student made a game-changing discovery. For the first time, he grew human tissue and the associated blood vessels to keep that tissue alive using a 3D printer. This discovery could help doctors develop bio-printed skin grafts, lead to new cancer treatments, and more.

I am amazed by our young inventors, but to be honest with you, I am also so jealous!  Growing up, the fanciest gadget I had was a scientific calculator, and there were few programs for girls interested in science. Today’s young inventors, regardless of gender, can see limitless possibilities before them, thanks in part to organizations like the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Of course, at the Department of Commerce our work goes far beyond lighting “the fire of genius” within the next generation.  As “America’s Innovation Agency,” we support entrepreneurs at every stage of the business life-cycle. Every day, we work: to build a more efficient patent system; to break down barriers facing innovators in foreign markets; and to fund public-private partnerships to spur innovation and create jobs in our communities. Put simply, as Lincoln said, we want to fuel the “fire of your genius.”

I want thank everyone here tonight. You share this Administration’s commitment to turning new discoveries into new businesses, jobs, and economic growth. To those inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame: I congratulate you. But I also want to ask you to stay involved. Please visit Camp Invention; volunteer in our Collegiate Inventors Competition; be a mentor to a young inventor, and help keep America’s “virtuous cycle of innovation” going strong. With your inventions and with your sharing of knowledge, you transform the world for the better and unleash ripples of innovation for decades to come. I cannot think of anything more American. Thank you.