An inventive exhibit showcased at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum

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Anna Carringer

The history of invention on Martha’s Vineyard is the theme of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s newest exhibit, “Inventive Islanders,” which opened on Friday.

The inventions on display in the exhibit range from the practical to the unexpected, hailing from several different periods in Martha’s Vineyard history. The inventors themselves were just as eclectic, including an illiterate ice cream parlor owner called “one of the most famous jackknife experts of all time,” and a man who nearly succeeded in bringing the world a car-plane hybrid.

The idea for the exhibit sprang from an article on the history of Martha’s Vineyard’s patents in the Dukes County Intelligencer. Chris Baer, a teacher of art, design, and technology at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, wrote the article after patent records were released online.

Many of the inventions mentioned in the article are represented in the exhibit, including the blueprints for Elmer Bliss’s 1904 cigar-smoking android “advertising device,” the high-end patented leather manufactured on-Island by Luxemoor Leathers at the turn of the 20th century, and the works of Ben “Ben Chuck” Dexter.

“Dexter was more of an artist than an inventor, but his work was really clever,” Mr. Baer said. Though deaf and illiterate, Mr. Dexter was nonetheless successful as the owner of a joint ice cream parlor and museum which showcased his famed jackknife carvings. A blueprint for his patented “ventilated refrigerator” can be seen in the exhibit alongside his remarkably detailed carving of a warship prototype.

From a contemporary standpoint, the most notable inventor featured in the exhibit is Robert Edison Fulton, creator of the “Airphibian” and the “Skyhook.” The Skyhook, a device originally intended for picking soldiers up off of the battlefield via plane without having to land, saves James Bond’s life in “Thunderball.”

Mr. Fulton’s most ambitious project, however, was the Airphibian, a plane that could be turned into an automobile quickly and efficiently upon landing. One of the most interesting parts of the exhibit is a video showing the transformation, along with an interview with Mr. Fulton detailing how he came up with the idea for the Airphibian, and the obstacles he faced in trying to put it on the market.

“Inventions are like little infants,” Mr. Fulton says toward the end of the interview, conducted in 1998 with the Museum’s oral history curator, Linsey Lee. “They have to be loved and nurtured and encouraged and taken out and hand by hand raised like a child.”

Other inventions in the exhibit were not patented or intended to fill a specific need. The “Do-Nothing Machine,” invented by John Painter, is a hard-to-describe mechanism that clicks, whistles, inflates, and rotates on a loop just for the sake of doing so. The device attracted a good deal of interest, and put smiles on many faces at the opening reception.

Anna Carrington, assistant curator at the museum, said in exploring “the idea of what makes an invention, what makes an inventor,” it’s important that devices such as the “Do-Nothing Machine” are represented.

“Painter never applied for a patent, but he still made this thing — does that make it any less viable?” Ms. Carringer said. “The composition of the exhibit runs the gamut. I think it should all be celebrated.”

“Inventive Islanders,” at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum in Edgartown, is open during museum hours through Memorial Day. Admission is free for members, $8 for nonmembers. For more information, visit mvmuseum.org.