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History Center to open first new exhibit gallery in 32 years

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Innovative exhibit

What: The History Center's new “Allen County Innovation” exhibit celebrates the creativity of local people and the products they invented or improved.
When: Ribbon cutting set for 2 p.m. today; official opening 10 a.m. Wednesday. Regular hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays, noon-5 p.m. Saturday, and noon-5 p.m. the first Sunday of the month (unless noted otherwise)
Where: The History Center, 302 E. Berry St.
Cost: $5, ages 19-58; $3, age 59 and older and students ages 3-18; and free, ages 2 and younger and History Center members.
Information: 426-2882 or www.fwhistorycenter.com

'Allen County Innovation' exhibit highlights inventive spirit of local residents.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012 - 2:17 pm

The History Center is set to make history.

The local historical museum planned to cut the ribbon at 2 p.m. today on its first new exhibition gallery since it moved in 1980 into the old City Hall building at Berry and Barr streets.

Titled “Allen County Innovation,” the 520-square foot exhibit tells the story of ideas Fort Wayne residents and businesses developed into a wide array of products, including magnet wire, radios, television, fuel pumps and more.

“We tried to fit as many stories into the exhibit as we can,” said Todd Maxwell Pelfrey, History Center executive director.

Located on the museum's main floor, the $250,000 exhibit also includes 18 interactive stations. Visitors can start an electric motor, build a fuel pump and TV out of large puzzle pieces, and push a button to sound the brass ship's whistle used to signal shift changes at the International Harvester plant on the city's southeast side from 1928 until the plant closed on July 15, 1983.

The museum had to turn down the volume on the whistle, however, Pelfrey said.

These days, visitors of all ages want interactive exhibits, he said. Before construction of “Allen County Innovation,” only about 20 percent of the museum's exhibits had interactive components.

The History Center paid for the exhibit through a $2.5-million capital campaign held the last four years, Pelfrey said. For the first time in a generation, the funds raised give the museum the opportunity to upgrade all of its exhibits and to consider growing into areas of the building not in use — or even adding onto the building.

The new exhibit replaces an exhibit Pelfrey described as a “hodgepodge” of items from the late 1800s.

“It was called the 'Personality of the City' room, but the room didn't really have personality,” he said.

History Center officials started talking about the new exhibit in 2007, and decided its main focus should be magnet wire, Pelfrey said.

In the early 1900s, George Jacobs developed an enameling process that allowed copper wire to be made in extremely small-diameter sizes or gauges. The discovery made it possible to build smaller electric motors and many other electronic devices, Pelfrey said.

“The magnet wire heritage here is immense,” and arguably Fort Wayne's greatest contribution to the world economy, he noted.

The exhibit also salutes the city's many other innovators, ranging from Philo T. Farnsworth's radios and televisions; Bowser, Wayne and Tokheim gasoline pumps; and Horton washing machines to current companies Sweetwater Sound and Vera Bradley.

The weak economy slowed fundraising for the exhibit from 2008 to 2010, Pelfrey said. But The History Center had the money in hand by 2011 and began detailed design work about a year ago.

The museum worked with Group Delphi, an Alameda, Calif., company that has its Midwestern Division office in Fort Wayne, to design, build and install the exhibit, he said. Demolition of the old exhibit and installation of “Allen County Innovation” took three months.