The best thing about being a kid is unfettered imagination.
When the line between dreams and reality is an insignificant blur, creativity reigns. Ideas soar.
With age that effortless innovation tends to fade. That’s what makes inventors so different – they make dreams real, bridging wild imagination and practical need. Just like Sagle resident and presidential medal winner Forrest Bird (1921-2015).
Take cake, for example. Why toss the container when you could invent something with it?
You know, like a respirator.
Newly relocated to the Coeur d’Alene Airport from its original home in Sagle, the Bird Aviation Museum and Invention Center features the M.D. and pilot’s (he had to be a pilot with the name Bird) two passions – planes and inventions.
They’re more connected than you think.
Bird, who flew from age 14 to 91 and whose invention credits include an amphibian aircraft, joined the Army Air Corp right after Pearl Harbor. That was a stroke of luck for the Allieds.
When the U.S. joined WWII the Axis Powers had a distinct advantage - a device allowing pilots to breathe at higher altitudes. Bird got his hands on one and thought, ‘I can make this.’
Melding some emptied shortcake tins together, he improved the design. You still see a version today - those cylinder-shaped things military pilots wear at high altitudes - all over the world. The prototype is at the Bird Museum, along with his “G suit” design.
After the war he went to medical school – hence the nickname “Doc.” Instead of settling into traditional medical practice he turned invention into a career, expanding and adapting his original design to broader use.
Bird introduced the world’s first reliable, low-cost respirator in 1958. With it he not only saved lives, he improved their quality.
Thanks to “The Bird,” polio victims were spared a life immobilized in an iron lung.
But he didn’t stop there. Other Bird inventions, such as the Babybird, which reduced the death rate in low birthweight babies with respiratory problems from 70 percent to less than 10 percent.
During the nineties, Bird improved a cardiopulmonary device for severe burn patients with chemical inhalation injuries, increasing survival rates from about 40 percent to nearly 90 percent.
His breathing machines continue to save thousands of critical care patients all over the world.
Many of the other inventions in the Bird collection follow a theme reminiscent of Doc himself.
“Just about everybody Doc knew was not only a M.D. but a pilot, too,” said Paul Nowaske, a retired USAF aircraft mechanic and Flying Tiger who has run the museum’s volunteer program since 2007.
“Forrest morphed aerospace principles into medicine. He’d say they have a lot of similarities.” --Paul Nowaske, Flying Tiger and Bird Museum volunteer
But this museum – which goes beyond aerospace and medicine to classic guitars and Barbie dolls - isn’t just about him. Nor the hangar’s 20 aircraft and antique cars - such as the Model T, from which a young Forrest Bird once fashioned a homemade tractor.
“We have displays on WWII and all the branches of the military, Women Air Service Pilots (WASPS), a NASA display, patents from the 1850s through modern day,” said Rachel Riddle Schwam, museum director and daughter of the late Pamela Riddle Bird – herself a renowned innovation expert, pilot, and Forrest’s wife.
“We have Elijah Gray’s patent model of the first telegraph here,” added Schwam. “We have Amos Joel – who had 70 patents and was responsible for the mobile communication systems for cell phones.”
Most of the featured inventors were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, including Doc in 1995.
“(Forrest) was a prime example of what an inventor truly is,” said Rini Paiva, executive vice president of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, who visited the museum in June.
But the best reason to come isn’t history. It’s imagination.
“The invention center is here to inspire kids to think out of the box and hopefully create their own inventions that can impact the way we live,” said Schwam, who plans to display local school invention convention winners.
During its 11-year tenure in Sagle, the museum was popular with school groups, church clubs, and scouts. Schwam said the museum is also available for private events, seminars, and workshops.
Adults could spend hours learning from all the displays, but the Bird Museum strives to make the experience fun for kids. In addition to a little-kids play area, there’s an organized scavenger hunt to whet young appetites.
While it’s self-touring, knowledgeable volunteers are on hand to regale visitors with stories. Schwam said they need more volunteers.
Bird – who in later years quietly greeted visitors from his easy chair at the (Sagle) museum entrance – once filled that role.
“Forrest used to walk every one of those inventories. I took notes once; it was 10 pages long,” said Nowaske.
That’s probably explained by two things: Doc was personally acquainted with many of those famous people, so had lots of stories to tell. And like his, many of their inventions still change lives. This museum, in a way, is a living thing.
“Why come? Their legacy,” said retired airline pilot and volunteer “Buzz” Sherman, who knew the Birds and described them as wonderful people. “I’d say there is no time I come here when somebody doesn’t say, ‘my son or daughter or whoever was helped by Dr. Bird’s inventions.’”
“Something the Birds always said was ‘any footprint can change mankind,’” said Schwam. “That’s my goal - we want to inspire everyone to be creative, to think for themselves.“
“You never know what can change the world.” --Rachel Schwam, director of the Bird Aviation Museum & Invention Center
The Bird Aviation Museum and Invention Center is open year-round 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Admission is free. For those who can, a suggested donation of $5 for adults or $3 per child is appreciated.
From U.S. 95 take Hayden Avenue west to Atlas Road, then head north into the Coeur d’Alene Airport. Right on Cessna Avenue – it’s the blue hangar at the end (bigger signs coming soon). For more information or to volunteer, call (208) 758-8355 or email Rachel Schwam at email@example.com.
Or like the Birds, just fly right in.