The Smithsonian Institution and the Maryland-based Discovery cable channel team up to launch a new series tonight. And it's a nice little addition to the television landscape. "Invention," which debuts at 9:30 tonight on the Discovery Channel, celebrates the spirit of innovation and imagination put to practical use in American life. What makes the pilot work is the combination of snappy visuals, solid scholarship, respect for imagination, a healthy irreverence and an understanding that the line between genius and crackpot is often a very thin one when it comes to new ideas.
Tonight's show features a report on a "flying car." The vehicle -- the Moller-200 -- is the work of Paul Moller, who has spent millions of dollars and most of his life dedicated to making the commuter's fantasy of lifting straight up from a freeway traffic jam and flying over the gridlock below a reality.
There are interviews with Moller and a look at test flights of some of his vehicles. That reporting by NBC's Lucky Severson is solid but nothing to get excited about.
Then, the history lesson starts. It includes background from Smithsonian's National Museum of American History and its director, Roger Kennedy. This is the good part of "Invention."
Tonight, author Gore Vidal is brought in to explore the history of the flying-car idea. We go back to pre-World War II America when Vidal's father, Eugene, was named director of Air Commerce by Franklin Roosevelt.
The elder Vidal had the interesting notion that every American family should have an airplane and actually took steps to see that goal realized. He ran contests and set up publicity stunts to that end; one of them was to have his 10-year-old son, Gore, fly a plane to show that anyone could do it. Gore Vidal relives the experience: As he opens the door of the plane, now on display in the Smithsonian, we cut to film showing him getting in the same door as a boy. It's a nice piece of work.
The show promises to look at the inventions of news satellites, computers, the curveball, granola bar and underwire bras in upcoming weeks. That mix is part of its appeal.
"Invention" understands that the idea for the most sophisticated satellite comes from the same place as the "timed dog food dispenser," which is featured in one segment tonight. The series both celebrates and kids us about our almost-religious belief in "American know-how." "Invention" is one of those smart shows that can make us smarter about ourselves and our history.