The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Collections in Focus
Thanks to the dedicated (and speedy!) help of the Smithsonian Transcription Center transcribers, more than 40 photo albums put together by former Smithsonian Secretary Alexander Wetmore are now transcribed! The albums cover Wetmore’s extensive travel around the world: from across the United States, during his time with the US Department of Agriculture’s Biological Survey bureau, fresh out of college; to his yearly research trips to Panama during his long career with the Smithsonian.
Wetmore’s ornithology research spanned nearly his entire life, from his first published article at 13, to his book, The Birds of the Republic of Panama. These albums offer a unique insight into the career of a dedicated scientist—not just Wetmore’s tireless field work, but the friendships, adventures, and fun he had along the way.
Transcribing this material has helped unlock a number of new avenues of research. It has provided a key to determining where Wetmore—and a number of Smithsonian researchers and museum leaders who traveled alongside him—researched over a more than 50-year span. It has given us a chance to surface new questions and new information, including names of women scientists and artists who were involved in Wetmore’s field expeditions. It’s provided a lens into how the Smithsonian, and other leading scientific research institutions, conducted field work. These albums have also given us a look at Wetmore as a person—what he found funny or fascinating or unique about the world around him.
Thanks for helping us on this incredible journey, transcribers! In celebration, some of the Smithsonian Transcription Center’s biggest Alexander Wetmore fans have submitted some favorite images from their tireless work on the Wetmore albums—a greatest-hits set of photos from over 50 years of field work (plus a few new Alexander Wetmore field notes, live on the Smithsonian Transcription Center)! Enjoy!
Alexander Wetmore: Observing the Making of a Scientist, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
How Many Birds Have You Seen Today?, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Thank you, Volunteers!, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
On view at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History (NMAH) through September 2016 is “Science Under Glass,” which celebrates the craft, art, and use of laboratory glassware. The display and the accompanying online exhibition draw from the museum’s collection of more than 1,000 pieces of scientific glassware.
From beakers and test tubes to Erlenmeyer flasks, these beautiful, seemingly fragile objects are what cartoonists, novelists, and moviemakers have long used to signal that a fictional character is a scientist. Place a test tube in the hand of a white-coated actor and every audience member will recognize her occupation.
Glassware, however, serves a vital function in the laboratory, allowing researchers to heat a substance, cool a substance, see a substance, monitor a reaction. And through the centuries, expert glassblowers have been asked to create intricate tubes and containers for specialized functions.
So, enjoy this slide show of photographs of laboratory interiors from the Science Service photographic morgue, and then take a look at the NMAH online exhibition for help in identifying the different types of flasks, tubes, and beakers arrayed behind these bacteriologists, chemists, biologists, and inventors.
In its time it was described in Scientific American as a ”radical departure and notable advancement in transportation.” That’s why when a canopied, steam-powered tricycle pulled up to the doors of the Smithsonian Institution in 1888, it was an event worthy of a photograph. Now, nearly 130 years later, that prediction was proven accurate. The machine parked in front of the Smithsonian Castle by its inventor, engineer Lucius Copeland, turned out to be an important precursor to the motorcycle—and a convenient way to take the exercise out of cycling.
By the time he visited the Smithsonian, Copeland had already made a name for himself experimenting with steam propelled vehicles, from cars to bicycles to tricycles. His first foray into what is now referred to as an early motorcycle was in 1881, when he attached a steam boiler to a penny-farthing bicycle. Notably, the bicycle had a driving pulley, like the belt drive on a motorcycle.
A few years later, after Copeland had demonstrated his new invention on the West Coast, he set up shop in Camden, N.J. and decided to make some improvements. Those changes included a more powerful engine and a third wheel, allowing for a bench to seat multiple passengers.
Not quite a motorcycle—but not quite a tricycle—Lucius Copeland’s steam-powered three-wheeler could reach average speeds of 10 miles an hour on the road, with a range of 30 miles per tank of water. According to an 1887 description of the “rather novel steam tricycle,” published in the Washington D.C. Evening Star, water and steam exhaust pipes ran through the frame of the bike, powered by boiler-heated water, with its rear wheel driven by a leather belt. To demonstrate the power of his invention, Copeland traveled from his home in Camden to Atlantic City and back (a trip of approximately 120 miles), aboard his steam tricycle.
Copeland later took one of his machines, which he called the “Phaeton Moto-Cycle,” to the Smithsonian just a year after production on the machines began. It was typical during this time for scientists to demonstrate their latest innovations at the Smithsonian—in fact, Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the telephone for Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry and his daughters at the Castle in 1877, a few days before Bell’s second patent on the invention was issued.
It was also a trend in Copeland’s time to experiment with the bicycle, an invention that had become wildly popular in the United States and Europe throughout the mid-to-late 1800s. The steam powered tricycle was one of many innovative new designs based off of the traditional penny-farthing bike. Designs for tricycles fitted with blades to paddle on the water, or with a “walking beam” footrest in place of pedals, or pulled by a team of dogs, were frequently featured in Popular Mechanics throughout the turn of the 20th century. Detachable bicycle motors, an evolution of Copeland’s invention, were even advertised in the magazine in the 1910s. Copeland’s “Moto-Cycle” was just one part of a larger cultural fascination with the bicycle and transportation innovation (one that continues with today's trendy electric-powered bikes).
Among the crowd to see Copeland’s machine in D.C. was John Elfreth Watkins, an engineer who became curator of the Smithsonian’s transportation collection (who began the institution’s cycle collection in 1889), along with Edwin H. Hawley, of the Department of Anthropology. The woman sitting on the cycle’s front seat was Frances Benjamin Johnston, an early female photojournalist, trained by George Eastman (of Eastman Kodak) and Thomas Smillie, the Smithsonian’s first photographer.
Copeland’s early motorcycle didn’t last long on the market, however. The business didn’t prove lucrative enough for Copeland and he retired in 1891. That didn’t stop his invention (or other steam-powered bicycles like it) from receiving considerable attention in newspaper pages across the country. When Copeland’s promoter, Sandford Northrop (pictured in the photo, to the left), returned to D.C. aboard his tricycle a year later, he made the Evening Star pages again for attracting “considerable attention on the streets” with a machine that was able to drive “at the rate of twelve miles per hour.”
A writer for the “Wheels and Wheelmen” column in Utah’s Salt Lake Herald, 1889, fondly recalled seeing a steam tricycle while in Philadelphia: “It certainly was a most beautiful vehicle and the steam apparatus the very acme of ingenuity.” (Though, the columnist was quick to note that the engine seemed too complicated for an everyday driver to handle).
And San Franciscan speed-racer John Broad was name-checked in his local newspaper in 1892 for “tearing through the gloaming at the rate of twenty miles an hour on his steam tricycle, and it was his whistling for the right of way that startled the neighbors.” When interviewed, Broad noted that he loved to “spin along the highways of his native city,” but found the actual pedaling of the bike “distasteful.” Rather, “what he wanted was exercise without the expenditure of physical force.” His solution? The steam tricycle.
An Ode to the Bicycle, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
America on the Move: Smithsonian Bicycle Collection, National Musuem of American History
Object Project: Bicycles, National Musuem of American History