The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Smithsonian History
This post was originally meant to be published on October 9, 2013, but due to the federal government shutdown was delayed until now.
Just like the Capitol Building and the White House, the Washington Monument is instantly recognizable thanks to countless images both from the ground and air. Viewers are familiar with TV shows and films that feature a shot of the monument that reveals the location as Washington, D.C.
The 555-foot tall structure that honors George Washington's leadership during the American Revolution marks its 125th anniversary today as it officially opened in 1888.
Building of the monument started in 1848 and continued until 1884, with construction breaks due to funding challenges, political issues, and the Civil War. The monument even came up during a Board of Regents meeting in 1846 - the year the Smithsonian was established - during a discussion of land for the Institution:
Resolved, That the Regents of the Smithsonian Institution do select and adopt, as the site for their buildings, so much of the Mall, in the city of Washington, as lies between Seventh street and the river Potomac, subject to the power of Congress to grant any portion of the same west of Fourteenth street to the Washington Monument Society, for the purpose of erecting a monument thereon, if the consent of the persons named in the fourth section of the act to establish the Smithsonian Institution for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men be obtained thereto; and that, upon such consent being obtained in due form, the Secretary is hereby instructed to cause the said ground so selected to be set out by proper metes and bounds.
The monument was dedicated February 21, 1885, and the iron staircase inside was publicly accessible in 1886, according to the National Park Service. The monument though was closed to the public for most of 1887 because of vandalism by visitors. The Los Angeles Times reported in May 1887 that marble was chipped throughout the monument and bronze letters on a memorial stone were missing, in addition to scratches and names being etched onto the stones. These stones embedded in the walls were from individuals, societies, states, and nations.
The 1888 opening we celebrate today was the start of the public elevator service. The Washington Post reported that 32 people made that inaugural trip on October 9 after a few test runs by the crew. The elevator made it all the way up without any problems, but the reporter pointed out that a worker had climbed up some steps within the monument, got on top of the elevator, and actually rode on it to monitor the cables on the trip up. The article reported the view was amazing but the air was cold.
The monument now is covered in scaffolding and is closed while repairs are being done because of damage sustained during an August 23, 2011 5.8 magnitude earthquake in Mineral, Virginia. This event though was not unprecedented because in 1884 workers on top of the monument felt the effects of an earthquake in Ohio. No damage was reported then. Restoration work also was done from 1996-2000.
The monument is expected to reopen in 2014.
This post was originally meant to be published on October 8, 2013, but due to the federal government shutdown was delayed until now.
On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the world's first artificial satellite, Sputnik I. The event caught many by surprise, and it marked the beginning of the U.S.-U.S.S.R. space race.
At the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, there was certainly surprise when news of Sputnik broke, but SAO had placed in motion a structure ready-made to track the satellite and became the epicenter for Sputnik information in the western world. In 1956, SAO established the Satellite Tracking Program Moonwatch Division to track and photograph the artificial earth satellites to be launched during the International Geophysical Year, 1957-1958; more specifically "Operation Moonwatch" was created to track the path of a satellite to be launched by the United States.
News of Sputnik broke around 6:30 p.m. J. Allen Hynek, director of the Satellite Tracking Program, was still in his office when he received the phone call. On the one-year anniversary of the launch, Hynek recalled that night in October 1957:
For a moment or two, I can tell you, both Ken [Drummond] and I felt extremely helpless--everybody gone and even Dr. Whipple [SAO Director] not due to return from Washington for a few hours yet. In a few moments we realized that the telephones were made to be used and we began calling both some Moonwatch team leaders and staff members. It was a little exasperating to have to convince some of the latter (but quite understandably) that this was not a gag. Some staff members didn't wait to be called, but as soon as they heard it on the radio - popped right back.
SAO was soon besieged by the press corp. They were frantically hooking up a brand new TWX machine. The Moonwatch Network of teams worldwide were set in motion. SAO staff wives were bringing in sandwiches and making coffee. SAO was setting up an impromptu communications center. Hynek wrote:
Those were stormy days on the technical sea, but both the ship and the crew came through--but not unscathed. The months of quiet preparation on the part of Leon Campbell in Moonwatch, and of Dr. Henize in station preparation, all paid off. It would have been nicer if the Russians had given us a few more months grace, but----.
The Satellite Tracking Program was "not ready to go" on October 4, 1957, but it was kicked into high gear rather quickly. Sputnik wasn't a U.S. satellite, but SAO was tasked with tracking artificial earth satellites, and the program became the "information center for the western world on this new, frightening object."
Operation Moonwatch remained active until 1975. With more than 100 teams worldwide, volunteers used the "fence method" of observing the sky. Each observer covered a small, overlapping portion of a specific sky quadrant, and watched for the passage of satellites with telescopes. The instrument used was the Moonwatch Apogee Scope, a 20 power telescope with a 5-inch objective lens. The Moonwatch teams backed up an optical network of 12 Baker-Nunn tracking cameras.
- Record Unit 255 - Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory Moonwatch Division, Records, 1956-1975, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 9520 - Oral history interviews with Fred Lawrence Whipple, 1976, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Accession 04-183 - Fred Lawrence Whipple Papers, c. 1932-2004, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Today we'll celebrate the 100th birthday of the eighth Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley, who, with endless exuberance and optimism, presided over the greatest period of expansion in the Smithsonian's history from 1964 to 1984. Ripley's tenure saw ten new museums and six research institutes, introduction of multiculturalism at the Smithsonian, and development of education programs for children, advanced students and adults. The change was so rapid and constant that one curator reminisced that he had gone from "young Turk" to conservative oldster within Ripley's first year. Energetic and exuberant, Ripley frequently told Smithsonian staff that they should be having fun at work at every day. So what brought this unique personality to the Smithsonian?
Born on September 20, 1913, in New York City, Ripley was the fourth child of Louis Arthur Ripley and Constance Baillie Rose Ripley. The great grandson of Sidney Dillon, founder of the Union Pacific Railroad, he grew up in New York society. Life was divided between New York City and the family estate, Kilvarock, in Litchfield, Connecticut, with summers often spent in Paris. Ripley's sense of adventure was well-honed by his extensive travels as a child, with frequent trips to Europe and, when he was 13, a family trip to India that included a six-week walking trek of Lahdak or western Tibet with his older sister. He developed a lifelong interest in natural history, especially birds, collecting and identifying all he could find and rearing waterfowl at his home. His offbeat sense of humor was often aimed at tradition, although he loved traditions himself. While attending St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire, he formed the "Offall Eating Club," a poke at exclusive eating clubs, with his dedication to "offal" or the remains of animals found on the side of the road.
Although his family would have preferred he pursue a career in law, Ripley did not envision himself in a pinstripe suit in an office. He was drawn to a life in the theater while at Yale University (1932-1936), where he was a member of the Yale Dramat. However, he settled on his first love, studying biology with G. Evelyn Hutchinson at Yale. After graduation he set out on the Denison-Crockett South Pacific Expedition in 1937, followed by trips to New Guinea and Sumatra. He was finishing a doctorate at Harvard when World War II was declared. He sought to enlist immediately, but the 6'5" lanky young adventurer was too thin and rejected by all the services. He worked briefly as a curator of birds at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History until he secured an appointment with the Office of Strategic Services, the World War II intelligence service. Stationed in Southeast Asia, he served as liaison to General Louis Mountbatten of Great Britain, but snuck out of camp to go bird watching whenever he could. His roommate, the future diplomat Paul Child, brought Ripley along for one R&R trip to see his fiancé, Julia McWillliams (yes that Julia Child, who, according to Ripley, did not know how to boil an egg in those days. There he met Julia's roommate and his future wife, Mary Moncrieffe Livingston, a young socialite who had also fled society life for adventure abroad. The Ripleys and Childs maintained their friendship throughout their lives.
After the war, Ripley settled into a professorial life at Yale, teaching biology and directing the Peabody Museum of Natural History. His irrepressible style soon garnered headlines as he hired belly-dancers for the opening of a King Tut exhibit and organized expeditions into remote corners of the globe to catch the elusive spiny babbler. In 1964, he returned to the Smithsonian as the eighth Secretary and an agent of change. He refocused the Institution outward, symbolized by his rotation of the statue of Secretary Joseph Henry to face the National Mall, rather than the Castle. He put owls in the Castle towers to lower the rodent population, and rescued some distraught farm hens who had escaped their exhibit during the Nixon inaugural ball at the Museum of American History. Ripley opened the doors of the museums for the Poor People's Campaign in 1968 and established a new museum in Anacostia, an African-American neighborhood in Washington, D.C., while turning back wealthy Marjorie Merriweather Post's decorative arts collection at Hillwood to her heirs. He created programs for interns and fellowships for students to bring new energy into the venerable Institution. He participated in the Endangered Species Act legislation, encouraged ecological research, and established an endangered species breeding park in rural Virginia.
But Ripley was as interested in art, culture and history, as the sciences, sometimes to the dismay of scientists who now had to compete for funds. He founded the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall, opened a modern art museum – the Hirshhorn, and rode a horsedrawn carriage to celebrate the American Bicentennial. He loved a good party, cutting the rug with Mary Ripley at Smithsonian Associates balls and Folklife Festival dance parties. As he wrote in a column in the Smithsonian magazine that he founded: "There is little point in treading the hard road to knowledge unless one finds beauty and joy in enlarging perceptions.”
Royalty has been making the news recently as new generations marry and produce heirs.
Photos held by the Smithsonian Institution Archives record visits of crowned heads of the past century - many peering gamely into the Smithsonian's exhibit cases as they tour the museums. Please enjoy the slideshow below!
Shark attacks on the increase! Any time this headline flashes it instills fear in the hearts of swimmers and beachgoers everywhere. Have you ever wondered how we know how many times sharks have attacked humans and where that data has been compiled? Well, at the Smithsonian of course, where we do just about everything!
In 1958, Smithsonian ichthyologist Leonard P. Schultz and Cornell University professor Perry W. Gilbert established the Shark Research Panel to track reports of shark attacks and search for an effective shark repellant. The Shark Research File was maintained at the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) during its first decade and then transferred to the Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida, which Gilbert then headed.
World War II, especially the Pacific Theater, had stimulated a great deal of interest in sharks and shark attacks. Military personnel left adrift reported numerous attacks by sharks while awaiting rescue – if they were lucky enough to survive. The US Navy provided sailors with a product called "Shark Chaser," a purplish dye that would confuse sharks when spread out in the water, and that provided some protection for a few hours. On April 8-11, 1958, thirty-four participants met for a conference on sharks at Tulane University in New Orleans. Following that meeting, with support from the Office of Naval Research and the American Institute of Biological Sciences, Gilbert and Schultz created the Shark Research Panel on June 25.
Schultz maintained the shark attack file at the NMNH from 1958 until his retirement in 1968, compiling information about each shark attack and following up with additional questions. When a shark attack was reported, a physician or scientist in the area was immediately asked to obtain documentation on the attack by submitting a two-page form with questions such as location, environmental conditions, kind of shark, nature and treatment of wounds, and type of activity the victim was engaged in at the time of the attack.
For the first year, 1959, they compiled information on 36 attacks where sharks made physical contact with victims and analyzed the circumstances. They also offered advice, noting that sharks usually circle their victim before an aggressive attack, giving the swimmer time to get back to their boat or shore. They urged calm, since frenzied motion was more likely to attract sharks. They also noted that it was far more likely a person would be struck by lightning than attacked by a shark, but acknowledged that shark attack victims often bled to death before they could be rescued.
I conducted an oral history interview with Dr. Leonard Schultz in 1976, the year after Jaws hit the theaters, and we discussed his role in shark attack research. Schultz was pleased that more people were aware of the potential for shark attacks but concerned over the sensationalism the film provoked. He was also concerned about the negative image of sharks the movie created. Click on the link below to hear Dr. Schultz talk about creation of the shark attack research project.
With Shark Week taking over your television, you probably won’t remain calm or need shark repellant, but if you head to the beach or out on a fishing boat, remember their advice so you don’t become another shark attack file statistic!
- Leonard Peter Schultz (1901-1986): Ichthyologist and Field Naturalist, National Museum of Natural History
- Shark Attack File, Smithsonian Encyclopedia
- Ocean Portal: Sharks & Rays, National Musum of Natural History
- The Shark Attacks That Were the Inspiration for Jaws, Smithsonian Magazine
- Shark Week Song, by Marian Call
- Record Unit 7222 - Leonard Peter Schultz Papers, circa 1915-1970, with related papers from 1899, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 9510 - Oral history interview with Leonard Peter Schultz 1976, Smithsonian Institution Archives