The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Politics/Government
This fall I have been working on cleaning, organizing, and creating catalog records for the Smithsonian Institution’s Board of Regents Meeting Minutes (you can see the beautiful, new, clean records here). While I know this doesn't sound like particularly exciting work, the minutes hold plenty of drama. Let me make my case before you stop reading.
The Regents are the group of people, designated by Congress, who are responsible for administration of the Smithsonian. In the early years I’ve been working on there were a lot of strong, differing opinions about what the institution should be – no surprise when you get the Vice-President, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Mayor of Washington, three Senators and three Representatives together in one room. There were arguments over building the Smithsonian Institution Building, more commonly known as the Castle; whether to accept government collections (without which we might not have a museum, let alone nineteen); an embezzlement case; a resignation that sets off an investigation by Congress, lawsuits; firings; and contract disputes. It's safe to say that the first few years weren't dull.
The other day I came across yet another controversy that was new to me. On March 3, 1857, Joseph Henry, the first Secretary of the Smithsonian, mentions an article published by Prof. S. F. B. Morse, "containing charges against his moral character and his scientific reputation." While not knowing what to make of this, I knew it must be serious because a committee formed to examine the issue. It turns out that Morse made some pretty serious claims: that Joseph Henry had lied under oath while giving testimony in a telegraph patent dispute. How did Joseph Henry get mixed up in this? Well, he specialized in electromagnetics and invented the type of magnet used in Morse's telegraph. He was subpoenaed to testify for defendants in several patent infringement cases brought by Morse. (You can read more about it here) This made Morse so angry, that he attacked Henry's research and reputation in an article that took up over ninety pages and entire edition of a magazine. The Board surveys the evidence – letters between Joseph Henry and Samuel Morse, from lawyers involved in the court case, and from other scientists involved in electromagnetism and telegraphy – and concludes that "Mr. Henry's deposition of 1849, which evidently furnished the motive for Mr. Morse's attack upon him, is strictly correct in all the historical details." They further concluded "that Mr. Morse has failed to substantiate any one of the charges he has made against Professor Henry, although the burden of proof lay upon him; and that all the evidence, including the unbiased admissions of Mr. Morse himself, is on the other side. Mr. Morse's charges not only remain unproved but they are positively disproved." Good news for Joseph Henry, but a sad end to a professional relationship that began in friendly collaboration.
- Board of Regents Minutes, online resource, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- A Forgotten History: Alfred Vail and Samuel Morse, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 1 - Smithsonian Institution Board of Regents, Minutes, 1846- , Smithsonian Institution Archives
On October 20, 2014, the Smithsonian officially launched a National Capital Campaign, the first of its kind in the Institution's history. However, this is not the Smithsonian's first attempt at a national fundraising effort.
In 1925, the Institution's fourth Secretary, Charles Doolittle Walcott, started developing a strategic plan that included a capital campaign to supplement federal funds allocated to the Smithsonian. In the early stages of the campaign, before the actual launch was to occur in 1927, Walcott began soliciting contributions from the general public and prospective large donors, including members of the Smithsonian's Board of Regents.
The campaign goal was to raise one million dollars, with the hopes of raising the first $50,000 from within (Regents and associates of Board members). Not all were capable, or perhaps willing, to contribute a suggested amount of $1,000. The Board's Chancellor, William Howard Taft, offered $250.
The first money to arrive for the Capital Campaign, though, came from an unlikely source. On December 5, 1925, Taft received the following letter:
Dear Mr. Taft:
At school in the current events we read that the Smithsonian Institute [sic] needed money. Our teacher talked about it and asked how many would send money. I decided I would. The dollar enclosed is money I earned today. I hope it will help. Yours truly, Orrin F. Nash
Taft forwarded the money to Walcott with the tongue-in-cheek missive, "My Dear Dr. Walcott: Here is the foundation for your $10,000,000. It is only one dollar, but I hope that it will prove to be a good beginning."
Walcott replied to Master Nash with a very sweet note of thanks.
It was most generous of you to make this contribution, which was the first received in response to the public announcement of the Institution’s need for additional funds. It is particularly appreciated because, having been a boy myself, I know how many alluring things they always have in mind on which to spend their dollars, and I do not believe that many boys would have been unselfish enough to send it for such a purpose. I hope the consciousness that you have made this sacrifice of some pleasure of your own for the benefit of others will more than repay you, for no one can tell what part your dollar may play in the ferreting out of some secret of Nature, and thus add its share to the sum of human knowledge for the enlightenment of other boys and girls and men and women for generations to come.
What became of Walcott's campaign? Well, it did not end as sweetly as it's one dollar beginning. On February 11, 1927, Walcott planned a "Conference on the Future of the Smithsonian" to kick off the campaign with scientists, politicians and prominent prospective donors in attendance. Unfortunately, two days before the conference, Walcott died. His successor, Charles Greeley Abbot, hosted the conference in his stead, but timing was not on the side of the campaign. Just as Abbot was completing the strategic plan and preparing to launch the capital campaign, the stock market crashed in 1929.
- Contribute to today's Smithsonian Campaign!
- Orrin F. Nash, Urbana Daily Courier, December 30, 1925, Illinois Digital Newspaper Collections, University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
- Press Release announcing Smithsonian's 2014-2017 National Capital Campaign, Chronology of Smithsonian History, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Secretary Charles Doolittle Walcott, Smithsonian Institution Archives
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
I was visiting South Carolina recently, and passed through Beaufort. It turns out this beautiful southern town has a surprising connection to the Smithsonian.
In November 1861, when Union troops occupied Beaufort, one of the principal treasures of the town was its outstanding library - which had been incorporated in 1807 and encompassed several thousand books, many having been brought back from Europe by wealthy Carolinians. With the arrival of the troops, landed Beaufort-area residents had fled and the town was in the hands of those left behind: enslaved people from the Sea Islands plantations.
General Isaac Stevens, the Union commanding officer, ordered that the library, called "the pride of the town," be arranged for the use of the troops. Within a few months, however, a treasury agent appeared, demanding the books be confiscated as war booty. The books were sent to New York, where they were put up for auction.
This caused an immediate outcry. The New York Times editorialized against it; and a letter to the editor urged them to continue the fight (or as the writer wonderfully put it, "ventilate" the subject!). Within a day, Salmon Chase, Lincoln's Treasury Secretary, allegedly declared "the Union does not make war on books," and put a halt to the proceedings. The books were then deposited for safe keeping at the Smithsonian. They were to be returned at the conclusion of the war. (Salmon Chase became a Smithsonian Regent in 1864, after Lincoln successfully nominated him to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and he continued in that role until his death in 1873.)
Saved from auction, the books were placed in the fifth floor of the South Tower of the Smithsonian Building (the Castle - then the Smithsonian's only building). The war dragged on; in 1864, two years after the seizure of the books, newspapers reassured the South that the library remained safe and sound.
Tragically, on January 24, 1865, fire ripped through the Castle building. The Beaufort Library collection was completely destroyed, along with many other collections and papers - including almost all of the relics of the Smithsonian's founder, James Smithson, which were being kept a few floors below in the Regents Room.
Beaufort eventually received some token compensation for their loss. Today the Beaufort County Library is a thriving place. Happily, the book collection lost in the 1865 fire wasn't the last connection between Beaufort and the Smithsonian. The library hosted a Smithsonian traveling exhibition in early 2012.
- Smokin' Smithsonian, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
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