The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Politics/Government
One early assumption about the Science Service collections was that the material would be of primary (if not sole) interest to historians of science, technology, and medicine. Soon, however, historians of journalism and mass communications realized that the records offered valuable new perspectives on the construction of science news and information during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. One could, for example, analyze reporting approaches, growth of scientific photojournalism, the use of radio, and the collaboration between the media and technical experts.
Because the Science Service staff had friends and colleagues in media outlets around the world, the records also provide glimpses of the wider world of journalism. Watson Davis and the other senior editors were members of the National Press; many had congressional and White House press credentials. During World War II, their role was to report on the home front but they maintained close contact with colleagues who served in far more dangerous situations abroad.
One of the reporters whom Davis had gotten to know during the Scopes anti-evolution trial was Raymond Lewis Clapper (1892-1944). By 1925, Clapper was well-known to readers around the country. He had worked for United Press since 1916, and eventually became head of the syndicate's Washington bureau before joining the Scripps-Howard organization in the 1930s. He had begun his radio reporting career in 1942 with the Mutual Broadcasting Service.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Clapper became a military correspondent, covering U.S. Navy activities in the Pacific and broadcasting from every place he could. He died at age 51, during the U.S. invasion of the Marshall Islands, when the plane in which he was traveling as an observer collided with another plane.
In peacetime, Thomas Robert Henry (1893-1968) had covered science for the Washington Star, and was a charter member of the National Association of Science Writers, which a small group of journalists (including Davis) had founded in 1934. During World War II, Henry was embedded with U.S. infantry forces as they moved through Italy, and he was among the reporters who later observed horror firsthand as the Allies liberated the Nazi death camps. After the war, Henry became an advisor to the Smithsonian Institution news office (his papers are in the Archives).
The Science Service circle of friends and colleagues also included political cartoonists. Born in Carbondale, Pennsylvania, in 1919, Thomas F. Flannery (1919-1999) had attended the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn before joining the U.S. Air Force. He still looked like a "youngster" when he served, from 1943 to 1945, as a cartoonist for the U.S. Army magazine Yank.
After the war, Flannery became a newspaper editorial cartoonist, eventually working for the Baltimore Sun from 1957 until 1988, and producing memorable commentary on attempts to desegregate the nation's schools. Several thousand of his original drawings, on topics that range from the environment to foreign affairs, from the space program to the Vietnam War, are in the collections of the Johns Hopkins University Library.
A great editorial cartoon, Stephen Hess and Milton Kaplan observe in The Ungentlemanly Art, must quickly fuse an idea about contemporary events into artistic expression. Cartoonists like Flannery translated the daily experiences of soldiers into visual communications, all with a few lines of ink, just as the reporters like Clapper and Henry painted pictures for their readers with words.
- Thomas R. Henry: Soldier, Explorer, Scientist, Journalist, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Thomas F. Flannery cartoon, Yank Magazine - The Army Weekly
- Tom Flannery Cartoons Collection, Johns Hopkins University
- Record Unit 7347 - Thomas R. Henry Papers, 1933-1966, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Science Service collections at the Smithsonian Institution Archives
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
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