The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Politics/Government
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
In honor of Presidents' Day, the Archives presents the following images. Please enjoy.
- Presidential materials at the Smithsonian Institution, Collections Search Center
- Presidential materials at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- The Presidents, White House