The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Science
"Truth is stranger than fiction" is the adage that immediately came to mind when I stumbled across this odd bit of Smithsonian history. In 1848, first Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry helped write a proposal to create an International Board of Subterranean Exploration. This joint endeavor between the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia, and Belgium aimed to test Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s theory that the Earth’s core was molten. Additionally, the explorations would seek to uncover the magnetic condition of the earth’s crust and to analyze coal measures. Joseph Henry was noted for his pioneering research into magnetic phenomena, so this was a topic that interested him.
To begin their work, the commission decided the best way to explore the subterreanean parts of of our world would be to excavate a shaft into the center of Earth. The report stated that the committee selected a site in Bruges, Belgium, and commenced digging on April 10, 1849. For more than twenty years, men of science worked at the site drilling with diamond-pointed instruments and taking measurements of all kinds. They learned about magnetic forces and the make-up of the Earth’s crust. Then, one fateful November night in 1872 the project went up in flames! In the wee hours of the morning, men at the site heard a series of explosions. Waves of heat, thunderous sounds and ash erupted throughout the region. Soon, molten lava sprung from the shaft and destroyed everything in its wake.
The devastating results of this search for knowledge is almost hard to believe. In fact, I hope you didn't . . .
In truth, we did come across this bizarre article mentioning Joseph Henry. However, it turns out that this and several others like it are the collective writings of William Henry Rhodes, or “Caxton.” Rhodes, a lawyer by trade, wrote a series of science fiction hoaxes that were published in newspapers around the country. He first published a hoax piece, The Case of Summerfield, in 1871 in The Sacramento Union. This piece was written as a report on a man who threatened to set the world’s oceans on fire using chemicals unless he was paid one million dollars. For a few days people were in a state of panic until The Sacramento Reporter unveiled the story as a hoax and, for the most part, people were amused by the prank.
Rhodes continued to write and in 1872 produced the The Earth’s Hot Center. This time the hoax was presented as extracts from a report written by John Flannagan, United States Consul at Bruges, to the United States Secretary of State, Hamilton Fish. It told the harrowing tale of scientists going too far and creating a volcano in the middle of Belgium. Although parts of the story may seem fantastical today, Rhodes’ use of prominent names such as Henry, Fish, and Roderick Murchison, a noted Scottish geologist; organizations like the Smithsonian; and his understanding of the scientific theories prevalant at the time helped create a masterful story that initially hoodwinked his readership until the deception was revealed. Secretary Joseph Henry was quite a serious fellow, and we don’t know his reaction, but we hope he enjoyed this bit of notoriety.
P.S. The image of the “excavation site” is actually an image of the Parícutin volcano in Mexico in 1943 taken by Smithsonian curator of minerals William Foshag. The image of Henry . . . well, that is actually him.
- Caxton's Book: A Collection of Essays, Poems, Tales and Sketches, William Henry Rhodes, ed. Daniel O’Connell, (A. L. Bancroft and Company: San Francisco, CA) 1876.
- Caxton's Book: A Collection of Essays, Poems, Tales and Sketches, William Henry Rhodes, Introduction by Sam Moskowitz (Hyperion Press: Westpore, CT) 1974.
Women's History Month is meant to celebrate notable, influential women who, through their activism in their chosen field, made contributions to history and society. One woman that we here at the Archives would like to highlight is Florence Merriam Bailey, an American nature writer and ornithologist who made significant contributions to ornithology through her participation and work with the National Audubon Society, the American Ornithologists' Union, and more.
As an intern with the Digital Services Division, I worked with the Florence Merriam Bailey Papers for the past seven weeks and learned a great deal about Florence's life and work and its influence on the 19th century scientific community. I have to be honest, before embarking on this project, I had little to no knowledge about the field of ornithology and had never heard of Florence's work. After looking at her various diaries, journals, publications, and photographs, Florence's passion for studying birds became very apparent to me.
Florence was the daughter of Clinton Levi Merriam and the sister of Clinton (C.) Hart Merriam, a famous zoologist who worked for and eventually became director of the U. S. Biological Survey and was first president of the American Society of Mammalogy. C. Hart Merriam introduced Florence to her future husband, Vernon Orlando Bailey, another prominent figure in the field of natural history. Vernon and C. Hart Merriam worked together compiling their research and field work and shared their work with the Smithsonian. Vernon and Florence spent their life together as a perfect team, conducting research together and taking the scientific world by storm.
Florence was born on August 8, 1863 in Locust Grove, New York during the Civil War. At the age of eleven, she wrote a diary detailing her daily thoughts and activities in Washington, DC, where she was living at the time. In her early entries, she speaks of taking walks, attending Sunday school, and learning Latin. She was very literate and well-written by the age of eleven and cared about her studies. "I have finished all of my Sunday School lesson, but of course I will have to look it over every day." She even displayed a hint of adolescent humor in her entries, as on January 6 she states, "I have not done anything today that is worth writing down so I guess I won't say anything." I found this first diary interesting not only because I was able to read about young Florence's life but also because it was really interesting to study the physical differences in the diaries themselves from those of today. Florence also kept other diaries of her life in Washington, and journals from trips to South Carolina, Maine, California, etc. In her California journal in particular, I found that her curly, cursive writing was sometimes hard to decipher and I had to look up the places she was describing. However after working with her collection for the past several weeks, I started to become familiar with her handwriting.
This collection also includes a vast collection of field notes and photographs from her expeditions. One trip in particular caught my eye. Florence's 1898 trip to Mount Hood in Oregon was interesting to work with because it included both field notes as well as photographs. This made it easy to visualize the places and species she wrote about. She also took photos of the mountain itself as well as of the bird habitats in the area, including trees and bushes.
One of my favorite groups of photographs and documents are those from "Homewood." Homewood was Florence's name for the family property in Locust Grove, New York. She documents the house and land via black-and-white photographs. I particularly enjoyed the pictures of "Brownie," a squirrel that was often present in Homewood. Florence seemed to enjoy taking pictures of him, as there are several within her collection of him in a variety of amusing poses.
I enjoyed this collection for its variety of field documents and photographs, both in the field as well as personal ones. Through interacting with Florence's diaries, field books, and photographs I was able to connect at a personal level with this inspiring woman of the scientific community. Florence was not only a researcher of birds, but a promoter of their preservation too. She became involved with the Committee on Bird Protection of the American Ornithologists' Union, and as a result of her efforts and others, the Lacey Act of 1900 was instituted. This act prohibited interstate trade in wildlife that had been illegally taken, transported or sold. Florence Merriam Bailey was a prominent historical figure in the field of ornithology and an inspiring woman.
- Record Unit 7417 - Florence Merriam Bailey Papers, 1865-1942, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 7267 - Vernon Orlando Bailey Papers, 1889-1941 and undated, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Comparing Observations: Vernon and Florence Merriam Bailey, Smithsonian Collections blog
- A Beaver Corral, Fried Owl, and Pueblos: Adventures with Vernon Orlando Bailey, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Think the org chart is complex at your company/organization? Check out this org chart for the New York & Erie Railroad from 1855. [via Wired Design]
- Mach 6.7 . . . Now that's pretty fast! Get to know the X-15 in the National Air and Space Museum's Milestones of Flight gallery. [via AirSpace, NASM]
- Look in the collections of most archives and you'll find paper, lots of it. In honor of ubiquitous paper, take a look at the Jungshi Handmade Paper Factory in Bhutan. [via Core77]
- That darn dust! All hands on deck at the National Museum of Natural History to help clean the cases and specimens in the Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals. [via Unearthed, NMNH]
- Come April 10-11, if you happen to find yourself in Indianapolis, Indiana, be sure to check out Personal Digital Archiving 2014 at the Indiana State Library. [via The Signal: Digital Preservation, LOC]
- You've transcribed journals, diaries, and botanical specimens, now its time to transcribe currency proof sheets from the National Numismatics Collection at the National Museum of American History. [via O say can you see?, NMAH
- Anzu wyliei - one scary chicken and newly discovered bird-like dinosaur. [via Smithsonian Science]
- Whoa . . . that is pretty mesmerizing! Check out these animated gifs by Hungarian/German graphic designer David Szakaly. [via Colossal]