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Lester Young Turns 100

Smithsonian Magazine

Though Lester Young was revered in his time as an artist of the highest rank, the 100th anniversary of his birth has not sparked much in the way of commemoration. No postage stamp; no parade in Woodville, Mississippi, where he was born on August 27, 1909; no statues in New Orleans, Kansas City or New York City —all places with a claim on the spellbinding Swing Era saxophonist known as Prez.

A shining exception is Columbia University's WKCR radio, where, for the past 40 years, jazz historian Phil Schaap has led marathon birthday tributes to Young, revisiting his landmark recordings from the 1930s and '40s with Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman and other leading lights, as well as Young's in-and-out performances in the troubled years before his death in 1959. Like Louis Armstrong before him, Prez was a pivotal figure; his lyrical, flowing style changed the terms of jazz improvisation and deeply influenced such musicians as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Frank Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim. Schaap's devotion has a personal element, too: Young; his wife, Mary, and their kids were friends and neighbors of the Schaap family in Queens, New York, in the late '50s. Though he was in grade school at the time, Schaap remembers Young's sweet voice and fun-loving presence, as well as moments of conversation among the grown-ups, such as the time his father, Walter, stood with Young in the front doorway discussing racial equality, and the jazzman remarked, "It never goes in the back door."

Like many of Young's phrases—musical and verbal—the comment was both deft and shrouded. He was known for speaking a private language, some of which has entered the American lexicon. The expression "that's cool" was probably coined by him, as were "bread" (for money), "You dig?" and such colorful sayings as "I feel a draft"—code for prejudice and hostility in the air. He also wore sunglasses in nightclubs, sported a crushed black porkpie hat and tilted his saxophone at a high angle "like a canoeist about to plunge his paddle into the water," as the New Yorker's Whitney Balliett put it. Rolling Stone later pronounced Prez "quite likely the hippest dude that ever lived."

Young's impact on the language of music was even greater. Before tenorman Coleman Hawkins led the emergence of the saxophone as a serious instrument in the 1920s, most sax players "habitually produced either a kind of rubbery belch or a low, mooing noise," wrote Young biographer Dave Gelly. Young came along right behind Hawkins, and electrified the jazz world with his dexterity and imagination.

"He redefined the instrument," says the tenor saxophonist and jazz scholar Loren Schoenberg, who is also executive director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem (a Smithsonian affiliate). His most fundamental change involved a subtle relaxation of jazz phrasing and rhythm. "A lot of lesser players depend on the friction of a spiky rhythm to make it seem as if it's 'hot,' " Schoenberg says. "Young found a way to play that had a more even rhythm, and yet he swung like crazy. This called for great ingenuity and great genius."

Young mastered the art of improvising beautiful melodies. Yet, like a great dancer, he never lost sight of the beat. (Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

Young mastered the art of improvising beautiful melodies, which he played with a velvety tone and an effortless, floating quality. Yet like a great dancer, he never lost sight of the beat. A bluesman at heart, he could swoop and moan and play with edge, but more typically, the sensation was one of "pulsating ease," as critic Nat Hentoff once described it. At slower tempos, he radiated a more wistful, bruised spirit. "In all of Lester Young's finest solos," Albert Murray writes in his classic study, Stomping the Blues, "there are overtones of unsentimental sadness that suggest he was never unmindful of human vulnerability."

Young was raised in and around New Orleans in a musical family that performed in minstrel shows and carnivals. His father, Willis Handy Young, was an accomplished music educator; he doted on Lester but also often belt-whipped the boy, prompting him to run away 10 or 12 times, according to his younger brother Lee. The family moved to Minneapolis in 1919 and performed across the American heartland. At a stop in Harlan, Kentucky, the Youngs came close to being lynched; apparently, the audience had been expecting a white band. In 1927, at age 18, Lester ran away for good rather than face the indignities of a planned tour of Texas and the Deep South. He latched on with territory bands (dance bands that would travel a given region) such as Walter Page's Blue Devils, several of whose stars—including bassist Page, singer Jimmy Rushing, drummer Jo Jones and pianist Count Basie—would later form the nucleus of Basie's popular, ultra-swinging orchestra. The novelist and jazz writer Ralph Ellison remembered hearing Young jamming in an Oklahoma City shoeshine parlor with members of the Blue Devils as early as 1929, "his head thrown back, his horn even then outthrust."

Young's prowess was well known by 1934, when he first joined the Basie band in Kansas City; by the time he left, in 1940, he had established himself as one of the top stars in jazz. Most of Young's greatest records date from this period and the early '40s, when he teamed up with Holiday, Goodman, Charlie Christian, Nat King Cole and a number of excellent small groups composed mainly of Basie-ites. Young later said that his favorite solo from the Basie years came on a sprightly tune called Taxi War Dance. "The entire solo is 32 bars long; it takes exactly 35 seconds," writes Gelly, "and it's a masterpiece to stand alongside Armstrong's West End Blues and Parker's Ko-Ko. No one else could have done it because no else's mind worked that way."

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By all accounts, Young was a painfully shy and sensitive loner who hated conflict of any kind. He also had a self-destructive streak and blithely ignored his health. "Prez always had a bottle of liquor in his pocket," said pianist Jimmy Rowles.

Young was sliding into a long decline by his early 30s, probably accelerated by his hellish Army experience. He was court-martialed in early 1945 for marijuana possession, then confined for nearly a year in disciplinary barracks, an experience he called "one mad nightmare." He bounced back to record some of his most successful records and tour with the all-star Jazz at the Philharmonic bands, but he was hospitalized with a nervous breakdown in 1955. Soon after returning from an engagement in Paris, Young died in the Alvin Hotel in Manhattan on March 15, 1959, just months before his old friend and musical soulmate Billie Holiday.

He remains a powerful influence on the music. Wayne Shorter, Lee Konitz, Joe Lovano and Mark Turner—an elite list of contemporary saxophonists—have all professed deep admiration for Young, much as their predecessors did.

The late pianist John Lewis played in Young's band in the early '50s at about the time Lewis was forming the Modern Jazz Quartet. A kindred spirit, he said he regarded Young as "a living, walking poet" whose wounds in life had never healed. "Lester is an extremely gentle, kind, considerate person," he told Hentoff in 1956 or '57. "He's always concerned about the underdog. He always wants to help somebody. The way he seems to see being is: 'Here we are. Let's have a nice time.' "

Happy birthday, Prez.

Your Breath Does More Than Repulse—It Can Also Tell Doctors Whether You Have Cancer

Smithsonian Magazine

Your terrible breath is trying to tell you something—and not just that it’s time to crack open a bottle of Listerine. Within that cloud of onion and stale tuna fish odors are hundreds of chemical compounds, which combine in your mouth to create a ratio as unique as a fingerprint. By analyzing that ratio, researchers have come up with a powerful new way to detect the signatures of various diseases, from prostate cancer to Parkinson's.

Today in the journal American Chemical Society Nano, researchers unveil a sensor array that identifies and captures the unique “breathprint” of 17 different diseases. The researchers hope that their array, which uses artificial intelligence to match up the varying levels and ratios of 13 key chemical compounds found in human breath to different diseases, will pave the way for a versatile medical diagnostic tool. After sampling the breath of more than 1,400 people, they found that their technique was able to discriminate among diseases with 86 percent accuracy.

The science behind the scent of a person's breath lies within the suite of organic chemical compounds that we routinely expel into the air with every laugh, yell or sigh. These compounds often come marked with the signs of biochemical changes wrought by specific diseases—a phenomenon that forms the basis of modern breath diagnostics. The problem is, there’s a lot of background noise to sift through: In a cloud of exhaled breath, you’ll typically see hundreds of these compounds.

Ancient physicians dating back to 400 BC knew there was something to be gleaned from sniffing a sick person’s breath. The famed Greek physician Hippocrates, among others, used to smell his patients' breath to find out what ailed them. (Even worse, some physicians used to smell their patients’ urine or stool.) We’ve gotten slightly more sophisticated since then; breath analysis has been successfully employed to diagnose cirrhosis of the liver, diabetes and colorectal cancer. There's even a dedicated Journal of Breath Research.

But previously, such efforts have mainly been used to detect a single disease. In the new study, Hossam Haick, a nanotech expert at Technion—Israel Institute of Technology, and several dozen international collaborators aimed to lay the groundwork for a general diagnostic tool to identify the breath signatures of many diseases, including kidney failure, lung cancer, Crohn's disease, MS, prostate and ovarian cancer, and more. Their array first assesses each compound's relative abundance within a person's breath, and then compares disease signatures against healthy individuals.

“We have a mixture of compounds which characterize a given disease, and this picture is different from one disease to another,” explains Haick. Using mass spectrometry analysis, the group first identified the specific compound signatures for 17 different diseases. They then sampled the breath of more than 1,400 people, using a sensory array of carbon nanotubes and gold particles to register which mix of compounds they exhaled. A suite of computer algorithms deciphered what the data told them about the presence or absence of each disease. 

That’s when the artificial intelligence comes in. “We can teach the system that a breathprint could be associated with a particular disease,” says Haick, who co-led the study. “It works in the same way we'd use dogs in order to detect specific compounds. We bring something to the nose of a dog, and the dog will transfer that chemical mixture to an electrical signature and provide it to the brain, and then memorize it in specific regions of the brain … This is exactly what we do. We let it smell a given disease but instead of a nose we use chemical sensors, and instead of the brain we use the algorithms. Then in the future, it can recognize the disease as a dog might recognize a scent.”

Jonathan Beauchamp, an environmental physicist at the Fraunhofer-Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging in Germany, said the technology presents a promising way to surpass a major hurdle in breath analysis. “The same VOCs (volatile organic compounds) often light-up as markers for many different diseases,” he says. “Indeed, it is now widely accepted within the breath research community that unique VOCs for specific diseases are unlikely to exist.”

Therefore, searching for concentrations of various VOCs in relation to one another, as Haick and colleagues did, may prove the more accurate diagnostic method, he adds. “These results demonstrate high accuracy in discriminating one specific disease against another ... The current study clearly demonstrates the power and promise of the gold nanoparticle array technique," he says.

The study involved dozens of scholars based at 14 research institutions across five different countries. Its participants were equally diverse: The mean age was 55; about half were male and half were female; and about one-third were active smokers. Participants were recruited around the world in the United States, Israel, France, Latvia and China. “The large number of subjects over varied geographical areas is really a key strength of this study,” says Cristina Davis, a biomedical engineer who heads the bioinstrumentation lab at the University of California at Davis.

“Larger clinical trials like this will help push the boundaries of breath analysis forward, and should help lead to promising medical tools for clinical practice,” adds Davis, who wasn't involved in the study. “They have taken new mass spectrometry knowledge and coupled it to their novel sensor output.”

Haick hopes that his team's widespread testing will lead to widespread use of the nanosystem. He says that because it's affordable, non-invasive and portable, it could be used to screen widely for disease. By screening even those with no symptoms, such a tool could enable the types of early interventions that lead to better outcomes.

But this AI-fueled “nose” might also have applications far beyond medical diagnostics. Several companies have already licensed it for other applications, says Haick. Among the many potential uses, he noes that the array could be used for quality control by detecting food spoilage. It could also be used for security at airports, by detecting the chemical signatures of explosive devices.

“The system is highly sensitive, and you just need to train it to different types of applications,” he says. 

Montgolfiere Lancee a Tivoli 1800

National Air and Space Museum
A hot air balloon launched from the Tivoli Garden

Present at Creation:

The NASM Collection of Objects Related to Early Ballooning

The invention of the balloon struck the men and women of the late 18th century like a thunderbolt. The Montgolfier brothers, Joseph-Michel (August 26, 1740-June 26, 1810) and Jacques Etienne (January 6, 1745 - August 2, 1799), launched the air age when they flew a hot air balloon from the town square of Annonay, France, on June 4, 1783. Members of a family that had been manufacturing paper in the Ardèche region of France for generations, the Montgolfiers were inspired by recent discoveries relating to the composition of the atmosphere. Joseph led the way, building and flying his first small hot air balloons late in 1782, before enlisting his brother in the enterprise.

Impatient for the Montgolfiers to demonstrate their balloon in Paris, Barthélemy Faujas de Saint-Fond, a pioneering geologist and member of the Académie Royale, sold tickets to a promised ascension and turned the money over to Jacques Alexandre-César Charles (1746-1823), a chemical experimenter whom he had selected to handle the design, construction and launch of a balloon. Charles flew the first small hydrogen balloon from the Champs de Mars, near the present site of the Eiffel Tower, on August 27, 1783. Not to be outdone, the Montgolfiers sent the first living creatures (a sheep, a duck and a rooster) aloft from Versailles on September 19.

Pilatre de Rozier, a scientific experimenter, and François Laurent, the marquis D'Arlandes, became the first human beings to make a free flight on November 21. Less than two weeks later, on December 1, 1783, J.A. C. Charles and M.N. Robert made the first free flight aboard a hydrogen balloon from the Jardin des Tuileries.

A wave of excitement swept across Paris as the gaily decorated balloons rose, one after another, over the skyline of the city. Throughout the summer and fall of 1783 the crowds gathering to witness the ascents grew ever larger. As many as 400,000 people - literally half of the population of Paris -- gathered in the narrow streets around the Château des Tuileries to watch Charles and Robert disappear into the heavens.

The wealthy and fashionable set purchased tickets of admission to the circular enclosure surrounding the launch site. Guards had a difficult time restraining the crush of citizens swarming the nearby streets, and crowding the Place de Louis XV (now the Place de la Concorde) and the garden walkways leading toward the balloon. People climbed walls and clambered out of windows onto roofs in search of good vantage points.

"It is impossible to describe that moment:" wrote one observer of a balloon launch, "the women in tears, the common people raising their hands to the sky in deep silence; the passengers leaning out of the gallery, waving and crying out in joy… the feeling of fright gives way to wonder." One group of spectators greeted a party of returning aeronauts with the question: "Are you men or Gods?" In an age when human beings could fly, what other wonders might the future hold?

The balloons had an enormous social impact. The huge, seething crowds were something new under the sun. The spectators who gathered in such huge numbers were just becoming accustomed to the idea of change. The old certainties of their grandparent's world were giving way to an expectation that the twin enterprises of science and technology would provide the foundation for "progress."

The balloons sparked new fashion trends and inspired new fads and products. Hair and clothing styles, jewelry, snuffboxes, wallpaper, chandeliers, bird cages, fans, clocks, chairs, armoires, hats, and other items, were designed with balloon motifs. Party guests sipped Créme de l' Aérostatique liqueur and danced the Contredanse de Gonesse in honor of the Charles globe.

The Americans who were living in Paris to negotiate a successful conclusion to the American revolution were especially fascinated by the balloons. It seemed only fitting that, at a time when their countrymen were launching a new nation, human beings were throwing off the tyranny of gravity. The oldest and youngest members of the diplomatic community were the most seriously infected with "balloonamania."

"All conversation here at present turns upon the Balloons…and the means of managing them so as to give Men the Advantage of Flying," Benjamin Franklin informed an English friend, Richard Price. Baron Grimm, another Franklin acquaintance, concurred. "Among all our circle of friends," he wrote, "at all our meals, in the antechambers of our lovely women, as in the academic schools, all one hears is talk of experiments, atmospheric air, inflammable gas, flying cars, journeys in the sky."

Franklin noted that small balloons, made of scraped animal membranes, were sold "everyday in every quarter." He was invited to visit a friend's home for "tea and balloons," and attended a fête at which the duc de Chartres distributed "little phaloid balloonlets" to his guests. At another memorable entertainment staged by the duc de Crillon, Franklin witnessed the launch of a hydrogen balloon some five feet in diameter that kept a lantern aloft for over eleven hours.

The senior American diplomat in Paris purchased one of the small balloons as a present for his grandson and secretary, William Temple Franklin. Released in a bed chamber, "it went up to the ceiling and remained rolling around there for some time." Franklin emptied the membrane of hydrogen and forwarded it to Richard Price so that he and Sir Joseph Banks might repeat the experiment. The delightful little toy was thus not only the first balloon to be owned by an American but also the first to reach England. Both Franklins were soon supplying little balloons to friends across Europe.

Sixteen year old John Quincy Adams also took note of the small balloons offered for sale by street vendors. "The flying globes are still very much in vogue," he wrote on September 22. "They have advertised a small one of eight inches in diameter at 6 livres apiece without air [hydrogen] and 8 livres with it. .. Several accidents have happened to persons who have attempted to make inflammable air, which is a dangerous operation, so that the government has prohibited them."

There was a general sense that the colorful globes marked the beginning of a new age in which science and technology would effect startling change. The results and the implications of the revolution in physics and chemistry underway for over a century were largely unknown outside an elite circle of privileged cognoscenti. The balloon was unmistakable proof that a deeper understanding of nature could produce what looked very much like a miracle. What else was one to think of a contrivance that would carry people into the sky?

If human beings could break the age-old chains of gravity, what other restraints might they cast off? The invention of the balloon seemed perfectly calculated to celebrate the birth of a new nation dedicated, on paper at any rate, to the very idea of freedom for the individual. In the decade to come the balloons and the men and women who flew them came to symbolize the new political winds that were blowing through France. While some might question the utility of the "air globes," flight was already reshaping the way in which men and women regarded themselves and their world.

Of course most citizens of Europe and America were unable to travel to see a balloon. They had their first glimpse of the aerial craft through the medium of single sheet prints. In the late 18th century it was difficult and expensive to publish anything more than the roughest of woodcuts in newspapers or magazines. In an effort to share the excitement with those who could not attend an ascent, to let people know what a balloon looked like, and to introduce the brave men and women who were taking to the sky, artists, engravers and publishers flooded the market with scores of single sheet printed images. Ranging from the meticulously accurate to the wildly fanciful, these printed pictures were sold by the thousands in print shops across Europe.

The business of producing and marketing such images was nothing new. In Europe, block prints from woodcuts had been used to produce book illustrations and single sheet devotional or instructional religious images since the mid-15th century. In the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, the technique was used to produce multi-sheet maps, bird's eye images of cities, and other products. In the early modern era, etching and engraving techniques enabled artists from Albrecht Dürer to Rembrandt van Rijn the opportunity to market copies of their paintings. .

In the 1730's. William Hogarth inaugurated a new era in the history of English printed pictures when he published his, "Harlot's Progress," a series of single sheet images charting the downfall of a young woman newly arrived in London. Other sets, including "Marriage à la Mode," appeared in the decade that followed. Other artists used the medium of the etching or engraving to reproduce portraits and offer examples of their work for sale.

By the late 18th century, Thomas Rowlandson, James Gillray and other English artists made considerable fortunes producing sporting prints and satirical images offering biting commentary on the shortcomings of the political and social leaders of the day. Rowlandson was said to have "etched as much copper as would sheathe the British navy." In order to publish his prints and caricatures while they were still newsworthy, Rowlandson worked rapidly. He would water color the first impression, then send it to refugee French artists employed by Rudolph Ackermann, one of his favored publishers, who would color each of the prints before they were hung up in the shop window. In the 1780's a typical print seems to have sold for a shilling, the price being sometimes included on the print itself.

The appearance of the balloon in 1783 provided artists, engravers and publishers in England, France, Germany and Italy a new subject for their efforts. As the wave of balloon enthusiasm swept across the continent, the production and sale of images depicting the great flights and daring aeronauts flourished. In addition to illustrating the birth of the air age, print makers made use of balloon motifs in comic images satirizing political events or social trends.

In the 19th century new lithographic techniques and the advent of improved presses and smooth paper, led to a revolution in the ability to mass produce images. Balloons remained a common subject of interest to readers, and ready material for satire in the talented hands of artists like Honorè-Victorine Daumier.

Today, the balloon prints produced by 18th and 19th century artists remain as a priceless window into the past. They enable us to share some sense of the excitement that gripped those watching their fellow beings rise into the sky for the first time. Engraved portraits tell us something of the appearance, and even the personality, of the first men and women to fly. Satirical prints utilizing balloon motifs help us to understand the impact that flight on the first generations to experience it.

The National Air and Space Museum owes its collection of balloon prints to the generosity of several leading 20th century collectors. The bulk of the prints in our collection come from Harry Frank Guggenheim (August 23, 1890 - January 22, 1971).. The son of industrialist and philanthropist Daniel Guggenheim and his wife Florence, Harry Guggenheim enjoyed multiple careers as a business leader, diplomat, publisher, philanthropist, and sportsman.

Aviation was the thread that tied his diverse activities together. A graduate of Yale and Pembroke College, Cambridge University, he learned to fly before the U.S. entered WW I and served as a Naval aviator during that conflict and as a Naval officer during WW II. In the mid- 1920's, he convinced his father to establish the Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics, which had an enormous impact on aeronautical engineering and aviation in the U.S.

A collector of everything from fine art to thoroughbred horses, Guggenheim began to acquire aeronautica during the 1920's, gradually focusing his attention of aeronautical prints. His collection had grown to be one of the most complete in the world by the 1940's, when he loaned his prints to the New York museum maintained by the Institute of the Aeronautical Sciences. When the IAS dissolved its museum in the 1950's, Guggenheim donated his own collection to the National Air and Space Museum.

The NASM collection of aeronautical prints also includes items donated by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and by a number of other private collectors, notably Constance Fiske in memory of her husband Gardiner Fiske, who served with the U.S. Army Air Service during WW I and with the USAAF in WWII; Thomas Knowles, a long-time executive with Goodyear Aircraft and Goodyear Aerospace; and Bella Clara Landauer, one of the great American collectors of aeronautica.

There can be little doubt that William Armistead Moale Burden was one of the most significant contributors to the NASM collection of furnishings, ceramics and other objects related to ballooning and the early history of flight. . Burden began collecting aeronautical literature and memorabilia during the 1920's, while still a Harvard undergraduate. Following graduation he rode the post-Lindbergh boom to prosperity as a financial analyst specializing in aviation securities. His business success was inextricably bound to his enthusiasm for the past, present and future of flight.

By 1939, Burden was reputed to have built a personal aeronautical library second only to that of the Library of Congress. He loaned that collection to the Institute of the Aeronautical Sciences, an organization that he served as president in 1949. In addition to his library of aeronautica, Burden built a world-class collection of historic objects dating to the late 18th century - desks, chairs, bureaus, sofas, mirrors, clocks, ceramics and other examples of material culture -- inspired by the first balloons and featuring balloon motifs. After a period on display in the IAS museum, William A.M. Burden's balloon-decorated furnishings and aeronautica went into insured off-site storage in 1959. A member of the Smithsonian Board of Regents, Mr. Burden ultimately donated his treasures to the NASM, as well.

Thanks to the efforts of these and other donors, the NASM can share one of the world's finest collections of works of art and examples of material culture inspired b y the birth of flight with our visitors. We are pleased to extend the reach of our collections to those who visit our web site. Welcome, and enjoy.

Tom D. Crouch

Senior Curator, Aeronautics

National Air and Space Museum

Smithsonian Institution

Experience Aerostatique

National Air and Space Museum
Framed, colored etching on paper. Untitled, 1783. Piece depicts scene of a mass crowd watching the launch of the Montgolfier brother's balloon on September 19, 1783. The blue and gold balloon appears to fill the majority of the sky, with clouds behind the apparatus. The ascent took place at the Palace of Versailles in France and the royal family was present for the launch. No human passengers were aboard this first balloon, only a duck, a rooster, and a sheep that were tucked inside a cage made of wicker. All three of the animals survived and helped to demonstrate that balloon flight was safe for humans.

Present at Creation:

The NASM Collection of Objects Related to Early Ballooning

The invention of the balloon struck the men and women of the late 18th century like a thunderbolt. The Montgolfier brothers, Joseph-Michel (August 26, 1740-June 26, 1810) and Jacques Etienne (January 6, 1745 - August 2, 1799), launched the air age when they flew a hot air balloon from the town square of Annonay, France, on June 4, 1783. Members of a family that had been manufacturing paper in the Ardèche region of France for generations, the Montgolfiers were inspired by recent discoveries relating to the composition of the atmosphere. Joseph led the way, building and flying his first small hot air balloons late in 1782, before enlisting his brother in the enterprise.

Impatient for the Montgolfiers to demonstrate their balloon in Paris, Barthélemy Faujas de Saint-Fond, a pioneering geologist and member of the Académie Royale, sold tickets to a promised ascension and turned the money over to Jacques Alexandre-César Charles (1746-1823), a chemical experimenter whom he had selected to handle the design, construction and launch of a balloon. Charles flew the first small hydrogen balloon from the Champs de Mars, near the present site of the Eiffel Tower, on August 27, 1783. Not to be outdone, the Montgolfiers sent the first living creatures (a sheep, a duck and a rooster) aloft from Versailles on September 19.

Pilatre de Rozier, a scientific experimenter, and François Laurent, the marquis D'Arlandes, became the first human beings to make a free flight on November 21. Less than two weeks later, on December 1, 1783, J.A. C. Charles and M.N. Robert made the first free flight aboard a hydrogen balloon from the Jardin des Tuileries.

A wave of excitement swept across Paris as the gaily decorated balloons rose, one after another, over the skyline of the city. Throughout the summer and fall of 1783 the crowds gathering to witness the ascents grew ever larger. As many as 400,000 people - literally half of the population of Paris -- gathered in the narrow streets around the Château des Tuileries to watch Charles and Robert disappear into the heavens.

The wealthy and fashionable set purchased tickets of admission to the circular enclosure surrounding the launch site. Guards had a difficult time restraining the crush of citizens swarming the nearby streets, and crowding the Place de Louis XV (now the Place de la Concorde) and the garden walkways leading toward the balloon. People climbed walls and clambered out of windows onto roofs in search of good vantage points.

"It is impossible to describe that moment:" wrote one observer of a balloon launch, "the women in tears, the common people raising their hands to the sky in deep silence; the passengers leaning out of the gallery, waving and crying out in joy… the feeling of fright gives way to wonder." One group of spectators greeted a party of returning aeronauts with the question: "Are you men or Gods?" In an age when human beings could fly, what other wonders might the future hold?

The balloons had an enormous social impact. The huge, seething crowds were something new under the sun. The spectators who gathered in such huge numbers were just becoming accustomed to the idea of change. The old certainties of their grandparent's world were giving way to an expectation that the twin enterprises of science and technology would provide the foundation for "progress."

The balloons sparked new fashion trends and inspired new fads and products. Hair and clothing styles, jewelry, snuffboxes, wallpaper, chandeliers, bird cages, fans, clocks, chairs, armoires, hats, and other items, were designed with balloon motifs. Party guests sipped Créme de l' Aérostatique liqueur and danced the Contredanse de Gonesse in honor of the Charles globe.

The Americans who were living in Paris to negotiate a successful conclusion to the American revolution were especially fascinated by the balloons. It seemed only fitting that, at a time when their countrymen were launching a new nation, human beings were throwing off the tyranny of gravity. The oldest and youngest members of the diplomatic community were the most seriously infected with "balloonamania."

"All conversation here at present turns upon the Balloons…and the means of managing them so as to give Men the Advantage of Flying," Benjamin Franklin informed an English friend, Richard Price. Baron Grimm, another Franklin acquaintance, concurred. "Among all our circle of friends," he wrote, "at all our meals, in the antechambers of our lovely women, as in the academic schools, all one hears is talk of experiments, atmospheric air, inflammable gas, flying cars, journeys in the sky."

Franklin noted that small balloons, made of scraped animal membranes, were sold "everyday in every quarter." He was invited to visit a friend's home for "tea and balloons," and attended a fête at which the duc de Chartres distributed "little phaloid balloonlets" to his guests. At another memorable entertainment staged by the duc de Crillon, Franklin witnessed the launch of a hydrogen balloon some five feet in diameter that kept a lantern aloft for over eleven hours.

The senior American diplomat in Paris purchased one of the small balloons as a present for his grandson and secretary, William Temple Franklin. Released in a bed chamber, "it went up to the ceiling and remained rolling around there for some time." Franklin emptied the membrane of hydrogen and forwarded it to Richard Price so that he and Sir Joseph Banks might repeat the experiment. The delightful little toy was thus not only the first balloon to be owned by an American but also the first to reach England. Both Franklins were soon supplying little balloons to friends across Europe.

Sixteen year old John Quincy Adams also took note of the small balloons offered for sale by street vendors. "The flying globes are still very much in vogue," he wrote on September 22. "They have advertised a small one of eight inches in diameter at 6 livres apiece without air [hydrogen] and 8 livres with it. .. Several accidents have happened to persons who have attempted to make inflammable air, which is a dangerous operation, so that the government has prohibited them."

There was a general sense that the colorful globes marked the beginning of a new age in which science and technology would effect startling change. The results and the implications of the revolution in physics and chemistry underway for over a century were largely unknown outside an elite circle of privileged cognoscenti. The balloon was unmistakable proof that a deeper understanding of nature could produce what looked very much like a miracle. What else was one to think of a contrivance that would carry people into the sky?

If human beings could break the age-old chains of gravity, what other restraints might they cast off? The invention of the balloon seemed perfectly calculated to celebrate the birth of a new nation dedicated, on paper at any rate, to the very idea of freedom for the individual. In the decade to come the balloons and the men and women who flew them came to symbolize the new political winds that were blowing through France. While some might question the utility of the "air globes," flight was already reshaping the way in which men and women regarded themselves and their world.

Of course most citizens of Europe and America were unable to travel to see a balloon. They had their first glimpse of the aerial craft through the medium of single sheet prints. In the late 18th century it was difficult and expensive to publish anything more than the roughest of woodcuts in newspapers or magazines. In an effort to share the excitement with those who could not attend an ascent, to let people know what a balloon looked like, and to introduce the brave men and women who were taking to the sky, artists, engravers and publishers flooded the market with scores of single sheet printed images. Ranging from the meticulously accurate to the wildly fanciful, these printed pictures were sold by the thousands in print shops across Europe.

The business of producing and marketing such images was nothing new. In Europe, block prints from woodcuts had been used to produce book illustrations and single sheet devotional or instructional religious images since the mid-15th century. In the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, the technique was used to produce multi-sheet maps, bird's eye images of cities, and other products. In the early modern era, etching and engraving techniques enabled artists from Albrecht Dürer to Rembrandt van Rijn the opportunity to market copies of their paintings. .

In the 1730's. William Hogarth inaugurated a new era in the history of English printed pictures when he published his, "Harlot's Progress," a series of single sheet images charting the downfall of a young woman newly arrived in London. Other sets, including "Marriage à la Mode," appeared in the decade that followed. Other artists used the medium of the etching or engraving to reproduce portraits and offer examples of their work for sale.

By the late 18th century, Thomas Rowlandson, James Gillray and other English artists made considerable fortunes producing sporting prints and satirical images offering biting commentary on the shortcomings of the political and social leaders of the day. Rowlandson was said to have "etched as much copper as would sheathe the British navy." In order to publish his prints and caricatures while they were still newsworthy, Rowlandson worked rapidly. He would water color the first impression, then send it to refugee French artists employed by Rudolph Ackermann, one of his favored publishers, who would color each of the prints before they were hung up in the shop window. In the 1780's a typical print seems to have sold for a shilling, the price being sometimes included on the print itself.

The appearance of the balloon in 1783 provided artists, engravers and publishers in England, France, Germany and Italy a new subject for their efforts. As the wave of balloon enthusiasm swept across the continent, the production and sale of images depicting the great flights and daring aeronauts flourished. In addition to illustrating the birth of the air age, print makers made use of balloon motifs in comic images satirizing political events or social trends.

In the 19th century new lithographic techniques and the advent of improved presses and smooth paper, led to a revolution in the ability to mass produce images. Balloons remained a common subject of interest to readers, and ready material for satire in the talented hands of artists like Honorè-Victorine Daumier.

Today, the balloon prints produced by 18th and 19th century artists remain as a priceless window into the past. They enable us to share some sense of the excitement that gripped those watching their fellow beings rise into the sky for the first time. Engraved portraits tell us something of the appearance, and even the personality, of the first men and women to fly. Satirical prints utilizing balloon motifs help us to understand the impact that flight on the first generations to experience it.

The National Air and Space Museum owes its collection of balloon prints to the generosity of several leading 20th century collectors. The bulk of the prints in our collection come from Harry Frank Guggenheim (August 23, 1890 - January 22, 1971).. The son of industrialist and philanthropist Daniel Guggenheim and his wife Florence, Harry Guggenheim enjoyed multiple careers as a business leader, diplomat, publisher, philanthropist, and sportsman.

Aviation was the thread that tied his diverse activities together. A graduate of Yale and Pembroke College, Cambridge University, he learned to fly before the U.S. entered WW I and served as a Naval aviator during that conflict and as a Naval officer during WW II. In the mid- 1920's, he convinced his father to establish the Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics, which had an enormous impact on aeronautical engineering and aviation in the U.S.

A collector of everything from fine art to thoroughbred horses, Guggenheim began to acquire aeronautica during the 1920's, gradually focusing his attention of aeronautical prints. His collection had grown to be one of the most complete in the world by the 1940's, when he loaned his prints to the New York museum maintained by the Institute of the Aeronautical Sciences. When the IAS dissolved its museum in the 1950's, Guggenheim donated his own collection to the National Air and Space Museum.

The NASM collection of aeronautical prints also includes items donated by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and by a number of other private collectors, notably Constance Fiske in memory of her husband Gardiner Fiske, who served with the U.S. Army Air Service during WW I and with the USAAF in WWII; Thomas Knowles, a long-time executive with Goodyear Aircraft and Goodyear Aerospace; and Bella Clara Landauer, one of the great American collectors of aeronautica.

There can be little doubt that William Armistead Moale Burden was one of the most significant contributors to the NASM collection of furnishings, ceramics and other objects related to ballooning and the early history of flight. . Burden began collecting aeronautical literature and memorabilia during the 1920's, while still a Harvard undergraduate. Following graduation he rode the post-Lindbergh boom to prosperity as a financial analyst specializing in aviation securities. His business success was inextricably bound to his enthusiasm for the past, present and future of flight.

By 1939, Burden was reputed to have built a personal aeronautical library second only to that of the Library of Congress. He loaned that collection to the Institute of the Aeronautical Sciences, an organization that he served as president in 1949. In addition to his library of aeronautica, Burden built a world-class collection of historic objects dating to the late 18th century - desks, chairs, bureaus, sofas, mirrors, clocks, ceramics and other examples of material culture -- inspired by the first balloons and featuring balloon motifs. After a period on display in the IAS museum, William A.M. Burden's balloon-decorated furnishings and aeronautica went into insured off-site storage in 1959. A member of the Smithsonian Board of Regents, Mr. Burden ultimately donated his treasures to the NASM, as well.

Thanks to the efforts of these and other donors, the NASM can share one of the world's finest collections of works of art and examples of material culture inspired b y the birth of flight with our visitors. We are pleased to extend the reach of our collections to those who visit our web site. Welcome, and enjoy.

Tom D. Crouch

Senior Curator, Aeronautics

National Air and Space Museum

Smithsonian Institution

25 Millennials Just Crossed the United States By Rail Hoping to Leave Their Marks in Cities Along the Way

Smithsonian Magazine

Two weeks ago, Patrick Dowd was in downtown Los Angeles listening to Compton community leader and social entrepreneur Haleemah Nash tell a story about poverty and lack of opportunity. Compton, which is unfortunately best known for its high concentration of gang activity, is just a few miles from the Pacific. Yet young people from Compton can spend their entire early lives within a 10-block radius and reach adulthood without ever seeing the ocean.

For Dowd, there’s a message in that sobering truth that can be applied to many young people’s lives, no matter their background or opportunities. “There’s a direct connection between whether you have had exposure to a broad range of geographies and the way to envision opportunity for yourself,” he says.

With that in mind, Dowd, a former J.P. Morgan investment analyst, founded the nonprofit Millennial Trains Project in 2012. The seemingly simple cross-country train trip boasts the rather sizable goal of trying to bridge the geography of the United States and help a select group of Gen Y-ers learn how to lead on a national scale. The 10-day whistle-stop tour through six cities across the United States introduces the group of 25 young innovators to large swaths of the country and a diverse cross section of people along the way.

The third MTP journey, which ended yesterday, began on May 21 in greater Los Angeles and included stops in Austin, San Antonio, New Orleans and Atlanta, before culminating in Washington, D.C. In addition to the youth participants, a cadre of mentors rode along, including Craigslist founder Craig Newmark and Amy Wilkinson, author of The Creator’s Code: The Six Essential Skills of Extraordinary Entrepreneurs. A fourth MTP tour is slated for summer 2016.

Dowd was in India on a 2010-11 Fulbright scholarship when he learned about a 15-day train tour that would become the inspiration for the MTP. Founded in 2008, the Jagriti Yatra (in Hindi, “journey of awakening”) tour takes 450 young people to 12 stops on a 5,000-mile loop around India.

While they’re on the train, everyone aboard meets with MTP mentors and in groups to cross-pollinate ideas. (Millennial Trains Project)

To get a ticket to ride the Millennial Trains Project, applicants, ages 18 to 34, must submit an initial $50 application fee, and then pitch an idea for a project to pursue on the trip that crosses geographical boundaries. Candidates prove the viability of their projects and their commitment to them in crowdfunding campaigns through IndieGoGo. While they’re on the train, everyone aboard meets with MTP mentors and in groups to cross-pollinate ideas and collaborate to help one another. When the train stops, participants sometimes only have a few hours in a particular city. There are meetings with local government and community leaders, plus time for participants to meet with contacts they’ve made in advance of the trip to further their projects.

In the same way Jagriti Yatra produces measurable results, the work started and connections formed on the Millennial Trains Project don’t end when the train stops. Past participants have gone on to do impressive work by leaning on networks of people they met along the way. For example, after meeting energy innovators across the nation, former MTP-er and policymaker Matthew Stepp founded the Center for Clean Energy Innovation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to clean energy, and co-authored congressional legislation based on research and insights from his week riding the rails.

Clara Ritger worked on a six-episode documentary video series about the role of restaurants in revitalizing communities in transition. (Millennial Trains Project)

This year’s crop of recently minted MTP participants demonstrates similar promise. During the journey, Washington, D.C.-based producer, journalist, and filmmaker Clara Ritger worked on a six-episode documentary video series about the role of restaurants in revitalizing communities in transition. Before arriving in each city, she diligently delved into the region’s history and connected with local chefs and restaurant owners to find important stories to tell. After she wraps editing, she’ll post the pilot episodes on YouTube this summer.

Despite rigorous preparations, Ritger was surprised by some of the stark contrasts she encountered along the route. She had read about the 1928 city plan that divided Austin along racial lines, designating the eastern side for African Americans and actually relocating many people living in neighborhoods in the western side there. Expecting more progress by 2015, she was nevertheless startled by the disparity that persists. On the east side, a single well-known establishment, Franklin Barbecue, sits right up against the freeway. The traffic roars along, but the actual street is eerily quiet and mostly empty. Down the block, two BBQ food trucks support the row’s fledging food scene. “I went to one,” Ritger says, “and they suggested the other truck, too. They all know and are promoting each other.” When she crossed I-35 to interview chefs in another up-and-coming neighborhood, she hit a wall of sound on historic Rainey Street, which has a number of newer establishments under construction. The two neighborhoods, situated close together and part of the same town, are at “completely different stages of revitalizing,” she says. “I can’t wait to juxtapose that with all of the different places across the country.”

Ritger’s thoughtful approach to her project is apparent. “This was something that I’d been thinking about for a really long time but in terms of actual work, [the Millennial Trains Project] was my first opportunity to dive deep into this,” she explains. She hopes once the first episodes air, a news organization or production company might be interested in funding a longer series on the same topic.

Another project is specifically aimed at enriching the Millennial experience in post-industrial Midwestern cities. Nicole Behnke grew up in Manitowoc, Wisconsin and moved to Milwaukee for college. “I was convinced I had to move to Los Angeles, New York City or Chicago to experience life,” she says. But in Milwaukee, she found a vibrant culture and what was then a fledgling organization, NEWaukee, dedicated to reenergizing the city and engaging young people in its development. After interning with the organization for 18 months, she was promoted to the events and communication director a year and a half ago.

Joining the MTP journey is a natural extension of Behnke’s work to help Milwaukeeans consider staying put. After NEWaukee booked MTP founder Dowd as a speaker several years ago, Milwaukee became a destination on the second MTP journey. When this latest trip was announced, Behnke knew she wanted to hitch a ride.

Behnke is creating a checklist of factors that Millennials look for when deciding where to live, and she wants to inspire people to think critically about the role they really want to have in their community. In cities and boroughs full of young transplants, like Austin and Brooklyn, young people move in and participate, she explains. But in Milwaukee, for example, “You can actually create culture, access the people you want to get a hold of, be in the city and create change you want to see in it,” she explains. “You can leave your mark.” 

When the train stops, there are meetings with local government and community leaders. In New Orleans, participants met with Mayor Mitch Landrieu. (Millennial Trains Project)

The train is full of big dreams to improve urban farming techniques, to compile a database of nutrition information for cancer patients and to foster trans-religious dialogue. Dowd admits it can be an insular place at times. But with three trips under his belt, he also knows the value of that week confabbing and collaborating on the way across the country. “The conversations are real. We can be in a bubble on the train, but it’s a really diverse bubble,” Dowd says. Behnke adds, “I refer to the train as an incubator of awesomeness.”

Additionally, Behnke enthuses that the trip is a way to push back against negative stereotypes that Millennials are entitled or unmotivated.

“We’re all really wanting to make change, and we’re driven and innovative,” she says of her fellow MTP participants, and of her generation more broadly. “We might bite off more than we can chew and fail, but we’re optimistic. We want to change our communities.”

When "Bricklayer Bill" Won the 1917 Boston Marathon, It Was a Victory For All Irish Americans

Smithsonian Magazine

When I was a kid, my Dad would take me to Heartbreak Hill, rain or shine, to watch the Boston Marathon. For our family, the race held special meaning, because our “Uncle Bill”—William J. Kennedy, my paternal grandfather’s uncle—had won the event in 1917.

Though he had been dead for eight years by the time I was born, we still cherished the legend of “Bricklayer Bill,” as he was known. The Kennedys had plied the mason’s trade since at least the 1840s, when the first of us landed on these shores, during Ireland’s Great Famine. And according to the family lore, Bill, then an itinerant worker, rode the rails to Boston and slept on a pool table the night before the race. He triumphed in the marathon while wearing a homemade Stars-and-Stripes bandana and enlisted in the Army not long after his victory.

The story was that pride in the United States spurred Bill to beat the favored Finnish runners, lest the world see the Yanks as weaklings as they entered the Great War. But there was more to my uncle’s triumph than national pride. Bill, it turned out, held a rich and sweeping definition of Americanness that embraced all creeds and colors, and his feat helped convince the country that Irishmen could be loyal Americans. Sometimes, I think his victory could have been the moment when Irish Americans lost their hyphen.

My father Larry—a historian—and I started digging into Bill’s story after a seafood dinner with our cousin Ann Louise McLaughlin, who had started working at the Harvard University Press in the 1960s, and had received a manuscript of Uncle Bill’s memoirs, written late in life. We were amazed to hear this, but didn’t do anything about it at first—Ann Louise hadn’t exactly promised to hand the papers over. My wife and I often drove to Ann Louise’s house to plant tomatoes in her garden, or to lug laundry baskets up and down her stairs. Eventually, perhaps when she’d felt we’d done enough chores, she handed us Bill’s manuscript. It had been sitting in a box in her cellar for almost five decades.

Using Bill’s typewritten recollections as a starting point, Dad and I pieced together his story, which went far beyond the shorthand legend we’d always heard.

Born in New York City, Bill struck out on his own at the turn of the century, when he was 17 or 18. He spent years kicking around the country—from the Great Lakes to the West Coast to the Gulf Coast and back to the Northeast—riding the rails, following bricklaying jobs, and his passion: amateur competitive running.

When we started our research, we had no idea that Bill had won marathons in St. Louis, Chicago, and Long Island, New York. That Chicago race took place during a heat wave that killed several people, caused many of the 18 runners who entered to drop out, and forced organizers to cut the race short at 22 miles. But Bill chose to continue running until he’d completed the full distance of 26 miles, 385 yards. In Arkansas, he once beat a horse in a 10-mile race. We also found contemporary newspaper accounts of Bill’s fall from the roof of the Des Moines Coliseum, a tumble from a moving train, and other mishaps. Bill was even hit by a motorcar during a marathon in St. Louis in 1910 or ’11, and again in a shorter road race in New York City in 1922. Courses were not blocked off then.

We delved into Bill’s Irishness. His paternal grandparents landed in Boston with the first wave of famine refugees; his mother had come over later, as a child. Bill himself reportedly spoke with a bit of a brogue, and he used locutions like “of a Tuesday” in his writings. In his memoir, he recalled a brief visit to the Ould Sod—the old country—in middle age, when he heard an Irish musician play “Come Back to Ireland” on a cornet, and “needless to say, it sound[ed] beautiful.”

Growing up in Harlem and Port Chester, New York, in the 1880s and ’90s, Bill almost certainly would have followed the Irish-American Athletic Club, whose amateur runners, jumpers, and hammer throwers were wildly popular in Irish neighborhoods. Fans collected cigarette trading cards with images of IAAC stars—many of whom had won Olympic medals—and filled the seats for track-and-field events and Gaelic football and hurling matches at Celtic Park, the club’s stadium in Queens.

Bill running, May 1913, in St. Louis (Photo courtesy of the Kennedy Family Collection)

Bill joined the IAAC when he returned to New York in 1916, after his two marathon wins in the Midwest. It was a tumultuous time for the club: A still-neutral United States was leaning toward backing Britain as World War I raged in Europe—but the Irish in America were loath to take the side of their old foe. Many joined organizations like Clan na Gael to support the cause of independence for their ancestral homeland, and wanted the United States to have no part in the war. If anything, many Irish Americans were rooting for the Kaiser, just to stick it to the English.

This undercurrent of rebellion ran through the IAAC. The group’s nickname, the Winged Fist, came from its logo, a raised, winged fist similar to the black power salute of later decades. Track meets and hurling matches at Celtic Park raised thousands of dollars for the Irish nationalist cause. The brother of IAAC star and Olympic shot put medalist Martin Sheridan was married to a sister of Michael Collins, the famous Irish revolutionary. New York Justice Daniel F. Cohalan, an active member of the club’s board of directors, was the in-house counsel for Clan na Gael, which like many independence groups, wanted an alliance with Germany and worked with German Americans to lobby for neutrality. These were the “hyphenated Americans” that President Woodrow Wilson and former President Theodore Roosevelt attacked with special scorn in speeches at the time.

So it struck Dad and me as a marvel that just a year later, with the United States officially at war with Germany, Bill was running—and winning—the marathon wearing the Stars and Stripes.

By 1918, he and his two brothers were serving with the Army in France, along with tens of thousands of other Irish Americans. How had their opposition to the war evaporated so quickly?

For one thing, Wilson had sold the war as a fight to protect small nations like Roman Catholic Belgium from imperialist powers like Germany—perhaps something that struck a chord among Irish Catholics. Secondly, the church hierarchy was eager to show that its flock was not a pack of rebellious Romans with divided loyalties, and that “hyphenated Americans” didn’t deserve the treatment that German Americans were suddenly subjected to—tarring and featherings, beatings, and (in one case) lynching.

But there were less calculated reasons for Bill and his kind to join fellow Americans in the war effort, too. Irish Americans were genuinely grateful for the opportunities the New World had provided—and proud of their American accomplishments. They figured they had built half the nation’s railroads, for example, and the bravery of the “fighting 69th” and other Irish regiments in the American Civil War was legendary.

Bricklayer Bill also embraced America’s diversity. Returning to Port Chester after the war, he encouraged Italian friends to pursue citizenship, and he fought for their right to join his bricklayers’ union local. In 1925, he co-founded the Cygnet Athletic Club and invited African Americans to join—this at a time when such a thing was unthinkable in many towns. He introduced black athletes to sportswriters as his teammates and friends. Bill thought this was only right. After all, when he was recovering from a vicious bout of typhoid fever in Chicago, the Hebrew Institute had crossed ethnic lines to take him in, letting him use its gym, pool, and track to get back in shape. Bill liked to silence bigots with the tale of a young Jewish runner in St. Louis who gamely finished a marathon though his feet were bleeding, blistered, and swollen.

“Don’t tell me that any one race has a monopoly on grit,” he wrote.

We discovered that the Irish-American Athletic Club’s only criteria were athletic prowess and pluck. It didn’t restrict membership by race or ethnicity, instead welcoming blacks, Jews, Italians, Hispanics, and others who were excluded from high-toned outfits like the New York Athletic Club. During the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, the IAAC “adopted” Cuban marathoner Felix Carvajal, initially an object of the crowd’s derision. Carvajal, finished fourth and was “the real hero of the race,” Bill wrote.

It’s true that the communal exuberance that marked the early days of America’s entry into World War I devolved into a shameful hysteria in many quarters. This took forms ranging from the goofy, like renaming sauerkraut “Liberty cabbage,” to the deadly, like the aforementioned lynching. But it is not the case, I realized while researching Bill’s story, that earlier generations were uniformly, automatically more prejudiced than we are today. “Bricklayer Bill” wrapped his head in a homemade American flag on the day he won the Boston Marathon in 1917, but to him, and many others, those colors symbolized inclusion, not exclusion.

How Composer John Cage Transformed the Piano—With the Help of Some Household Objects

Smithsonian Magazine

Every musician has a particular set of tasks and warm-ups before a performance or practice session—oiling the valves, rosining the bow, tuning, long tones, scales, stretches. For Kelly Moran, a composer and pianist based in New York City, this ritual includes peering inside the lid of the piano to carefully place screws and bolts of various sizes in between the delicate strings.

Moran composes for a technique known as the prepared piano, in which everyday household items are used to alter the sound of any given note on the instrument. While screws and bolts are Moran’s objects of choice, other potential preparations include paper clips, straws and pencil erasers. Placed on the 230 strings inside the piano, these objects muffle or choke the timbre of the sound produced when a key on the keyboard is pressed.

Moran was first exposed to prepared piano while studying composition and music technology at the University of Michigan, and was immediately intrigued by its transformative potential. “The instrument that I had been playing my entire life suddenly sounded completely different and fresh, and it was something that really interested me,” she says. “That’s when I got interested in working the piano and generating sound in unconventional ways.”

In an age in which music is increasingly produced exclusively using electronic sounds, and live instruments, when they do appear, are so often electronically manipulated, the prepared piano plays the unique role of an instrument that creates sounds that feel electronically altered using an acoustic manipulation.

Experimental composer John Cage changes the tuning of his piano by placing coins and screws between the strings in Gaveau Auditorium in Paris, France, on June 25, 1949. (New York Times Co./Getty Images)

While composers such as Henry Cowell experimented with manipulating the strings of the piano during the early 1900s, the history of prepared piano as it is understood today begins with the American composer John Cage. Born in Los Angeles in 1912, Cage is one of the most celebrated and provocative avant-garde composers of the 20th century. His oeuvre can only be summarized as one of truly wild and wide-ranging experimentation. His most famous work, "4’33’’", instructs the performer to sit in silence for the duration of the four minute, 33 second piece; in other pieces, Cage abandons traditional music notation in favor of multicolored squiggly lines and shapes, as in his 1958 vocal work "Aria."

Cage struggled with the harmonic limitations of the piano, and not being able to play between the twelve pitches of the chromatic scale. His background in the music scene of the West coast led him towards an interest in tonalities outside of what the traditional piano had to offer. “California, unlike the East coast, was very much connected to the Orient,” says Laura Kuhn, the director of The John Cage Trust. “So his influences really came from being exposed to the ideas of the far East, rather than the West.”

As Cage explains in a foreword to Richard Bunger’s The Well-Prepared Piano, he was inspired to begin altering the piano while working as an accompanist for a dance class in Seattle. Tasked with writing music to accompany a performance by the dancer Syvilla Fort, Cage lamented the lack of room on stage for percussion instruments. “I decided that what was wrong was not me but the piano,” he writes in the foreword.

Cage stuck to screws and bolts for "Bacchanale," his 1940 composition and the first for prepared piano, but he gradually grew more ambitious in his preparations. His most famous prepared piano work, "Sonatas and Interludes," is a collection of 20 shorter works with objects including screws, bolts, nuts, rubber and plastic. His choice of preparations adds a strikingly percussive nature to the lower register of the piano, while the prepared notes in the upper register have a darkened, ethereal timbre.

Cage gave very specific instructions as to how the instrument should be prepared, detailing exactly what sort of object should be used on each string and how far along the string each object should be placed. According to Kuhn, he would at times sit in on rehearsals of his prepared piano works and advise the pianist on making adjustments to the preparations.

Moran is far from the only contemporary composer creating music with the prepared piano technique. Prepared piano has appeared in the works of Brian Eno, Aphex Twin, and even The Velvet Underground, who used paper clips as a preparation in their song “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” In the realm of classical music, the German composer Volker Bertelmann, known more commonly as Hauschka, works with a wide variety of preparations, including ping pong balls, rolls of tape, bottle caps, clothespins, Tic Tacs, tambourines, metal balls and magnets. Some preparations, like the clothespins, are affixed on a particular spot on the desired string, while others, like the tambourine, are laid across the strings of a register spanning an octave or so, creating a delightful rattle.

“I think preparing the piano is a decision for sound as well as an abstraction of the instrument itself,” Haushka told XLR8R in 2014. “In essence, you can add layers that create the sound of an orchestra.”

Pieces of cutlery can be placed between piano strings for effect. (Wikipedia)

The sonic qualities imbued by preparation vary from composer to composer—Hauschka’s menagerie of objects create a soundscape that feels as if he is conducting a large and unusual ensemble, rather than sitting at the piano bench, while Moran’s preparations have a trance-like, bell-ringing quality. The effect of preparations also varies from instrument to instrument, as Cage discovered when he began performing his prepared piano compositions in a variety of locales.

“When I first placed objects between piano strings, it was with a desire to possess sounds,” writes Cage. “But, as the music left my home and went from piano to piano and from pianist to pianist, it became clear that not only are two pianists essentially different from one another, but two pianos are not the same either. Instead of the possibility of repetition, we are faced in life with the unique qualities and characteristics of each occasion.”

Beyond Moran and Hauschka, there are few people writing music for prepared piano today, and the legacy of the technique primarily lies with Cage. "[He] was antithetical to academic development of music,” Kuhn says. “He used to say, ‘two people doing the same thing is one too many.’” Far from aping Cage’s work, though, Hauschka and Moran both continue to tread new ground and distinguish themselves as present-day prepared piano composers.

“At first, I was a little intimidated by the idea that if I were to write something for prepared piano, there would immediately be comparisons drawn between me and John Cage,” says Moran. “At a certain point, I felt that I had developed my voice as a composer and felt more comfortable expressing myself and coming at it from my own perspective.”

Would You Like Some Salt and Pepper? How About 80,000 Shakers' Worth?

Smithsonian Magazine

The next time you knock over a salt shaker and throw a pinch of the spilled grains over your left shoulder to ward off bad luck, bear in mind that at one time they would have formed part of someone’s wages.

It’s amazing the things you learn when you least expect it. I’m getting an in-depth lecture about the world of salt, salt and pepper shakers, and salt cellars from Andrea Ludden, her son, Alex, and her daughter, Andrea, at their Museum of Salt and Pepper Shakers in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. And jolly interesting it is.

Far from being just a wacky obsession by a Belgian lady with a fetish for salt shakers, Andrea Ludden’s collection of over 40,000 pairs (half in the family museum in Gatlinburg and half in its new museum in Guadalest, in eastern Spain), started completely by chance, when Andrea bought a pepper mill at a garage sale in the mid-1980s.

It didn’t work, so she bought a couple more. “I used to stand them on the window ledge of my kitchen, and neighbors thought I was building a collection. Nothing could have been further from my mind!” They started bringing her new ones, and eventually, she says, “I had about 14,000 on shelves all over the house, even in the bedrooms.” That’s when her husband, Rolf, told her,  “‘Andrea, you either find somewhere to put these things or it’s a divorce!’ So we decided to create a museum.”

Wander around the museum and you’ll find it hard to believe that the 20,000 pairs of shakers—fat chefs, ruby red tomatoes, guardsmen in bear skins, Santa’s feet sticking from a chimney, pistols and potatoes, a copy of the salt-and-pepper-shaker cuff links worn by Lady Diana—have any reason for being together other than as someone’s idea of being collectibles, but they do.

An archaeologist by training, Andrea spent many years working in South America, where her main interest had been in how people traveled and communicated. When she and her family moved to the United States, she couldn’t find work in her field so she turned her attention to social anthropology, studying everyday life since the early years of the 20th century as seen through her growing collection of salt and pepper shakers.

“It’s often by looking at the apparently more mundane articles in everyday life that you can build up a broad picture of a specific period,” Andrea says. “There’s almost nothing you can imagine that hasn’t been copied as a salt and pepper shaker, and many of them reflect the designs, the colors and the preoccupations of the period.”

Salt shakers came into existence in the 1920s, she says. Previously, salt was typically served in a small bowl or container (the original salt cellar), usually with a spoon, because it had a tendency to attract moisture and become lumpy. Then, Chicago-based Morton Salt introduced magnesium carbonate to its product, which prevented caking and made it possible to pour salt from a sealed container. Pepper never suffered from the same susceptibility to dampness and, like salt, had also been served from a small container. But as it was habit to serve salt and pepper together, they became a pair, usually the salt shaker with only one hole and the pepper shaker with two or three.

Morton’s development may have been the beginning of the salt and pepper shaker, but it was the automobile that led to its becoming a collectible item, says Alex. “It was because people could travel more freely, either for work or on vacation that the souvenir industry came about. Salt and pepper shakers were cheap, easy to carry and colorful, and made ideal gifts.”

“Imagine you lived in an isolated village somewhere,” he continues, “and your son or daughter brought you a set in the shape of the Golden Gate Bridge when they came on their annual visit home. It wouldn’t get used, it would be carefully kept as a decorative item. That’s how, in the main, many of the early collections began.” 

Image by Courtesy of Derek Workman. Half of collector Andrea Ludden's collection resides in the family museum in Gatlinburg, Tennessee and half in its new museum in Guadalest in eastern Spain. Shown here is salt and pepper shaker modeled after The Beatles. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Derek Workman. Ludden's collection of over 40,000 pairs of salt and pepper shakers started completely by chance when Ludden bought a pepper mill at a garage sale in the mid-1980s. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Derek Workman. Alligator salt and pepper shaker. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Derek Workman. Bull fighter salt and pepper shaker. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Derek Workman. Washer and dryer salt and pepper shaker. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Derek Workman. Australia and kangaroo salt and pepper shaker. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Derek Workman. London, England salt and pepper shakers. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Derek Workman. Soda salt and pepper shaker. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Derek Workman. Egypt and camel salt and pepper shaker. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Derek Workman. Budweiser salt and pepper shaker. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Derek Workman. McDonald's salt and pepper shaker. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Derek Workman. Lawnmower salt and pepper shaker. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Derek Workman. Salt and pepper shaker mugs. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Derek Workman. I Love Lucy salt and pepper shaker. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Derek Workman. Walnut salt and pepper shaker. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Derek Workman. Dachunds salt and pepper shaker. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Derek Workman. Hand gun salt and pepper shaker. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Derek Workman. Vegetable salt and pepper shakers. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Derek Workman. Frog salt and pepper shakers. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Derek Workman. Chicken salt and pepper shakers. (original image)

Among the earliest producers of salt and pepper shakers was the German fine pottery maker Goebel, which introduced its first three sets in 1925. (Today its Hummel shakers, introduced in 1935, are highly collectible.) Ironically, it was the Great Depression of the 1930s that gave a major boost to the popularity of salt and pepper shakers as both a household and collectible item. Ceramics producers worldwide were forced to restrict production and concentrate on lower-priced items; an obvious product was the salt and pepper shaker. Bright and cheery, it could be bought for a few cents at most local hardware stores.

Soon other ceramics companies got into the act. Japanese firms had a large share of the market from the late 1920s through the 1930s, as well as from the late 1940s through the 1950s. (Production was halted during World War II.) The shakers they produced in the postwar years, labeled “Made in occupied Japan,” or simply “Occupied Japan,” are extremely rare and highly sought after.

In the 1950s and ’60s, companies began producing salt and pepper shakers made from plastic. Plastic then was fragile, so fewer of these examples exist, making them extremely valuable. “I love the plastics,” says daughter Andrea as she walks me around the museum. “They were the first ones that could have some sort of mechanism, and one of my favorites is a lawn mower with the salt and pepper shakers in the shape of the pistons.” When the driver pushed the mower, the pistons went up and down.

At first glance, the museum seems bright and happy, if a bit haphazard. But the displays are actually well thought out and organized, especially considering the many models on display.

“It’s almost impossible to categorize them,” the younger Andrea said, “because you can work by style, age, subject matter, color, etc., but we try and do it to combine all these elements at the same time. There are literally hundreds of themes, and in those themes there will be many colors, but Mom has a way of laying the displays out that are very highly planned, so that the colors within a theme are displayed together. For example,” she continues, “all the greens, yellows and reds of the vegetables are arranged in vertical rows, so you get bright color bands, but all the shakers are on the same theme. It’s a lot more complicated than it sounds because there are so many of them.”

A large number of the shaker sets are humorous in their design: an aspirin salt shaker and a martini-glass pepper shaker. And when displays are set up, there is sometimes an opportunity to create a visual joke.

“In one section,” says Andrea, “you see what looks like models of the Southwest U.S.—adobe houses of the style found in New Mexico, with cactus and cowboys and Indians. But behind them are two UFOs that have crashed and two aliens that glow in the dark. It’s the Roswell UFO crash in the 1940s.

It’s amazing how many of the shakers tell a tale that isn’t obvious to everyone. One of her favorites is a chef holding a cat in one hand and a cleaver in the other. “I always thought it was just a fun item,” says Andrea, “but my mom explained that it was very significant to older people who had been through the Depression and major wars. Food was short, but you still had to eat, so if a cat strayed by, it went into the pot and came out as ‘chicken surprise.’”

As I continue the tour, I’m absorbed by all the weird and wonderful shakers: Coca-Cola cans; Dolly Parton’s photo on a souvenir from Dollywood—“The Smokies most fun place”;  Mickey and Minnie in chefs toques and aprons; the Beatles with the cropped hair and collarless jackets of their early days (George Harrison and John Lennon joined together as salt and Paul McCartney and Ringo Star as pepper); a turquoise TV with Lucy Arnaz and her neighbor, Ethel Mertz, on the screen (the salt) and a sofa with an “I love Lucy” heart-shaped cushion (the pepper); alligators with sunshades from Florida; bullfighters and bulls from Spain; kangaroos from Australia; a bobby and double-decker bus from London; before-and-after versions of Mount St. Helens made from the actual volcanic ash. There are also familiar ones: shakers your grandmother used to have, or you saw when you went on vacation somewhere, or you gave as a gift once.

“People come back over and over again and think that we are adding to the displays,” says Andrea, “but we aren’t. It’s just that they didn’t see them the first time around.”

The museum doesn’t display all the shakers it owns. But it does exhibit a few Aunt Gemima and Uncle Tom shakers, the cook and butler stereotypical characters from the 1950s, knowing some people might be offended by the negative portrayal of African-Americans. “They are part of the history of salt and pepper shakers, so we display them, but we do it discreetly,” she says. “You can’t change history by simply pretending it didn’t happen or ignoring it.”

But the museum draws the line at pornography. “There are a lot of pornographic models available,” says Andrea. “We’ve got about 60 pairs, ranging from a bit cheeky to quite explicit, but ours is a family museum, so we prefer not to put them on display.”

The Many Futuristic Predictions of H.G. Wells That Came True

Smithsonian Magazine

Science fiction pioneer H.G. Wells conjured some futuristic visions that haven't (yet) come true: a machine that travels back in time, a man who turns invisible, and a Martian invasion that destroys southern England.

But for a man born 150 years ago, many of Wells's other predictions about the modern world have proven amazingly prescient.

Wells, born in 1866, was trained as a scientist, a rarity among his literary contemporaries, and was perhaps the most important figure in the genre that would become science fiction.

Writers in this tradition have a history not just of imagining the future as is might be, but of inspiring others to make it a reality. In 2012, Smithsonian.com published a top ten list of inventions inspired by sci-fi, ranging from Robert H. Goddard's liquid-fuelled rocket to the cell phone.

“Wells's was an imagination in a hurry, he wanted to get to the future sooner than it was going to happen. That's why he's so predictive in his writing,” explains Simon James, head of the English Studies department at Durham University and the editor of the official journal of the H.G. Wells society .

Wells’s ideas have also endured because he was a standout storyteller, James adds. No less a writer than Joseph Conrad agreed. “I am always powerfully impressed by your work. Impressed is the word, O Realist of the Fantastic!” he wrote Wells after reading The Invisible Man.

Here are some of the incredible H.G. Wells predictions that have come true, as well as some that haven't—at least not yet.

Phones, Email, and Television

In Men Like Gods (1923), Wells invites readers to a futuristic utopia that's essentially Earth after thousands of years of progress. In this alternate reality, people communicate exclusively with wireless systems that employ a kind of co-mingling of voicemail and email-like properties.

“For in Utopia, except by previous arrangement, people do not talk together on the telephone,” he writes. “A message is sent to the station of the district in which the recipient is known to be, and there it waits until he chooses to tap his accumulated messages. And any that one wishes to repeat can be repeated. Then he talks back to the senders and dispatches any other messages he wishes. The transmission is wireless.”

Wells also imagined forms of future entertainment. In When the Sleeper Wakes (1899), the protagonist rouses from two centuries of slumber to a dystopian London in which citizens use wondrous forms of technology like the audio book, airplane and television—yet suffer systematic oppression and social injustice. 

Genetic Engineering

Visitors to The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) were confronted with a menagerie of bizarre creatures including Leopard-Man and Fox-Bear Witch, created by the titular madman doctor in human-animal hybrid experiments that may presage the age of genetic engineering.

Though Moreau created his Frankenbeasts through more crude techniques, like surgical transplants and blood transfusions, the theme of humans playing God by tinkering with nature has become a reality. Scientists are working towards the day when animal organs could serve as long-term transplants for human patients, though today human immune systems still ultimately reject such efforts. And controversial experiments known as chimera studies create human-animal hybrids by adding human stem cells to animal embryos.

Notably, the human-animal hybrids Moreau creates eventually do the doctor in, and that ending echoes another common Wells theme. “It's often a warning about the consequences of technology, in particular when you don't think them through properly,” explains James. 

Lasers and Directed Energy Weapons

Martians in The War of the Worlds (1898) unleash what Wells called a Heat-Ray, a super weapon capable of incinerating helpless humans with a noiseless flash of light. It would be more than six decades before Theodore Maiman fired up the first operational laser at California's Hughes Research Laboratory on May 16, 1960, but military thinkers had been hoping to weaponize the conceptual laser even before it was even proven practical.

Wells's description isn't accurate enough to build a working laser, but it resembles both that device and other “directed energy” weapons, such as those using microwaves, electromagnetic radiation, and radio or sound waves, which the United States and other militaries have developed in recent years.

“Many think that in some way [the Martians] are able to generate an intense heat in a chamber of practically absolute non-conductivity. This intense heat they project in a parallel beam against any object they choose, by means of a polished parabolic mirror of unknown composition, much as the parabolic mirror of a lighthouse projects a beam of light,” Wells wrote.

Typically, Wells was more interested in what the effects of his future ideas might be, rather than working out the technical details, James stresses.

“He'll kind of take one element of scientific understanding of the world and tweak it. So in The Time Machine, if you think of time as the fourth dimension, what if you could travel in time as freely as in the other three? Or, in The First Men in the Moon, what if you could make a material [Wells called it Cavorite] as impervious to gravity as other materials are impervious to heat? You just take that one thing, and see what follows from it,” James explains.

(Today's leading science fiction authors still use this technique while at work shaping the future of tomorrow. In fact, some companies commission “design fiction” to see how innovative ideas might work if they become fact in the future. “There is nothing weird about a company doing this—commissioning a story about people using a technology to decide if the technology is worth following through on,” says novelist Cory Doctorow, whose clients have included Disney and Tesco. “It’s like an architect creating a virtual fly-through of a building.” )

Atomic Bombs & Nuclear Proliferation

Wells reveled in the potential benefits of technology but also feared their dark side. “H.G. Wells was probably the writer who saw most clearly in the early 20th century the possibility of total war,” says Eleanor Courtemanche of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (A new physical and online exhibition there shows off an extensive Wells collection.)

Wells recognized the world-changing destructive power that might be harnessed by splitting the atom. The atomic bombs he introduces in The World Set Free (1913) fuel a war so devastating that its survivors are moved to create a unified world government to avoid future conflicts.

Wells's bombs differed from those actually developed by scientists with the Manhattan Project. They exploded continually, for days, weeks or months depending upon their size, as the elements in them furiously radiated energy during their degeneration and in the process created mini-volcanoes of death and destruction.

Wells also clearly saw the dangers of nuclear proliferation, and the doomsday scenarios that might arise both when nations were capable of “mutually assured destruction” and when non-state actors or terrorists got into the fray.

“Destruction was becoming so facile that any little body of malcontents could use it; it was revolutionizing the problems of police and internal rule. Before the last war began it was a matter of common knowledge that a man could carry about in a handbag an amount of latent energy sufficient to wreck half a city,” he wrote. 

Where Wells Was Wrong—At Least So Far

Wells rejected the idea that the future is unknowable, writes esteemed science fiction writer James Gunn, who also helped to pioneer university study of science fiction.

“He believed that it was possible, through the use of what he first called "inductive history" and later "Human Ecology" (defined as the working out of "biological, intellectual, and economic consequences"), to chart the possibilities of the future and to push people into making sensible use of those possibilities. He was the first futurologist, the man who invented tomorrow,” wrote Gunn in The Science of Science-Fiction Writing, published in 2000.

But Wells did have other big ideas that haven't come to fruition, though of course there's always the chance that his vision extended farther into the future than our own time. As of this writing we've not been invaded by Martians. Human invisibility also remains elusive—though science is making progress in that direction. The time machine, an invention introduced in a 1895 novella, hasn't been worked out either.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment to Wells was the failure of his idealized political vision, a world government, which he described in A Modern Utopia (1905)

Wells was a committed socialist who hoped that a global “New Republic” would assure peace in perpetuity. Wells, who died in 1946, lived long enough to learn that this imagined future wasn't likely to ever come true, so he took a very active role in fostering international cooperation wherever he could.

“After World War II broke out, it was another slap in the face to the idea of a world state ever coming off,” James says, “so Wells started a campaign for universal human rights. I believe it was Wells writing letters to The Times that started the process that eventually led to the United Nations declaration of world rights in 1947.” Wells also laid out his vision in The Rights of Man (1940), and his draft declarations on the topic were used to help write the formal UN document. 

Courtemanche adds that Wells's idea of world government, while never reaching his Utopian ideal, actually did come to fruition in at least some small ways.

“Think of all the international agencies that sprang up after WWII in hopes that some kind of international framework would keep world war from happening again,” she notes. “Bretton Woods, the IMF, NATO, the European Union -- none of these were truly global, but they were definitely steps toward the more peaceful and organized world society that Wells envisioned.”

De Havilland DH-98 B/TT Mk. 35 Mosquito

National Air and Space Museum
De Havilland DH-98 B/TT Mk. 35 Mosquito; Twin-engine, two-seat, monoplane fighter, bomber, and reconnaissance aircraft. Slate blue upper surface with black underside; red, white, and blue rondels on upper wing tips and side fuselage; clear plexiglass nose;

Officials in the British Air Ministry vehemently resisted building it, but from the day production finally began in 1941 until the war ended, the Royal Air Force never had enough Mosquitoes to perform the amazing variety of missions that air tacticians devised for this outstanding airplane. It excelled at day and night bombing from high or very low altitudes, long-range reconnaissance, air-to-air combat in daylight and darkness, and finding and striking distant targets at sea. No less than forty-two distinct versions of the D. H. 98 entered service. At extreme speeds, Mosquitoes carried heavy loads great distances because of two key design features: a lightweight, streamlined, wooden airframe propelled by powerful, reliable engines. The "Wooden Wonder" was constructed from Alaskan spruce, English ash, Canadian birch and fir, and Ecuadorian balsa glued and screwed together in new, innovative ways, and motivated by the world's finest reciprocating, liquid-cooled power plants, a pair of Rolls Royce Merlins. There has never been a more successful, combat-proven warplane made of wood.

Officials in the British Air Ministry vehemently resisted building it, but from the day production finally began in 1941 until the war ended, the Royal Air Force never had enough Mosquitoes to perform the amazing variety of missions that air tacticians devised for this outstanding airplane. It excelled at day and night bombing from high or very low altitudes, long-range reconnaissance, air-to-air combat in daylight and darkness, and finding and striking distant targets at sea. No less than forty-two distinct versions of the D. H. 98 entered service. At extreme speeds, Mosquitoes carried heavy loads great distances because of two key design features: a lightweight, streamlined, wooden airframe propelled by powerful, reliable engines. The "Wooden Wonder" was constructed from Alaskan spruce, English ash, Canadian birch and fir, and Ecuadorian balsa glued and screwed together in new, innovative ways, and motivated by the world's finest reciprocating, liquid-cooled power plants, a pair of Rolls Royce Merlins. There has never been a more successful, combat-proven warplane made of wood.

The Mosquito descended from civilian, not military designs. In 1934, de Havilland decided to construct a new airplane to compete in the England-Australia Air Race. In only ten months, the firm designed and built three D.H. 88 Comet racers. Pilots raced all three against sixty-four entrants from thirteen countries. A Comet won the 17,710-km (11,000-mile) race in 71 hours and another finished fourth but the third Comet dropped out because of engine trouble. An advanced plywood skin formed the wing and fuselage of these twin-engine airplanes and de Havilland used the same technology to build Mosquito wings.

A more direct ancestor to the D. H. 98 was the de Havilland D.H. 91 Albatross air transport. After much official delay, de Havilland built seven of these four-engine airliners and Imperial Airways bought five and began to fly them on scheduled routes in December 1938. World War II completely overshadowed the world-class speed and economical performance of the Albatross but its impact on Mosquito development was profound. In both airplanes, radiators mounted inside the wings cooled the engines. Thin slots cut into the wing leading edges allowed cooling air to flow through these radiators. This was a significant improvement because on older aircraft such as the Spitfire, the radiators hung beneath the lower wing surface and the drag generated by this arrangement robbed the Spitfire of precious speed. The Mosquito shared another Albatross trait. Design engineer Arthur E. Hagg conceived of a lightweight, strong composite wooden construction technique to build the Albatross fuselage. He left de Havilland in 1937 but the company used his composite construction methods again on Mosquitoes.

Nazi aggression escalated during the late 1930s. With every act of terror, Geoffrey de Havilland (founder and head of the firm) and his design staff became more convinced that they could create an exceptional warplane based on the Comet and Albatross. The members of the Mosquito design team included the chief designer and team leader, R. E. Bishop, Richard M. Clarkson, assistant chief engineer and Mosquito aerodynamicist, C. T. Wilkins, assistant chief designer and the fuselage specialist, W. A. Tamblin, senior designer and the wing specialist, and Fred Plumb who managed constructing the prototype. Their thoughts coalesced in 1938 to focus on the design of a high-speed, unarmed bomber. The new design would weigh thousands of pounds less than conventional bombers armed with enclosed, power-driven turrets and heavy machine guns, its finish smooth and streamlined enough to speed past all pursuers, even the most advanced, single-engine fighters. For two years, de Havilland and the Air Ministry argued over several different designs and government specifications for the new airplane. Doubts racked most ministry officials about committing national resources to build a small, unarmed bomber out of wood. The notion ran counter to aeronautical trends in every other nation worldwide but in addition to speed, de Havilland's idea had other advantages. Wood, and the skilled personnel required to work it, was plentiful while aluminum was in dangerously short supply and aircraft metalworkers were already consumed with producing Spitfires, Hurricanes, and other metal airplanes.

De Havilland finally won a contract to build a prototype five months after Hitler invaded Poland but the Air Ministry, and many people in the British aircraft industry, remained skeptical right up until March 3, 1941. On that day government test pilots, conducting official trials with the Mosquito prototype, published a favorable report on the aircraft. From this time forward, official doubt turned to quiet confidence.

Like the Comet and Albatross wings, de Havilland built Mosquito wings out of shaped pieces of wood and plywood cemented together with Casein glue. Approximately 30,000 small, brass wood screws also reinforced the glue joints inside a Mosquito wing (another 20,000 or so screws reinforced glue joints in the fuselage and empennage). The internal wing structure consisted of plywood box spars fore and aft. Plywood ribs and stringers braced the gaps between the spars with space left over for fuel tanks and engine and flight controls. Plywood ribs and skins also formed the wing leading edges and flaps but de Havilland framed-up the ailerons from aluminum alloy and covered them with fabric. Sheet metal skins enclosed the engines and metal doors closed over the main wheel wells when the pilot retracted the landing gear.

To cover the wing structure and add strength, de Havilland woodworkers built two top wing skins and one bottom skin using birch plywood. The top skins had to carry the heaviest load so the designers also beefed them up with birch or Douglas fir stringers cut into fine strips and glued and screwed between the two skins. The bottom skin was also reinforced with stringers. Together the top and bottom skins multiplied the strength of the internal spars and ribs. A Mosquito wing could withstand rigorous combat maneuvering at high G-loads when the airplane often carried thousands of additional pounds of fuel and weapons. To maintain strength, trim weight, and speed fabrication time, the entire wing was finished as a single piece, wingtip to wingtip, with no break where the wing bisected the fuselage. A finished and painted wing was light and strong with a smooth surface unblemished by drag-inducing nail or rivet heads.

De Havilland engineers and technicians used generally the same techniques to build the Comet, Albatross, and Mosquito wings out of wood and plywood. When they designed and built the fuselage, however, they copied the methods and materials employed to build the Albatross fuselage. This airliner was the product of the brilliant mind of Arthur E. Hagg, de Havilland's Chief Draftsman in 1937. He left the company that same year but his ideas lived on in the Mosquito. Hagg created a light, strong, very streamlined structure by sandwiching 9.5 mm (three-eighths inch) Ecuadorian balsa wood between Canadian birch plywood skins that varied in thickness from 4.5 mm to 6 mm (about ¼ inch). The plywood/balsa/plywood sandwich was formed inside concrete molds of each fuselage half, and each mold held seven birch plywood formers reinforced with spruce blocks, plus bulkheads, floors, and other structural members. As the glue cured, metal clamps held the skin layers tight to the mold. Technicians finished the edge of each half of the fuselage with male and female wedge joints as fitters attached wiring and other equipment to the inner walls. Final fuselage assembly was reminiscent of a typical plastic model airplane kit as the two halves were glued and screwed together. Fabricators completed the final step in building the fuselage when they covered it with Mandapolam.

To build the empennage, workers framed the rudder and elevator out of aluminum and covered them with fabric but they built the vertical and horizontal stabilizers from wood. Although the materials are different, Hagg's composite sandwich construction material is similar to the foam and fiberglass composite sandwich developed by Burt Rutan during the 1970s. Rutan revolutionized the design and construction of homebuilt aircraft when he marketed kits and plans to build the Rutan VariEze (see NASM collection).

The first Mosquito prototype flew on November 24, 1940. Flight trials revealed only minor development problems and de Havilland finished twenty production aircraft before 1941 ended. A photo-reconnaissance D. H. 98 flew the first operational Mosquito sortie to survey the western part of the border between France and Spain on September 17, 1941. Bomber and fighter versions began operating in early 1942 and Mosquitoes soon swept across the length and breadth of Western Europe.

As a bomber, the Mosquito was fast enough to excel at precision attacks against heavily defended targets. Courageous crews often flew these raids at altitudes of 15-50 meters (49-164 feet). Flying this type of raid in a single-engine airplane would border on suicide but the Mosquito's twin Merlins doubled the crew's chances of surviving engine failure. Nonetheless, on numerous occasions, anti-aircraft gunfire or patrolling German fighters splintered Mosquito airframes. Men of No. 105 Squadron set the tone for these pinpoint raids when they attacked Nazi Gestapo headquarters in Oslo, Norway, on September 26, 1942. Four crews flew their Mosquito B. Mk. IV bombers a roundtrip total of 1,770 kilometers (1,100 miles) and the mission lasted four hours and 45 minutes. A BBC news broadcast that followed this raid marked the first official confirmation that the Mosquito existed.

Former Royal Air Force mechanic and Mosquito test technician, David van Vlymen, in his article "Un-Gluing the Mosquito," wrote vividly of his experiences with the Wooden Wonder. Van Vlymen's account illustrates the dangers routinely faced by men operating high-performance aircraft during wartime. After volunteering for the RAF in 1940, van Vlymen became a certified airframe mechanic. In 1943, Mosquitoes built at the Hatfield factory began "piling up waiting for their test flight which de Havilland was unable to perform quickly enough. So large numbers were sent to Henlow for us to pass as serviceable. No. 2 Repair Section got the job and being in the "test flight" section I was lucky, I got to fly!"

"Of course I was fully aware that at some time while flying I may have to bail out and the possibility of a parachute jump was something I should have liked to experience. It was getting out of the Mosquito that was the problem. We were testing the fighter version. The pilot could jettison the panel above his head and then somehow get out, probably breaking his back in doing so, there was no such thing as an ejector-seat in those days. For me in the Navigators seat I had to jettison the side door and dive out head first, right into the propeller, so it was first necessary to feather the prop, an action that took several seconds that seemed like an age! I used to just sit in a Mosquito on the ground and practicing how to get out in a hurry, but fortunately I never had to do so."

"Now the Mosquito had a maximum speed of a little over 400 mph which was moving in those days, and when it went into a vertical dive speed increased dramatically. At around 460 mph a shudder often started, and remember this was an all wooden aircraft. It was my belief that this shudder allowed the metal undercarriage doors to slightly open (they were held shut only by strong springs) and then be whipped off by the air stream and smash into the tail unit demolishing the elevators, thus making it impossible to pull out of the dive. I mentioned this to the powers that be and a positive uplock latch was designed and installed after which, I am pleased to report, our loss of aircraft was substantially reduced."

Copyright 2000, David van Vlymen, Portland, Oregon, e-mail: able2@att.net, fax: 413-383-3877, from The Mosquito Page website at http://www.mossie.org/mosquito.html.

Unlike Allied heavy and medium bomber crews, Mosquito men routinely operated in daylight at extremely low altitudes. They used this tactic to minimize exposure to anti-aircraft defenses and to insure precise accuracy during bombing and strafing attacks. For their trouble, they experienced a sweeping, personal view of the war in Europe that was not available to any other group of combatants. Wing Commander John Wooldridge, writing in his book "Low Attack," summed up the experience this way:

"It would be impossible to forget … the sensation of looking back over enemy territory and seeing your formation behind you, wing-tip to wing-tip, their racing shadows moving only a few feet below them across the earth's surface; or that feeling of sudden exhilaration when the target was definitely located and the whole pack were following you on to it with their bomb doors open, while people below scattered in every direction and the long streams of flak came swinging up; or the sudden jerk of consternation of the German soldiers lounging on the coast, their moment of indecision, and then their mad scramble for the guns; or the memory of racing across The Hague at midday on a bright spring morning, while the Dutchmen below hurled their hats in the air and beat each other on the back. All these are unforgettable memories. Many of them will be recalled also by the peoples of Europe long after peace has been declared, for to them the Mosquito came to be ambassador during their darkest hours."

Like the bombers, de Havilland built sub-variants of the Mosquito adapted for day and night fighter operations. A Mosquito crew claimed the first air-to-air victory over a Dornier 217 twin-engine bomber on May 29, 1942. Many German fighters were also destroyed. From June 1944 to March 1945, Mosquitoes crews worked to defeat a menace hitherto unseen in warfare, mass attacks by low-flying, robot flying bombs propelled by pulse jet engines, the German V-1 'buzz bomb' vengeance weapons. In operations against shipping, Mosquitoes sank supply ships, and at least ten German U-boats along the French and Norwegian coasts. Mosquito crewmen flew many other unique missions including an unarmed, scheduled airline service between Scotland and Sweden. After the war, Mosquitoes laden with cameras surveyed all of India, Cambodia, and Australia. The last operational combat mission ended on December 21, 1955, when a Mosquito PR. 34A conducted a reconnaissance mission above suspected communist strongholds hidden in the jungles of Malaya.

More than 400 subcontractors built Mosquito components in England. The main factory at Hatfield and several other co-producers assembled these components into finished Mosquitoes. The aircraft was also produced in Canada and Australia and a United States production program was discussed but dropped when Canadian Mosquitoes began to fly. The U. S. did contribute by diverting production of Packard-built Merlin engines to Canada for the D. H. 98. Local deficiencies in labor and materials, and delayed shipments of critical components from England, slowed efforts to set up Mosquito production in Australia and the Royal Australian Air Force did not receive the first airplanes until 1944.

During the war, the United States, South Africa, and the Soviet Union also operated Mosquitoes. After the war ended, Belgium, France, Turkey, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Norway, the Dominican Republic, and Israel flew the D. H. 98. Canada sold 200 Mosquitoes to Nationalist China in 1947. They were disassembled, shipped, and reassembled at Chinese factories.

It often happens that when large numbers of successful aircraft fly, over time, individual airframes stand out. One particular Mosquito is noteworthy because it completed more combat missions than any other Allied aircraft. An unarmed, high-altitude Mosquito B. IX bomber, de Havilland serial number LR503 and Royal Air Force serial number GB-F, flew combat missions first in No. 109 Squadron beginning on May 28, 1943, and later in 105 Squadron. Pathfinder Fighter pilots in these two units flew a total of 213 missions in this aircraft but during a goodwill tour of Canada two days after V-E Day, GB-F was destroyed when it crashed at Calgary Airport, May 10, 1945 (see NASM Martin B-26 "Flak Bait" that completed 207 missions).

The National Air and Space Museum Mosquito, Royal Air Force (RAF) serial number TH 998, was built by the main de Havilland factory at Hatfield as a B. Mk. 35 bomber version in 1945 under Contract number 555/C.23(a). It was part of a batch numbered TH 977-999. On August 24, 1945, the Air Ministry took charge of this airplane and transferred it to No. 27 Maintenance Unit (MU) at RAF Shawbury, Shropshire. Nearly seven years later, TH 998 moved went to Brooklands Aviation Co., Ltd., at Wymeswold Aerodrome, Leicestershire, on May 14, 1952, for conversion to TT. Mark 35 standards.

Conversion was completed four months later and the Mosquito began to tow aerial gunnery targets. On September 30, 1952, TH 998 went to No. 3 Civilian Anti-Aircraft Cooperation Unit (CAAC) at RAF Exeter in Devon and received a new code letter assignment 'AT.' This civilian contractor unit performed target-towing duties for the RAF and had the distinction of operating the last Mosquitoes in Britain. After towing targets for ten years, the type was ready for retirement and ultimately, the scrap yard, but TH 998 was chosen for presentation to the Smithsonian Institution. On March 20, 1962, No. 60 MU at RAF Dishforth received the aircraft and overhauled and painting it for exhibition. On August 17, 1962, TH 998 was transported to the United States. The Mosquito is now in storage at the Museum's Paul Garber Facility and it is slated for display at the new Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles International Airport.

The Faux “Sioux” Sharpshooter Who Became Annie Oakley’s Rival

Smithsonian Magazine

At about 10:30 a.m. on the morning of August 3, 1901, more than 100,000 people jostled to catch a glimpse of Frederick Cummins’ Indian Congress parade at the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, New York. The crowds shrieked with excitement when they heard the Carlisle Indian Band strike up a tune, and drew a collective gasp when three celebrities appeared on their respective steeds. There was Geronimo, the aged Apache chief, and Martha “Calamity Jane” Canary, the frontierswoman and scout of the American Plains.

And then there was Wenona, the Sioux girl.

Wenona, Cummins proclaimed, was not only the “champion rifle shot of the world,” but also the daughter of a chief named Crazy Horse and a white woman, born in a “tepee on the south bank of the Big Cheyenne, near Fort Bennett, Dakota,” and only 18 years old. Cummins offered a $1,000 reward to anyone who could best Wenona with a rifle at the Exhibition. Her extraordinary shooting prowess, he crowed, had been bestowed upon her by supernatural spirits of the Indian world.

In fact, “Wenona” was not a Sioux teen. She was 29-year-old Lillian Frances Smith, the daughter of a white Quaker couple from New England. A former performer in William “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s Wild West show, she had earned the scorn of the legendary Annie Oakley and had been cast aside to make her own way in the world.

Lillian Smith, probably age 15. Probably a Buffalo Bill’s Wild West publicity photo (Image courtesy of University of Oklahoma Libraries, Western History Collection, Rose Collection, No. 787)

At the cusp of 30, the so-called “California Girl” may have thought that adopting a Native American persona was her last chance to differentiate herself from Oakley. At least, this is what my original thesis was, when I first examined the sparse records that Smith left in her own writing before her death in 1930. I had been casting about for a California figure to write about, and tripped over mention of Smith in a footnote in an article about someone else. I had to piece together a sparse collection of Smith’s letters, newspaper accounts, playbills, accounts of those who worked with her, and genealogical sources to find her “real” story. And her real story, I found, had little to do with Oakley. It was not even so much that a “rehabilitated” Indian could sell a lot of tickets at that time—though that was certainly part of it. As I collected more and more sources, I concluded that the primary purpose of Smith’s transformation into Wenona was so that Smith could completely erase her past and start all over again, in typically American fashion.

Smith was a darling of Buffalo Bill’s 1886-1887 Wild West Show. One was at a loss, exclaimed one observer of the show in New York, whether “Miss Lillian Smith, Miss Annie Oakley, Johnnie Butler, the ‘Kid’ [cowboy Jim Willoughby], or Buffalo Bill himself” deserved the highest praise for marksmanship. As soon as Smith joined the show in April of 1886, Oakley shaved 12 years off her own birth date, insecure about the talented young teen stealing the spotlight. And Smith did not waste any time getting on Oakley’s nerves, bragging that the latter was “done for,” once the public had seen “her own self shoot.”

Yet, I learned through my research, Lillian was far less concerned with a feud with Annie Oakley than with getting away from her controlling father, Levi, who traveled with his daughter on the American leg of the Wild West tour. Levi followed Smith everywhere, and prevented her from making friends when he could. Under normal circumstances, this might illustrate good parenting—she was, after all, just a teen. But Levi exploited his daughter, and later, her younger sister. I found many examples of this, but perhaps the most poignant is mentioned in a letter Smith wrote to a friend, lamenting her sister’s situation: “The best thing she [Nellie] could do would be to marry or go with some man who was smart enough to manage her—else she will never win with this old man around her neck.” This is exactly what Lillian did when she married the cowboy “Kid” Willoughby, who was a dozen years her senior, in 1886. By marrying Willoughby, Smith put a trusted friend in charge of her finances and virtue while overseas, and pushed her father out of the picture. By all accounts, they were smitten with each other, and Willoughby staunchly supported his wife when Oakley and husband Frank Butler took her to task in the newspapers.

Lillian Smith as Princess Wenona, taken at the 1901 World’s Fair in Buffalo, New York. Centered in the photo is Geronimo. An inscription on the photo says, “General Milles–Indian Congress,” probably meant to commemorate General Nelson Miles’s winning of Geronimo’s surrender in 1886. (Image courtesy of Library of Congress)

The marriage failed in 1889 when Willoughby left with Buffalo Bill on a second European tour and Smith did not—possibly because Oakley made Smith’s absence a condition of her own return to the show. Newspapers hinted at Smith’s dalliance with a “half-breed” as the reason for the breakup, but it is more likely the young sharpshooter simply lost interest in marriage with Willoughby so far away. Levi Smith immediately took control of his daughter’s career again, and the family traveled up and down the West Coast, living off Lillian’s exhibition earnings.

In 1897, Smith impulsively married a saloonkeeper in Santa Cruz, and just as quickly left him when she met Charles “Frank” Hafley, sheriff of Tulare County, at a gallery in Visalia the following year. Hafley was not conventionally handsome, but he was witty, athletic, and very intelligent. Additionally, he was an extraordinary sharpshooter in his own right, and a very competent equestrian. The two may not have ever legally married, but they began a decade-long romantic and business partnership that packed in more adventure than most people saw in their lifetimes. They traveled to Hawaii as a sharpshooting act, to the East Coast to perform at the 1901 World’s Fair, and to the Jamestown Exhibition in Virginia in 1904. The pair even created their own program called “California Frank’s Wild West,” and started an Indian curio business on the side (Smith created her own brand of tomahawks). It was Hafley who helped Smith morph into “Princess Wenona,” helping her write a “new” biography that included him, “Fighting Frank” Hafley, as the cowboy who brought this fair Indian maiden into a culture of civilizing whites.

Wenona’s costume often included a fully fringed, suede tunic with intricate beadwork and a fantastic feathered headdress, which she wore even while shooting moving objects while astride a galloping horse. Her “Indianness” helped differentiate her among other Wild West stars, but her costuming was also practical. Smith had struggled with her weight since puberty, and her tunic let her hide her voluptuous figure. Additionally, it gave her freedom of movement to do the physically demanding feats she was known for, like shooting glass balls thrown all around an arena while galloping full speed on her horse while flipped on her back.

Perhaps most importantly, Wenona’s adopted Sioux identity forever severed any connection between her and her parents. In 1900, we know from one of her letters, she was still trying to convince her younger sister to leave Levi’s sphere of influence on the West Coast and move east to be closer to her. The Smith girls’ mother died in 1901, and their father in 1908. Wenona did not see either of them again after she met Frank in 1898.

Lillian Smith as Princess Wenona. Publicity photo from Pawnee Bill’s Wild West, circa 1905. In this image, Wenona is Minnehaha, the fictional Native American woman in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 poem “The Song of Hiawatha.” (Image courtesy of Library of Congress)

Audiences were more than willing to receive Wenona as a member of a “noble race,” albeit one doomed by the progress of civilization. As Philip Deloria, Laura Browder, and other historians describe it, Native Americans were icons of American identity, and citizens wanted to feel a natural affinity with the continent. Indians could teach them such “aboriginal closeness.” Lillian Smith was not the first or last performer to try to bridge this gap. In her book, Real Native Genius: How an Ex-Slave and a White Mormon Became Famous Indians, Angela Pulley Hudson describes how in the mid-1800s, Warner McCary and his wife Lucy, who was not only white but divorced, traveled the United States as singers and comedians before turning to lecturing on medical healing. They used “Indianness” as a way to disguise their backgrounds, justify their marriage, and make a living—much as Wenona did. Smith’s popularity spurred a number of wannabes on the Wild West circuit: “Princess Kiowa,” “Princess Winonah,” “Princess Mohawk,” and others. One notable “Princess Kiowa” was Nellie Smith, Lillian’s younger sister, who was also an accomplished sharpshooter, but was never quite as good or as famous as her older sister. Nellie fades from the historical record after 1916, when she was performing for Yankee Robinson’s circus.

Wenona retired from show business in 1925 or thereabouts. She had a brief relationship with cowboy Wayne Beasley just before World War I, but her last substantial romantic entanglement was with Emil Lenders, one of the great painters of the American West. Lenders had also “gone native.” His first marriage had ended when his wife could no longer tolerate his traipsing off with various tribes instead of helping to take care of his family in Philadelphia. He had first met Wenona at the Buffalo Exhibition, and got reacquainted with her around 1920 when Joe Miller of the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch in Ponca City, Oklahoma, brought Lenders in to paint buffalo and other animals. Wenona had performed with the 101’s traveling wild west since 1915, and Joe Miller generously allowed many of his performers to live on the working ranch. It was only natural, when Lenders and Wenona fell in love, that they shared a house there.

The couple parted ways amicably in 1928, when Lenders met and married another woman. Wenona lived on in a tiny cabin on the outskirts of the 101, and passed the time caring for her many chickens and dogs. At age 59, she developed a heart condition, and quickly deteriorated over the Christmas season of 1929.

She still always wore her Sioux garb, and asked to be buried in it upon her death. When she passed away in February of 1930, her friends obliged.

Julia Bricklin is the author of a new biography of female sharpshooter Lillian Frances Smith (University of Oklahoma Press: April 2017), and has authored articles for commercial and academic journals such as Civil War Times, Financial History, Wild West, True West and California History. Bricklin grew up in Southern California, obtained a journalism degree at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo and worked in the TV/film industry for 15 years before obtaining her Master’s degree in history at Cal State Northridge. In addition to serving as associate editor of California History, the publication of the California Historical Society, she lectures in U.S. history for her local community college district. 

This essay is part of What It Means to Be American, a partnership of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and Zócalo Public Square.

Homecoming King: The Nation’s T. rex Returns to the Smithsonian

Smithsonian Magazine

Just a couple inches closer and it’s all over for this Triceratops. Towering overhead, the Tyrannosaurus rex looms large and menacing, one stabilizing foot planted firmly onto the Triceratops’ flank, as its monstrous maw descends to tear its victim’s head from its frilly shoulders.

It’s the gut-wrenching theater of macabre, enough to raise the hairs on the back of anyone’s neck. The good news? The pair, frozen in this frightful snapshot, will soon be on display for all the world to see.

Today, the National Museum of Natural History unveiled a sneak peek of the “Nation’s T. rex” in its momentous return to Washington, D.C. after a four-year hiatus. It also announced that the newly renovated “David H. Koch Hall of Fossils—Deep Time” will open to the public on Saturday, June 8, 2019, a debut that will include the first fully assembled T. rex skeleton to be on display at the Smithsonian. The patriotically-named dinosaur returns after a few years abroad—but rex hasn’t squandered its time soaking up the sights. The fossils of this T. rex have spent the last four years being meticulously assembled by a team of scientists in Canada.

The new Hall is named in honor of philanthropist David H. Koch, who made a generous contribution of $35 million, the largest single donation in the Museum's history. The entire project is projected to cost $125 million.

“Our dinosaurs are coming home,” says the Museum’s director Kirk Johnson at a preview of the hall today. And not just to any home: the new hall will reopen as what Johnson describes as the “most visited room in the most visited natural history museum in the world.” As a whole, the Museum delights 7 million patrons from around the world each year.

Today, the National Museum of Natural History unveiled a sneak peek of the “Nation’s T. rex” in its momentous return to Washington, D.C. after a four-year hiatus. (NMNH)

For now, the T. rex is not yet assembled into its final form: The skeleton only recently arrived back on American soil, bones parceled out between a dizzying number of crates that await unpacking. The display will eventually yield a formidable and fully-formed beast standing at about 15 feet tall and 40 feet long, poised to glut on the body of an unlucky Triceratops. This cinematic scene will take about a month to assemble—but the exhibit has already been decades in the making.

In 1988, rancher Kathy Wankel was baffled to stumble upon the pristine skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex while enjoying an innocent hike with her family in Montana’s Fort Peck reservoir. Because they were on federal property, Wankel quickly notified the authorities. Over the next two years, the newly dubbed “Wankel rex” was carefully excavated by a team of paleontologists led by Jack Horner from the Museum of the Rockies in nearby Bozeman. For nearly 20 years, the 66-million-year-old fossils held tenure in the Montana museum, splayed in the original configuration in which the bones had been found—the T. rex’s death pose.”

But five years ago, the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History finalized a 50-year loan agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to display the Wankel rex in the nation’s capital, securing what Johnson calls “the first significant addition to the fossil hall since 1981.”

And so, in 2014, seven tons of fossils began a lumbering 2,000-mile weekend road trip from Montana to Washington, D.C., nestled in the back of a hefty FedEx 18-wheeler emblazoned with a grandiose tagline: “Delivering History.” The Nation’s T. rex was (re)born.

Upon the T. rex’s arrival at the Museum, hundreds of bones were carefully unwrapped from a veritable bevy of packing material required to withstand the turbulent trip. The fossils were first 3D-scanned to generate a lasting digital rendering of the skeleton that could be studied past the lifespan of the precious, material bones.

It’s unclear whether T. rex was a predator or a scavenger. The animal seems poised to deliver a fatal blow. Or, it could be simply capitalizing on some conveniently located roadkill. (NMNH)

Some fortunate patrons who visited the Museum between the months of April and October of 2014 had the chance to see the scanning process in action in an annexed Rex Room. But by fall of that year, the daunting dino mascot was again on the move— this time, crossing international borders in a hard detour to the Great White North. Before rex could premiere to the public, it first needed to be fitted for its debutante dress: A set of custom metal frames for each individual bone, cradling the delicate fossils while anchoring them to the scaffold of its final choreography.

This task fell to Ontario’s Research Casting International, an aptly named firm with a prestigious history of assembling dinosaurs for museums around the world. It’s a game of Jenga with incomprehensible stakes. Gone are the days when curators drilled holes into fossils to install binding ropes and bars (a fate tragically endured by many of the former Hall’s original specimens): The goal now is to preserve—not only for display purposes, but also so scientists can still access the individual specimens for future research. Thus, each of the metal ligaments that secures the fossils is removable.

Complicating matters was the issue of theatrics. The Montana “death pose” may have been accurate, but Smithsonian curators were determined to maneuver the bones into a configuration that displayed T. rex in all its former glory—something at the intersection of realistic and visually striking, all while being mindful of the irreplaceable fossils themselves. Fortunately, much of the finagling could be done digitally, thanks to the Museum’s 3D scans. But the question remained: How would rex regale? It was truly the world’s most intimidating jigsaw puzzle.

But then arose the idea of adding a second player: a Triceratops. It was a unique scenario—something no other museum had executed before, positioning two dinosaurs in a fight that would have happened 66 to 68 million years ago. “It allowed us to do something no one’s done yet with a T. rex: these two animals directly engaged,” explains Matthew Carrano, the Museum’s curator of dinosaurs.

Upon closer inspection, the Triceratops underfoot may seem familiar to the most zealous of natural history buffs. Nicknamed “Hatcher” for his paleontologist discoverer, the Triceratops in question has been on display at the Smithsonian since 1905, albeit usually in less precarious situations. In truth, Hatcher is actually a not-so-secret clone, cast from a cobbling of different Triceratops skeletons in 1998; yet another replica will be the one to join the Wankel rex in Hatcher’s final matinee.

At Ontario’s Research Casting International, an aptly named firm with a prestigious history of assembling dinosaurs for museums around the world, the task is a game of Jenga with incomprehensible stakes. (Mike Gaudaur, Quinte Studios)

In addition to a partial decapitation, Hatcher will sport a broken horn and a couple fractured ribs—a grisly indication of the T. rex’s staggering power. But the Triceratops’ fate may have already been sealed: It’s unclear whether T. rex is poised to deliver a fatal blow, or simply capitalizing on some conveniently located roadkill.

Although T. rex is recognized as the largest carnivore in western North American during its time, scientists are not sure whether the tyrant king was more of a predator or a scavenger; the two certainly aren’t mutually exclusive. So, while it’s plausible that a Triceratops would have comprised a typical T. rex treat, the nature of their interaction—and whether the Triceratops had already been felled by some other malady first—is left up to the imagination. The send-off seems grim, but no one can say Hatcher isn’t retiring in style.

Once Carrano and Research Casting International were satisfied with this climactic rendering, the team then disassembled the duo and prepared them for the return trip to D.C.

While the Wankel rex was on sabbatical, the Museum seized the opportunity to revamp the entirety of its century-old fossil hall, hoping to reinvigorate the exhibition with the latest paleontological science in time to coincide with the return of rex. And so began the largest, most extensive renovation in museum history. When the new Koch Hall of Fossils reopens in June 2019, it will reveal a completely refurbished 31,000-square-foot space stocked floor-to-ceiling with dazzling fossils from eras gone by—centered around the Nation’s T. rex as its breathtaking pièce de résistance. Over 700 specimens of animals, plants and insects will accompany the T. rex in showcasing the 3.7 billion years of life thus far on Earth.

“The history of life has always been rich and diverse and complicated as it is today, just without humans,” says Kathy Hollis, the Museum’s national fossil collections manager. “We’re just a blip or a moment in the Earth’s history. We have the consciousness to think about that, and put ourselves in context of history and future.”

Although 80 to 85 percent of this T. rex’s original 450 or so bones (compared to the 206 in an adult human) were recovered in the excavation, a third of them, including the head and most of the ribs, are too fragile for display. Only half of the skeleton that is ultimately unveiled to the public will be bona fide dino; carefully reconstructed synthetics will fill in the gaps. For the bones for which there is no true counterpart, Carrano and his team have appended approximations with the utmost accuracy, either drawing from mirror images in the dinosaur’s anatomy or modeling on other T. rex skeletons from separate excavations.

The Wankel rex surfaced at an opportune juncture in the timeline of paleontological technology. With the mostly intact skeleton, scientists eagerly expanded their knowledge of Tyrannosaurus, including the first physical forearm specimen in history. What’s more, we now know the Nation’s T. rex died when it was about 18 years old. Delightfully, the age of a dino tracks like a tree: simply saw through a bone and count its rings. Its cause of death and sex, though, remain mysterious.

However, Carrano believes there is more to come. “Undoubtedly there are still things we’re going to learn from it,” he says.

This is an emotional time for Carrano: the re-opening of the fossil hall is a culmination of his career at the Smithsonian thus far, a project he has invested in since 2002.

“It’s still a little surreal: You spend so much time thinking about it, having meetings, planning for things—there’s so many people involved, and you’re focusing on every tiny detail,” he reflects. “And then you forget to imagine what it’s like when it’s all done. In one way or another, I’ve been thinking about this for over 16 years. It’s like sending a kid off to college.”

In the coming weeks, the Nation’s T. rex will be reassembled in its new home, allowing the rest of the Koch Hall of Fossils to reshape around its centerpiece. When the Hall opens next June, the Wankel rex will finally reveal itself to the public, hopefully bringing with it a resurgence of dino fever at the Smithsonian. But luckily for Hatcher—and the rest of the world—both Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus will remain frozen for the foreseeable future: no one’s getting eaten just yet.

Echoes of History: Chinese Poetry at the Angel Island Immigration Station

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
Poem from Angel Island
Chinese poetry carved on the wall of the Angel Island Immigration Station in the San Francisco Bay.
Text from Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940

These lines are from just one of the hundreds of poems carved on the barrack walls of the Angel Island Immigration Station in the early twentieth century by Chinese detainees awaiting decisions on their entry status. As the first literary body of work by Chinese North Americans, this collection of poetry not only carries the secret memories of early Chinese immigrants but also vividly portrays a pivotal period in the nation’s immigration history, when various harsh discriminatory laws limited the entry of Chinese and other Asian immigrants.

I had read the poems and about their history, but it was not until I visited the site of the immigration station in 2016 and saw those carvings on the walls that I could deeply appreciate the detainees’ anger, frustration, and desperation. I can only imagine the hardships they endured on the isolated island upon arriving at this promising land of which they had long dreamed.

The Shadow of Exclusion

The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act legally banned the free immigration of all Chinese laborers and prohibited the naturalization of Chinese immigrants already in the United States. It was the first national legislation against immigration based on race and national origin. For decades after, additional laws were passed that barred other Asian immigrants, such as Japanese, Koreans, and Indians, and to limit immigration from southern and eastern European countries.

Angel Island Immigration Station was built in 1910 in the San Francisco Bay mainly to process immigrants from China, Japan, and other countries on the Pacific Rim. Its primary mission was to better enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and other anti-Asian laws enacted in subsequent years. Newcomers to the island were subjected to severe interrogation, which often led to detentions—from a few weeks to months, and sometimes even years—while waiting for the decisions of their fates.¹ The station remained in use until 1940, when a fire destroyed the administration building.

Angel Island Immigration Station
Angel Island Immigration Station, 1910. The dormitories were in the upper building.
Photo courtesy of Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (Group 85), National Archives
Angel Island Immigration Station
View of Immigration Station from San Francisco Bay, the boat Calypsa in foreground, c. 1925.
Photo courtesy of California State Parks
Angel Island Immigration Station
Immigration interview on Angel Island, 1923.
Photo courtesy of Records of the Public Health Service (Group 90), National Archives

Besides a general physical examination applied for all immigrants regardless of age, gender, or race, Chinese detainees on Angel Island went through a special interrogation process. Immigration officials knew that a majority of Chinese immigrants claiming to be children of Chinese American citizens were just “paper sons” or “paper daughters” with false identities.² In the interrogation, applicants were asked questions concerning their family history, home village life, and their relationship to the witnesses. Any discrepancies between their answers and those provided by the witnesses resulted in deportation.

Approximately one million immigrants were processed on Angel Island between 1910 and 1940. Of these, an estimated 100,000 Chinese people were detained.³

Memories Carved on the Walls

One of the ways that Chinese detainees protested their discriminatory treatment on Angel Island was to write and carve poetry on their barrack walls. The poems were almost lost to history until a former California state park ranger, Alexander Weiss, discovered them in 1970 when the park service was planning to tear down the building and reconstruct the site. After the news of Weiss’s discovery spread through the local Asian American community, activists, descendants of Angel Island detainees, and volunteer professionals and students launched a campaign to preserve the detention barracks and the poems carved within it.

Poem carved on the walls of the Angel Island Immigration Station
Poem 135 from Island carved on the walls of a lavatory room on the first floor of the detention barracks at the Angel Island Immigration Station, author unknown.
Photo by Ying Diao
Angel Island Immigration Station
The walls of a room on the second floor of the detention building are covered with Chinese poetry.
Photo by Ying Diao

Since the 1970s, various efforts have been made to preserve the poems. Today, more than 200 have been discovered and documented. At the forefront of these efforts was the work of Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung, who published translations of the poetry and excerpts from interviews with former detainees in the book Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940, first published in 19824 and republished in 2014.5

The majority of poets were male villagers, often with little formal education, from China’s southern rural regions.6 Most of their poems follow the Chinese classic poetic forms with even numbers of lines; four, five, or seven characters per line; and every other two lines in rhyme.

The content ranges from experiences traveling to the United States and their time on the island, to their impressions of Westerners and determination for national self-improvement. Besides personal expression, some poems refer to historical stories or make literary allusions. Unlike the traditional way of signing the poems, few people put their names at the end of their work, most likely to avoid punishment from the authorities.

None of the collected poems were written by women. If women had written poetry, their works would have been destroyed in the women’s quarters, which were situated in the administration building and burned down in 1940.

Poem 43 from Island sung in Toishanese by Yui Poon Ng of the Suey Sun Tong Association of Vancouver. Ng is improvising upon a type of narrative folksong, muk’yu (wooden fish), from Toisan County (Taishan in Mandarin) in the southern province of China from where most of the early Chinese immigrants came. Video recording produced by Joanne Poon, used by permission of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation

Angel Island Immigration Station
Text of Poem 43 from Island as recited in the video.

Remembering the Sounds of the Past

First opened to the public in 1983, the renovated detention barracks has been turned into a museum as part of Angel Island State Park. In 1997, the site was designated as a National Historical Landmark.

The historical discriminatory immigration laws seem to have become a thing of the past, but American inclusion and exclusion are still debated today—around such issues as, for example, childhood arrivals and executive orders proposing to ban refugees from certain countries. Fifty-two years after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 removed the discriminatory national origins quotas, immigration policy and reform continue to be a source of great national concern. Millions of undocumented immigrants live in the shadows; thousands of immigrants are detained each year by the Department of Homeland Security. The surviving poems carved on the walls of the Angel Island barracks record the historical voices impacted by past policies of exclusion and have a certain resonance today.

Angel Island Immigration Station
Restored detention barracks at Angel Island Immigration Station.
Photo by Ying Diao

The Chinese immigrants coming to the West Coast in the first half of the twentieth century told their immigration stories by writing Chinese classic poems. Across the five decades of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, several generations of subsequent immigrants have shared their migration experiences through a diverse range of expressive forms—from handicrafts to performing arts to foodways—demonstrating the enduring cultural vitality and creativity.

We invite you to our 50th anniversary as we continue exploring these themes in the program On the Move: Migration Across Generations.

Ying Diao holds a PhD in ethnomusicology from the University of Maryland, College Park. She was an intern with the 2016 Sounds of California Festival program. She is currently a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Religious Diversity, Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen, Germany. She is most grateful to Grant Din, Yui Poon Ng, Joanne Poon, and Judy Yung for their help in collecting data for this blog.

Sources

Architectural Resources Group. 2004. “Poetry and Inscriptions: Translation and Analysis.” Prepared by Charles Egan, Wan Liu, Newton Liu, and Xing Chu Wang for the California Department of Parks and Recreation and Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, San Francisco. Internal materials.

Lai, Him Mark, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung. 2014. Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Lee, Erika, and Judy Yung. 2010. Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America. New York: Oxford University Press.

Simanski, John F. 2014. “Immigration Enforcement Actions: 2013 Annual Report.”

The Executive Office of the President. 2013. “Fixing Our Broken Immigration System: The Economic Benefits of Providing a Path to Earned Citizenship.”

Yung, Bell and Eleanor S. Yung, eds. 2014. Uncle Ng Comes to America: Chinese Narrative Songs of Immigration and Love. Hong Kong: MCCM Creations.

Yung, Judy. 2015. “Chinese Immigration and Poetry at Angel Island and Ellis Island.” Lecture given at the Asian American Research Institute, The City University of New York on March 6.

Footnotes

1 On Angel Island, Chinese men were detained separately from women and other racial groups within overcrowded and unsanitary quarters. They were confined at all times except for mealtime in the administration building and for limited exercise in the fenced recreation yard.

2 The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act did not bar the entry of Chinese merchants, diplomats, students, teachers, or descendants of the Chinese who had already become U.S. citizens. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed most of the city records, including birth certificates. Many Chinese immigrants seized the opportunity to falsely claim themselves as children of citizens. The name of “paper son” or “paper daughter” was given to those whose fathers were not U.S. citizens but buying papers asserting their citizenship.

3 Other large groups of detainees include Japanese (85,000), South Asians (8,000), Russians and Jews (8,000), Koreans (1,000), and Filipinos (1,000).

4 When the first edition was completed, no publishers were willing to release it because they did not foresee a market for Chinese American history or Chinese American literature. Three authors self-published their book through fundraising.

5 The translation was aided by Mak Takahashi’s documentary photographs of the poems, Smiley Jann and Tet Yee’s transcription collections, individual rubbings, and translations provided by other community members.

6 As classic poetry was taught by colloquia of the time, people with little formal education could learn to read, appreciate, and write Chinese poems as a common form of expression.

Reinventing the chair, a pencil sketch in three dimensions

National Museum of American History

The humble chair has long been the subject of invention and reinvention. From reclining and office chairs to today's ever-shrinking airline seats, designers have wrestled with ways to make it more appealing to the eye, more compact, more ergonomic, but, regrettably, hardly more comfortable. Some designs really push the envelope, even challenging what it means to be a chair. One such example that I recently encountered is designer Jeremy Alden's "50 Dozen" chair, featured in the Baltimore Museum of Art's celebration of the opening of its new American wing with a program called "10 Chairs."

Chair made of 50 yellow pencils

Precisely 10 chairs were singled out from the museum's collections for interpretive commentary by ten speakers from disparate disciplines. The pre-selected chairs, ranging from the 18th to the 21st centuries, were made in a wide range of materials and styles. I was challenged to comment on Alden's "50 Dozen" from the perspective of the history of invention.

Jeremy Alden, of J Alden Design, in Albany, Oregon, designed "50 Dozen" in 2005. The name refers to the 600 Dixon Ticonderoga No. 2 graphite pencils from which it is solely constructed, bonded together not by nails but by adhesive. It first struck me as fascinating but bizarre. Can you actually sit on a chair made of 600 No. 2 pencils? Would it break? I wouldn't try it, even if the museum's security officers had allowed, but Jeremy Alden says he did and it didn't, and I'll take his word for it. On further reflection, however, I found in it a variety of messages from both the past and the future. Clearly "50 Dozen" was intended more as a symbolic statement than feat of engineering.

Jeremy Alden describes his designs "as counterpoint to a culture of intended obsolescence," creating "objects with intrinsic value; products that transcend function and strike universal chords." Perhaps we can see this philosophy at work in "50 Dozen." The modern chair and the modern pencil combine apparent simplicity of form with extraordinary complexity and sophistication. Both exemplify themes of modern design, industry, and culture. What happens when the two artifacts come together, as they do in Alden's "50 Dozen" chair?

Both the chair and the pencil have ancient lineages. But they say something both real and symbolic about our modern world of style and invention. In my view, Alden's chair puts them together in an especially interesting way.

While ancient in origin, the chair was dear to the hearts of modernist designers, artists, and particularly architects because of its structural integrity: Frank Lloyd Wright, Eero Saarinen, Charles Eames, Frank Gehry, Richard Meier, Alvar Aalto, Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Richard Neutra, Oscar Niemeyer—all had their versions. What architect did NOT have a chair? Saarinen, Eames, and many others were known for patented chair designs and technology—fast company indeed for Jeremy Alden!

Patent drawing for chair

What were the desired features of these modern chairs? They had to be beautiful, structural, and simple. They had to be mass producible, or at least suggest that they could be machine-made. New/unusual materials were critical. They had to look and "feel" modern—streamlined, geometric, and not too comfortable, which might signify compromise. In short, they had to look cool and futuristic.

White upholstered chair with brown legs

Like the chair, the pencil's origins go back to Greek and Roman times, but its form has not caught the imagination of designers in the same way as the chair. Still, the pencil experienced a relatively short and lively modern arc, coinciding with industrial mechanization. The Dixon-Ticonderoga company that made "50 Dozen's" pencils has a deep pedigree, traced back to the Joseph Dixon Crucible Company, one of the early manufacturers of pencils in the U.S., founded in 1827 in Jersey City. Pencils are quintessential artifacts of mass-production and pencil manufacturers were among the pioneers of the 19th century industrial revolution.

What does all this mean? Luckily, the pencil has its bard. On first glimpsing Alden's pencil chair, I pulled down my copy of Henry Petroski's definitive history, The Pencil. He sings its praises as a marvel of chemical and mechanical precision and complexity, hallmark of the industrial age, and as a unique window on engineering innovation. For him, it is the epitome of mass production and engineering. "[The pencil] is taken for granted," Petroski argues, "because it is abundant, inexpensive, and as familiar as speech." Yet, he insists, "There is much to be learned from the Pencil... about the nature of engineering and engineers... It can be as powerful a metaphor as a pen, as rich a symbol as the flag."

Wallace Pencil Company Motif Pencil Box with image of blue pencil and yellow lettering

It is this metaphorical dimension that I find most compelling. The pencil has become a sign of creativity, invention, and innovation. It is the doodler's and inventor's favored instrument, a tool for emerging concepts, the one you use to sketch, erase, and redraw. Along with the light bulb, it is the emblem of inventive and creative thinking. It is nothing less than the extension of our hands and minds. In his path-breaking book, The Hand, neurologist Frank Wilson sees the hand and its capabilities as critical to the evolution of our brains and the authentic root of our creativity. He urges us to stick as much as possible to the pencil and to avoid digital crutches like drawing software.

Petroski and Wilson are certainly not the first to appreciate the multifaceted role of the pencil in the creative process. It is not generally known that Henry David Thoreau, the great Transcendentalist, was a member of a pencil manufacturing family. He was also a prolific inventor, whose work significantly improved the pencil-making process, earning his family's company a distinguished reputation for a superior product. Thoreau evidently embraced his role as innovator, often adding "civil engineer" to his signature. (John Lienhard, "Thoreau's Pencils" in Engines of our Ingenuity.)

In thinking specifically about "50 Dozen," however, the great Swiss art historian Sigfried Giedion helped me appreciate the chair's cultural significance. Giedion was a major booster of the reputations of Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and the Bauhaus, and, at the same time, a philosopher of everyday objects. Many a curator still keeps a well-worn copy of his book, Mechanization Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous History, at hand.

Conceived in the 1930s heyday of modernism, Giedion's book was finally published in 1948. It is a paean to the mass-produced. The world of common things, like modern bathtubs, locks, chairs, and pencils, are his turf. In their very commonness, Giedion discovered ineffable beauty, wonder, mystery, and spirit. Ultimately, his goal was to put the soul back into technology and its artifacts, arguing that we neglect or subvert this soul to our own peril as human beings. Failing in this, we will become slaves to our machines and mechanization will indeed command us.

Worn living room chair

More than a decade ago, when I was writing about Giedion, I visited his archives in Zurich, Switzerland. There among the papers, I found American patent models, of which he was fond, including a patent model of a reclining chair. A neo-Hegelian at heart—and thus kindred spirit to Transcendental Idealists like Thoreau—Giedion gazed into the souls of chairs, pencils, and other everyday "stuff." He summed up his rapture in a single poetic phrase: "The sun is mirrored even in a coffee spoon."

Wooden table that is also a chair

Upon reflection, I think that Jeremy Alden's chair embodies the same sentiment. Ironically, unlike the mass-produced pencils of which it is built, "50 Dozen" is painstakingly hand-, not machine-made; it was never intended to be the product of an assembly line. Rather, it is cagily crafted as a loving frame for a mass-produced object, the pencil. "50 Dozen" brings together Petroski's admiration for the pencil's construction and uses, Wilson's plea to nurture the hand-mind connection, Thoreau's appreciation for the creativity behind even the most utilitarian objects, and Giedion's almost existential communion with the secret life of things. If the sun is indeed reflected even in a coffee spoon, so can it shine in a pencil chair.

Art Molella is the director of the museum's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation.

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12 Unique Ways to Experience Armenia Off the Beaten Path

Smithsonian Magazine

If you are like most first time visitors to Armenia, you are sure to tour the ancient monasteries, explore the national museums and visit the historic brandy factories. But there are many amazing things to do in Armenia beyond the usual guidebook highlights. This past summer, I had a chance to visit Hayastan​, the Armenian name for the country of Armenia, and step off the beaten path. I found myself soaring above alpine lakes, forming ceramics with local artisans and wandering through dusty shafts of light in an abandoned Soviet textile factory. Here are a dozen extraordinary ways to experience Armenia to the fullest.

1 | Paraglide Over Lake Sevan

(V. Grigoryan)

Soar through the skies paragliding above the mountains by Lake Sevan, the largest lake in the Caucasus. Gardman Tour arranges expert guides, many of whom have competed internationally, to provide equipment and tandem instruction for novices. It’s a thrilling and unique way to get to know the Armenian landscape. 

Float through the comfortable sunshine (the region averages 256 days of sun per year) and over rocky hills dotted with patches of wildflowers. In the distance, you can see the town of Sevan and the village of Lchashen. Farther off, high above the lake, spot Sevanavank Monastery, founded in the 9th century by Princess Mariam, and beyond that the mountain peaks of the Lesser Caucasus. 

2 | Discover Prehistoric Petroglyphs

(C. Rapkievian)

Surrounding a small sparkling glacial lake at about 10,500 feet above sea level near the top of Mount Ughtasar, prehistoric petroglyphs, dated 2,000 BCE to - 12,000 BCE, are carved onto the flat surfaces of manganese boulders left behind by an extinct volcano.

The petroglyphs were initially studied in the 1960’s, and archaeological research is still ongoing. Due to the site’s high elevation, the remarkable carvings are covered with snow nearly nine months of the year making them accessible only in summer months. Off-road vehicles take visitors through rocky fields full of flowers and butterflies that flit through the crisp mountain air. Celestial symbols, animals, hunters and even these dragons (pictured above) are evidence of the lives and imaginations of ancient ancestors.

3 | Create Porcelain Ornaments with Ceramics Masters

(H. Tadevosyan, AMAP)

Visit the ceramics factory of Antonio Montalto. Master artists may even teach you the extraordinary technique of making a decorative egg. The clay is attracted to the porcelain mold creating the hollow form. After the first firing, the egg is decorated with glaze and then fired a second time to create a beautiful ornament.

4 | Explore a Mysterious Monolith

(C. Rapkievian)

Explore the mystery of Karahunj, an ancient site with a circle of placed stones. Astronomers theorize that this 7,500-year-old archeological site is a celestial observatory pre-dating England’s Stonehenge by more than 4,500 years. Two hundred lichen-covered basalt stones stand tall and approximately 80 of them have small holes that align with bright stars in the night sky.  A desolate, windswept site off the main road near the village a Sissian, visit Karahunge (literally translated as “speaking stones”) at dawn or dusk to experience its powerful beauty.

5 | Forge Iron in a Historic City

(H. Tadevosyan, AMAP)

In the artistic city of Gyumri, visit the Irankyuni Forge to learn to create a wrought-iron souvenir with the expert guidance of a master blacksmith. Heat the iron in the hot fire and then hammer, with sparks flying, to gradually bend the metal. Historic blacksmithing tools can be seen in the Dzitoghtsyan Mansion Museum of National Architecture and Urban Life, and ironwork can still be found with the black and red tuff stone architecture around this centuries-old “city of arts and crafts.” Top off your visit to the forge with a delicious dinner next door at the blacksmith’s family-owned restaurant.

6 | Explore Spectacular Geological Formations in Mozrov Cave

(H. Tadevosyan, AMAP)

Discover flowstone, stalactites, stalagmites, pristine rock “popcorn,” “soda straws,” “bacon-rind” and “draperies” while exploring Mozrov Cave, one of Armenia’s most decorated. The karst cave was discovered in 1965 during road construction. The entrance partially collapsed due to heavy snowfall in 2012, but the 300 meter cave is still accessible.

The cave is ideal for intermediate-level recreational cavers on their own and novice cavers with a guide. Discover Armenia Tours organizes excursions and provides hard-hats, head-lamps, flashlights and transportation to explore this wild and well-preserved cave located in Vayots Dzor province.

7 | Step Back in Time in an Abandoned Soviet Textile Factory

(C. Rapkievian)

Explore an abandoned Soviet textile factory in the Vayots Dzor Province deserted in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union. The site sits frozen in time with yarn still threaded in machines, lockers filled with photos and tools and folktale murals on the wall of the factory-workers’ children’s day-care. The now-silent rooms can be toured with the local owner in arrangement with Discover Armenia Tours.

8 | Join a Public Sing-a-long

(C. Rapkievian)

Sing along at a public song workshop at the new Komitas Museum-Institute in Yerevan. The “Lullabies” workshops (held every-other month on selected Saturdays) recently won the “Best Practice Award in Museum Education” from the International Council of Museums.  On other Saturdays, the workshops feature seasonal songs that Komitas, a celebrated ethnomusicologist who is considered the founder of the Armenian national school of music, collected and arranged.  Knowledgeable staff teach each line of the song and visitors of all ages are encouraged to lift up their voices in Komitas’s sometimes spiritual, sometimes playful folk songs.

9 | Cook Up Traditional Recipes

(H. Tadevosyan, AMAP)

Cook delicious gata and other Armenian treats with TV-cooking-show star Zara Karapetyan, director of Tasty Tour.  Under the trees, next to her herb garden and orchard, stir-up the ingredients, roll out the dough and cook the sweet bread in a tonier, a traditional oven usually buried in the ground.  Then dig in to a delicious lunch of local Ushi village favorites!

10 | Spot Rare Birds in Lake Arpi National Park

(H. Tadevosyan, AMAP)

An extraordinary number of species of birds - over 350 - can be found in Armenia because even though the country is small, there is a great range in elevation and diversity of landscape. Luba Balyan, a noted ornithologist, forest ecologist and founder of a bird conservation organization in Armenia, is one of several field researchers who lead exciting bird-watching tours aimed at both devoted birders and the casual tourist. 

One particularly rich site to visit is Lake Arpi National Park in the northwestern corner of Armenia. Over 190 species of birds have been recorded in the park, including the globally threatened Dalmatian pelican, Egyptian vulture and European roller. Other birds include greater spotted and imperial eagles, red-footed and saker falcons, great snipes and semi-collared flycatchers. Plus, the park hosts one of the world’s largest colonies of Armenian gulls.

11 | Hear Ancient Chants in Geghard Monastery

(H. Tadevosyan, AMAP)

Listen to sacred chants in the ancient monastery of Geghard, located in the Upper Azat Valley. The Unesco-recognized site is partially carved out of the colorful rock cliffs and hosts a healing spring in the oldest chamber.  The Garni Ensemble is one of the incredible a capella groups that performs by special request. In the near-darkness inside the tomb of Prince Papak, the acoustics are extraordinary – nearly a 90-second reverberation. The haunting harmonies of the 5-member ensemble sound as if you are hearing a 100-member choir.

12 | Sip Modern Wine Made With Ancient Techniques

(C. Rapkievian)

Celebrate with a visit to Trinity Canyon Vineyards in the Vayots Dzor highlands. The region's high altitude, sunny skies and volcanic soils create a unique terroir that the vineyard founders say allows for the cultivation of several wine styles. 

“Trinity’s main focus,” the founders say, “is to reveal the potential of Armenian indigenous grape varieties by drawing on the best organic viticulture practices.”  Using the Areni grape, the winery produces a wine that has been described as “silky, powerful, with refreshing acidity.”  

The Voskehat, another prominent grape endemic to Armenia, is used for their ancestral line of wines made in karases (ancient Armenian terracotta vessels). The resulting varieties range in style – from light and crisp to “bold, skin-macerated orange wines.” 

Their tasting area is a pleasant patio of rustic picnic tables near a garden set up for music and other special events with a demonstration vineyard on the hillside.  Raise a glass to toast executive director-poet-musician, Hovakim Saghatelyan, enthusiastic winemaker Artem Parseghyan and the rest of the staff as you reflect on the winery’s deep connection to the land and its gifts. 

With such marvelous and unique opportunities in Armenia, you will hope to return as soon as possible!

A Brief History of Twin Studies

Smithsonian Magazine

On Tuesday, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko touched down in Kazakhstan after spending a whopping 340 days aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

As part of NASA’s "Year in Space" project, Kelly and his Earth-bound identical twin brother, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, provided samples of blood, saliva and urine and underwent a barrage of physical and psychological tests designed to study the effects of long-duration spaceflight on the human body.

Studies of identical and fraternal twins have long been used to untangle the influences of genes and the environment on particular traits. Identical twins share all of their genes, while fraternal twins only share 50 percent. If a trait is more common among identical twins than fraternal twins, it suggests genetic factors are partly responsible.

"Twins studies are the only real way of doing natural experiments in humans," says Tim Spector, a professor of genetic epidemiology at Kings College, London. "By studying twins, you can learn a great deal about what makes us tick, what makes us different, and particularly the roles of nature versus nature that you just can't get any other way.”

Spector is director of the TwinsUK Registry, which includes data from 12,000 twins and is used to study the genetic and environmental causes of age-related complex traits and diseases. He estimates that twins research is currently being conducted in more than 100 countries, and that most of those projects draw upon information contained in large databases such as the TwinsUK Registry.

While it may be a while before we see results from the astronaut twins, researchers are hopeful that the opportunity will yield some unique insights into human health. Here are some examples of what we've learned from past twins studies—both famous and infamous:

The Birth of Eugenics

Victorian scientist Francis Galton, a half-cousin of Charles Darwin, was one of the first people to recognize the value of twins for studying the heritability of traits. In an 1875 paper titled "The History of Twins," Galton used twins to estimate the relative effects of nature versus nature (a term that Galton himself coined). But his firm belief that human intelligence is largely a matter of nature led him to a darker path: He became a vocal proponent of eugenics (another term that he coined) and the idea that "a highly gifted race of men" could be produced through selective breeding.

Genes and I.Q.

In 2003, Eric Turkheimer, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, took a fresh look at the research on the heritability of I.Q., which relied heavily on twin studies. Turkheimer noticed that most of the studies that found I.Q. is largely due to genetics involved twins from middle-class backgrounds, and he wondered what the pattern was among poorer people. When he looked at twins from poor families, he found that the I.Q.s of identical twins varied just as much as the I.Q.s of fraternal twins. In other words, the impact of growing up poor can overwhelm a child's natural intellectual gifts.

Genetic Basis for Everyday Diseases

Working with data and biological samples in the TwinsUK Registry, Spector and his colleagues have shown in more than 600 published papers that many common diseases such as osteoarthritis, cataracts and even back pain have a clear genetic basis to them. "When I started in this field, it was thought that only 'sexy' diseases [such as cancer] were genetic," Spector says. "Our findings changed that perception."

Heritable Eating Disorders

One of the newer twin registries to come online, the Michigan State University Twin Registry (MSUTR) was founded in 2001 to study genetic and environmental influences on a wide range of psychiatric and medical disorders. One of the most surprising findings to come out of the group's research is that many eating disorders such as anorexia have a genetic component to them.

"People thought for the longest time that it was due entirely to culture, the media and social factors,” says MSUTR co-director Kelly Klump. "Because of twins studies, we now know that genes account for the same amount of variability in eating disorders as they do in schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. We would have never known that without twins studies."

The Genetics of Obesity

A classic twin study conducted by geneticist Claude Bouchard in 1990 looked at the importance of genes for body-fat storage. Bouchard, now at Louisiana State University, housed a dozen lean young male twins in a dormitory and overfed them by 1,000 calories a day for three months. Although every participant was heavier by the end of the experiment, the amount of weight and fat gained varied considerably, from 9 pounds to 29 pounds. Weight gain within pairs of twins was much more similar than weight gain between different twin pairs, and the twins in each pair tended to gain weight in the same places, whether it be in the abdomen, buttocks or thighs.

Untangling the "Gay Gene"

Numerous twin studies have attempted to elucidate the importance of genes in sexual orientation. In 2008, researchers led by Niklas Langström, a psychiatrist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, drew upon the treasure trove of twin data contained in the Swedish Twin Registry, the largest in the world, to investigate genetic and environmental influences that determine whether or not a person is gay. The scientists found that genetics accounted for only 35 percent of the differences between identical and fraternal gay men and even less—roughly 18 percent—in gay women.

The study, one of the most comprehensive to date, indicates that a complex interplay of genetics and environmental factors work together to shape people’s sexual orientations. But like other twins studies on this controversial subject, Langström’s study was criticized for possible recruitment bias, since only 12 percent of the males in the Swedish registry were included in the study.

Twins Reared Apart

In 1979, Thomas Bouchard conducted what is perhaps the most fascinating twin study yet. Then director of the Minnesota Center for Twin and Family Research, Bouchard looked at identical and fraternal twins separated in infancy and reared apart. He found that identical twins who had different upbringings often had remarkably similar personalities, interests and attitudes. In one of the most famous examples, Bouchard came across twins who had been separated from birth and reunited at the age of 39.

"The twins," Bouchard later wrote, "were found to have married women named Linda, divorced, and married the second time to women named Betty. One named his son James Allan, the other named his son James Alan, and both named their pet dogs Toy."

But MSUTR's Klump is quick to point out that Bouchard's findings are not proof of genetic determinism. "What they show is that we we enter the world not as random beings or blank slates,” Klump says. “As we walk through life, we have a lot of free choice, but some portion of that free choice is probably based on things that we're really good at and things that we like to do. Bouchard's study tells us that there is a dynamic interplay between what we like, what we want and the environments that we choose."

A Trip to Mars Could Give You Brain Damage

Smithsonian Magazine

Space can be a dangerous place for fragile humans. Those willing to venture into Earth's orbit must negotiate health hazards such as extreme temperatures, cramped quarters, long periods of isolation and the debilitating physiological effects of life without gravity. Things will get even rougher for astronauts hoping to travel to an asteroid or Mars.

One of the greatest threats of deep-space travel is prolonged exposure to unrelenting cosmic radiation, which can damage DNA and increase a space traveler's chances of developing diseases such as cancer in their lifetime. Now, research in mice suggests that the first people to attempt a Mars mission will have a more immediate problem: brain damage. Cosmic rays bombarding the brain may result in cognitive and memory impairments that will manifest in just a few months.

Galactic cosmic radiation is made of high-energy particles originating from past supernova explosions that come zipping through our solar system. NASA has sponsored numerous studies investigating the short-term and long-term effects of space radiation on each system in the body, revealing that these rays can have a devastating effect on biological tissue over a lifetime.

Previous studies suggested that radiation exposure could also cause cognitive impairment, including earlier onset of Alzheimer's-like dementia. Now Charles Limoli, a professor of radiation oncology at the University of California Irvine School of Medicine, and his team have demonstrated that even relatively low doses of cosmic rays will induce a specific series of neural abnormalities that could manifest themselves during a round-trip mission to Mars, which is predicted to last for two to three years.

“This is the first study, in my opinion, that really ties a lot of loose ends together and provides a mechanism for what’s going on to cause cognitive dysfunction,” says Limoli, whose team reports the results today in Science Advances.

To study the “mind numbing” effects of radiation, the researchers examined several groups of six-month-old mice—the approximate average age of astronauts in mouse years. The team blasted the mice with low or high doses of energetic charged particles similar to those found in galactic cosmic radiation. These particles displace electrons in living tissue that then trigger free radical reactions, which cause changes in the cells and tissues of the body. Although free radical reactions occur within milliseconds, the cellular abnormalities they cause take form over months or even years, so the researchers waited six weeks before testing the irradiated mice to allow the cellular mischief to unfold.

The results showed that irradiated mice were significantly impaired in their ability to explore new objects placed in their environment, a task that draws upon a healthy learning and memory system. “The animals that were exposed lost curiosity. They lost their tendency to explore novelty,” says Limoli.

Specifically, the team discovered radiation-induced structural changes in the medial prefrontal cortex, a brain region responsible for higher-order processes known to be engaged during memory tasks. Neurons in these impaired areas showed a reduction in the complexity and density of structures called dendrites, which act as antennae for incoming cellular messages and are essential for the efficient exchange of information throughout the brain. The research team also discovered alterations in PSD-95, a protein that is important for neurotransmission and is also associated with learning and memory.

The cellular changes in the dendrites were directly related to cognitive performance—the mice with the largest structural alterations had the poorest performance results. And although these deficiencies took time to manifest, they appear to be permanent.

Limoli notes that, while the work was done in mice, the damage seen in their study looks a lot like defects seen in human brains suffering from neurodegenerative conditions like dementia. “Because these types of changes have also been found in a range of neurodegenerative conditions and occur over the course of aging, it provides a logical backdrop for what radiation does to the brains of both rodents and humans,” says Limoli.

It's likely no one has seen these types of defects in today's astronauts because people working on the International Space Station are “protected by the Earth’s magnetosphere, which deflects anything that has a charge,” says Limoli. And while the astronauts that traveled to the moon were not protected by Earth’s magnetic embrace, their relatively short trips would have limited exposure levels to a fraction of those that would be experienced on a mission to Mars.

While the results of this experiment were striking, other experts emphasize that there is still a lack of sufficient data to make definitive conclusions about the effects of radiation of people. “A lot of the information we have has been extrapolated from studies of catastrophic events in World War II," says Nathan Schwadron, associate professor of space plasma physics at the University of New Hampshire. "We just don’t have a lot of knowledge about what happens to biological systems when exposed to high levels of radiation for prolonged periods. I think that there is a potential risk here, but we really just don’t understand it yet.”

So what is to be done? NASA is currently investigating more advanced shielding technologies that could better protect astronauts on long-term missions into deep space. Engineers could also alter the shielding capabilities within certain regions of the ship, such as where astronauts sleep, or fit people with specialized helmets for space walks, says Limoli.

Schwadron, whose research is primarily focused on the development advanced shielding, says the energy from galactic cosmic radiation is so high that it interacts with the shielding materials in potentially problematic ways. “What happens is that high-energy radiation hits the shield and then produces a bath of secondary particles. Neutrons are probably the primary example of this.” These high-energy particles can then interact with the body, inducing free radical reactions and subsequent tissue damage.

Moving forward, Limoli and his team plan to design experiments that more accurately simulate human exposure to galactic cosmic rays and investigate alternative underlying mechanisms and cell types that could contribute to the proliferation of cognitive deficits. He is also investigating pharmacological interventions that could protect brain tissue from this radiation.

“We have some promising compounds that will probably help quite a bit,” says Limoli. “This is not a deal breaker—it is something that we need to understand and be aware of so we are not caught off guard.”

Take a Deep Dive Into The Reasons Land Animals Moved to the Seas

Smithsonian Magazine

The movement of animals from the land into the sea has happened several times over the last 250 million years, and it has been documented in many different and singular ways. But now, for the first time, a team of researchers has created an overview that not only provides insight into evolution, but may also help more accurately assess humans’ impact on the planet.

The oceans are teeming with tetrapods—“four-legged” birds, reptiles, mammals and amphibians—that have repeatedly transitioned from the land to the sea, adapting their legs into fins. The transitions have often been correlated with mass extinctions, but the true reasons are only partly known based on fossils and through study of Earth's climate, for instance.

Those transitions are considered to be “canonical illustrations” of the evolutionary process and thus ideal for study; living marine tetrapods—such as whales, seals, otters and sea lions—also have a big ecological impact, according to Neil P. Kelley and Nicholas D. Pyenson, the two Smithsonian scientists who compiled the new look at these tetrapods, appearing this week in the journal Science.

Instead of gathering evidence from a single field, the pair pulled together research from many disciplines, including paleontology, molecular biology and conservation ecology, to give a far larger picture of what was happening when animals transitioned from the land to the sea across millennia.

Almost by necessity, scientists tend to work in narrow silos, so this research will help broaden their views and potentially make for quicker progress in understanding evolution. Knowing how these creatures adapted over the last few hundred million years, and especially how they've changed in the era since humans appeared, could help us become better stewards of the planet. 

“It’s a one-of-a-kind summation of all that’s known about those different groups that evolved to go back to the sea,” says Louis L. Jacobs, a professor of earth sciences and president of the Institute for the Study of Earth and Man at Southern Methodist University. The paper lays it all out in a way that allows scientists to make comparisons across species, he adds.

“The review really gets at the heart of evolution and why the study of evolution is important,” says Sterling Nesbitt, an assistant professor of geosciences at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Nesbitt focuses on vertebrate evolution—not marine animals—but he says that the Smithsonian researchers’ work will help him and his students understand, for instance, how some land animals may have adapted to being able to live in trees.

The research also “provides the evolutionary context for understanding how living species of marine predators will evolve and adapt to life in the Anthropocene,” says Kelley, the paper’s lead author and a researcher in the National Museum of Natural History department of paleobiology. He adds that he purposely chose to use the term “Anthropocene” in the paper. Some scientists use it to describe the current geological era, but also to mean that it’s a time in which humans seem to be playing a dominant role in the direction of the planet.

Over a period of 300 million years, many kind of species ranging from seals to mosasaurs independently developed similar streamlined forelimbs (for swimming) as they transitioned from living on land to the ocean. (Neil Kelley and Nick Pyenson, NMNH)

“It’s not just academic to imagine what the fate of these animals might be,” Kelley says, adding that marine predators in particular are ecologically important players. "It might have a big impact if we lose these predators,” he says.

The Kelley and Pyenson paper draws from 147 mostly peer-reviewed studies in a variety of fields, giving a rich overview of some of the parallel adaptations that occurred among a number of marine tetrapod species. That’s extremely tantalizing, says Jacobs.

Among its many threads, the work highlights a relatively new line of research called fossil pigment reconstruction, a technique that gives scientists the ability to determine, from a fossil, the color of an ancient bird’s feather or of a prehistoric reptile’s skin. Coloration can provide clues to the ways species adapt to their environment. One study, for instance, revealed that ancient marine reptiles had dark coloration, “possibly for temperature regulation or ultraviolent light protection,” the researchers write.

Genomic studies are also helping to piece together the reasons marine animals with different land ancestors appear to have developed similar adaptations when they went into the ocean, according to the authors. For instance, both beaked whales and seals have evolved to have the ability to store myoglobin—an oxygen-binding protein—in their muscles. This gives the deep divers the ability to survive underwater for long periods of time. Prior to genomics, scientists had not been able to trace that similar ability down to a molecular level, says Kelley.  

But now, they can see that these different types of sea divers may have the same cellular mechanisms. “There’s a deep evolutionary connection there,” says Pyenson, curator of fossil marine mammals at the Natural History Museum. The question now is whether genetic sequences can be tied to specific behaviors or body type, or breathing ability, or fin development. “We don’t know yet, but we might in the next five years or so,” Kelley adds.

Separated in time by more than 50 million years, modern dolphins and extinct ichthyosaurs descended from different terrestrial species but still developed a similar fish-like body. (Dolphin, NOAA. Ichthyosaur, courtesy of Lindgren et al, Nature Publishing Group)

The review also pulls together various studies that show humans’ impact on tetrapod evolution. Humans have hunted a variety of tetrapods almost to extinction, and human activity seems to be indirectly hastening the disappearance of others. Six of seven sea turtle species are threatened. And the Yangtze River dolphin, found only in that river in China, was declared extinct in 2006 as a result of shipping accidents and habitat degradation.

But some tetrapods have outwitted humans. Gray whales, which were thought to live only in the Pacific, have recently been found in the Atlantic. “The best guess for how they got there is they are moving through the Arctic,” says Kelley, noting that the ice has melted enough to allow a waterborne passage. The fossil record shows that gray whales once lived in the Atlantic some 100 million years ago, so their movement back may be a recolonization process, Kelley says.

Kelley and Pyenson hope that their paper motivates more collaborations, for instance, among paleontologists, biologists and conservationists, to bring the past and the present together—especially to take a closer look at marine animals. Humans “are having an outsize impact on the future,” says Pyenson. The review helps answer the question of “what is going to be the fate of these ecologically important species?”

“Understanding the ocean is vital for humans on this planet,” says Jacobs, noting that it plays an important role in the ecosystem. But he adds that humans are changing the ocean—leading to rising sea levels and rising temperatures, as well as changes in salinity and acidity, all of which are stressing animals. “We don’t know all the unforeseen consequences of what these physical changes will bring about.”

An assortment of Cretaceous-era marine tetrapods from near the end of the "Age of Reptiles," including a sea turtle, an early flightless marine bird, a large mosasaur and a long-necked elasmosaur. (Artwork by Karen Carr/NMNH)

EcoCenter: The Land

Smithsonian Magazine

We are excited to present a special editorial section about The Land.  Please visit www.smithsonian.com/ecocenter for the full feature.

Image by iStockphoto. Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, Alaska
The dramatic tidewater glaciers that define this 3.2-million-acre park are remnants of the Little Ice Age that began about 4,000 years ago. With 16 active glaciers, Glacier Bay is the park's main attraction. As recently as 200 years ago the bay was almost completely covered by a glacier more than 4,000 feet thick and some 20 miles wide. But as it retreated over the years, it left behind smaller, separate glaciers. (original image)

Image by Jim Sugar/Corbis. Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii
From lush rain forests to tropical beaches and snow-covered peaks, Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park protects seven different ecological zones and houses the world's most active volcanoes, Kilauea and Mauna Loa. The more active of the two, Kilauea, has created more than 568 acres of new land and buried almost nine miles of highway with lava as deep as 115 feet. (original image)

Image by iStockphoto. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Perhaps the most iconic park in the U.S., Yellowstone National Park is famous for having the greatest concentration of geothermal features in the world. Geysers, steaming fumaroles, multi-colored hot springs and boiling mud pots make up the 10,000 known thermal spots in the park. Old Faithful is one of the most popular, regularly shooting 8,400 gallons of scalding water into the air every 33 to 120 minutes. Congress officially protected the Yellowstone area in 1872, making it the first American park and the only preserve of its kind in the world. (original image)

Image by iStockphoto. Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida
Located in the biologically diverse Florida Everglades, Big Cypress National Preserve protects more than 720,000 acres of swamp and provides habitat for many mammals, birds, reptiles and plants unique to Florida's climate. It's also home to eight federally listed endangered species that include the Cape Sable seaside sparrow, the West Indian manatee and the Florida panther. The Florida panther is the most threatened mammal in the U.S., and almost 40 of them live within the preserve's boundaries. (original image)

Image by iStockphoto. Arches National Park, Utah
Arches National Park in the desert of eastern Utah boasts more than 2,000 natural sandstone arches formed by wind and water erosion over millions of years. The red sandstone arches range in size from a three-foot opening to Landscape Arch, which measures 306 feet from base to base and is the longest freestanding natural span of rock in the world. Towering spires, fins and balanced rocks are also hallmarks of the park and some of the most unique formations can be seen at popular sites such as Balanced Rock, Courthouse Towers, Delicate Arch, and Fiery Furnace. (original image)

Image by David Muench/Corbis. Ozark National Scenic Riverways, Missouri
The Ozark National Scenic Riverways is world famous for more than 300 known caves. The park's landscape is typified by karst terrain—rocky ground, springs, caves, sinkholes and underground rivers. Jam Up Cave is one of the Ozark's most spectacular, and it's only accessible by boat. The entrance is about 80 feet high and 100 feet wide. During the Civil War, Northern and Southern soldiers received medical care in Hospital Cave, located in a bare-rock cliff, while farmers in the surrounding area are also thought to have used Meeting House Cave as a hideout. (original image)

Image by David Muench/Corbis. Fossil Butte National Monument, Wyoming
Located in southwestern Wyoming's cold sagebrush desert, Fossil Butte National Monument contains 13 square miles of Fossil Lake. This 50-million-year-old lake bed dates back to the Eocene age and is one of the richest fossil sites in the world. It contains some of the most perfectly preserved remains of ancient fish, reptile, bird, mammal, plant and insect life. A combination of quiet, deep waters and fine-grained lake sediments created conditions that kept the skeletons intact. (original image)

Image by Hal Horwitz/Corbis. Name: Resurrection fern (Selaginella lepidophylla)
Habitat: Deserts of Mexico and the southwestern United States
Strange Factor: During frequent droughts, it folds up its stems into a tight ball and goes into a state of dormancy that can last for years. When the rains return, the plant's cells rehydrate, its metabolism increases and the stems unfold. (original image)

Image by Reuters/Corbis. Name: Corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum)
Habitat: Equatorial rain forests of Sumatra, Indonesia
Strange Factor: The flowers only bloom about three or four times during their 40-year lifespan, releasing a horrible stench that's been compared to the odor of rotting meat. (original image)

Image by iStockphoto. Name: Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula)
Habitat: Nitrogen-poor environments, like bogs, in the Carolinas and northern Florida
Strange Factor: This carnivorous plant catches and digests insects and arachnids when two trigger hairs, called trichomes, on the leaves are touched in succession, or when one hair is touched twice. The two lobes of the leaves then snap shut, usually in less than a second. The plant secretes enzymes that digest the prey over ten days, after which the leaf reopens to prepare for another meal. (original image)

Image by Frank Krahmer/zefa/Corbis. Name: Strangler fig (Ficus aurea)
Habitat: Tropical climates of southern Florida
Strange Factor: The strangler fig is vine-like and grows up a host tree, eventually strangling it and becoming a self-supporting, independent tree. The fig grows to massive size, averaging about 60 feet tall by 60 feet wide. (original image)

Image by Kevin Schafer/Corbis. Name: Sensitive plant (Mimosa pudica)
Habitat: Brazil
Strange Factor: Growing up to 18 inches, the plant is known for its movements. When the leaves are touched, they will droop downwards temporarily. The same thing occurs when the plant is shaken or deprived of water. Reacting to the absence of light, the leaflets fold together at night and droop downward until sunrise. (original image)

Image by Frans Lanting/Corbis. Name: Meat flower (Rafflesia arnoldii)
Habitat: Rain forests of Indonesia
Strange Factor: The meat flower has the world's largest bloom; it can grow up to three feet across and weigh up to 15 pounds. This is a parasitic plant that attaches itself to a host plant for nutrients. Like the corpse flower, the plant emits a smell similar to rotting meat when in bloom to attract insects that will pollinate it. (original image)

Image by Martin Harvey/Corbis. Name: Living stones (Lithops)
Habitat: Africa, mainly Namibia and South Africa
Strange Factor: During frequent periods of drought, the plants' thick leaves go below the soil level using contractile roots. The plant gets its name from its strange physical resemblance to stones. (original image)

Image by iStockphoto. Name: Wollemi pine (Wollemia nobilis)
Habitat: Wollemi National Park, 125 miles west of Sydney, Australia
Strange Factor: Prior to its 1994 discovery, the Wollemi pine was presumed to be extinct, only known to botanists through 90 million-year-old fossils. The conifer, or cone-bearing seed plant, can grow up to 112 feet tall and has dark green foliage and a bubbly bark. The pine is critically endangered—fewer than 100 mature trees currently live in Wollemi National Park. (original image)

Image by Frank Krahmer/zefa/Corbis. Name: Bottle tree (Adansonia digitata)
Habitat: From sub-Sahara Africa to South Africa
Strange Factor: The bottle tree is not particularly tall, only reaching about 70 feet. But the tree's name comes from its colossal trunk, which can grow 35 feet in diameter and resembles the shape of a bottle. The trunk—or trunks, as many old trees have more than one—is used to store water during dry periods and can hold more than 1,000 gallons. (original image)

Watch this video in the original article

Watch this video in the original article

Image by Cheryl Carlin. (original image)

Experience Québec Through the Five Senses

Smithsonian Magazine

Spanning more than a quarter of Canada’s total surface area, Québec’s geography changes drastically from south to north, moving from the forests of the humid continental south to the subarctic taiga and arctic tundra. Two mountain ranges, a fluvial plain, over a million lakes and thousands of rivers dot the landscape, and its coastline extends some 3,700 miles. Culturally, Québec is both deeply rooted in North America and fiercely proud of its French heritage. Twice the size of Texas, the province offers something for every traveler—and all five senses. Immerse yourself completely in stunning landscapes, pulsing music, rich local history, exuberant aromas and authentic local flavors, and discover what makes Québec so spectacularly unique.

See

Foresta Lumina in Parc de La Gorge de Caoticook, Eastern Townships (© TQ/D. Poulin)

Québec is spectacular in any season, but in summer its landscapes come alive and its cultural life erupts—literally. Every Wednesday and Sunday in August, international teams present pyromusical shows on the Ottawa River in Gatineau behind the Canadian Museum of History, in hopes of being crowned winner of the “Zeus” trophy. Québec City and Osisko host equally impressive firework displays.

Exhibitions abound, both indoors and outdoors. Drawing on the mythology of forests, Moment Factory has transformed Parc de la Gorge de Caoticook into one of the summer's most anticipated attractions. Dubbed Foresta Lumina, this illuminated nocturnal pathway complete with video projections and original soundtrack music leads visitors across North America’s longest suspended footbridge.

At the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, explore the region’s French heritage with "Toulouse-Lautrec Illustrates The Belle Époque" or browse its encyclopedic collection of over 41,000 works. For a glimpse into the culture of Québec’s First Nations people—85,000 Amerindians and 11,500 Inuit live in some 50 communities across the province—head to the Kanesatake Pow Wow from August 27-28 in Deux-Montagnes, featuring traditional dance, song and crafts.

Halfway between Montreal and Québec City in Trois-Rivières, catch a performance from the internationally renowned entertainment group Cirque du Soleil at the stunning Amphithéâtre Cogeco. Each summer until 2019, the venue is slated to host a new show from Cirque du Soleil’s Série Hommage. This summer's opus, which runs through August 13, draws inspiration from legendary Québec singer-songwriter Robert Charlebois in a nod to the group's Québécois roots.

Listen

Festival International de Jazz de Montréal (© TQ/B. Cecile)

Between its sprawling wilderness and urban cities, a rich array of sounds makes up Québec’s sonic landscape.

Music festivals are plentiful in the summertime. Head to Montreal in August for Piknic Électronik and Île Soniq, featuring electronic acts, as well as Heavy Montréal, featuring hard rock and heavy metal bands. Festival de Lanaudière, one of the most prestigious classical music events in North America featuring nationally and internationally renowned soloists, runs through the first week of August in Joliette. For an eclectic set list, do not miss Saguenay International Rhythm of the World Festival from August 10-13, a multicultural event highlighting 950 artists and artisans in the heart of Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean.

Outside of Québec's cities, its tune changes. Walk through any forest and you might hear the fleeing crash of a white-tailed deer, the scampering of foxes, porcupines, raccoons, chipmunks and red squirrels into the cover of bushes, the lumbering of moose, or the howling of wolves. Along Québec’s thousands of inland water bodies, listen to beaver tails slap on mud, black bears swat at salmon-rich streams, or the eerie call of the loon ring out across mist-covered lakes, interspersed with the low-pitched honks of Canada geese flying above.

Cruising or kayaking along the Saint Lawrence River you might hear the splash of a whale tale—fin, minke, humpback, beluga, blue, and endangered white whales all make appearances—or the surfacing of porpoises, dolphins and seals.

Up north on the tundra, snowy owl screeches ring out, caribou roam in thunderous multitudes, and ice crunches under the weight of polar bear feet.

Touch

Rope bridge at Via ferrata des Géants at Parc national du Fjord du Saguenay (© TQ/D. Poulin)

The Québécois embody the phrase “joie de vivre.” Whether walking through Old Québec or climbing a mountain, it is easy to feel this “zest for life” and connect with Québec's history and pristine natural environment anywhere you set foot.

History is abundant in Québec's urban centers. Feel it beneath your feet with a stroll back to Québec's beginnings or a horse-drawn carriage ride through the cobblestone streets of Old Québec, a UNESCO World Heritage site, or near Place Jacques-Cartier in Old Montréal, constructed on the ruins of a 17th-century castle. In Québec City, soak up the monumental scale of Château Frontenac hotel, a landmark of rail transportation's heyday. Built in the 19th century by William Van Horne, General Manager of Canadian Pacific Railway, it features architectural styles from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and is believed to be the most photographed hotel in the world. In Montréal, head to Kondiaronk lookout in Parc du Mont-Royal, designed by 19th-century Central Park architect Frederick Olmsted, or picnic in Parc Jean-Drapeau while gazing up at L’Homme, a larger-than-life sculpture created in 1967 by the prolific 20th-century sculptor Alexander Calder.

In 17th-century Québec, storied woodsmen known as coureurs des bois crisscrossed the region by foot and canoe to trade furs. Today, more than 200 park hiking trails allow visitors to appreciate their legacy. Trek part of the International Appalachian Trail, North America’s first long-distance hiking trail, or, if you're extra adventurous, embark on one of the handful of via ferratas—cross-canyon or rockface hiking paths made possible by steel handles or cables. Chief among them is Parc national du Mont-Tremblant's aptly named Via ferrata du Diable, or “Via ferrata of the Devil.”

To soak up Québec's coastal scenery, bike along parts of la Route Verte, a 3,100-mile cycling network, or take a boat to Mingan Archipelago National Park and admire towering monoliths sculpted by thousands of years of sea erosion. All options considered, perhaps one of the most romantic ways to connect with Québec’s wide open spaces is from a hot air balloon at the International Balloon Festival of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu.

Breathe

St-Benoit Abbey, Eastern Townships (© M. Dupuis)

Wherever your Québec travels take you, fill your lungs with its unique and exuberant aromas.

As you cruise east of Québec City on the St. Lawrence River, inhale the fresh sea air as you pass the candy-cane-striped Pointe-des-Monts lighthouse, red sandstone cliffs of the Îles-de-la-Madeleine and dramatic fjords of Saguenay, among other sights.

Walking through Québec's many forests, breathe in the earthy scent of black spruce, balsam fir, birch and sugar maples. Stay overnight at a campground, or for a more active getaway, try canoe-camping at La Mauricie National Park or Gatineau Park.

If you can't make it to the outdoors, a handful of urban and suburban gardens make it easy to enjoy summertime blooms. Wander through seemingly endless fields of lavender at Bleu Lavande, the largest lavender farm in Canada and the second largest in North America with over 100,000 true lavender plants. Also notable for its size is the Montréal Botanical Garden, recognized as one of the largest botanical gardens in the world and home to some 22,000 plant species and cultivars. Explore its thirty or so themed gardens, including the First Nations Garden—honoring the relationship of Québec’s First Nations people to the land—and the largest Chinese Garden outside of China.

The Reford Gardens is both a historic and aromatic destination. Created between 1926 and 1958 by avid gardener Elsie Reford, who cultivated the rare Himalayan blue poppy, today they feature 3,000 varieties of native and exotic plants. Each year, the International Garden Festival takes place next door.  

Taste

Café du Monde, Québec City (© TQ/P. Gouyou Beauchamps)

The imaginations of Québec’s local producers know no bounds. Craft beers, artisanal wines, ice ciders, terrines, cheeses and jams, smoked seafood and farmed game are just some of the terroir products Québec is famous for.

To cope with Québec's climate and rigors of everyday life, New France’s first inhabitants ate hearty meals and developed a brand of home cooking responsible for such Québec classics as tourtière (meat and pork pie), cipaille (a layered meat pie), fèves au lard (baked beans), cretons (pork spread), tarte au sucre (sugar pie) and galettes de sarrasin (buckwheat hotcakes). While most of these items are only served on special or seasonal occasions, they remain an important part of Québécois cuisine. 

Be sure to try one of Québec's maple products, ranging from pomegranate and maple punch to spareribs marinated in maple water. Another must-try is poutine, a mix of French fries and curd cheese drizzled in gravy. Quebec's unofficial national dish, its popularity has inspired mouth-watering variants, like foie gras poutine and lobster poutine. No trip to Quebec is quite complete without it. Also creating buzz is Québec's ice cidera sweet, alcoholic drink. Made from frozen apples, some describe it as a cross between ice wine and hard cider.

Québec offers a range of dining options, from bring-your-own-wine establishments (marked Apportez votre vin), food trucks and dinner cruises to farm tours, microbreweries and vineyards. Le Dieu du Ciel in Montreal is recognized by many as one of the best brewpubs in the world for its quality and variety of beers, and wine lovers will enjoy the Wine Route that connects 22 wineries in the Eastern Townships.

Blind Love

Danny Kean from Long Island NY, a blind tourist sets off on a Québec adventure. Discover his experience and awaken your senses:

See more and relive the highlights of his adventure in the interactive documentary.

Lead photo caption: Phare Saint-André, Kamouraska, Bas-Saint-Laurent. © Bertrand Lavoie/Tourisme Bas-Saint-Laurent.

Thailand's Fight Club

Smithsonian Magazine

Saktaywan Boxing Gym resides on a narrow and quiet road in northern Bangkok. It is neighbored on one side by a small apartment complex and on the other side by a sewage canal. The gym is outdoors, and a rank odor lingered in the air when I first walked through its gates on a muggy afternoon in July.

Three skinny, shirtless Thai boys punched and kicked invisible opponents inside a dusty boxing ring. A shaded area beside the ring housed gloves, shin guards, head protectors, four punching bags and free weights. Next to the equipment two more boys jumped rope, their bare feet bouncing in rhythm on the cracked concrete.

As I watched them, Ajarn Sit, Saktaywan's 48-year-old head trainer, grabbed me by the arm and sat me down on a stone bench. (Ajarn means "teacher.") Sit's nose was flat and slanted to the right—it had been broken several times in his younger days as a professional Muay Thai fighter. He stood a mere 5-feet-5-inches tall, had spiky hair, wore a perpetual scowl and spoke barely intelligible English in declarative, enthusiastic bursts:

"You lazy, you no good Muay Thai," he said to me right away.

I was perplexed by what seemed an obvious insult, until he kept talking and I realized he was saying: If you're lazy, your Muay Thai won't improve.

I had come to Saktaywan to train in Thailand's national sport, Muay Thai, also known as Thai Boxing—a martial art known for its ferocity and direct style. For many centuries, Muay Thai has been a profoundly important part of Thai culture and history. Now word has spread west. The emergence of Mixed Martial Arts organizations in the 1990s, such as Ultimate Fighter Championship and Pride, made Muay Thai a trendy choice for martial artists in the United States and the rest of the world. The 2005 Muay Thai action film Tom Yum Goong grossed more than $12 million in the United States, boosted in part by the endorsement of Quentin Tarantino. In November, television producer Mark Burnett, best known for his hit series Survivor, announced plans to air a Muay Thai reality show in Bangkok with a cast of international boxers.

Training camps like Saktaywan, which number in the thousands throughout Thailand, have become destinations for foreign martial artists who want to dive deeply into the sport and temporarily experience the austere and disciplined lifestyle of a Thai boxer. I was introduced to this possibility by Nestor Marte, the 40-year-old owner of Ultimate Gym Muay Thai in New York City, where I had been his student for two years. In his twenties Marte had spent seven years training at Saktaywan. Following the death of Saktaywan's previous owner in 2004, Marte started managing and financing the camp. He agreed to let me train at Saktaywan alongside its Thai boxers for several months.

That first day, it took Ajarn Sit almost 20 minutes to tell me his personal history. He had fought more than 200 times during his 17-year professional career, which started at age 12. At one point he was ranked number three in his weight class at Bangkok's Rajadamnern Stadium, which along with Lumpini Stadium is one of the two most prestigious boxing venues in Thailand. And he has been training boxers at Saktaywan since he retired as a fighter 19 years ago. His linguistic trademark is "super," which he pronounces "soop-uh."

When he finished, he looked down at my stomach, smiled and cheerfully pinched my belly. "You soop-uh full man, no good. You soop-uh seet-up," he said. You're too fat. You should do sit-ups.

Muay Thai is known as the "Science of Eight Limbs" because it includes the use of elbows and knees as weapons, in addition to punches and kicks. The sport's history is shrouded in myth. It's even possible that it wasn't developed in Thailand—Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar (formerly Burma) each sometimes claims responsibility for its origins. What is certain is that the history of Muay Thai is closely and uniquely intertwined with the history of Thailand.

According to Muay Thai: A Living Legacy, an English-language book about the sport by Kat Prayukvong and Lesley Junlakan, Thais first began training in Muay Thai in the Sukhothai period (1238-1377)—a skill they would later use in multiple wars against the neighboring country of Burma. In temples, Buddhist monks taught young boys Muay Thai as part of their daily education. At that time, the training included punching loincloths hanging on tree branches and kicking banana trees, says the Web site for the Muay Thai Institute in Bangkok.

Muay Thai training camps began to flourish after the capital moved from Sukhothai to the city of Ayutthaya. Perhaps the most famous Muay Thai story from this time is that of King Sri Sanpetch VIII, better known as the Tiger King, who in 1702 disguised himself as a common villager so that he could fight in a country fair, where muay contests were commonly held. He defeated the town's best fighters before disappearing back to his palace.

In 1767 the Burmese captured Ayutthaya and destroyed the written records about Muay Thai. A statue now stands in Ayutthaya that tells the legend of Nai Khanom Tom, a Thai boxer taken prisoner during the Burmese invasion. In 1774, the Burmese king ordered a boxing exhibition to determine whether Burmese boxing was superior to Thai boxing. Nai Khanom Tom defeated ten consecutive Burmese opponents on a single day, March 17, which is now "Muay Thai Day" in Thailand.

During his reign from 1868 to 1925, King Chulalongkorn oversaw Muay Thai's evolution from a military practice to royal entertainment. The king invited boxers from throughout the country to fight in his presence at the Grand Palace in Bangkok. Prayukvong and Junlakan describe how the king awarded the winners honorary titles that matched their boxing styles, such as Pra Chai Choke Shok Channa (Lord Lucky Fight and Win) and Muen Cha-ngad Choeng Shok (Knight of the Clear Fighting Tactic).

Image by Cardiff de Alejo Garcia. A boxer performs the traditional wai kru ram muay dance before his fight at Rajadamnern Stadium. The dance pays homage to the boxer's teacher and training camp. (original image)

Image by Cardiff de Alejo Garcia. Bahb trains in the ring at Saktaywan Boxing Gym with the head trainer, Ajarn Sit (Ajarn means "teacher"). (original image)

Image by Cardiff de Alejo Garcia. In his fight last August, Bahb knees his opponent in an early round. He won the fight in the third round by pulling down the back of his opponent's head and kneeing him in the face. (original image)

Image by Cardiff de Alejo Garcia. The crowd in the upper decks at Rajadamnern Stadium places bets throughout the night by yelling and making hand signals. (original image)

Image by Cardiff de Alejo Garcia. Pisit Samaie, nicknamed Dow, warms up by kicking a training bag at Saktaywan Boxing Gym. The bags are packed tightly with sand to ensure their hardness, which helps build resistance in the shins. Hard shins are important in Thai boxing, as they are used both to strike an opponent with kicks and also to block an opponent's kicks. (original image)

Image by Cardiff de Alejo Garcia. Three foreigners train in Muay Thai at the Muay Thai Institute in the Rangsit Stadium compound in Bangkok. Foreigners come to the institute to train in Muay Thai and learn its rituals, becoming certified as either Muay Thai instructors, referees or judges after several weeks or months of living in the compound. (original image)

Image by Cardiff de Alejo Garcia. Naser Alarshe, an 18-year-old Syrian, trains at the Muay Thai Institute in Bangkok. Alarshe, who first came to Bangkok with a Syrian kickboxing team in early 2006, was contracted by a local fight promoter to stay and box in Thailand. (original image)

Image by Cardiff de Alejo Garcia. Nestor Marte owns Ultimate Gym Muay Thai in New York City. He trained at Saktaywan Boxing Gym for seven years in his twenties and has managed and financed the gym since the death of its founder, Ajarn Taywan, who was also Marte's mentor. (original image)

By the middle of the 20th century Muay Thai had become a wildly popular commercial sport in Bangkok. Every day there are fights in Lumpini Stadium or Rajadamnern Stadium, as well as smaller stadiums in cities and villages across Thailand. Five days a week, the bouts are televised. If baseball is America's national pastime, Muay Thai could be Thailand's equivalent.

The five boxers at Saktaywan Boxing Gym were initially amused by my presence, grinning and cracking jokes about the white farang, or foreigner, whenever I couldn't keep up—which was all the time.

It became clear to me after only a few days of training at Saktaywan that Muay Thai consumed most of their lives. Thai boxers don't just train in their camp—they live there. At Saktaywan they cook meals together, share one bathroom and sleep side-by-side on the floor of a cramped shack.

The fighters train seven days a week, their schedule beginning at 6 a.m. and ending around 7 p.m. The morning starts with a 45-minute run along a Bangkok highway, weaving through crowds of schoolchildren in yellow uniforms, feeling the breeze of cars that whiz by within a foot. The five-mile run is made more difficult by having to breathe the densely polluted and humid Bangkok air.

The boxers then eat a light breakfast, sometimes not more than water and a little rice, before starting the first of two daily training sessions. They warm up by jumping rope and shadowboxing (sparring without a partner to practice technique and stretch the muscles). Then they punch, kick, knee and elbow the punching bags filled with sand packed so tightly that it feels like hitting a metal pole. Much of this contact is designed to build resistance in the shins, which are used for both kicking an opponent and blocking kicks. (Mine had dents in them the first two weeks of training, until they began to callus.) All the training takes place outdoors in 90-degree heat.

Meanwhile, Ajarn Sit calls boxers into the ring one by one, holding pads that he orders them to strike in various combinations. He is an effective motivator. I had the bad habit of dropping my hands when I got tired, leaving my face exposed. Ajarn Sit noticed. "Hands up!" he would yell, just before smacking me in the face with the pads. It worked.

My first round with Ajaarn Sit lasted about ten minutes, but the pace he demanded made it feel like ten hours. We stopped at one point to take a break—except it wasn't a break. "You push-ups now!" he yelled. The intensity of the training combined with the heat made me dizzy, and when the drill resumed I stumbled onto the mat. Ajarn Sit told me to drink some water as the boxers surrounding the ring laughed. I wanted to throw up.

When not in the ring with Ajaarn Sit, the boxers often spar with each other, either at a brisk pace with protective shin guards and headgear, where the aim is to improve timing and coordination, or at a slower tempo without the protection, working instead on technique. They practice "clinching," a kind of stand-up wrestling allowed in Muay Thai. The goal of clinching is to position your arms inside of your opponent's and grab control of the back of his head, providing leverage to knee him in the chest or, in some cases, the face.

Even during training sessions, the boxers' faces never betrayed any emotion or exhaustion. Years of these repetitive exercises had not only perfected their technique but seemingly also hardened each boxer's visage. There was no hesitation or wasted movements—only mechanical, lightning-fast blows and blocks.

After the morning session the boxers eat a big lunch and relax until the later afternoon, when they take a two-mile jog and start again. I only rarely did both sessions in a day, but even in my "limited" training of three to six hours a day, I shed 15 pounds in the first two months.

Most Thai boxers come from poor families. Saktaywan's best boxer, Gaew (pronounced Gee-oh), was born in Bangkok. Struggling with the cost of raising him, Gaew's parents dropped him off at Saktaywan to start training when he was eight-years-old. Muay Thai camps have straightforward arrangements with their boxers: the camp provides them training, a place to live and eat and health insurance. In return, a boxer splits half his prize money with the camp.

In his prime Gaew was ranked third in his weight class at Rajadamnern Stadium, earning more than 40,000 baht (about 1,000 U.S. dollars) per fight before splitting it with the camp. He gave some of the money to his family and saved the rest. In November, the 23-year-old Gaew announced his retirement after almost 80 career fights.

Saktaywan's other boxers—nicknamed Dow, Chay, Koong and Bahb—have similar stories; for each of them, Muay Thai represented a way to make money for their families at a young age. At the very least, it guaranteed food and shelter.

To start making money on their investments, Mauy Thai camps typically start boxers fighting professionally at an early age. Gaew and Ajarn Sit, for example, both had their first fights at age 12. Saktaywan's other boxers, all younger than Gaew, started training in Muay Thai before their tenth birthdays and were fighting professionally by age 15. The rigors of training daily and fighting monthly wear down a fighter's body; by their twenties, most boxers are considering retirement.

The intensity of the training makes it difficult for Thai boxers to advance in school. Gaew dropped out in high school, as did two of the other four Saktaywan boxers. Only one of the five, Chay, is on pace to graduate from a local university. Perhaps as a result, Chay happens to be Saktaywan's weakest boxer.

It's difficult to say what awaits these boxers when they retire. The better ones, such as Ajarn Sit, can get jobs training other Thai boxers. Gaew doesn't yet know what he's going to do, but he has saved enough money from his fights to live comfortably for a while. It was clear from speaking with him that after 15 years he had grown weary of Muay Thai. When I asked him why he had retired, he started pointing to different parts of his body that had been injured. "I no want Muay Thai," he said dismissively. Then he shook his head, which I understood to mean he was tired of being hurt all the time.

Thailand has embraced Muay Thai's growing international base. Concerned that the sport's popularity abroad would lead to its perversion by inauthentic teaching, the Thai government created the World Muay Thai Council in September 1995 to establish a single set of international fight rules. The council later founded the Muay Thai Institute inside the sprawling Rangsit Stadium compound in northern Bangkok. The institute invites foreigners to live in the compound for weeks or months at a time, training in Muay Thai and learning its rituals. After enough time, the students get certified as Muay Thai instructors, referees or judges.

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When I stopped by the institute one afternoon in November, about ten adult foreign students—including two Canadians, an Englishman and a Syrian—were training in one of Rangsit Stadium's three boxing rings. "Our goal is to make Muay Thai an international sport, just like soccer," Amnuay Kesbumrung, who is the institute's owner and a well-known local fight promoter, told me.

By chance, a few days later a tall and skinny westerner came through Saktaywan's camp wearing a pair of Muay Thai shorts. Surprised to see another white face in the neighborhood, I stopped him and asked who he was.

Yoann Govaida is a 25-year-old Frenchman training at another boxing gym in the area. He came to Bangkok six years ago to escape his job in a Paris bakery. Now he has 29 professional fights under his belt and wants to start fighting in Mixed Martial Arts, which combines Muay Thai with ground fighting. I asked what motivated him to pursue a career—indeed, a lifestyle—in Muay Thai.

"Well, you can't do it only for the money," he said in a thick French accent. "The training here is full-time, everyday, really intense. You have to love Muay Thai to do it this way."

One evening, Dow, one of Saktaywan's boxers, was scheduled for a fight at Rajadamern Stadium. I jumped into the bed of a large pick-up truck with Ajarn Sit and Saktaywan's other fighters, along with my teacher from New York, Nestor Marte, who was visiting his camp. We were also joined by Saktaywan's groupies—four middle-aged men, friends of Ajarn Sit, who always came along on fight nights to bet on Saktaywan's boxers.

The upper decks of Rajadamnern Stadium are reminiscent of a Wall Street trading floor from the 1980s. On the ground floor are the ringside VIPs, mostly tourists and wealthy Thais who coughed up 2,000 baht (about $50). But the real excitement takes place in the second and third tiers, where the gamblers and bookies pack together, constantly updating their bets, yelling hysterically at the fighters in between rounds and performing strange hand signals.

"They bet on everything at these fights," Marte said: which boxer will win, how he will win (knockout or decision), how long the fight will last, even which boxer will win an individual round.

With stakes so high, boxers are sometimes approached by gamblers seeking to influence the outcome of fights either through intimidation or bribery. "We once caught one of our guys [at Saktaywan] taking a payoff and had to throw him out," Marte said. "This is a big deal to a boxer. He lost everything—his place to live, his way to make a living, his reputation."

I asked Marte how a boxing gym can guard against its boxers falling prey to this kind of influence. "There's only one way," he said. "You have to build a sense of community at the gym. When one of our guys wins, it's good for the whole camp. We make more money and I can invest in making the camp better. So if one of our guys loses his fight because he was bribed, he knows he'll be disappointing the other boxers."

Dow's fight, in the 116-pound weight division, was third on the night's card. I sat down in a plastic chair near the ring to watch the first two fights, both in the 103-pound weight class. (On some nights the heaviest weight class at Rajadamnern is 145 pounds.) The boxers looked no older than 14-years-old. They had rail-thin upper bodies and disproportionately solid legs.

A Muay Thai fight is five rounds of three minutes each, with breaks of two minutes in between. In Thailand and most professional fights internationally, the only protective equipment worn by the fighters is a groin cup, a mouthpiece and either six-, eight- or ten-ounce gloves, depending on their weight class.

Unlike some martial arts that emphasize self-defense, Muay Thai fighting is a furious and unrelenting attack. Fighters are required, not merely encouraged, to always be advancing towards their opponents. A typical Western boxing strategy of "stick-and-move," where a fighter lands a blow and then retreats before being counter-punched, can be penalized in Muay Thai. When a fighter retreats for too long, the referee loudly instructs him to re-engage. If Muay Thai is for self-defense, then it's the pre-emptive kind.

Every blow in Muay Thai is meant to stop the opponent or knock him out. The base of power comes from rotating the hips and letting the limbs follow. Always on his toes, a boxer throws a right kick, for example, by rotating his entire body to the left, violently thrusting his right arm in the opposite direction, like pulling on a lever, as his right leg straightens completely just before the shin strikes its target—"like a swinging a baseball bat," Marte said.

The punching style resembles traditional boxing, and the knee and elbow strikes each have several variations. Otherwise, there are two basic kinds of kicks: a roundhouse and a straight "teep," or a "push" kick. This simplicity is also the root of Muay Thai's effectiveness. All strikes have a high probability of actually landing, with the emphasis on attacking the body (an obviously bigger target than the head).

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When it was Dow's turn to fight, he entered the ring wearing a collection of traditional amulets and bodily adornments. On his head was the monkon, described by Muay Thai authors Prayukvong and Junlakan as a "circlet worn on the head as a charm to bring prosperity and to protect the wearer from danger." Dow took off his robe and got down on his knees in the middle of the ring.

He and his opponent then began the wai kru ram muay, a prayerful dance performed before every fight that pays homage to the boxer's teacher and training camp. The dance is performed to music, played by four musicians in the stadium's rear corner, which sounds like a snake-charming song with a heavy drumbeat. The same rhythmic music is also played during the fight, the beat increasing in intensity during each round.

The first round was uneventful; boxers generally use this round to size up an opponent. But starting in the second round, Dow repeatedly forced his opponent to clinch with him and kneed him in the chest. His opponent never found any way to defend against this. By the fifth round both fighters were exhausted, and Dow was so far ahead on points that the last round didn't really matter; he won by decision.

When Nestor Marte came to Bangkok in December 1989, he brought with him a letter written in Thai by the fluent relative of a friend that said, simply, "Hello, my name is Nestor Marte. I would like to learn Muay Thai." He hired a tuk-tuk, a three-wheeled open-air taxi, to drive him around Bangkok in search of Thai boxing camps.

"Everybody I met in Thailand thought I was crazy," he said. "At the time it was unheard of for foreigners to come to Thailand and train in Muay Thai."

On that first day, Marte met Ajarn Taywan, the founder of Saktaywan. Marte struggled at first. He spoke no Thai and was ignored by the other boxers. He would awaken covered in mosquito bites because he had discarded the hot blanket he was meant to sleep on to keep the bugs from coming up through the floor. Ajarn Taywan assigned a ten-year-old boxer to stay behind with Marte during the early morning runs to make sure he could find his way home after falling far behind the group.

But over time Ajarn Taywan took a liking to Marte, often inviting him over for dinner. Slowly, Marte learned Thai, and his boxing skills improved quickly as his body adjusted to the intense training. A 6-foot-4-inch Dominican weighing 190 pounds, Marte was too large to fight in Rajadamnern or Lumpini, so instead he fought in four special holiday festivals against opponents his size. He won all of them. Eventually Marte saw Ajarn Taywan as an adopted parent. He moved back to New York in 1996 and opened Ultimate Gym, returning to Bangkok several times a year to sharpen his skills.

When Ajarn Taywan died in 2004, Saktaywan closed temporarily. Its stable of professional boxers, whose prize money gave the camp its livelihood, disbanded to fight for other camps. Unwilling to watch Ajarn Taywan's legacy disappear, Marte pledged to restore Saktaywan to its former glory. "I was pretty much starting from scratch," he said. He began financing the camp, investing several thousand dollars to renovate the facility, hire a head trainer and purchase four new boxers from other camps, who in their prime can cost 100,000 baht, or roughly $3,000 apiece.

When Saktaywan officially reopened in January 2006, a group of Buddhist monks in orange robes blessed the grounds. But despite his efforts, Marte learned in December that Ajarn Taywan's daughter had sold the campgrounds to a family who wants to build an apartment complex on top of the gym. Saktaywan will likely close for good this month, so Marte has gathered all the camp's equipment to take back to New York for use at Ultimate Gym. And he's trying to secure a visa for Ajarn Sit, who may find himself unemployed, to teach Muay Thai alongside him in New York.

Several days after we discovered the camp had been sold, I sat with Ajarn Sit on the same bench where he had first introduced himself. Shadowboxing in front of us was his pudgy three-year-old son Sanooka, wearing tiny Muay Thai shorts and a pair of red boxing gloves that looked bigger than his head. He punched awkwardly and repeatedly tripped over himself trying to kick the air.

I asked Ajarn Sit if he thought that someday Sanooka would become a Muay Thai champion. He chuckled: "Oh yeah, man. Sanooka soop-uh fight. Soop-uh good, man."

Freelance writer Cardiff de Alejo Garcia reported this story from Bangkok, where he spent four months training in Muay Thai at Saktaywan Boxing Gym.

Breaking Down the Myths and Misconceptions About the Gulf Oil Spill

Smithsonian Magazine

In the months and years following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, telling fact from fiction regarding seafood safety and ecosystem health was supremely difficult. Is Gulf seafood safe to eat or not? Are there really deformed shrimp and black lesion-covered red snapper? Will the Gulf ever be clean again?

A large part of the confusion was due to the connected, yet distinct, seafood issues surrounding the spill. Whether the seafood was safe for humans to eat was mixed with stories of the future of Gulf fisheries; harm done to wild fish was conflated with health of the seafood supply.

To clear up some of the confusion, here are seven topics of concern, some still unresolved, about the Gulf Oil Spill, brought to you by the Smithsonian Ocean Portal and the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI). These should help you better understand the spill’s effects on seafood and wildlife.

#1: Once oil enters the Gulf, it will stay there indefinitely.

The fate of oil is difficult to assess because it isn’t any single chemical; it’s instead a complex mixture of different-but-related chemicals that started out as dead plants and animals. Buried deep in the earth and placed under heat and pressure for millions of years, their bodies break down and the hydrogen and carbon rearrange into the components of oil. First they bond together to form long chains. Over time, some of those chains loop into strings of two to seven rings.

Crude oil contains the whole spectrum of these chemicals, from large to small; they degrade at different rates, and some can damage wildlife while others are harmless. The main question then is how long the dangerous chemicals in oil will persist in the Gulf.

When the spill began, many people immediately assumed that oil entering the ecosystem would never break down. That’s because we are so familiar with environmental contaminants that stick around for a very long time, such as DDT, CFCs, or mercury. These take a long time to degrade naturally (or don't at all in the case of mercury), and hence persevere in the environment for a very long time.

In contrast, oil “can be readily degraded,” said Ed Overton, who studies the fate of oil after spills at the Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and is a lead researcher with GoMRI. “We’re talking about a completely different type of chemical.”

Oil that dissolves into or mixes with water can be broken down by bacteria—and, fortunately, the Gulf of Mexico is loaded with oil-eating bacteria. Between 560,000 and 1,400,000 barrels of oil leak into the Gulf every year from natural oil seeps, and where there's a source of energy, you can generally find bacteria. In the case of the Deepwater Horizon blowout, the spill originated in the deep sea where the oil-degrading bacteria are also found, which helped them to start breaking down the oil quickly.

But for those bacteria to do their job, they need oxygen, and lots of it. As such, the most dangerous place for oil to end up is in marshes. There, oil can easily get buried in the low-oxygen soil and bind with the sediment, where it cannot be broken down and remains until it is flooded out by a storm. And if it sticks around there, being slowly released by flooding events over the course of decades, it can do harm to the 98 percent of commercially-important Gulf species that are dependent on saltwater marshlands during their lifecycle.

It's also possible that some oil sank as it was colonized by bacteria, sticking to and clumping with other floating particles on its way to the deep sea. In some cases, it was buried under the seafloor, where bacteria couldn’t access it as well. So if there is oil that stuck around in the Gulf, marshes and buried seafloor sediments are the places you'd find it.

Clean-up workers use booms to try to contain the oil and keep it from entering marshes, where it can become buried and persevere for decades. (Photo: Petty Officer 3rd Class Jaclyn Young, U.S. Coast Guard/Flickr)

#2: If a fish or other animal eats oil, it will remain in its body forever and get passed up the food chain.

Some of the oil got in the way of marine life before bacteria had time to break it down. Animals and plants that were physically coated with oil often died. But many animals that ingested smaller amounts of oil in the water have ways to get rid of the dangerous oil molecules, which are known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PAHs.

When we eat or inhale PAHs, our bodies recognize them as impurities and send them to the liver—our clearinghouse for contaminants—to be broken down. During that process, enzymes break up oil chemicals into mostly less dangerous forms that typically are dissolved in urine and disposed of through normal body processes.  However, some of the compounds that result from this breakdown can pose cancer risk. (More on this in the next section.)

Similar to exposed people, exposed fish will clear PAHs out of their muscles and organs within a few days to weeks. After that short window, the PAHs are not passed up the food chain because they aren’t being stored in the fish’s tissues. If that fish is then caught and sold at market, there should be no additional risk to people.

Oysters, mussels and other bivalves don’t have this enzyme system, so they hold onto oil contaminants for longer and in the short term can pass them onto people and other predators. But over time they release these contaminants across their gills back into the environment. Because of these factors (along with the need to be absolutely certain that the fish were safe), NOAA and the FDA closed Gulf fisheries during and after the spill to do extensive testing of seafood to make sure it was safe for human consumption.

In the months after the spill, federal and state agencies tested seafood for carcinogenic PAHs, heavy metals, and dispersants, going through some 10,000 samples. They rarely found any levels of concern; where they did detect measurable PAHs, it was hundreds or thousands of times below the limits that would raise health worries. The fisheries remained closed for a period of time after the initial spill as a precautionary measure and were slowly reopened after testing.

“Given the low levels of PAHs we found, when we found them at all, someone could eat 63 lbs of peeled shrimp (that’s 1,575 jumbo shrimp); or 5 lbs. of oyster meat (that’s 130 individual oysters); or 9 lbs. of fish (that’s 18 8-ounce fish filets) every day for five years and still not reach the levels of concern,” wrote Michael Taylor, FDA deputy commissioner for foods, in a blog post.

Clean-up workers rotate an absorbent boom to clean up the marsh west of Lake Felicity near Cocodrie, Louisiana, in 2010. (Photo: © Sean Gardner/Reuters/Corbis)

#3: All oil is poison.

No person in her right mind would eat a spoonful of crude oil, or eat a fish that was obviously contaminated. Oil in large amounts is not safe to ingest, inhale, or even handle. But when the body breaks it down to its small parts—the individual molecules and compounds that compose oil— there is much less risk to people or animals.

The portion of oil that poses the greatest risk to animals, including humans are the ringed molecules—the PAHs—because they can damage DNA. A newly developing organism with damaged DNA will often die, while DNA damage in older organisms can cause cancer. In particular, it’s the moderate-sized molecules that are considered the most harmful, like two-ringed naphthalenes (which are also found in mothballs) and three-ringed phenanthrenes (used to make dyes and plastics), because they can both damage DNA and dissolve in water, which gives them a route into an organism’s tissues and cells. These are broken down into smaller, harmless molecules through bacterial decomposition over time and some are readily lost to evaporation.

Luckily, the oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill happened to be a light crude oil, rather than the heavier crude oil released during the Exxon Valdez incident.  As such it mainly contained small and moderately-sized molecules—the ones that can dissolve in water and be degraded.

"While some compounds evaporated at the surface, we think that most of them dissolved in the water column at 1,100-meter depth and dispersed in the deep water," said Overton. There they would be broken down by oil-eating bacteria already present in the environment.

All of which is to say—yes, oil can be dangerous and it's best to prevent large amounts from entering the environment. But not all of it is poison, and the oil that spilled in the Gulf was less toxic than many forms of crude oil.

A U.S. Air Force jet drops dispersant onto the Gulf oil slick. Dispersant was also applied in the deep sea at the source of the leak. (Photo: Tech. Sgt. Adrian Cadiz, U.S. Air Force/Flickr)

#4: The mixture of oil and dispersant is more toxic than either one alone.

During the spill, BP and various federal agencies applied 1.84 million gallons of dispersants to help break up the spill. Dispersants are similar to strong dishwashing soap and help to break oil down into smaller particles. The jury is still out on whether dispersants make oil more toxic.

You can imagine that it would take a long time for bacteria to degrade a massive oil slick if it had to start at the outside and work its way in. Broken up into small particles, bacteria can access the oil molecules more easily and have more time to degrade them before they wash ashore and get stuck in marshes.

While theoretically that sounds like a good idea, the decision to use dispersants was widely criticized. Part of this was very legitimate criticism and concern: While dispersants aren't known to hurt people in small doses (and all but one of the ingredients that make up the dispersants used in the Gulf are licensed by the FDA for use in food), we don't know much about how their presence in the environment affects wildlife, especially in such large amounts. The general feeling was: "do we need to dump more chemicals into the Gulf on top of all this oil?"

So when a paper came out claiming that the combination of dispersant and oil was three to 52 times more toxic than either one alone, observers of the spill were ready and waiting. Primed to expect the worst, fears were confirmed: we have made an already-toxic spill even more toxic.

But that sweeping statement obscures the real interaction between oil and dispersants. Dispersants don't change any inherent properties of oil molecules to make them more toxic; what they do is make the toxic PAHs more available to animals in the water column.

Fish and other large animals aren't going to intentionally eat globs of oil floating on the surface of the water. But animals have a harder time recognizing and avoiding smaller particles or ones dissolved in water, so they are more likely to be harmed by the dispersant-oil combination. Similarly, breaking the oil up into smaller particles and droplets makes them available to larval organisms and other small animals.

In exchange for making the toxic parts of oil more available to wildlife, those same parts were also available to bacteria. It was definitely a gamble; one couldn't be sure that the oil-eating bacteria would be as effective as they were. "Dispersants are a bad option to have to use, but it's a worse option to not use them," said Overton.

After the spill, shrimp fisheries in the Gulf were closed for the better part of a year. (Photo: Courtesy of Flickr user J. Jackson )

#5: The oil is mutating fish, destroying their populations, and putting our country's seafood at risk.

In the years following the spill, there were reports of misshapen or mutated fish. Eyeless shrimp. Tiny, clawless crabs. Fish covered in black lesions. Fish filled with a "black substance."

And often these observations led to widespread statements about the health of the country's seafood supply. One widely-read article in Al Jazeera read: "Given that the Gulf of Mexico provides more than 40 per cent of all the seafood caught in the continental US, this phenomenon does not bode well for the region, or the country."

It's crucial to remember that hurt to the Gulf fisheries will not threaten the country's seafood supply. While the Gulf is an important and significant source of certain types of seafood—70 percent of U.S. oysters, 69 percent of U.S. shrimp—it only supplied 18 percent of all U.S. seafood the year before the spill.

There weren't very good records kept of the mutations, but even if all of those reported were true, it's not as big a concern as you might think. Sure, they are ugly and scary. But the mutations and deformities that would hurt the Gulf fisheries most would happen to young fish—and would kill them before fishermen could catch and report them.

How do these deformities happen? It comes back to PAHs again. If PAHs cause DNA damage to an adult fish, it can cause cancer. DNA damage to a young fish can cause developmental problems that kill it, or it could survive with deformities. The more important question, and one that’s still poorly understood, is whether DNA damage will be passed on to future generations. That depends on whether a fish’s eggs or sperm were damaged, changes which could be passed on to offspring.

The lesions are scary because sometimes they look like black, oily open sores. But they aren't caused by direct contact with oil. "They develop because the fish is under a lot of stress—whether it’s from toxins in the water, not having enough food, or not being able to move out of the area," said Deb Murie, a fisheries ecologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville and lead investigator with GoMRI. "It's just like us: when we get stressed out it really impacts our immune systems.”

Despite the fears reflected in the photo above, we won’t know the full impact of the spill on Gulf fisheries for a few more years, when fish eggs and larvae laid in 2010 reach adulthood. (Photo: Courtesy of Flickr user J.Jackson)

#6: If fisheries were going to crash, we would have seen it by now.

We still don’t know the long-term effects of the spill on fish populations. But we do know that the immediate danger to fisheries is damage to larvae that kills them before they grow up.

Without an oil spill, most larvae—around 99 percent— end up dying before they grow up. Larvae that aren't in good condition, like those damaged by oil, are weeded out of the population quickly by predators. This is why fish lay so many millions of eggs; only a few will survive.

If oil damaged fish larvae, those would be weeded out with the other 99 percent of larvae that do not grow to adulthood and things will be fine, right? That is a possibility, depending on how much larvae of a given species interacted with oil.

But "relatively small changes in mortality rates in early life stages can have big ramifications," said Frank Hernandez, who studies early life stages in fisheries oceanography at the University of Southern Mississippi in Ocean Springs and is a lead investigator with GoMRI. "Let’s say that for that one percent that survive, the food they need isn’t there for them, or they have some reduced heart capacity or some other critical body function. That’s not an effect you’re going to see right off the bat—not until they finally mature and enter the fishery.”

So when do they mature? Amberjack, for example, are caught at ages three or four, as are flatfish; any effects to fisheries due to the spill four years ago would be revealed in the coming season. Some fish species, like menhaden, are caught at younger ages, so we would have seen a fishery crash already. Meanwhile, others, like bluefin tuna, get caught at older ages so it will take more time.

"We’re just starting to get to the time period where we’ll be able to say something about it," Murie said. "In the next 3-5 years, I think we’ll feel a lot better if we see no effect.”

Many of the effects will also depend on when the fish released their eggs during the oil spill and where. Fish species, like red snapper, that spawn throughout the summer and throughout the Gulf will probably be fine, since there was a wide window of time and space for some eggs to be in unaffected water. But species like the bluefin tuna, whose spawning range and timing coincided with the spill, could potentially be in more trouble, as studies have found that tuna embryos develop heart problems when exposed to oil.

Another crucial confounding factor is that, shortly after the spill began, Gulf fisheries in the area were closed. There was essentially a whole season where fish were allowed to grow and reproduce without human interference by harvest. The adult females that produce the most eggs were able to spawn for an extra year before being caught, which means there was more larvae around to start with. This might mask some of the harm caused by the oil itself.

Without good data, researchers are hesitant to speculate on exactly how the spill affected fisheries. “It's inconceivable to me that there was no damage to fish populations from that much oil," said Overton. But whether that damage will change adult populations is not yet known, he added.

Hernandez noted that people always want to compare the Gulf spill with the Exxon-Valdez oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, where the herring fishery crashed four years later. "There's a cautionary tale there so we’re on guard. But this is a very different system,” he said.

The Gulf of Mexico is very large and open, giving mobile organisms plenty of space free from oil. The spill occurred 50 miles offshore, limiting the amount of oil that reached the estuaries and marshes that so many fish species rely upon. The frequency of natural oil seeps ensured that plenty of oil-degrading bacteria were around and ready to clean up. And the Gulf’s waters are much warmer than those of Alaska, especially during the summer, speeding up oil breakdown by bacteria.

“I’m optimistic,” Hernandez said. “I think the nature of the Gulf is going to be somewhat resilient.”

There are even good things that happen in the Gulf of Mexico today, like this sunset. (Photo: Courtesy of Flickr user Kevin Eddy)

#7: Anything bad that happens in the Gulf can be attributed to the spill.

Since the spill, whenever anything "bad" happens in the Gulf, people automatically connect it to the spill. This isn't a bad impulse; the spill potentially did a lot of damage and left a huge emotional impact on the country.

But the Gulf as an ecosystem was far from pristine before the spill. Some 41 percent of the continental U.S.— mainly fertilized farmland—drains down the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico. This carries 1.7 million tons of nutrients (pdf) into the Gulf each year, causing massive growth of phytoplankton and plankton that consume all the oxygen out of the water. The massive growth forms a "dead zone" of low-oxygen water with little life near the bottom, averaging around 6,000 square miles in the Gulf. In the waters above the bottom, dead zones can cause reproductive problems in fish or, more frequently, just kill larvae and eggs outright. There are also other sources of pollution, such as oil leaks from vessels and toxins in runoff from land.

In addition to all these human influences, the Gulf has a lot of natural variability. Saltiness and temperature change through the year and big storms or hurricanes can shift coastlines and damage infrastructure. These all will affect the survival and health of animals, making it hard to separate man-made from natural influences.

This doesn't mean the spill did no harm, or that we should stop looking for effects of the spill because it would just be too difficult to identify direct causes. However, we need to be careful about where we lay our blame. We shouldn’t assume that all negative events in the Gulf since April 2010 were the fault of the spill. This not only obscures other potential problems, but also keeps us from fully understanding the impacts of oil spills. Without this understanding, we’ll be ill prepared for the next big spill.

The Commoner Who Salvaged a King’s Ransom

Smithsonian Magazine

George Fabian Lawrence, better known as “Stoney Jack,” parlayed his friendships with London navvies into a stunning series of archaeological discoveries between 1895 and 1939.

It was only a small shop in an unfashionable part of London, but it had a most peculiar clientele. From Mondays to Fridays the place stayed locked, and its only visitors were schoolboys who came to gaze through the windows at the marvels crammed inside. But on Saturday afternoons the shop was opened by its owner—a “genial frog” of a man, as one acquaintance called him, small, pouched, wheezy, permanently smiling and with the habit of puffing out his cheeks when he talked. Settling himself behind the counter, the shopkeeper would light a cheap cigar and then wait patiently for laborers to bring him treasure. He waited at the counter many years—from roughly 1895 until his death in 1939—and in that time accumulated such a hoard of valuables that he supplied the museums of London with more than 15,000 ancient artifacts and still had plenty left to stock his premises at 7 West Hill, Wandsworth.

“It is,” the journalist H.V. Morton assured his readers in 1928,

perhaps the strangest shop in London. The shop sign over the door is a weather-worn Ka-figure from an Egyptian tomb, now split and worn by the winds of nearly forty winters. The windows are full of an astonishing jumble of objects. Every historic period rubs shoulders in them. Ancient Egyptian bowls lie next to Japanese sword guards and Elizabethan pots contain Saxon brooches, flint arrowheads or Roman coins…

There are lengths of mummy cloth, blue mummy beads, a perfectly preserved Roman leather sandal found twenty feet beneath a London pavement, and a shrunken black object like a bird’s claw that is a mummified hand… all the objects are genuine and priced at a few shillings each.

H.V. Morton, one of the best-known British journalists of the 1920s and 1930s, often visited Lawrence’s shop as a young man, and wrote a revealing and influential pen-portrait of him.

This higgledy-piggledy collection was the property of George Fabian Lawrence, an antiquary born in the Barbican area of London in 1861—though to say that Lawrence owned it is to stretch a point, for much of his stock was acquired by shadowy means, and on more than one occasion an embarrassed museum had to surrender an item it had bought from him.

For the better part of half a century, however, august institutions from the British Museum down winked at his hazy provenances and his suspect business methods, for the shop on West Hill supplied items that could not be found elsewhere. Among the major museum pieces that Lawrence obtained and sold were the head of an ancient ocean god, which remains a cornerstone of the Roman collection at the Museum of London; a spectacular curse tablet in the British Museum, and the magnificent Cheapside Hoard: a priceless 500-piece collection of gemstones, broaches and rings excavated from a cellar shortly before the First World War. It was the chief triumph of Lawrence’s career that he could salvage the Hoard, which still comprises the greatest trove of Elizabethan and Stuart-era jewelery ever unearthed.

Lawrence’s operating method was simple but ingenious. For several decades, he would haunt London’s building sites each weekday lunch hour, sidling up to the laborers who worked there, buying them drinks and letting them know that he was more than happy to purchase any curios—from ancient coins to fragments of pottery—that they and their mates uncovered in the course of their excavations. According to Morton, who first visited the West Hill shop as a wide-eyed young man around 1912, and soon began to spend most of his Saturday afternoons there, Lawrence was so well known to London’s navvies that he was universally referred to as “Stoney Jack.” A number, Morton added, had been offered “rudimentary archaeological training,” by the antiquary, so they knew what to look for.

Lawrence made many of his purchases on the spot; he kept his pockets full of half-crowns (each worth two shillings and sixpence, or around $18.50 today) with which to reward contacts, and he could often be spotted making furtive deals behind sidewalk billboards and in barrooms. His greatest finds, though were the ones that wended their way to Wandsworth on the weekends, brought there wrapped in handkerchiefs or sacks by navvies spruced up in their Sunday best, for it was only then that laborers could spirit their larger discoveries away from the construction sites and out from under the noses of their foremen and any landlords’ representatives. They took such risks because they liked and trusted Lawrence—and also, as JoAnn Spears explains it, because he “understood networking long before it became a buzzword, and leveraged connections like a latter-day Fagin.”

London navvies–laborers who excavated foundations, built railways and dug tunnels, all by hand–uncovered thousands of valuable artefacts in the British capital each year.

Two more touches of genius ensured that Stoney Jack remained the navvies’ favorite. The first was that he was renowned for his honesty. If ever a find sold for more than he had estimated it was worth, he would track down the discoverer and make certain he received a share of the profits. The second was that Lawrence never turned a visitor away empty-handed. He rewarded even the most worthless discoveries with the price of half a pint of beer, and the workmen’s attitude toward his chief rival—a representative of the City of London’s Guildhall Museum who earned the contemptuous nickname “Old Sixpenny”—is a testament to his generosity.

Lawrence lived at just about the time that archaeology was emerging as a professional discipline, but although he was extremely knowledgeable, and enjoyed a long career as a salaried official—briefly at the Guildhall and for many years as Inspector of Excavations at the newer Museum of London—he was at heart an antiquarian. He had grown up as the son of a pawnbroker and left school at an early age; for all his knowledge and enthusiasm, he was more or less self-taught. He  valued objects for themselves and for what they could tell him about some aspect of the past, never, apparently, seeing his discoveries as tiny fragments of some greater whole.

To Lawrence, Morton wrote,

the past appeared to be more real, and infinitely more amusing, than the present. He had an almost clairvoyant attitude to it. He would hold a Roman sandal—for leather is marvelously preserved in the London clay—and, half closing his eyes, with his head on one side, his cheroot obstructing his diction, would speak about the cobbler who had made it ages ago, the shop in which it had been sold, the kind of Roman who had probably brought it and the streets of the long-vanished London it had known.

The whole picture took life and colour as he spoke. I have never met anyone with a more affectionate attitude to the past.

Like Morton, who nursed a love of ancient Egypt, Stoney Jack acquired his interest in ancient history during his boyhood. “For practical purposes,” he told another interviewer, “let us say 1885, when as a youth of 18 I found my first stone implement…. It chanced that one morning I read in the paper of the finding of some stone implements in my neighborhood. I wondered if there were any more to be found. I proceeded to look for them in the afternoon, and was rewarded.”

A Roman “curse tablet”, recovered by Lawrence from an excavation in Telegraph Street, London, is now part of the collection of the British Museum.

Controversial though Lawrence’s motives and his methods may have been, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that he was the right man in the right place to save a good deal of London’s heritage. Between 1890 and 1930 the city underwent redevelopment at a pace unheard of since the Great Fire of 1666; old buildings were demolished and replaced with newer, taller ones that required deeper foundations. In the days before the advent of widespread mechanization in the building trade, much of the necessary digging was done by navvies, who hacked their way down through Georgian, Elizabethan, medieval and finally Saxon and Roman strata that had not been exposed for centuries.

It was a golden age for excavation. The relatively small scale of the work—which was mostly done with picks and shovels—made it possible to spot and salvage minor objects in a way no longer practicable today. Even so, no formal system existed for identifying or protecting artifacts, and without Lawrence’s intervention most if not all of the 12,000 objects he supplied to the Museum of London, and the 300 and more catalogued under his name at the British Museum, would have been tipped into skips and shot into Thames barges to vanish into landfill on the Erith marshes. This was very nearly the fate of the treasure with which Stoney Jack will always be associated: the ancient bucket packed to the brim with a king’s ransom worth of gems and jewelery that was dug out of a cellar in the City of London during the summer of 1912.

It is impossible to say for certain who uncovered what would become known as the Cheapside Hoard, exactly where they found it, or when it came into the antiquary’s possession. According to Francis Sheppard, the date was June 18, 1912, and the spot an excavation on the corner of Friday Street and Cheapside in a district that had long been associated with the jewelery trade. That may or may not be accurate; one of Lawrence’s favorite tricks was to obscure the precise source of his most valued stock so as to prevent suspicious landowners from lodging legal claims.

This dramatic pocket watch, dated to c.1610 and set in a case carved from a single large Colombian emerald, was one of the most valuable of the finds making up the Cheapside Hoard–and led historian Kris Lane to put forward a new theory explaining the Hoard’s origins. Photo: Museum of London.

Whatever the truth, the discovery was a spectacular one whose value was recognized by everyone who saw it—everyone, that is, but the navvies who uncovered the Hoard in the first place. According to Morton, who claimed to have been present as a boy when the find was brought to West Hill by its discoverers one Saturday evening, the workmen who had uncovered it believed that they had “struck a toyshop.” Tipping open a sack, the men disgorged an enormous lump of clay resembling “an iron football, the journalist recalled, “and they said there was a lot more of it. When they had gone, we went up to the bathroom and turned the water on to the clay. Out fell pearl earrings and pendants and all kinds of crumpled jewellery.”

For the most accurate version of what happened next, it is necessary to turn to the records of the Museum of London, which reveal that the discovery caused so much excitement that a meeting of the museum’s trustees was convened at the House of Commons the next evening, and the whole treasure was assembled for inspection a week later. “By that time,” Sheppard notes, “Lawrence had somehow or other got hold of a few more jewels, and on June 26 sent him a cheque for £90…. Whether this was the full amount paid by the trustees for the hoard is not clear. In August 1913 he was paid £47 for unspecified purchases for the museum.”

Morton—who was 19 at the time of the discovery—offered a more romantic account many years later: “I believe that Lawrence declared this as treasure trove and was awarded a large sum of money, I think a thousand pounds. I well remember that he gave each of the astounded navvies something like a hundred pounds each, and I was told that these men disappeared, and were not seen again for months!”

Whatever the truth, the contents of the navvies’ bucket were certainly astonishing. The hoard consisted of several hundred  pieces—some of them gems, but most worked pieces of jewelery in a wide variety of styles. They came from all over the world; among the most spectacular pieces were a number of cameos featuring Roman gods, several fantastical jewels from Mughal India, a quantity of superb 17th-century enamelware, and a large hinged watch case carved from a huge emerald.

A finely-worked salamander brooch, typical of the intricate Stuart-era jewelry that made up the Cheapside Hoard. Photo: Museum of London.

The collection was tentatively dated to around 1600-1650, and was rendered particularly valuable by the ostentatious fashions of the time; many of the pieces had bold, complex designs that featured a multiplicity of large gems. It was widely assumed, then and now, that the Cheapside Hoard was the stock-in-trade of some Stuart-era jeweler that had been buried for safekeeping some time during the Civil War that shattered England, Ireland and Scotland between 1642 and 1651, eventually resulting in the execution of Charles I and the establishment of Oliver Cromwell’s short-lived puritan republic.

It is easy to imagine some hapless jeweler, impressed into the Parliamentarian army, concealing his valuables in his cellar before marching off to his death on a distant battlefield. More recently, however, an alternative theory has been advanced by Kris Lane, an historian at Tulane whose book The Color of Paradise: The Emerald in the Age of Gunpowder Empires suggests that the Cheapside Hoard probably had its origins in the great emerald markets of India, and may once have belonged to a Dutch gem merchant named Gerard Polman.

The story that Lane spins goes like this: Testimonies recorded in London in 1641 show that, a decade earlier, Polman had  booked passage home from Persia after a lifetime’s trading in the east. He had offered £100 or £200 to the master of an East India Company ship Discovery in Gombroon, Persia, to bring him home to Europe, but got no further than the Comoros Islands before dying–possibly poisoned by the ship’s crew for his valuables. Soon afterwards, the carpenter’s mate of the Discovery, one Christopher Adams, appropriated a large black box, stuffed with jewels and silk, that had once belonged to Polman. This treasure, the testimonies state, was astonishingly valuable; according to Adams’s wife, the gems it contained were “so shiny that they thought the cabin was afire” when the box had first been opened in the Indian Ocean. “Other deponents who had seen the jewels on board ship,” adds Lane, “said they could read by their brilliance.”

Cheapside–for many years center of London’s financial district district, but in Stuart times known for its jewelry stores–photographed in c.1900.

It is scarcely surprising, then, that when the Discovery finally hove to off Gravesend, at the mouth of the Thames, at the end of her long voyage, Adams jumped ship and went ashore in a small boat, taking his loot with him. We know from the Parliamentary archive that he made several journeys to London to fence the jewels, selling some to a man named Nicholas Pope who kept a shop off Fleet Street.

Soon, however, word of his treachery reached the directors of the East India Company, and Adams was promptly taken into custody. He spent the next three years in jail. It is the testimony that he gave from prison that may tie Polman’s gems to the Cheapside Hoard.

The booty, Adams admitted, had included “a greene rough stone or emerald three inches long and three inches in compass”—a close match for the jewel carved into a  hinged watch case that Stoney Jack recovered in 1912. This jewel, he confessed, “was afterward pawned at Cheapside, but to whom he knoweth not”, and Lane considers it a “likely scenario” that the emerald found its way into the bucket buried in a Cheapside cellar; “many of the other stones and rings,” he adds, “appear tantalizingly similar to those mentioned in the Polman depositions.” If Lane is right, the Cheapside Hoard may have been buried in the 1630s, to avoid the agents of the East India Company, rather than lost during the chaos of the Civil War.

Whether or not Lane’s scholarly detective work has revealed the origins of the Cheapside Hoard, it seems reasonable to ask whether the good that Stoney Jack Lawrence did was enough to outweigh the less creditable aspects of his long career. His business was, of course, barely legitimate, and, in theory, his navvies’ finds belonged to the owner of the land that they were working on—or, if exceptionally valuable, to the Crown. That they had to be smuggled off the building sites, and that Lawrence, when he catalogued and sold them, chose to be vague about exactly where they had been found, is evidence enough of his duplicity.

A selection of the 500 pieces making up the Cheapside Hoard that were recovered from a ball of congealed mud and crushed metalwork resembling an “iron football” uncovered in the summer of 1912. Photo: Museum of London.

Equally disturbing, to the modern scholar, is Lawrence’s willingness to compromise his integrity as a salaried official of several museums by acting as both buyer and seller in hundreds of transactions, not only setting his own price, but also authenticating artifacts that he himself supplied. Yet there is remarkably little evidence that any institution Lawrence worked for paid over the odds for his discoveries, and when Stoney Jack died, at age 79, he left an estate totaling little more than £1,000 (about $87,000 now). By encouraging laborers to hack treasures from the ground and smuggle them out to him, the old antiquary also turned his back on the possibility of setting up regulated digs that would almost certainly have turned up additional finds and evidence to set his greatest discoveries in context. On the other hand, there were few regulated digs in those days, and had Lawarence never troubled to make friends with London navvies, most of his finds would have been lost for ever.

For H.V. Morton, it was Stoney Jack’s generosity that mattered. “He loved nothing better than a schoolboy who was interested in the past,” Morton wrote. “Many a time I have seen a lad in his shop longingly fingering some trifle that he could not afford to buy. ‘Put it in your pocket,’ Lawrence would cry. ‘I want you to have it, my boy, and–give me threepence!‘”

But perhaps the last word can be left to Sir Mortimer Wheeler, something of a swashbuckler himself, but by the time he became keeper of the Museum of London in the 1930s–after Stoney Jack had been forced into retirement for making one illicit purchase too many outside a guarded building site–a pillar of the British archaeological establishment.

“But for Mr Lawrence,” Wheeler conceded,

not a tithe of the objects found during building or dredging operations in the neighborhood of London during the last forty years would have been saved to knowledge. If on occasion a remote landowner may, in the process, theoretically have lost some trifle that was his just due, a higher justice may reasonably recognize that… the representative and, indeed, important prehistoric, Roman, Saxon and medieval collections of the Museum are largely founded upon this work of skillful salvage.

Sources

Anon. “Saved Tudor relics.” St Joseph News-Press (St Joseph, MO), August 3, 1928; Anon. “Stoney Jack’s work for museum.” Straits Times (Singapore), August 1, 1928; Michael Bartholomew. In Search of HV Morton. London: Methuen, 2010; Joanna Bird, Hugh Chapman & John Clark. Collectanea Loniniensia: Studies in London Archaeology and History Presented to Ralph Merrifield. London: London & Middlesex Archaeological Society, 1978; Derby Daily Telegraph, November 20, 1930; Exeter & Plymouth Gazette, March 17, 1939; Gloucester Citizen, July 3, 1928; Kris E. Lane. The Colour of Paradise: the Emerald in the Age of Gunpowder Empires. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010;  J. MacDonald. “Stony Jack’s Roman London.” In J. Bird, M. Hassall and Harvey Sheldon, Interpreting Roman London. Oxbow Monograph 58 (1996); Ivor Noël Hume. A Passion for the Past: the Odyssey of a Transatlantic Archaeologist. Charlottesville : University of Virginia Press, 2010; Arthur MacGregor. Summary Catalogue of the Continental Archaeological Collections. Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 1997; Francis Sheppard. Treasury of London’s Past. London: Stationery Office, 1991;  HV Morton. In Search of London. Boston: Da Capo Press, 2002; Derek Sherborn. An Inspector Recalls. London: Book Guild, 2003; JoAnn Spears. “The Cheapside Hoard.” On the Tudor Trail, February 23, 2012. Accessed June 4, 2013; Peter Watts. “Stoney Jack and the Cheapside Hoard.” The Great Wen, November 18, 2010. Accessed June 4, 2013.

When the Stanley Cup Final Was Canceled Because of a Pandemic

Smithsonian Magazine

Midway through a marathon hockey game, in the midst of what is still regarded as one of the most intense championship series in the history of the sport, Joe Hall skated off the ice, exhausted and feverish. It was March 29, 1919, and Hall, a 37-year-old defenseman, was one of the stars of the National Hockey League’s Montreal Canadiens, who were in Seattle to play the Metropolitans of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association on their home ice for the Stanley Cup. The teams had already labored through four grueling contests of the best-of-five series; Game 4 had ended three days earlier with both teams literally collapsing onto the ice following three periods and a pair of overtimes, after no one on either side could muster a single goal.

As Hall retreated to the locker room, Game 5 took a dramatic turn. Montreal, trailing 3-0, tied the game at 3-3, and then pushed one last goal past a drained Seattle squad to win 4-3. The series was tied 2-2-1, and the local newspapers began looking toward a deciding game. “Players Are in Poor Condition for Game 6” read a headline in the March 31 edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. And yet even as it listed Hall and another of his teammates as struck by “high fever,” there was no mention, nor even any speculation, about the underlying cause of that fever: A deadly strain of influenza, known as the “Spanish flu,” that had already struck millions of Americans of all ages, and would end up killing roughly 675,000 Americans.

In a way, this was understandable. The flu’s second and deadliest wave--which followed a less severe outbreak in the spring of 1918--had peaked the previous fall, as World War I neared its end. In the midst of the panic, a number of sporting events were canceled, and the college football season was largely abandoned. On January 28, 1919, Seattle’s health commissioner announced that the epidemic was over, though isolated cases would remain. By the time of the Stanley Cup Finals, the concern over the flu had largely faded from the public consciousness, and the front pages.

“By March, it wasn’t really in the headlines anymore, and part of that is because people were really anxious to get back to their normal lives.” says Nancy Bristow, history professor at the University of Puget Sound and author of American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic. “But people were continuing to die, even though the emergency was off.”

The presumption of prominent sportswriters like the Post-Intelligencer’s Royal Brougham (a key character in The Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown’s best-seller about a crew team competing in the 1936 Olympics) was that both teams had simply worn each other out. But it soon became clear that this was a late and high-profile resurgence of the flu in the United States—and it would claim the life of a prominent figure who was cut down in the prime of his life. It would also result in the only unfinished Stanley Cup Final in history, one that’s still memorialized on the trophy’s face with both teams’ names and three engraved words: SERIES NOT COMPLETED.

***

The Stanley Cup was commissioned in 1892, and in its earliest years it was awarded via “challenges” between rival leagues. In 1907, the Kenora Thistles, based in tiny Kenora, Ontario, defeated the Montreal Wanderers in a two-game, total-goals challenge series (the Thistles would cede it back to Montreal in a rematch two months later). Among the players on the Kenora roster: Joe Hall, who was born in Britain, raised in Canada, and took up hockey at the age of 19.

Hall quickly developed a reputation as a hard-hitter, as one of hockey’s first “enforcers,” and while he was well-liked off the ice, his playing style earned him the nickname “Bad Joe.” He bounced from one team to another as leagues and clubs came and went in those early days; when the National Hockey Association dissolved and gave way to the National Hockey League in 1917, Hall found a place with the Canadiens, where he led the league in penalty minutes for two seasons in a row. By then, the NHA (and eventually the NHL) had formed a gentleman’s agreement with the PCHA: The champions of each league would face each other for the Stanley Cup. The NHL’s ranks, wrecked both by the war and the presence of rival leagues like the PCHA, had dwindled to just two teamsMontreal and Ottawaafter the Toronto Arenas ceased operations, and the Canadiens beat the Senators in a best-of-seven series four games to one.

The Seattle Metropolitans had already defeated the Canadiens in 1917 to become the first American team to ever win the Cup. They upset regular-season champ Vancouver to win the three-team PCHA once again in 1919. But as the Stanley Cup Final opened, Seattle had a pronounced disadvantagenot because of the flu, but because of the lingering shadow of World War I. The Metropolitans’ star player, Bernie Morris, was arrested and charged with draft evasion.

Morris insisted it was a simple mistake. He pleaded his case to the authorities, stating that the notice had been sent to his home in Seattle while he was in Vancouver during the offseason. But after the military learned that Morris had testified to living the past three years in Seattle, Morris was detained and prosecuted during divorce proceedings against his wife earlier in 1919. The Army apparently sought to make an example out of him, according to Kevin Ticen, author of a book about the Metropolitans. (Morris was sentenced to two years of hard labor at Alcatraz, though he was eventually transferred to an Army unit and granted an honorable discharge.)

The Seattle Ice Arena, where the last game of the 1919 Finals was played. (David Eskenazi Collection)

So Seattle entered the series short-handed, but that didn’t dampen the fans’ enthusiasm. Standing-room crowds jammed into the Seattle Ice Arena (capacity 2,500) to watch those Stanley Cup games, seemingly oblivious to any fears about the last vestiges of the flu spreading to them. What they witnessed was a war of attrition that climaxed in Game 5, when Seattle, on the verge of clinching the Cup and battling exhaustion brought on by its lack of depth, couldn’t hold that 3-0 lead.

Two days later, on the morning of April 1, the news began to leak: Game 6 would not be played at all. By then, five Canadiens players had been hospitalized, along with coach George Kennedy (who never fully got over his symptoms and died a couple of years later); the flu had also hit at least Seattle players, as well. But Hall—who would be voted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1961—was the hardest hit of them all. Five days later, on the morning of April 6, the Post-Intelligencer ran a banner headline: “JOE HALL, FRENCH HOCKEY PLAYER, IS DEAD.”

The paper called those Stanley Cup Finals “the most unusual world’s series in history” and “the hardest fought series since the Stanley cup was put up for competition.” Wrote the Seattle Times: “Not in the history of the Stanley cup series has the world’s hockey championship been beset with hard luck as has this one.”

By the following year—when the Ottawa Senators defeated the Metropolitans for the Stanley Cup—the NHL had grown to four teams, and it would continue to mature in the post-war era. The Metropolitans would fail to compete for another Stanley Cup after 1920; in 1924, after their arena was knocked down to build a parking garage for an adjacent hotel, the franchise disbanded.

More than a century later—as Seattle grapples with its place as the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak and prepares to launch its own NHL franchise in 2021, and as the NHL itself suspended its season to "flatten the curve"—those Finals remain utterly unique, their forever-unfinished status a reminder that the ramifications of the Spanish flu epidemic extended beyond the natural chronological boundaries that it’s typically associated with. “There were thousands of orphans, and thousands of people who suffered a complete breakdown of family,” Bristow says. “It was a complete social change, even after the rest of the community had moved on.”

In fact, Hall’s final days coincided with perhaps the most consequential flu case of all: Just two days before the hockey star’s death, president Woodrow Wilson, travelling to the Paris Peace Conference, fell ill with symptoms believed to be caused by influenza. A number of historians and advisers believe that it impacted Wilson’s ability to negotiate a proper treaty, and that the president was never quite the same again.

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