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Is There a Liberal Bias to Political Comedy?

Smithsonian Magazine

Think about the political comedians performing today. Of those, how many are conservative? Not many, right?

Alison Dagnes, a political scientist, media maven and self-described “comedy dork,” has systematically analyzed the guest lists of late night television shows. She has mined research about which political figures from what side of the aisle comedians target in their jokes. She has studied the history of political humor in this country and interviewed dozens of writers, producers and political satirists about their line of work. In her latest book, A Conservative Walks Into a Bar, Dagnes makes the case that there is a liberal bias in America’s political comedy scene. But, that bias, she says, is no threat to conservatives.

How did you get onto this topic?

I really love political comedy, and this goes back to the early 1990s, when I fell in love with Dennis Miller. After the September 11 attacks, Miller became a very outspoken supporter of George W. Bush. Once I noticed that, I looked around and realized there aren’t that many Republicans out there who are doing political comedy. 

I hit upon that reality right when Fox News, in particular, starting getting on Jon Stewart for having a liberal bias. I tried to find some scholarship out there on any kind of bias in political comedy and there wasn’t any. It was lucky for me that a very good friend of mine came up in the ranks at [Chicago improv club] Second City with a bunch of fairly famous people. I asked for her help, and she gave me a bunch of names, and in turn those folks gave me names.

I got to interview several dozens political comedians, writers and producers and ask them my question: Why are there so few conservative political satirists?

You say that there are very understandable reasons that the majority of satirists are liberal. What are these reasons?

Satire is an anti-establishmentarian art form. It is an outsider art. If you mock people who aren’t in power, it isn’t very funny. Satire really is the weapon of the underdog. It is the weapon of the person out of power against the forces in power. It is supposed to take down the sacred cows of politics and differentiate between what is and what should be.

Not only is it an outsider art, but the folks who opt to go into this art form tend to be more liberal. I used to work at C-SPAN, and I watched Brian Lamb, the founder and former CEO of C-SPAN, interview a lot of people. He always asked, “Where did you go to college, and what was your major? So, when I embarked on all of these interviews, I thought, I am just going to do what he did. What I found was that of the 30-something people I interviewed there was not one single person who was a political science major. As political as their material was, they were all performing arts majors or another related field.

Lewis Black has a master's degree from Yale in drama. He told me that political comedians are not interested in being partisans, even though their material could be very, very partisan. They are interested in entertaining. If you go into a field where you are entertaining, you have to expose yourself and be vulnerable. A lot of these qualities do not lend themselves towards the conservative philosophy.

What data did you collect and mine through to determine if there really is a liberal bias in political humor?

I interviewed Jimmy Tingle, a comedian out of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and it was his idea to look at the guest lists of late night shows to gauge whether or not there was some sort of bias afoot. I took one year, and I looked at the guest lists of The Daily Show, The Colbert Report and Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me! on NPR.

Overwhelmingly, the people who these bookers want on the shows are celebrities—singers, sports figures and entertainers. The bigger the celebrity, the better. When I looked at the actual political figures, there were more Democratic guests, but it wasn’t by a huge number.

Image by Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show on Comedy Central has won numerous Emmys for Outstanding Variety, Music, or Comedy Series. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Stephen Colbert, host of the political comedy show The Colbert Report, interviews Gen. Ray Odierno, Commanding General of the Multi-National Force-Iraq. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Though he’s been known to engage in political humor, stand-up comedian Lewis Black actually has an academic background in drama from Yale. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. A live taping of NPR’s flagship comedy show Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Wikipedia. An example of political satire’s long history, this cartoon shows Senator Roscoe Conkling, leader of the Stalwarts group of the Republican Party, playing a puzzle to decide the next Republic presidential candidate. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. This cartoon, drawn circa 1813, shows a satirical view of the War of 1812. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. This satirical cartoon pokes fun at the personalities of President Jackson and his cabinet, who sit watching a French dancer perform. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. This cartoon pokes fun at the role of newspaper giants Hearst and Pulitzer, as they used their media influence to drum up public opinion about going to war with Spain in 1898. (original image)

Who do late night hosts target in their jokes? Conservatives or liberals?

The president is going to be the number one target, because he is the person that everybody knows. What comes next are people who are in the news for something that everybody can understand. For example, if a politician is caught in a sex scandal, you can make a very easy joke about that. But the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University found [in 2010] that there was a split. There were several shows that did lean left with their joke targets a little bit more and then certain shows that did lean right.

What are conservatives to do, with a liberal bias in comedy?

I think conservatives don’t have to worry too terribly much. There really is no barrier to having more conservative political satire out there. While I do understand conservatives’ frustration that the Hollywood establishment is, in their view, perhaps blocking their success, there is nothing that stops you from doing it virally. So, there is one option for conservatives, to get their stuff up on YouTube and get a following.

Also, liberal satirists are not just poking at the conservatives. If you look at the way a lot of these liberal satirists have really just ripped Obama apart, they are not pulling the punches on the left even though they are [positioned] on the left. 

In the book, you trace American satire back to the Revolutionary period.

What I loved in taking the big macro view of American political satire, going back before the founding, was how political humor really mirrored the larger political climate of the time. There were points in American history when satire was rich. The Revolutionary War was actually one of them. There was obviously a lot of consternation, but folks like Benjamin Franklin were really able to use wit as a weapon in their writings. You get to the Jacksonian era, which really was a very flat time for political humor, because the context was not amenable for it. You fast-forward to the Progressive Era, where there was this anti-establishment feeling out there, and so, accordingly, this is when political cartoons really rose as a major form of criticism. Obviously, World Wars I and II were terribly frightening times and not ones that were rich in humor, but after World War II when people were starting to feel good again, political humor began to rise. It really does ebb and flow with the larger political context.

Where does political satire stand today?

It is incredibly strong, for many different reasons. First of all, our media system is so enormous, and there are so many different ways to get political humor. You can get tweets from the Borowitz Report [now a part of the New Yorker’s website.] That’s just 140 characters of humor in quick little bursts. You can subscribe to online content from Will Durst or go to The Onion. You can get it from Comedy Central. You can get it from late night humor. You can get it on the radio, on NPR and also on satellite radio. There is just a lot of it out there.

If you and I want to get together and do a comedy show, we can put it up on YouTube. Nothing is going to stop us from doing that. If we want to put out our own political humor on Facebook or on Twitter, we can do that as well. So the obstacles to getting your humor out there are very, very few.

Satire is also rich because we are in a very, very polarized environment right now politically, and with that polarization comes a lot of finger pointing, hostility and nastiness. I think that amidst all this anger, vitriol and distrust there is a lot of room for laughter. It is an easier way to get the hard stuff down, and there is a lot of hard stuff for us to get down. 

So, satire can be productive at a time of partisan gridlock?

It can be. If we can laugh together than maybe we can talk to each other a little bit better. I think that political humor can be something that can bring us together as long as everyone understands that it is a joke. When we start taking it too seriously, then it loses its efficacy and moves into a very different category.

In July 2009, Time magazine conducted a poll, as you note in your book, asking its readers to identify the most trusted newsperson in America. The winner was Jon Stewart. How do you feel about this?

I feel mixed. I know that Jon Stewart and his writing staff at The Daily Show do a tremendous job of exposing hypocrisy. They do exactly what satirists are supposed to do. They differentiate between what is and what should be, and that is invaluable. But I think that when their viewers conflate their job descriptions, it is problematic.

You cannot go to Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert and understand something that is going on that is multifaceted and complicated. What you can do is take existing understanding of these things, go to comedy shows and outlets and get a different angle on it.

I like to give an analogy. I know practically nothing about sports. So, when my husband turns on ESPN, I don’t understand sports better, because they are doing commentary on something that I don’t understand. The same thing goes for any of the satire programs. They are doing comedy on something, and you better have a preexisting understanding of it or else you are not going to get the joke.

The Fight for the "Right to Repair"

Smithsonian Magazine

Fifty years ago, if your television broke you could bring it to the local electronics shop to be repaired. These days, a broken TV likely means a trip to Best Buy for a new one.

Electronics have become harder to fix. This is, in part, because they’ve become more complex. But some of the problem is by design. Manufacturers have increasingly restricted repair information to authorized repair centers, leaving consumers and independent repair people unable to deal with even simple problems. It's just easier (and sometimes cheaper) to buy something new. 

A growing number of people, seeing this as an unreasonable state of affairs, are fighting back. In a so-called “right to repair” movement, this loose coalition of consumer advocates, repair professionals and ordinary individuals are working to create legislation that would make it harder for companies to keep repair information proprietary.

The idea of planned obsolescence is nothing new. But the use of “repair prevention” as a method of making products obsolete is growing, say right to repair proponents. Many companies that manufacture electronics—anything from laptops to refrigerators to your car’s onboard computer—now have restrictions that prevent consumers from having them fixed anywhere besides a licensed repair shop. Some companies use digital locks or copyrighted software to prevent consumers or independent repair people from making changes. Others simply refuse to share their repair manuals. Some add fine print clauses to their user agreements so customers (often unwittingly) promise not to fix their own products.

“Most people experience the problem, but they have no idea that’s there’s a solution, and they have no idea that the manufacturers are behaving badly,” says Gay Gordon-Byrne, the executive director of The Repair Association.

Gordon-Byrne’s organization, a nonprofit that lobbies for right to repair laws, was founded three years ago. Over the past year, the group has started to introduce legislation at the state level. They currently have about 180 official members, many of them large organizations such as repair professional trade associations or environmental advocacy agencies.

iFixit, a website that provides repair instructions and DIY advice and tools, approaches the problem from a different angle: if companies won’t provide us with the information to fix our own products, we’ll figure it out ourselves. The site functions as a sort of repair Wiki, with some one million users sharing knowledge. Its CEO, Kyle Wiens, came to the right to repair movement after working as a technician at an authorized Apple repair center.

“I knew what authorized technicians had access to,” he says. “Then, when I was at university, I was trying to repair my own laptop and I looked online and couldn’t find any information. It’s kind of inevitable that, as a manufacturer, you want to control everything. But that’s not what’s best for consumers.”

The problem, Gordon-Byrne says, began in earnest in the late 1990s. Companies were increasingly embedding software in their products, and claiming that software as their intellectual property. Companies would argue that they needed to control repairs as a way of maintaining security and customer experience, reasons Gordon-Byrne calls “all fake.”

“Look at all the stuff you own that has a chip in it,” says Gordon-Byrne. “I looked around my home and I counted 29 before I left my driveway. It’s in every clock, every TV, everything that’s connected to the internet. I have a bathtub that has a whirlpool feature that’s controlled by a circuit board that no longer works. You can’t get away from the chips, and if you can’t fix them you’re really going to have to replace [the product].”

The problem isn’t limited to traditional home electronics. A farmer may have paid for his or her John Deere tractor, a piece of farm equipment that can run in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. But John Deere still owns the software that runs the tractor, and trying to fix it without going to an authorized repair center could put the farmer afoul of copyright laws. This means that, in order to make legal repairs, a farmer in a rural area might have to haul a broken 15-ton tractor for hundreds of miles to an authorized dealer or repair shop. In the harvest season, this could mean a crushing loss of revenue.

Nor does the problem only harm consumers. Independent repair professionals, from camera shop owners to computer technicians, suffer, saying the lack of access to repair parts and manuals makes them unable to do their jobs.

Companies have a two-part incentive to make their products difficult to repair. First, if they control repairs, they can make money off of them. This benefit is increased by the fact that a company that monopolizes repairs can set higher prices than the market would otherwise bear. An authorized iPhone battery replacement for an out-of-warranty phone costs $79. The unauthorized iPhone battery replacement I had done in a Hong Kong electronics mall, where there’s plenty of competition, cost me about $30. A DIY iPhone battery repair kit from iFixit costs $34.95.

When Gordon-Byrne’s Subzero refrigerator began having problems “366 days” into a one-year warranty, she went looking for an independent repair person to fix it. But Subzero, she soon discovered, didn’t sell parts to non-authorized repair people. The minimum price for hiring a Subzero repair person was $300, she says.

A product that has software embedded in its design is even more difficult to repair, since you can’t simply replace a part with a similar one. When consumers do create workarounds to allow themselves to repair their own items, some companies fight back.

Earlier this year, many iPhone 6 owners found themselves with nonworking phones after an Apple iOS update detected that they had had repairs done at an unauthorized shop. Without warning, the update put their phones on permanent, unfixable lockdown. (After a public outcry, Apple apologized and offered a fix to the problem, saying it was meant as an in-factory security test and not intended to affect customers.) A self-cleaning cat litter box called CatGenie had a “SmartCartridge” of cleaning solution that stopped working once it was opened and refilled a certain number of times. The owner was then forced to buy a new SmartCartridge from the company. It’s since spawned a thriving market in devices like the CartridgeGenius cartridge emulator to outwit this mechanism. 

Companies that see their products being altered or repaired without authorization have often taken legal action. In 2011, Apple sued a New York teenager for trademark infringement after the 17-year-old sold kits to convert black-colored iPhones to white-colored ones, using cases he’d purchased directly from the supplier in China.

The inability to self-repair ones possessions is an even more urgent problem in the developing world and among disadvantaged populations. Wiens tells the story of an independent medical device repair technician in Tanzania who has a website where he shares information on fixing medical equipment such as infant incubators, cardiac monitors and autoclaves.

“He gets legal friction from medical manufacturers all the time,” Wiens says.

But in countries like Tanzania, using an authorized repair outlet may not even be an option.

“Is Medtronic going to send a repair technician to a hospital in Tanzania?” Wiens asks. “I don’t think so.”

In Minneapolis, a nonprofit called Tech Dump provides electronic recycling and refurbishment, employing workers not considered traditionally employable, many of whom have criminal records. The low prices of the organization's refurbished items allow people who might not be able to afford, say, a new computer purchase a good-condition laptop.

“They do a tremendous service for the community,” Wiens says, of Tech Dump.

But the company is having an increasingly difficult time with the refurbishment part of its mission. The company takes in some 5 million pounds of electronics every year, everything from cell phones to computers to TVs. But they’re only able to repair about 15 percent of these items, often because they can’t access repair information or proprietary parts.

“[Manufacturers] don’t have any repairs or any repair manuals available for purchase,” says Amanda LaGrange, Tech Dump’s CEO. “We’re not expecting them to provide items for free. We would absolutely purchase them because it would make us far more efficient.”

Right to repair legislation could help deal with the mounting e-waste that winds up in landfills. (Joost de Kluijver, courtesy of Flickr user Fairphone)

Related to all this is the growing problem of e-waste. The inability to repair a product shortens its lifespan and adds to the number of electronics winding up in landfills. A recent study by the German Environment Agency shows that the lifespan of home electronics is getting shorter. Some of this is due to consumers’ yearning for new, better products—about a third of purchases of “white goods” (major appliances like fridges and washing machines) were due to customer desire for an upgrade. But much of this has to do with items being faulty and—presumably—difficult to repair. The percent of white goods being replaced within five years because of “technical defects” increased from 3.5 percent in 2004 to 8.3 percent in 2012.

According to research from the UN, the world produced about 41.8 million metric tons of e-waste in 2014. Only a fraction of this—about 6.5 million metric tons—was recycled through government take-back programs. The amount of global e-waste is expected to increase to 50 million metric tons by 2018. E-waste is often highly toxic, leaching heavy metals and dangerous chemicals into the soil around landfills and releasing greenhouse gas and mercury emissions when burned.

“If we all just used our electronics for longer, it would definitely decrease the environmental impact,” LaGrange says.

When I first reached Gordon-Byrne, she told me I was catching her in a “moment of great frustration.” The Repair Association had introduced “Fair Repair” bills in four states—Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska and New York. These bills called for manufacturers to provide “fair access” to service information and replacement parts for owners and independent repair people. But by last month, it was clear that none of them were going to progress, dying in committee or when the legislative session ended. Right to repair advocates blame the manufacturers. Apple, for example, was found to have funded lobbying efforts to kill the Fair Repair bill in New York.

Gordon-Byrne says she’s still hopeful similar bills will pass in upcoming sessions. She and other right to repair advocates take inspiration from recent events in the automotive industry. In 2012, Massachusetts passed a bill forcing car manufacturers to provide independent repair shops with the same diagnostic tools they give authorized repairers. In 2014, the automotive industry, seeing that other states would likely pass similar legislation, agreed to make the same data available nationwide by 2018.

If Fair Repair bills begin passing in select states, right to repair advocates hope it will cause a similar sea change in the electronics industry.

“The manufacturers are not going to be able to keep this up forever,” Wiens says. “It’s just a matter of time.” 

A monument to modernity: Conserving Alexander Calder's "Gwenfritz"

National Museum of American History

If you’ve ever visited the museum, you've likely passed by an enormous abstract sculpture called Gwenfritz. After undergoing a massive conservation effort last fall, this remarkable work is back in its original location. 

2 photos of large sculpture

Left: Gwenfritz shortly after its installation in 1969, courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives. Right: The sculpture back in its original location, with construction on the reflecting pool underway, in July 2014.

Just outside the western wall of the museum, 35 tons of metal reach skyward. With its jagged angles and rich, matte paint, this 40-foot tall sculpture creates a commanding presence. Gwenfritz, created by the third-generation American sculptor Alexander Calder in 1968, is returning to its original site-specific location after a recent restoration.

This stabile—a stationary sculptural form, in contrast to Calder’s famous kinetic mobiles commissioned by Washington, D.C., philanthropist Gwendolyn Cafritz for this location at the brand-new Museum of History and Technology (our name until 1980). Although the sculpture has always been a part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum's collections, it is a site-specific sculpture designed to be installed outside the west end of this museum. Fabricated at the Etablissements Biémont foundry in Tours, France, close to where the Pennsylvania-born artist kept a studio, the sculpture was shipped to D.C. in six crates. Smithsonian staff assembled all 71 pieces, secured them with heavy-duty bolts, and applied black paint as recommended by the sculptor before its dedication on June 3, 1969. Sited between the Washington Monument and the museum, the visual impact of the Gwenfritz was made more dramatic, thanks to the reflecting pool that surrounded it.

Photo of sculpture, large

In this archival photo taken before it was sent to D.C., light can be seen streaming through the holes where the bolts will be placed. It was not fully assembled until it reached the National Mall. From the Institutional History Division of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

By 1984, Calder's sculpture was moved closer to Constitution Avenue to make way for a bandstand between the museum and the National Mall. The stabile remained at this location for 30 years. Last fall, after nearly 45 years of exposure to the elements, this piece of art underwent an extensive conservation treatment. Finally, this month, visitors will once again be able to see Gwenfritz in its original site. (My favorite view is through the windows at the museum's Stars and Stripes cafe.)

Conserving the sculpture in an off-site location required disassembling the massive structure like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, hauling it away in a caravan of trucks, removing three layers of primer and paint, repairing the metal where needed, recoating it with industrial paints, and finally, reassembling it with more than 1,200 new bolts. Because the original paint was lead-based, the conservators had to handle and dispose of it as a hazardous material.

This led the team to understand Calder's work as a feat of engineering. "This conservation project gave us an opportunity to appreciate the engineering behind the sculpture," said Karen Lemmey, Smithsonian American Art Museum's curator of sculpture. "You could see how each part was put together, much in the way that a ship is built. There is a tremendous sense of balance, of design, of precision, of line... and that Calder is able to visualize what this is going to look like from the maquette to the monumental scale."

2 photos of gwenfritz

Left: Calder's scale model shows Gwenfritz on the west side of the museum—which was the case from 1969 to 1983. Right: Gwenfritz visible in an undated photograph. Photos from the Institutional History Division of the Smithsonian Institution Archives (left and right).

The sculpture dramatically changed the face of public art in the nation's capital. Gwenfritz —along with Jose de Rivera's 1967 sculpture Infinity, located just outside the museum's entrance from the National Mall—is one of the first abstract sculptures in D.C. One of its biggest impacts was "heralding a new aesthetic," said Lemmey. In the late 1960s, she explained, "There was a certain degree of predictability in public art, which was not perhaps reflective of the very vibrant arts scene" at that time.

Much like the museum's modern design, which was a certain departure from the standard look of classically-inspired federal buildings, Calder embraced the intersection of science, technology, history, and the arts to create a new aesthetic fitting of that revolutionary time. 

Maintaining the stabile's unique appearance was a major concern for Richard Barden, the museum's preservation services manager. "When you're conserving a piece like this—a monumental, abstract sculpture—what we're really preserving is the aesthetic of it, how it looked," he said. "It's a piece of art, so the aesthetics of it—the visual—is important."

Calder suggested that the work should be covered in a matte black paint, which would absorb light and allow viewers to see the interaction between bolts and planes. Barden, who is a sculptor himself, explained that the sculpture's context is hugely influential in regards to light and shadows. Bringing Gwenfritz out from under the trees allows the tones of black to change based on the time of day and season. This more open location also attracts fewer birds and insects, which created nests and left droppings in its previous spot, accelerating damage to the sculpture's surface.

2014 color photo of Gwenfritz under trees

The sculpture in its Constitution Avenue location, under the trees

Barden found that the conservation was so substantial that the effect surprised even him: "The sculpture looks much different than I thought it would. I had no idea how well it would look, or how well the lines, the bolts, and the planes would all interact with each other. I couldn’t tell you that it would end up looking like several shades of black," he said.

Barden, who oversees all preservation initiatives at the museum, said that the Gwenfritz conservation is the tallest, widest, and heaviest project he has seen in his 22 years here. His staff of four conserves a wide range of artifacts in three labs: Objects, Paper, and Costumes/Textiles. The team has spent a significant amount of time researching how this piece was originally assembled: "In order to conserve an artifact, whatever it is, you have to know how it's made. You have to know what it's made of, how they make the materials, how the manufacture of the materials affects the structure of that object, and then what the environment does to it," he said.

One of more than 1,200 bolts replaced during the conservation process

One of more than 1,200 bolts replaced during the conservation process, which stabilized corroded metal and replaced lead-based paint with a formula developed by the U.S. Army Research Lab and the National Gallery of Art. The restoration of the Gwenfritz is made possible with generous support from The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation, with additional support from Donna and Marvin Schwartz.

Throughout the conservation process, Barden has made a conscious effort to maintain detailed records for future conservators. Although they do not anticipate another large-scale restoration effort for many more years, keeping track of the steps they've taken will no doubt assure that future maintenance is done correctly. Almost half a century after Calder unveiled this stabile as a modern complement to the Washington Monument, Gwenfritz has returned to its original location looking like new.

Photo of Gwenfritz with construction cranes

The reflecting pool when the sculpture was originally installed in 1969 was four feet deep. Construction crews added 132 cubic yards of concrete over the summer so that the pool's new depth will be 18 inches. In this view from the museum's west wing—set to open in summer 2015— construction takes place on the new National Museum of African American History and Culture behind Gwenfritz.

For more pictures of the Gwenfritz, check out the Flickr album. Gwenfritz will be officially re-dedicated on October 31, 2014. Auni Gelles interned in the New Media office over the summer.

Author(s): 
Intern Auni Gelles

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Defying Critics, Paleontologist Paul Olsen Looks for Hidden Answers Behind Mass Extinctions

Smithsonian Magazine

When scientists first suggested in the early 1980s that volcanic activity had wiped out most dinosaurs 66 million years ago, Paul Olsen wasn’t having any of it. He wasn’t even convinced there had been a mass extinction.

Olsen, a paleontologist and geologist at Columbia University, eventually came to accept the idea of mass extinctions. He also acknowledged that volcanoes played a role in certain extinction events. But even then, he wasn’t entirely convinced about the cause of these extinctions.

The leading hypothesis holds massive eruptions blasted carbon dioxide into Earth's atmosphere, cranking up global temperatures within a relatively short period of time. Such a sudden change, the theory goes, would have killed off terrestrial species like the huge ancestors of crocodiles and large tropical amphibians and opened the door for dinosaurs to evolve.

Olsen, who discovered his first dinosaur footprint in the 1960s as a teenager in New Jersey and still uses the state’s geological formations to inform his work, wondered whether something else may have been at work—such as sudden cooling events after some of these eruptions, rather than warming.

It's an idea that's been around in some form for decades, but the 63-year-old Olsen is the first to strongly argue that sulfate aerosols in the atmosphere could have been responsible for the cooling. A sudden chill would explain the selective nature of the extinctions, which affected some groups strongly and others not at all.

His willingness to revive an old debate and look at it from a fresh angle has earned Olsen a reputation as an important voice in the field of earth sciences.

Olsen thinks that the wavy band of rock near the bottom of this image—composed of tangled, cylindrical strands that could be tree roots or other debris—may be the remains of a sudden mass extinction. It could line up with a well-dated giant meteorite that hit what is now southern Canada 215.5 million years ago. (Columbia University Earth Institute)

From the moment Olsen abandoned dreams of becoming a marine biologist as a scrawny teenager and fell in love with dinosaurs, he courted controversy and earned a reputation for making breathtaking discoveries.

Olsen’s first breakthrough came as a young teen, when he, his friend Tony Lessa and several other dinosaur enthusiasts discovered thousands of fossilized footprints at a quarry near his house in Rosemount, New Jersey. They were the remnants of carnivorous dinosaurs and tiny crocodile relatives that dated back to the Jurassic, 201 million years ago. The teens' efforts to successfully designate the quarry as a dinosaur park inspired a 1970 Life magazine article. 

Olsen even sent a letter to President Richard Nixon urging his support for the park, and followed that with a cast of a dinosaur footprint. "It is a miracle that nature has given us this gift, this relic of the ages, so near to our culturally starved metropolitan area," the young Olsen wrote in a later letter to Nixon. "A great find like this cannot go unprotected and it must be preserved for all humanity to see." (Olsen eventually received a response from the deputy director of the Interior Department's Mesozoic Fossil Sites Division.)

Olsen shook things up again as an undergraduate student at Yale. In this case, he and Peter Galton published a 1977 paper in Science that questioned whether the end-Triassic mass extinction had even happened, based on what he called incorrect dating of the fossils. Subsequent fossil discoveries showed that Olsen was wrong, which he readily acknowledged.

In the 1980s, Olsen demonstrated that Earth’s orbital cycles—the orientation of our planet on its axis and the shape of its path around the sun—influenced tropical climates and caused lakes to come and go as far back as 200 million years ago. It was a controversial idea at the time, and even today has its doubters.

More recently, Olsen and colleagues dated the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province—large igneous rock deposits that were the result of massive volcanic eruptions—to 201 million years ago. That meant the eruptions played a role in the end-Triassic mass extinction. They published their results in a 2013 study in the journal Science.

But it is his latest project—reexamining the causes of mass extinctions—that could be his most controversial yet.

Researchers generally recognize five mass extinction events over the past 500 million years, Olsen explains. We may be in the middle of a sixth event right now, which started tens of thousands of years ago with the extinction of animals like the mastodon.

Determining the causes and timing of these extinctions is incredibly difficult. Regardless of cause, however, these events can pave the way for whole new groups of organisms. In fact, the disappearance of nearly all synapsids—a group that includes mammals and their relatives—in the Triassic may have allowed for the evolution of dinosaurs about 230 million years ago.

The accepted theory for the end-Triassic extinction states that gases from enormous volcanic eruptions led to a spike in carbon dioxide levels, which in turn increased global temperatures by as much as 11 degrees F. Terrestrial species, like the huge ancestors of crocodiles and large tropical amphibians, would have perished because they couldn't adapt to the new climate.

The remains of the Triassic are "interesting because [they give] us a different kind of world to look at, to try and understand how earth's systems work," says Olsen. "But it's not so different that it's beyond the boundaries of what we see going on today." (Columbia University Earth Institute)

However, this explanation never sat well with Olsen. “If we are back in the time of the Triassic and the dominant life forms on land are these crocodile relatives, why would a three degree [Celsius] increase in temperature do anything?” asks Olsen, sitting in his office on the campus of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York. 

Some inland tropical areas would have become lethally hot, Olsen says, surrounded by fossils, dinosaur memorabilia and a Nixon commendation on the wall. But the mountains and coastlines would still be bearable. "It’s hard to imagine the temperature increase would be a big deal,” he says.

Three years ago, Olsen began looking at the fossil record of species that survived other mass extinctions, like the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) event 66 million years ago and the Permian event roughly 250 million years ago. What he saw suggested a completely different story: Earth's climate during and after these volcanic eruptions or asteroid impacts got briefly but intensely cold, not hotter, as volcanic ash and droplets of sulfate aerosols obscured the sun.

Scientists generally agree that the reduced sunlight would have disrupted photosynthesis, which plants need to survive. During the K-T extinction event, plant losses would have left many herbivorous dinosaurs, and their predators, with little to eat.

In this case, size became the determining factor in whether a species went extinct. Large animals need more food than smaller animals to survive, Olsen explains. 

With his fluffy white mustache and hearty laugh, Olsen is hard to miss at paleontology meetings. He's not afraid to insert himself into mass extinction debates, but is quick to point out that he counts even his most ardent critics among his friends.

Supporters praise his creativity, persistence and willingness to consider the big unanswered questions in paleontology that, if solved, would alter our understanding of important events like mass extinctions.

“Among academics, you see two types. You see the parachutists and you see the truffle hunters, and Paul is a parachutist,” says Hans Sues, chairman of the department of paleobiology at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. “The parachutist is the one who helps build the big frame in which other people operate.” Sues and Olsen, who have pieced together fossils in the past, have known each other for 30 years.

Olsen's latest project—the volcanic winter theory—has him looking for ancient ash deposits from the United States to Morocco to the United Kingdom. He hopes to find the fingerprints of certain sulfur isotopes and metals that could indicate that sulfur-rich super-eruptions occured. They would also pinpoint the timing of the eruptions relative to the extinctions, Olsen explains.

Evidence of ancient ice would also bolster his case. For those clues, Olsen must look to mud flats laid down in what would have been the tropics—some of which are in areas in New Jersey, where he searched for dinosaurs as a teenager. “If you find these little crystals on mud flats, you know it froze in the tropics," Olsen says.

Sues is among those who believe Olsen’s hypothesis has merit, partly because Olsen is focused on the sulfate aerosols from eruptions. In the recent past, massive volcanic eruptions—like Mount Pinatubo in 1991—belched the sulfate aerosols into the atmosphere, which reduced global temperatures. The trick is finding evidence of extreme cold in rocks, Sues says.

But other scientists, like Spencer G. Lucas, curator of paleontology at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, have their doubts.

As someone who has long sparred with Olsen on mass extinctions, Lucas agrees that volcanism played a role in extinctions and isn’t ruling out cooling as the cause. But finding chemical evidence of that in the rocks or preserved ash will be difficult, if not impossible, to find, he says.

Searching for those clues isn't a waste of time though, says Lucas. He wants someone who cares about the problem, like Olsen, to collect the evidence and makes a convincing case for the Earth either cooling or warming during these extinctions.

“Paul is sort of the Don Quixote of extinctions,” Lucas says. “He is tilting at a windmill in my mind. But I’m glad he’s doing it because he knows he has got the background, the smarts and the opportunity. If anybody can figure this out, he will.”

A Coal Fire May Have Helped Sink the 'Titanic'

Smithsonian Magazine

The sinking of the Titanic has long been a cautionary tale about the dangers of hubris. But after more than a century, a new documentary offers evidence that the iceberg wasn’t the only reason for the sinking of the “unsinkable ship.” Instead, the floating mountain of ice may have happened to strike the exact spot where the hull had been weakened by a coal fire blazing in the bowels of the passenger ship.

In "Titanic: The New Evidence," which airs on the Smithsonian Channel on January 21, Irish journalist Senan Molony argues that the hull of the infamous ship was compromised weeks before it set sail. Through researching photos and eyewitness testimony from the time, Molony contends that a fire spontaneously lit inside one of the Titanic’s enormous coal bunkers and critically weakened a crucial segment of the ship’s hull.

"The ship is a single-skin ship," Molony tells Smithsonian.com. By that he means that while modern ships contain two hulls, at the time, the Titanic, like most ships of its day, just had the one. Because the bunkers where the crew stored coal for the engines sat right next to the hull, the heat from the fire would have transferred directly to the skin, damaging the Titanic's structure.

For Molony, who has spent decades studying the Titanic, the "smoking gun" came in a recent discovery of a trove of photographs documenting the ship’s construction and preparations for its maiden voyage. The photos had been taken by the engineering chief of Harland and Wolff, the Belfast-based company that built the doomed vessel. About four years ago, Molony and a collaborator purchased the photographs from a descendant of the company’s director, who had found them stored in an attic. As they pored over the images, Molony was shocked to see a 30-foot-long black streak documented on the outside of the Titanic’s hull, close to where the iceberg struck its starboard side.

“We asked some naval architects what this could be, and nobody knew and everybody was intrigued,” Molony says. “The best suggestion at the time was that this was a reflection." But Monology disagrees because, at the time the photograph was taken, he says, there was no road or dock on the shore which could have been reflected on the hull.

According to engineers from the Imperial College London, the streak in the photograph may have been caused by a fire in one of the Titanic’s coal bunkers—a three-story-tall room that stored much of the coal that fueled the ship’s engines. Molony believes that the fire had started as early as three weeks before the Titanic set out for its maiden voyage, but was ignored for fear of bad press and the desire to keep the ship on schedule.

“Britannia rules the waves,” Molony says. “They’d been facing massive competition from the Germans and others for the valuable immigrant trade. You don’t want don’t want a loss of public confidence in the whole of the British maritime marine.”

Just after survivors made landfall, several people who worked on the ship’s engines cited a coal fire as the cause of the shipwreck. An official inquiry by British officials in 1912 mentioned it, too, but Molony says the narrative was downplayed by the judge who oversaw it.

“He was a shipping interest judge, and, in fact, he presided at a toast at the Shipwrights' Guild four years earlier saying ‘may nothing ever adversely affect the great carrying power of this wonderful country,’” Molony says. “So he closes down efforts to pursue the fire and he makes this finding that the iceberg acted alone.”

An article from the New York Tribune published shortly after survivors made landfall. (Via Senan Molony)

Molony’s theory has its skeptics. Over the years, all sorts of people have offered up alternative theories to explain why the Titanic sank, ranging from being struck by a torpedo from a German U-boat to being brought down by an Egyptian mummy’s curse, Dan Bilefsky reports for The New York Times. While a coal fire is certainly more plausible than a murderous, undead pharaoh, others still contend that the iceberg was the decisive factor in the ship’s sinking.

“A fire may have accelerated this. But in my view, the Titanic would have sunk anyway,” Dave Hill, a former honorary secretary of the British Titanic Society, tells Bilefsky.

Still, Molony stands by his findings. After all, that same inquiry stated that the Titanic had sunk fully intact, while it was later found broken in half on the sea floor.

“Just because an official finding says it, doesn’t make it true,” Molony says.

Many details of what happened on that fateful night in April 1912 may be lost to history, but if nothing else, these findings present an interesting new angle to the infamous, and it would seem unsinkable, story.

Titanic: The New Evidence airs January 21 at 8 p.m. ET on the Smithsonian Channel.

Editor's Note, January 22, 2017: This story originally referred to the source of this new research as being from the Royal College of London. They are from Imperial College London. 

Image by (Photo courtesy of the National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center). From the National Museum of American History:
When the ocean liner Carpathia arrived at the spot in the North Atlantic ocean where Titanic sank, all the rescuers saw by the light of the moon was some wreckage and lifeboats with passengers. Many of the passengers had come up on deck in their nightclothes from their bunks aboard Titanic, and they were totally unprepared to climb directly into the lifeboats. The survivors were struck by the cold outdoor temperature, and they were suffering from exposure, extreme stress and shock by the time Carpathia arrived on the scene. The rescue ship was able to pick up 705 survivors, and as they boarded, they tossed their life vests into piles on the deck and were handed heavy, warm clothes by Carpathia's sympathetic passengers. (original image)

Image by Image Source: National Archives Online Public Access. This photograph was taken by a passenger of the Carpathia, the ship that received the Titanic's distress signal and came to rescue the survivors. It shows survivors of the sinking of the Titanic in a notably sparse lifeboat. (original image)

Image by Photo by Bernice Palmer, courtesy of the National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center. From the National Museum of American History:
Titanic struck a North Atlantic iceberg at 11:40 p.m. in the evening of April 14, 1912 at a speed of 20.5 knots (23.6 MPH). The berg scraped along the starboard or right side of the hull below the waterline, slicing open the hull between five of the adjacent watertight compartments. If only one or two of the compartments had been opened, Titanic might have stayed afloat, but when so many were sliced open, the watertight integrity of the entire forward section of the hull was fatally breached. Titanic slipped below the waves at 2:20 a.m. on April 15. The Cunard Liner RMS Carpathia arrived at the scene around two hours after Titanic sank, finding only a few lifeboats and no survivors in the 28 degrees Fahrenheit water. Bernice Palmer took this picture of the iceberg identified as the one which sank Titanic, by the survivors who climbed aboard Carpathia. The large iceberg is surrounded by smaller ice floes, indicating how far north in the Atlantic Ocean the tragedy struck. (original image)

Image by Photo by Bernie Palmer, courtesy of the National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center. From the National Museum of American History:
Bernie Palmer sold rights to her Titanic iceberg and survivor pictures to Underwood & Underwood of New York for only $10.00, not knowing any better. This picture identifies the young facing couple as honeymooners Mr. & Mrs. George A. Harder of Brooklyn, New York. The woman with her back to Bernie's Brownie camera is Mrs. Charles M. Hayes; her husband was President of the Grand Trunk Railway. He died in the shipwreck, but Mrs. Hayes and her two daughters were rescued by Carpathia. (original image)

Image by Photo courtesy of The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Over two hours after the disaster the RMS Carpathia arrived in the area and began rescuing survivors from their lifeboats. (original image)

Image by Photo by Stephan Rehorek, Image Source: Wikimedia. According to the BBC, this is a photograph of the iceberg that sank the Titanic, taken by Stephan Rehorek. If you look closely you can see traces of paint from the side of the ship left behind on the iceberg. Stephan Rehorek was a passenger on a ship that sailed through the waters where the Titanic sank on April 20th aboard the Bremen. Once in the area of the disaster, the people on board could see wreckage and the bodies of more than a hundred victims floating in the water. (original image)

Image by Photo courtesy of The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Less than a third of those aboard Titanic survived the disaster. Some survivors died shortly afterwards; injuries and the effects of exposure caused the deaths of several of those brought aboard Carpathia. (original image)

Image by Photograph courtesy of The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. From the Encyclopaedia Britannica:
Although the Titanic's number of lifeboats exceeded that required by the British Board of Trade, its 20 boats could carry only 1,178 people, far short of the total number of passengers. This problem was exacerbated by lifeboats being launched well below capacity, because crewmen worried that the davits would not be able to support the weight of a fully loaded boat. Lifeboat number 7, which was the first to leave the Titanic, held only about 27 people, though it had space for 65. In the end, only 705 people would be rescued in lifeboats. (original image)

Image by Image Source: Wikipedia. Titanic's lifeboats at the White Star Lines' Pier 54 in New York City after sinking. (original image)

Image by Image Source: Wikipedia. From the Encyclopaedia Britannica:
Titanic's passengers numbered around 1,317 people: 324 in First Class, 284 in Second Class and 709 in Third Class. There were 107 children aboard, the largest number of whom were in Third Class. The ship was considerably under capacity on her maiden voyage, as she could accommodate 2,566 passengers. (original image)

Image by Image Source: Wikipedia. From the Encyclopaedia Brittanica:
According to testimony given afterward at approximately 11:40 p.m., April 14, 1912 about 400 nautical miles (740 km) south of Newfoundland, Canada, an iceberg was sighted, and the bridge was notified. First Officer William Murdoch ordered both the ship “hard-a-starboard” (to the right) and the engines reversed. The Titanic began to turn, but it was too close to avoid a collision. By reversing the engines, Murdoch actually caused the Titanic to turn slower than if it had been moving at its original speed. Most experts believe the ship would have survived if it had hit the iceberg head-on. (original image)

Image by Image Source: Wikipedia. Stateroom B-59, decorated in Old Dutch style. (original image)

Image by Image Source: Wikipedia. From the Encyclopaedia Brittanica:
There were stark differences in the survival rates of the different classes aboard Titanic. Although only 3 percent of First-class women were lost, 54 percent of women in Third class died. Similarly, five of six First-class and all Second-class children survived, but 52 of the 79 in Third class children perished. (original image)

Kids pitched in to defeat disease and advance medical research

National Museum of American History

Giving blood, getting a flu shotraising money for a cure—plenty of Americans participate every day to help secure the health and wellness of their fellow citizens. Children have been an important part of these communal efforts and they in return have received small tokens in recognition of their participation (and sometimes to help lure them into participating). Here are a few of these historic tokens and the stories of the American kids whose participation contributed to all of our well-being.

Polio Pioneers
In 1954, 1.8 million American school children participated in a national trial of the new polio vaccine. The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (now the March of Dimes) supported both the development of the vaccine and the subsequent trial. More than 300,000 people—mostly volunteers, including physicians, nurses, schoolteachers, public health officials, and community members—carried out the work. School children served as the test population.

Because half of all reported poliomyelitis cases occurred in children under 10, the trial's study population targeted children in the first three grades of elementary school.

Metal pin picturing illustration of two children, a girl and a boy. The little girl has the boy by the elbow, helping him. She has a brace on her leg. The boy uses crutches. They are dressed in nice clothes. Text on red background says "Fight Infantile Paralysis." The girl is smiling. The boy has a partial smile.

The children became known as "Polio Pioneers." After obtaining the consent of their parents, about 650,000 children received either the vaccine or a placebo (a solution made to look like vaccine, but with no active materials). Over a million more children served as "observed" controls. The success of this trial led to widespread use of the polio vaccine and near eradication of the virus in the United States by the early 1960s.

Front and back of wallet-sized card. Text: "The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis Certifies That Helena Wright has been enrolled as a Polio Pioneer." On reverse: "Attested" followed by child's school, city, county, state, date, and chairman's signature.

Metal pin in circle shape. Red silhouette of a doctor leaning over to look into a microscope with other medical instruments nearby. Text: "Polio Pioneer in 1954"

The Smallpox 12
Nearly 150 years earlier, in October 1809, 12 children from the town of Milton, Massachusetts participated in an unusual demonstration of a new medical technique. In July of that year, the town leaders of Milton had offered free vaccination to all inhabitants and over 300 persons were inoculated. Vaccination was a relatively new idea at this time and many individuals (including medical professionals) were unconvinced of its value. The technique involved inoculating patients with cowpox in order to provide protection from the more serious disease smallpox.

Following the vaccination campaign, the town leaders took an unusual step—they decided to hold a public demonstration to prove without a doubt that the cowpox vaccine worked. On October 9, 1809, 12 children, selected from those vaccinated in July, were inoculated with fresh, virulent smallpox matter. The men on the vaccination committee were confident of good results and apparently chose their own children (or other young relatives) to participate. After 15 days of confinement, all the children were discharged with no sign of smallpox infection.

Each child participant received a personalized certificate pronouncing them a living testament to the "never failing power of the mild preventative the Cow Pox," "a blessing great as it is singular in its kind." A detailed account of the experiment was sent to the officers of every town in the state, as well as to Governor Christopher Gore, a proponent of vaccination. In 1810 the State of Massachusetts passed the Cow Pox Act directing every town, district, or plantation, within the Commonwealth, to provide for the vaccination of their inhabitants.

The world is now free of smallpox—a remarkable global achievement that owes a small debt to the children in a little town in New England in the early years of our republic.

Front and back of document, handwritten

Cheating the Tooth Fairy, for science

In the late 1950s, children in St. Louis, Missouri, began spurning the tooth fairy and sending their baby teeth to scientists at Washington University. Researchers were investigating possible links between cancer rates and the fallout produced by the detonation of the first atomic bomb at the White Sands Proving Ground in 1945 as well as the hundreds of nuclear tests conducted by the United States and the USSR in the following years.

Pin and wallet-sized card. Pin is white with cartoon of a smiling child missing front tooth in all green. "I gave my tooth to science." Card is blue with same graphic and "Operation Tooth Club."

By collecting a large number of baby teeth, scientists could assess and compare cancer rates with levels of strontium-90 in an individual's bones. A radioactive isotope produced by nuclear fission, strontium-90 had an "affinity for bone" and scientists in the 1950s and 1960s feared that it could cause cancer. Although teeth are not bone, similarities between the formation of bone and teeth mean that studying one can lead to insights into the other.

Borne by high winds, strontium-90 had contaminated vegetable crops, meat, and the milk supply across the country, and the levels of contamination in St. Louis were particularly high. Tooth collection areas were quickly set up around the city—in libraries, schools, dentists' offices, and drugstores. By 1962 the children of St. Louis were donating nearly 750 teeth a week for a grand total of 70,000 teeth.

Early results, indicating that children born after 1945 had high levels of strontium-90, influenced President John F. Kennedy as a Partial Test Ban Treaty was being negotiated between the United States, the Soviet Union, and Britain. The children who gave their teeth "to science" may be grandparents themselves today, but their baby teeth are still being studied by scientists in the belief that they will shed even greater light on the impact of atomic testing.

Graphic with text "America Participates"

Alexandra M. Lord, Ph.D., is chair of the History of Medicine and Science Division. Diane Wendt is associate curator in the History of Medicine and Science Division.

Posted Date: 
Wednesday, February 24, 2016 - 08:00
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Wearing Your Art On Your Sleeve

Smithsonian Magazine

Art to wear occupies a unique place in the creative universe. Straddling fashion, craft and art, this hybrid classification has historically sought to elevate dress above its practical role. From the 1890s Pre-Raphaelites to 1930s Surrealist metalsmiths to today’s eco-designers, such crafters acknowledge that the clothes we wear represent ideas and opinions.

Often connected to the precepts of Surrealism or Dada, these artists began to experiment with the shapes, patterns and materials of jewelry and clothing. In fact, surrealism as a movement gained popular esteem from its forays into fashion.

At the apex of this melding of avant-garde art and haute couture, a lauded Italian designer named Elsa Schiaparelli collaborated with such Surrealist luminaries as Jean Cocteau and Salvador Dalí. With Dali, Schiaparelli created one of her most striking garments: the Lobster dress, a cream-colored silk organza gown accented with synthetic horsehair created by Schiarparelli, which Dali then ornamented with a large, parsley-speckled lobster.

Also called the crafts-to-wear movement, and including fiber art, leather crafts, jewelry of all materials, and anything imaginable to adorn the self, the wearable art movement did not identify itself as such until the 1960s. However, many recognize modernist artists and jewelers creating between 1920 and 1950 are among the earliest crafts-to-wear producers.

This week the works of 50 artists selling everything from jewelry, clothing, scarves and handbags go on view at the Smithsonian Institution’s annual Craft2Wear fundraising event at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. Proceeds from the show, produced by the Smithsonian Women’s Committee, support grants and endowments for research at the Institution.

Three artists, Starr Hagenbring, Susan Sanders, and Kathleen Nowak Tucci, working in a variety of physical materials and with decades of experiences in design, will be among those offering items for sale at the event. Their art has appeared across the globe—from a cover of Vogue Italia to Margaret Thatcher’s lapel on broadcast television.

Uniting these three artists and the Crafts2Wear show is an abiding interest in combining high and low art and materials, in keeping with the disruptive mission of the environmentally conscious Wearable Art Movement of the 1960s and 70s.

Hagenbring transforms widely reviled bugs into complex, iridescent tapestries, turning “the ugly into beautiful.” Tucci delights in creating “something of exceptional value out of something that would have ended up in our landfills.” And Sanders, elaborating on the juxtaposition between high and low materials, works in an ultra-tech platform—3D printing—with inexpensive industrial materials, encountering art where it might not be expected.

Starr Hagenbring: The Beauty of Bugs

The New York-based Hagenbring continues the painted fiber-art tradition of Dali and Schiaparelli, using fabric as a canvas, interweaving colored threads and applying bright and opalescent paints to create striking tableaux. Her craft, which can be seen and bought in her New Orleans shop Art & Eyes, takes on numerous subjects: classical and exotic silhouettes, abstract designs, and most recently, realistic and abstract insects.

Her creativity stems from a desire to overcome personal aversions.

As a child, spiders panicked her until she challenged herself to deeply engage in their world. She found their intricate beauty. And the experience spurred a lifelong fascination.

About 25 years ago, while visiting Burma, Hagenbring encountered a carport wall, covered almost entirely with insects of multiple types and sizes. It was as she recalls, “a Smithsonian Institution display of bugs.” Too surprised to be disgusted, she instead examined the “display” and discovered a diversity of size, wing shapes, geometric patterning, hidden cantilevers, and overall beauty. Now, these creature’s multiplicity and strength infuses much of her wearable art.

Insects have inspired the creation of art objects for centuries, from traditional African masks to Picasso’s Cubist paintings, a heritage Hagenbring acknowledges. By focusing on their unexpected beauty and not shying away from large and realistic-looking details, Hagenbring says she has overcome the “ew factor” many people associate with bugs. Her goal is to entice people to find the unexpected loveliness and informs a broader desire to encourage people to, as she says emphatically: “Stop, stop, stop. Look what we’ve got around us.”

Kathleen Nowak Tucci: Ecological Aesthetics

In the 1960s and 1970s, the newly named Wearable Art Movement also embraced environmental awareness as part of its mission, emphasizing the textures and qualities of natural, sustainable materials. Members of the nascent community fused aesthetics with function, seeking to disrupt the traditional rankings or hierarchies within artistic communities that elevate “fine” art above usable crafts. An emphasis on textile work—previously dismissed from the legion of high artists as “women’s work”—dovetailed with the growing women’s liberation movement.

Similarly imbued with political currency, Kathleen Nowak Tucci’s recent work connects with mounting global concerns over ecological destruction, waste and pollution, and extends the traditional wearable artists’ interest in “low” or outré materials to discarded bicycle inner tubes, jettisoned steel brake cables and used Nespresso coffee capsules. Her recycled jewelry began with inner tubes “liberated” from the dust bins of bicycle repair shops.

While struck by the amount of human waste she encounters, gleaning castoffs from bicycle and Harley-Davidson motorcycle shops in Pensacola, Florida, Tucci was initially attracted to working with rubber because the "materials are so fabulous.” The malleable properties of rubber, and the protective qualities of steel create an edgy look reminiscent of medieval chain mail—but much more wearable.


In 2010, Vogue Italia featured Tucci’s jewelry on the cover of an issue reporting on the recent BP oil spill in the Gulf. As someone witnessing the greasy pools smearing the water, Tucci was grateful to be able to materialize a message of resilience and the hope of resurrection through her reclaimed adornments. Not long after that, Tucci spied a box of candy-colored Nespresso capsules in her graphic designer’s office, and began to supplement the matte black of inner tubes with the sparkling jewel tones of anodized aluminum rescued from office trash cans. Eventually, she realized the Nespresso capsules held their own and created standalone fiercely bright pieces. In May 2015, Tucci won the Saul Bell Design Award in Alternative Materials, a category including any material not a precious metal. Next up for the eco-designer? Tucci would love to see a recycled statement piece walk the Hollywood red carpet at a major event (Maggie Gyllenhaal or Tilda Swinton could carry that off beautifully).

Susan Sanders: 3D Printing Her Captivating Handiwork

In the 1980s, wearable art reflected the pop aesthetics and artificial materials popular at the time. Graphic styles and flat appliqué work emphasized surface imagery. Into the 21st century, art-to-wear creators have continued to experiment with techniques and materials, including most recently, 3D printing. Washington, D.C.-native Susan Sanders began her foray into the medium a few years ago after spending years honing her aesthetic on manifold materials, including silver, gold, silk, microfiber, and stone. Her work has appeared in galleries across the world and been sold to a broad spectrum of clients.

Years ago, when Sanders was crafting large, fully articulated bug brooches out of precious metals, she produced a particularly large and striking mosquito. Not long after the museum store at the Whitney in New York sold the creation, United States Secretary of State Madeleine Albright appeared on television wearing it. The pin also appears in Albright’s book Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat’s Jewel Box, and as part of a touring exhibition, which arrived at the Smithsonian Institution in 2010.

Sanders has used so many disparate materials throughout her 42-year career—during all which she has worked in Alexandria, Virginia’s Torpedo Factory—because she likes to freshen up her artistic perception periodically. So, when she first saw 3D-printed jewelry a few years ago, her interest was piqued. After a community-college software course, a weekend workshop, countless YouTube instructional videos, and even more guesses and experiments, Sanders began to produce her own 3D printed jewelry, at first in matte black, and then hand-painted in brilliant hues enhancing the many interlocking angles of her captivating handiwork. Sanders, who has a degree in industrial design from Carnegie-Mellon, says her “taste leans toward geometric forms” and the abstract process of formulating her designs feels like she’s “come home.”

Her 3D designs are all created in one piece but often have many moving parts: invisible joints, hinges and curiously caged balls. The lightweight nylon plastic used in the printing process makes it possible for Sanders to create larger pieces that are still very wearable—and affordable. The comparatively low cost of the process enables her to reach a broader buying audience, a nice change from working with precious metals.

All three women agree that the costumers who wear their products must be self-possessed, must be willing to be seen. Dress, whether sweatpants or a brilliantly illustrated beetle-covered coat, is performative. What we wear is the ever-fascinating link between our private selves and the public’s perception. This year’s artists at Craft2Wear offer myriad ways to bridge that gap with humor, flair and individuality.

The 2015 Smithsonian Craft2Wear show will take place Oct. 1 to 3 at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. The show opens Thursday, Oct. 1 with the Advance Chance Party & Fashion Show from 5:30 to 9 p.m. Tickets are $75 and must be purchased in advance. Daily admission for Friday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. is $10 (cash only), payable at the door. On Oct. 2, from 5:30 to 8 p.m. is Artful Happy Hour (5:30 to 8 p.m.) will give shoppers a chance to toast the artists’ skill and celebrate the Smithsonian Women’s Committee’s long-standing support of science and the arts. Raffle tickets for a pair of black pearl mica pod earrings donated by artist Keith Lewis and a peacock mesh handbag donated by craft artists Bozenna and Lukasz Bogucki may be purchased for $5 each or five for $20 each day of the show.

Poetry Matters: In Baseball, No Poet Has Yet to Do the Game Justice

Smithsonian Magazine

Baseball is a game of unpredictable actions occurring within strictly defined guidelines—innings, strikes and outs. It should be perfect for poetry. But there has yet to be a truly great poem about baseball. The desire to be serious is what kills most baseball poems—they’re all metaphor and have none of the spontaneous joy that went into, say, John Fogarty’s pop song “Center Field.”

Put me in coach, I’m ready to play.

“April is the cruelest month,” is one of the most famous lines in poetry, but it is one that only makes sense in the post-apocalyptic world of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” For the rest of us, clinging to hope, warm weather and the eternal prospect of new beginnings, April is not cruel at all, but welcomed. And in America, it’s welcomed because of baseball. Indeed baseball and spring, the meaning of one spills into the other in a mutually reinforcing bond of associations between the game and rebirth. It is the time when the white chill of snow is replaced by the diamond’s green growth of grass.

But this renewal is specific, even nationalistic, and uniquely American. Baseball speaks to the our country’s character and experience. In particular, the sport is rooted in special connection that Americans have with the land; an encounter with nature formed a particular type of person—and a particular type of democracy and culture.

This baseball was used in the 1937 Negro League East-West All-Star Game, played on August 8, 1937 at Comiskey Park in Chicago, Illinois. Buck Leonard (1907-1997), first baseman for the Homestead Grays, hit a home run to help the East win 7-2, keeping this baseball as a souvenir. (Image courtesy of the American History Museum)

The founding myth about baseball—that General Abner Doubleday “invented” the game in and around Cooperstown, New York, as an activity for his troops—is historically inaccurate, but satisfying nonetheless. Where better for baseball to have been created than in the sylvan woodlands of upstate New York, home of James Fenimore Cooper’s frontier heroes, Leatherstocking and Natty Bumppo? If Cooperstown is a myth, it is one that endures because the idea of America’s game being born out of the land confirms the specialness, not just of the game, but of the people the game represents. Yet it is impossible to disentangle baseball from its myths; and it seems uncanny that the first professional baseball game ever played actually occurred in urban Hoboken, New Jersey, at a place called “Elysian Fields,” Uncanny, because in Greek mythology, these are the fields where the gods and virtuous disported after they had passed on. Is this heaven?

Recall a certain magical ballfield built in Iowa cornfield, where the old time gods of baseball came out to play? The 1982 novel Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella, later adapted into the 1989 film Field of Dreams, starring Kevin Costner, certainly paid homage to that Greek myth.

The virtuous and heroic in baseball is the subject of much non-fiction journalism of course, from beat writing to one of the greatest essays ever penned, John Updike’s eulogy to Ted Williams, “the best old hitter of the century.”  Inevitably it is also the subject of both literary fiction and poetry. Poetry is especially suited to expressing the mythic attractions of the game. And back when poetry was more a part of regular conversation, sportswriters and newspapermen used verse to comment on the game. In 1910, Franklin P. Adams penned his famous tribute to the Cubs’ double play combination, “Tinker to Evers to Chance/A trio of bear cubs fleeter then birds.” And probably the single most well-known poem is Ernest Thayer’s comic 1888 ballad of mighty “Casey at the Bat.” Fiction inevitably requires the author to get down and dirty in the rough and tumble of a difficult sport played (mostly) by young men, full of aggression and testosterone–not always a pretty sight.

But poetry creates just the right tone to convey the larger meaning of the game, if not always the game itself. There are not many poems from the participant’s point of view. With a poem comes the almost automatic assumption that the poet will see through the baseball game to something else, frequently the restoration of some lost unity or state of grace. Poetic baseball creates an elegy in which something lost can be either regained or at least properly mourned.

In 1910 the great sportswriter Grantland Rice made just that point in his “Game Called,” that as the players and the crowd exit the stadium: “But through the night there shines the light/home beyond the silent hill.”

Carl Yastrzemski of the Boston Red Sox wore this batting helmet around 1970. “Yaz” played 23 seasons and 3,308 games for Boston, racking up more than 3,000 hits and 400 home runs. He cut away the right earpiece to hear more clearly. (Image courtesy of the American History Museum)

In his comic riff on sports, the comedian George Carlin croons that in baseball “you go home.” There are a lot of poems in which families re-connect, sometimes successfully, by watching baseball or by having fathers teach sons how to play.

For modernist poets—the heirs to Eliot—baseball was generally ignored because it was too associated with a romantic, or even sentimental, view of life. Modernism was nothing, but hard headed and it was difficult to find a place for games. William Carlos Williams, in his 1923 poem “The Crowd at the Ball Game,” delights in the game, precisely because it’s a time out from the hum-drum grind of daily work.

The crowd at the ball game
is moved uniformly
by a spirit of uselessness
which delights them

And this purposelessness has a point, “all to no end save beauty/the eternal.” Williams is mostly after the relationship between crowd and individual, the game is not really the thing.

The great Marianne Moore got something of a reputation in the popular press for actually being a fan of baseball, and in 1968 threw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium (above). In fact she was often seen in stands, taking in a game and some of her poems reference bats and balls. She talked about creativity more expansively in “Baseball and Writing:”

Fanaticism? No. Writing is exciting
and baseball is like writing.
You can never tell with either
how it will go
or what you will do;
generating excitement

This gets closer to the flow experience of the game itself rather than just describing it but the poem then breaks down into a not very good roll-call of Yankee players from the early ‘60s. Baseball always crops up enough to make it interesting to see how poets have used it. May Swenson turned baseball into an amusing puzzle and word play game based on romance and courtship:

Bat waits
for ball
to mate.
Ball hates
to take bat’s
bait. Ball
flirts, bat’s
late, don’t
keep the date.

And at the end, inevitably, everyone heads home. The Beat Poet Gregory Corso has a typically hallucinatory encounter with Ted Williams “In the Dream of the Baseball Star” in which Williams unaccountably is unable to hit a single pitch and “The umpire dressed in strange attire/thundered his judgment: YOU’RE OUT!”

Fellow beat Lawrence Ferlinghetti invoked baseball to make a civil rights point.

Watching baseball, sitting in the sun, eating popcorn,
reading Ezra Pound,
and wishing that Juan Marichal would hit a hole right through the
Anglo-Saxon tradition in the first Canto
and demolish the barbarian invaders

You can sense in the shift from the game to Ezra Pound, the poet’s uneasiness with the game itself and his eagerness to move from the physical to the intellectual. When the body appears in a baseball poem it is the body of the aging poet, as in Donald Hall’s extended, very well done, but extremely depressing linkage of innings going by with aging—and death. Maybe baseball poems will always be troubled with an excess of seriousness; perhaps we’ve become too rooted in the mythology of baseball and character to treat it on its own terms. Alternate takes by African Americans, like Quincy Troupe’s “Poem for My Father” about the impact of the Negro leagues and the prowess of such players as Cool Papa Bell, give another angle on the tradition. Further such outsider views, especially from the point of view of women who are not either adoring spectators or “Baseball Annies”, would be welcome as well.

As with a new season, hope springs eternal not just that a new season is starting but that someday some poet will give baseball the kind of relaxed attention that does the sport justice. It really is remarkable that baseball, which occupies such a large part of our culture and history, remains in the view of this critic, so inadequately treated by our writers and poets.

Image by Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery. Babe Ruth (1895-1948) also of the Yankees in a photograph by Nickolas Muray. © Courtesy Nickolas Muray Photo Archives © Family of Babe Ruth & Babe Ruth Baseball League, Inc. by CMG Worldwide (original image)

Image by Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery. Josh Gibson (c.1911-1947) who played for the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords in a photograph by Charles “Teeny” Harris. © Estate of Charles “Teenie” Harris (original image)

Image by Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery. Roger Maris (1934-1985) of the New York Yankees by Robert Vickrey. Gift of Scott Vickrey (original image)

Finding the Humor in History

Smithsonian Magazine

In just four years, Kate Beaton has made a name for herself as a cartoonist. She launched her webcomic “Hark! A Vagrant” in 2007 and has since published two books. Her strips, which look like doodles a student might draw in the margins of her notebook, read as endearing spoofs on historical and literary characters. In one, Joseph Kennedy overzealously goads his sons’ aspirations for presidency, and in another, the Brontë sisters go dude watchin’.

Beaton, 28, started penning comics while studying history and anthropology at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, Canada. Her cartoons, about the campus and its professors at first, ran in the school newspaper. “I don’t know how well I ingratiated myself among the faculty,” she says. But now the New York City-based cartoonist hears of educators who serve up her witty comics as aperitifs to what might otherwise be dry lessons.

Just a few months after the release of her latest book Hark! A Vagrant, Beaton took a break from sketching Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights fame to discuss her work with us.

What do you look for in a subject? Are there certain character traits or plotlines you look for?

A certain amount of conflict makes it easier. But there are no red flags really. In general, you just sort of become very familiar with the subject and then you poke fun at it like you would a friend of yours that you know very well.

You once said that your approach is directly related to the old Gaelic-style humor of Nova Scotia. How so?

My hometown [of Mabou, Nova Scotia] is very small. It is 1,200 people or so, and it is really well known for its Scottish heritage. It was so culturally singular in a way. That culture grew because it was so isolated there for such a long time. There is just a certain sense of humor. They talk about it like it’s a thing. I read once in a book that it was a knowing wink to the human foibles of the people that you know. Usually someone is just sort of being a little hard on you or someone else, but in a friendly way. You have to live with these people. No one is a jerk about it. But it is jokes at the expense of everyone’s general humanity. You could call it small-town humor.

So what kind of research does it take to attain a friendly enough rapport with figures in history and literature to mock them in your comics?

For every character it is totally different. It is not just a character. It is the world around the character or the book or the historical thing. People take history very personally, so an event might have a second or third life depending on who is reading about it and who is writing about it and who cares about it. It is fascinating. I don’t really have a particular process. I just try to find the most credible and interesting sources that I can to read about things and I go from there.

Before you went full steam as a cartoonist, you worked in museums, including the Mabou Gaelic and Historical Society, the Shearwater Aviation Museum and the Maritime Museum of British Columbia. Do you visit museums or nose through their digital collections for inspiration?

Yeah. I recently went to the Museum of the Moving Image to see the Jim Henson exhibit here in New York. I like museums a lot. I like visiting them, more to see how they present information than the information inside. That is usually the most interesting part. What do you choose to leave in? What do you leave out? I think the idea of public history is really interesting. What people know about and what they don’t. What is part of the story publicly? Who do you make a statue of and where do you put it and why?

The bulk of my research is online, although I have quite a few books of my own. You learn how to Google the right things, I guess, either a phrase that you think will work or any kind of key words that will bring you to an essay someone wrote or to Google Books. Archive.org has all kinds of books as well. You can find a lot of university syllabi. You can find so much. Go to the Victoria and Albert Museum website. They have all kinds of costuming stuff there. I needed to find a flintlock pistol recently for a strip about pirates, and there was this person’s website. He has one for sale and has pictures of it from all angles for some collector. It was great. The Internet is pretty wonderful for that kind of thing.

Image by Courtesy of Kate Beaton, harkavagrant.com. When coming up with a subject, cartoonist Kate Beaton looks for a certain amount of conflict and then pokes fun at it like you would a friend you know very well. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Kate Beaton, harkavagrant.com. Based in New York City, Beaton has her witty comics presented by educators as aperitifs to what might otherwise be dry lessons. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Kate Beaton, harkavagrant.com. At age 10, Beaton read all of the Nancy Drew books in two weeks during a stay in the hospital. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Kate Beaton, harkavagrant.com. Beaton remembers the Nancy Drew books in a "weird haze" and assumes that is what turned Nancy into kind of a strange character in her comic. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Kate Beaton, harkavagrant.com. In doing research for her comics, Beaton finds the most credible and interesting sources and goes from there. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Kate Beaton, harkavagrant.com. Beaton, 28, started penning comics while studying history and anthropology at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, Canada. (original image)

How do you make a comic appeal to both someone who has never heard of the figure you are lampooning and someone who is that figure’s biggest fan?

You try and present figures as plainly as you can, I suppose. That’s why my comics got bigger than just a six-panel comic about one subject. It became six smaller comics about one subject or something like that because there is too much information to put in. Maybe the first couple might have a bit more exposition in them so that by the time you get to the bottom, you are familiar with the characters even if you don’t know them from a book or from studying them. If I did a breakdown, you could see that maybe one comic especially will hit it big with someone who doesn’t really know much about it. It might be a sight gag or something, a face or a gesture, and then one will really hopefully pay some kind of tribute to somebody who knows a bit more about it. It would still be funny but it would have a more knowledgeable joke that goes over some people’s heads, and that would be fine.

Is there someone you really want to make a comic about but haven’t figured out the hook?

Yeah. I have been reading a lot about Catherine the Great lately. But she is so larger-than-life; it is difficult to take in all of that information. In some ways, you think it would make it easier, because she is somebody that everybody knows. But she is liked by some people, disliked by others. She had some good qualities and some bad qualities. What do you pick? What do you go with? If I made, say, six comics, what would they be, from a life this large?

What has been the most surprising response from readers?

Emotional responses, definitely. I think that one of the most emotional responses was in doing one about Rosalind Franklin, the DNA research scientist whose work was stolen by James Watson and Francis Crick and put in their Nobel Prize-winning book. That was just a huge deal in the beginnings of DNA research. They didn’t give her credit for her photographs that they took of the double helix. They won Nobel Prizes, and she died. It is so tragic and awful and people really responded to it, because she is just representative of so many people you read about and you can’t believe were overlooked. The joke is respectful to her. It is not the most hilarious comic. But it does give Watson and Crick kind of a villainous role, and her sort of the noble heroine role. It is nice to see people really respond to history that way. It is nice to touch a nerve.

I especially like when you use Nancy Drew covers as springboards for comic strips. How did you get started with that?

I started with Edward Gorey covers. I was trying to think of a comic idea one day, and I was going nowhere. I was so frustrated, and someone on Twitter was like, check out all these Gorey covers, a collection on a website. I looked at them and thought you really could extrapolate from this theme that is on the cover and make a comic about it. So I did, and they went over really well. I started to look for some other book covers that had an action scene on the front that were available in a set. I read all of the Nancy Drew books in two weeks when I was 10 because I was in the hospital and that is the only thing that they had. I read the heck out of those books and probably remember them in a weird haze of a two-week megathon Nancy Drew reading while being sick. Perhaps that weird memory turned Nancy into kind of a weirdo in my comic.

What is on the cover is like, “Here is what’s inside.” Be excited about this. There is no abstract stuff, because kids would be like who cares. There are people doing things and that is why you pick it up. You are like, I like the look of this one. Nancy looks like she is in a real pickle.

Have you ever felt that you went too far in your reinterpretation of history or literature?

Not really. I think I toe a safe line. I don’t really get hate mail. I respect the things that I poke fun at and hopefully that shows. Earlier on, I suppose I went for the more crude humor because you are just trying to figure out your own sense of humor and what your strengths are. It takes a long time to figure out comedy, to figure out what it is that you are capable of in it and what your particular voice is in humor and comedy.

Who do you find funny?

Oh, a lot of people. The same Tina Fey, Amy Poehler crowd that everybody seems to like nowadays. But I also really enjoy the old-style humor. Stephen Leacock is one of my favorites. He was a Canadian humorist around the turn of the century. And Dorothy Parker’s poems are so good and funny. It is hard to be funny. I like to take influences from all over the board. Visually, I have a lot of collections from Punch magazine and that type of stuff, where the visual gags are so good. I respect that level of cartooning.

When you do public readings of your comics, obviously, you are in control of how they are read, where the dramatic pauses are and everything. Do you ever worry about leaving that up to the readers?

You try to engineer it in a certain way. People are going to read it the way they do. My sister reads the end of the book as soon as she starts one. It drives me crazy. Why would you read the last chapter? She can’t stand waiting for the joke or waiting for the end. I try to construct my comics in a way that no one can do that. A joke hits them in the face before they can get to the end.

How the Voyage of the Kon-Tiki Misled the World About Navigating the Pacific

Smithsonian Magazine

As part of its three-year circumnavigation of the globe, the Hawaiian voyaging canoe Hōkūleʻa arrived in Tahiti this summer on the first leg of its worldwide voyage. When the Hōkūleʻa visits, Tahitians say, Maeva, a hoi mai, meaning “Welcome home.” There is a well-documented tradition of voyaging between the two island groups, and it is clear that in the 13th century, Tahitians used sophisticated navigational skills to travel the 2,500-mile distance and settle the Hawaiian Islands. Archaeological and linguistic evidence shows that navigators from Tahiti’s neighbor islands the Marquesas had settled the islands even earlier. Skepticism over the validity of those navigational methods has long muddied the waters. A most notable naysayer was ethnologist Thor Heyerdahl whose 1947 Kon Tiki raft expedition advanced the drift idea that colonization occurred only as vessels simply traveled on the tides. But the 1976 voyage of the Hōkūleʻa—guided by Micronesian navigator Pius “Mau” Piailug—resolved the debate. Piailug demonstrated his profound skill for reading the night sky and the ocean swells and safely guided the massive ocean-going canoe from Hawaii to Tahiti.

Navigation is as much an art—and a spiritual practice—as it is a science. It requires enormous knowledge of the night sky and how it changes both with latitude and throughout the year. With that knowledge, the rising and setting of stars form a compass, a clock, and a means to calibrate latitude. The story of how these skills have been lost, and then rediscovered, and practiced once again, has been made fraught by European notions of racial superiority. My guess is that many more know of the Kon Tiki—documented in an Academy-Award-winning film, than of the far more significant Hōkūleʻa that Piailug piloted. Here’s why it should be the other way around.

Captain James Cook had spent a lot of time in the South Pacific before he crossed the equator and came across the hitherto unknown Hawaiian Islands in 1778. Cook had brought with him Tupaia, a high priest from Tahiti and Ra‘iatea 2,500 miles to the South. Surprisingly, Tupaia was able to converse with these new islanders in their mutually intelligible languages. Amazed, Cook posed the now-famous question, “How shall we account for this Nation spreading it self so far over this Vast ocean?” With that, Cook created “The Polynesian”: the people of “many islands” who inhabit the Pacific from Easter Island in the East to New Zealand (Aotearoa) in the Southwest, to Hawaii in the North. These three points define what is called the “Polynesian Triangle.” Geographically, it is the largest nation on Earth, more than 1,000 islands spread over some 16 million square miles of ocean—larger than Russia, Canada and the United States combined. The linguistic connection proved beyond a doubt that the peoples of this region were all connected. Cook’s question, however, haunted scholars for the next 200 years.

Westerners were hard-pressed to explain how “stone-age” peoples with “no math” or writing could cross thousands of miles of ocean in open boats—long before Columbus even thought of sailing the ocean blue—and probably against the wind and currents, to locate tiny dots of land in a vast ocean. The initial and obvious correct conclusion was that the Polynesians had once been great navigators, but that posed a problem for the European colonizers of the 19th century, who saw themselves as superior.

One solution, dubbed the “Aryan Polynesian” bordered on the ridiculous, but it imparted a certain ingenuity with its intricate and convoluted reasoning. To show that Polynesians descended from Europeans, Abraham Fornander in Hawai‘i, and Edward Tregear and J. Macmillan Brown in New Zealand, built the case at the end of the 19th century using the emerging science of linguistics to trace Polynesian languages back to Sanskrit and to European languages. Professor A. H. Keane, in his 1896 Ethnology, described Polynesians as “one of the finest races of mankind, Caucasian in all essentials; distinguished by their symmetrical proportions, tall stature...and handsome features.” Ethnologist S. Percy Smith was one of several scholars who praised the Polynesians’ “intelligence, their charming personalities, and—one likes to think—their common source with ourselves from the Caucasian branch of humanity.”

Image by Morris Publications. The day breaks over Hōkūleʻa with Kualoa behind her (original image)

Image by Morris Publications. Hōkūle'a on the horizon; the world awaits her (original image)

Image by Oiwi TV/Courtesy Polynesian Voyaging Society. A close look at Hōkūle'a's rigging (original image)

Image by Oiwi TV/Courtesy Polynesian Voyaging Society. Hōkūle'a's ornate detailing (original image)

Image by Oiwi TV/Courtesy Polynesian Voyaging Society. Gulls soar over the Hōkūle'a (original image)

Image by Oiwi TV/Courtesy Polynesian Voyaging Society. Hōkūle'a bobbing in the waves (original image)

Image by Oiwi TV/Courtesy Polynesian Voyaging Society. Light streaming through the pū (original image)

Image by Oiwi TV/Courtesy Polynesian Voyaging Society. The bow of the Hōkūleʻa reflected in the harbor (original image)

Image by Oiwi TV/Courtesy Polynesian Voyaging Society. A close-up of the Hōkūleʻa (original image)

Image by Oiwi TV/Courtesy Polynesian Voyaging Society. A wooden carving strewn with seaweed on the Hōkūleʻa (original image)

Image by Oiwi TV/Courtesy Polynesian Voyaging Society. The Hōkūleʻa sailing off into the horizon (original image)

Image by Oiwi TV/Courtesy Polynesian Voyaging Society. The Hōkūleʻa at sunset (original image)

This was a handy argument for British colonists in New Zealand, living side-by-side with the subjugated Maori (Polynesian) population. Enter the Maori scholar Te Rangi Hiroa, known better for his anglicised name Sir Peter Buck. Buck set about tracing oral traditions of voyaging throughout the Pacific, and presented his evidence in his 1938 work entitled Vikings of the Sunrise. He documented a step-by-step migration eastward from Southeast Asia, a theory that came very close to the truth.  

But skeptics remained, the most famous—but by no means the only—was Thor Heyerdahl. Not only did he reject the voyaging tradition, but he rejected the West-to-East migration as well. Heyerdahl argued that the Pacific had been settled by accidental drift voyaging from the Americas. His argument was based largely on the wind and current patterns in the Pacific, which flow predominantly from East to West. Where the oral tradition posed Polynesians voyaging against the wind, Heyerdahl argued it was far more likely that American Indians drifted with the wind. He made his bias particularly clear by designing his Kon Tiki raft to be unsteerable.

There is no doubt that the voyage of the Kon Tiki was a great adventure: three months on the open sea on a raft, drifting at the mercy of the winds and currents. That they did eventually reach Polynesia proved that such drift voyaging was possible. But all other evidence pointed to Southeast Asian origins: oral tradition, archaeological data, linguistic structures and the trail of human-introduced plants. Today we have strong evidence that Polynesians actually reached the Americas, not vice-versa. Nonetheless, Heyerdahl remains famous. His notion of “drift voyaging” was taken up by Andrew Sharp, whose 1963 book discredited step-by-step the possible means by which Pacific Islanders might have navigated and fixed their position at sea.

But a decade later, in 1973, a team of computer modelers showed that the settlement of the island Pacific by drift voyaging was “extremely unlikely,” and that Hawaii, New Zealand and Easter Island could not have been settled by a drift process. One way or another, there had to have been intentional navigation. About the same time, British sailor David Lewis went out to remote Pacific islands to find and study with traditional navigators. His book We, the Navigators: the Ancient Art of Landfinding in the Pacific laid out for the first time the actual methods of traditional navigation. Lewis became a member of the Polynesian Voyaging Society and was aboard the Hōkūleʻa for its 1976 voyage to Tahiti.

It was on the 1976 voyage that a traditional navigator was engaged for the first time. By successfully navigating the 2,500 miles to Tahiti and making landfall, Mau Piailug demonstrated the efficacy of the various techniques of navigation and landfinding. He showed that the rising and setting of the sun can be used to set direction by day. For a navigator with detailed knowledge about the rising and setting of many stars, the night sky provides direction and latitude. But even more intriguing was the use of ocean swells for both direction and finding land. Mau was able to identify up to eight different directional swells in the open sea, and maintain the canoe’s course by the angle of a certain swell to the hull of the canoe. On one voyage where he was not the master navigator, Mau woke out of a dead sleep and told the steersman that the canoe was off course, just by the feel of the swells hitting the hulls of the canoe.

Since reflection and refraction of the swells off islands alters their patterns, a sensitive navigator can detect land below the horizon. Certain species of land-based birds indicate proximity to land, and for a trained navigator, the flight patterns of birds can indicate in which direction that land lies. A very careful reading of clouds on the horizon can also reveal the presence of land. Most importantly, the navigator keeps track of position by a form of dead reckoning—keeping a mental record of distance travelled, speed, drift and currents. For this reason it is said that one can identify the navigator on the canoe as the one with the bloodshot eyes, for the navigator sleeps rarely or never.

Today the Hōkūleʻa uses a star compass developed by Nainoa Thompson, who as a young crewmember on the first voyage became fascinated with traditional navigation, and set about to figure it out for himself. His own voyage of rediscovery is beautifully documented in Sam Low’s book Hawaiki Rising and also in Will Kyselka’s An Ocean in Mind. In more than 40 years of voyaging, the Hōkūleʻa has “rediscovered” all the island groups of the Pacific. What was left to do? Circumnavigate the globe. Not to prove anything this time, but to show that traditional knowledge teaches us how to live right on this planet.

Saul Griffith’s Fascinating Ideas About the Future of Energy

Smithsonian Magazine

Saul Griffith, founder and CEO of Otherlab, has a habit of building cool things, from a kite-like wind turbine to a smart rope that can sense strain and report frays. The MacArthur Foundation, which awarded Griffith a “genius” grant in 2007, has called him “a prodigy of invention in service of the world community.”

Griffith’s latest venture, Otherlab, is a research company reminiscent of the “invention factory” created by Thomas Edison. It operates in a former pipe organ factory in San Francisco, where redwood bannisters, multi-paned windows, scattered organ parts and plenty of machinery create the sense that a 19th-century inventor like Edison might feel perfectly at home tinkering in the lab’s sunlit rooms.

Among several projects in the works here are two energy technologies that could unlock a future of cheap solar power and mainstream natural gas cars. “The ultimate environmental problem to work on,” Griffith says, “is the way we create energy and use energy.”

In an upstairs room, just past a large, inflatable boxing robot, an Otherlab team is working on a new way to tilt mirrors for concentrating sunlight at large solar plants. The design positions a mirror atop plastic containers, which stretch and scrunch—but don’t buckle—as their internal pressure is adjusted using compressed air. The idea is to cut costs by using plastic and air to aim small mirrors instead of the motors and steel typically used today to tilt billboard-sized mirrors.

For natural gas cars, Griffith’s team wants to eliminate the bulky, cumbersome, and expensive fuel tanks used in natural gas cars today. Otherlab’s solution takes long, thin tubes and bends them like intestines into tightly packed shapes that conform to the available space in a vehicle. The company has received a $250,000 grant from the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program for moonshot energy projects to develop the design over the past year.

Griffith has pursued energy inventions that seem like long shots before. In 2006, he co-founded a company called Makani Power, which devised an airborne wind turbine. Tethered like a kite at the end of a string, an aircraft flies in circles at high altitude. Wing-mounted rotors capture the rushing wind and convert it to electricity using small generators. The tether transmits this electricity to a station on the ground.

Griffith spoke with Smithsonian.com about the ingredients for energy innovation, why he’s excited about natural gas cars, and his vision for a massive network of small labs.

When did you start thinking about applying your skills toward energy problems?

The focusing moment probably came after I started Makani Power, which was a wind energy company. It was difficult to convince people why it was worthwhile doing this crazy sounding technology: We’re going to fly 767s at the ends of pieces of string and generate electricity from wind 5,000 feet up. Everyone just looks at you like you’re a space alien.

We knew it was totally possible and have now proven that it’s possible and in fact, we’re doing it. But in the early days, you need a lot of money to do these types of energy technologies. And when you’re trying to convince people to give you that money, you need a very good story. So that made me contextualize just how much transformation the energy system needs at the civil infrastructure level to meet the needs of climate change.

Tell me about the team and environment you’ve cultivated here at Otherlab. How are they helping to further those larger goals?

Otherlab is an independent research company. We create technologies. Sometimes those technologies become their own independent companies, and we spin them out, or sometimes we license those technologies to other companies to do things with.

We’re about 25 people. We’re right in the middle of urban San Francisco. We have about 95 percent walking or bicycling commuters to work. So we’re a low-carbon office, just in terms of the transportation we use.

We have a number of projects—two specifically in the energy space right now. We would like to have a dozen, partly because we’ve done so much research on how we use energy and how we create it, that we have this nice database of where technical contributions can be made to change that.

There are really two classes of solar energy generation: One is photovoltaics; the other is concentrated solar thermal, which means you heat something up and turn that heat into electricity [through] a turbine or some similar mechanism. We are working on a heliostat technology—which means a mechanism for following where the sun is in the sky—that will make photovoltaics more efficient, because the photovoltaics will be more ideally oriented towards the sun. You get about 20 or 30 percent more energy out of the same solar cell if you can cheaply track it.

Perhaps more importantly, it takes about 80 percent of the cost out of the heliostat field of traditional solar thermal. These are these huge plants in the desert. The heliostat field is about 50 percent of the cost of the whole plant, and we want to take about 80 percent of the cost out of that. So, net, hopefully make a 30 or 40 percent decrease in the cost of that type of electricity.

Is most of that cost in the materials, or in some advanced technology?

For all energy technologies, they are at such enormous scales that really the cost of the machines is somewhat equivalent to their weight. Anything you can do to make them lighter weight or more efficient means a very high cost reduction. Because they’re all made out of commodity materials: silicon, aluminum, and steel, and carbon—these are cheap bulk materials. You have to use them efficiently to cover vast surface areas. So we end up winning because we use a lot less material to point the same amount of light, and we use even cheaper materials and manufacturing processes.

We’re also working on making natural gas tanks for substitutions for petroleum or gasoline tanks for cars and light trucks. Per mile, if you give me the same car, and I have a natural gas motor in one and a gasoline motor in the other, the natural gas car will produce about 25 percent less carbon per mile traveled. The only thing that would change that is if there are methane leaks in the extraction process.

Which there are, right?

There absolutely are. If you have 3 to 4 percent parasitic leaks from the wellhead, then it’s net-zero better than gasoline.

Nevertheless, I’m super excited about it. I think the role of engineers in society is to provide technology options for society to choose yes or no. And as much as engineers would like to be the judge, jury, and executioner, we have to work with what society wants. So, I believe it’s worth developing this capacity because I think we can solve the wellhead problems of natural gas. I think it’s very important to have higher energy independence, so you have to weigh the moral conundrum of fracking, versus the moral conundrum of fighting oil wars in foreign nations.

The same technology that we’re developing in those tanks is also useful for large-scale compressed air and compressed steam energy storage. So we’re creating a technological capacity that’s useful in other domains in energy.

How did you decide to approach the problem of natural gas cars from this particular angle, with tanks that can be conformed to the shape of a car?

In general, as an engineer or scientist, you have a certain set of tools, a certain set of hammers, and you bang all of the nails you see with that set of tools and hammers.

Within this building, we happen to be very good at geometry and computational geometry, and some arcane areas of mathematics, such as space-filling curves. Turns out, we were also do a lot of work on pressure vessels, because we were working on inflatable objects for a long time.

Through serendipity (I think we should ascribe a lot more of society’s invention to serendipity than to anything else) just because we were thinking about energy and space-filling curves and pressure vessels, this all came together. Because you needed to sort of be aware of those three things to have the insight to produce the particular new technology tanks that we’re doing. In some respects, every project in the building has an origin that’s serendipitous like that.

You’ve written recently about the value of a research model based on a multiplicity of small, independent labs. Would you explain that?

The modern research model isn’t in fact the modern research model. Up until World War II, a majority of research was done in independent labs and commercial laboratories, and a little bit at universities. National labs really didn’t exist.

The two world wars and the success of the Manhattan Project and the Apollo mission kind of convinced everyone to centralize all the R&D resources into a set of national laboratories and into universities. Elite universities would become research universities.

I’m not saying that’s terrible. That has produced a lot of really good work. But we did it at the expense of small independent labs. Now we live in an age where collaboration across distance is very easy because of the Internet. Tools are cheaper than ever. And I think it’s time to ask the question: Is this way that we allocate society’s research resources as good as it could be? Meaning that we largely spend it at universities and in national labs.

I would love to see many, many more small labs because I think small teams of people are where the real innovation happens. And geographic diversity—having more people thinking about their local specific problems, in the context of the general research that society needs to do—would be really useful.

Where do you think the most exciting energy innovation is happening now?

In the energy space, the most exciting things are nearly all happening in little startups, I think, and well, big startups—I think Tesla is doing a great job. I think Makani now at Google [Google acquired Makani in May] is doing really interesting stuff in wind. I think there’s a bunch of interesting private companies doing biofuels research. I’m not a huge fan of biofuels, but I’m glad that they’re doing it and they’re doing work well.

The list is sadly short. Not a lot of kids grow up thinking, “Oh energy is the problem I want to work on.” Everyone wants to solve the climate problem, but very few teenagers are aware that you solve that by solving the way that we produce and use energy. I would like, for my four-year-old son and my newborn daughter’s sake, more good energy research.

You came to California from Sydney, Australia, by way of Cambridge, England. What brought you here, and what keeps you here?

I think the honest version is wanderlust— you know, spirit of adventure, travel the world and see where the winds take me. But if I did revisionist history, or thought about what was the magnetic pull that made me wind up in California, I could not do what we are doing in this building in Australia. Australia does not have the R&D funding or the culture of research and development that would enable this. It would be difficult to find the set of talent that we have in this building in Australia.

In this building, there are a number of foreign nationals who, like me, are in California because of two reasons: America has the right culture to do this work. And America has the right capital structures. There is risk capital available for crazy people like me in California.

Sadly, I think America’s at risk of losing both of those advantages. And they are huge advantages. Technology is really the frontier—it drives economic progress. America has won the last century because it had the best people. Think of the Manhattan Project—it was largely Eastern Europeans who did the physics and the math and the engineering. They were imports; same for the Apollo mission; same for a huge number of things.

America has traditionally pulled in the best and brightest people from the entire world and put them to creative effort in the interest of America. But due to security paranoia and immigration concerns, America is dropping the ball on that.

Would you say you’re optimistic that the world’s energy problems can be solved?

I am optimistic that the world’s energy problems can be solved, because I know that they can be solved. I’m not optimistic that we will solve them, because people are people, and we’re still fighting over whether it’s a problem.

I spent more than a year being quite depressed about this fact. Then I had my child and I realized, you know, the environmental future does not look as good for him as it did for me. It has shifted in my generation, and the Baby Boom generation before me.

You still have to be in the game. It’s worth fighting for the things, the world that you would like to create. Hopefully we’re just proving that you can do that, and we’ll get more people fighting on the side of solutions. I think that’s the best you can hope for. Maybe we’ll pull it off. 

The History of Foosball

Smithsonian Magazine

In the best tradition of skulduggery, claim and counterclaim, foosball (or table football) ,that simple game of bouncing little wooden soccer players back and forth on springy metal bars across something that looks like a mini pool table, has the roots of its conception mired in confusion.

Some say that in a sort of spontaneous combustion of ideas, the game erupted in various parts of Europe simultaneously sometime during the 1880s or ’90s as a parlor game. Others say that it was the brainchild of Lucien Rosengart, a dabbler in the inventive and engineering arts who had various patents, including ones for railway parts, bicycle parts, the seat belt and a rocket that allowed artillery shells to be exploded while airborne. Rosengart claimed to have come up with the game toward the end of the 1930s to keep his grandchildren entertained during the winter. Eventually his children’s pastime appeared in cafés throughout France, where the miniature players wore red, white and blue to remind everyone that this was the result of the inventiveness of the superior French mind.

There again, though, Alexandre de Finesterre has many followers, who claim that he came up with the idea , being bored in a hospital in the Basque region of Spain with injuries sustained from a bombing raid during the Spanish Civil War. He talked a local carpenter, Francisco Javier Altuna, into building the first table, inspired by the concept of table tennis.  Alexandre patented his design for fútbolin in 1937, the story goes, but the paperwork was lost during a storm when he had to do a runner to France after the fascist coup d'état of General Franco. (Finesterre would also become a notable footnote in history as one of the first airplane hijackers ever.)

While it’s debatable whether Señor Finisterre actually did invent table football, the indisputable fact is the first-ever patent for a game using little men on poles was granted in Britain, to Harold Searles Thornton, an indefatigable Tottenham Hotspur supporter, on November 1, 1923. His uncle, Louis P. Thornton, a resident of Portland, Oregon, visited Harold and brought the idea back to the United States and patented it in 1927. But Louis had little success with table football; the patent expired and the game descended into obscurity, no one ever realising the dizzying heights it would scale decades later.

The world would have been a much quieter place if the game had stayed as just a children’s plaything, but it spread like a prairie fire. The first league was established in 1950 by the Belgians, and in 1976, the European Table Soccer Union was formed. Although how they called it a ‘union’ when the tables were different sizes, the figures had different shapes, none of the handles were the same design and even the balls were made of different compositions is a valid question. Not a unified item amongst them.

The game still doesn’t even have a single set of rules – or one name. You’ve got lagirt in Turkey, jover au baby-foot in France, csocso in Hungary, cadureguel-schulchan in Israel, plain old table football in the UK, and a world encyclopedia of ridiculous names elsewhere around the globe. The American “foosball” (where a player is called a “fooser”) borrowed its name from the German version, “fußball”, from whence it arrived in the United States. (And, really, you can’t not love a game where they have a table with two teams made up only of Barbie dolls, or that is played in tournaments with such wonderful names as the 10th Annual $12,000 Bart O’Hearn Celebration Foosball Tournament, held in Austin, Texas, in 2009.)

Foosball re-arrived on American shores thanks to Lawrence Patterson, who was stationed in West Germany with the U.S. military in the early 1960s. Seeing that table football was very popular in Europe, Patterson seized the opportunity and contracted a manufacturer in Bavaria to construct a machine to his specification to export to the US. The first table landed on American soil in 1962, and Patterson immediately trademarked the name “Foosball” in America and Canada, giving the name “Foosball Match” to his table.

Patterson originally marketed his machines through the “coin” industry, where they would be used mainly as arcade games. Foosball became outrageously popular, and by the late ’80s, Patterson was selling franchises, which allowed partners to buy the machines and pay a monthly fee to be guaranteed a specific geographical area where only they could place them in bars and other locations. Patterson sold his Foosball Match table through full-page ads in such prestigious national publications as Life, Esquire and the Wall Street Journal, where they would appear alongside other booming franchise-based businesses such as Kentucky Fried Chicken. But it wasn’t until 1970 that the U.S. had its own home-grown table, when two Bobs, Hayes and Furr, got together to design and build the first all-American-made foosball table.

From the perspective of the second decade of the third millennium, with ever more sophisticated video games, digital technology and plasma televisions, it’s difficult to imagine the impact that foosball had on the American psyche. During the 1970s, the game became a national phenomenon.

Sports Illustrated and “60 Minutes” covered tournaments where avid and addicted players, both amateur and professional, traveled the length and breadth of America following big bucks prizes, with the occasional Porsche or Corvette thrown in as an added incentive. One of the biggest was the Quarter-Million Dollar Professional Foosball Tour, created by bar owner and foosball enthusiast E. Lee Peppard of Missoula, Montana. Peppard promoted his own brand of table, the Tournament Soccer Table, and hosted events in 32 cities nationwide with prizes of up to $20,000. The International Tournament Soccer Championships (ITSC), with a final held on Labor Day weekend in Denver, reached the peak of prize money in 1978, with $1 million as the glimmering star for America’s top professionals to reach out for.

The crash of American foosball was even more rapid than its rise. Pac-man, that snappy little cartoon character, along with other early arcade games, were instrumental in the demise of the foosball phenomenon. The estimated 1000 tables a month that were selling around the end of the ’70s crashed to 100, and in 1981, the ITSC filed for bankruptcy. But the game didn’t die altogether; in 2003, the U.S. became part of the International Table Soccer Federation, which hosts the Multi-Table World Championships each January in Nantes, France.

But it’s still nice to know that even in a globalized world of evenrmore uniformity, table football, foosball, csosco, lagirt or whatever you want to call it still has no absolutely fixed idea of what really does constitute the core of the game. The American/Texas Style is called “Hard Court” and is known for its speed and power style of play. It combines a hard man with a hard rolling ball and a hard, flat surface. The European/French Style, “Clay Court” is exactly opposite of the American style. It features heavy (non-balanced) men, and a very light and soft cork ball. Add to that a soft linoleum surface and you have a feel best described as sticky. In the middle is European/German Style,  “Grass Court,” characterized by its “enhanced ball control achieved by softening of components that make up the important man/ball/surface interaction.” And even the World Championships use five different styles of table, with another 11 distinct styles being used in various other international competitions.

Until recently this dilettante approach to the tables and rulebooks also applied to the competitions. Up until a few years ago, Punta Umbrí in Huelva, Spain, hosted the World Table Football Cup Championship in August each year. Well, sort of.  It was played on a Spanish-style table and, according to Kathy Brainard, co-author with Johnny Loft of The Complete Book of Foosball and past president of the United States Table Soccer Federation, “If the tournament is run on a Spanish-made table and has the best players from wherever that table can be found, then it could honestly be called the World Championship of Foosball, on that specific table.” A bit of diplomatic looking down the nose there.

Brainard went on to say that the real championship, called the World Championship of Table Soccer, was played in Dallas on a U.S.-made table and offered $130,000 in prize money. Although, admittedly, that was before 2003, at which time the American associations had to accept the ignominy of being part of a truly international World Championship, and not simply be able to hold their own table football version of the baseball World Series

In the general roly-poly of life, table football is mainly something that people play for fun in a smoky bar—at least they did before cigarettes were banned.

While British “foosers” might not be able to look forward to winning such large prizes as American players, they still take the game seriously. Oxford University is one of the top table football venues in England, with many highly thought of players on the national scene. Thirty college teams and one pub team play regularly on Garlando brand tables against other top pub and university sides.

Dave Trease is captain of Catz I (St. Catherine’s College, Oxford) who says his position as captain hangs on the fact that he has the only “brush shot” in the university.

“A brush shot is where you have the ball stationary and then you have to flick it very hard at an angle. To be honest, I think it’s more luck than anything, but it looks good when it works.” And he admits that his skills on the Garlando don’t travel.

“I’m rubbish on anything else! I’ve found something I’m good at, where I can have a laugh and not take it all too seriously. And you don’t get any table football hooligans either, although you’ve got to keep an eye on people greasing the ball or jamming the table.”

Ruth Eastwood, captain of Catz II, beat all her female opponents (all five of them anyway) to win the women’s event, ranking her fourth nationally. But having won the tournament, does she see big contracts being offered?

“I don’t think it’s likely, particularly when you take into account that my prize money was only £15 and the prizes for the whole competition were only £300. I don’t think we’re in the same league as the World Championships, but at least I can say I was women’s champion, even if there were only five other women!”

It's probably stretching the imagination just that bit too far to think that table football will every become an Olympic sport, but they probably thought the same about beach volleyball at one time. Sadly, the small figures that populate the field during playing time won't be able to collect the medals themselves. That will have to be left to the flick-wristed humans who control their every move.

A Pinch of Salt Has Never Tasted So… American?

Smithsonian Magazine

Ben Jacobsen showing off his beloved flake salt. Image courtesy of Jacobsen Salt Company.

Last winter, salt farmer Ben Jacobsen opened a saltworks on the grounds of an old oyster farm stationed on a lonely stretch of the northwest Oregon coast. Jacobsen’s delicate, crunchy flake salt has quickly and quietly become the essential mineral underpinning some of the best cooking in America, beloved by the likes of Thomas Keller and April Bloomfield. (Or perhaps not so quietly: recently, Bloomfield sang its praises while preparing peas on toast for Jimmy Fallon on late-night television). Though he is little known outside the rarefied world of top chefs, Jacobsen is intent on bringing high-end American salt to the home table.

“Ben’s salt is all about the story, our connection to where the food comes from, which I respect,” the salt expert Mark Bitterman told Portland Monthly earlier this year. He carries Jacobsen flake salt at both the New York and Portland locations of The Meadow, his high-end salt boutique. “But he is a guy who has been playing with salt for a few years; he could never come close to a Frenchman following a hundred-year-old tradition for making fleur de sel.”

The slight stung. But as it happened, Jacobsen’s attempt at making America’s first-ever fleur de sel was already underway. Despite the fact that the United States is the second-largest industrial producer of salt in the world, behind China, very little of it is used for cooking; chefs have always looked elsewhere for their salts. The labor-intensive process of making fleur de sel, the most prized of the sea salts, traditionally involves harvesting by hand from the salt ponds of Guèrande, Brittany, on the coast of France, when the weather is warm and the seas still (between June and September.)

Paludiers, trained for years in the art of salt harvesting, carefully rake and collect the top layer of crystals (the “flower,” which only holds its shape in calm conditions). The salt is valued by chefs for its high moisture content — it maintains its integrity when finishing hot dishes like steak or fish — and for the mineral richness that imparts a sense of place. Flake salt, on the other hand, has flat, large crystals and a brighter, cleaner taste; it’s recommended for use on salads, vegetables, and baked goods. Ancestral salt fields have been found everywhere from Peru and the Philippines to Portugal, and the best fleur de sel today is still carefully picked in those places.

Ben Jacobsen in front of his salt plant. Image courtesy of Jacobsen Salt Company.

“It’s so peculiar that we haven’t had a fleur de sel to call our own,” Jacobsen said recently. Hanging out with Jacobsen in his Portland           neighborhood shows him to be a surprisingly appropriate ambassador for the humble-yet-essential role of salt in cooking: he’s an unassuming, amiable guy in a plaid shirt and denim trucker hat who’s liked by all, and you don’t notice that he’s everywhere until you actually start looking around. (His flake salt is used in the city’s top restaurants, and carried in boutiques from here to the Atlantic coast.) Jacobsen is earnest when he says he thinks it’s about time for a great American salt, given that the country is surrounded by salt water. “As chefs and home cooks,” he observes, “we’ve forgotten about our resources.”

It turns out that the Oregon coast has a salt-making pedigree of its own, hosting an operation during the winter of 1805-1806, when five men on the Lewis and Clark expedition were dispatched to the sea to gather salt for elk meat that was already spoiling. For two months, they camped a hundred paces from the ocean and kept five brass kettles of seawater boiling around the clock, eventually producing three and a half bushels of salt for the return journey across the continent. Lewis called the product “excellent, fine, strong, & white.”

At the modern-day operations of Jacobsen Salt Co., not much has changed with regard to the science: it still involves boiling seawater down to make salt. But with regard to rigor, the process is a great deal more stringent (in scaling up, Jacobsen has hired a chemist to help streamline production with precision). To make his flake salt, Jacobsen pipes seawater up from pristine Netarts Bay, a protected conservation estuary; filters it through seven different systems; and boils it down to remove calcium and magnesium (the minerals give salt a bitter aftertaste, and also interrupt crystal formation). Once the desired salinity is achieved, Jacobsen evaporates the rest in custom stainless-steel pans kept at a constant temperature, so that salt crystals form on the surface. On a recent visit, I watched as series of crystals grew to completion and fell to the bottom of the pan, one by one, drifting like snowflakes.

One of the vats that boil off water to generate sea salt. Image courtesy of Jacobsen Salt Company.

Making fleur de sel — though laborious in its own way — involves even more waiting. At the time of this writing, Jacobsen is patiently evaporating the first batch of fleur de sel in a hoop house outside the main facility, using just the sun. Unlike flake salt, fleur de sel is made from unfiltered seawater, so that the natural minerality comes through. Each batch can take anywhere from two to twelve weeks, depending on the weather, and each pond can produce 100 pounds of salt. As the water evaporates, Jacobsen uses a pond skimmer to carefully collect the crystals. He is wrapping up plans to farm an acre of fleur de sel at a new location on the coast, with a facility dedicated to the specialty salt (with the use of greenhouses, he expects to be able to extend the traditional fleur de sel “season” by a month or two on either end).

According to Jacobsen, the quality of Netarts Bay seawater is among the best in the world, and it’s validated by the chefs who buy his flake salt every week. So it only follows that fleur de sel made from that water would have an excellent flavor profile that’s uniquely representative of this part of the Pacific coast.

Despite the care put into each jar of product, the salts are meant to be used, and not in a precious way. The fetishizing of artisanal food products, Jacobsen says, has made it difficult for the average American consumer to feel comfortable buying and using really good salt. “People will spend $150 for a bottle of wine for a two-hour dinner,” he told me. “But good salt is one of those things you can spend less than $10 on, and it will last a household for two months. It elevates everything, and it’s a luxury you can have at your table.”

You’ll be able to buy his fresh-off-farm fleur de sel for your table on October 3 from Jacobsen’s website and various retail outlets.

Good Salt for Your Kitchen

We asked Jason French — chef at the Portland restaurant Ned Ludd, and fan of Jacobsen Salt — to give us an easy home recipe that highlights what a good salt like fleur de sel can do. Here’s what he came up with.

Salt-and-spice-cured trout and arugula salad with capers and lemon cream

Serves four as an appetizer, or two as a main course

Ingredients:

For the trout:

2 boneless skin-on trout fillets

6 thinly sliced lemons

For the cure:

2 T. Jacobsen fleur de sel

3 T. sugar

1 heaping T. garam masala (a traditional North Indian spice mix easily found in any supermarket)

For the salad:

1 large bunch arugula, washed, soaked in ice water, and spun dry

3 T. brined small capers, rinsed

1/2 c. parsley leaves

1 T. lemon juice

2 T. extra virgin olive oil

Jacobsen fleur de sel

For the lemon cream:

1 shallot, peeled and minced

Zest and juice of 1 lemon

1/2 cup heavy cream

Jacobsen fleur de sel

Directions:

1. Lightly toast the spices in a pan until aromatic. Cool and mix with the fleur de sel and sugar. Place the trout on a small sheet pan lined with plastic wrap. Coat the flesh of the trout fillet well with the cure and lay three slices of lemon to cover. Place a sheet of plastic wrap over the trout and cover with another sheet pan and weight with some canned items from your pantry. Place in the refrigerator for 4 hours.

2. Make the lemon cream by macerating the shallots in the lemon juice and zest for 20-30 minutes. Season with a pinch of fleur de sel. In a separate bowl whisk the cream until just starting to thicken and mix with the shallots. Continue to whisk until lightly thickened. This should be made just before the salad is served.

3. For the salad, chop the capers and parsley together. Add the lemon juice and olive oil and whisk lightly. Season with a pinch of salt. Toss with the arugula.

4. Divide the arugula between the plates. Rinse and dry the trout fillet and slice thinly at an angle using broad strokes, peeling the flesh away from the skin with each slice. Divide among the plates. Drizzle the lemon cream over the trout and arugula and serve. (Note: the trout may be done ahead of time, but make sure to rinse and dry it so it doesn’t over cure.

Bonnie Tsui writes frequently for The New York Times, and is a contributing writer for The Atlantic.

Parties for plastic: How women used Tupperware to participate in business

National Museum of American History

For Women's History Month, we're taking a look at some of the ways that American women have made their place in the marketplace by participating in business and consumption. Brownie Wise was not only a rare female executive in the 1950s, but she also developed a sales plan for Tupperware that allowed men and women across the country to make money marketing and selling the new plastic products from their own homes. Tupperware objects are on display in two of our new Innovation Wing exhibitions, American Enterprise in the Mars Hall of American Business and the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation Object Project.

Photograph of Wonderlier Tupperware set, 1954

Since the invention of Tupperware in the late 1940s, Americans have come to rely on its airtight seal to keep leftovers fresh. Earl Tupper's product was an innovation; he purified a waste product of the oil refining process into flexible, translucent plastic containers that were suitable for food storage. What began as a marketing struggle for Tupper—Americans didn't yet trust plastics, which were known for being smelly and greasy—turned into an opportunity for American women to participate in business, independently making money, forming professional networks, and popularizing Tupperware within their own communities.

Advertisement for Tupperware with photograph of a group of woman at a home-sales party

Ultimately, the solution to Earl Tupper's marketing woes was a new sales strategy spearheaded by a businesswoman named Brownie Wise. After working as a secretary during World War II, Wise and her mother started a direct-selling business in Miami, Florida, called Patio Parties. Their company marketed household goods from a variety of manufacturers, including Poly-T (Tupperware).

Photograph of a group of women hanging four signs that, together, say "Parties are the answer."

A shrewd salesperson, Wise believed that home demonstrations were the best way to showcase Tupperware's extensive product line as well as the brand's innovative, resealable container. Although she didn't create the home party sales model, Brownie Wise pioneered it for Tupperware and used it to transform the company's reputation.

Photograph of Brownie Wise leading a Tupperware party

Wise was so successful in selling Tupperware to women in their own homes that Earl Tupper couldn’t help but notice. His company had been struggling to sell its plastic containers off shelves in department stores, so in 1951, he made Wise a vice president of the newly formed Tupperware Home Parties Inc. and put her in charge of developing a large-scale Hostess party plan for the company.

Photograph of Brownie Wise

The home party model of selling Tupperware gave men and women a new way to start their own businesses, but it was particularly empowering for housewives who didn't already work outside the home in offices, factories, or department stores. They could now make money at home, refining their sales pitches and interacting with other emerging businesswomen.

This 1960s advertisment emphasized how women could transform the domestic space of their home into a profit-making enterprise: "Being a Tupperware dealer is a happy business, and one you can conduct either in your spare time or full time. Best of all, it can fill your hours with fun and fellowship—as well as with profit. Would you like to get more fun out of life—and add $40 to $60 a week to your family income? You can do both as a Tupperware dealer."

Photograph of Commemorative Tupperware Jubilee Plate, 1957

Wise used the home party format to demonstrate the uses and advantages of Tupperware, showing attendees how lightweight yet durable the material was, as well as how to "burp" the airtight seal correctly. She trained Tupperware saleswomen like herself and established the company's annual Jubilee, a pep rally and awards ceremony for dealers. With several days of festivities, group activities, and sales meetings, the Jubilee encouraged camaraderie and support among burgeoning female entrepreneurs from across the country.

Scan of Tupperware Brochure with text and cartoon image of a suburban housewife

Tupperware's home party sales model offered a generation of men and women a way to grow their confidence as well as their business savvy. Lorna Boyd, speaking in 2004 about her mother, Sylvia Boyd, a Tupperware dealer in the 1960s, remarked: "Tupperware . . . took those moms out of the kitchen where they were 'supposed to be' and let them enter the workforce, and let them have something outside the home."

Graphic for "America Participates" project

Jordan Grant is a New Media assistant working with the American Enterprise exhibition. He has also blogged about how board games teach us to shop. Caitlin Kearney is a New Media assistant for the Taylor Foundation Object Project. Previously, she has blogged about mid-century cooking.

Posted Date: 
Tuesday, March 15, 2016 - 11:30
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Taking on Fannie Farmer: How a baking-impaired intern negotiated a 100-year-old bread recipe in a modern kitchen

National Museum of American History

I do not bake. My cookies burn, my pie crust is either too dry or too sticky, and my pies turn out watery. So how did I find myself lead baker testing a 100-year-old bread recipe? The bread recipe, Entire Wheat Bread, came from the 1911 edition of the 1896 Fannie Farmer's Boston Cooking-School Cookbook, one of the best-selling cookbooks of all time because it was "reliable, comprehensive, and easy-to-follow," everything I needed more than a century later. My predicament sprang from my involvement in a new Smithsonian Food History program, Harvest for the Table, a free daytime hands-on activity exploring the technological innovations in wheat and flour production over 100 years ago. It was my job to test the bread recipe in preparation for possible future programs in our demonstration kitchen.

On a steel kitchen surface, bowls and measuring devices hold different wet and dry ingredients, most white or light in color. There is a wooden spoon laying on the right side by the bowls.

First came the flour. I used the coarse, brown, stone-ground flour milled by museum visitors during our Harvest for the Table program. (See our calendar for dates and times.) Until the 1880s, this type of "entire" or whole wheat flour was standard. The introduction of the steel roller mill, still the dominant mill type today, changed the flour industry by stripping the bran and germ from the wheat kernel, producing a whiter flour (desired by customers) with a greater shelf life and enhanced baking performance. Over 100 years ago, Farmer experienced firsthand these technological innovations and witnessed the rise in white flour. She felt its impacts on home baking, observing how "entire" wheat flour was only available in health food stores and, much to her disapproval, how manufacturers marketed identical flour under a variety of new brand names.

An illustration of a windmill. It may be slightly faded but there is a whimsical feel to it. In the background, there is a sky from a fragonard painting.

Flour. Check.

Next on the ingredient list, one yeast cake. What in the world was a "yeast cake?" Research led me to specialty food sellers still carry these small, moist cakes enclosed in tin foil. Sold by Fleischmann's and others, this is a product with which cooks in the 1890s would be very familiar—but I sure wasn't. I used a modern conversion chart to figure out how much of my dry yeast to add.

According to Farmer, yeast is a necessary addition to the bread dough because it acts as a ferment and "attacks some of the starch in flour, and changes it to sugar, and sugar in turn to alcohol and carbon dioxide, thus lightening the whole mass." Yeast also gives bread its distinctive flavors and irresistible smell while also interacting with the protein in flour, gluten, to give the bread its structure. When the dough is kneaded, the act stretches the gluten and allows it to fill with gas bubbles from the yeast while the dough rises. However, Farmer warns, "If risen too long, [the bread] will be full of large holes; if not risen long enough, it will be heavy and soggy." She continues, "If proper care is taken, the bread will be found most satisfactory, having neither 'yeasty' nor sour taste." That was my goal: to make a "most satisfactory" loaf.

A dark metal oblong object. There is a lip that runs around it but the shape looks like a capsule or glasses case. There is a small latch on one side.

A dark metal rectangular pan. The metal looks old and it is shaped to accommodate a bread loaf.

Experienced bakers will notice that I haven't mentioned the salt or milk Farmer would have used or the modern equivalents. These ingredients certainly have interesting stories to tell, but I need to get this loaf in the oven before my internship is over!

When it came time to put my dough in the oven, I found myself playing the bread whisperer. Farmer's oven was still fueled by fire. Her cookbook even describes how to control airflow and fuel in the cookstove in order to control its temperature. Most recipes classified temperature in three ways: hot, moderate, and cool. Bakers tested their oven's temperature by placing their hand in the oven and seeing how long they could bear the heat or by placing flour on the oven floor and waiting for it to brown or catch fire. According to Farmer in her 1896 cookbook, "Experience is the best guide for testing temperature of [the] oven." Her readers in 1911 had coal- and wood-burning ranges without temperature controls, but I never learned that intuition using today's calibrated ovens. Choosing to avoid oven fires or burning my hand, I did as Farmer suggested and drew from past baking experience. I set my oven to 400 degrees.

A black and white photo of a woman into a white dress kneeling beside an oven. It has a white kettle and pot resting on the stove. There are baking accoutrements laid out on a table in the background. The woman looks at the camera knowingly as she clasps a loaf of bread in a tin pan with a cloth. The woman's face is the focal point of the photo. Her expression could sell a hundred stoves.

With trepidation I placed my doughy loaf into the oven. Even with modern equipment, it had taken me several hours to make a single loaf of bread, having kneaded and let the bread rise twice before baking it for approximately 40 minutes. While there is a movement today to make artisanal bread as an alternative to mass-produced loaves, most modern bread comes from a supermarket. It is hard to imagine making bread every day as a necessity, let alone lighting a fire to bake bread!

A silver-colored metal pot with handles on each side. There is a lid with a hand crank attached.

A silver-colored metal pot with handles on each side. There is a lid with a hand crank attached.

Innovations over the past century have distanced most consumers from their bread, trading nutrients and control for convenience and efficiency. My foray into baking will help reveal to visitors just how distanced some of us have become, and, hopefully, give them a new appreciation for the complex processes that go into making a simple loaf of bread. Baking this recipe on the stage of our demonstration kitchen, using the flour made by visitors in our stone hand mill, with the backdrop of a highly advanced kitchen, juxtaposes the old and new baking technology, demonstrating just how much our bread has changed over time. Who knows how technology will change baking in the next hundred years!

And my entire wheat bread? I cut into my loaf, exposing an even, perfectly baked crumb and releasing a sweetly nutty, maple aroma—a crumbly, moist loaf of whole wheat bread that, hopefully, would make Fannie Farmer proud.

A loaf of bread on a wooden surface. It is light wheat colored and the surface is rough

A piece of bread. The picture is taken at an angle so you see across the width of the bread. It is rough in texture.

A picture of a piece of light brown bread taken from directly over it. The bread is rougher in texture.

If you'd like to hear about the latest food and agriculture history happenings at the museum, be sure to sign up for our Food History newsletter.

Rachel Snyder completed a summer 2016 internship in the Office of Audience Engagement working on food and agriculture programs.

Author(s): 
intern Rachel Snyder
Posted Date: 
Thursday, June 15, 2017 - 09:00
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Everything You Wanted to Know About Dinosaur Sex

Smithsonian Magazine

I have been sitting here with two Stegosaurus models for 20 minutes now, and I just can’t figure it out. How did these dinosaurs—bristling with spikes and plates—go about making more dinosaurs without skewering each other?

Stegosaurus has become an icon of the mystery surrounding dinosaur sex. Dinosaurs must have mated, but just how they did so has puzzled paleontologists for more than 100 years. Lacking much hard evidence, scientists have come up with all kinds of speculations: In his 1906 paper describing Tyrannosaurus rex, for instance, paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn proposed that male tyrant dinosaurs used their minuscule arms for “grasping during copulation.” Others forwarded similar notions about the function of the thumb-spikes on Iguanodon hands. These ideas eventually fell out of favor—perhaps due to embarrassment as much as anything else—but the question remained. How can we study the sex lives of animals that have been dead for millions upon millions of years?

Soft-tissue preservation is very rare, and no one has yet discovered an exquisitely preserved dinosaur with its reproductive organs intact. In terms of basic mechanics, the best way to study dinosaur sex is to look at the animals’ closest living relatives. Dinosaurs shared a common ancestor with alligators and crocodiles more than 250 million years ago, and modern birds are the living descendants of dinosaurs akin to Velociraptor. Therefore we can surmise that anatomical structures present in both birds and crocodylians were present in dinosaurs, too. The reproductive organs of both groups are generally similar. Males and females have a single opening—called the cloaca—that is a dual-use organ for sex and excretion. Male birds and crocodylians have a penis that emerges from the cloaca to deliver sperm. Dinosaur sex must have followed the “Insert Tab A into Slot B” game plan carried on by their modern-day descendants and cousins.

Beyond the likely basic anatomy, things get a bit tricky. As Robert Bakker observed in his 1986 book The Dinosaur Heresies, “sexual practices embrace not only the physical act of copulation, but all the pre-mating ritual, strutting, dancing, brawling, and the rest of it.” Hundreds of dinosaur species have been discovered (and many more have yet to be found); they lived, loved, and lost over the course of more than 150 million years. There may have been as many courtship rituals as there were species of dinosaur. In recent years, paleontologists moved out of the realm of pure speculation and begun to piece together the rich reproductive lives of some of these animals.

The first priority in studying dinosaur mating is determining which sex is which. Paleontologists have tried several approaches to this problem, searching for sex differences in size or ornamentation. Frustratingly, though, few species are represented by enough fossils to allow for this sort of study, and no instance of obvious difference between the sexes in the gross anatomy of the skeleton has gone undisputed.

A breakthrough came about six years ago, when paleontologist Mary Schweitzer discovered that the secret to the dinosaur sexes has been locked in bone all along. Just prior to laying eggs, female dinosaurs—like female birds—drew on their own bones for calcium to build eggshells. The source was a temporary type of tissue called medullary bone lining the inside of their leg bone cavities. When such tissue was discovered in the femur of a Tyrannosaurus, paleontologists knew they had a female dinosaur.

Once they knew what they were looking for, paleontologists searched for medullary bone in other species. In 2008, paleontologists Andrew Lee and Sarah Werning reported that they had found medullary bone inside the limbs of the predatory dinosaur Allosaurus and an evolutionary cousin of Iguanodon called Tenontosaurus. More females, all primed to lay eggs.

Scientists can estimate the ages of these dinosaurs by examining their bone microstructure for growth rings. The findings showed that dinosaurs began reproducing early. Some females had not yet reached fully mature body size when they started laying eggs. Other fossils showed that it was only after females began reproducing that their growth began to slow. These dinosaurs grew fast and became teen moms.

Based on what is known about dinosaur lives, this strategy made evolutionary sense. Dinosaurs grew fast—another study by Lee and a different set of colleagues found that prey species such as the hadrosaur Hypacrosaurus may have grown faster than predatory species as a kind of defense. And dinosaurs, whether prey or predator, often died young, so any dinosaur that was going to pass on its genes had to get an early start.

Teen dinosaur dating did not involve drive-in movies and nights out dancing. What they actually did has been largely the subject of inference. In his 1977 tale of a female “brontosaur” (now known as Apatosaurus), paleontologist Edwin Colbert imagined what happened when the males of the sauropod herds began to feel the itch. “Frequently two males would face each other, to nod their heads up and down or weave them back and forth through the considerable arcs,” he imagined, speculating that, “at times they would entwine their necks as they pushed against each other.” Thirty years later, paleontologist Phil Senter offered a scientific variation of this idea, suggesting that the long necks of dinosaurs like Diplodocus and Mamenchisaurus evolved as a result of the competition for mates, an example of sexual selection. Females may have preferred males with extra long necks or males may have used their necks in direct competition, although neither possibility has been directly supported. Such prominent structures could well have been used in mating displays, though. What better way for a sauropod to advertise itself to members of the opposite sex than by sticking its neck out and strutting a bit?

Image by LadyofHats / Wikipedia. Ceratopsian dinosaurs have a wide array of horn arrangements and frill shapes, and some scientists suspect these ornaments are attributable to sexual selection. (original image)

Image by Illustration by Raúl Martin. Paleontologist Phil Senter suggests that the long necks of dinosaurs like Diplodocus and Mamenchisaurus, shown in this illustration, evolved as a result of the competition for mates, an example of sexual selection. (original image)

Image by Lukas Panzarin. Male Triceratops literally locked horns. Confrontations would leave wounds and could happen anytime, but during mating season is the likeliest bet. (original image)

Damaged bones allow paleontologists to approach dinosaur mating habits—and their consequences—a little more closely. Painful-looking punctures on the skulls of large theropod dinosaurs such as Gorgosaurus, Sinraptor and others indicate these dinosaurs bit each other on the face during combat, according to Darren Tanke and Philip Curie. These fights were likely over mates or the territory through which prospective mates might pass. Tanke, Andrew Farke and Ewan Wolff also detected patterns of bone damage on the skulls of the horned dinosaurs Triceratops and Centrosaurus. The wounds on Triceratops, in particular, matched what Farke had predicted with models of the famous horned dinosaurs: They literally locked horns. The confrontations that left these wounds could have happened anytime, but during the mating season is the likeliest bet. Ceratopsian dinosaurs have a wide array of horn arrangements and frill shapes, and some scientists suspect these ornaments are attributable to sexual selection.

These notions are difficult to test—how can we tell whether female Styracosaurus preferred males with extra-gaudy racks of horns, or whether male Giganotosaurus duked it out with each other over mating opportunities? But an unexpected discovery gives us a rare window into how some dinosaurs courted. For decades, conventional wisdom held that we would never know what color dinosaurs were. This is no longer true. Paleontologists have found more than 20 species of dinosaurs that clearly sported feathers, and these feathers hold the secrets of dinosaur color.

Dinosaur feathers contained tiny structures called melanosomes, some of which have been preserved in microscopic detail in fossils. These structures are also seen in the plumage of living birds, and they are responsible for colors ranging from black to gray to brown to red. As long as a dinosaur specimen has well-preserved feathers, we can compare its arrangements of melanosomes with those of living birds to determine the feather’s palette, and one study last year did this for the small, feathered dinosaur Anchiornis. It looked like a modern-day woodpecker, the analysis showed: mostly black with fringes of white along the wings and a splash of red on the head.

So far only one specimen of Anchiornis has been restored in full color, but so many additional specimens have been found that paleontologists will be able to determine the variation in color within the species, specifically looking for whether there was a difference between males and females or whether the flashy red color might be mating plumage. Through the discovery of dinosaur color, we may be able to understand what was sexy to an Anchiornis.

So where does all this leave the mystery of Stegosaurus mating? With all that elaborate and pointy ornamentation, we can imagine male Stegosaurus lowering their heads and waggling their spiked tails in the air to try to intimidate each other, with the victor controlling territory and showing off his prowess. Not all females will be impressed—female choice determines ornamentation as much as competition between males does—but those that are will mate with the dominant male. All the bellowing, swaying, and posturing allows females to weed out the most fit males from the sick, weak or undesirable, and after all this romantic theater there comes the act itself.

Figuring out how Stegosaurus even could have mated is a prickly subject. Females were just as well-armored as males, and it is unlikely that males mounted the females from the back. A different technique was necessary. Perhaps they angled so that they faced belly to belly, some have guessed, or maybe, as suggested by Timothy Isles in a recent paper, males faced away from standing females and backed up (a rather tricky maneuver!). The simplest technique yet proposed is that the female lay down on her side and the male approached standing up, thereby avoiding all those plates and spikes. However the Stegosaurus pair accomplished the feat, though, it was most likely brief—only as long as was needed for the exchange of genetic material. All that energy and effort, from growing ornaments to impressing a prospective mate, just for a few fleeting moments to continue the life of the species.

Brian Switek blogs at Dinosaur Tracking and is the author of Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature.

Donkeys, lard, and a telescope: eclipse exploration in 1878 and 1900

National Museum of American History

Photograph of one part of a telescope. It is gold in color. There is a circular part pointing right at the camera, perhaps where you might press your face to the telescope to look at the stars.

Something borrowed, something blue—that is what Samuel P. Langley, director of the Allegheny Observatory in Pennsylvania, was counting on in July 1878 as he waited on Pikes Peak, Colorado, for the wedding of light and shadow displayed by a total eclipse of the sun. At his eye was a telescope borrowed from the U.S. Naval Observatory. Over his head, a sky he reported to be a "deep and transparent blue."

 Photograph in color showing a telescope.

The stint of fair weather was a welcome contrast to the preceding seven days of rain and hail, during which Langley had to transport all his equipment, including this five-inch equatorial refractor made by Alvan Clark & Sons, up Pikes Peak. The scope wasn't exactly light, a fact with which the donkeys tasked with hauling it up to some 14,000 feet would have surely agreed. In a desperate measure to protect the steel components of the telescope from water damage, Langley poured lard over it. If that weren't enough to turn one's stomach, the altitude was. Langley and others in his party severely suffered from "mountain sickness." He described the condition in his report to the U.S. Naval Observatory as a caution to future researchers who sought to obtain clearer observations in the thinner mountain air.

All this fuss over equipment is ironic considering Langley would spend the bulk of his time observing the total phase of the solar eclipse with his unaided eye. (Learn about eclipse safety.) As soon as the moon completely blocked the bright disk of the sun, he sketched his impression of the shape and extent of the suddenly visible solar atmosphere, or corona. Because the corona is so much dimmer than the sun, an eclipse provides one of the easiest ways to observe it. Langley was surprised that the corona appeared dimmer and far more extended than he had seen before. In a coordinated effort organized by the U.S. Naval Observatory, many other observers at multiple locations also created sketches of the corona and submitted them for study and publication.

Drawing in black ink or pencil on white paper. A big circle with two small circles inside it. One is the sun. The sun has flaring lines coming out of it in one direction, at about 7 o'clock, angle-wise.

Black and white sketches made to represent corona in the eclipse.
Sketches of the corona during the 1878 eclipse by various observers. Courtesy of Astronomical and Meteorological Observations, XXII, U.S. Naval Observatory.

The real surprise came after Langley finished his sketch and looked through the telescope. He had only five seconds to observe an "extraordinary sharpness of filamentary structure" of the corona before the sun started to reappear. This structure would haunt him. Photographs taken during this and later eclipse expeditions failed to reproduce what he saw. Was it a figment of his imagination? One has but to look at the variety of drawings from the 1878 eclipse to see how questions of subjectivity could come to play.

White drawing on black background. Sun with lines coming out of it.

When Langley had a chance to witness another eclipse in May 1900, he decided to capture images of the corona with "photography upon a greater scale than any hitherto attempted." By then, he was the Secretary of the Smithsonian and head of its Astrophysical Observatory. He had considerably more resources at his disposal, including $4,000 from the government to study the eclipse. Langley formed the party from staff at the Smithsonian, Catholic University, the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, Williams College, and the U.S. Patent Office. And this time there would be no need to worry about steep mountain hiking, sickness, and freezing rain. The eclipse path crossed the small town of Wadesboro, North Carolina, about 400 miles from Washington, D.C., and accessible by train.

Since Wadesboro was an ideal place to observe the eclipse, other expeditions chose it, which meant a serious influx of astronomers. As "some slight return" for the hospitality extended to the team, the Smithsonian observers invited townspeople to look through a five-inch visual telescope to view the stars on clear nights. That scope was the same one that Langley had borrowed from the U.S. Naval Observatory for the 1878 eclipse. He borrowed it again.

Sepia-toned photograph of an outdoor scene. There is a wooden platform on the grass. On it, a man sits at a desk-like table and peers into a large telescope that is pointed at the sky. He wears a hat. In the background, a tent-like structure is visible.

This time, Langley wanted to record the detail he had glimpsed before. So the team made a really big camera. I mean big. The glass plate negatives it exposed were 30 by 30 inches. The camera lens was 12 inches in diameter and required 135 feet to focus. This "great lens" was borrowed from E. C. Pickering, director of Harvard College Observatory. (If you want to see the original, check out Harvard's Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments.)

Photo during an eclipse. Black and white. Shows a part of a celestial body with a glow around it, including what appear to be two white flares.

Borrowed telescope, borrowed lens—and this from the head of the Astrophysical Observatory of the Smithsonian? What a mooch! Well, hold on a second. Let's not be hasty to judge. It makes sense that Langley would want to use the same telescope in Wadesboro that he had used on Pikes Peak. That is good science. Minimize the variables so you can confidently ascribe any observed change. Borrowing large lenses and other telescopes also makes sense because his Astrophysical Observatory was more concerned with studying the various wavelengths of light from the sun than with making pictures of it. Langley was especially interested in parts of the solar spectrum that were not visible to the naked eye. He developed an instrument to measure infrared radiation, the bolometer. And the Wadesboro expedition was an early attempt to use such an instrument to study the solar corona. While Langley enjoyed the view through his borrowed telescope, two other researchers sat in a small hut and took readings from the bolometer.

Black and white photo. A man wearing a hat sits in a small room manipulating a device of some sort.

Perhaps the excitement of this unfolding field of study was enough to cheer Langley up after he finished watching the 1900 eclipse. "To the writer's view with the 5-inch telescope the inner corona was filled with detail, but far less sharp and definite than he saw it on Pikes Peak in 1878," Langley later wrote. "Having in mind the wonderful structure seen with the same instrument in the clear mountain air twenty-two years before, the impression was a disappointing one." Humidity could have been to blame, or even changes in the sun itself. Whatever the cause of his disappointment, it is hard to believe that anyone could look upon this telescope, learn about the eclipse expeditions it was used for, and be disappointed.

Photograph in color. Part of a telescope. One large gear-like wheel with teeth seems to adjoin three smaller gear-like wheels with teeth. There is a center bar and horseshoe-shaped brace or body.

Kristen Frederick-Frost is curator of modern science in the Division of Medicine and Science. Planning to view the total solar eclipse this summer? The Smithsonian Eclipse app is your interactive guide to the big event. 

Posted Date: 
Wednesday, August 16, 2017 - 08:00
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Using Art to Talk About the Holocaust in ‘The Evidence Room’

Smithsonian Magazine

In 1996 David Irving, a British writer known in certain circles for his expertise on Nazi Germany, sued Deborah Lipstadt, a historian and professor at Emory University, for libel because she called him “one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial.” Irving—who has asserted unequivocally and wrongly that ''there were never any gas chambers at Auschwitz”—strategically filed the lawsuit in the U.K. By law, the burden of proof for libel cases in that country lies with the defendant, meaning he knew that Lipstadt would have to prove he had knowingly promoted a conspiracy theory.

Lipstadt didn’t back down. A lengthy court battle ensued, and four years later, the British High Court of Justice ruled in her favor.

What the trial (later dramatized in the film Denial starring Rachel Weisz) ultimately came down to was a trove of irrefutable documentary evidence, including letters, orders, blueprints and building contractor documents that proved without a doubt the methodological planning, building and operating of the death camp at Auschwitz.

This past summer, The Evidence Room, an installation of 65 plaster casts that manifests a physical, sculptural representation of that trial, came to the United States for the first time, and went on view in the nation’s capital. Those familiar with Washington, D.C., might assume the exhibition was installed at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Instead, it went on view just a short walk down the street at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, where crowds jostled to see it on its short June to September showing.

“It really opens it up in a whole different way,” says Betsy Johnson, an assistant curator at the Hirshhorn. “You had people coming to see it here in the context of an art museum, who are very different than your populations at a history museum, or at a Holocaust museum.”

The Evidence Room was originally created as a piece of forensic architecture for the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale. Working through 1,000 pages of testimony, Robert Jan van Pelt, an architectural historian and the main expert witness for Lipstadt’s case, and a team from the University of Waterloo School of Architecture led by Donald McKay and Anne Bordeleau with architecture and design curator Sascha Hastings teased out the concept of The Evidence Room from the pieces of court evidence themselves.

“Sometimes,” says gallery guide Nancy Hirshbein, “visitors would say things like: ‘Oh, this is difficult to read,’ and then look at me and go: ‘Oh, because it's difficult material.’” (William Andrews, courtesy of The Evidence Room Foundation)

Everything in the work is unrelentingly white. Three life-size “monuments” are featured. They include a gas chamber door showing that its hinges had been moved because it was determined that if the door opened outward, more bodies could be put in the room. (The door was originally designed to swung inward, but it couldn’t open if too many of the dead were pressed against it.) There’s an early model gas hatch, which is how the SS guards introduced the cyanide-based Zyklon-B poison into the gas chamber. A gas column, which made the killings as efficient as possible, is also depicted. Plaster casts of archival drawings, photographs, blueprints and documents on Nazi letterheads populate the room as well. They are given a three-dimensional aspect thanks to a laser engraving technique and testify to how workers during World War II—carpenters, cement manufacturers, electricians, architects and the like—assisted in creating the most efficient Nazi killing machine possible.

Strong reception to The Evidence Room helped the architects to raise funds to return the work to Waterloo. From there, it was shown at Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, which is where Johnson first experienced it when she was sent there about a year ago by the Hirshhorn’s director and chief curator.

“I went there, and realized almost immediately that even though it hadn't been displayed in an art context before” says Johnson, “that it had potential for fitting into an art context.” Johnson recognized in the work connections with the direction that contemporary art has gone in the past four or five decades, a trend that places more importance on the idea behind the art object itself. "Really when it came down to it, even though it’s not a traditional art project, it fits so well within the trends that have been happening in the realm of contemporary art from the 1960s on,” she says.

But bringing it to the Hirshhorn meant considering the piece differently than how it had been framed before. “We realized fairly early on that there were certain ways that [Royal Ontario Museum] had framed the story that were different than the ways we did,” she says. “Things like the materiality of the work, which while they did discuss this at the Royal Ontario Museum became even more the focus in our museum,” she says. “The plaster was one that was actually quite symbolic for [the creators],” she says. “They were thinking it through on multiple different levels.”

Because this wasn’t a history museum, they also decided to go more minimalist with the text. “We still wanted people to be able to access the information about it,” says Johnson. “But we also wanted them to have this experience of confronting an object that that they don't quite understand at first.”

The Evidence Room "allows history to be recovered,” says Alan Ginsberg. What you're left to do as the viewer, then, “is to understand and try to grapple with what is absent from there.” (William Andrews, courtesy of The Evidence Room Foundation)

Asking the audience to do the work to engage with what they were seeing on their own, she felt, was key. “That work is really important work,” Johnson says. “Especially within the space of this exhibition. We felt like there's something kind of sacred about [it]. We didn't want people to be mediating the space through their phones or through a map that they hold in their hand.” Instead, they relied more on the gallery guides like Nancy Hirshbein to supplement the experience.

Hirshbein says the most frequent question from visitors was: “Why is it all white?”

“That was the number one question,” she says. “Visitors would stop. As soon as they walked in, you can tell that they were struck by the space. And I would approach them and ask if they had any questions. And then I would often prompt and say: ‘If you're wondering about anything, if you're wondering about why the room may be all white, please let me know.’”

That opened up the conversation to discuss the materiality of the white plaster, and what it may have meant to the architects who designed the room.

“I would also like to find out from the visitors their interpretation,” says Hirshbein. “We sometimes did some free association, about how it felt to them to be in this very minimal white space.”

By design, the all-white nature of the panels made them difficult to read. So, visitors often needed to spend time squinting or navigating their own body in order to better read the text or see the image. “Sometimes,” says Hirshbein, “visitors intuited that. They would say things like: ‘Oh, this is difficult to read,’ and then look at me and go: ‘Oh, because it's difficult material.’”

That’s just one thing that could be pulled from that. “We're also looking through a backward lens of history,” as Hirshbein says, “and the further we get away from these things, the more difficult they are to see. That's the nature of history.”

Alan Ginsberg, who serves as the director of the Evidence Room Foundation, the custodian of the work, mentions during our conversation that for him, he notices in different light, coming from different angles, that the shadows the plaster casts stand out. “It allows history to be recovered,” he says. “It allows memory to be recovered.” What you're left to do, as the viewer then, “is to understand and try to grapple with what is absent from there.”

Ginsberg says the Evidence Room Foundation, which partnered with the Hirshhorn on the exhibition, was fully on board with how the Hirshhorn framed the work. “The Hirshhorn was the obvious and perfect and premier place for this debut not only in the United States, but in the world of art,” he says. Like many people, he sees the room embodying many identities, including being a work of contemporary art.

Holocaust art has always been a controversial topic, something that Ginsberg is very aware of when he talks about the room as art. “Can you represent the Holocaust through art without being obscene?” he asks. “This is a question that has been debated endlessly. And I think the answer clearly comes down to—it depends on the specific work. There are works of art that are understood to be commemorative, or educational, or evocative, in a way that is respectful. And that's what The Evidence Room is.”

Still, he says, there's something in the work and the way it’s crafted that does give him pause. “Is it wrong to have something that refers back to atrocities and yet the representation has a certain eerie beauty to it? These are good questions to ask,” he says. “And they're not meant to be resolved. Ultimately, they're meant to create that artistic tension that provokes conversation and awareness.”

The Evidence Room Foundation, which only launched just this year, is looking to use the work as a teaching tool and a conversation starter. Currently, Ginsberg says, they’re speaking with art museums, history museums, university campuses and other kinds of institutions, and fielding inquiries and requests about where to exhibit The Evidence Room in the future. For now, he’ll only say, “Our hope is that we will get a new venue announced and put in place before the year ends.”

Doctor Albert Gibbs In Blue Room

National Air and Space Museum
Pen and ink sketch depicting Dr. Albert Gibbs in "Blue Room."' A seated man is seen from behind as he is stretching his left arm out in front of him toward two small rows of TV monitors. A desktop is in front of him and another meets it at a right angle on the left. Both are detailed with objects on the surface. Densely packed diagonal strokes for shading and visual design fill in the lower right portion of the scene. The top third of the drawing is empty.

The spring of 1962 was a busy time for the men and women of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. On February 20, John H. Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. For the first time since the launch of Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, the U.S. was positioned to match and exceed Soviet achievements in space. NASA was an agency with a mission -- to meet President John F. Kennedy's challenge of sending human beings to the moon and returning them safely to earth by the end of the decade. Within a year, three more Mercury astronauts would fly into orbit. Plans were falling into place for a follow-on series of two-man Gemini missions that would set the stage for the Apollo voyages to the moon.

In early March 1962, artist Bruce Stevenson brought his large portrait of Alan Shepard, the first American to fly in space, to NASA headquarters.(1) James E. Webb, the administrator of NASA, assumed that the artist was interested in painting a similar portrait of all seven of the Mercury astronauts. Instead, Webb voiced his preference for a group portrait that would emphasize "…the team effort and the togetherness that has characterized the first group of astronauts to be trained by this nation." More important, the episode convinced the administrator that "…we should consider in a deliberate way just what NASA should do in the field of fine arts to commemorate the …historic events" of the American space program.(2)

In addition to portraits, Webb wanted to encourage artists to capture the excitement and deeper meaning of space flight. He imagined "a nighttime scene showing the great amount of activity involved in the preparation of and countdown for launching," as well as paintings that portrayed activities in space. "The important thing," he concluded, "is to develop a policy on how we intend to treat this matter now and in the next several years and then to get down to the specifics of how we intend to implement this policy…." The first step, he suggested, was to consult with experts in the field, including the director of the National Gallery of Art, and the members of the Fine Arts Commission, the arbiters of architectural and artistic taste who passed judgment on the appearance of official buildings and monuments in the nation's capital.

Webb's memo of March 16, 1962 was the birth certificate of the NASA art program. Shelby Thompson, the director of the agency's Office of Educational Programs and Services, assigned James Dean, a young artist working as a special assistant in his office, to the project. On June 19, 1962 Thompson met with the Fine Arts Commission, requesting advice as to how "…NASA should develop a basis for use of paintings and sculptures to depict significant historical events and other activities in our program."(3)

David E. Finley, the chairman and former director of the National Gallery of Art, applauded the idea, and suggested that the agency should study the experience of the U.S. Air Force, which had amassed some 800 paintings since establishing an art program in 1954. He also introduced Thompson to Hereward Lester Cooke, curator of paintings at the National Gallery of Art.

An imposing bear of a man standing over six feet tall, Lester Cooke was a graduate of Yale and Oxford, with a Princeton PhD. The son of a physics professor and a veteran of the U.S. Army Air Forces, he was both fascinated by science and felt a personal connection to flight. On a professional level, Cooke had directed American participation in international art competitions and produced articles and illustrations for the National Geographic Magazine. He jumped at the chance to advise NASA on its art program.

While initially cautious with regard to the time the project might require of one of his chief curators, John Walker, director of the National Gallery, quickly became one of the most vocal supporters of the NASA art initiative. Certain that "the present space exploration effort by the United States will probably rank among the more important events in the history of mankind," Walker believed that "every possible method of documentation …be used." Artists should be expected "…not only to record the physical appearance of the strange new world which space technology is creating, but to edit, select and probe for the inner meaning and emotional impact of events which may change the destiny of our race." He urged quick action so that "the full flavor of the achievement …not be lost," and hoped that "the past held captive" in any paintings resulting from the effort "will prove to future generations that America produced not only scientists and engineers capable of shaping the destiny of our age, but also artists worthy to keep them company."(4)

Gordon Cooper, the last Mercury astronaut to fly, was scheduled to ride an Atlas rocket into orbit on May 15, 1963. That event would provide the ideal occasion for a test run of the plan Cooke and Dean evolved to launch the art program. In mid-February, Cooke provided Thompson with a list of the artists who should be invited to travel to Cape Canaveral to record their impressions of the event. Andrew Wyeth, whom the curator identified as "the top artist in the U.S. today," headed the list. When the time came, however, Andrew Wyeth did not go to the Cape for the Cooper launch, but his son Jamie would participate in the program during the Gemini and Apollo years.

The list of invited artists also included Peter Hurd, Andrew Wyeth's brother-in-law, who had served as a wartime artist with the Army Air Force; George Weymouth, whom Wyeth regarded as "the best of his pupils"; and John McCoy, another Wyeth associate. Cooke regarded the next man on the list, Robert McCall, who had been running the Air Force art program, as "America's top aero-space illustrator. Paul Calle and Robert Shore had both painted for the Air Force program. Mitchell Jamieson, who had run a unit of the Navy art program during WW II, rounded out the program. Alfred Blaustein was the only artist to turn down the invitation.

The procedures that would remain in place for more than a decade were given a trial run in the spring of 1963. The artists received an $800 commission, which had to cover any expenses incurred while visiting a NASA facility where they could paint whatever interested them. In return, they would present their finished pieces, and all of their sketches, to the space agency. The experiment was a success, and what might have been a one-time effort to dispatch artists to witness and record the Gordon Cooper flight provided the basis for an on-going, if small-scale, program. By the end of 1970, Jim Dean and Lester Cooke had dispatched 38 artists to Mercury, Gemini and Apollo launches and to other NASA facilities.

The art program became everything that Jim Webb had hoped it would be. NASA artists produced stunning works of art that documented the agency's step-by-step progress on the way to the moon. The early fruits of the program were presented in a lavishly illustrated book, Eyewitness to Space (New York: Abrams, 1971). Works from the collection illustrated NASA publications and were the basis for educational film strips aimed at school children. In 1965 and again in 1969 the National Gallery of Art mounted two major exhibitions of work from the NASA collection. The USIA sent a selection of NASA paintings overseas, while the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service created two exhibitions of NASA art that toured the nation.

"Since we …began," Dean noted in a reflection on the tenth anniversary of the program, the art initiative had resulted in a long string of positive "press interviews and reports, congressional inquiries, columns in the Congressional Record, [and] White House reports." The NASA effort, he continued, had directly inspired other government art programs. "The Department of the Interior (at least two programs), the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Army and even the Veterans Administration have, or are starting, art programs." While he could not take all of the credit, Dean insisted that "our success has encouraged other agencies to get involved and they have succeeded, too."(5)

For all of that, he noted, it was still necessary to "defend" the role of art in the space agency. Dean, with the assistance of Lester Cooke, had been a one-man show, handling the complex logistics of the program, receiving and cataloguing works of art, hanging them himself in museums or on office walls, and struggling to find adequate storage space. In January 1976, a NASA supervisor went so far as to comment that: "Mr. Dean is far too valuable in other areas to spend his time on the relatively menial …jobs he is often burdened with in connection with the art program."(6) Dean placed a much higher value on the art collection, and immediately recommended that NASA officials either devote additional resources to the program, or get out of the art business and turn the existing collection over the National Air and Space Museum, "where it can be properly cared for."(7)

In January 1974 a new building for the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) was taking shape right across the street from NASA headquarters. Discussions regarding areas of cooperation were already underway between NASA officials and museum director Michael Collins, who had flown to the moon as a member of the Apollo 11 crew. Before the end of the year, the space agency had transferred its art collection to the NASM. Mike Collins succeeded in luring Jim Dean to the museum, as well.

The museum already maintained a small art collection, including portraits of aerospace heroes, an assortment of 18th and 19th century prints illustrating the early history of the balloon, an eclectic assortment of works portraying aspects of the history of aviation and a few recent prizes, including several Norman Rockwell paintings of NASA activity. With the acquisition of the NASA art, the museum was in possession of one of the world's great collections of art exploring aerospace themes. Jim Dean would continue to build the NASM collection as the museum's first curator of art. Following his retirement in 1980, other curators would follow in his footsteps, continuing to strengthen the role of art at the NASM. Over three decades after its arrival, however, the NASA art accession of 2,091 works still constitutes almost half of the NASM art collection.

(1) Stevenson's portrait is now in the collection of the National Air and Space Museum (1981-627)

(2) James E. Webb to Hiden Cox, March 16, 1962, memorandum in the NASA art historical collection, Aeronautics Division, National air and Space Museum. Webb's preference for a group portrait of the astronauts was apparently not heeded. In the end, Stevenson painted an individual portrait of John Glenn, which is also in the NASM collection (1963-398).

(3) Shelby Thompson, memorandum for the record, July 6, 1962, NASA art historical collection, NASA, Aeronautics Division.

(4) John Walker draft of a talk, March 5, 1965, copy in NASA Art historical collection, NASM Aeronautics Division.

(5) James Dean, memorandum for the record, August 6, 1973, NASA art history collection, NASM Aeronautics Division.

(6) Director of Planning and Media Development to Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs, January 24, 1974, NASA art history collection, NASM Aeronautics Division.

(7) James Dean to the Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs, January 24, 1974, copy in NASA Art history Collection, Aeronautics Division, NASM.

Tom D. Crouch

Senior Curator, Aeronautics

National Air and Space Museum

Smithsonian Institution

July 26, 2007

Down the Mississippi

National Air and Space Museum
Down the Mississippi, October 21, 1964. Watercolor scene depicts the back of the barge, named "Promise," carrying the 1st stage and engines of the Saturn V. The Mississippi River is shown in angled areas on the left and the right. A person on the center of the deck is working on a small boat with a red interior. Blue brush strokes radiate from the center in the sky. Text in the lower left reads: "SI-9 Down the Mississippi, Oct 21, 1964." Text in the lower right corner reads: "10am."

The spring of 1962 was a busy time for the men and women of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. On February 20, John H. Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. For the first time since the launch of Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, the U.S. was positioned to match and exceed Soviet achievements in space. NASA was an agency with a mission -- to meet President John F. Kennedy's challenge of sending human beings to the moon and returning them safely to earth by the end of the decade. Within a year, three more Mercury astronauts would fly into orbit. Plans were falling into place for a follow-on series of two-man Gemini missions that would set the stage for the Apollo voyages to the moon.

In early March 1962, artist Bruce Stevenson brought his large portrait of Alan Shepard, the first American to fly in space, to NASA headquarters.(1) James E. Webb, the administrator of NASA, assumed that the artist was interested in painting a similar portrait of all seven of the Mercury astronauts. Instead, Webb voiced his preference for a group portrait that would emphasize "…the team effort and the togetherness that has characterized the first group of astronauts to be trained by this nation." More important, the episode convinced the administrator that "…we should consider in a deliberate way just what NASA should do in the field of fine arts to commemorate the …historic events" of the American space program.(2)

In addition to portraits, Webb wanted to encourage artists to capture the excitement and deeper meaning of space flight. He imagined "a nighttime scene showing the great amount of activity involved in the preparation of and countdown for launching," as well as paintings that portrayed activities in space. "The important thing," he concluded, "is to develop a policy on how we intend to treat this matter now and in the next several years and then to get down to the specifics of how we intend to implement this policy…." The first step, he suggested, was to consult with experts in the field, including the director of the National Gallery of Art, and the members of the Fine Arts Commission, the arbiters of architectural and artistic taste who passed judgment on the appearance of official buildings and monuments in the nation's capital.

Webb's memo of March 16, 1962 was the birth certificate of the NASA art program. Shelby Thompson, the director of the agency's Office of Educational Programs and Services, assigned James Dean, a young artist working as a special assistant in his office, to the project. On June 19, 1962 Thompson met with the Fine Arts Commission, requesting advice as to how "…NASA should develop a basis for use of paintings and sculptures to depict significant historical events and other activities in our program."(3)

David E. Finley, the chairman and former director of the National Gallery of Art, applauded the idea, and suggested that the agency should study the experience of the U.S. Air Force, which had amassed some 800 paintings since establishing an art program in 1954. He also introduced Thompson to Hereward Lester Cooke, curator of paintings at the National Gallery of Art.

An imposing bear of a man standing over six feet tall, Lester Cooke was a graduate of Yale and Oxford, with a Princeton PhD. The son of a physics professor and a veteran of the U.S. Army Air Forces, he was both fascinated by science and felt a personal connection to flight. On a professional level, Cooke had directed American participation in international art competitions and produced articles and illustrations for the National Geographic Magazine. He jumped at the chance to advise NASA on its art program.

While initially cautious with regard to the time the project might require of one of his chief curators, John Walker, director of the National Gallery, quickly became one of the most vocal supporters of the NASA art initiative. Certain that "the present space exploration effort by the United States will probably rank among the more important events in the history of mankind," Walker believed that "every possible method of documentation …be used." Artists should be expected "…not only to record the physical appearance of the strange new world which space technology is creating, but to edit, select and probe for the inner meaning and emotional impact of events which may change the destiny of our race." He urged quick action so that "the full flavor of the achievement …not be lost," and hoped that "the past held captive" in any paintings resulting from the effort "will prove to future generations that America produced not only scientists and engineers capable of shaping the destiny of our age, but also artists worthy to keep them company."(4)

Gordon Cooper, the last Mercury astronaut to fly, was scheduled to ride an Atlas rocket into orbit on May 15, 1963. That event would provide the ideal occasion for a test run of the plan Cooke and Dean evolved to launch the art program. In mid-February, Cooke provided Thompson with a list of the artists who should be invited to travel to Cape Canaveral to record their impressions of the event. Andrew Wyeth, whom the curator identified as "the top artist in the U.S. today," headed the list. When the time came, however, Andrew Wyeth did not go to the Cape for the Cooper launch, but his son Jamie would participate in the program during the Gemini and Apollo years.

The list of invited artists also included Peter Hurd, Andrew Wyeth's brother-in-law, who had served as a wartime artist with the Army Air Force; George Weymouth, whom Wyeth regarded as "the best of his pupils"; and John McCoy, another Wyeth associate. Cooke regarded the next man on the list, Robert McCall, who had been running the Air Force art program, as "America's top aero-space illustrator. Paul Calle and Robert Shore had both painted for the Air Force program. Mitchell Jamieson, who had run a unit of the Navy art program during WW II, rounded out the program. Alfred Blaustein was the only artist to turn down the invitation.

The procedures that would remain in place for more than a decade were given a trial run in the spring of 1963. The artists received an $800 commission, which had to cover any expenses incurred while visiting a NASA facility where they could paint whatever interested them. In return, they would present their finished pieces, and all of their sketches, to the space agency. The experiment was a success, and what might have been a one-time effort to dispatch artists to witness and record the Gordon Cooper flight provided the basis for an on-going, if small-scale, program. By the end of 1970, Jim Dean and Lester Cooke had dispatched 38 artists to Mercury, Gemini and Apollo launches and to other NASA facilities.

The art program became everything that Jim Webb had hoped it would be. NASA artists produced stunning works of art that documented the agency's step-by-step progress on the way to the moon. The early fruits of the program were presented in a lavishly illustrated book, Eyewitness to Space (New York: Abrams, 1971). Works from the collection illustrated NASA publications and were the basis for educational film strips aimed at school children. In 1965 and again in 1969 the National Gallery of Art mounted two major exhibitions of work from the NASA collection. The USIA sent a selection of NASA paintings overseas, while the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service created two exhibitions of NASA art that toured the nation.

"Since we …began," Dean noted in a reflection on the tenth anniversary of the program, the art initiative had resulted in a long string of positive "press interviews and reports, congressional inquiries, columns in the Congressional Record, [and] White House reports." The NASA effort, he continued, had directly inspired other government art programs. "The Department of the Interior (at least two programs), the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Army and even the Veterans Administration have, or are starting, art programs." While he could not take all of the credit, Dean insisted that "our success has encouraged other agencies to get involved and they have succeeded, too."(5)

For all of that, he noted, it was still necessary to "defend" the role of art in the space agency. Dean, with the assistance of Lester Cooke, had been a one-man show, handling the complex logistics of the program, receiving and cataloguing works of art, hanging them himself in museums or on office walls, and struggling to find adequate storage space. In January 1976, a NASA supervisor went so far as to comment that: "Mr. Dean is far too valuable in other areas to spend his time on the relatively menial …jobs he is often burdened with in connection with the art program."(6) Dean placed a much higher value on the art collection, and immediately recommended that NASA officials either devote additional resources to the program, or get out of the art business and turn the existing collection over the National Air and Space Museum, "where it can be properly cared for."(7)

In January 1974 a new building for the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) was taking shape right across the street from NASA headquarters. Discussions regarding areas of cooperation were already underway between NASA officials and museum director Michael Collins, who had flown to the moon as a member of the Apollo 11 crew. Before the end of the year, the space agency had transferred its art collection to the NASM. Mike Collins succeeded in luring Jim Dean to the museum, as well.

The museum already maintained a small art collection, including portraits of aerospace heroes, an assortment of 18th and 19th century prints illustrating the early history of the balloon, an eclectic assortment of works portraying aspects of the history of aviation and a few recent prizes, including several Norman Rockwell paintings of NASA activity. With the acquisition of the NASA art, the museum was in possession of one of the world's great collections of art exploring aerospace themes. Jim Dean would continue to build the NASM collection as the museum's first curator of art. Following his retirement in 1980, other curators would follow in his footsteps, continuing to strengthen the role of art at the NASM. Over three decades after its arrival, however, the NASA art accession of 2,091 works still constitutes almost half of the NASM art collection.

(1) Stevenson's portrait is now in the collection of the National Air and Space Museum (1981-627)

(2) James E. Webb to Hiden Cox, March 16, 1962, memorandum in the NASA art historical collection, Aeronautics Division, National air and Space Museum. Webb's preference for a group portrait of the astronauts was apparently not heeded. In the end, Stevenson painted an individual portrait of John Glenn, which is also in the NASM collection (1963-398).

(3) Shelby Thompson, memorandum for the record, July 6, 1962, NASA art historical collection, NASA, Aeronautics Division.

(4) John Walker draft of a talk, March 5, 1965, copy in NASA Art historical collection, NASM Aeronautics Division.

(5) James Dean, memorandum for the record, August 6, 1973, NASA art history collection, NASM Aeronautics Division.

(6) Director of Planning and Media Development to Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs, January 24, 1974, NASA art history collection, NASM Aeronautics Division.

(7) James Dean to the Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs, January 24, 1974, copy in NASA Art history Collection, Aeronautics Division, NASM.

Tom D. Crouch

Senior Curator, Aeronautics

National Air and Space Museum

Smithsonian Institution

July 26, 2007

Culver TD2C-1

National Air and Space Museum
Fully aerobatic, yet comfortable enough for cross-country flight. A red radio-controlled drone with retractable landing gear.

The NASM's Culver, serial number 120035, is one of the 1,198 TD2C drones used by the Navy. Records are incomplete, but it may have been transferred from the Army. In May of 1949 it was located at NAS Johnsville, Pennsylvania. In October of that year the radio control equipment was removed and in June 1950 radomes were installed on the wings for tests conducted by a local electronics laboratory. In October 1950, the aircraft was transferred to Air Development Squadron 2 (VX-2) at NAS Chincoteague, Virginia. It was restricted to normal flying because of the mutilation to the wings resulting from the installation and removal of the radomes. Most of the aircraft's total of 184 flying hours were accumulated in the next two years. In June 1952, 120035 received a new engine, but in November of that year it was transferred to Norfolk to be made ready for transfer to the National Air Museum. The Smithsonian took ownership of the TD2C-1 in 1961 and it is currently in storage at the Paul E. Garber Restoration and Preservation Facility in Suitland, Maryland.

In August 1940, the U.S. Government began to look for a radio-controlled aircraft for use as a target drone in the training of air and anti-aircraft gunners. Some twenty manufacturers of light aircraft were invited to submit designs. Among the entrants was the Culver Aircraft Company of Columbus, Ohio, whose design was the only one chosen and the company thus became the sole supplier of piloted radio-controlled targets to both the Army and Navy.

The Culver TD2C Cadet was the brainchild of the talented aircraft designer, Al Mooney, who began his aviation career in 1925. His father was a railroad engineer, designing and building tunnels, trestles, stations, and other installations, and although Al had been interested in aviation from a young age, he spent his early years following in his father's footsteps. He continued, however, to study the new science of aeronautical engineering in his spare time and impressed a local Denver businessman sufficiently with his knowledge to hire him.

The businessman, J. Don Alexander, produced trailers showing coming attractions at the movies. He was also one of the earliest businessmen to see the value of the airplane in his operations. His plan was to put his salesmen in airplanes to cover the vast territories of the western United States. His problem was that the ubiquitous war-surplus Curtiss Jenny, or any other airplane for that matter, did not have a safe margin of altitude to cross the Rocky Mountains. In true entrepreneurial fashion, Alexander decided to build his own aircraft with the necessary performance.

To accomplish this, he bought the Longren Aircraft Company of Topeka, Kansas and hired the designer of the company's airplane. The design had problems, however, and after his chance meeting with Al Mooney at the Colorado Airways field, Alexander hired Al to find out what was wrong. Al did some calculations and determined that the design was inherently faulty. Taking a risk, he decided to present his ideas for a totally new design to his boss. To his relief, Alexander accepted his proposal, and at nineteen, Al Mooney was officially an aircraft designer.

The resulting design, the Alexander Eaglerock, would become one of the most successful general aviation aircraft of the Twenties. It was the first aircraft to compete with the low-cost, war-surplus Jennys and many of the early pilots soloed in it. And while it is not as well known today as some other designs of the time, it easily outsold them all. The airplane's success, however, did not benefit Al Mooney. Alexander chose to concentrate on selling the aircraft and not on developing the design. Al had little to do and readily accepted an offer to work for another company.

His first design was a biplane, but Al Mooney always had the idea of a small, fast monoplane in mind. He would continue to refine his idea during the next several years, designing aircraft for several companies, including a second stint at Alexander, at Bellanca, and as the head of his own short-lived company. In 1935 he joined the Monocoupe Corporation in St. Louis. At this time he designed what was probably the first light twin, the Monocoach. The Mooney-designed Monosport, however, would continue his dream of a small, fast monoplane, and would lead directly to the Cadet.

By 1937 the Depression was taking its toll on Monocoupe. Under these circumstances, a young, wealthy Monocoupe dealer in Columbus, Ohio, named Knight Culver, offered to buy Al's Monosport design outright and hire its designer for his new company. Culver formed the Dart Manufacturing Corporation which two years later became Culver Aircraft. The company would rename Mooney's design the Dart and put it into production. After further modification, including the addition of a retractable landing gear, the design would become the Culver Cadet. This low-cost, high-performance aircraft was like few others. It was fully aerobatic, yet comfortable enough for cross-country flight.

In late 1940 the United States Army began to look for a target drone to help train the expected influx of pilots as war approached. The drone was to be radio-controlled for target use, but it also had to be piloted for ferry, delivery, and training purposes. The Culver Cadet was a prime candidate and Al was approached about the possibility of Culver manufacturing the drone. After being rejected by Continental and Lycoming for supplies of suitable engines, the Franklin engine company agreed, and Culver decided to produce the drone. The type chosen was the Franklin O-200 (and later the O-300), which after the war would also be used to power the Tucker automobile. Work on fitting the radio-control apparatus to the Cadet to produce a prototype began immediately.

About this time, Culver decided that he did not want to continue in the aircraft manufacturing business because of the pressure of increased orders. The company floundered through new owners, but a group that included Walter Beech of Beechcraft shortly replaced them. After December 7, 1941, the company ceased all civilian production and concentrated totally on drones for the military.

The new drone was originally designated the RAT-8 for Radio Aircraft Target-8. RAT was soon changed to PQ, which stood for piloted (P) drone (Q). Smaller, un-piloted drones were built by film actor Reginald Denny's Radioplanes company in California, and were designated OQ. When the PQ was flown into gunfire without a pilot, it was called a NOLO flight. The radio operator who controlled the drone on these types of flights usually flew in a Cessna UC-78 "Bamboo Bomber" mother ship. Late in 1941 the United States Navy ordered 200 drones which they designated as TDC (for Target Drone Culver).

The PQ-8 was not immediately successful in its intended role. At first, anti-aircraft gunners were shooting down few of the aircraft. It turned out that because the aircraft had been designed to use non-strategic wood for its construction, it did not return a good radar picture - an early form of stealth! The army ordered wires to be strung in the wings, and the bottom to be painted with radar reflective paint, thus curing the problem.

In 1943 Al Mooney designed a strengthened drone with retractable landing gear, which was officially accepted on July 4, and was designated the PQ-14. Of the 1,348 army drones built, 1,201 were transferred to the Navy as TD2C-1s. The drones were very popular with the ferry pilots who would pick them up at the factory and fly them to Texas for installation of the radio control equipment. They would take off and engage in mock dogfights over the factory in the hot little drone before flying off in formation. The last version, which never went into production, was even designed to include a radial engine, making it almost a scaled-down "fighter".

The Culver drones continued to fly for the Air Force and the Navy in various programs after the war. The National Air and Space Museum's Deputy Director, Lieutenant Colonel Donald S. Lopez, USAF, (Ret.) was involved in one such experiment. The Air Force was developing a device that could record the location of rounds of ammunition fired at a target. The target itself, therefore, could be smaller and more easily towed, but the device could track the location of bullets in a larger area. The test platform chosen for the experiment was the Culver drone. Col. Lopez was a test pilot at Eglin Field at the time and was selected to test the system by flying firing passes at the drone in his F-84. To make sure that the bullets actually missed the drone so that the device could record the misses, his fighter carried only two guns and he was required to fire from maximum range and a high angle of deflection. Col. Lopez's gunnery training was so thorough, however that even with the difficult shot, he destroyed the drone after firing only seven or eight rounds. The B-17 carrying the monitoring equipment and the scientists who were running the project, instead of landing, immediately headed back to Wright Field and the project was never heard from again.

Not all the military drones were destroyed in service, however, and a few still fly today in private hands.

The NASM's Culver, serial number 120035, is one of the 1,198 TD2C drones used by the Navy. Records are incomplete, but it may have been transferred from the Army. In May of 1949 it was located at NAS Johnsville, Pennsylvania. In October of that year the radio control equipment was removed and in June 1950 radomes were installed on the wings for tests conducted by a local electronics laboratory. In October 1950, the aircraft was transferred to Air Development Squadron 2 (VX-2) at NAS Chincoteague, Virginia. It was restricted to normal flying because of the mutilation to the wings resulting from the installation and removal of the radomes. Most of the aircraft's total of 184 flying hours were accumulated in the next two years. In June 1952, 120035 received a new engine, but in November of that year it was transferred to Norfolk to be made ready for transfer to the National Air Museum. The Smithsonian took ownership of the TD2C-1 in 1961 and it is currently in storage at the Paul E. Garber Restoration and Preservation Facility in Suitland, Maryland.

Cooper stepping out of van

National Air and Space Museum
Cooper Stepping Out of Van. A van viewed from behind at a three-quarters angle occupies the center of the drawing. Astronaut Gordon Cooper is stepping out of the side of the van and a group of simply sketched people are gathered along the bottom of the page. The top portion is full of diagonal lines that converge at the spotlights at left center. Writing in the lower right reads: "Gordon Cooper MA-9," which is the Mercury Atlas 9 mission of 1963.

The spring of 1962 was a busy time for the men and women of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. On February 20, John H. Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. For the first time since the launch of Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, the U.S. was positioned to match and exceed Soviet achievements in space. NASA was an agency with a mission -- to meet President John F. Kennedy's challenge of sending human beings to the moon and returning them safely to earth by the end of the decade. Within a year, three more Mercury astronauts would fly into orbit. Plans were falling into place for a follow-on series of two-man Gemini missions that would set the stage for the Apollo voyages to the moon.

In early March 1962, artist Bruce Stevenson brought his large portrait of Alan Shepard, the first American to fly in space, to NASA headquarters.(1) James E. Webb, the administrator of NASA, assumed that the artist was interested in painting a similar portrait of all seven of the Mercury astronauts. Instead, Webb voiced his preference for a group portrait that would emphasize "…the team effort and the togetherness that has characterized the first group of astronauts to be trained by this nation." More important, the episode convinced the administrator that "…we should consider in a deliberate way just what NASA should do in the field of fine arts to commemorate the …historic events" of the American space program.(2)

In addition to portraits, Webb wanted to encourage artists to capture the excitement and deeper meaning of space flight. He imagined "a nighttime scene showing the great amount of activity involved in the preparation of and countdown for launching," as well as paintings that portrayed activities in space. "The important thing," he concluded, "is to develop a policy on how we intend to treat this matter now and in the next several years and then to get down to the specifics of how we intend to implement this policy…." The first step, he suggested, was to consult with experts in the field, including the director of the National Gallery of Art, and the members of the Fine Arts Commission, the arbiters of architectural and artistic taste who passed judgment on the appearance of official buildings and monuments in the nation's capital.

Webb's memo of March 16, 1962 was the birth certificate of the NASA art program. Shelby Thompson, the director of the agency's Office of Educational Programs and Services, assigned James Dean, a young artist working as a special assistant in his office, to the project. On June 19, 1962 Thompson met with the Fine Arts Commission, requesting advice as to how "…NASA should develop a basis for use of paintings and sculptures to depict significant historical events and other activities in our program."(3)

David E. Finley, the chairman and former director of the National Gallery of Art, applauded the idea, and suggested that the agency should study the experience of the U.S. Air Force, which had amassed some 800 paintings since establishing an art program in 1954. He also introduced Thompson to Hereward Lester Cooke, curator of paintings at the National Gallery of Art.

An imposing bear of a man standing over six feet tall, Lester Cooke was a graduate of Yale and Oxford, with a Princeton PhD. The son of a physics professor and a veteran of the U.S. Army Air Forces, he was both fascinated by science and felt a personal connection to flight. On a professional level, Cooke had directed American participation in international art competitions and produced articles and illustrations for the National Geographic Magazine. He jumped at the chance to advise NASA on its art program.

While initially cautious with regard to the time the project might require of one of his chief curators, John Walker, director of the National Gallery, quickly became one of the most vocal supporters of the NASA art initiative. Certain that "the present space exploration effort by the United States will probably rank among the more important events in the history of mankind," Walker believed that "every possible method of documentation …be used." Artists should be expected "…not only to record the physical appearance of the strange new world which space technology is creating, but to edit, select and probe for the inner meaning and emotional impact of events which may change the destiny of our race." He urged quick action so that "the full flavor of the achievement …not be lost," and hoped that "the past held captive" in any paintings resulting from the effort "will prove to future generations that America produced not only scientists and engineers capable of shaping the destiny of our age, but also artists worthy to keep them company."(4)

Gordon Cooper, the last Mercury astronaut to fly, was scheduled to ride an Atlas rocket into orbit on May 15, 1963. That event would provide the ideal occasion for a test run of the plan Cooke and Dean evolved to launch the art program. In mid-February, Cooke provided Thompson with a list of the artists who should be invited to travel to Cape Canaveral to record their impressions of the event. Andrew Wyeth, whom the curator identified as "the top artist in the U.S. today," headed the list. When the time came, however, Andrew Wyeth did not go to the Cape for the Cooper launch, but his son Jamie would participate in the program during the Gemini and Apollo years.

The list of invited artists also included Peter Hurd, Andrew Wyeth's brother-in-law, who had served as a wartime artist with the Army Air Force; George Weymouth, whom Wyeth regarded as "the best of his pupils"; and John McCoy, another Wyeth associate. Cooke regarded the next man on the list, Robert McCall, who had been running the Air Force art program, as "America's top aero-space illustrator. Paul Calle and Robert Shore had both painted for the Air Force program. Mitchell Jamieson, who had run a unit of the Navy art program during WW II, rounded out the program. Alfred Blaustein was the only artist to turn down the invitation.

The procedures that would remain in place for more than a decade were given a trial run in the spring of 1963. The artists received an $800 commission, which had to cover any expenses incurred while visiting a NASA facility where they could paint whatever interested them. In return, they would present their finished pieces, and all of their sketches, to the space agency. The experiment was a success, and what might have been a one-time effort to dispatch artists to witness and record the Gordon Cooper flight provided the basis for an on-going, if small-scale, program. By the end of 1970, Jim Dean and Lester Cooke had dispatched 38 artists to Mercury, Gemini and Apollo launches and to other NASA facilities.

The art program became everything that Jim Webb had hoped it would be. NASA artists produced stunning works of art that documented the agency's step-by-step progress on the way to the moon. The early fruits of the program were presented in a lavishly illustrated book, Eyewitness to Space (New York: Abrams, 1971). Works from the collection illustrated NASA publications and were the basis for educational film strips aimed at school children. In 1965 and again in 1969 the National Gallery of Art mounted two major exhibitions of work from the NASA collection. The USIA sent a selection of NASA paintings overseas, while the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service created two exhibitions of NASA art that toured the nation.

"Since we …began," Dean noted in a reflection on the tenth anniversary of the program, the art initiative had resulted in a long string of positive "press interviews and reports, congressional inquiries, columns in the Congressional Record, [and] White House reports." The NASA effort, he continued, had directly inspired other government art programs. "The Department of the Interior (at least two programs), the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Army and even the Veterans Administration have, or are starting, art programs." While he could not take all of the credit, Dean insisted that "our success has encouraged other agencies to get involved and they have succeeded, too."(5)

For all of that, he noted, it was still necessary to "defend" the role of art in the space agency. Dean, with the assistance of Lester Cooke, had been a one-man show, handling the complex logistics of the program, receiving and cataloguing works of art, hanging them himself in museums or on office walls, and struggling to find adequate storage space. In January 1976, a NASA supervisor went so far as to comment that: "Mr. Dean is far too valuable in other areas to spend his time on the relatively menial …jobs he is often burdened with in connection with the art program."(6) Dean placed a much higher value on the art collection, and immediately recommended that NASA officials either devote additional resources to the program, or get out of the art business and turn the existing collection over the National Air and Space Museum, "where it can be properly cared for."(7)

In January 1974 a new building for the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) was taking shape right across the street from NASA headquarters. Discussions regarding areas of cooperation were already underway between NASA officials and museum director Michael Collins, who had flown to the moon as a member of the Apollo 11 crew. Before the end of the year, the space agency had transferred its art collection to the NASM. Mike Collins succeeded in luring Jim Dean to the museum, as well.

The museum already maintained a small art collection, including portraits of aerospace heroes, an assortment of 18th and 19th century prints illustrating the early history of the balloon, an eclectic assortment of works portraying aspects of the history of aviation and a few recent prizes, including several Norman Rockwell paintings of NASA activity. With the acquisition of the NASA art, the museum was in possession of one of the world's great collections of art exploring aerospace themes. Jim Dean would continue to build the NASM collection as the museum's first curator of art. Following his retirement in 1980, other curators would follow in his footsteps, continuing to strengthen the role of art at the NASM. Over three decades after its arrival, however, the NASA art accession of 2,091 works still constitutes almost half of the NASM art collection.

(1) Stevenson's portrait is now in the collection of the National Air and Space Museum (1981-627)

(2) James E. Webb to Hiden Cox, March 16, 1962, memorandum in the NASA art historical collection, Aeronautics Division, National air and Space Museum. Webb's preference for a group portrait of the astronauts was apparently not heeded. In the end, Stevenson painted an individual portrait of John Glenn, which is also in the NASM collection (1963-398).

(3) Shelby Thompson, memorandum for the record, July 6, 1962, NASA art historical collection, NASA, Aeronautics Division.

(4) John Walker draft of a talk, March 5, 1965, copy in NASA Art historical collection, NASM Aeronautics Division.

(5) James Dean, memorandum for the record, August 6, 1973, NASA art history collection, NASM Aeronautics Division.

(6) Director of Planning and Media Development to Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs, January 24, 1974, NASA art history collection, NASM Aeronautics Division.

(7) James Dean to the Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs, January 24, 1974, copy in NASA Art history Collection, Aeronautics Division, NASM.

Tom D. Crouch

Senior Curator, Aeronautics

National Air and Space Museum

Smithsonian Institution

July 26, 2007

Control Room with Sketchy Figures

National Air and Space Museum
Control Room with Sketchy Figures, June 1974. Page from a spiral-bound sketchbook. A clearly defined sketch of a control panel at a slight angle is the background for looser sketches of several figures. A TV monitor is on top of the panel. One figure is seated at the console and another figure is standing on his right. Other figures are off to the right side of the panel. Writing in the lower right says "Star City Moscow June 1974." Pen scribbles are in the upper left corner.

In March 1962, James Webb, Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, suggested that artists be enlisted to document the historic effort to send the first human beings to the moon. John Walker, director of the National Gallery of Art, was among those who applauded the idea, urging that artists be encouraged "…not only to record the physical appearance of the strange new world which space technology is creating, but to edit, select and probe for the inner meaning and emotional impact of events which may change the destiny of our race."

Working together, James Dean, a young artist employed by the NASA Public Affairs office, and Dr. H. Lester Cooke, curator of paintings at the National Gallery of Art, created a program that dispatched artists to NASA facilities with an invitation to paint whatever interested them. The result was an extraordinary collection of works of art proving, as one observer noted, "that America produced not only scientists and engineers capable of shaping the destiny of our age, but also artists worthy to keep them company." Transferred to the National Air and Space Museum in 1975, the NASA art collection remains one of the most important elements of what has become perhaps the world's finest collection of aerospace themed art.

The spring of 1962 was a busy time for the men and women of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. On February 20, John H. Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. For the first time since the launch of Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, the U.S. was positioned to match and exceed Soviet achievements in space. NASA was an agency with a mission -- to meet President John F. Kennedy's challenge of sending human beings to the moon and returning them safely to earth by the end of the decade. Within a year, three more Mercury astronauts would fly into orbit. Plans were falling into place for a follow-on series of two-man Gemini missions that would set the stage for the Apollo voyages to the moon.

In early March 1962, artist Bruce Stevenson brought his large portrait of Alan Shepard, the first American to fly in space, to NASA headquarters.(1) James E. Webb, the administrator of NASA, assumed that the artist was interested in painting a similar portrait of all seven of the Mercury astronauts. Instead, Webb voiced his preference for a group portrait that would emphasize "…the team effort and the togetherness that has characterized the first group of astronauts to be trained by this nation." More important, the episode convinced the administrator that "…we should consider in a deliberate way just what NASA should do in the field of fine arts to commemorate the …historic events" of the American space program.(2)

In addition to portraits, Webb wanted to encourage artists to capture the excitement and deeper meaning of space flight. He imagined "a nighttime scene showing the great amount of activity involved in the preparation of and countdown for launching," as well as paintings that portrayed activities in space. "The important thing," he concluded, "is to develop a policy on how we intend to treat this matter now and in the next several years and then to get down to the specifics of how we intend to implement this policy…." The first step, he suggested, was to consult with experts in the field, including the director of the National Gallery of Art, and the members of the Fine Arts Commission, the arbiters of architectural and artistic taste who passed judgment on the appearance of official buildings and monuments in the nation's capital.

Webb's memo of March 16, 1962 was the birth certificate of the NASA art program. Shelby Thompson, the director of the agency's Office of Educational Programs and Services, assigned James Dean, a young artist working as a special assistant in his office, to the project. On June 19, 1962 Thompson met with the Fine Arts Commission, requesting advice as to how "…NASA should develop a basis for use of paintings and sculptures to depict significant historical events and other activities in our program."(3)

David E. Finley, the chairman and former director of the National Gallery of Art, applauded the idea, and suggested that the agency should study the experience of the U.S. Air Force, which had amassed some 800 paintings since establishing an art program in 1954. He also introduced Thompson to Hereward Lester Cooke, curator of paintings at the National Gallery of Art.

An imposing bear of a man standing over six feet tall, Lester Cooke was a graduate of Yale and Oxford, with a Princeton PhD. The son of a physics professor and a veteran of the U.S. Army Air Forces, he was both fascinated by science and felt a personal connection to flight. On a professional level, Cooke had directed American participation in international art competitions and produced articles and illustrations for the National Geographic Magazine. He jumped at the chance to advise NASA on its art program.

While initially cautious with regard to the time the project might require of one of his chief curators, John Walker, director of the National Gallery, quickly became one of the most vocal supporters of the NASA art initiative. Certain that "the present space exploration effort by the United States will probably rank among the more important events in the history of mankind," Walker believed that "every possible method of documentation …be used." Artists should be expected "…not only to record the physical appearance of the strange new world which space technology is creating, but to edit, select and probe for the inner meaning and emotional impact of events which may change the destiny of our race." He urged quick action so that "the full flavor of the achievement …not be lost," and hoped that "the past held captive" in any paintings resulting from the effort "will prove to future generations that America produced not only scientists and engineers capable of shaping the destiny of our age, but also artists worthy to keep them company."(4)

Gordon Cooper, the last Mercury astronaut to fly, was scheduled to ride an Atlas rocket into orbit on May 15, 1963. That event would provide the ideal occasion for a test run of the plan Cooke and Dean evolved to launch the art program. In mid-February, Cooke provided Thompson with a list of the artists who should be invited to travel to Cape Canaveral to record their impressions of the event. Andrew Wyeth, whom the curator identified as "the top artist in the U.S. today," headed the list. When the time came, however, Andrew Wyeth did not go to the Cape for the Cooper launch, but his son Jamie would participate in the program during the Gemini and Apollo years.

The list of invited artists also included Peter Hurd, Andrew Wyeth's brother-in-law, who had served as a wartime artist with the Army Air Force; George Weymouth, whom Wyeth regarded as "the best of his pupils"; and John McCoy, another Wyeth associate. Cooke regarded the next man on the list, Robert McCall, who had been running the Air Force art program, as "America's top aero-space illustrator. Paul Calle and Robert Shore had both painted for the Air Force program. Mitchell Jamieson, who had run a unit of the Navy art program during WW II, rounded out the program. Alfred Blaustein was the only artist to turn down the invitation.

The procedures that would remain in place for more than a decade were given a trial run in the spring of 1963. The artists received an $800 commission, which had to cover any expenses incurred while visiting a NASA facility where they could paint whatever interested them. In return, they would present their finished pieces, and all of their sketches, to the space agency. The experiment was a success, and what might have been a one-time effort to dispatch artists to witness and record the Gordon Cooper flight provided the basis for an on-going, if small-scale, program. By the end of 1970, Jim Dean and Lester Cooke had dispatched 38 artists to Mercury, Gemini and Apollo launches and to other NASA facilities.

The art program became everything that Jim Webb had hoped it would be. NASA artists produced stunning works of art that documented the agency's step-by-step progress on the way to the moon. The early fruits of the program were presented in a lavishly illustrated book, Eyewitness to Space (New York: Abrams, 1971). Works from the collection illustrated NASA publications and were the basis for educational film strips aimed at school children. In 1965 and again in 1969 the National Gallery of Art mounted two major exhibitions of work from the NASA collection. The USIA sent a selection of NASA paintings overseas, while the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service created two exhibitions of NASA art that toured the nation.

"Since we …began," Dean noted in a reflection on the tenth anniversary of the program, the art initiative had resulted in a long string of positive "press interviews and reports, congressional inquiries, columns in the Congressional Record, [and] White House reports." The NASA effort, he continued, had directly inspired other government art programs. "The Department of the Interior (at least two programs), the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Army and even the Veterans Administration have, or are starting, art programs." While he could not take all of the credit, Dean insisted that "our success has encouraged other agencies to get involved and they have succeeded, too."(5)

For all of that, he noted, it was still necessary to "defend" the role of art in the space agency. Dean, with the assistance of Lester Cooke, had been a one-man show, handling the complex logistics of the program, receiving and cataloguing works of art, hanging them himself in museums or on office walls, and struggling to find adequate storage space. In January 1976, a NASA supervisor went so far as to comment that: "Mr. Dean is far too valuable in other areas to spend his time on the relatively menial …jobs he is often burdened with in connection with the art program."(6) Dean placed a much higher value on the art collection, and immediately recommended that NASA officials either devote additional resources to the program, or get out of the art business and turn the existing collection over the National Air and Space Museum, "where it can be properly cared for."(7)

In January 1974 a new building for the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) was taking shape right across the street from NASA headquarters. Discussions regarding areas of cooperation were already underway between NASA officials and museum director Michael Collins, who had flown to the moon as a member of the Apollo 11 crew. Before the end of the year, the space agency had transferred its art collection to the NASM. Mike Collins succeeded in luring Jim Dean to the museum, as well.

The museum already maintained a small art collection, including portraits of aerospace heroes, an assortment of 18th and 19th century prints illustrating the early history of the balloon, an eclectic assortment of works portraying aspects of the history of aviation and a few recent prizes, including several Norman Rockwell paintings of NASA activity. With the acquisition of the NASA art, the museum was in possession of one of the world's great collections of art exploring aerospace themes. Jim Dean would continue to build the NASM collection as the museum's first curator of art. Following his retirement in 1980, other curators would follow in his footsteps, continuing to strengthen the role of art at the NASM. Over three decades after its arrival, however, the NASA art accession of 2,091 works still constitutes almost half of the NASM art collection.

(1) Stevenson's portrait is now in the collection of the National Air and Space Museum (1981-627)

(2) James E. Webb to Hiden Cox, March 16, 1962, memorandum in the NASA art historical collection, Aeronautics Division, National air and Space Museum. Webb's preference for a group portrait of the astronauts was apparently not heeded. In the end, Stevenson painted an individual portrait of John Glenn, which is also in the NASM collection (1963-398).

(3) Shelby Thompson, memorandum for the record, July 6, 1962, NASA art historical collection, NASA, Aeronautics Division.

(4) John Walker draft of a talk, March 5, 1965, copy in NASA Art historical collection, NASM Aeronautics Division.

(5) James Dean, memorandum for the record, August 6, 1973, NASA art history collection, NASM Aeronautics Division.

(6) Director of Planning and Media Development to Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs, January 24, 1974, NASA art history collection, NASM Aeronautics Division.

(7) James Dean to the Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs, January 24, 1974, copy in NASA Art history Collection, Aeronautics Division, NASM.

Tom D. Crouch

Senior Curator, Aeronautics

National Air and Space Museum

Smithsonian Institution

July 26, 2007

Apollo 11- The Glittering Hours

National Air and Space Museum
Apollo 11. Powerful floodlights illuminate Apollo 11, Saturn V, the gantry, and Vehicle Assembly Building from all angles. The bright orange and red on the gantry imitate the look of flames, and the entire scene is reflected along the bottom margin of the piece. The caption beneath the framed artwork reads: The night before the launch, Saturn V, with the Apollo 11 spacecraft, is the object of much well-lighted attention by technicians and engineers. Watercolor on Paper

In March 1962, James Webb, Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, suggested that artists be enlisted to document the historic effort to send the first human beings to the moon. John Walker, director of the National Gallery of Art, was among those who applauded the idea, urging that artists be encouraged "…not only to record the physical appearance of the strange new world which space technology is creating, but to edit, select and probe for the inner meaning and emotional impact of events which may change the destiny of our race."

Working together, James Dean, a young artist employed by the NASA Public Affairs office, and Dr. H. Lester Cooke, curator of paintings at the National Gallery of Art, created a program that dispatched artists to NASA facilities with an invitation to paint whatever interested them. The result was an extraordinary collection of works of art proving, as one observer noted, "that America produced not only scientists and engineers capable of shaping the destiny of our age, but also artists worthy to keep them company." Transferred to the National Air and Space Museum in 1975, the NASA art collection remains one of the most important elements of what has become perhaps the world's finest collection of aerospace themed art.

The spring of 1962 was a busy time for the men and women of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. On February 20, John H. Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. For the first time since the launch of Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, the U.S. was positioned to match and exceed Soviet achievements in space. NASA was an agency with a mission -- to meet President John F. Kennedy's challenge of sending human beings to the moon and returning them safely to earth by the end of the decade. Within a year, three more Mercury astronauts would fly into orbit. Plans were falling into place for a follow-on series of two-man Gemini missions that would set the stage for the Apollo voyages to the moon.

In early March 1962, artist Bruce Stevenson brought his large portrait of Alan Shepard, the first American to fly in space, to NASA headquarters.(1) James E. Webb, the administrator of NASA, assumed that the artist was interested in painting a similar portrait of all seven of the Mercury astronauts. Instead, Webb voiced his preference for a group portrait that would emphasize "…the team effort and the togetherness that has characterized the first group of astronauts to be trained by this nation." More important, the episode convinced the administrator that "…we should consider in a deliberate way just what NASA should do in the field of fine arts to commemorate the …historic events" of the American space program.(2)

In addition to portraits, Webb wanted to encourage artists to capture the excitement and deeper meaning of space flight. He imagined "a nighttime scene showing the great amount of activity involved in the preparation of and countdown for launching," as well as paintings that portrayed activities in space. "The important thing," he concluded, "is to develop a policy on how we intend to treat this matter now and in the next several years and then to get down to the specifics of how we intend to implement this policy…." The first step, he suggested, was to consult with experts in the field, including the director of the National Gallery of Art, and the members of the Fine Arts Commission, the arbiters of architectural and artistic taste who passed judgment on the appearance of official buildings and monuments in the nation's capital.

Webb's memo of March 16, 1962 was the birth certificate of the NASA art program. Shelby Thompson, the director of the agency's Office of Educational Programs and Services, assigned James Dean, a young artist working as a special assistant in his office, to the project. On June 19, 1962 Thompson met with the Fine Arts Commission, requesting advice as to how "…NASA should develop a basis for use of paintings and sculptures to depict significant historical events and other activities in our program."(3)

David E. Finley, the chairman and former director of the National Gallery of Art, applauded the idea, and suggested that the agency should study the experience of the U.S. Air Force, which had amassed some 800 paintings since establishing an art program in 1954. He also introduced Thompson to Hereward Lester Cooke, curator of paintings at the National Gallery of Art.

An imposing bear of a man standing over six feet tall, Lester Cooke was a graduate of Yale and Oxford, with a Princeton PhD. The son of a physics professor and a veteran of the U.S. Army Air Forces, he was both fascinated by science and felt a personal connection to flight. On a professional level, Cooke had directed American participation in international art competitions and produced articles and illustrations for the National Geographic Magazine. He jumped at the chance to advise NASA on its art program.

While initially cautious with regard to the time the project might require of one of his chief curators, John Walker, director of the National Gallery, quickly became one of the most vocal supporters of the NASA art initiative. Certain that "the present space exploration effort by the United States will probably rank among the more important events in the history of mankind," Walker believed that "every possible method of documentation …be used." Artists should be expected "…not only to record the physical appearance of the strange new world which space technology is creating, but to edit, select and probe for the inner meaning and emotional impact of events which may change the destiny of our race." He urged quick action so that "the full flavor of the achievement …not be lost," and hoped that "the past held captive" in any paintings resulting from the effort "will prove to future generations that America produced not only scientists and engineers capable of shaping the destiny of our age, but also artists worthy to keep them company."(4)

Gordon Cooper, the last Mercury astronaut to fly, was scheduled to ride an Atlas rocket into orbit on May 15, 1963. That event would provide the ideal occasion for a test run of the plan Cooke and Dean evolved to launch the art program. In mid-February, Cooke provided Thompson with a list of the artists who should be invited to travel to Cape Canaveral to record their impressions of the event. Andrew Wyeth, whom the curator identified as "the top artist in the U.S. today," headed the list. When the time came, however, Andrew Wyeth did not go to the Cape for the Cooper launch, but his son Jamie would participate in the program during the Gemini and Apollo years.

The list of invited artists also included Peter Hurd, Andrew Wyeth's brother-in-law, who had served as a wartime artist with the Army Air Force; George Weymouth, whom Wyeth regarded as "the best of his pupils"; and John McCoy, another Wyeth associate. Cooke regarded the next man on the list, Robert McCall, who had been running the Air Force art program, as "America's top aero-space illustrator. Paul Calle and Robert Shore had both painted for the Air Force program. Mitchell Jamieson, who had run a unit of the Navy art program during WW II, rounded out the program. Alfred Blaustein was the only artist to turn down the invitation.

The procedures that would remain in place for more than a decade were given a trial run in the spring of 1963. The artists received an $800 commission, which had to cover any expenses incurred while visiting a NASA facility where they could paint whatever interested them. In return, they would present their finished pieces, and all of their sketches, to the space agency. The experiment was a success, and what might have been a one-time effort to dispatch artists to witness and record the Gordon Cooper flight provided the basis for an on-going, if small-scale, program. By the end of 1970, Jim Dean and Lester Cooke had dispatched 38 artists to Mercury, Gemini and Apollo launches and to other NASA facilities.

The art program became everything that Jim Webb had hoped it would be. NASA artists produced stunning works of art that documented the agency's step-by-step progress on the way to the moon. The early fruits of the program were presented in a lavishly illustrated book, Eyewitness to Space (New York: Abrams, 1971). Works from the collection illustrated NASA publications and were the basis for educational film strips aimed at school children. In 1965 and again in 1969 the National Gallery of Art mounted two major exhibitions of work from the NASA collection. The USIA sent a selection of NASA paintings overseas, while the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service created two exhibitions of NASA art that toured the nation.

"Since we …began," Dean noted in a reflection on the tenth anniversary of the program, the art initiative had resulted in a long string of positive "press interviews and reports, congressional inquiries, columns in the Congressional Record, [and] White House reports." The NASA effort, he continued, had directly inspired other government art programs. "The Department of the Interior (at least two programs), the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Army and even the Veterans Administration have, or are starting, art programs." While he could not take all of the credit, Dean insisted that "our success has encouraged other agencies to get involved and they have succeeded, too."(5)

For all of that, he noted, it was still necessary to "defend" the role of art in the space agency. Dean, with the assistance of Lester Cooke, had been a one-man show, handling the complex logistics of the program, receiving and cataloguing works of art, hanging them himself in museums or on office walls, and struggling to find adequate storage space. In January 1976, a NASA supervisor went so far as to comment that: "Mr. Dean is far too valuable in other areas to spend his time on the relatively menial …jobs he is often burdened with in connection with the art program."(6) Dean placed a much higher value on the art collection, and immediately recommended that NASA officials either devote additional resources to the program, or get out of the art business and turn the existing collection over the National Air and Space Museum, "where it can be properly cared for."(7)

In January 1974 a new building for the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) was taking shape right across the street from NASA headquarters. Discussions regarding areas of cooperation were already underway between NASA officials and museum director Michael Collins, who had flown to the moon as a member of the Apollo 11 crew. Before the end of the year, the space agency had transferred its art collection to the NASM. Mike Collins succeeded in luring Jim Dean to the museum, as well.

The museum already maintained a small art collection, including portraits of aerospace heroes, an assortment of 18th and 19th century prints illustrating the early history of the balloon, an eclectic assortment of works portraying aspects of the history of aviation and a few recent prizes, including several Norman Rockwell paintings of NASA activity. With the acquisition of the NASA art, the museum was in possession of one of the world's great collections of art exploring aerospace themes. Jim Dean would continue to build the NASM collection as the museum's first curator of art. Following his retirement in 1980, other curators would follow in his footsteps, continuing to strengthen the role of art at the NASM. Over three decades after its arrival, however, the NASA art accession of 2,091 works still constitutes almost half of the NASM art collection.

(1) Stevenson's portrait is now in the collection of the National Air and Space Museum (1981-627)

(2) James E. Webb to Hiden Cox, March 16, 1962, memorandum in the NASA art historical collection, Aeronautics Division, National air and Space Museum. Webb's preference for a group portrait of the astronauts was apparently not heeded. In the end, Stevenson painted an individual portrait of John Glenn, which is also in the NASM collection (1963-398).

(3) Shelby Thompson, memorandum for the record, July 6, 1962, NASA art historical collection, NASA, Aeronautics Division.

(4) John Walker draft of a talk, March 5, 1965, copy in NASA Art historical collection, NASM Aeronautics Division.

(5) James Dean, memorandum for the record, August 6, 1973, NASA art history collection, NASM Aeronautics Division.

(6) Director of Planning and Media Development to Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs, January 24, 1974, NASA art history collection, NASM Aeronautics Division.

(7) James Dean to the Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs, January 24, 1974, copy in NASA Art history Collection, Aeronautics Division, NASM.

Tom D. Crouch

Senior Curator, Aeronautics

National Air and Space Museum

Smithsonian Institution

July 26, 2007
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