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The Smithsonian’s New Secretary David Skorton Takes Questions From the Crowd

Smithsonian Magazine

On October 19, the secretary-elect of the Smithsonian Institution will be officially installed, becoming the 13th person to become the chief executive officer of the nation’s largest research and museum complex, overseeing a staff of some 6,500 with almost nearly as many volunteers. On that day, with the Chief Justice of the United States presiding and the Smithsonian Board of Regents in attendance, David Skorton will receive the ceremonial brass key to the Smithsonian Castle Building, a symbol that the Institution is now under his guidance and care.

The ceremony makes official what is already a daily hands-on job for Skorton, the former president of Cornell University and a board-certified cardiologist, who agreed to take questions last week from Smithsonian.com readers.

We collected the questions from Twitter and Facebook and pulled them together for this interview. The new secretary addressed everything from climate change to education to the D.C. arts scene and the digitization of the collections.

Our readers are especially interested in technology and its future at the Smithsonian. On Facebook, Shawn Hill inquires: How long will it take to 3D digitize the Smithsonian’s 138 million artifacts?

David Skorton: I can’t give you a precise answer on how long it would take to digitize in some fashion, let alone 3D digitize the entire collection. Some aspects of the collection are going to be less amenable to digitization than others, understanding that the collection consists of object specimens, works of art, a wide, wide, wide variety of different types of things. It is a time-consuming process, and as the technology for capturing digital images evolves, any estimate of how long it would take would also evolve. It will take awhile is probably the most precise thing I can say.

Mischi Doll asks if the omnipresence of digital versions somehow detracts from the authenticity of the original artifacts? 

DS: This is a terrific question. It depends on the point of view of the viewer and I believe it also may depend to some extent on the generation of the viewer. I am a Boomer, and I’m used to looking at objects, paintings, works of art, other types of artifacts in the flesh, looking at it, getting a feel for the texture of the surface, the way light reflects off of it and different angles.

I believe that digitization of those images can come close, but, with current technology not completely match, the experience of being face-to-face, so to speak, with the real thing.

On the other hand, the Smithsonian’s collections are broad and deep, and in my view should not be limited to those who can afford the time and investment to get to Washington and to get to the National Mall or to New York City to our other museums.

My predecessor Wayne Clough described the digitization effort as a democratization of the collection. I think that digital technology in many cases doesn’t quite match the original. But I think it’s well worth the tradeoff to allow much broader access to this set of national treasures.

A tray of bumble bees from the National Museum of Natural History’s bee collection awaits digitization. (John Gibbons/Smithsonian)

The mystery of the Hope Diamond perennially generates intrigue. Sally Scott on Facebook asks: Have you encountered any “odd” experiences yet with the Diamond?

DS: No, to be perfectly frank I have not yet spent any time with the Hope Diamond since I’ve been here. I’m working my way through many of the museums and different parts of the museums. I haven’t gotten there yet. I also haven’t had any unusual experiences with any of the other artifacts. [Laughs] I have had some unusual experiences with some of the staff who work with me, but I’m not going to elaborate on that. 

Nick Page wants to hear about your behind-the-scenes experiences with any of the Smithsonian’s most “closely guarded” artifacts. And Carlos de Obaldia asks you to identify your favorite artifact.

DS: I’ve seen so many things behind the scenes that have intrigued and amazed and inspired me that it’s really hard to choose a single one, but I’ll give you a sampling. I’m a cardiologist and from the generation of cardiologists who depended more on the stethoscope and listening to the patient’s report as a way of diagnosing illness prior to the current state of advanced imaging.

I did research that was part of a very large effort to advance the state of imaging, but my training was from an era where we depended much more on the physical examination and patient’s history. So, of course, I wanted to know what the Smithsonian collection of stethoscopes was like. And it took my breath away to be able to be near some of these early iterations of a way to transmit the sounds of the heart and the chest to the human ear, and that was very, very moving for me. 

In fact, I’m going to have a small exhibit in the conference room near my office with a couple of stethoscopes that I have had for years or decades and a couple from the collection so that people who are visiting can see a little bit of the evolution. 

When I was a kid and lived in Los Angeles, my dad and I used to go to Chavez Ravine to watch the Dodgers and we would watch Sandy Koufax pitch. It was a sight to behold and I got very near Sandy Koufax’s mitt at the National Museum of American History.

I also was firmly put in my place when I asked the curator, “Can I put my hand in the mitt?”  He said, “Absolutely not.” And I learned two things from that experience: the Secretary doesn’t hold any rank over the artifacts and that’s the way it should be, and, secondly, I have a lot to learn about the protocols for making sure that these treasured and increasingly rare objects are here for generations to come.

Sandy Koufax's baseball glove: "I also was firmly put in my place when I asked the curator, “Can I put my hand in the mitt?” He said, “Absolutely not.” (National Museum of American History)

From Facebook, Bob Murphey inquires whether you’ve found a major omission yet in the collections?

DS: I’m asked that question a lot and I have to hedge. I’m still getting my arms around the depth of the collections. I’m never going to understand anything approaching a broad view of the 138 million things at the Smithsonian’s unbelievable collection, so I really haven’t found any major category.

I haven’t seen much in the way of pictures from my high school phase, [laughs] but I actually don’t think those things are worth preserving.

But in a serious vein, I very much would like to understand, and a question I’ve asked a couple of times so far—what the role of the public might be in deciding what the collection should include. I don’t exactly know what a practical way to implement some public input would be. We have highly trained curators who are not only experts in a particular area of science or art or humanities or social science, but also understand, in a deep, three-dimensional way, what the collection is like now, what makes sense and what they believe as experts, as professionals, might be of value in the context of this kind of collection and the sort of visitorship or viewership that we have. 

Nonetheless, I think some feedback from the public about everything we do is really important. I spend a little bit of time wandering around, when I have a few spare minutes here and there, into the museums that are adjacent to the Castle or to the Sculpture Garden in fair weather just talking with visitors, tourists, others and I’ve asked some of them, you know, what do you think of the collection? What would you like to see?

So far, I haven’t found anyone who’s brought something up that we do not have any of.  In other words, everything people have said I sure would like to know more about “X” or “Y,” it turns out, not surprisingly, that the Smithsonian already has breadth and depth in this or that area, but I’m going to keep asking. 

@BlaireMoskowitz asks: What are your thoughts on the future of crowdsourced exhibitions? How should the Smithsonian Institution as a public institution participate?

DS: Just to say that, like a lot of other things related to the Smithsonian, I’m a student of what’s going on, not a master of what’s going on. 

But I do think that crowdsourcing or some other way to effect changes in what we do is healthy, and one quick thing that I’m going to do, which I don’t think would fall in the category of crowdsourcing but the same general endeavor is, I’m going to set up a youth advisory council of high school-aged students from around the D.C. area.

I just met recently with Mayor Muriel Bowser, who was just terrific, very receptive to the idea, and all the logistics and details aren’t set up yet, but that combination of people from outside, our professional staff and young people, the future of our visitors, I think, will really be fascinating.

The new Smithsonian Secretary is also a board-certified cardiologist. This mid-19th century monaural stethoscope will go on view in his office area. (National Museum of American History)

Funding is a key issue for our readers. @danmcknight observes how significant it is that the Smithsonian museums are free and that money is not a barrier to entry. And Charlotte Hoar on FB said she’d like to see even more museums covering other topics and more Smithsonian museums built in other parts of the country. @deepakkanungo hopes that there will be more artifacts added to the aerospace collections.

How will you manage those expectations of free access and continued growth, working both with Congress as well as in raising private funding?

DS: Well, the first thing, like any aspect of being part of a leadership team is to be very honest with people when they ask a question and the honest answer to that question is that we’re quite resource-limited at the Smithsonian right now in terms of the concept of adding in a major way to the collections or adding in a major way to the number of museums. 

That doesn’t mean that we don’t add to the collections. We do all the time and that doesn’t mean that we won’t see new museums at some point in the future. Time will tell. 

But it is important to get your points across. During a recession, where the country has had enormous revenue problems in both our private lives and in our public lives, Congress has been generous and steadfast with the Institution, maintaining a budget that’s allowed us to continue to serve the American people in the best possible way, and that is with breadth and depth and low, low barriers to access to the collections. 

And, by the way, not only low barriers in terms of not having to pay an entry fee but also lowering barriers because of the digital access to the collections. 

And so I want to go on record as saying that I have great respect and enormous gratitude that Congress has felt in its wisdom to maintain stable appropriations to the Smithsonian.

Having said that, we have to, in order to be good stewards of what we already have, in order to continue the level of quality the public has a right to expect, as new ideas occur, we have to identify revenue streams to permit those new ideas to prosper.

The comprehensive philanthropic campaign that my predecessor, Wayne Clough, began is very, very successful. We’re moving in on the goal and people have been very, very generous with the Institution. Congress continues to be generous and, as I said, steadfast, and so I’m an optimist by nature. 

I think we will be able to fund new initiatives and new things as they come along, but we’ll have to be careful and nothing in the nature of revenue constraints should stop us from dreaming, planning and looking forward, but we need to do it realistically. And the last thing I want to say is that the real secret of the quality and the inspiration and the magic of the Smithsonian is its people, the professional people.

So while we’re thinking about collections and while we’re thinking about museums themselves, renovations, the possibility of new museums, adding to major collections, we have to continue to focus on the size and nature of our workforce and the resources we put at their disposal to do the best work. I want to make sure that we keep the focus on our people.

Citing the struggle that other organizations including National Geographic, PBS and NPR are experiencing with private, corporate and politicized sponsorships, Monica Cas on Facebook wants to know how the Smithsonian plans to maintain its reputation as a completely independent, scientifically well-regarded, public institution?

DS: I could do no better in pursuit of that goal than to stay the course that my 12 predecessors and Al Horvath, as Acting Secretary, the path that they have charted.

The Smithsonian has maintained over the generations and decades what I think is a very admirable balance between public funding and running every iota of our operation in the public interest and as a public trust, and at the same time, being responsible stewards of the money that we get from Congress, the precious money that the American taxpayer is putting into this Institution, by raising philanthropic money to supplement it. [Those funds] allow things to happen that just could not happen even with the generous Congressional appropriation, so I think my predecessors have found a very good balance.

I’m comfortable from even the three months that I’ve been here—and the 15 months that I was learning about the place since my appointment—that the Smithsonian’s choices on collections are not affected by political or monetary interests.

Rather, the leaders of the Smithsonian, including those in advancement, the museum directors, the curators, have found a way to come up with terrific ideas that really get people excited and match those ideas with people of capacity who can help us achieve them without compromising in any way the values and principles that underlie the beauty of the collection.

And I want to hasten to add that people of capacity does not just mean people who can give gifts in the millions of dollars. You talked about crowdsourcing. The kickstarter effort that allowed us to quickly raise the money for the Neil Armstrong suit was a great example of how gifts of a wide variety of sizes, not only the mega gifts, to make dreams come true for the American public through the Smithsonian.

"The kickstarter effort that allowed us to quickly raise the money for the Neil Armstrong suit," says Skorton, "was a great example of how gifts of a wide variety of sizes make dreams come true for the American public through the Smithsonian." (Mark Avino, National Air and Space Museum)

Given the heated political discourse of our times, readers including Derek Williams want to better understand how the Smithsonian can remain above the fray. In addressing issues such as the Anthropocene and global climate change, he wants to know whether the Smithsonian has a political agenda?

DS: I’ve worked in a lot of scientific organizations and cultural venues and an honest answer is that everyone of us has political points of view one way or the other. But when you go from the individual to the organization, when you go from the individual citizen to the Institution, when you go from the individual to the grouping within the Institution, the sweet spot of leadership is to make sure that things that are done represent the best of the available field of knowledge, whatever it happens to be, whether it’s our history or astrophysics.

And so in the case of climate change, again my predecessor, Wayne Clough, oversaw the release of the public statement about climate change that was based on, in the opinion of the Smithsonian scientists, the best scientific data available. 

Now, does scientific data continue to accumulate and do opinions eventually change at times? Absolutely. 

For example, in the last week we’ve all noticed some changes in thinking about our diets related to milk. And the beauty of the self-correcting nature of scholarship is that as new thoughts or observations or concepts are developed, we want to be objective as we can possibly be, understanding that we’re human, to take those new perspectives and new information and to re-think the overall construct of how we put something together, whether it’s diet or our view of art or anything else that the Smithsonian may touch or be touched by, so I’m very happy that there’s excellent give and take within the Institution. 

Of course, not everybody in the Institution agrees about everything. In fact, in a creative organization like the Smithsonian, if we don’t have a lot of good give and take, where people are openly and respectfully disagreeing about things, then we’re not doing our job.  We have to look at every issue from every angle, and that is done in the Smithsonian and I’m comfortable that the way it’s been handled up till now has been based on the best thinking available and not on political orientations.

And @BlairMoskowitz adds: As we approach an election year, what are your thoughts on the intersection of politics and culture? Do you foresee a new "culture war"?

DS: I don’t think my thoughts on the intersection of politics and culture are particularly worthy, more than anybody else’s. I would just say that there’s obviously very strong feelings about some issues in our society and to the extent that any of those issues touches the Smithsonian, we will be caught in the crossfire.

So the controversies related to Margaret Sanger’s bust in the National Portrait Gallery is but one example of a deeply felt issue in the United States.

I very much support the decision of our director of the National Portrait Gallery, Kim Sajet, in maintaining the presence of that bust, but yes, politics will intersect with culture. 

Now, whether we’ll have culture wars, I suppose it depends on whether one is an optimist or a pessimist. A pessimist might say that the culture wars have gone on, uninterrupted, for generations and the more open our society is, the more we can have conversations, probably like we’re having right now, where individuals can come in from the general public and ask a question of any leader.

I think we’re going to have more give and take and more mixing of opinions, and I think that’s very healthy. That’s part of what makes America what it is.

I think the more of this kind of technology that we can use to bring ideas into the Smithsonian and to get ideas out, the better interaction we’ll have and the better interaction we have, the higher the quality of everything that we do. 

But in terms of the culture wars themselves, we will not have a role in the political aspects of anything related to culture or science. But we will have, and do have, and have had a big role in uncovering and discovering information and knowledge and doing creative things and interpreting creative things.

And those things that we interpret and discover and share with the public will—even though I can’t predict exactly which thing will be controversial—over time, they will cause controversies. And in a more general sense, I would say the creative activity in any field is likely from time to time to engender controversy—whether that’s the science of vaccination or whether it is something related to contemporary art. 

Creative activity will engender controversy and we have to welcome that. We have to embrace it. And we have to make what we share in the Smithsonian an honest reflection of the world we live in and the professional expertise of our staff.

Locally, here in DC, our readers are concerned about the Smithsonian’s huge presence in the city. On Twitter we heard from @TheDCDocent: How will you engage the local DC arts and science community?

DS: That is one of the things I’m really working on right now. I’ve been meeting with the heads of other cultural agencies and cultural institutions. So from that perspective, I’m beginning to get a feel for the enormous, almost breathtaking intellectual ferment in Washington, covering across the sciences and the arts.

The agency that I’m most familiar with and most close to over decades is the National Institutes of Health because my research was funded by them for many years and because of being a physician I served on advisory panels there and I haven’t had a chance yet, but will be reaching out to learn what I can about any intersection that might occur there.

I’m just getting my sea legs in that regard, but I think it’s really important that the Smithsonian is part of the network of knowledge-based agencies and institutions around the D.C. area.

A lot of that is going to be listening and learning, especially for a neophyte like me and should not be limited, in my view, to the heads of big institutions but the general public, like you’re doing today, and also, as I mentioned, the young people of the greater Washington area who, after all, are the future of our museums.

Our readers recognize you as an educator, and in fact they have high expectations in that arena, too. @bohndrake is a history teacher who incorporates #STEM lessons into the classroom. How will you connect with secondary education, @bohndrake asks. And Rebecca Rhodes on Facebook inquires: Will there be new initiatives in technology to further share collections with students and young people?

DS: The Youth Advisory Council is one way. And also I would remind all of us, all the time, the very profound work that already goes on through the Smithsonian’s director of education Claudine Brown’s good offices—Smithsonian Science Education Center and the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access—with the K through 12 system throughout the country, as well as throughout the greater metro Washington area.

And speaking of young people: @6thgradersrule from Twitter wants to know: When did you first fall in love with the Smithsonian?  

DS: Well, when I was a child, and I can’t remember exactly how old I was, my parents took me to the Museum of Natural History and I saw a dinosaur skeleton, and it really scared me but also intrigued me. That visit had a real big impact on me.

Your skills for literary analysis are being called upon for this final question. @Townwordsmith wants to know what's your favorite book? But he adds, if it isn't The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, why not?

DS: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is actually one of my favorite books but I’m such a bookish person, there’s no way that I can have one single favorite book. I can tell you  what’s on my nightstand right now is a real crazy quilt combination of fiction.

I’m re-reading a novel called The Egyptian by Waltari Mika. I’m reading a book that Melissa Chiu gave me, that resulted from the symposium on the museum in the 21st century that she was involved with in the not-too-distant past. I’m constantly reading about flute playing and I have a third edition of something called The Flute Book, trying to move myself from sort of mediocre to better than mediocre, reading descriptions of how to do that. And I subscribe to something called Laphams Quarterly and the topic of that issue I have right now is fashion and I’m just cracking that.

And Smithsonian magazine and Smithsonian.com too, right?

DS: Everyday when I get up.

Secretary David Skorton will take over @Smithsonian’s Twitter to answer your questions on October 27 from 1:15 to 2 p.m.  Submit questions with the hashtag, #AskSkorton.

Nine Days of a Sailor-Scholar’s Life Aboard the Canoe Circumnavigating the Globe

Smithsonian Magazine

“Welcome to voyaging!” says Nā‘ālehu Anthony after a wave washed over the bow of the canoe and soaked the three of us. We are aboard Hōkūleʻa, the famous Hawaiian voyaging canoe that is going around the world, as it is being towed out of Yorktown, Virginia, and into the Chesapeake Bay.

Hōkūleʻa, which was recently honored by United Nations in recognition of its historic four-year journey to sail around the world, is raising consciousness about caring for Mother Earth. Since departing Hawaiian waters in May 2014, the craft has sailed more than 22,000 nautical miles, visited 13 countries and made stops at 60 ports. I am standing at the forward mast with Zane Havens, another newbie to Hōkūleʻa, and Nā‘ālehu, who at this moment is the captain, and we are literally learning the ropes—the daunting mass of coils and cleats involved in working the sail and the mast.

I have been granted the rare honor of crewing for a portion of this leg of the World Wide Voyage, and will be with the canoe for nine days as it makes its way to Washington, D.C. We will visit Tangier Island, Northern Neck Virginia, Piscataway, and this article along with my other dispatches will detail what we learned along the way.

But first there is the learning necessary to serve as crew: the straightforward lessons about how to work the canoe and how to live on the canoe, and the far more elusive learning of one’s place on the canoe.

My aim before we headed out to the high seas was to get ma‘a to the wa ‘a.

Ma‘a—(MAH-ah) means “accustomed, used to, knowing thoroughly, habituated, familiar, experienced,” and wa‘a  (VAH-ah) is the Hawaiian version of the pan-Polynesian word for canoe.

I am also in the process of building a four-foot model of Hōkūleʻa, and these two processes feed each other: knowing the canoe will help me make the model accurate, and building the model will help me know the canoe better.

Hōkūleʻa is a “performance replica.”  She is built to perform like a traditional canoe, but made of modern materials. The hulls are plywood and fiberglass, the rigging is Dacron. But in other ways, she is an intricate vessel compared to the Hikianalia, the larger and more modern-style canoe I trained on a few months ago. The sails are traditional crab-claw style, the rigging more complicated, the accommodations more…rustic, and on the whole, it is wetter.

A daunting mass of coiled ropes confronts me at Yorktown. Will I ever learn what they all do? (Doug Herman)

When I first came aboard Hōkūleʻa in Yorktown, the coils of lines on the masts were daunting. It was hard to imagine I would ever know what all of these did. “Mau understood this canoe immediately,” I was told by master navigator Kālepa Baybayan, referring to his teacher Pius “Mau” Piailug, the famous navigator from the island of Satawal. “He just looked over all the rigging and understood right away.” But for someone with only a little experience on large sailing canoes, it would take longer.

Hōkūleʻa has two masts—the main mast in front, and the mizzenmast in the center. Each is held in place by a large number of stays—ropes that pull the mast from enough different angles to keep it securely perpendicular to the deck. Unlike most modern sailboats, the masts rest in blocks on the deck. The sails are fastened to a spar—the piece that goes up against the mast—and a boom, which curves outward when the sail is open.

Our first task was to attach the sails to the spars and booms (why they were off in the first place I do not know). Each one is tied on loosely around the spar and boom with little strings, so that the sail can slide freely to attain its proper shape when the wind pushes against it. We had to be careful not to tie these strings around the many lines running up the spars, and several had to be redone. 

Image by Doug Herman. The boom of an open sail (original image)

Image by Doug Herman. Na‘alehu Anthony (foreground, in dark coat) instructs us in how to tie the sails to the spar and boom while in port at Yorktown. (original image)

Image by Doug Herman. The “heiau” (temple) that holds the base of the mast. (original image)

Image by Doug Herman. Keala Kimura (left) and Kalā Tanaka at the steering paddle. The deck is framed by the many stays holding up the masts, as well as the sheets—ropes that would pull the sails to one side or the other. (original image)

Then the closed sail is hoisted up against the mast. This takes four people, one on each of four halyards, with some others on the deck lifting the sail until it is beyond their reach.  Once the sail is up, the halyards are coiled in a certain way that allows them to be hung on cleats on the mast. This is true of all the lines used in the rigging. A simple loop in the cleated end can be lifted off and the entire coil dropped to the ground when the line needs to be used again.

Opening the sail involves loosening two sets of three tricing lines. These are attached to the boom and they let it out. One person gets on each set of these lines. In addition are what they called “bag lines.” These are attached to points along the top of the sail. When we close the sail, someone pulls on these first to help bundle up the sail nice and tight so that it doesn’t bag out. To open the sail, these need to be loosened.

Nā‘ālehu had us practice raising the sail, opening the sail, closing the sail, and lowering the sail several times until we were all familiar with the process. Of course, most of the crew were seasoned voyagers who had done multiple legs of the Worldwide Voyage already, but this was good practice nonetheless.

Diagram of the many lines used to raise, open and close each sail. The tricing lines are doubled on the other side. (Doug Herman)

Much more complicated is the raising and lowering of the masts themselves. This we needed to do to get under the many bridges leading into Washington, D.C. In fact, we had to do it twice—once to get up to the Lincoln Memorial, where we then put everything back up and opened the sails for a photo shoot, and then down again to get under the next two low bridges; and then up for the final ride to the Washington Canoe Club. 

This process would be easy if we could take down the mizzenmast first, but because there is not sufficient room out in front of the main mast to get a good angle on the rope, the main mast comes down first. It was necessary to put a block and tackle on the front stay, and use lines from the mizzenmast to help lower it down. Problem is, all the stays from the mizzenmast are in the way of lowering the main mast. So they had to be moved, one at a time, as the main mast came down. Plus, the whole process ran in reverse to put it back up. By the third run, we managed to do it all in an hour and a quarter—down two hours the first time. We also had recruited some tall fellows from the Washington Canoe Club to come aboard to help lift.

The complex task of stepping the mast (Photo courtesy of Ōiwi TV )

The other workings of the canoe were familiar to me already: the giant steering sweep—a huge, 18-foot paddle on a pivot that is used to steer the canoe; the workings of the tow line (we were towed the entire way by a separate boat, with the indefatigable Moani Heimuli at the helm.)

Life aboard Hōkūleʻa is rather like camping. Full crew is 14 people—12 crew, the captain and the navigator. Under normal conditions, we would be operating in two shifts, each doing stretches of four, five or six hours at a time as the captain sees fit. In this case, except when we were coming into port, there was little activity on board. Someone needed to be at the steering sweep at all times—sometimes two people, depending how rough it got. Each night we came into a port, where we had access to bathrooms, hot showers and cold drinks. In most places, we also had accommodations with real beds, walking distance from the canoe.

Towards the end, I preferred to sleep on the canoe. I had an assigned bunk that was just my size along the side of the canoe and I could roll back the canvas to watch the stars before drifting off.

Hōkūleʻa is brilliantly designed with a series of hatchways down into each hull, regularly spaced between the booms that hold the two hulls together. A guardrail around the deck has diagonal supports going out to the far edge of each hull. Canvas is stretched over these supports to create kind of a long tent. On the deck side, the zipper doors in the canvas hid the sleeping compartments atop the hatchway. The Hawaiian word “puka” was often used to refer to these. Puka means both “hole” and “doorway,” and so is particularly apt for these low places you crawl into.

Plywood boards have been placed over the hatches, and thick foam pads on top of those.  I had puka #2 on the starboard side—the one closest to the bow (#1 being the entry way onto the canoe). My belongings were kept in a waterproof sea bag, with a few extra things stashed in a cooler alongside the hatchway under the plywood. A clothesline above the door allows you to hang things you need to access regularly—headlamp, hat, sunglasses and so forth. There are also some pockets for things like toiletries and sunscreen.

Image by Doug Herman. The canvas cover over the sleeping areas (pukas), also showing the catwalk and (above it) the safety line that rounds around the outside of the canoe. Far left is the navigator’s platform, the outside of which is the ocean-going toilet. (original image)

Image by Doug Herman. The foam sleeping pad lies atop a sheet of plywood, which rests atop the hatch cover. (original image)

Image by Doug Herman. Lifting up the plywood shows the hatch cover, some coolers, and a life jacket. A small gear bag needs to be moved to open the hatch. (original image)

Image by Doug Herman. Looking into my puka. My hat, waterbottle and sunglasses are clipped to a line outside, my orange sea bag visible inside. (original image)

Image by Doug Herman. Down the hatch: cracker boxes and water jugs. (original image)

Image by Doug Herman. Moani Heimuli drives the tow boat, with Arthur C. Harris providing the navigation for the complex conditions of the Chesapeake Bay. (original image)

Inside the hatchways is storage, and the ship’s quartermaster has to keep track of what is stored under each puka. In mine there were a dozen waterproof boxes labeled “crackers” and a handful of five-gallon jugs of potable water. A water cooler was kept on deck and everyone had a water bottle with a carabiner on it so it could be clipped to a line when not in use. 

When the cooler ran out, which happened a few times, I had to move all my gear into the next person’s bunk or out on deck, lift up the plywood and foam pad, remove the hatch cover, and climb down into the hull to lift out another five-gallon jug. This occurred often enough that I kept my puka pretty tidy, and it was used for demonstrations when we came into port.

Over the last two sleeping pukas on each side are the navigator’s platforms. This is where the navigator sits—on which ever side allows him or her to see past the sails. To the rear of these is an open puka on each side. On one side are the buckets for washing dishes: two with plain water for before-and-after rinsing, and one with soap for washing. All this was done in seawater, except coming up the Potomac where we were uncertain about the cleanliness of the water.

Cooking takes place on a two-burner propane stove on deck. It sits in a box with awnings at the sides to keep out the wind. Another box contains all the cooking gear and utensils.  Breakfast and lunch were mostly a hodgepodge of snacks, cut-up oranges and other lite fare. Dinner, however, was a hot meal: something with noodles, often. And hot noodle dishes were also served for lunch on colder, rainier days. During real voyaging, there would be hot water going all day for tea, coffee or cocoa.

Cooking up SPAM singles for a delicious lunch. The crew packet paperwork states that the diet tends to be high fat and low fiber, and that constipation is likely. (Doug Herman)

Everyone wants to know how you go to the bathroom on the canoe. First, if you are not already wearing a safety harness (and on this leg of the voyage, we almost never were) you have to put one on. Then you tell someone that you are going to the bathroom. It’s all about avoiding a man-overboard situation—nobody wants that. (I am told it has happened only three times in 40 years of voyaging on this canoe.)

Then you go out through that back puka, around the back of the navigator’s platform, and onto the catwalk on the outside edge of the hull. Here you clip a tether from your harness onto the safety rope that runs all the way around the outside of the canoe. If you fall off, at least you will be dragged along rather than left behind. Once you are secure, you hang your bare bottom out and do what needs to be done. When you return, you tell that same person that you are back. “Sometimes in rough conditions I’ll be talking to people as they go out,” says Mark Keala Kimura, “and I’ll keep talking to them while they go to the bathroom, just to make sure they’re still there.”

Back in 1976, it was even less private: “The rails are all open, there was no covering, so pretty much when you went you were in full view of everybody,” recalls veteran voyager Penny Rawlins Martin—“with your escort boat behind you!”

On this trip, two small shipboard toilets had been installed in the stern compartments, with canvas curtains that could be drawn. Going up the Intracoastal Waterway from Florida, it was thought to be poor form to have bare bottoms hanging over the side.

The open puka behind the navigator’s platform where dishes are washed also provides access to the catwalk for going to the toilet. In this case, a ship-board toilet is located here as well. Note the curtain that can be pulled. (Doug Herman)

Plain to see on the back of the canoe is a giant plate of solar panels. There is no modern navigational equipment on Hōkūleʻa—not even a compass—but there does need to be power for lights at night, for radio communication with the tow boat, and for the triple-redundancy emergency systems. Safety first.

Overall, the crew is a family, but like any family, there is hierarchy on the canoe: the navigator, the captain, the watch captains, the apprentice navigators. Everyone on board has, in addition to regular crew duties, a particular kuleana—responsibility or skill, such as fisherman, carpenter, doctor, sail-repairer and so forth.

This time our crew contained three people from ‘Ōiwi TV, the only Hawaiian-language television station in the world, working on documenting the voyage with still and video cameras, including a drone. There were educators who ran programming when we were in port. And there was me, documenting the trip for the Smithsonian Institution.

Rex Lokeni watches as the ‘Ōiwi TV crew lift off the drone from the rear solar panels. (Doug Herman)

I also consider myself an educator. A former university professor and now Smithsonian scholar, I’ve been teaching about Polynesian voyaging and migrations for 30 years. More recently, I’ve been writing and lecturing on traditional navigation, and the values of the voyaging canoe and what they tell us about how to live on this planet. I built and sail my own outrigger sailing canoe and have been both blogging and giving lecture and demonstrations about traditional canoe building. And I did do a training voyage in February on the Hikianalia

So I arrived with a certain, tentative confidence, and when in port at educational activities, felt it my kuleana to share the lessons I have derived from so much research. But I quickly felt that something was not going well, and this feeling got stronger as the trip went on. Yes, we were not functioning like a normal crew, and as we were being towed, my inexperienced presence was really hardly necessary. These folks knew what to do and moved like clockwork when things needed to be done. 

These were young, sea-hardened voyagers, some of whom were now on their fifth leg of the Worldwide Voyage (and legs take up to 40 days). I was simply not one of them. 

What right did I have to talk about lessons of the voyaging canoe? I had never been on a real voyage. Finally someone pulled me aside and said “Brah, you are always saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.” There were also protocols I was breaking, of which I was not aware.

“You got to have thick skin and you’ve got to work your way up the ropes,” Kālepa had told me in an interview back in 2011. Learning to sail the canoe involves a lot of hard knocks.

Humbled, I realized, even before this calling out, that I needed to shut up. Enough talking about voyaging; now was the time to listen. I came on board thinking I was, well, someone—someone with a part in this. I realized that, for purposes of the canoe, I was no one. A total newbie. And once I realized that, a letting go feeling came over me, and I was happy. I now knew my place on the canoe, and it was good.

The next day, when we were docked in Alexandria and giving tours, I ran into Nā‘ālehu.  “Hey ‘Lehu,” I said cheerfully, “I finally learned my place on the canoe.”  “Oh really?” he responded with a smile.  “Yes,” I said, “I guess everyone has to make that journey at some point.”  He shook his head kindly and replied, “Some people just keep on sailing…” –and never arrived at that shore.

Now I am practicing my knots, building my strength, and continuing work on my Hōkūleʻa model—work that requires knowing all the ropes. I will be ma‘a to the wa‘a to the best of my ability, and someday, maybe I will get to go voyaging for real.

Curtiss SB2C-5 Helldiver

National Air and Space Museum
Single engine, two seat, folding wing, carrier based scout-bomber.

During World War II, U.S. Navy bombing squadrons flew Helldiver dive-bombers against Japan from November 1943 to the war’s end in September 1945. After a prolonged development, about 30 Navy squadrons operated Helldivers aboard 13 carriers. Changes in carrier tactics, technology, and weapons made dive-bombing—delivering a bomb at a steep angle to increase accuracy—obsolete as the war progressed. The Helldiver was the last dive-bomber operated by the Navy and the last significant combat aircraft produced by Curtiss-Wright.

This Helldiver was completed in May 1945, but the war ended a few months later, and it never saw combat. From September through December 1945, Bombing Squadron (VB) 92 aboard the USS Lexington flew it in the western Pacific and occupied Japan. It served with various other Navy units until 1948 and entered the Museum collection in 1960.

A key component of U.S. Navy and Marine Corps doctrine from the interwar period to the end of World War II was dive bombing, which was the use of an aircraft to deliver a bomb at a steep angle to increase accuracy. U.S. Navy dive bomber squadrons flew Curtiss SB2C Helldivers against Imperial Japan beginning in November 1943 until the end of the war. Changes in carrier tactics, technology, and weapons made the dive bomber obsolescent as the war progressed making the Helldiver the last of the type operated by the U.S. Navy. The Helldiver is also the last significant combat aircraft produced by the Curtiss-Wright Corporation.

The SB2C was the third carrier-based dive bomber called “Helldiver” and produced by Curtiss. “Hell diver” was a heroic and death-defying name for both pilots and aircraft in the popular American imagination beginning in the 1920s. The Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer production Hell Divers (1932), starring Clark Gable and Wallace Beery as rival aerial gunners, featured the first Helldiver, the F8C-4, which first served aboard USS Saratoga. Naval and Marine aviators flew F8C-4 and -5 and O2C-1 and -2 biplanes in both active and reserve squadrons through the 1930s. Curtiss reused the name for the SBC series, which entered service with scouting squadrons aboard the carriers Yorktown, Saratoga, and Enterprise in late 1937. Designed by Raymond C. Blaylock, the Navy and Marine Corps’ SBC-3 and -4s were the last American combat biplanes. The Navy and Marine Corps did not recognize these aircraft officially as “Helldivers.” What the Navy did recognize was the bombing and reconnaissance capability of dive bombers with the official designation SB (Scout Bomber).

The Navy placed a May 1939 order with Curtiss for a new scout bomber, designated the SB2C (Scout Bomber, Design Number 2, Manufacturer Curtiss), to replace the Vought SB2U Vindicator, the Douglas SBD Dauntless, and the Curtiss SBC. Blaylock and his team designed a two-seat, single-engine monoplane with an internal bay capable of carrying 1,000 pounds of bombs and folding wings to facilitate storage aboard an aircraft carrier. Curtiss constructed a new factory for the Helldiver at Columbus, Ohio. Women and African-Americans trained for the war effort made up a considerable portion of the factory’s workforce. The first Helldiver prototype appeared in December 1940. Numerous design problems, accidents, and the required corrections pushed delivery of the first production Helldiver back to June 1942 with initial fleet delivery to Scouting Squadron (VS) 9 the following December.

The near-disastrous carrier trials in early 1943 were a continuation of the Helldiver’s problems. Landing gear failures and a characteristic bounce that prevented the tail hook from engaging with the cross-deck cable resulted in Helldivers being caught in flight deck barriers. Some SB2Cs experienced structural failures that included the loss of wings in steep dives or tails breaking off mid-air or at landing. Veteran bombing squadron crews and carrier air group officers also had a strong attachment to the easier-to-fly and highly successful Douglas SBD Dauntless. As a result, crews came up with new names for the Helldiver. They nicknamed it the “Beast” due to its size and handling qualities. Irreverent naval aviators and air crewman also called it an “S.O.B. 2nd Class,” which was a profane play on the official Navy designation “SB2C” and the Navy’s enlisted personnel ratings. The Helldiver was faster and carried more ordnance than the Dauntless and intensive training alleviated the handling problems over time.

Bombing Squadron (VB) 17 assigned to Bunker Hill flew the first operational Helldiver sorties on November 11, 1943, when they attacked the Japanese fortress at Rabaul. As the American naval offensives across the Pacific intensified, including the Marianas campaign, the battles of Leyte Gulf and Okinawa, and the attacks against Japan itself, Helldivers became an integral part of the carrier air group. The scout and dive bomber role, however, waned over the course of the war when the carrier air groups utilized faster and more capable Grumman F6F Hellcat and Vought F4U Corsair fighters in the fighter-bomber role and air-to-ground rockets offered increased accuracy. Moreover, the Grumman TBF Avenger was as capable as a level bomber as it was a torpedo bomber. Nevertheless, bombing squadrons aboard Essex, Shangri-La, Wasp, Ticonderoga, Yorktown, and Lexington filled a niche as they flew some of the last combat missions of the war during the summer of 1945. Approximately thirty Navy squadrons operated Helldivers aboard thirteen different carriers during World War II. The U.S. Navy and Naval Reserve continued to operate Helldivers into the early Cold War era with the final aircraft stricken from the active inventory by June 1949. The navies of France, Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Thailand operated surplus SB2Cs well into the 1950s.

The design of the SB2C evolved over time. The SB2C-1C featured a 1,500 horsepower Wright Twin Cyclone R-2600-8, three-blade Curtiss Electric propeller, and a 20 mm cannon in each wing. SB2C-3s appeared with a new 1,900 horsepower R-2600-20, four-blade Curtiss Electric propeller, perforated dive brakes to decrease buffeting, four rocket rails under each wing, and the capability to operate an APS-4 airborne radar system. The -3 and the improved SB2C-4 were the Helldivers that equipped the majority of U.S. Navy squadrons during the war in the Pacific with production numbering 3,157 aircraft combined. The SB2C-5 was the last variant in the series. It was an improved version of the SB2C-4 with increased fuel capacity by thirty-five gallons, a frameless pilot’s canopy, tail hook fixed in the extended position, and deletion of the propeller spinner. Most carried the APS-4 system as standard equipment. SB2C-5s entered production in February 1945, which was too late to see widespread service before the end of World War II, with final delivery in October. Total deliveries of SB2C-5s numbered 970 Helldivers.

Total SB2C production at Columbus numbered 5,516 while Canadian Car and Foundry and Fairchild Aircraft, Ltd., in Canada delivered 834 SBWs and 300 SBFs respectively. Curtiss manufactured 900 fixed-wing A-25 dive bombers at its St. Louis, Missouri, factory under contract to the Army Air Forces with final delivery to the Marine Corps.

The U.S. Navy accepted NASM’s Curtiss SB2C-5 Helldiver (BuNo 83479 and Cat# A19610118000) on May 19, 1945, at the Curtiss factory in Columbus, Ohio. The aircraft went to Naval Air Station (NAS) Port Columbus, located on the same airfield, three days later. In June, it was at San Diego where it was prepared for transfer to Guam in the Pacific Theater for assignment to a Carrier Air Service Unit, arriving there in July. The war ended before the Helldiver saw combat, but for the three months that followed, September through December 1945, the artifact was assigned to Bombing Squadron (VB) 92, the “Battling Beasts,” aboard the U.S.S. Lexington (CV-16) in the Pacific, which included service in the western Pacific and occupied Japan.

By January 1946, the Helldiver was with a detachment of Bombing Squadron (VB) 11 at Santa Rosa, California, where it stayed until February 7, 1946. The aircraft had little activity in the months that followed until it was assigned to Attack Squadron (VA) 3A at San Diego for most of the month of November. Activity again lessened; and after its first and only major overhaul on February 13, 1947, the airplane was again active with Aviation Training Unit (VA-ATU) #4 from April 1947 through March 1948 at NAS Jacksonville. It later moved to Norfolk and later to Weeksville Naval Auxiliary Field near Elizabeth City, North Carolina, for preservative treatment and storage. On May 31, 1948, the airplane was dropped from the Navy inventory and set aside for the National Air Museum. It was flown to Norfolk on March 2, 1949, given preservative treatment, and placed in a metal storage container. At that time, the Navy used the Helldiver for a local display and painted in the three- tone camouflage scheme, a pattern which was already outdated prior to the date the aircraft was manufactured. The log book shows an ill-defined thirty minute flight on January 7, 1952, but in all probability, its last flight was on February 3, 1949, having accumulated approximately 630 flying hours.

The Helldiver entered the National Collection in September 1960. At this time, it was probably given another preservative treatment, all of the openings were covered, and it was parked outdoors on the grounds at Suitland, Maryland. In 1975, the aircraft traveled to the National Naval Aviation Museum (NNAM) where it underwent restoration before exhibition in their museum. The NNAM completed the restoration before 1982 and put the artifact on indoor display. The Helldiver returned from NNAM to the Garber Facility in October 2003. In 2010, the Helldiver arrived at the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar at NASM’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

NASM’s Helldiver is one of seven surviving SB2Cs as of 2013 that are complete and in museums or undergoing restoration. Of those seven, five are -5 variants. There are four documented SB2C wrecks in the United States and the Pacific.

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

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)

Heart valves galore, to Tin Man's delight

National Museum of American History

In The Wizard of Oz, Tin Man longs for a heart. That's a problem Manuel "Manny" Villafaña has rarely had—he has collected pieces of many hearts.

Millions of people are collectors. You may be one of them. People amass everything from postcards to erasers, tea cups to motorcycles. Here at the National Museum of American History, the curators in the Division of Medicine and Science collect patent medicines, toothbrushes, surgical instruments, and much more.

Manuel "Manny" Villafaña, an entrepreneur, inventor, and donor to the museum, collects artificial heart valves. In 2015 Villafaña donated over 50 artificial heart valves to the Division of Medicine and Science.

Photo of a pair of male hands, a table, and a line of small, circle-shaped heart valves.

Villafaña explained in an interview that he likes to collect: "I've always had an affinity for collecting things. I used to be a stamp collector. I used to be a coin collector. I even used to collect envelopes. . . . I collect things I think are unique and meaningful." Besides artificial heart valves, he also has a pacemaker collection.

How does one go about collecting artificial heart valves? It helps that Villafaña is the founder of six medical device companies, including Cardiac Pacemakers Inc., St. Jude Medical, ATS Medical, and his latest startup company, Medical 21.

So he knows a fair amount about the history of artificial valves and how they function! A few of the valves in the collection are from Villafaña's companies, but the majority of them represent dozens of different designs and come from different manufacturers. Many of these valves were given to him from the engineers and physicians who designed them.

Designing a reliable and effective artificial heart valve, one as efficient as a human valve, has proven to be a formidable task. Finding biocompatible materials like Pyrolytic carbon, silicone, Teflon, and Dacron that a patient's body would not reject was especially difficult. Tissue valves were one of the answers proposed. Made from the biological tissue of pig valves and the tissue surrounding a cow's heart, these valves must be kept in a sealed container with fluid to maintain viability.

Good design is imperative when trying to prevent the destruction of blood cells, which can produce clots and thromboembolism. An artificial valve also needs to be efficient and structurally sound so that it can withstand years of wear. The shape and design are the elements that allow blood to move more effectively through the valve. Or, as Villafaña puts it in the case of the ball and cage design, the design has to "get the ball out of the way so we have a nice central flow."

There are three main types of artificial valves: the ball and cage, the tilting disc, and the by-valve.

A contraption made of silver metal, a ball that looks like a beige marble, and some white cloth or fabric wrapped around a ring. The ball sits inside of a cup made from several metal pieces extending from the fabric and metal ring.

A circular band covered in a white knit fabric that looks like cotton. There is a metal component creating a second ring with a disc in the middle, connected on the top and bottom by metal pieces and resting on two pieces of the silver metal that jut out from the ring. The center portion looks like it could be a child toy top.

A ring, presumably made of metal, covered in some sort of white fabric. The inner portion of the valve consists of two flipper or vent-like pieces of dark material, one of which says "DEMO" on it.

Every design is unique—but some I think are more unique than others, like the artificial valve that looks like it came from the inside of a toilet bowl, or the Lemole-Cooley mitral valve that is oval in shape like the natural mitral valve.

A contraption that appears to be made of translucent plastic, silver metal, and some sort of white cloth. It looks a bit like a gyroscope or a toy "top".

An oval ring covered in white fabric. Attached to it somehow is a cream-colored plastic-looking substance that touches it with two prongs that look like snail's eye stalks. In some angles, it looks like an alien with a fabric halo, or an alien hanging out with just its ears peeking out above the rim of the valve.

The Hufnagel Trileaflet Aortic Heart Valve was designed to look like a natural human heart valve, but the leaflets would stiffen and eventually would not open and close.

An object that has a plastic or rubberized ring with mesh hanging behind it. The mesh-like substance is cut in several places so it appears as three triangles, like a Mercedes Benz logo.

There are a few valves in the collection like this Braunwald-Cutter valve that were explanted from patients. Take a look and you'll see that the fabric on the struts has worn down or completely come off. The valve also shows wear on the poppet and has a large crack. As Villafaña says, "This is not a collection that looks pretty because some of these things are just a piece of plastic."

This valve has a ring like the others that is covered by some sort of cloth-looking fabric that, in the case, is covered by "gunk" that is orange and brown in appearance. Three metal prongs rise up from the ring and curve towards each other. Sitting in the middle of the ring is a peach-colored ball. It is made of a matte substance and has a crack down one side.

Our Mending Broken Hearts: Innovation Inside the Body display explores the development of artificial heart valves. It is on view in the museum's first floor through March 19, 2017. Explore the virtual exhibition.

Graphic including Ruby Slippers and Scarecrow hat with text "Help Conserve Scarecrow's Costume"

Judy M. Chelnick is the curator of medical and dental instrumentation in the Division of Medicine and Science at the National Museum of American History.

Posted Date: 
Tuesday, November 8, 2016 - 17:30
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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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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. 

Langley Aerodrome A

National Air and Space Museum
Piloted tandem-wing experimental aircraft built and unsuccessfully tested by Samuel P. Langley in 1903. Fifty-two-horsepower, five-cylinder radial gasoline engine turning two pusher propellers via geared transmission system. Percaline covering. Natural fabric finish; no sealant or paint of any kind.

Samuel Langley's successful flights of his model Aerodromes Number 5 and Number 6 in 1896 led to plans to build a full-sized, human-carrying airplane. Langley's simple approach was merely to scale up the unpiloted Aerodromes to human-carrying proportions. This would prove to be a grave error, as the aerodynamics, structural design, and control system of the smaller aircraft were not adaptable to a full-sized version. Langley's primary focus was the power plant. The completed engine, a water-cooled five-cylinder radial that generated a remarkable 52.4 horsepower, was a great achievement for the time.

Despite the excellent engine, the Aerodrome A, as it was called, met with disastrous results, crashing on takeoff on October 7, 1903, and again on December 8. Langley blamed the launch mechanism. While this was in some small measure true, there is no denying that the Aerodrome A was an overly complex, structurally weak, aerodynamically unsound aircraft. This second crash ended Langley's aeronautical work entirely.

Professor Samuel Pierpont Langley (1834-1906) was a leading scientific figure in the United States in the latter nineteenth century, well known especially for his astronomical research. He became the third Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in 1887. Langley had begun serious investigation into heavier-than-air flight several years earlier while at the then Western University of Pennsylvania in Pittsburgh (now the University of Pittsburgh). He had erected a huge, 18.3 m (60 ft) diameter whirling arm at the university's Allegheny Observatory to perform aerodynamic research. At full speed, the tips of the whirling arm approached seventy miles per hour. Langley mostly ran tests with flat plates, but he also mounted small model airplanes he called aerostats, and even stuffed birds, on the arm. He also conducted an extensive series of experiments with rubber band-powered models.

Langley described these investigations and provided a summary of his results in Experiments in Aerodynamics, published in 1891. He then moved away from purely theoretical aerodynamic research, and began work aimed at engineering an actual flying machine. In 1891, he started to experiment with large, tandem-winged models, approximately 4 m (13 ft) in wingspan, powered by small steam and gasoline engines. Another large whirling arm, 9 m (29.5 ft) in diameter, was set up at the Smithsonian to test curved wing shapes and propellers, probably in connection with the design of these large powered models that Langley called aerodromes.

After several failures with designs that were too fragile and under-powered to sustain themselves, Langley had his first genuine success. On May 6, 1896, Langley's Aerodrome No. 5 made the first successful flight of an unpiloted, engine-driven, heavier-than-air craft of substantial size. It was launched from a spring-actuated catapult mounted on top of a houseboat on the Potomac River near Quantico, Virginia. Two flights were made that afternoon, one of 1,005 m (3,300 ft) and a second of 700 m (2,300 ft), at a speed of approximately 25 miles per hour. On November 28, another successful flight was made with a similar model, the Aerodrome No.6. It flew a distance of approximately 1,460 m (4,790 ft).

Langley's aeronautical experiments appeared to have concluded with the successful flights of Aerodromes No. 5 and 6, but privately he intended to raise funds to begin work on a full-scale, human-carrying aircraft. He believed his only real hope of securing the kind of funding necessary was from the federal government. The breakthrough came when Langley's friend and colleague, Charles D. Walcott, of the U.S. Geological Survey, offered to present the proposal to President McKinley. A panel was created to review Langley's work up to that time. The panel, which included Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, met at the Smithsonian in April 1898. After a week of deliberations, they approved a grant of $50,000 from the Board of Ordnance and Fortification for Langley to construct a full-sized aircraft. The outbreak of the Spanish-American War only five days earlier contributed to the panel's favorable and speedy decision.

Serious work on the airplane, referred to as the Great Aerodrome, or Aerodrome A, began in October 1898. Langley's simple approach was merely to scale up the unpiloted Aerodromes of 1896 to human-carrying proportions. This would prove to be a grave error, as the aerodynamics, structural design, and control system of the smaller aircraft were not adaptable to a full-sized version. The construction details and distribution of stresses on the Aerodrome A were based on the successful performance of a gasoline-powered model, one-fourth the size. This exact scale miniature, known as the Quarter-scale Aerodrome, flew satis-factorily twice on June 18, 1901, and again with an improved engine on August 8, 1903. But these successes masked its flaws as a design prototype for the full-sized, piloted airplane.

Langley was far more concerned with producing a suitable engine for the large craft. He contracted a New York inventor named Stephen M. Balzer to design and build the powerplant. A native of Hungary, Balzer had constructed the first automobile in New York City in 1894. He designed a five-cylinder, air-cooled rotary engine for the Aerodrome A, but it produced only about 8 horsepower rather than the 12 horsepower specified by Langley. Charles M. Manly, Langley's assistant, extensively reworked the Balzer engine, turning it into a water-cooled radial that generated a remarkable 52.4 horsepower at 950 rpm with a power-to-weight ratio of 1.8 kg (4 lb) per horsepower (including the weight of the radiator and water), an amazing achievement for the time.

The airframe was an entirely different matter. It was structurally weak and unsound. Like the smaller aerodromes, it was a tandem-winged design with a cruciform tail. The control system was minimal and was also poorly conceived. The tail moved only in the vertical plane, and acted more like a modern trim tab to stabilize the flight path, rather than as an elevator for positive pitch control inputs. There was a separate rudder, but it was mounted centrally on the airplane, the position where it would be least effective. Even Langley and Manly recognized the limitations of this control arrangement, and they planned to revised it after simple straight-line flight was achieved. For propulsion, two pusher propellers, mounted between the tandem wings, were driven by shafts and gears connected to the centrally-mounted engine, again after the pattern of the smaller aerodromes. The huge aircraft spanned nearly 15 m (50 ft) and was more than 16 m (52 ft) long. It weighed 340 kg (750 lb) including the pilot, Manly.

The first test flight of the Aerodrome A was on October 7, 1903. The airplane was assembled on the rear of a catapult track mounted on a large house-boat moored near Widewater, Va., close to the site where the small aerodromes were successfully flown. Immediately after launching, the Aerodrome plunged into the river at a forty-five-degree angle. A Washington reporter on the scene remarked that it entered the water "like a handful of mortar." Langley was bitterly disappointed and rationalized the failure as a problem with the launch mechanism, not the aircraft.

After repairs, a second attempt was made on December 8, 1903. This time the houseboat launching platform was located on the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. The results were equally disastrous. Just after takeoff, the Aerodrome A reared up, collapsed upon itself, and smashed into the water, momentarily trapping Manly underneath the wreckage in the freezing Potomac before he was rescued, unhurt. Langley again blamed the launching device. While the catapult likely contributed some small part to the failure, there is no denying that the Aerodrome A was an overly complex, structurally weak, aerodynamically unsound aircraft. This second crash of the Aerodrome A ended the aeronautical work of Samuel Langley. His request to the Board of Ordnance and Fortification for further funding was refused and he suffered much public ridicule. He died in 1906.

The remains of the Aerodrome A were left with the Smithsonian Institution by the War Department. In 1914, the Smithsonian contracted Glenn Curtiss, a prominent American aviation pioneer and aircraft manufacturer, to rebuild the Langley Aerodrome A and conduct further flight tests. With significant modifications and improvements, Curtiss was able to coax the Aerodrome A into the air for a number of brief, straight-line flights at Hammondsport, N.Y. After the tests, the airplane was returned to the Smithsonian, restored to its original unsuccessful 1903 configuration, and put on public display in 1918. Smithsonian officials misleadingly identified the Aerodrome A in its label text as the world's first airplane "capable of sustained free flight." The Aerodrome A had, indeed, existed before the Wright brothers' successful 1903 Flyer, but it only flew much later and even then in heavily modified form, making the Smithsonian claim inappropriate at best. This action was, partly, what prompted Orville Wright in 1928 to lend the 1903 Flyer to the Science Museum in London as a gesture of protest regarding the Smithsonian's seeming unwillingness to give him and his brother, Wilbur, full credit for having invented the airplane. The Smithsonian finally clarified the history of the Aerodrome A and its later flight testing in its 1942 annual report, satisfying Orville, and thereby clearing the way for the return of the Wright Flyer to the United States and its donation to the Smithsonian in 1948. The Aerodrome A continued to be displayed in the Smithsonian's Arts and Industries building with a revised label until 1971, when it was removed from public exhibition and restored again by the NASM restoration staff.

Conference Room

National Air and Space Museum
Conference Room, July 1974. Page from a spiral-bound sketchbook. A group of about a dozen men congregate at the end of a conference room table in this high contrast sketch. The perspective is deep, looking down the table at a slight angle. The patchwork quality of the shading makes the men appear to blend in with their surroundings. The walls in the background are lightly defined by a few lines. Pen scribbles in the upper left corner. Writing in the lower right says "July 1974 USSR."

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

Mexico City Is Proposing to Build One of the World's Largest Urban Parks

Smithsonian Magazine

Walking along the edge of a seasonally dry lakebed on the eastern outskirts of Mexico City, there is near perfect silence except for the occasional airplane that flies overhead.republished.php?title=Mexico%20City%20is%20proposing%20to%20build%20one%20of%20the%20world%E2%80%99s%20largest%20urban%20parks.%20Will%20it%20serve%20as%20a%20climate%20adaptation%20example%20for%20other%20cities%3F

These planes flying out of a nearby airport are a reminder of the estimated US$13 billion international airport that had been planned and partially constructed on top of the seasonal wetlands native to this place. Then, in 2018, Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, canceled the project and moved forward with plans to construct what would be one of the world’s largest urban parks instead. Experts from around the world hope the project, if successful, will serve as an example to other cities of what is possible in the fight against climate change.

Turning Back the Clock

The size of the proposed park is nearly unfathomable from ground level, covering 12,300 hectares (30,394 acres) and stretching 16 kilometers (10 miles) from end to end. That’s about the size of 36 New York Central Parks or more than twice the size of Manhattan.

The government and the architect behind the park, known as Parque Ecológico Lago de Texcoco, see great potential in the park — particularly in the face of mounting water shortages, floods and climate change. They view this mega project as one that could turn back the clock on disruptions to the region’s water systems dating back to Hernán Cortés and the Spanish siege of Tenochtitlan in 1521.

One of the goals of the project is to merge the concepts of public spaces and green infrastructure, providing hiking trails, sports courts and lakes for recreation, while bringing back the lakes to rebalance the Valley of Mexico’s water system. (Iñaki Echeverría)

The region’s lakes were the primary source of freshwater during Aztec times, but the Spanish drained the valley’s lakes after they took over the city of Tenochtitlan. This forced an independent Mexico centuries later to construct hundreds of miles of pipes to bring in roughly 30 percent of the city’s water and to pump the rest from an underground aquifer. The city is now pumping water out of that aquifer twice as fast as water is returning via rainfall.

On the other side of the equation, the city, which has been largely paved over, floods for months during the rainy season.

“The problem is we cannot turn 500 years of history and go 180 degrees overnight,” says Mexico City architect Iñaki Echeverría, executive director of the park project. “Very few times you are offered the possibility that can have an impact that can really change things. If we manage to do this, it changes the direction of the history of the city and the valley.”

Mexico City architect Iñaki Echeverría, executive director of the park project, speaks about his plans for the project standing next to Lake Nabor Carrillo. (Paul Biasco)

The project is designed to be constructed in the basin of the former Lake Texcoco, which dried as Mexico City expanded into a megacity of more than 20 million people over the past two millennia. The area has not been inhabited and has been off-limits to the public due to annual flooding and infrastructure issues.

Echeverría is seeking to restore the vast majority of the area to its former state, including rejuvenating numerous lakes that were drained, as well as wetland areas. One of the goals of the project is to merge the concepts of public spaces and green infrastructure, providing hiking trails, sports courts and lakes for recreation, while bringing back the lakes to rebalance the Valley of Mexico’s water system. That includes routing stormwater runoff into the wetlands and replenishing aquifers.

“This is really the only space that’s left [in the city] and it’s federal land and it’s untapped,” Echeverría says. “It was going to disappear. Right now there’s a possibility to keep it, so we are really working hard to make this happen as soon as possible, to bring people here to understand that this is not a fantasy. This is something that can happen.”

The government hopes to open up the first section of the park project by 2021, according to Echeverría. The architect, who grew up in Mexico City, says he is feeling the pressure from all angles to complete the project or get each component on the right path before the end of the current presidential administration in 2024.

“People are expecting me to fail. A lot of people. For the right reasons, for the wrong reasons, for every reason,” Echevarría says. “There’s a lot of people betting this will not happen, so of course there’s pressure.”

Lessons for Other Cities

In addition to the water-system goals of the park, the project team is planning for a significant solar power component and is considering wind and biofuels to offset maintenance costs.

“I cannot afford the luxury of just going crazy on the beauty of this place like I used to,” Echeverría says, referring to his previous work designing projects; now, as the director of the entire project, he has to worry about more than just design, such as costs and implementation. “I have to give it the means to maintain itself,” he says. “The means to grow, the means for it not to disappear after this government is gone.”

"If this is successful, a lot of people will go there and learn from it,” says Steffen Lehmann, director of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, School of Architecture and co-director of the interdisciplinary Urban Futures Lab. (Iñaki Echeverría)

Echeverría had proposed a design for the park 10 years ago, but that plan was quashed to make way for the airport project.

“We thought it was dead for sure and it suddenly comes back to life again. I’m not mystical or anything, but it’s almost like the lake is refusing to die completely,” Echeverría says. “It’s fighting. I think we had to get involved in that fight.”

The government’s decision to dedicate an enormous plot of land for natural area and green infrastructure so near the city center is a progressive one that experts say could affect the future of public spaces around the world.

“If this is successful, a lot of people will go there and learn from it,” says Steffen Lehmann, director of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, School of Architecture and co-director of the interdisciplinary Urban Futures Lab. “Cities are learning from each other. Cities are learning that they should share their best practices.”

Lehmann, an internationally recognized architect and author on sustainable architecture and urban design, pointed to New York’s High Line project and the “High Line-ization” of copycat parks around the world as an example.

Other world cities that have completed major urban parks in recent years include Seoul, Moscow and Singapore.

“It’s going to have a huge impact,” Lehmann says of the upcoming Mexico City project. “We need urban forests with climate change, and we need those parks to keep cities cool because of the urban island effect. Cities heat up and store and trap solar radiation and store heat like an oven. It’s underestimated. It’s a big silent killer.”

The edge of what will become parkland is adjacent to some of the poorest neighborhoods in Mexico City, according to Mexico City architect Iñaki Echeverría, executive director of the park project. (Paul Biasco)

The project will also capture carbon and mitigate air pollution.

Lehmann says there is an ongoing struggle against the privatization and urbanization of public space in cities around the world.

“This is the kind of work that cities are hungry for. They are looking for ways to include good local governance practices and good water management practices,” says Raul Pacheco-Vega, a water scholar at Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas, a Mexico City-based think tank. “Here you kill three birds with one stone. You improve urban governance by providing more green space, you improve water management, and you showcase measures of adaptation to climate change.”

Setting a Precedent

Echevarría is directing the project for the National Water Commission (Conagua), and has gathered a diverse team of ecologists, architects, planners, landscapers, biologists and politicians to bring the project to life.

The first phase, restoring Lake Nabor Carrillo and building public sporting facilities in a portion adjacent to it, is expected to break ground in early 2020. That portion will also include a 10-kilometer (6-mile) running trail around the lake.

Mexico’s volcanoes Popocatépetl and Iztaccihuatl can be seen on a clear day from Lake Nabor Carrillo. The first phase of Parque Ecológico Lago de Texcoco will be restoring Lake Nabor Carrillo and building public sporting facilities in a portion adjacent to it. (Luis Gallardo)

Eventually, the project will expand to the area where the airport had been partially built and involve restoring the Casa Colorada lake, which will flood the already-built runway and terminal foundations.

“There’s a lot of things that have to happen over there,” Echevarría says, referring to an ongoing legal battle over the canceled airport. “I’ve tried to keep a very cold mind about that. We have so much work to do without even touching that area. We will work on that. From a project stance, we will begin working as soon as it’s legally permitted.”

The project is located roughly 10 miles (16 kilometers) from the city’s Centro Histórico and is directly adjacent to some of the poorest neighborhoods in Mexico City, according to Echevarría.

“It would be something of a life-changing situation if this space could be created and be next to what is the highest rate of crime and highest rate of poverty in the entire metropolitan region,” he says.

The project currently is being funded completely by public money, according to Echevarría; but he says his team is looking into private funders for portions of the site, including the renewable energy production areas.

Preliminary studies required for the project were estimated at US$11.78 million, according to Conagua.

“I think if we manage to do this, it would set a precedent for change worldwide,” Echevarría says. “It’s such a large opportunity to do the right thing. If we manage to do it, everybody would be interested in it. We have to.”

This piece was originally published on Ensia, a nonprofit media outlet published by the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota.

Good-bye, Gas Guzzlers

Smithsonian Magazine

Giant leaps of vehicle technology are the stuff of dreams: flying cars, sunmobiles that run solely on solar power or two-wheeled helicars held in balance by gyroscopes. But the path toward cleaner cars will be walked in tiny steps. There’s a place for all-electric and even semi-autonomous vehicles, but tweaks to designs that burn gasoline will deliver much of the fuel-economy gains expected in the coming decades.

Guzzlers are on their way out. This spring, the average fuel economy of all newly purchased cars climbed as high as it’s ever been, to 24.6 miles per gallon, according to an analysis from the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI). Fuel economy will surely climb even higher: By 2025, national standards demand that automakers achieve a fleet average of at least 54.5 miles per gallon for cars and light trucks.

Better fuel economy can help reign in oil consumption and the more than 1.5 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions coughed out annually by U.S. highway vehicles. And although cars and trucks with the best fuel economy often sell at a premium, improved gas mileage can help motorists save money at the pump, where a typical American household now spends about 4 percent of its annual income.

When gasoline prices exceed $4 per gallon, fuel economy tends to rise to be one of the top things people consider when purchasing a vehicle, says Bruce Belzowski, a research scientist at UMTRI. Prices have hovered around that mark nationally—though the national average has not crossed it since 2008--and shoppers are showing an appetite for better fuel economy. “Consumers may be saying, ‘We gotta get more outta this tank,’” Belzowski says.

A recent report from the National Research Council finds that it’s technically feasible to reduce petroleum use and greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles by 80 percent by 2050, compared to 2005 levels. Improving the efficiency of conventionally powered vehicles, however, will not be enough on its own to deliver such dramatic reductions. Cars would have to average upwards of an astonishing--and extremely unlikely--180 miles per gallon to reach that target based on efficiency gains alone. That’s where alternative fuels and all-electric vehicles will come into play. 

All vehicles, no matter their power source, must become much more efficient if those goals are to be realized, but improving the efficiency of those that run on petroleum could have the biggest impact in the near term. These cars make up the vast majority of vehicles on the road today, consuming roughly one-third of all oil used in the United States. And there’s plenty of room for improvement, with as little as one-quarter of the energy in fuel for today’s cars actually being used to move them down the road. Most of the rest is lost as heat in the engine. Minimizing the amount of work that a gas engine must perform is one of the easiest and least costly ways to save fuel. Scientists, researchers and automobile manufacturers believe this can be accomplished through multiple strategies, many of which are catalogued below:

New Tire Technology

Tweaking tire designs can also deliver gains by cutting rolling resistance, or the force caused by the flattening of a tire as it rolls along the road. Cyclists know that a flat tire demands noticeably more legwork to roll along at a respectable clip. Similarly, minimizing the amount of flattening or deformation of a car tire through advanced materials and design can reduce the amount of energy required just to keep it rolling.

Engine Innovations

The most dramatic improvements, though, will probably come from changes to the engine transmission, says Alan Crane, a senior scientist for the National Research Council’s Board on Energy and Environmental Systems and the study director for the NRC report. Transmissions with a higher number of speeds, dual-clutch transmissions and friction-reducing coatings could help engines run at higher efficiency and cut energy loss. 

A technology known as cylinder deactivation is one option for carmakers that desire a less thirsty product. This essentially kills half the engine when it’s not needed—during highway cruising, for example—but keeps the extra power on tap for acceleration, big climbs, boat hauling or other situations requiring a more powerful engine. “So you go from a six cylinder engine to a three,” says Brandon Schoettle, a researcher at UMTRI. Running on fewer cylinders lets drivers have it both ways, prioritizing power when you need it, and economy when you don’t.

Downsizing the engine is another way to gain efficiency, and it no longer has to come at the cost of performance. In conventional gas cars, the internal combustion engine takes a mixture of gasoline and air into a cylinder. A piston moves up to compress this mixture, and then a spark ignites it, producing an explosion that drives the piston downward. A valve opens for exhaust to leave the cylinder, and the cycle begins again: intake, compression, combustion, exhaust. Turbocharging, which forces extra air into an engine’s cylinders, can make it possible for smaller engines to generate more power from each of these tiny explosions. 

Smaller usually means lighter, and a 10 percent reduction in a car’s weight yields about a seven-percent reduction in fuel economy, notes Crane. By 2050, the NRC report concludes cars could weigh 40 percent less. “That’s even without involving a great deal of [lightweight] carbon fiber,” Crane says. “Right now, almost everything in the car is just plain steel.”

Replacing Heavy Steel

Iron and steel alloys make up about 45 percent of most cars’ weight. But increasingly, advanced materials can be applied in a jigsaw fashion, with lightweight pieces inserted into various places in the steel structure. “You can reinforce the parts that are critical,” says Bill Reinert, national manager of advanced technology vehicles for Toyota. High-strength steels are being swapped in as thinner, stronger alternatives to ordinary steel, and aluminum content is on the rise. Carbon fiber and magnesium composites are relatively expensive and difficult materials to work with today, but further down the road they could help cut the weight of some components by as much as 75 percent.

Shedding weight can also have domino effects as few parts in a car run in isolation. “If you can save 100 pounds, you may be able to switch to a lighter, smaller engine, or reduce the size of the brakes,” says Crane. In turn, a smaller engine can mean simply less stuff under the hood, which allows more flexibility for aerodynamic design, leading to even better efficiency.

Optimized Part Production

Advances in computer-assisted design are making it easier to optimize individual parts and systems for a desired outcome. “The tools are improving,” says Crane. “When [automakers] come up with a revision for a car, they can feed a lot more information into the computer, and figure out what the best compromises are for fuel economy, as well as other factors.”

Tweaks to the curves and angles of a car, and the addition of active grill shutters that block air flow when it’s not needed for engine cooling, can minimize as much as 5 percent of a car’s drag at high speeds, enough to reduce a vehicle’s greenhouse gas emissions by about 1 gram per mile and yield extra fuel economy. But external changes needn’t be dramatic for cars to achieve 50 or more miles to the gallon. A fuel-sipper of the future, Crane says, “should look pretty much like current vehicles.”

Close inspection or a spin behind the wheel may reveal some differences, however. “Because it’s significantly lighter weight, [a more-efficient car of the future] may feel somewhat different. It’ll handle better, it’ll whip around a corner better,” Crane says. In analyzing the possible pathways to those 2050 goals, the NRC team assumed vehicles would continue more or less in their current form. Those cars will “be a little more windswept-looking,” Crane says, but nothing radical. Vehicles “don’t get smaller or so swept back that you can’t fit anyone in the back seat.”

A Helping Hand From Computers

More than a decade after the U.S. introduction of the Prius, hybrids still make up only a tiny sliver of the overall auto market—about three percent of vehicles sold in the United States. But some of the technology in today’s hybrids could help a broad swath of tomorrow’s cars get better gas mileage. One of the most important pieces is start-stop technology, which shuts off the engine when the vehicle is at rest, and then restarts when the driver steps on the accelerator.

In hybrids, this is often combined with regenerative braking, which harnesses kinetic energy during slowing and braking to charge a battery. The stored electricity can then be used to restart the engine. “Regenerative braking and start-stop are going to be basically very common design elements in the next few years,” Crane says.

Of course, when it comes to fuel economy, driver behavior matters, too. The difference in fuel use between an aggressive, lead-footed driver and an even-keeled, conservative one can be as much as 20 percent. To some extent, technology could nudge drivers away from their more wasteful tendencies. While autonomous driving is unlikely to result in driverless cars, at least not any time soon, the chief executive of Renault-Nissan, Carlos Ghosn, said at a recent event at Stanford University, “you’re going to see a lot of cars with less input from the driver.” Those cars can be optimized for fuel economy and efficient routing.

In the more distant future, intersections could be places where cars are programmed to slow down and weave their way through, rather than slamming the brakes or navigating roundabouts, UMTRI’s Schoettle suggests. “If no one is stopping, you’ve improved fuel economy,” he notes.

“It would be great if there was some magic bullet,” says Toyota’s Reinert—some technology that could turn a dirty car clean without us ever noticing a difference in performance, choice, convenience or pricing. The reality is multiple technologies in the right combinations can go a long way toward cleaning up our vehicles. “All these things are little,” Reinert says, “but it all adds up.”

The Smithsonian’s Innovation Festival Demystifies the Invention Process

Smithsonian Magazine

When Matt Carroll answered the phone earlier this year and learned a patent had come through for his invention, WiperFill, he didn’t believe the caller. “I thought it was a friend messing around with me,” he said. “I thought it was just someone playing a joke.”

Carroll’s product, which collects rainwater from windshields to replenish cars’ wiper fluid reservoirs without relying on power, sensors or pumps, was one of more than a dozen showcased at the Smithsonian’s Innovation Festival, organized with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office at the National Museum of American History this past weekend.

The patent that Carroll received in April was the 9 millionth that the USPTO issued. “They called me and said, ‘Hey. You’re patent number 9 million.’ I said, ‘9 million and what?’ They said, ‘No, 9 million,’” Carroll said, admitting he didn’t initially appreciate the significance of the elite club of milestone million patent holders which he was now a member.

“Joining the ranks of an auto tire and ethanol and all these different really awesome patents, it’s really special,” he said.

Matt Carroll holds the 9 millionth patent for WiperFill. (Menachem Wecker)

The south Florida-based construction company owner conceived of the idea driving back and forth on the hour-and-a-half commute between his company’s two facilities. “I’m constantly running out of windshield wiper fluid. It drove me nuts,” Carroll said. “I drove through a rain shower one day and got the idea for WiperFill.”

Showing his invention at the festival, where he estimated about 200 people had stopped by his booth in the first couple of hours, was “validation,” Carroll said. “I talk to industry people, and they are like, ‘Wow. It can do this and this and this.’ But talk to the consumers—people who are actually going to be using it—and you get a whole different view of your product.”

That interaction is just what the festival organizers hoped to broker, according to Jeffrey Brodie, deputy director of the museum’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation.

“Everyone’s got innovation on the mind. Everyone is very interested in what innovation has the power to do in terms of changing their lives and driving the economy,” Brodie said. “What the festival does is give the public the opportunity to peel back the layers of the onion to get an idea of who inventors are, how they work and where the ideas come from. These ideas and these inventions that change our lives don’t just come out of nowhere.”

The goal was also to help visitors realize that they too can invent. “Introducing the public to the people who are working in the Patent and Trademark Office sort of demystifies the process; it changes it from being an institution and a building to a set of people who are there to assist and help promote the circulation of new ideas,” he said.

Elizabeth Dougherty, director of inventor education, outreach and recognition at the USPTO's Office of Innovation Development, talked about the nuts and bolts of intellectual property. (USPTO)

Elizabeth Dougherty, director of inventor education, outreach and recognition at the USPTO’s Office of Innovation Development, gave a presentation, “Everything you always wanted to know about Patents (but were afraid to ask),” on the nuts and bolts of intellectual property.

“Trademarks are an identifier of the source of goods or services. What I think a lot of people don’t recognize is that trademarks aren’t always just a word or a symbol,” she said in an interview. “They can be a word or a symbol. They can be a combination of a word and a symbol. They can sometimes be a color. They can be a shape. They can be a sound.”

Image by USPTO. Kansas State University presented hydrogels, which can change from jelly-like to liquid form. (original image)

Image by USPTO. This Freeze Resistant Hydration System heats a water reservoir that a mountain climber carries inside his or her suit. (original image)

Image by USPTO. Ford Global Technologies demonstrated its Pro Trailer Backup Assist, to help drivers of its 2016 F-150 pickup truck reverse their trucks, with remote-controlled vehicles. (original image)

The range of patented objects became immediately apparent, wandering between tables with presenters as varied as Kansas State University, which presented hydrogels, useful to researchers for their ability to change from jelly-like to liquid form, and Ford Global Technologies, which displayed its Pro Trailer Backup Assist, to help drivers of its 2016 F-150 pickup truck reverse their trucks.

“It’s really nerve wracking trying to back up a trailer efficiently and well,” said Roger Trombley, an engineer at Ford. “What this system does is it uses a sensor to detect the trailer angle, and then with the algorithms we have in there, you actually steer a knob instead of the steering wheel.”

At an adjacent booth, Scott Parazynski, a Houston-based former astronaut who teaches at Arizona State University, explained that he has spent two seasons on Mt. Everest, including at the top. His invention, a Freeze Resistant Hydration System, heats a water reservoir that the climber carries inside his or her suit, and not only keeps the water warm with a heating loop (and prevents the straw from freezing), but also allows the climber to benefit from the heat.

“The genesis of my technology actually hails from my years in the space program; I flew in five space shuttle missions. We had lots of different technologies to control temperature,” he said. “We experienced these incredible temperature shifts going around the Earth. When we are in direct sunlight, we can have temperatures upward of 300 degrees Fahrenheit ambient temperature, and behind the Earth in orbital night we can be minus 150 or below.”

Image by USPTO. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service described its process for introducing new plant cultivars with examples of different peppers. (original image)

Image by USPTO. Mars, Incorporated, the candy company, had representatives discussing patented flavor technologies that enhance the sensory experience of confectionary products. (original image)

Image by USPTO. A group of students from Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in Washington, D.C., presented their invention, DeadStop. (original image)

At a U.S. Department of Agriculture table, Rob Griesbach, a deputy assistant administrator at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, gestured toward a table of peppers. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could create a brand new pepper that had an orange fruit, that was shaped like a pumpkin, that would have black leaves, and they’d be upright?” he said. “Through conventional breeding, 15 years later, we actually finally came up with that particular plant.”

It was “almost like a Mr. Potato Head,” he added, noting a Mr. Potato Head on the table. “Why do vegetables have to be ugly looking? Why can’t we make a vegetable that looks nice?” he said. “People know USDA, and they think Grade A eggs and things like that. They don’t realize that USDA does a lot of things.”

At a table nearby, shared by Mars, Incorporated, the candy company, and one of its brands, Wrigley gum, Donald Seielstad, a process engineer who has worked at Wrigley for 17 years, talked about a patent Wrigley holds for a delayed-release of flavor in gum. “We call it like a flavor sponge,” he said. “We can soak flavor into an ingredient that we make before we add that ingredient to the gum, and it will help extend and delay the release of the flavor from the gum while you’re chewing it.”

Mars’ John Munafo discussed his employer’s patent for a white chocolate flavor. “White chocolate actually has low levels of a natural flavor in there, but if you increase the level of it, people prefer it,” he said. “White chocolate is one of those chocolates that’s interesting; people either love it or hate it. What we found is that if you add low levels of this flavor that’s naturally occurring, but enhance it, then people prefer it.” (The flavor’s technical name? Isovaleric acid.)

While Munafo spoke, a young girl came over and interrupted the interview, holding up a bag of M&Ms. “I love this candy. Do you make this candy?” she asked. “We do,” he told her.

She may have been one of the youngest attendees of the festival, but several other young people—these high school age—were demonstrating an invention of their own, which they produced at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in Washington. Their patent-pending invention, DeadStop (which earned the inventors a trip to Lemelson-MIT’s EurekaFest), fits over the hinges of a classroom door and secures the door from the inside in the case of an emergency on campus.

“The DeadStop goes over the door and slides through the hinges, so the pressure isn’t just exerted on the nails,” said Katherine Estrada, a senior. “We had 15 students on the invent team at the time that the DeadStop was created, so it went through a lot of experimentation. Just imagine 15 kids trying to open the door. It was impossible.”

“This is exciting. It’s real ratification of all the work that our students have done,” said John Mahoney, a math teacher at the school. “I didn’t know what engineering was when I was in school—it’s just applied math.”

How Is Brain Surgery Like Flying? Put On a Headset to Find Out

Smithsonian Magazine

Osamah Choudhry looked up and saw a tumor.

Walking gingerly around a conference room in a hotel near New York University’s Langone Medical Center, the fourth-year neurosurgery resident tilted his head back. It wasn’t ceiling tiles he was examining. Rather, peering into a bulky black headset strapped to his head, he slowly explored a virtual space. A computer screen on a nearby table displayed his view for onlookers: a colorful and strikingly lifelike representation of a human brain.

Taking small steps and using a game controller to zoom, rotate and angle his perspective, Choudhry flew an onscreen avatar around the recreated brain like a character in some bizarre Fantastic Voyage-inspired game. After two or three minutes of quiet study, he finally spoke.

“Wow.” Then, more silence.

Choudhry is no stranger to the impressive tech tools used in surgery. GPS-based navigation pointers, for tracking the location of surgical instruments in relation to the anatomy, and 3D printed models are common aids for neurosurgeons. But the device Choudhry was looking into for the first time on this day, a HTC Vive virtual reality headset, was next-level. It put him inside a real patient’s head.

Osamah Choudhry, a neurosurgery resident at New York University, takes a virtual tour through a human brain. (Surgical Theater)

Here, he could not only see all sides of the lurking insular glioma, zooming in to scrutinize fine detail and flying out to see the broader context, but also how every nerve and blood vessel fed into and through the tumor. Critical motor and speech areas nearby, flagged in blue, signal no-fly zones to carefully avoid during surgery. The skull itself featured a wide cutout that can be shrunken down to the size of an actual craniotomy, a dime- or quarter-sized opening in the skull through which surgeons conduct procedures.

“This is just beautiful,” Choudhry said. “In medicine, we’ve been stuck for so long in a 2D world, but that’s what we rely on, looking at the slices of CT and MRI scans. This technology makes the MRI look positively B.C., and allows us to look at the anatomy in all three dimensions.”

Computerized tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans are critical elements for exploring how the interior of the body looks, locating disease and abnormalities, and planning surgeries. Until now, surgeons have had to create their own mental models of patients through careful study of these scans. The Surgical Navigation Advanced Platform, or SNAP, however, gives surgeons a complete three-dimensional reference of their patient.

Developed by the Cleveland, Ohio-based company Surgical Theater, SNAP is designed for the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift, two gaming headsets that are still not yet available to the public. The system was initially conceived as a high-fidelity surgical planning tool, but a handful of hospitals are testing how it could be used during active surgeries.

This fusion of CT and MRI scans, using SNAP, gives a clear view of a brain tumor. (Surgical Theater)

In essence, SNAP is a super-detailed roadmap that surgeons can reference to stay on track. Surgeons already use live video feeds of procedures underway to have a magnified image to refer to; 3D models on computer screens have also improved visualization for doctors. The headset adds one more layer of immersive detail.

Putting on the headset currently requires a surgeon to step away from the procedure and don new gloves. But, in doing so, the doctor orients to a surgical target, in detail, and can return to the patient with a clear understanding of next steps and any obstacles. Diseased brain tissue can look and feel very similar to healthy tissue. With SNAP, surgeons can accurately measure distances and widths of anatomical structures, making it easier to know exactly what parts to remove and what parts to leave behind. In brain surgery, fractions of millimeters matter.  

Warren Selman, chair of neurosurgery at Case Western University, looks at CT and MRI scans merged by the SNAP software. (Surgical Theater)

The tool had an unlikely origin. While in Cleveland working on a new U.S. Air Force flight simulation system, former Israeli Air Force pilots Moty Avisar and Alon Geri were ordering cappuccinos at a coffee shop when Warren Selman, the chair of neurosurgery at Case Western University, happened to overhear some of their conversation. One thing led to another, and Selman asked if they could do for surgeons what they did for pilots: give them an enemy-eye view of a target.

“He asked us if we could allow surgeons to fly inside the brain, to go inside the tumor to see how to maneuver tools to remove it while preserving blood vessels and nerves,” Avisar said. Geri and Avisar co-founded Surgical Theater to build the new technology, first as interactive 3D modeling on a 2D screen, and now, with a headset.

The SNAP software takes CT and MRI scans and merges them into a complete image of a patient’s brain. Using the handheld controls, surgeons can stand next to or even inside the tumor or aneurysm, make brain tissue more or less opaque and plan out the optimal placement of the craniotomy and subsequent moves. The software can build a virtual model of a vascular system in as little as five minutes; more complicated structures, like tumors, can take up to 20.

“Surgeons want to be able stop for a few minutes during surgery and look at where they are in the brain,” Avisar said. “They’re operating through a dime-sized opening, and it’s easy to lose orientation looking through the microscope. What you can’t see is what’s dangerous. This gives them a peek behind the tumor, behind the aneurysm, behind the pathology.”

"Where has this been my whole life?" says John Golfinos, chair of neurosurgery at NYU's Langone Medical Center. (New York University)

John Golfinos, chair of neurosurgery at NYU’s Langone Medical Center, said that SNAP’s realistic visual representation of a patient is a major leap forward.

“It’s pretty overwhelming the first time you see it as a neurosurgeon,” he said. “You say to yourself, where has this been my whole life?”

Golfinos’ enthusiasm is understandable when you comprehend the mental gymnastics required of surgeons to make sense of standard medical imaging. In the 1970s, when CT was developed, images were initially represented like any photograph: the patient’s right side was on the viewer’s left, and vice versa. Scans could be taken in three planes: from bottom to top, left to right, or front to back. But then, somehow, things got mixed up. Left became left, top became bottom. That practice carried through to MRI scans, so for surgeons to read scans as if they were patients standing in front of them, they needed to be able to mentally rearrange images in their minds.

“Now people are finally realizing that if we’re going to simulate the patient, we should simulate them the way the surgeon sees them,” Golfinos said. “I tell my residents that the MRI never lies. It’s just that we don’t know what we’re looking at sometimes.”

At UCLA, SNAP is being used in research studies to plan surgeries and assess a procedure’s effectiveness afterward. Neurosurgery chair Neil Martin has been providing feedback to Surgical Theater to help refine the occasionally disorienting experience of looking into a virtual reality headset. Though surgeons are using SNAP during active surgeries in Europe, in the United States it’s still used as a planning and research tool.

Martin said he hopes that will change, and both he and Avisar think it could take collaboration on surgeries to an international level. Connected through a network, a team of surgeons from around the world could consult on a case remotely, each with a uniquely colored avatar, and walk through a patient’s brain together. Think World of Warcraft, but with more doctors and fewer archmagi.

“We’re not talking telestrations on a computer screen, we’re talking about being inside the skull right next to a tumor that’s 12 feet across. You can mark the areas of the tumor that should be removed, or use a virtual instrument to section away the tumor and leave the blood vessel behind,” Martin said. “But to really understand what it has to offer, you have to put the headset on. Once you do, you’re immediately transported into another world.”

Watch this video in the original article

At NYU, Golfinos has used SNAP to explore ways he could approach tricky procedures. In one case, where he thought an endoscopic tool might be the best method, SNAP helped him see that it wasn’t as risky as he thought.

“Being able to see all the way along the trajectory of endoscope just isn’t possible on a 2D image,” Golfinos said. “But in 3D, you are able to see that you’re not going to be bumping into things along the way or injuring structures nearby. We used it on this case to see if it was possible at all to reach [the tumor] with a rigid endoscope. It was, and we did, and the 3D made the determination on a case that turned out beautifully.”

Patient education is another area where Choudhry thinks the Vive or Oculus Rift could be extremely useful. In an era when many patients do their homework and come armed with questions, Choudhry said it could help facilitate a better connection between patient and surgeon.

“Sometimes I spend minutes explaining the CT or MRI scan, and it doesn’t take long for you to lose them,” Choudhry said. “The 3D is intuitive, and you know exactly what you’re looking at. If the patient is more comfortable with what you’re telling them, then their overall care will be better.”

Martin agrees. While he says about a third of patients just don’t care to see the gritty details, many are eager to know more.

“We can show them what their tumor looks like, and they can be fully informed about what’s going to happen,” Martin said. “Some people are quite interested in the technical detail, but not everyone wants that level of involvement.”

Ultimately, Choudhry thinks that a technology like SNAP is a gateway into even more advanced uses for digitization in the operating room. A transparent headset, more like lab goggles, would be more nimble, he said, and allow for augmented reality, such as a 3D overlay, on the real patient.

But for now, Golfinos says virtual reality is still a valuable tool, and helps improve care across the field, especially in neurosurgery, where intimate knowledge of anatomy is a necessity.

“We have this technology, and we want it to improve life for everybody,” he said. “It improves safety, and for our patients, that’s the best possible thing we can do.

Mission Control, Houston Apollo XI (II)

National Air and Space Museum
Pencil and Conté Crayon drawing on paper. Mission Control, Houston, Apollo XI (II), 1969. A view of Mission Control during Apollo 11 looks at the room at an angle from the left. Four men wearing headsets are standing on the right, at the back of the room, facing the long screen map of the moon in the front. The map has green details and a horizontal yellow streak in the center. Two other men are at the front of the room, and another is seated with his back to the viewer in the lower left corner. Writing in the lower right of the scene reads: "Geo Low," "Gilruth," and "Kraft."

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 Lift Off

National Air and Space Museum
Apollo 11 Lift-off, July 16, 1969. Apollo 11 in lift off next to a steel structure on the left is portrayed almost abstractly with long, sweeping lines in a fountain-like spray. The lines angle toward the center at the top, giving the impression of movement and speed.

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

14 Fun Facts About Sea Hawks

Smithsonian Magazine

You love wildlife. You have absolutely no interest in football. Yet, due to the idiosyncrasies of American culture, you're inevitably forced to watch exactly one football game per year: the Super Bowl.

Take heart. This year's game features two teams with animal mascots. Two rather charismatic animals, in fact. We've got you covered with 14 fun facts scientists have learned about each of them. Feel free to toss them out during a lull in the game's action.

1. There's no such thing as a "seahawk." 

The Seattle franchise might spell it as one word, but biologists don't. In fact, they don't even use the term to refer to one particular species.

You could use the name sea hawk to refer to an osprey (pictured above) or a skua (itself a term that covers a group of seven related species of seabirds). Both groups share a number of characteristics, including a fish-based diet.

The Seattle Seahawks' mascot is actually an augur hawk (pictured above), not a sea hawk. (Photo by Matt Edmonds)

2. The Seattle Seahawks' "seahawk" isn't actually a sea hawk.

Before every home game, the team releases a trained bird named Taima to fly out of the tunnel before the players, lead them onto the field and get the crowd jazzed up for the game. But the nine-year-old bird is an augur hawk (also known as an augur buzzard), native to Africa, not a seafaring species that can properly be called a sea hawk.

David Knutson, the falconer who trained Taima, originally wanted an osprey for authenticity's sake, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service prohibited him from using a native bird for commercial purposes. Instead, he ordered an augur hawk hatchling—which has markings roughly similar to an osprey—from St. Louis' World Bird Sanctuary and trained it to deal with the noise and chaos of a raucous football game.

The range of the main osprey species (Pandion haliaetus), shown in blue, covers every continent except Antarctica. A different species, the eastern osprey, lives in Australia. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

3. Ospreys live on every continent besides Antarctica.

Although they hunt over water, ospreys generally nest on land, within a few miles of either the ocean or a body of fresh water. Unlike most bird species, they are remarkably widespread, and even more surprising, nearly all these widely dispersed ospreys (with the exception of the eastern osprey, native to Australia) are part of one species. 

Ospreys that live at temperate latitudes migrate to the tropics for the winter, before heading back to their home area for the summer breeding season. Other ospreys live in the tropics year-round, but also return to the specific nesting grounds (the same ones where they were born) each summer for breeding.

(Image via USGS)

4. Ospreys have reversible toes.

Most other hawks and falcons have their talons arranged in a static pattern: three in the front, and one angled towards the back, as shown in the illustration on the left. But ospreys, like owls, have a unique configuration that lets them slide their toes back and forth, so they can create a two-and-two configuration (shown as #2). This helps them more firmly grip tubular-shaped fish as they fly through the air. They also frequently turn the fish to a position parallel to their flying direction, for aerodynamic purposes.

5. Ospreys have closable nostrils.

The predatory birds typically fly between 50 and 100 feet above the water before spotting a shallow-swimming fish (such as pike, carp or trout) and diving in for the kill. To avoid getting water up their noses, they have long-slitted nostrils that they can close voluntarily—one of the adaptations that allows them to consume a diet made up of 99 percent fish.

6. Ospreys usually mate for life.

After a male osprey reaches the age of three, upon returning to his natal nesting area for the summer breeding season in May, he stakes claim to a spot and begins performing an elaborate flight ritual overhead—often flying in a wave pattern while clutching a fish or nesting material in his talons—to attract a mate.

A female responds to his flight by landing at the nesting spot and eating the fish he supplies to her. Afterward, they begin building a nest together out of sticks, twigs, seaweed and other materials. Once bonded, the pair reunites every mating season for the rest of their lives (on average, they live about 30 years), only searching out other mates if one of the birds dies.

7. The osprey species is at least 11 million years old.

Fossils found in southern California show that ospreys were around in the Mid-Miocene, which occurred 15 to 11 million years ago. Although the particular species found have since gone extinct, they were recognizably osprey-like and assigned to their genus.

8. In the Middle Ages, people believed ospreys had magical powers.

It was widely though that if a fish looked up at an osprey, it would be somehow mesmerized by the sight of it. This would cause the fish to give itself up to the predator—a belief referenced in Act IV of Shakespeare's Coriolanus: "I think he'll be to Rome/As is the osprey to the fish, who takes it/By sovereignty of nature."

A pomarine skua, frequently called a sea hawk. (Photo by Patrick Coin)

9. Skuas steal much of their food.

Unlike ospreys, skuas (the other birds often called "sea hawks") obtain much of their fish diet through a less noble strategy: kleptoparasitism. This means that a skua will wait until a gull, tern or other bird catches a fish, then chase after it and attack it, forcing it to eventually drop its catch so the skua can steal it. They're rather brazen in their extortion attempts—in some cases, they'll successfully steal from a bird three times their weight. During the winter, as much as 95 percent of a skua's diet can be obtained through theft.

10. Some skuas kill other birds, including penguins.

Although fish makes up the majority of their diet, some skuas use their aggressiveness to not only steal the catch away from other birds, but occasionally to kill them. South Polar skuas, in particular, are notorious for attacking penguin nesting sites, snapping up penguin chicks and eating them whole:

11. Skuas will attack anything that comes near their nests, including humans.

The birds are extremely aggressive in defending their young (perhaps from seeing firsthand what happens to less protective parents, like penguins) and will dive at the head of any animal that approaches their nest. This even applies to humans, with skuas occasionally injuring people in the act of defending their chicks.

12. Sometimes, skuas will fake injuries to distract predators.

In especially desperate situations, the birds will sometimes resort to a remarkably ingenious tactic: a distraction display, which involves an adult bird luring a predator away from a nest full of vulnerable skua chicks, generally by faking an injury. The predator (often a larger gull, hawk or eagle) follows the seemingly-debilitated skua away from the nest, intent on obtaining a larger meal, and then the skua miraculously flies away at full strength, having saved its offspring along with itself.

13. Skuas are attentive parents.

All this aggressiveness has a reasonable justification. Skuas (which mate for life, like ospreys) are attentive parents, guarding their chicks through a 57-day fledging process each year. Fathers, in particular, take on most of the responsibility, obtaining food for the chicks daily (whether by theft or honest hunting) during the entire period.

14. Some skuas migrate from the poles to the equator each year.

Among the most remarkable of all skua behaviors is the fact that pomarine skuas, which spend the summer nesting on Arctic tundra North of Russia and Canada, fly all the way down to the tropical waters off Africa and Central America each winter, a journey of several thousand miles. Next time you're judging the birds for their piratical ways, remember that they're fueling up for one of the longest journeys in the animal kingdom.

The Cherished Tradition of Scrapbooking

Smithsonian Magazine

Graphic designer Jessica Helfand has been fascinated with visual biography since her days as a graduate student in the late 1980s, pouring over Ezra Pound’s letters and photographs in Yale’s rare book library. But the “incendiary moment,” as she calls it, which really sparked her interest in scrapbooks came in 2005, when she wrote critically of the hobby on her blog Design Observer. Helfand derided contemporary scrapbookers as “people whose concept of innovation is measured by novel ways to tie bows,” among other things, and was vilified by the craft’s enthusiasts. “I hit a nerve,” she says.

Spurred on by the rise of scrapbooking as the fastest growing American hobby, Helfand set out to study the medium, collecting, from antique stores and eBay auctions, over 200 scrapbooks dating from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the present. In the collages of fabric swatches, locks of hair, calling cards and even cigarette butts pasted on their pages, she found real artistry. Helfand’s latest book, Scrapbooks: An American History, tells the story of how personal histories, as told through the scrapbooks of civilians and celebrities, including writers Zelda Fitzgerald, Lillian Hellman, Anne Sexton and Hilda Doolittle, combine to tell American history.

What types of scrapbooks do you find the most interesting?

The more eclectic. The more insane. Scrapbooks that are pictures of just babies and cherubs or just clippings from the newspaper tend to interest me less. I like when they’re chaotic the way life is.

What are some of the strangest things you’ve seen saved in them?

Apparently it was custom in the Victorian age for people to keep scrapbooks just of obituaries. And they are weird obituaries, like one in which a woman watches in horror as streetcar claims the life of her six children. Incredibly macabre, gruesome things. We have one of these books from 1894 in Ohio, and in it there is every weird obituary. “Woman lives with remains of daughter for two weeks in a farmhouse before she’s discovered.” Just one after another, and it’s pasted onto the pages of a geometry textbook.

You see often in books by college and high school girls these bizarre juxtapositions, like a picture of Rudy Valentino next to a church prayer card, or a box of Barnum’s animal crackers pasted right next to some steamy, embraced Hollywood couple for some movie that had just come out. You could see the tension in trying to figure out who they were and what their identities were vis-à-vis these emblems of religious and popular culture. I’m a kid, but I really want to be a grownup. There’s something so dear about it.

What do you think goes through people’s minds as they paste things?

In antebellum culture just after the Civil War, there was this kind of carpe diem quality that pervaded American life. I have my own theory that one of the reasons for the rise in scrapbooking has been so meteoric since 9/11 is precisely that. People keep scrapbooks and diaries more during wartime and after wartime, and famine and disease and fear. When you feel an increased sense of vulnerability, what can you do to steel yourself against the inevitable tide of human suffering but to paste something in a book? It seems silly, but on the other hand, it’s quite logical.

Scrapbooks, like diaries, can get pretty personal. Did you ever feel like you were snooping?

I took pains not to be prurient. These people aren’t here to speak for themselves anymore. It was very humbling to me to think about the people who made these things in the moments that they made them, what they were thinking, their fears and trepidations. The Lindbergh kidnapping, the Hindenburg, all these things were happening, and they were trying to make sense of it. You fall in love with these people. You can’t have emotional distance. I wanted to have some analytical distance in terms of the composition of the books, but certainly when it comes to the emotional truths that these people were living with day by day, the best I could do was just be an ambassador for their stories.

How do scrapbooks of famous and non-famous people slip through the cracks and not end up with their families?

The reason scrapbooks secede from their families is that there are typically not children to keep them. Or it’s because the kids didn’t care. They’re old, falling apart. To a lot of people, they’re really forgettable. To me, they’re treasures.

But the other thing is the more curatorial, scholarly angle. There tends to be a very scientific, quantitative view of gathering evidence and then telling the story chronologically. These things just fly in the face of that logic. People picked them up, put them down, started over, ripped out pages. They’re so unwieldy. Typically historians are more methodical and meticulous in their research and in their compilation of stories. These things are the opposite, and so they were relegated to the bottom of the pile. They would just be anecdotally referenced, but certainly not held in point as really reliable historical documents. My editor tells me that there’s a more open mindedness to that kind of first person history today, so I may have written this book at a time when it could be accepted on some scholarly level in a way that it couldn’t have 20 years before.

Image by Scrapbooks: An American History / Yale University Press. Wooden Spoon. Enloe Scrapbook, 1922. (original image)

Image by Scrapbooks: An American History / Yale University Press. Delineator. June 1931. (original image)

Image by Scrapbooks: An American History / Yale University Press. The Hair Book. Natchitoches, La., 1733. (original image)

Image by Scrapbooks: An American History / Yale University Press. Blanchard Scrapbook. Natchitoches, La., 1922. (original image)

What was it like paging through poet Anne Sexton’s scrapbook for first time, seeing the key to the hotel room where she spent her wedding night?

It’s the most adorable, clumsy, newly wed, young, silly thing. It’s just not what you associate with her. Those kinds of moments were certainly exciting for me in terms of finding something I didn’t expect to find that was so out of sync with what the record books tell us. It was sort of like finding a little treasure, like you were going through your grandmother’s drawers and you found a stack of love letters from a man who wasn’t your grandfather. It had that kind of quality of discovery. I loved, for example, the little firecrackers from a fourth of July party and the apology note from the first marital spat she had with her husband, the goofy handwriting, the Campbell soup recipes, things that were very much a part of 1949-1951. They become such portals into social, economic and material culture history.

In your book, you describe how scrapbooking has evolved. Preformatted memory books, like baby and wedding books, were more about documenting. And scrapbooking today is more about purchasing materials than using vestigial ones. Why the shift?

It shows that there is an economic incentive. If you see that there is a trend that something is happening you want to jump on the bandwagon and be part of it. My guess is that some very savvy publishers in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s said they were going to make memory books that told you what to remember. That to me is very interesting because it shaped the way we started to value certain memories over others. It was good and bad; they were doing what Facebook does for us now. Facebook will change the way we think about sharing pictures and stories about our mundane lives the same way those publishers made those books and told you to save the fingerprints of your babies.

You’ve been quite vocal and critical about contemporary scrapbooking, and yet you haven’t called it “crapbooking,” as other graphic designers have. Where do you stand?

What I’ve been trying to advocate is that it’s an extremely authentic form of storytelling. You just save something, reflect on it, put it next to something else and suddenly there’s a story instead of the story being sanctioned by pink ribbons and matching paper. I don’t say don’t go to the store and buy pretty stuff. But my fear is that a certain monotony will come out of our reliance on merchandise. How is it possible that all our scrapbooks will be beautiful because they look like Martha Stewart’s, when are lives are all so incredibly different? With so much reliance on the “stuff” a certain authenticity is lost. I kept seeing this expression of “getting it right,” women wanting to “get it right.” Everybody made scrapbooks a hundred years ago, and people didn’t worry about getting it right. They just made things, and they were messy, incomplete and inconsistent. To me, the real therapeutic act is being who you are. You stop and you think what was my day. I planted seeds. I went to the store. Maybe it’s really mundane but that’s who you are, and maybe if you think about it, save it and look at it, you’ll find some truth in that that’s actually very rewarding. It’s a very forgiving canvas, the scrapbook.

As journalists, we’re all wondering whether the print newspaper and magazine will survive the digital age. Do you think the tangible scrapbook will survive in the advent of digital cameras, blogs and Facebook?

I hope they won’t disappear. I personally think there is nothing that replaces the tactile—the way they smell, the way they look, the dried flowers. There’s just something really amazing about seeing a fabric sample from 1921 in a book when you haven’t ever seen a piece of fabric that color before. There’s a certain recognition about yourself and about your world when you see something that no longer exists. When it’s on the screen, it’s a little less of that immersive experience. At the same time, if there is a way to keep scrapbooking relevant, move it forward, make it be a satellite of its former self and move into some new zone and become something else, then that’s a progressive way of thinking about it moving into the next generation.

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.

A Green Addition to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Meeting House

Smithsonian Magazine

Back in 1946, members of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, Wisconsin, selected a visionary architect to design a new meeting space for their congregation. Did they also choose someone who was an early practitioner of “green” architecture?

At a meeting of the First Unitarian Society, Frank Lloyd Wright, one of its members (though not a regular attendee), was selected to design the growing congregation’s new Meeting House. His impressive portfolio at the time—Prairie School and Usonian homes, Fallingwater, the S.C. Johnson Wax Administration Building—spoke for itself, and his credentials as the son and nephew of some of the congregation’s founders surely helped as well.

His design—the Church of Tomorrow, with its V-shaped copper roof and stone-and-glass prow—was a dramatic departure from the recognizable ecclesiastical forms of bell tower, spires and stained glass. Wright’s was steeple, chapel and parish hall all in one.

The stone for the Meeting House came from a quarry along the Wisconsin River. Wright advocated for the use of local materials in his writings. In 1939, in a series of lectures later published as An Organic Architecture, Wright shared his philosophy that architects should be “determining form by way of the nature of materials.” Buildings, he believed, were to be influenced by and clearly of their place, integrated with their environment in terms of siting as well as materials.

In 1951, with the congregation’s coffers essentially depleted after overruns tripled the cost of the construction to over $200,000, the 84-year-old architect gave a fund-raising lecture—modestly titled “Architecture as Religion”—at the barely finished building. “This building is itself a form of prayer,” he told the gathering. He raised his arms, forming two sides of a triangle.

What quickly became a local icon was, in 1973, placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2004, Wright’s First Unitarian Society Meeting House was declared a National Historic Landmark.

“Without question, one of the reasons this congregation is as strong as it is, is because of this building,” says Tom Garver, a member of the Friends of the Meeting House. “The principal problem with this building is that we filled it up.”

By 1999, as the 1,100 members had outgrown a space built for 150, the congregation debated whether to expand the building or create a satellite congregation. The decision to keep the community intact and on its original site was motivated by the congregation’s deeply rooted environmental ethic—“respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part”—contained in the seventh principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Their new building needed to be, in Parish Minister Michael Schuler’s words, a “responsible response” to global warming and limits to our resources.

The congregation chose a local firm, Kubala Washatko Architects, to design the $9.1 million green building with a 500-seat sanctuary and classrooms; an additional $750,000 would go toward renovating and remodeling the original structure.

John G. Thorpe, a restoration architect and a founder of the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust in Oak Park, Illinois, says there are few additions to Wright’s institutional or commercial buildings. He cites the Guggenheim’s addition as one example and notes that the Meeting House actually had two previous additions, in 1964 and 1990.

“We’ve always had a high degree of respect for his body of work,” says Vince Micha, project architect for Kubala Washatko. “He was pretty daring and willing to do the untested. That takes a great deal of courage and self-confidence and a bit of ego. You end up with some pretty astonishing results.”

The architects assembled a panel of Wright experts, including Thorpe, to comment on their designs. Early plans included massive chimneys and triangular spaces echoing those in Wright’s design. The alternative was to counter his sharp angles with a gentle curve.

“The arc was the purest, quietest, simplest form to use in relation to the intense geometry in the Wright building,” says Micha. The architects eventually took advantage of the south-sloping site, placing the mass of the addition below the entrance level. The top floor seems to hug the earth, as does Wright’s building.

“If you’re going to touch it and add onto it, you must respect it,” says Thorpe. “Kubala Washatko was sensitive enough to end up with a design that does that.”

Image by The Kubala Washatko Architects, Inc / Mark F. Heffron. With 1,100 members in 1999, the members had outgrown a space built for 150. (original image)

Image by The Kubala Washatko Architects, Inc.. Architect rendition of the green addition to Frank Lloyd Wright's First Unitarian Society Meeting House. (original image)

Image by The Kubala Washatko Architects, Inc / Mark F. Heffron. Parish Minister Michael Schuler said the new edition needed to be a "responsible response" to global warming and limits to our resources. (original image)

Image by The Kubala Washatko Architects, Inc / Mark F. Heffron. Local firm Kubala Washatko Architects were chosen to design the $9.1 million green building. (original image)

Image by The Kubala Washatko Architects, Inc / Mark F. Heffron. The green addition has a 500-seat sanctuary and classrooms. (original image)

Image by The Kubala Washatko Architects, Inc / Mark F. Heffron. Architects assembled a team of Wright experts to comment on their designs. (original image)

Image by Wisconsin Historical Society. Wright advocated for the use of local materials in his writings. (original image)

Image by Wisconsin Historical Society. Wright's design was a steeple, chapel and parish hall all in one. (original image)

Image by Wisconsin Historical Society. The stone for the Meeting House came from a quarry along the Wisconsin River. Local residents helped during the construction. (original image)

Image by Wisconsin Historical Society. Wright believed that architects should be "determining form by way of the nature of materials." (original image)

Micha calls the area where the two buildings are joined together “a really tender spot.” Glass walls topped by a glass roof slid underneath the broad eave of Wright’s roof provided the solution. “It sort of created this hyphen between the two structures.”

Windows running the length of the upper-level space dominated by glass, steel, cable wire and red-stained concrete floors (a shade matching Wright’s signature Cherokee red) are accented by red pine support posts from the Menominee tribal lands, a renowned sustainable forestry project in northeastern Wisconsin. As with the limestone used in Wright’s original structure, local products were used in the addition.

Kubala Washatko and other architects practicing sustainable design today rely on local materials to avoid the negative environmental impact of transporting products over long distances. For Wright, materials indigenous to a place had value since they required no additional decoration; the ornament was within. “He wanted it laid up in the way you would find it in nature,” says Garver of Wright’s use of stone in his Meeting House.

The new windows are flush to the floor, an approach similar to the one Wright used in the loggia of his landmark building. “He runs window into stone—there’s no elaborate framing,” says Garver of Wright’s technique. “It makes ambiguous what’s inside and outside.” Bringing light into a space was critical in Wright’s theory of organic architecture, for it connected the interior with nature.

Does all this make Wright a green architect?

“He was essentially green because he believed in the environment. But I wouldn’t call him green,” says Jack Holzhueter, a local historian who lived for a time in Jacobs II, Wright’s pioneering passive solar home. “To attach that label to him is not correct because we did not have that term then. He created structures that would now be called ‘toward green.’”

“He designed his buildings to cooperate with the environment,” adds Holzhueter. “He also understood the solar capacity of a building.” He knew that broad eaves would keep the sun from warming a house on a summer day, that the shelter of those eaves would cut the wind.

These principles found expression in the addition: Kubala Washatko oriented it to maximize passive solar gain; the green roof’s 8-foot overhang helps cool the building naturally.

In-floor radiant heating, which is favored by today’s green architects and a component of Kubala Washatko’s design, is incorporated in Wright’s original Meeting House. “He was trying to lower heating costs,” says Holzheuter. “Environmental responsibility was not something even talked about in those days.”

The 21,000-square-foot addition opened last September; in January, the project received a LEED Gold rating. Thanks to green features such as a geothermal heating and cooling system and a “living roof” of plants that control stormwater runoff from the site, the building is projected to use 40 percent less energy and 35 percent less water than a similar-size, conventionally built structure.

The congregation’s carbon footprint was another one of the main factors in their decision to stay where they were. “Moving to a new site on virgin piece of land would have been the exact wrong thing to do,” says Micha, reflecting on the importance the congregation placed on the original site, with its proximity to bus lines and bike paths.

By contrast, Wright was definitely not green in terms of his perspective on development density. At the time of its construction, the Meeting House was bordered by the University of Wisconsin’s experimental agricultural fields. Wright had urged the congregation to build even farther away: “Well, we have gone afield—not far enough, but at least far enough to valiantly state a principle of growth to which our civilization must awaken and soon consciously act: decentralization.”

Despite the differences, both the original building and its addition share similar inspiration in the grounds of Wisconsin. As Wright wrote in 1950 about the Meeting House, “Nothing is so powerful as an idea. This building is an idea.”

5 surprising facts about Alexander Calder's "Gwenfritz"

National Museum of American History

After undergoing an extensive conservation process over the last year, the museum, along with colleagues at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, celebrates today the rededication of Gwenfritza 40-foot tall abstract sculpture by the esteemed American artist Alexander Calder. Intern Auni Gelles shares the behind-the-scenes scoop on the sculpture's recent restoration.

Smithsonian National Museum of American History, exterior, west side, on view with Gwenfritz in front

Alexander Calder's Gwenfritz. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Gift of the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation. Image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives. 

#1. Calder had a deep relationship with the Smithsonian.
Heeding First Lady Claudia "Lady Bird" Johnson's 1965 appeal for the beautification of the nation's capital, the philanthropist Gwendolyn Cafritz commissioned Calder to create a sculpture to be placed outside what was then known as the Museum of History and Technology (we became the National Museum of American History in 1980). Although he had criticized the Johnson administration's policies surrounding the Vietnam War, Calder accepted this commission, which would become part of the collection of what is now the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Calder valued his relationship with the Smithsonian and solidified his commitment to public art in America by creating other works for this national collection. In a 1968 letter to David Scott, then the director of the art museum, Calder mentions his progress on both Gwenfritz and another stabile, Nenuphar.

This letter from “Sandy” (Calder’s nickname) mentions the two sculptures he created for the Smithsonian around 1968.

This letter from "Sandy" (Calder's nickname) mentions the two sculptures he created for the Smithsonian around 1968. Smithsonian Institution Archives accession 96-135, boxes 1 & 2.

#2. The pool that will again surround the sculpture was an important part of Calder's vision. 
He originally envisioned high jets of water surrounding the stabile—that's the opposite of a moving sculpture, a mobile—but it was determined that the fountain would be too difficult to maintain. Water would no doubt come into contact with the metal, accelerating its deterioration. The water feature, however, remained part of Calder's idea for this site-specific work: the sculpture was designed to be surrounded by a reflecting pool.

The water feature disappeared when the sculpture was moved to a new location on Constitution Avenue in 1984, to make way for a bandstand. A major component of the stabil'’s restoration is its move back to its original location, where it will once again stand above a pool of water. Karen Lemmey, the curator of sculpture at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, said, "It's always great when you're able to honor the artist's vision.”

1971 photo of the black metal sculpture in a reflecting pool

Gwenfritz in a reflecting pool. Photo is from around 1971.

#3. Like an archaeological dig, removing layers of paint on the sculpture exposed information about the object's past. 
When Calder created this enormous structure in his studio in France, he instructed metal workers where to cut with markings on the material. Individual pieces were then assembled to form this massive abstract shape, disassembled, and shipped to the museum in crates. Once it was reassembled on the west side of the museum in 1969, Smithsonian staff covered Gwenfritz in matte black paint in accordance with Calder's suggestions—concealing the original markings. It wasn't until 2013, when conservators removed the sculpture's surface coatings, that Calder's guide marks resurfaced. They gained insights from these previously hidden marks. "It's as if we returned to Calder's hand," Lemmey said. "The piece reveal[ed] itself in the course of conservation and tells us a lot about Calder's creative process."

#4. Gwenfritz received a new coating of high-tech, military-grade paint.
The third-generation sculptor gained technical expertise as he studied mechanical engineering at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. To achieve a rich black tone for the Gwenfritz, he shipped the metal pieces in a primer coat and advised the Smithsonian to add layer of low-gloss paint.

After careful consideration, the team chose to recover Gwenfritz in a new, military-grade paint developed by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory and the National Gallery of Art specifically for outdoor sculptures. Lemmey believes that Calder would have approved of this cutting-edge paint had it been available to him. "We would hope that the criteria that we used to guide this project would have been sympathetic to the way that Calder would have approached the problem himself," she said. In order to protect the metal for another 50+ years, the Smithsonian's preservation team will check on its condition regularly and touch up the paint as necessary.

Gwenfritz sculpture under the trees

Gwenfritz as it appeared in 2013

#5. The sculpture is held together by more than 1,200 bolts—which were all replaced. 
When the stabile was assembled in 1969, the individual pieces were connected by 1,270 bolts that came in different sizes to fit various angles. Each of the bolts faced the same way, creating a uniform aesthetic. During the 1984 move to the north side of the museum, however, this detail was lost. According to Richard Barden, the museum's preservation services manager who oversaw the recent conservation of Gwenfritz, records from both the original installation and the move 15 years later do not provide sufficient insights into how exactly the sculpture was actually set up. Before the stabile was temporarily deconstructed last fall, the staff had to better understand how exactly it was put together. Ashley Jehle, an intern in the museum's objects lab in 2010, created a detailed study of each of the 71 irregularly shaped pieces.

Using this as a guide, the conservation process could begin. The only parts of the Gwenfritz that were replaced were the bolts, many of which had corroded over the years. Thin washers were placed between the bolts and the metal planes, and special attention was paid to ensure that all of the bolts would once again be facing a single direction, a fact that Barden is particularly proud of. Barden has made an effort to maintain more detailed records so that future conservators do not face the same challenges when caring for Gwenfritz.

Bolt in bad condition from Gwenfritz sculpture sitting on a desk

Fitted with this durable new hardware and a fresh coat of black paint, the Gwenfritz is now back in its original location in a new reflecting pool on the west side of the museum. I can only imagine that Calder would be delighted to see this landmark work today, as it is more striking than ever before.

Auni Gelles interned in the New Media office over the summer. She has also blogged about Raise It Up! Anthem for America and historic preservation. For more pictures of the Gwenfritz, check out the Flickr album

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Intern Auni Gelles

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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.” 

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