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History Film Forum Hashes Out Truth and Myth in Hollywood

Smithsonian Magazine

The list of films, television shows and documentaries based on historical incidents goes on and on and on, (and on). For historians that is a blessing and curse. Movies, television and Ken Burns' documentaries often expose the public to new stories or new viewpoints. But they also, sometimes, can skew the truth for entertainment value or offer a less nuanced view of history than the evidence suggests. That’s why, in 2015, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and the National Endowment for the Humanities teamed up to create the History Film Forum, a festival and discussion of the ways history is presented on film and how that shapes public perception of history. The second Forum begins today and runs through Sunday, March 12.

“Millions of people enter history through movies and other entertainment,” John Gray, director of the National Museum of American History says in a press release. “The History Film Forum will examine how history filmmaking reveals both truth and myth and how we as a society view ourselves.”

Christopher Wilson, executive director and curator of the Forum says that while all of the academic writing, research and museum exhibits produced each year reach some percentage of the public, many more are touched and influenced by popular films and television. That’s one reason why he hopes to take an annual look at the state of public history in films, television and the internet.

“Film transports us to another time and place. When that time and place actually existed in our past, we take away an altered understanding of history,” he writes on the Forum’s website. “Sometimes the powerful images and emotions at work in film offer new understanding of history, other times the power of the medium works to reinforce or create myths. Because film is so elemental to the way the public understands and experiences history, I am so pleased that we will continue to explore film as a tool for interpreting and learning history in our History Film Forum.”

Most presentations will be held in the National Museum of American History’s Warner Theater, including the following notable forums (see a full schedule here). The presentations are also streaming live here.

March 9

"TIMELESS" (Re)Creating American History, 7:30

"Timeless" is NBC’s latest iteration on a popular TV trope—traveling back in time to change the future. A riff on series like "Quantum Leap," "Early Edition" and "Doctor Who," the show is part of time-travel resurgence, which includes recent series such as ABC’s "Time After Time," CW’s "Legends of Tomorrow" and Fox’s comedy "Making History." The panel includes a screening of an episode about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and will feature a discussion moderated by MSNBC Host Thomas Roberts with "Timeless" stars Abigail Spencer, Malcolm Barrett, and Matt Lanter, the show's creators and Georgetown University historian Brian Taylor.

March 10

The Loving Story, 3:00

Nancy Buirski’s 2011 feature-length documentary The Loving Story about the landmark 1967 Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia that invalidated laws forbidding interracial marriage in the U.S. made the Oscar-shortlist selection. It also informed the 2016 Jeff Nichols feature film Loving, produced by Buirski, which led to a Best Actress Oscar nomination for its star Ruth Negga. The panel includes a screening of The Loving Story and a discussion with Buirski about how her deeply researched documentary became a critically acclaimed narrative film.

March 11

Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive, 7:00

In filmmaker Eric Stange's new documentary, Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive scheduled to debut on PBS’s American Masters series next fall, he argues that while Poe’s work has influenced American culture in a myriad ways, what most people know about the man himself is very wrong. Using recent scholarship, the documentary looks how Poe was not just a creepy uncle, but a nuanced writer whose work reflected the extraordinary and frightening changes taking place in United States during his day. An advance screening of the show will be followed by a discussion with Stange and Louisiana State Poe scholar J. Gerald Kennedy.

March 12

Hollywood Shuffle? Black History on Film, 4:00

The African American Film Critics Association dubbed 2016 the best year ever for black Americans in cinema, and it's not hard to see why. Films and documentaries like Moonlight, Hidden FiguresI am not your Negro and 13th garnered critical acclaim and topped box office charts. But the fight for diversity in Hollywood remains a huge problem. A panel of experts weigh in on whether this is the beginning of a true shift for telling diverse stories or whether other factors made 2016 special. The panel is moderated by Kelley Carter, host of ESPN’s "The Undefeated," a show about the intersection of race, culture and sports and includes National Museum of American History curator Fath Davis Ruffins, filmmaker Sam Pollard and April Reign, managing editor of Broadway Black, a news outlet about African Americans in theater and the founder of the #OscarsSoWhite movement.


NMNH - Anthropology Dept.

Jane Walsh identifies this textile as Peale # 312, which is described (as is Peale # 313) in the U.S. Exploring Expedition Peale catalogue as a blanket made of wool of the Rocky mountain sheep, by the natives of Puget sound, NW Coast of America. Illus. Pl. 1, p. 41 and Fig. 28, p. 46 of Salish Weaving by Paula Gustafson, Univ. of Washington Press, 1980. Described on p. 125, cat. entry 82, of Gustafson as "Fibres: Mountain goat hair and vegetable fibers. Colour: Natural white, black, dark brown, red, yellow and blue. Weave: Twine." Also described on p. 47 of Gustafson: "... displays horizontal panels, but is composed of fifteen major and eighteen minor partitions. One of the major components takes up about a third of the weaving and is itself composed of three sections with horizontal bars across the centre section and the two end portions, displaying a vertical zigzag and bar motif. ... (It) is fringed only on three sides. There is no border pattern." Gustafson also notes that blanket exhibits fading colors due to exposure to light, probably while on exhibit. Illus. Fig. 10.13, p. 240 in Brotherton, Barbara. 2008. S'abadeb = The gifts : Pacific Coast Salish arts and artists. Seattle: Seattle Art Museum in association with University of Washington Press. Figure caption: "In her study of Salish weaving, Paula Gustafson categorizes robes by their designs as being classic, colonial or hybrid. This robe fell within the classic category because of its emphasis on geometric patterns arranged in vertical bands. These robes were created between 1778 and 1850, when the indigenous traditions were not influenced by imported motifs and materials (Gustafson 1980: 37.) ... (T)his example consists of fifteen major and eighteen minor design units composed in vertical and horizontal sections. It is tightly twined without a border pattern and is fringed on three sides."

Reference: Solazzo, C., S. Heald, M.W. Ballard, D.A. Ashford, P.T. DePriest, R.J. Koestler, and M. Collins. 2011. Proteomics and Coast Salish blankets: A tale of shaggy dogs? Antiquity 85: 1418-1432. . Identified there as a Classic (1778 - 1850) blanket - weft/fringe Mountain goat hair; warp Salish wool or woolly dog hair.


X-ray Fluorescence (XRF) testing was conducted on this textile in 2017. Arsenic was detected. The testing suggests this textile was treated with pesticides that contained arsenic. The testing indicates there are high levels of arsenic (over 10,000 ppm). Mercury was also detected. The testing suggests this textile was treated with pesticides that contained mercury. The testing indicates there are medium (300-1,000 ppm) to high levels of mercury. See Anthropology Conservation Lab records for the full report. This object should be handled with gloves. See the Department of Anthropology "Statement on Potential Hazards (Inherent and Acquired) Associated with Collection Objects" for more detailed handling guidelines.

Illus. Fig. 31, p. 89, and Fig. 39, p. 99 (detail), in Tepper, Leslie Heymann, Janice George, and Willard Joseph. 2017. Salish Blankets: robes of protection and transformation, symbols of wealth.

Pictured Buffalo Robe

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.

Pictographic scenes of warfare and horse raiding painted on a buffalo robe. Culture identification changed from Sioux to Hidatsa, Arikara, or Mandan by Candace Greene May 2017 based on a full review of the collecting history and consideration of general stylistic traits.

Model Of A "Biadarka" Or Umiak Boat

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.
From card: "This is a peculiar form of bidarka; no figures were in the boat, some loose parts were once present in base of storage cases. (? In Engineering). Refer: Collins' MS. p. 799. USNM Bull. 127, p. 212-3." See Processing Lab accession file for additional information on this boat. Illus. Fig. 148, p. 154 in Crowell, Aron, Amy F. Steffian, and Gordon L. Pullar. 2001. Looking both ways: heritage and identity of the Alutiiq people. Fairbanks, Alaska: University of Alaska Press. Identified there: "The angyak had a light, strong wooden frame made up of many individual pieces that were lashed together with whale baleen. This gave great flexibility and let the boat bend in rough water. As many as twenty large seal skins went into making the covering. The rounded bow, carved from a naturally curved piece of driftwood, lifted the boat over oncoming waves. This nineteenth-century model shoes the frame in accurate detail; identical full-sized parts have been recovered at the Karluk 1 archaeological site (Knecht 1995: 312-317)."

Source of the information below: Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center Alaska Native Collections: Sharing Knowledge website, by Aron Crowell, entry on this artifact, retrieved 8-29-2012: Umiak model, Sugpiaq (Alutiiq), Koniag. angyaq "open skin boat" - Language: Koniag Sugpiaq (Kodiak Island dialect). Also called: baidar [from Russian word for boat].

Totem Pole Model

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.


A photo of what appears to be this totem pole model with house model ET14554 on display at the Smithsonian circa 1879 (photo may actually date more specifically to 1882 - early 1885) is in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution Archives: Photo ID 2962 or MNH-2962, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 95, Box 41, Folder: 4, . House model with pole is on back right of photo in front of house front.

Per Robin Wright, Professor and Curator Emerita, University of Washington, 2018, ET14554 and ET24468 may be James Swan collection pieces, based on the similarity of the ET24468 model pole to another model pole, No. E74748, that is linked to Swan and carved by Johnny Kit Elswa, a copy of a chief's frontal pole in Tanu. Robin Wright is now convinced that this model pole is based on Kitkun's house frontal pole in the Haida village of Tanu. It depicts the story of the flood with a stack of hat rings. Raven rescued the village during a flood by pulling up on the chief's hat rings making it grow tall enough for the people to climb up out of the flood waters. There were three poles with this motif in Haida Gwaii. The original one was in Skedans - the right to portray this story was given by the chief Gidansta to Kitkun and also to Chief Wiah in Massett where Wiah put it on his "Monster House." The Tanu flood pole was just being finished in preparation for the pole raising potlatch when George Dawson was there in 1878. James Swan and Johnny Kit Elswa were welcomed into this house when they visited the young nephew Kitkun who had taken his uncle’s place in 1878. This model has the same colored paint that the other Johnny Kit Elswa pole E74748 has, and Robin Wright now thinks Kit Elswa probably carved it. This model pole has fewer hat rings than the full sized pole, but it does have the dogfish below and human figures climbing to the top.

In James G. Swan correspondence in accession record No. 5260, Swan talks about sending two Haida house models. However, only one was catalogued, # E23547. It is possible house model ET14554/ET24468 or house model ET24565 may be from this accession?

The Arctic Hasn’t Been This Hot for 44,000 Years

Smithsonian Magazine

Global warming is heating the planet, and the Arctic is getting the worst of it. Polar amplification means that the temperature in the Arctic is rising faster than anywhere on Earth and destabilizing the coast. All that excess heat is also melting ice and snow. While we’ve known that the Arctic is getting warm, according to new research, the weather in the northern regions is actually the warmest it’s been in the past 44,000 years, Christa Marshall reports at Climate Wire.

The average summer temperature in the Arctic over the past 100 years, say lead author Gifford Miller and his colleagues, is “now higher than during any century in more than 44,000 years, including peak warmth of the early Holocene,” a time known as the Holocene thermal maximum.

Getting actual temperature records going back that far is, of course, impossible. Instead, the scientists looked at the plants in the area. By looking at the plants that are emerging from beneath the thawing ice, the scientists can figure out when the ice last melted back this far. Miller and co.:

The ancient rooted plants emerging beneath the four ice caps must have been continuously ice-covered for at least 44 . However, because the oldest dates are near the limit of the radiocarbon age scale, substantially older ages are possible. Based on temperature reconstructions for ice cores retrieved from the nearby Greenland Ice Sheet, the youngest time interval during which summer temperatures were plausibly as warm as present prior to 44 is ~120 , at, or near the end of the Last Interglaciation. We suggest this is the most likely age of these samples.

Regardless of the absolute age uncertainties, it remains clear that these four ice caps did not melt behind our collection sites at any time during the Holocene, but did do so recently, indicating that summer warmth of recent decades exceeded that of any interval of comparable length in >44


The fact that certain ice caps did not melt during the Holocene Thermal Maximum, despite the extreme warmth at the time, suggests that today’s unusual warming period can only be caused by greenhouse gases, Miller said.

“Nothing else out there can explain it,” Miller said.

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Horten H VI V2

National Air and Space Museum
Single-seat, tailless all-wing sailplane w/ semi-prone pilot position.

From 1933 to 1990, Reimar Horten, assisted by his brother, Walter, designed and built a series of swept-wing aircraft without fuselages or tails and they did not use any other surfaces for control or stability that did not also contribute lift to the wing. Horten began to consider his sixth major design when construction began on the first Horten IV in December 1940. The H IV became the most successful all-wing aircraft that Horten developed and it encouraged him to explore further the potential of high aspect ratio (AR) wing design. He completed the first Horten VI four years later but this sailplane was experimental and not intended for series production so Reimar designated it 'vee-number-one' to indicate its prototype status.

Horten built two examples in the summer of 1944. The Horten VI used a complex flight control system that was similar to the Horten IV and Horten equipped it with a semi-prone position for the pilot. Flight tests uncovered a tendency for the wingtips to flutter at about 128 km/h (80 mph).

From 1933 to 1990, Reimar Horten, assisted by his brother, Walter, designed and built a series of swept-wing aircraft without fuselages or tails and they did not use any other surfaces for control or stability that did not also contribute lift to the wing. The National Air and Space Museum owns five of these aircraft: a Horten II L, Horten IIIf, Horten IIIh, Horten VI V2, and the Horten IX V3 turbojet interceptor.

Horten began to consider his sixth major design when construction began on the first Horten IV in December 1940. The H IV became the most successful all-wing aircraft that Horten developed and it encouraged him to explore further the potential of high aspect ratio (AR) wing design. He completed the first Horten VI four years later but this sailplane was not intended for series production and Reimar designated it 'vee-number-one' to indicate its prototype status.

One of Reimar's primary design goals was to build and test a sailplane with a very large AR so he increased the new wing's span to 24.25 m (79 ft 7 in) but lessened its chord to produce a 32.4:1 AR. By comparison, the Horten IV had spanned 20.3 m (66 ft 7 in) and the wing had a 21.8:1 AR. Although all-wing research was his immediate focus, Horten was very keen to duplicate the AR and better the performance of the Darmstadt D-30, at that time without peer in the exclusively world club of high-performance sailplanes. Students at the Darmstadt Akaflieg (a small group of aeronautical engineering students led by a professor who worked at several major universities) designed and built this experimental aircraft in 1938 with an AR of 33.6:1 and a Lift-to-Drag ratio of 37.6:1. For twenty years, no other sailplane could surpass this level of performance. The unswept D-30 wing spanned 20.1 m (65 ft 11 in) and it sat atop a conventional fuselage and tail. The wing was so long and narrow that it required an aluminum alloy box-spar for strength and rigidity.

Reimar Horten's workshop at Bonn began building the Horten VI V1 ('six-vee-one') in 1943 and the sailplane was finished on May 24, 1944. The second prototype was designated the Horten VI V2 and finished some months later. Reimar planned to continue to develop the design but the war ended before he could continue the work. Without revealing actual figures, Horten claimed these gliders were expensive to build but he hinted at the costs when he reported that building the Horten VI required about 8,000 man-hours. A structural tour of the Horten VI reveals why it required so much time to build. Within each wing half, 120 nose ribs covered with thin plywood formed the critical airfoil-shape of the leading edge. Every nose rib was slightly different in length and curvature but all resembled the letter 'D' and every rib was hand-made from fifteen pieces of plywood so fragile that jigs were needed to support the rib during assembly.

Horten actually stepped beyond what was known and practical and strode boldly into a purely experimental and largely unknown realm of sailplane construction. A main wing panel spanned 8.4 m (27 ft 7 in) but the root chord measured just 1.25 m (4 ft 2 in). Even a massive wooden spar could not keep such a long and narrow wing section rigid enough for safe flight but the aluminum plug-in wingtips, each spanning 2.9 m (9 ft 7 in) and containing both an aileron and a spoiler, also contributed to weakening the wing. Photographs of the Horten VI V2 taken after the war reveal pronounced flex along almost the full length of the wing but the flexibility is greatest in the joint between wing and wingtip.

Horten trimmed every unused cubic centimeter from the center section and pared it down to barely 1.6 m (5 ft 3 in) wide. He built the basic structure from large and small-diameter steel tubing welded into an interlocking network of trusses. It had to be stout to support nearly 25 m (80 ft) of wing. Horten covered the frame with plywood and curved sheets of aluminum. There was no door to enter the cockpit - Horten transformed most of the top half of the center section into a removable hatch and he designed a handy tray inside the hatch to take the weight of the pilot's low-slung parachute. During a bailout, pins to secure the hatch would have retracted automatically if the pilot released his seat belt harness as the air stream blew the cover away from the airplane.

When he fitted out the cockpit, Horten had in mind serious, high-altitude flying. He added a complete oxygen system: a blinker-type regulator, plumbing, and a pressurized tank packed neatly inside the ventral fin. Horten installed batteries and wiring to power heated flying gloves and he mounted all but two instruments inside the leading edge of the wing near small mirrors that reflected information from these gauges to the pilot. No other space was available to mount the instruments so reading backwards became a prerequisite for flying the Horten VI. Safe flight was impossible, particularly in cloud, unless the pilot could make out these vital dials quickly and accurately.

To minimize drag, Horten adopted a semi-prone position for the pilot that was identical to the layout that he had used on the Horten IV. The NASM Wright 1903 Flyer and the Horten IIIf accommodate a pilot lying flat on his stomach without bending either his legs or his waist but the Horten VI V2 is the only aircraft in the NASM collections piloted from a semi-prone, 'praying mantis' position. As a pilot flew the 'VI V2 in level flight, she rested her torso on a special cushion that inclined her spine about 30° degrees to the horizon. She bent her waist about 70°-80° and placed her knees in padded aluminum "knee cups" that were adjustable for height and secured to the floor of the ventral fin. Reimar described it as a configuration "well-suited to the flying wing, since only a small plastic bubble is necessary above the pilot's head to give the required view. The knees are in a "keel" below the wing, which also provides wing-to-ground clearance. [This position] feels more natural, bird-like, and is safer than [other] positions." Horten's claim that most pilots were enthusiastic about the semi-prone position may be true. "Several pilots," he said, "flew the Ho IV up to 10 hours at a time in thermals and on instruments during extended flights in clouds, and compared their experience with conventional sailplanes. All found the semi-prone position less tiresome."

The origins of the semi-prone layout are elusive but the idea may have sprung from Reimar's long association with motorcycles that began in 1933 when he contracted with the Imperia Motorrad Werke (Imperia Motorcycle Factory) to manufacture metal fittings for his Horten I sailplane. He had begun experimenting with seating position in 1935 and after designing and flying the first glider and propeller-driven airplanes with supine seating, he learned about the pioneering work done by the DFS glider research group in Stuttgart. These experiments and the disappointing results of his supine configurations led Reimar to try prone cockpits in several Horten II gliders and successful trials encouraged him to develop the definitive semi-prone configuration that he used in all Horten IV and Horten VI sailplanes. In 1937, the year Reimar and Walter flew the NASM Horten II equipped with a prone cockpit, Ernst Henne rode a BMW motorcycle faster than any man alive and set a new world land-speed record not broken until 1951. Technicians at BMW tightly cloaked Henne and his motorcycle in a flowing aluminum cocoon that left only his head and the two wheels exposed. A pilot flying an H IV or H VI sailplane crouched almost exactly the same way as Henne on his record-setting motorcycle.

Horten cited several advantages to the semi-prone layout. "Visibility," said Reimar, "in this position is unsurpassed, not only forward, but also straight down, which improves navigation and helps locate turnpoints. The unrestricted view over the top of the aircraft provides good collision avoidance visibility when thermaling with other aircraft." He admitted instruments restricted the pilot's view forward but Reimar revised the layout in the H VI to minimize this problem. Some of the instruments were equipped with reversed labels and mounted out of the field of view. The pilot checked these indicators with a small mirror conveniently mounted in the tiny cockpit.

To make up for the control lost by deleting a conventional fuselage and tail, Reimar Horten designed a flight control system for his Horten VI that consisted of 6 elevons, 4 spoilers, and 4 drag rudders - a total of 14 control surfaces! This control arrangement is one of the most complex ever used on a high-performance sailplane. Three pairs of elevons formed the back edge of the wing panels and a pilot moved these devices using the 'rams horn' control wheel according to a complex schedule which was similar to the operation of the elevons on the Horten IV (please refer to page 10 in K. G. Wilkinson, "The Horten Tailless Aircraft," R. A. E. Report No. F. A. 259/1, Technical Note No. Aero 1703, Royal Aircraft Establishment, Franborough Hants, October 1945, or see the document at this web address, To flex these flight controls, the pilot reached beneath his chin and gripped the control wheel in both hands.

Horten also employed spoilers set into the top and bottom of the main wing panel near the joint between the center section and the wing. At the full-open position, the spoilers projected about 15 centimeters (6 inches) above and below the wing. Each surface swung from a compact, steel-tube framework resembling a trapeze and the entire assembly fit compactly inside the wing. The pilot moved a spring-loaded handle to deploy these devices simultaneously to control airspeed, glide angle, and descent rate.

The drag rudders were actually two small spoilers set into the top and bottom of each wingtip. Their action supplemented the elevons for more precise turn control and they also minimized adverse yaw. The pilot controlled these devices with his feet by pushing two stirrups mounted at the back of the skid fairing. The pilot could also push both stirrups simultaneously and spoil the lift on both wingtips to control airspeed, glide path, and rate of descent.

Horten installed a fixed wheel and tire landing gear into the bottom of the aft fairing. At the nose, he used a retractable skid that rode atop a small two-wheel dolly that the pilot jettisoned immediately after takeoff.

Both prototypes were flying by summer 1944 but it was not possible to arrange any informal contests to compare the performance of Germany's best conventional sailplanes with the Horten VI. Even the D-30 was unavailable, however, the Horten test pilot, Heinz Schiedhauer, completed a half-hour flight aboard the 'VI V1. He found the wings very "soft" and prone to flutter at their own unique frequency, about 1.3 cycles per second at 128 km/h (80 mph). All four Horten IV sailplanes suffered flutter, too. The war ended before further flight-testing but we can deduce two reasons for the wing flutter. The Horten VI, like her H IV sister ships, had three control surfaces on each wing but none were balanced either statically or dynamically. The "elevons," wrote Karl Nickel, "are lagging behind the wing because of their mass moment of inertia [aft of the elevon hinge axis]. . . Hence the elevon deflections enforce the reversal forces, arouse the oscillations and thus the flutter of the flying wing." Horten's use of a bell lift distribution may have contributed to the flutter problem. The wing had a maximum speed of 200 km/h (124 mph) and a best glide speed of 84 km/h (52 mph).

Reimar Horten wrote in the postwar German aviation periodical "LUFTFAHRT International" that "In our view, of all Horten models of the pre-and post-war periods, the Horten IV and its successor, Horten VI, have come closest to the ideal of the "flying human being." They continued: "The pilot of these planes is enabled to fly by the wings which practically extend out from his shoulders with a minimum of aircraft technology" ("Horten VI and VI - High Performance Glider Aircraft," "LUFTFAHRT International," No. 12, November-December 1975, 1847-1870).

Reimar Horten reported that Allied ground forces burned the Horten VI V1 near Göttingen but the VI V2 was saved when the Allies picked up the sailplane in 1945. Allied technicians shipped the aircraft to the U.S., via England, where it was examined by aeronautical authorities, and then placed in storage at Park Ridge, Illinois. In 1947, Northrop Aeronautical Institute borrowed the Horten VI, 'IIIf and 'IIIh and studied them, and students and faculty published reports about these airplanes in 1948 and 1949. The Horten VI V2 was one of four Horten gliders shipped in 1993 from the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) to the Museum für Verkehr und Technik (renamed the Deutsches Technikmuseum) in Berlin, Germany, for restoration and preservation.

Wingspan 24.3 m (79 ft 7 in)

Center Section Length 2.5 m (8 ft 3 in)

Height 1 m (3.3 ft)

Weights, Empty 330 kg (726 lb)

Gross 410 kg (902 lb)

References and Suggested Reading:

Lee, Russell. "The National Air and Space Museum Horten Sailplane Collection: HortenII L, IIIF, IIIH, and VI-V2," "Bungee Cord," Vol. XXIII No. 4, Winter 1997.

Myhra, David. "The Horten Brothers and Their All-Wing Aircraft." Atglen, Penn.: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 1998.

Nickel, Karl, and Wohlfahrt, Michael. "Tailless Aircraft in Theory and Practice." Reston, Va.: American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 1994.

Selinger, Peter F., and Horten, Reimar. "Nurflugel: Die Geschichte der Horten-Flugzeuge 1933-1960." Graz, Germany: H. Weishaupt Verlag, 1983.

Russ Lee, 9-2-04

Bede BD-5B

National Air and Space Museum
21ft. 6in. span, 13ft. 4in. long, 4ft.3in. high; all-metal, single-place; 1982.

Designer Jim Bede announced that his BD-5 would deliver tremendous performance at a minimal cost, particulary to those who purchased and built the kit designed for amateur construction. Tremendous enthusiasm for the airplane could not overcome a significant weakness in the design: the lack of a suitable engine. The ultimate failure of concept should not obscure the many original and innovative aspects of the design.

Few airplanes have fired the imagination of sport pilots like the build-it-at-home-from-a-kit BD-5. The designer, Jim Bede, announced that the airplane would deliver tremendous performance at a minimal cost in money to purchase and operate, and time and space to build. Bede's enthusiasm for the airplane led him to market it prematurely with a fatal flaw: the lack of a suitable engine. The ultimate failure of the original BD-5 concept should not obscure the original and innovative aspects of the design.

By 1970, Bede (pronounced 'bee-dee') had earned a reputation for designing and flying innovative, high-performance aircraft. Factories produced more than 1,700 examples of his BD-1 (production designation AA-1), the first light aircraft mass-produced using bonded (glued) metal construction. Soon the BD-2 followed with the ambitious design goal to fly non-stop around the world without refueling. Bede never made the flight but the project stirred considerable interest among designers and pilots. Much more successful was the kitplane BD-4, which he designed so that builders constructed it using a patented "panel-rib" process. Bede sold about 600 BD-4 kits in part because the aircraft could accommodate four people.

Bede began concentrating on the BD-5 concept as early as 1967 but the demands of other projects slowed the work. In 1970, he began selling slick brochures packed with colorful photographs, intricate drawings, and astonishing performance estimates. Word of the BD-5 quickly flashed throughout the community of amateur builders and enthusiasts. On February 24, 1971, Bede accepted the first $900 deposit to reserve a BD-5 kit for a prospective builder. Though promising a lot of bang per buck, years of hard and difficult work remained to make the BD-5 idea practical. The aircraft had not even flown, yet Jim Bede and the BD-5 were coming under increasing pressure from a hyper-enthusiastic market whose patience and reason was fast succumbing to demands for quick gratification.

The slick brochures presented a prototype with a sharp, smooth nose gracefully flowing back to an exotic vee-tail, which soon gave way to a conventional cruciform tail mounted at the back end of a miniscule single-seat fuselage barely 4 m (13 ft) long. Bede mounted the wings low and depending on the version, they spanned (4.3 m/14 ft 4 in span) on the BD-5A, or just over 6.4 m (21 ft) on the BD-5B. The 'A model appeared in most of the early brochures and other advertising but as development continued, it became apparent that the airplane flew much better with the longer wings. To move about on the ground, Bede fitted tiny, retractable, tricycle landing gear. He minimized the physical attributes of the BD-5 to increase performance with small engines and to reduce the cost to fabricate components. Small size appealed to many homebuilders who were loath to take on projects that required more building space than a garage or apartment. Bede designed the wings to separate quickly and easily from the fuselage. This feature allowed the builder to store the BD-5 at home rather than paying to rent a hanger at the airfield.

Interest in the BD-5 soared after company test, Les Berven, flew the prototype on 12 September 1971. By December, prospective builder-pilots had flooded the company with orders for 4,000 kits. As is standard practice within the amateur-built aircraft community, builders had to form, cut, drill, bond, and rivet a variety of raw materials provided by Bede's staff into a finished BD-5 according to a detailed set of instructions. To reduce building time, Bede technicians formed a few of the more critical parts with complex shapes, such as the fuselage skins. Jim Bede sold the first kits for $2,100 and estimated that after toiling about 300-400 hours, the average builder could be ready to fly. Many variables always influence such predictions so kit manufacturers wisely pad their estimates, however Bede's projection appeared remarkable because the airplane was not a simple design of modest performance, but rather a genuine thoroughbred that demanded a high degree of skill and precision to build and fly.

In the hands of a qualified pilot, the tiny BD-5 could become a star performer capable of a full range of aerobatic maneuvers. Nearly all who flew the airplane called the handling qualities delightful. Small size and careful design made the control pressures were very light but the characteristic was due also to Bede's use of stiff aluminum push-rods supported on ball bearings to all control surfaces with the pilot's control stick and rudder pedals. One pilot described how he simply 'thought' himself into a turn, with little or no awareness that sensation of manipulating the controls. Quite pleasant in the air, such light control pressures could be deadly on takeoff when inexperienced pilots moved the controls too abruptly and lost control. There was no fix for this characteristic and pilots new to flying the BD-5 received stern warnings to use extreme caution until they were familiar with the tiny movements required to fly the BD-5. Advertised as 322 kph (200 mph), maximum cruise speed was as impressive as the handling, the result of not only a very clean and streamlined configuration, but also the small size and low weight, about 270 kg (600 lb). It was said that the little airplane behaved equally well at the opposite end of the performance spectrum but the statement that the BD-5 could slow down to soar like a motor glider was certainly a stretch unless really extraordinary weather conditions were encountered. Bede also claimed that the power plant sipped just 4 gallons per hour of fuel to give the airplane sufficient range to fly about 1,610 km (1,000 miles) at an altitude of 4,256 m (14,000 ft).

Great handling, high-speed performance, and economical operation, all beautifully packaged! The BD-5 seemed to have it all, yet to excel in all these areas, a very special engine had to propel the kit plane. Such an engine did not exist. Bede had envisioned adapting one of the many two-cycle, air-cooled engine designs commonly used to power snowmobiles. His first engine was a 40 horsepower unit manufactured by Kiekhaefer Aeromarine that proved unreliable. Next he tried an engine manufactured in Germany by Hirth in versions that developed from 40 to 70 horsepower. After Hirth announced that the firm could not supply enough power plants to meet projected kit sales, the most difficult problem for BD-5 kit owners remained the engine. Bede tried motors from Polaris, Zenoah, Kawasaki, and others but never found an alternative able to withstand the unique demands of aircraft propulsion.

Most builders found the kits difficult to build. They had to fabricate complex parts including the drive system that transmitted power from the engine to the propeller. One owner eventually spent 7 years and $20,000 to finish his airplane. To meet demand, Bede announced a full production version designated the BD-5D, which he would certify and sell for $4,400 but none was built. The factory manufactured about 3,000 kits; however, customers bought less than 1,000. By the late 1970s, Bede had run out of time to save the BD-5. Budd Davisson summed up the disappointing outcome: "Too much was said early in the game, promises were made, performance figures quoted and money taken. So, when things didn't go like clockwork, the BD buying public got a little bit ticked off."

Those who had bought kits began to sell them for far less than they had paid, if they could find buyers. Hoping to generate cash, Bede dabbled briefly with a sailplane version, and his jet-powered BD-5 became popular at air shows but the dream to mass market the little kit plane ended in 1979 when Bede declared bankruptcy.

Jim Bede's BD-5 remained a compelling design in the new millennium as hardy souls managed to keep about 150 flying in 2002, thanks largely to entrepreneurs who formed companies to supply knowledge, experience, and critical hardware. During the mid-1970s, Keith Hinshaw organized Bede-Micro Aviation in San Jose, California, and focused the business on supplying a solution to the engine problem, and supplying parts and assistance to builders. A former BD-5 owner, Hinshaw and his staff worked out a nifty solution to the propulsion problem when they successfully adapted a turbo-charged Honda automobile engine to the aircraft. Bede-Micro also designed and sold parts and plans to strengthen the wings and the top of the rudder, improved the landing gear and flaps, and stretched the fuselage 12 cm (5 in) to accommodate a greater variety of engines.

On 11 September 1984, Peter K. Graichen and Albert C. Beckwith of Stow, Ohio, donated their BD-5 to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Graichen had built begun to build the aircraft in 1972 and he finished six years and 5,000 working-hours later. To power the BD-5, he installed one of the Honda engines modified by Hinshaw's staff at Bede-Micro. The airplane was first flown on 21 October 1978 at Akron Municipal Airport. Pilots logged 9 hours of flying time before Graichen and Beckwith generously donated the airplane to the Museum in 1984.

How Climate Change Will Transform the National Parks’ Iconic Animals and Plants

Smithsonian Magazine

“There he goes! There he goes!”

Michael Magnuson lowers a battered pair of binoculars, pointing to a rocky debris field a short distance away from a visitor parking lot in Northern California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park. The National Park Service (NPS) wildlife biologist has just spotted his quarry: a small, round, rodent-like mammal that darts between boulders and tufts of red mountain heather while clutching a leafy branch between its jaws. This is a rare sight, explains Magnuson. The creature, an American pika, spends most of his time in the home he has made in the dark spaces between the boulders, a rocky sanctuary against the hot July sun.

When it comes to temperature, pikas—the real-life inspiration behind the popular Pokémon character Pikachu—are notoriously particular. When winter comes, they must take care to stay warm, burrowing in their cozy rock dwellings, which by then are buried beneath layers of insulating snow. In years when the snowpack is too thin, they risk freezing to death. But for now, with the summer heat in full effect, they leave their shady burrows only for the purpose of harvesting plant material to create “haystacks,” which they will munch on during the winter.

Having a cool shelter is crucial for pikas in the summer on account of their thick fur. “If they sit in the sun too long, they get too hot,” Magnuson explains. He points out a typical pika home that he has identified based on the mounds of scat surrounding the entrance. “They typically prefer the bigger rocks, because there’s more space underneath them,” he adds. “If you stick your hand under, it’s several degrees colder. It’s pretty cool—literally.”

It is the pika’s sensitivity to temperature, coupled with its intrinsic cuteness, that have made it the Park Service's poster critter for examining the potential effects of climate change on mountain ecosystems. In 2010, the NPS embarked on a 5-year study called “Pikas in Peril,” which aimed to quantify the vulnerability of park pika populations to climate change. Magnuson conducted annual pika surveys for the large-scale study, which became a pilot study for developing cutting-edge techniques that could be used to understand the climate change vulnerability of many other species. “What we learn here can be applied in other places without having to reinvent the wheel,” says Jason Mateljak, general natural resources manager at Lassen.

Knowing how to apply those lessons is becoming increasingly urgent. Today the NPS is confronting the most daunting challenge it has faced in its 100-year history: human-influenced climate change, which promises to transform not only these iconic landscapes but also the plants and animals who inhabit them. This looming threat to our nation’s parks recently attracted the attention of President Obama, who visited Yosemite National Park to speak about how climate change is damaging the parks. Without action, Obama warned, Yosemite and many other national parks could be dramatically different places 50 years hence. "Make no mistake," he said. "Climate change is no longer just a threat—it's already a reality."

The transformations many park lovers fear are already well underway. Several national parks in the U.S. have already experienced "extreme" climate change effects in recent decades, according to a 2014 assessment in the journal PLOS ONE. That assessment found that average temperatures at many parks “are overwhelmingly at the extreme warm end of historical temperature distributions,” and that rain and snow patterns have also warped over time. Some native park species are already in danger of going regionally extinct.

Michael Magnuson surveys the land for pikas in Northern California's Lassen Volcanic National Park, which is bracing itself for changes. (Ker Than)

Facing an era of unprecedented change, the NPS is now rethinking its entire approach to conservation. The agency, which has historically focused on preserving and restoring natural landscapes, is now embracing the idea that many of the parks and their inhabitants may be irrevocably altered. With numerous possible scenarios, park managers also face the challenge of uncertainty. “When we do a restoration project, should we be restoring for how it was or how it could be?” Mateljak says. “If the latter, what models and metrics can we use to help define that future condition?”

There was a time when the notion of letting prized native species die out seemed heretical. Now the agency is bracing for the possibility that some of the species under its care simply won’t make it. It is also openly discussing the possibility of “assisted migration”: manually relocating some animals and plants if it turns out they can’t survive within the park’s changing landscapes. These kinds of last-resort actions are controversial even amongst conservationists, but the NPS believes it is time to consider implementing them one day. “We don’t rule out managed relocation in the future,” says Patrick Gonzalez, the agency’s principle climate change scientist. “But there are a lot less costly and less risky things we can try first.”

The NPS is taking the threat of climate change seriously. Since 2010, in addition to the Pikas in Peril project, the park service has established a central task force devoted to climate change, increased environmental monitoring within its parks, and expanded efforts to communicate climate change impacts to the public. The agency is also incorporating scientific studies and assessments into its decisions in a deeper way than before, and embracing “scenario planning,” a tool for making long-term flexible plans and responding nimbly to future environmental changes that it borrowed from the military and business worlds.

"Among all of the federal land management agencies, they are probably paying the most attention to climate change," says Bruce Stein, the National Wildlife Federation's associate vice president of conservation science and climate adaptation.* "That isn't to say they're doing it uniformly well, but there are a lot of people within the park service who are really being thoughtful about this. … They're openly having those conversations and engaging in the kind of scientific investigations that are going to be essential for answering the tough questions."

Which is good, because those questions are only going to get tougher.

Lake Helen, still frosted with ice in July. The park is slated to grow hotter as climate change takes its toll. (Ker Than)

This isn’t the first time the NPS has faced an identity crisis. In the 1960s, following years of public criticism over the culling of Yellowstone’s ballooning elk population, then-U.S. Interior Secretary Stewart Udall directed a scientific committee to review the NPS’s wildlife management policies. The resulting Leopold Report—named after its primary author A. Starker Leopold, the son of noted ecologist Aldo Leopold—declared that "a national park should present a vignette of primitive America." The report recommended that the ecosystems within each park be maintained—or where necessary, recreated—to mirror as closely as possible the conditions that existed before the arrival of Europeans on the continent.

The Leopold Report set the tone for an era of restoration, in which the agency’s goal was to rewind the landscape to a time before humans had encroached upon it. By advocating that parks should be maintained in their natural states as much as possible, it paved the way for everything from “controlled burns” to the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone. But today, that nostalgic idea of a return to the past may no longer be possible, says NPS director Jonathon Jarvis. "The problem now is that that vision of maintaining a vignette of primitive America has been disturbed by human-driven climate change," Jarvis says. "Now there are winners and losers in the environment, and we have to decide which is which.”

Before becoming the parks director in 2009, Jarvis was the regional director of the NPS's Pacific West Region, which covers most of the western continental U.S. and Hawaii. In that role, he often heard stories from his superintendents about how climate change was impacting their parks. "That stayed with me,” Jarvis says, “and when I became the director, I said, okay, it's time to step up and really address this holistically.” One of his early actions was to appoint a committee of scientists to revisit the Leopold Report and examine whether its vision and principles for resource management were still relevant—or even feasible.

That committee's report, published in 2012 and aptly titled Revisiting Leopold: Resource Stewardship in the National Parks, helped the NPS reexamine its goals for managing the ecosystems entrusted to its care. Among its recommendations was that the NPS significantly expand the role of science within the agency, and move to protect habitats that might serve as climate sanctuaries, or "refugia," for threatened species.

Most of all, the new report urged the agency to prepare for “continuous change that is not yet fully understood.” During his time in office Jarvis has strived to do just that, setting up a Climate Change Response Program within the NPS to coordinate the agency’s strategy for responding climate change in different parks. That strategy is broadly organized into four pillars: using science to help parks understand and manage climate change, adapting to an uncertain future, mitigating or reducing the agency's own carbon footprint, and communicating the impacts of climate change to the public and parks employees.

Of these pillars, adaptation is by far the most complex—and the most controversial. The question of what adaptation means for the parks has forced the agency to grapple with some of the toughest questions it has ever faced, and is already "pushing our policy paradigm," according to Jarvis. “I don't think our mission has changed,” he adds. “But it is going to cause us to rethink some of our policies."

One more pika photo, for good measure. (Wayne Steffes)

Along a narrow band of the Golden State’s Sierra Nevada mountain range, ancient wooden skyscrapers extend toward the firmament. Giant sequoias, which can reach heights of 300 feet and live for thousands of years, are currently facing a two-pronged threat from declining snowpack and rising temperatures. Increased warming could decimate many of the big trees. “If temperatures keep rising and we get another drought that is even more severe than the one we saw in 2014, it’s possible you might see more sequoias dying,” says Nathan Stephenson, a forest ecologist with the United States Geological Survey.

Stephenson also fears the possibility of a disease outbreak. “You might wonder if there’s a native insect or pathogen out there that doesn’t really affect sequoias now, but could start knocking them off if the climate changes enough and the trees are stressed enough,” he says. There is precedent for this: In the early 2000s, vast groves of pinyon pine in the American Southwest were devastated by the pinyon ips beetle—a native insect that was simply an annoyance until the combination of warmer weathers, shorter winters and more stressed-out trees transformed it into a raging pestilence.

Faced with the possibility of losing one of its most iconic symbols, the park service must now consider what lengths it is willing to go to save the giant sequoias. One of its options is assisted migration, also known as managed relocation or climate translocation. Last year, NPS scientists used this technique to move bull trout in Montana's Glacier National Park. The researchers transferred trout from a lake where their numbers were dwindling—as a result of warming conditions and predation from another invasive trout species—to a higher-elevation lake that was cooler and free of predators.

A sequoia relocation project in California would be even more ambitious. "We managed the giant sequoia forests now in such a manner that they can reproduce, but do we know whether or not that particular niche will allow those trees to mature in the future?” Jarvis says. "Is there a place in the Southern Cascades, as opposed to the Sierras, that we should be thinking about planting giant sequoias so that they'll still be around a thousand years from now? That's the way we've got to be thinking. We are in the perpetuity business here, so that's the space that we're beginning to explore."

Christy Brigham, chief of resources management and science at Sequoia and Kings National Park, says the NPS's plans for assisted migration of giant sequoias are still purely speculative.* "I would say we are at least five to ten years away from having to decide whether we need to take that step," Brigham says. “So far, a warming climate hasn’t really been hurting the giant sequoias,” adds Stephenson.

Other species, however, may not be so fortunate. 

Karner blue butterflies may soon be regionally extinct at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. (Bookguy / iStock)

In 2012, the Karner blue butterfly population in Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore suffered a devastating loss. An unusually warm spring that year caused many Karner caterpillars to hatch before the wild lupine they feed upon could bloom. When the lupines eventually emerged, many of them perished in the hot, dry summer conditions. As a result, the Karners that hatched later also starved to death. "We panicked. Everyone panicked,” says Gia Wagner, Indiana Dunes’ acting chief of resource management, who monitors Karners at the park. “There was literally nothing anyone could do about it."

The last time anyone spotted a Karner at Indiana Dunes was in 2013. If field surveys fail to turn up traces of the insects this year, the NPS will deem the butterfly extirpated, or locally extinct. Karners “are not in a good position to adapt to the velocity of climate change,” says Gregor Schuurman, an ecologist with the agency’s climate change program. “They have a low ability to disperse … and their specialized habitat has been further hemmed in by human habitat destruction.”

The Karner case brings up uncomfortable questions. These butterflies are locally beloved, but they’re no giant sequoias. Plus, they’re only one of hundreds of species facing similar threats. In an era when species triage may be necessary, how do you decide which plants and animals are worth saving? For now, the NPS concedes that some species within its parks won't be able to adapt to climate change and will be lost, but says it is not prepared to decide which species to let go of just yet. "That's a very tough question, and one that we're wrestling with," Jarvis says. "I can't say that I have the answer to that."

Species triage is not an issue that can be decided solely with science. There are moral and cultural considerations, which have complicated efforts of the "Climate-Smart Conservation" working group that the NWF's Stein co-chairs to help NPS and other agencies better incorporate climate considerations into their work. "We did not try and get into that sort of ethical guidance because that really depends on an agency or institution's core values," Stein says. "We did not say, 'Here's the point at which you give up on something.' What we did say is that there's going to be a need to have those hard conversations and to review what our conservation goals are or should be."

Right now the park service is focused on ensuring that as many of its species as possible survive. Sometimes, that means letting a species die out within park boundaries and ensuring that it at least lives beyond park borders. The agency is partnering with sister agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and even private landowners to help ensure that plants and animals forced out of national parks due to climate change can find asylum in neighboring landscapes. “We haven't given up on trying to conserve species in national parks, but there is an increasing recognition that it might not be possible under the most serious climate change projections to save every one," Gonzalez says. "If a species can exist elsewhere in the landscape, that's still a good thing."

The Karners—which were christened in the 1940s by novelist and lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov—may still get a happy ending. While they aren’t found in any other national parks, the butterflies are present in other protected lands, including in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Ohio. Wagner says discussions about reintroducing Karners back into Indiana Dunes have already begun between the NPS and other agencies. 

Magnuson and Jason Mateljak (right), general natural resources manager at Lassen, stand by a pika burrow they have identified by traces of scat. (Ker Than)

Lassen's beloved pikas are also expected to survive under projected climate scenarios, thanks to the population's healthy genetic diversity and tendency to cluster in low-elevation patches that will be less affected by warming. In Lassen, the biggest projected impact of climate change is on the park’s snow patterns—when it snows, how much it snows, how much water is in the snow and how long the snow lingers. “Snow has the ability to insulate itself, and the slow release of water is a key process for the park,” Mateljek says. “And because we’re the headwater for four drainages, what’s happening up here influences what’s happening in the lowland areas, even as far away as Sacramento.” 

Not all of their relatives will be so fortunate. In Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, researchers predict the species will be extirpated by 2100. The irregular prognosis for pikas presents park managers with a dilemma: Should places like Lassen serve as refugia for pikas from other parks? “Transplanting pikas would be very expensive,” Mateljek says. “And would it even work? Also, do we want to use our limited resources to preserve this one species when perhaps what we should be doing is monitoring and evaluating other species?”

Another drastic option is to transplant pikas into parks where the animals once existed but are not currently found. “Great Basin National Park is a place that looks like it could support pikas,” says Tom Rodhouse, an NPS ecologist who headed the Pikas in Peril project. “But if we do that, it’s controversial. These are really interesting conversations, and I think the park service is going to have many more like them in the coming decades.” 

Questions of species conservation are complex, and thus there are no easy answers. Irrevocable changes are already sweeping across the parks, and freezing them in time to echo a bygone era is no longer possible, if it ever was. For now, even though the Pikas in Peril Project has ended, Magnuson continues to survey Lassen’s pikas yearly. He visits about 100 sites every fall, scanning the landscape for signs of little haystacks. “I’m just making it a priority to keep the project going,” he says.

NPS director Jarvis says that if the parks are to survive another century, there is no question they will have to change. He gives the example of the iconic Joshua Tree National Park in California. “We may not be able to maintain Joshua trees in Joshua Tree National Park, but that doesn't mean that Joshua Tree National Park is somehow devalued,” he says. “It will just become home to something new.” 

Editor's Note, August 9, 2016: This article initially used outdated titles for Bruce Stein and Christy Brigham.

To Develop Tomorrow’s Engineers, Start Before They Can Tie Their Shoes

Smithsonian Magazine


A first-grader in Waterloo, Iowa writes about the steps she took to build her Ramps and Pathways project, a task that transforms her into an engineer. Photo by Beth Van Meeteren

Think “student engineers,” and you probably have visions of high school or college students. But peek into in a small but growing number of classrooms around the country, and you’ll see engineering being taught in preschool and elementary school using a method called Ramps and Pathways.

In Ramps and Pathways classrooms, children explore the properties and possibilities inherent in a few simple materials: blocks, marbles, and strips of wooden cove molding, a long, thin construction material used to finish cabinets and trim ceilings. Teachers push desks and chairs out of the way to allow room for the sometimes-sprawling roller coasters that emerge. By building and adjusting inclines propped by blocks, children experiment with marbles moving along various paths. Their job is to test and retest different angles, figuring out new ways to take their marbles on a wild ride.

“We always see little sparks” of insights among the students, says Rosemary Geiken, an education professor at East Tennessee State University who assists elementary school teachers who have never used this teaching method before. One time, she says, she watched a little girl with three boys having trouble getting a marble to land in a bucket. The girl whispered to the boys. Soon they were all propping up the ramp differently and the marble dropped right in. “Now you know I’m a scientist,” the girl said to Geiken.

Ramps and Pathways started in Waterloo, Iowa in the late 1990s. Teachers for the Freeburg Early Childhood Program at the University of Northern Iowa, a lab school for preschool to second grade, wanted to see what kind of investigations children might pursue on their own. They provided kids with one-, two-, three- and four-foot lengths of cove molding and unit blocks.

Beth van Meeteren, then a first-grade teacher at Freeburg, captured video of these moments by placing cameras in the classrooms and starting documenting how they learned. She was struck by how the project held the students’ attention and led them to push themselves to create more challenging structures.

Once, for example, van Meeteren saw a first-grade student build a structure over the course of several days consisting of 13 three-foot ramps in a labyrinth-like ramp that spiraled down to the floor. The marble traveled 39 feet on a structure that took up only nine square feet of floor space. This was entirely the child’s idea, she says.


A pair of first-graders from Iowa work together to build a zig-zagging series of pathways that will carry a marble from top to bottom. Photo by Beth Van Meeteren

Today, Ramps and Pathways is used in elementary school classrooms in 18 schools throughout four counties of Tennessee where teachers are receiving coaching on how to use the program to teach engineering and science. The program is paid for with money from a Race to the Top grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

Other elementary school sites are in Iowa, Maryland and Virginia, in both in-class instruction and after-school clubs.

But Van Meeteren, who is now a professor at the University of Northern Iowa and wrote her dissertation on the subject, says the method is mostly taking root in preschool classrooms where teaching is more multidisciplinary and where children are not expected to always be sitting in seats.

At the elementary school level, hands-on science and engineering bumps up against the desire among educators and policymakers to ensure that children reach third-grade with proficient reading skills. Principals want to see evidence of children learning letters and numbers.

To help the program expand into the elementary grades, van Meeteren, Geiken and other science educators are intent on showing that these activities can, in fact, promote math and reading too. Watch videos of these projects and signs emerge of children learning counting and sorting skills as they grapple with how to adapt their constructions. Van Meeteren says she has been encouraging teachers to integrate science into reading by asking children to write about their contraptions and the problems they solved to make them work. She and Betty Zan, director of the Regents’ Center for Early Developmental Education at the University of Northern Iowa, are seeking an Investing in Innovation grant from the U.S. Department of Education to show how science lessons, such as the approaches used in Ramps and Pathways, could be integrated into the 90-minute reading time periods prevalent in elementary schools.

The projects spur children to think like engineers, discovering connections between actions and reactions and adjusting their plans accordingly.

One child, for example, was so intent on making his ramp work that he spent more than seven minutes quietly contemplating options and making adjustments, until he finally got the marble to roll through four different ramps at four different angles.

“I’d love to get this into more classrooms,” van Meeteren says. “It seems that only gifted classrooms are allowed this quality instruction. All children benefit.”

Video Bonus: To see video clips of children working on Ramps and Pathways projects, scroll down to the middle pages of this article from the journal of Early Childhood Research and Practice.

Lisa Guernsey is the director of the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation and the author of Screen Time: How Electronic Media — From Baby Videos to Educational Software — Affects Your Young Child.

Verville-Sperry M-1 Messenger

National Air and Space Museum
Top Speed: 155.6 km/h (96.7 mph)

Engine: Lawrance L-3, 60 horsepower

Armament: None

Manufacturer: Lawrence Sperry Aircraft Company, Farmingdale, Long Island,

New York, 1920

After the Great War, Air Service Brig. Gen. William "Billy" Mitchell requested the Engineering Division at McCook Field design an aerial dispatch vehicle able to serve as a liaison between battlefield units. Civilian Alfred V. Verville completed the design in early 1920 and the Lawrence Sperry Aircraft Company received the manufacturing contract. Sperry produced approximately 50 Messengers and the civilian two-seat version, the Sport Plane, between 1920 and 1926.

The Messenger's small size, simple construction, and inexpensive cost made it ideal for testing and experimentation. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics used one in its pioneering aerodynamic research programs from 1923 to 1929. Sperry modified twelve into the radio-controlled Messenger Aerial Torpedo and developed the apparatus for a Messenger to make the first successful airship hook on and release in December 1924. This is the last remaining Messenger. It was originally a Sport Plane and was converted to represent the Messenger used in the army's 1924 airship tests.

The Messenger is the smallest manned aircraft ever used by the United States Army. Designed to be the aerial equivalent of an army dispatch motorcycle, the Messenger was to land in small clearings as well as in forward areas to deliver and pick up messages from field commanders. Other duties included aerial spotting and artillery fire control. The Messenger was rugged, structurally simple, and cost only $4,000 per airplane (or $44,000 in 2006 dollars).

In 1919 Brigadier General William Mitchell requested the Army Air Service's Engineering Division, based at McCook Field, Dayton, Ohio, to design a small, light-weight "motorcycle of the air" that could serve as a liaison between field units. The Engineering Division retained its own aircraft designers, both military and civilian, through the mid-1920s and contracted private manufacturers to produce the aircraft. Alfred V. Verville, a civilian known for his innovative work with the army's air racers, completed the Messenger design in early 1920. The Lawrence Sperry Aircraft Company of Farmingdale, Long Island, New York, received its initial contract to build five Messengers on April 14. The first Messenger flight was on November 1. Sperry continued on to manufacture approximately 50 military and civilian Messenger aircraft until 1926.

The Army Air Service simply called the new aircraft the Messenger Airplane in its original specification. Reporters present at the first flight in late 1920 called it the Sperry Messenger, which is the most popular name for the aircraft. Following common practice, the Air Service combined the name of the designer with the manufacturer, which resulted in Verville-Sperry Messenger. Shortly after the first flight, the Air Service added the M-1 designation that indicated the little airplane was the first model of the Messenger type class of aircraft. An improved M-1A Messenger would follow that featured an improved structural design and larger fuel tanks.

The small size, simple construction, and inexpensive cost of the Messenger facilitated experimentation by the Army Air Service. Sperry Aircraft modified Messengers to jettison their landing gear so they could land on dual skids and replaced their wheels with skis for takeoffs and landings on snow. Sperry built approximately twelve Messengers as radio-controlled flying bombs, which the Army Air Service designated the MAT (for Messenger Aerial Torpedo).

In 1924 a Sperry-modified Messenger was the first aircraft to successfully hook-on and release from another aircraft in flight. On December 15 Lt Clyde Finter hooked on to a trapeze attached to non-rigid airship TC-3 at Scott Field, Illinois, the army's lighter-than-air center. He remained attached briefly while the airship made a turn, unhooked, and then came in for a landing. While successful, the Army did not pursue the concept further. The United States Navy employed a similar system on the rigid airships Akron and Macon with Curtiss F9C-2 Sparrowhawks (see NASM artifact) in the early 1930s.

Messenger aircraft also figured prominently in the growth of aeronautical research and development in the 1920s. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), at the request of the army, used a Messenger to flight test different wings representing the six airfoils most commonly used in the United States and Europe and compared the results with tests made in its variable-density wind tunnel with a 1/10th scale Messenger model. The results revealed the importance of drag reduction to aircraft design. The Messenger was an ideal size for testing in the NACA's new propeller research tunnel in 1925, which pioneered the transition to full-scale aircraft wind tunnel testing by the NACA in the 1930s.

Sperry Aircraft marketed a modified two-seat Messenger as a private aircraft officially called the Sperry Sport Plane. Like the military version, the aeronautical community simply called it the Sperry Messenger. Lawrence Sperry gained attention when he landed his personal Messenger in front of the Capitol building and bounced up the front steps in Washington D.C. He also successfully landed his little Messenger at the Lincoln Memorial. Unfortunately, Sperry crashed a Messenger in the English Channel and drowned on December 13, 1923.

The Messenger is an example of the government/industry relationship in American aircraft design and manufacturing in the 1920s. It was a small, simple, and inexpensive aircraft that facilitated experimentation, primarily its being the first to hook-on and unhook from another aircraft in flight, and its inclusion in pioneering aerodynamic research. The Messenger was one of the first aircraft designed solely for battlefield liaison.

NASM's Messenger was originally a Sperry Sport Plane. Charles Lawrance, the originator of the radial engine in the United States and designer of the L-3 engine, was an early owner. It was donated by World War I American ace and Eastern Airlines President Edward V. Rickenbacker in September 1957. The Smithsonian initiated the Sport Plane's conversion to the single-seat M-1 configuration in the early 1960s, which included the fitment of a skyhook and the colors and markings of the Messenger used to make the first successful airship hook on and release in the air (Sperry Aircraft #22, air service serial number A.S. 68533; McCook Field Number P-306). The United States Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB, Dayton OH finished the aircraft after it went on loan there during the summer of 1968.

Chemical Weapons Dumped in the Ocean After World War II Could Threaten Waters Worldwide

Smithsonian Magazine

Just before 10:10 on a warm summer night in 1917, German soldiers loaded a new type of armament into their artillery and began bombarding enemy lines near Ypres in Belgium. The shells, each emblazoned with a bright yellow cross, made a strange sound as their contents partly vaporized and showered an oily liquid over the Allied trenches.

The fluid smelled like mustard plants, and at first it seemed to have little effect. But it soaked through the soldiers’ uniforms, and eventually it began burning the men’s skin and inflaming their eyes. Within an hour or so, blinded soldiers had to be led off the field toward the casualty clearing stations. Lying in cots, the injured men groaned as blisters formed on their genitals and under their arms; some could barely breathe.

The mysterious shells contained sulfur mustard, a liquid chemical-warfare agent commonly—and confusingly—known as mustard gas. The German attack at Ypres was the first to deploy sulfur mustard, but it was certainly not the last: Nearly 90,000 soldiers in all were killed in sulfur mustard attacks during the First World War. And although the Geneva Convention banned chemical weapons in 1925, armies continued manufacturing sulfur mustard and other similar armaments throughout the Second World War.

When peace finally arrived in 1945, the world’s military forces had a major problem on their hands: Scientists did not know how to destroy the massive arsenals of chemical weapons. In the end, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States largely opted for what seemed the safest and cheapest method of disposal at the time: Dumping chemical weapons directly into the ocean. Troops loaded entire ships with metric tons of chemical munitions—sometimes encased in bombs or artillery shells, sometimes poured into barrels or other containers. Then they shoved the containers overboard or scuttled the vessels at sea, leaving spotty or inaccurate records of the locations and amounts dumped.

Experts estimate that 1million metric tons of chemical weapons lie on the ocean floor—from Italy’s Bari harbor, where 230 sulfur mustard exposure cases have been reported since 1946, to the U.S.'s East Coast, where sulfur mustard bombs have shown up three times in the past 12 years in Delaware, likely brought in with loads of shellfish. “It’s a global problem. It’s not regional, and it’s not isolated,” says Terrance Long, chair of the International Dialogue on Underwater Munitions (IDUM), a Dutch foundation based in the Hague, Netherlands.

Today, scientists are looking for signs of environmental damage, as the bombs rust away on the seafloor and potentially leak their deadly payloads. And as the world’s fishing vessels trawl for deep-diving cod and corporations drill for oil and gas beneath the ocean floor and install wind turbines on the surface, the scientific quest to locate and deal with these chemical weapons has become a race against the clock.

1914-1918 WWI: Extensive bandages on wounded Canadian soldiers indicate they suffered mustard gas from German offensive. (Shawshots / Alamy)

On a rainy day in April, I hop a tram to the outskirts of Warsaw to meet Stanislaw Popiel, an analytical chemist at Poland’s Military University of Technology. An expert on the world’s submerged chemical weapons, the graying researcher takes more than an academic interest in sulfur mustard: He has seen the dangers of this century-old weapon close up.

I had hoped to visit Popiel in his Warsaw lab, but when I contacted him a day earlier by phone, he apologetically explained that it would take weeks to get the permissions necessary to visit his lab in a secure military complex. Instead, we meet in the lobby of a nearby officers’ club. The chemist, wearing a rumpled gray blazer, is easy to spot among the officers milling around in starched, drab green dress uniforms.

Leading me upstairs to an empty conference room, Popiel takes a seat and opens his laptop. As we chat, the soft-spoken researcher explains that he started working on Second World War sulfur mustard after a major incident nearly 20 years ago. In January 1997, a 95-metric-ton fishing vessel named WLA 206 was trawling off the Polish coast, when the crew found an odd object in their nets. It was a five- to seven-kilogram chunk of what looked like yellowish clay. The crew pulled it out, handled it, and set it aside as they processed their catch. When they returned to port, they tossed it in a dockside trash can.

The next day, crew members began experiencing agonizing symptoms. All sustained serious burns and four men were eventually hospitalized with red, burning skin and blisters. The doctors alerted the authorities, and investigators took samples from the contaminated boat to identify the substance and then traced the lump to the city dump. They shut down the area until military experts could chemically neutralize the object—a chunk of Second World War sulfur mustard, frozen solid by the low temperatures on the seafloor and preserved by the below-zero winter temperatures onshore.

Scientists at the Polish Academy of Sciences's Institute of Oceanography use a remotely-operated submersible to take samples of water and sediment around chemical munitions at the bottom of the Baltic. (Courtesy of Polish Academy of Sciences, Institute of Oceanography)

A sample made its way to Popiel’s lab, and he began studying it to better understand the threat. Sulfur mustard’s properties, Popiel says, make it a fiendishly effective weapon. It’s a hydrophobic liquid, which means it’s hard to dissolve or wash off with water. At the same time, it’s lipophilic, or easily absorbed by the body’s fats. Symptoms can take hours or, in rare instances, days to appear, so victims may be contaminated and not even realize they have been affected; the full extent of the chemical burn might not be clear for 24 hours or more.

A chemist in Popiel’s lab discovered firsthand how painful such a burn could be, after a fume hood pulled vapors from a test tube full of the stuff up over his unprotected hand. The gas burned part of his index finger, and it took two months to heal—even with state-of-the-art medical care. The pain was so severe that the chemist sometimes couldn’t sleep more than a few hours at a time during the first month.

Popiel explains that the more he read about sulfur mustard after the WLA 206 incident, the more he began to question why it had survived so long on the ocean floor. At room temperature in the lab, sulfur mustard is a thick, syrupy liquid. But under controlled lab conditions, pure sulfur mustard breaks down into slightly less toxic compounds like hydrochloric acid and thiodiglycol. Bomb makers reported that sulfur mustard evaporated from the soil within a day or two during warm summer conditions.

But it seemed to remain strangely stable underwater, even after the metal casing of the bombs corroded. Why? To gather clues, Popiel and a small group of colleagues began testing the WLA 206 sample to identify as many of its chemical constituents as they could. The findings were very revealing. Military scientists had weaponized some stocks of sulfur mustard by adding arsenic oil and other chemicals. The additives made it stickier, more stable, and less likely to freeze on the battlefield. In addition, the team identified more than 50 different “degradation products” that formed when the chemical weapon agent interacted with seawater, sediments and metal from the bomb casings.

All this led to something that no one had predicted. On the seafloor, sulfur mustard coagulated into lumps and was shielded by a waterproof layer of chemical byproducts. These byproducts “form a type of skin,” says Popiel, and in deep water, where temperatures are low and where there are few strong currents to help break down the degradation products, this membrane can remain intact for decades or longer. Such preservation in the deep sea had one possible upside: The coating could keep weaponized sulfur mustard stable, preventing it from contaminating the environment all at once.

Some of the world’s militaries did dump their chemical weapons in deep water. After 1945, the U.S. military required that dump sites be at least 1,800 meters below the surface. But not all governments followed suit: The Soviet military, for example, unloaded an estimated 15,000 tonnes of chemical weapons in the Baltic Sea, where the deepest spot is just 459 meters down and the seafloor is less than 150 meters deep in most places—a recipe for disaster.

(Nearly a century has passed since the first use of sulfur mustard as a chemical weapon in the First World War, but these munitions remain a threat. This interactive map, created with data supplied by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California, shows known locations where chemical weapons were dumped in the world’s oceans. Click on the map icons to view details about the sites; click on the slider icon on the top left to organize the content differently.)

On the day I arrive in the Polish resort town of Sopot, I take a short stroll along the seaside. Looking around, I find it hard to imagine that metric tons of rusting bombs packed with toxic chemicals lie less than 60 kilometers offshore. Restaurants on the town’s main drag proudly advertise fish and chips made with Baltic-caught cod on their menus. In the summer, tourists jam the white-sand beaches to splash in the Baltic’s gentle waves. Venders hawk jewelry made from amber that has washed ashore on local beaches.

I had taken the train from Warsaw to meet Jacek Beldowski, a geochemist at the Polish Academy of Science’s Institute of Oceanography in Sopot. From his cramped office on the second floor of this research center, Beldowski coordinates a team of several dozen scientists from around the Baltic and beyond, all working to figure out what tens of thousands of metric tons of chemical weapons might mean for the sea—and the people who depend on it.

Beldowski has a long ponytail and an earnest, if slightly distracted, manner. When I ask him if there’s anything to worry about, he sighs. With 4.7-million euro (U.S. $5.2-million) in funding, the project Beldowksi now leads is one of the most comprehensive attempts yet to evaluate the threat of underwater chemical munitions, and he’s spent the past seven years refereeing fractious scientists and activists from around the Baltic and beyond who argue over this very question.

On one side, he says, are environmental scientists who dismiss the risk altogether, saying that there’s no evidence the weapons are affecting fish populations in a meaningful way. On the other are advocates concerned that tens of thousands of uncharted bombs are on the verge of rusting out simultaneously. “We have the ‘time bomb and catastrophe’ approach versus the ‘unicorns and rainbows’ approach,” Beldowski says. “It’s really interesting at project meetings when you have the two sides fighting.”

To try to answer this big question, Beldowski’s collaborators first had to locate dump sites on the seafloor. They knew from archival research and other information that post-war dumping was concentrated in the Baltic’s three deepest spots—the Gotland Deep, Bornholm Deep, and Gdansk Deep. Beldowski calls up an image on his computer, created with side-scan sonar technology a few weeks earlier during a cruise on the institute’s three-masted research vessel. In shades of orange and black, the high-resolution image shows a two-square-kilometer patch of the Bornholm Deep, 200 kilometers from Sopot. Scattered across the image are nine anomalies that Beldowski identifies as individual bombs.

Running his cursor over the image, Beldowski points out long, parallel scratches on the seafloor. They’re telltale traces of bottom-dragging nets, evidence that trawlers have been fishing for cod in a known dump site although nautical charts warn them to stay away. “It’s not good to see so many trawl marks in an area where trawling is not advised,” Beldowski says. Worse still, many of the lines are near known bombs, so it’s very likely, he adds, that the trawlers uncovered them.

 Once the researchers locate either bombs or scuttled ships with sonar, they maneuver a remotely operated submersible fitted with a camera and sampling gear to within 50 centimeters of the decaying bombs to collect seawater and sediment. Beldowski calls up a short video on his computer, taken from the remotely operated vehicle a few weeks earlier. It shows a ghostly black-and-white image of a wrecked tanker, resting about 100 meters below the surface.

Records suggested it was filled with conventional weapons when it was scuttled, but Beldowski says sediment samples taken from the ocean floor near the ship yielded traces of chemical agents. “We think it had a mixed cargo,” he says. In a lab down the hall from Beldowski’s office, samples from the ship are being analyzed using several different types of mass spectrometers. One of these machines is the size of a small refrigerator. It heats samples to 8,000 °C, cracking them into their most basic elements. It can pinpoint the presence of chemicals in parts per trillion.

Earlier research projects on Baltic water quality looked for traces of laboratory-grade sulfur mustard as well as one of the degradation products, thiodiglycol, and found next to nothing. “The conclusion was that there was no danger,” says Beldowski. “But that seemed strange—so many tonnes of chemicals and no trace?”

So Beldowski and his colleagues looked for something very different, based on Popiel’s research. They searched for the complex chemical cocktail that military scientists used to weaponize some stocks of sulfur mustard, as well as the new degradation products created by the munitions’ reaction with seawater. The team found sulfur mustard byproducts in the seafloor sediment and often in the water around dumped bombs and containers.

 “In half of the samples,” says Beldowski, shaking his head, “we detected some degradation agents.” It wasn’t all sulfur mustard, either: In some samples, the degradation products came from other types of dumped chemical weapons, like nerve gas and lewisite.

This side-scan sonar image of the Baltic seafloor reveals what could be a scuttled ship full of chemical weapons, and trawl marks from fishing vessels crisscrossing the seafloor nearby. (Courtesy of Polish Academy of Sciences, Institute of Oceanography)

Learning to detect these toxic substances is just part of the problem: Assessing the threat these chemicals pose to marine ecosystems and to humans is a more troubling issue. Although researchers have long gathered data on the dangers of toxins such as arsenic, the perils posed by weaponized sulfur mustard and its degradation products are unknown. “These compounds are weapons, so it’s not something you just give a grad student and tell them to run it,” says Hans Sanderson, an environmental chemist and toxicologist based at the Aarhus University in Denmark.

Sanderson thinks it would be irresponsible to hit the panic button until more is known about these munitions on the seafloor and their effects. “There are still lots of questions about the environmental impact,” the Danish researcher says. “It’s difficult to do risk assessment if you don’t know the toxicity, and these are unknown chemicals that nobody’s ever encountered or tested.”

Some scientists think that preliminary data on the effects of these chemicals on ecosystems might come from long-term studies of cod stocks. Cod is a commercially important species in the Baltic, so researchers from around the region have detailed records on these stocks and their health going back more than 30 years. And since cod are deep divers, they are more likely than many other Baltic fish to come in contact with sediment at the bottom of the sea—and with chemical munitions.

Thomas Lang, a fisheries ecologist at Germany’s Thünen Institute, is studying possible impacts of this contact. If cod caught near dump sites are more diseased than those pulled up from areas deemed “clean,” it could be a hint that the chemicals are harming the fish. “We use diseases as indicators of environmental stress,” Lang says. “Where fish have a higher disease load, we think the environmental stress is higher.”

Over the past five years, Lang has examined thousands of cod, looking at health indicators such as the mathematical relationship between their weight and length, and examining the fish for signs of illness and parasites. At the beginning of these studies, the cod caught from a major chemical weapons dump site seemed to have more parasites and diseases and were in poorer condition than those caught outside the dump area—a bad sign.

The latest data, however, paints a different picture. After 10 separate research cruises and 20,000 cod physicals, Lang’s study shows only tiny differences between fish caught in known dumping grounds and those taken from sites elsewhere in the Baltic. But Lang says that situation could change, if leaks of toxic substances increase due to corroding munitions. “Further monitoring of ecological effects is required,” he adds.

A small number of studies conducted elsewhere also raise doubts about the polluting effects of submerged chemical weapons. The Hawai'i Undersea Military Munitions Assessment (HUMMA), a project paid for by the US Department of Defense and run primarily by researchers from the University of Hawai'i at Manoa, is a case in point. Its scientists have been investigating a site near Pearl Harbor, where 16,000 sulfur mustard bombs were dumped in 1944.

Water samples taken by the HUMMA team confirmed the presence of sulfur mustard byproducts at the site, but time-lapse video shows that many marine species now use the bombs as an artificial reef. Sea stars and other organisms have shifted onto the piles of munitions, seemingly unaffected by the leaking chemicals. At this site, sulfur mustard “does not pose a risk to human health or to fauna living in direct contact with chemical munitions,” the researchers reported.

What is certain, however, is that the chemical weapons lying on the seafloor pose a serious threat to humans who come in direct contact with them. And as the world focuses more on the oceans as a source of energy and food, the danger presented by underwater munitions to unsuspecting workers and fishing crews is growing. “When you invest more in the offshore economy, each day the risk of finding chemical munitions increases,” Beldowski says.

Indeed, some major industrial projects in the Baltic, such as the Nord Stream gas pipeline from Germany to Russia, are now planning their routes in order to avoid disturbing chemical weapon dumps. And trawler activity on the ocean floor continues to uncover chemical munitions. In 2016 alone, Danish authorities have responded to four contaminated boats.

Yet there are some options for cleaning up the mess. Terrance Long, at the IDUM, says encasing the corroding munitions in situ in concrete is one possible option. But it would be expensive and time-consuming. Beldowski says it might just be easier for now to place fishing bans and stepped-up monitoring around known dump sites—the nautical equivalent of “Do Not Enter” signs.

As I pack away my notebook and get ready to head back to the train station in Sopot, Beldowski still looks worried. He thinks that scientists need to remain vigilant and gather more data on what is happening in the seas around those dump sites. It took decades, he says, for scientists across many disciplines to understand how common chemicals such as arsenic and mercury build up in the world’s seas and soils, and poison both wildlife and people. The world’s seas are vast, and the data set on chemical weapons—so far—is tiny.

“Global collaboration made the study of other contaminants meaningful,” Beldowski says. “With chemical munitions, we’re in the same place marine pollution science was in the 1950s. We can’t see all the implications or follow all the paths yet.”

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Step Inside Cuba's Oldest Printmaking Studio

Smithsonian Magazine

I am standing in the back of the Taller Experimental de Gráfica, Cuba’s premier printmaking studio, showing artist Max Delgado Corteguera my cracked phone. He jokes with me: How do I get one like that? I tell him I’d be happy to barter a lesson in my specialty, the shattering of iPhones, for his, traditional Cuban lithography. He demurs.

I pull up the photo I’m looking for, a snapshot from a few months back of the logo for the bank my family once owned in Cuba, Banco Garrigo. It’s in my archive as part of an ill-fated plan hatched with my cousin to get the logo’s elements tattooed on our sides: A palm tree, two gears working together, and some kind of tool we couldn’t identify, shaped vaguely like a check mark.

Max knows the tool immediately: an arado, he says. A plow. For campesinos (farmers) to dig lines in the soil. The bank must have been agricultural?

“I think so,” I say. “I think it was small.” The truth is, I don’t really know the specifics, as with most of my family’s past in Cuba. I have always liked it that way—a little mysterious and vague. My grandparents fled the island on an airplane shortly after the revolution. They landed in Miami and left it behind forever. I grew up in the shadow of that trauma, tiptoeing around it.

In 2015, to my grandmother’s dismay, I flew to Havana to watch the U.S. Embassy reopen, and to look for remaining family. It was intense and difficult. The island was hot and I was alone. But it also seemed like the only thing I’d ever felt compelled to do without knowing why. That made it important somehow.

I came back to Havana this summer with an assignment to make a print at the Taller and write about the experience. Beyond that, I also wanted a reason to look up more addresses and dig through more records and cold-call more Cubans with my mother’s strange last name, Argilagos. Then there was the matter of the family’s bank crest: I often felt unsure of my claim to my family’s Cuban past. Printing the image would help me make it my own.


Max gives me a quick primer before we get started: Lithography arrived in Cuba before anywhere else in the Americas, as a way to protect the sanctity and integrity of the country’s industry. By the early 19th century, Cuban exports, especially tobacco, had a prestige that made them valuable throughout the world. Exporters wanted a way to protect Cuban industry from counterfeiters. Using lithography, they could make seals and rings that both decorated their products and distinguished them from those of competitors.

The process depends more than anything on the repellent properties of oil and water, and their interaction with limestone. By using acids, powders, solvents, oils, and gum in specific combinations, lithographers manipulate the places a stone receives ink. In this way, they can use a stone to print precise and intricate images onto paper.

Cuba imported thousands of lithographic limestones from Germany in the 1800s, when the technology was first emerging. Cuban businessmen brought machines from France and Germany and lured experts to Havana who knew how to use them. Many of the original machines still work. The Taller’s oldest is an intricate, red woodcutting machine from 1829, still used by artists every day.

In the 1950s, shortly before the revolution, aluminum replaced lithography as the best way to protect product identity, and the stones fell into disuse. Campesinos started to use them to make walking paths through muddy fields. Habaneros, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, laid them around the city along with whatever other stones they could find to serve as barricades.

Cuban lithography would have died then but for a few artists who recognized the value of the craft. They lobbied the government to protect the stones, and in 1962, as minister of industry, Che Guevara signed a mandate to provide materials, space, and machines to Cuban lithographers in the name of art. The Taller was born from that directive, and it remains the oldest and best known print studio in Cuba. It’s been producing work consistently since then.

The Taller offers classes in woodcutting, lithography, and etching for $100 to $500, depending on the length of the course, the techniques used, and the number of editions made. (Arien Chang Castán)


The Taller is on the Callejón del Chorro in Habana Vieja, the tourist mecca at the center of the city. In the cathedral plaza nearby, women dress in Santería whites and smoke cigars, waiting for tourists to take their photos. Doña Eutemia, one of Cuba’s first paladares (private restaurants), is right next door. The studio itself is calm and airy. At the front there’s a gallery where pieces made in the workshop go for 10 or 20 times the average monthly Cuban salary.

Tourists mill freely between the gallery and the workshop, which offers classes in woodcutting, lithography, and etching for between $100 and $500, depending on the length of the course, the techniques used, and the number of editions made. I paid $300 to make six two-color prints over two eight-hour days. A sign hangs from the rafters commemorating a March 2016 visit by Michelle, Malia, and Sasha Obama, with a signed note commending the Taller for preserving the beauty of Cuban artistry.

The artists working in the Taller are carefully selected and often have well-recognized portfolios or have earned major prizes. A committee overseeing the studio considers new members only every four or five years. The space itself is dynamic and convivial. One woodcut artist lays out a book he’s had made for his daughter’s quinceañera—festivities celebrating a girl’s 15th birthday. It’s a cardboard holographic photo collection of her in various costumes: a police officer against a New York skyline, a Southern belle amid the vines, several permutations of prom queen. These books are all the rage among teens in Havana, he says, shaking his head. The guy who makes them charges hundreds of dollars. He prints them in Miami. Now the artist is using the book as the basis for a woodcut.


I wheel my enormous limestone to the huge sink in the workshop’s corner with Ian Marcos Gutiérrez, a 23-year-old printer who’s been assisting established artists in the studio for several years. We scrub the stone down to rid it of fantasmas—the ghosts of previous artwork. Sometimes they linger in the stone even though you don’t see them, interfering with subsequent prints.

“I do this every day, but I don’t get bored,” Ian says as he mixes abrasive carborundio dust with water, sprinkles it on the stone, and shows me how to move one stone over another to smooth and flatten its surface. In Cuba you use what you have, and substitute if something’s missing. The carborundio we’re using to grind the stone down is hard to find. The Taller traded some goma arábiga (gum arabic) for this batch with a printer in Camagüey. If we didn’t have it, we’d find a substitute, and the work would emerge slightly different.

“Lithography is always a fight,” Ian says. “You want to do something, and the stone wants to do something different. It’s a push and pull.” I rinse the stone off and he smooths his hand over it. Feels fine. So far, so good. But when I read back from my notes the steps we’ve taken, Ian rolls his eyes. I’ve skipped things and mixed up carbon and carborundio.

We wheel the stone to the lithography machine, and Max brings over a laser-printed copy of the bank logo—the Taller is not opposed to mixing new techniques with old ones. Ian wipes the stone with powders and solvents, making sure it’s wet so that its pores are open to receive ink. Max lays the logo facedown, covers it with a solvent, and runs the machine over it once. He lifts up the paper, and I see the logo has appeared backward on the limestone.

We bring the stone over to a table, and Max sets down a little cup of goma arábiga to make the print’s borders. The gum repels ink, so anyplace I put it will stay blank when I use the stone to print colors. We’ll print the logo in a reddish black and a light green. The black comes first. Ian rolls out a slick of oil paint for transferring images onto the stone with rollers, then hands me some greasy lithography pencils for drawing. “Now you get to add to the family history,” Max says.

Image by Arien Chang Castán. Cleaning the stone of fantasmas, or hidden images from previous printings (original image)

Image by Arien Chang Castán. Placing an inked leaf on the stone (original image)

Image by Arien Chang Castán. Drying prints before adding another layer of color (original image)

Image by Arien Chang Castán. An artist works on a woodcut. (original image)


I take the pencil and stare at the stone, bewildered. I hadn’t actually considered this part. What right did I have to alter the logo? Max nudges me along, brings over some laser-printed Cuban pesos to transfer onto the piece. He cuts one out, soaks it in solvent, places it onto the limestone facedown, and presses down with his hand. A mirror image of the face of José Martí emerges perfectly. I still hesitate.

“Got a dollar?” Max asks, nudging me along. I pull a crumpled one out of my backpack. Max says we can transfer a negative of the dollar—Washington’s face in relief. He pushes the roller back and forth over the bill until it’s covered with toner, then hands it to me. I place it on the stone, cover it with a paper soaked in solvent to transfer the ink to the stone. We press down with our palms and lift. It leaves only a black box. Everybody laughs. “Well,” says Max, “it works with pesos.” Dollars must be better fortified. More secure.

I print the stone with a few more monedas, some American quarters. Max adds two stamps—Soy Cuba—to either side. I’m cursing myself for not planning better. I don’t want to cover the bank logo in money. It feels too literal. But I’m not a visual artist and feel at a loss for what to do.

I look up to the open-air garden on the second floor of the studio, where a Taller member is watering some plants. Can I take some leaves from there? Print the stone with something that comes from the place I made it? Max nods, and we walk up together to pick out leaves. I cover them in ink, roll and press them all over the stone. When I lift them, I see their spines and my own fingerprints. I keep pressing and other aspects of the design disappear into the brush.

We wheel the stone back to the lithography machine and start a process so intricate and so quick that I’m bound to get it wrong. I write down steps—talc, then pine resin, something to dissolve the goma arábiga—and Ian demands my notes. I’m not getting it wrong, I say, offended. But of course I am. The object is to set the stone so that some places will hold the red-black ink I’ve chosen and others will repel it. We’ll do this with the first color, then repeat it tomorrow with a second, securing the paper in place over the stone and transferring each layer to each print precisely.

The author’s finished piece, with a Cuban peso printed on the bottom right (Arien Chang Castán)


There are so many moments of erasure and coverage throughout the process—laying acids, dissolving them; placing color, rolling it away; opening the stone’s pores and sealing them off—that it’s hard to believe my impression stays intact, that we can alter the stone so much without losing the outline. Later the next day, when Max, Ian, and I are printing the green I’ve covered with another layer of leaves, Ian wipes down the stone completely and watches my face for a reaction.

“Everybody always thinks I’m erasing it at this point,” he says. “But it’s still there in the stone.” The design isn’t immediately visible. You don’t know what will come out, what happens on the inside. You can’t see it. Push and pull. The relationship between the work as you imagine it and the print that eventually emerges is complex, opaque—something like the one between the Cuba I created in my mind as a child and the reality where I now found myself.

Process is everything here, and everything is in flux. I look around the studio at the works made by the Taller artists—images of Che and Martí, but also giant prints of Barack Obama as Spider-Man, swinging his way across Havana. “The Cuban people love you,” the inscription reads.

Tourists mill around the studio as Max, Ian, and I finish putting the final green layer on my print. A Dutch couple looks over my shoulder and I joke that maybe I’ll sell a work.

“That happens,” Max says. For whatever reason, the Taller has an aura that makes people come after unfinished pieces, as well as ones made by students. “Students have paid for their whole courses that way,” says Max. “Beginner’s luck.”

To him, that’s the essence of what separates Cuban lithography from other studios’ approaches to the practice—it’s a little freer, deeply committed to process but also ready to use whatever’s at hand—quarters and leaves and, in my case, at Max’s suggestion, some extra cigar labels we press over the top. A little kitsch. I feel OK with it.

Here, a print completes a full life cycle. Unlike other lithography studios, which keep artists’ work on hand to make second and third editions, everything in the Taller gets destroyed after its run. The studio likes to keep each edition completely unique, made only by the artist, and only at the time she first makes it. It also clears the limestones for further use. Max calls me over to watch as he and Ian scrub a giant X into my print, “canceling” it. They wheel it back to the stone basin where it will be scoured to use again, traces of my work joining the ranks of fantasmas.

From This Desk, 100 Years Ago, U.S. Operations in World War I Were Conceived

Smithsonian Magazine

In the 21st century, the military’s central command usually means a buzzing operation of video screens, soldiers, updated data, visual reconnaissance and computer communications.

But just a century ago, central command for Gen. John J. Pershing at the height of World War I was a solid chair, a desk and a huge map marked with pins denoting troop movement. 

All are currently on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. as part of a compact exhibition, entitled "Gen John J. Pershing and World War I, 1917-1918" that sets the scene of Pershing’s war room in Damrémont Barracks in Chaumont, France.

“That was central command for Pershing,” says Jennifer Locke Jones, the museum’s curator of Armed Forces history. “Pershing directed the American forces in that office. That was his chair, his desk.”

A central command for battle plans “is all the same idea, and the same premise” a century later, whatever the technology, she says. “How it gets done is very different.”

When it came to Pershing, a war hero of the Spanish-American War who later went after Pancho Villa in Mexico before he was named head of the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I, the general was used to following his own path—favoring, for example, frontal assaults over trench warfare. 

Image by NMAH. Central command for General John J. Pershing was a desk and a chair and a map. (original image)

Image by NMAH. General headquarters in Chaumont, France with Gen. Pershing at his desk. (original image)

Image by NMAH. A portrait of Pershing by Joseph Cummings Chase (original image)

“The thing about Pershing is that he conducted the war in a very different way than the other forces wanted him to,” Jones says. “They wanted us to throw men in the French army and put them in with all the Allies and he refused. He wanted to keep them separate. And because he kept them separate, he ran the war the way he wanted to.”

It was effective—the addition of American troops in the war’s final months helped lead to victory over Germany in November, 1918. 

And while a lot of technology for World War I was new, including the use of planes, heavy artillery, and telephone communication, the bulk of Pershing’s strategy was done with a big map and pins.

The original map is in the Smithsonian collection but could not be put on display, because of light sensitivity issues and the length it will be on display—until 2019.

But the original was photographed with the highest resolution photography to make a full scale replica affixed with pins, Jones says.

General Pershing's map with pins marking the troop movements shows the battlefront at the time of the Armistice. (NMAH)

“It’s supposed to represent the battlefront at the time of the Armistice,” she says of its pin placements. “But the date on it was a week before the Armistice, and of course they didn’t update it. It was a stalemate, so the battle line did not change in that last week.”

As it happens, the portrait of Pershing by Joseph Cummings Chase on display is also a replica. The original was awaiting framing at the time the exhibit opened to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the U.S. declaring war on Germany to enter the war that had been raging for two and a half years. 

It is Pershing’s actual World War I victory medal that is shown, however, hanging from a long ribbon festooned with a clasps from each major battle for the American troops in the war.

“He’s the only one that received as many battle clasps,” says Jones. 

The desk itself is cleaner than depicted in period pictures—or when it was more recently on display as part of the museum's “West Point in the Making of America” exhibition from 2002 to 2004.

Because the desk is seen in open air instead of behind glass, there are none of the plentiful books or papers on the desk.

“Somebody might want to reach over and grab an artifact off the desk, so we didn’t put anything on it,” Jones says. “But we have all of the material that should be on there in the collections.”

There’s nothing particularly special about the desk and chair. “It’s not French Provincial furniture,” the curator says. “We’re assuming it’s American.”

But once the war was won, “they had the wherewithal of taking everything out of that room and putting it in crates and sending it to the United States.”

And when it arrived, “his officers and his team came over, brought the map over and assembled it for the Smithsonian Institution,” Jones says. “This was right after the war, and they put all the pins back and recreated the map.”

It’s one of several displays at the history museum that note the centenary of America’s involvement in the huge conflict that many have forgotten or never knew.

“Most people don’t even know who fought in World War I,” Jones says, though many things that resulted from orders given in that modest office continue to have lingering consequences in the world.

“Gen. John J. Pershing and World War I, 1917-1918” continues through January 2019 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. 

How Tiny, Microbe-Propelled Bots Could Deliver Drugs in Our Bodies

Smithsonian Magazine

In the universe of TV's Doctor Who, the scariest adversaries of all are the hybrid robot-organic life-forms known as the Daleks.

Each Dalek is a living being encased in a robotic shell equipped with lethal weaponry, frequently employed to terrify London, other cities or entire planets. But if you think that’s scary, now imagine nanoDaleks, too small to see, scurrying around inside your body, each of them chanting “Exterminate!”

It’s not entirely far-fetched. Earth-based scientists in the here and now are developing something strikingly similar. But the idea is not to invade and conquer — rather to cure or heal.

Instead of Doctor Who, this enterprise envisions something more like a real-life version of Fantastic Voyage, the 1966 movie novelized by Isaac Asimov. In that story scientists shrank a submarine (with people inside) to the size of a microbe, enabling the humans to travel into the brain of a scientist with a life-threatening blood clot. In today’s version of this tale, scientists are combining living microbes (very small to begin with, no need for shrinking) with an additional cargo-carrying apparatus. These “hybrid biological microrobots” could deliver disease-fighting drugs, attack tumors or perform other helpful functions.

Doctors will not be deploying hybrid microrobot armies into anybody’s body anytime soon. Researchers will need to circumvent numerous technical obstacles before microbots become standard operating procedure. But neither is the prospect entirely hypothetical. Already researchers have designed and built several versions of hybrid microrobots capable of navigating the cellular world.

“Over the past decade, various microorganisms and artificial carriers have been integrated to develop unique biohybrid microrobots that can swim or crawl inside the body,” Yunus Alapan and colleagues write in the current Annual Review of Control, Robotics, and Autonomous Systems.

Experiments in test tubes, lab dishes or animals have shown, for example, that biohybrid bots can be steered by magnetic fields, light pulses or the chemical properties of their surroundings to deliver drugs to desired locations. Such mobile hybrids could also manipulate cellular interactions or generate heat to induce other medically beneficial effects.

All hybrid bot approaches have in common the idea of combining a mobile microbe — one that can crawl or swim — with a structure that can carry cargo such as drugs or do other jobs. But unlike Daleks, which all look pretty much alike, hybrid microrobots can be built from a diverse repertoire of mobile microorganisms. Researchers have also engineered a library of artificial carriers made from different materials, with different sizes and shapes, that can hook up with the microorganisms without killing them.

Such diversity is necessary because no one type of microbot would be suitable for all purposes.

“There is no single recipe for developing the ideal biohybrid microrobot, since the required performance and functionality are highly dependent on the specific application,” write Alapan and coauthors, from the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart, Germany.

Researchers have investigated various designs and fabrication methods for attaching microbes to a cargo carrier. In one approach, natural electric charges can bind the two electrostatically; the bacterium Serratia marcescens, for instance, carries a positive charge enabling it to bond to a carrier made from negatively charged polystyrene plastic particles.

In some cases a single cargo-carrying structure is propelled by multiple microbes; in other instances one or two microbes alone can drive the drug-delivery microtruck. And in the more Dalek-like design, the microbe is entrapped inside the cargo-carrying structure.

Biohybrid microrobots combine mobile microorganisms with carrier structures to deliver drugs or perform other useful functions in the body. Researchers are exploring the use of multiple different microbes for propulsion and various types of cargo-carrying structures; success requires finding effective methods for integrating the microbe with the carrier and effective methods of steering the hybrid bot, such as with magnetic fields, light pulses or chemical signals in the bot’s environment. (Y. Alapan et al/AR Control, Robotics, and Autonomous Systems 2018)

All such designs exploit the ability of microorganisms, such as bacteria or algae, to swim or crawl through biological environments. These microbes self-propel by consuming chemical energy from their surroundings to drive “molecular motors.” Bacteria swim toward food, for instance, by way of molecular machinery that rotates propeller-like protrusions known as flagella. A different form of flagellar motion drives sperm on their quest to fertilize eggs. Other microorganisms travel using amoeboid movement, driven by flexing of their cellular skeletons, built from the protein actin. As its skeleton flexes, protrusions from a cell’s membrane latch on to surrounding surfaces to pull itself forward.

Mobile microbes are ideal for bot propulsion for several reasons. They can move rapidly through the body, have the ability to interact with the body’s cells, and are small enough to work their way through the body’s smallest passageways, such as capillaries in the circulatory system. A deformable microbot made from E. coli attached to red blood cells that have been evacuated and loaded with cargo can squeeze through passages smaller than the bot itself, one study has shown.

“Such advantages make biohybrid cellular microrobots attractive candidates for medical applications, including targeted drug delivery,” Alapan and colleagues write.

From a daily-life perspective, bot propulsion might seem slow. E. coli’s swimming speed through water is about half a mile per year (and perhaps not that fast in biological fluids). Some white blood cells crawl at more like a mile per century. But within their own microscopic Olympics, such speeds are impressive. E. coli can traverse 15 times its own body length per second, the equivalent of a human running the 100-meter dash in a little over three seconds, making Usain Bolt look like a turtle.

Speed is not the only issue, though. Accurate steering is also essential.

Researchers in recent years have reported rapid progress in developing effective steering strategies. A 2017 study showed success in coating spirulina, a type of cyanobacteria, with magnetic nanoparticles and then guiding it through a rat’s stomach by applying an external magnetic field. Other research has shown that white blood cells loaded with magnetic nanoparticles can be steered toward a tumor to deliver drugs. Another study showed that algae-based microbots can be guided by LED light pulses.

In some bot designs, steering relies on the microbe’s own ability to sense the chemistry of its environment. “An attractive aspect of chemical control is the availability of a wide variety of chemical signals released locally by targeted cells or tissues,” Alapan and collaborators note.

While offering many desirable features, hybrid microrobots pose formidable problems. Medical and engineering considerations must merge in a way that make the bots both reliable and safe. Cargo-carrying structures must be made of materials that do not trigger attacks from the body’s immune system, for example. For that matter, the carriers must also not be toxic to the microbes that propel them. And somehow the carriers must be disposed of safely after their job is finished. (One approach is loading the microrobot with sensors that can be activated by infrared light to generate enough heat to degrade the bot on command.)

Furthermore, it’s unlikely that any medical intervention could be successfully accomplished with a single hybrid microbot. So techniques must be devised to control and coordinate the movement and actions of entire swarms of bots.

“The use of biohybrid microrobots in medicine still presents many challenges,” Alapan and coauthors write. Designing research to meet those challenges in “close collaboration with medical researchers … would significantly enhance and accelerate the translation of biohybrid microrobots for medical use."

Seeing Is Believing: How Marie Tharp Changed Geology Forever

Smithsonian Magazine

There’s no denying that maps can change the way we think about the world. But what about the way we think about what’s underneath? That was the case in 1953, when a young geologist named Marie Tharp made a map that vindicated the controversial theory of plate tectonics. But Tharp’s discovery of the 10,000-mile-long Mid-Atlantic Ridge*—a find that showed that the sea floor was spreading—was initially dismissed as “girl talk.”

Tharp, who was born in 1920, came of age during a time that was suspicious of women who chose to make science their life’s work. In retrospect, it makes plenty of sense that the daughter of a soil surveyor for the U.S. Department of Agriculture would inherit a taste for both geology and cartography. But given the scant number of women in geology at the time—women obtained fewer than 4 percent of all earth sciences doctorates between 1920 and 1970—it’s surprising that Tharp was able to pursue her passion.

Like many other women scientists of her day, Tharp found an unexpected opportunity in the form of a world war. During the 1940s, Tharp was able to pursue an accelerated master’s degree in geology due to the dearth of young men in the earth sciences department at the University of Michigan.

Tharp knew that geology was a long shot. Women were not recognized by some professional societies and had long been discouraged from working in the field. But field studies are at the core, as it were, of much geology research. Tharp’s mentors knew it would be an uphill battle; one encouraged her to work on her drafting skills to increase her chances of getting any kind of job in the earth sciences after the war ended. At the time, it was good advice—women who refused to perform the deskbound of analyzing and drawing out results collected by men rarely found work in the sciences. Luckily for Tharp, the seemingly low-level drafting skills she honed would later lead to the biggest discovery of her career.

Armed with those skills and another master’s degree in mathematics, Tharp began working at Columbia University’s Lamont Geological Laboratory after a brief stint in the petroleum industry. Called the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory today, the lab was ground zero for cutting-edge earth sciences research.

It was a heady time for the field, in large part because it was so untapped. Meteorologist Alfred Wegener, fueled in part by observations of how South America and Africa had coastlines that looked like they went together and the existence of similar fossils in extremely different parts of the world, had proposed the concept of continental drift back in the nineteen-teens. But his theory was largely dismissed. At the time, there was no way to prove that a massive supercontinent had ever existed, and the idea that continents could move through the ocean floor seemed preposterous.

Besides, subsurface geology—the study of rock and soil beneath Earth’s surface—didn’t really exist yet. Nor did scientists have ways to map the ocean floor, which they assumed was drab and flat.

Lamont lab founder Maurice "Doc" Ewing was unwilling to tolerate that status quo—or to keep geology research trapped inside cluttered offices and museums. He pushed his lab mates toward the ocean, insisting on the use of physics and chemistry to study the phenomena at the bottom of the sea. Sonar had come into its own during the war, further advancing the nascent field.

Navy regulations meant Tharp couldn't go out on the research vessels that Ewing and her other colleagues chartered. Even if she had, they would not have been hospitable places for women (one of the deep sea cameras Ewing took on his journeys was affectionately dubbed “The Pyrex Penis” due to its phallic appearance). Instead, she stuck to her drafting table, collaborating with geologist Bruce Heezen on a map of the ocean floor.

For years, Heezen collected the data while Tharp crunched the numbers and charted them out. It was thankless work in a time before computers; Tharp had to comb through an enormous pile of sonar soundings and plot out her measurements by hand. Still, she found inspiration in the very mystery of the task. “The whole world was spread out before me,” she recalled in a 1999 essay about the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “I had a blank canvas to fill with extraordinary possibilities ... It was a once-in-a-lifetime—a once-in-the-history-of-the-world—opportunity for anyone, but especially for a woman in the 1940s.”

Then, something unexpected showed up on Tharp’s canvas: a huge valley in the middle of the gigantic ocean ridge she was mapping. It was so deep that she kept re-checking her calculations. If it was what she thought it was, she would have evidence of a rift valley inside a ridge at the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean. That, in turn, would be evidence that the huge chain of mountains she was mapping was a place where the oceanic crust was spreading apart.

The map created by Tharp and Heezen. (Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the estate of Marie Tharp)

“When I showed what I found to Bruce,” she recalled, “he groaned and said ‘It cannot be. It looks too much like continental drift.’ … Bruce initially dismissed my interpretation of the profiles as ‘girl talk’.” It took almost a year for Heezen to believe her, despite a growing amount of evidence and her meticulous checking and re-checking of her work. He only changed his mind when evidence of earthquakes beneath the rift valley she had found was discovered—and when it became clear that the rift extended up and down the entire Atlantic. Today, it is considered Earth’s largest physical feature.

When Heezen—who published the work and took credit for it—announced his findings in 1956, it was no less than a seismic event in geology. But Tharp, like many other women scientists of her day, was shunted to the background.

“I think she was an extremely humble and modest person who seemed to genuinely not need external validation for her work,” Hali Felt, whose book Soundings: The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Mapped the Ocean Floor documents Tharp’s thwarted dreams and undeniable achievements, tells “At the same time, she was treated really poorly by Columbia University. Despite her incredible knowledge, she was never paid as well or never had a title or position that was adequate for what she was actually doing. It really was her discovery.”

These days, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge Tharp mapped is seen as evidence for seafloor spreading and continental drift—a divergent tectonic plate boundary where magma boils up from inside Earth’s mantle and through the crust and is cooled and pushed away. But at the time, her observation—and the complete map of the ocean floor that resulted from her collaboration with Heezen—was nothing short of provocative. “I think maybe a good analogy would be when astronauts first took those photographs of Earth from space,” says Felt. “There was proof before that the Earth was a whole, but there wasn’t a way to actually see it.”

“There's truth to the old cliché that a picture is worth a thousand words and that seeing is believing,” recalled Tharp in the 1999 essay. And there’s a touch of irony to that observation. Thanks to Tharp’s work, what we can't see at the bottom of the sea—and even further beneath Earth’s crust—is no longer just a figment of the scientific imagination.

*Editor's Note, August 31, 2016: An earlier version of this article misstated the length of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.

These Tiny Saber-Toothed Terrors Are Among the World's Oldest Ants

Smithsonian Magazine

Ants: They’re the model of cooperative hustle and super-efficient picnic pests. Unless you come into contact with the searing bite of a bullet ant or fire ant, you probably ignore the diminutive insects as a mere nuisance.

But perhaps you'd pay more attention if you ran into a particular kind of ant from the Cretaceous called a haidomyrmecine. Dubbed “hell ants” for their scimitar-like mandibles, five species have been identified over the last century in samples of Burmese, French and Canadian amber.

Now, analysis of these trapped ants and their spectacular headgear reveals them to be among the oldest true ants in the world. The insects lived between 78 and 99 million years ago and seem to be among the very earliest to diverge from the original ant-wasp family group.

“There are no ant fossils older than these, full stop,” says Phillip Barden, a postdoctoral fellow at Rutgers University. “But we estimate from molecular data and DNA analysis that they diversified 20 to 60 million years earlier.”

These ancient ants had long trigger hairs on their faces and dense mats of whiskers on their foreheads, which presumably acted like stopping-plates so an ant wouldn’t run itself through with its own swords. Based on these and other traits, Barden thinks the hell-ants’ jaws would have hinged upward, so that the ant skewered its still unknown prey—possibly soft-bodied insects—into the sky. Modern trap-jaw ants, whose mandibles snap shut laterally, use their jaws in much in the same way.

Even creepier, slight grooves on the inside of the hell-ants’ mandibles might have been used to funnel its prey’s bodily fluids down towards the mouth, Barden suggests, though this is just speculation for now.

In short, not only were these insects saber-toothed ants, they might have been vampire saber-toothed ants.

Despite their screaming weirdness, the ants somehow went virtually unnoticed for the better part of the 20th century. Entomologist Theodore Dru Alison Cockerell catalogued the first known haidomyrmecine specimen in 1920 but left it undescribed. The ant simply sat on a shelf at the Natural History Museum in London until 1996, when a Russian paleoentomologist, Gennady Dlussky, finally described the species and gave it its colorful name.

“Unfortunately, it is not so unusual for museum specimens to have a long shelf life before description,” said Ryan McKellar, an invertebrate paleontologist with the Royal Saskatchewan Museum who has also studied hell-ants in amber.

“Cockerell was a very active researcher, which makes it a bit puzzling how such a distinctive specimen escaped his focus. Then again, when you are dealing with insects that are 3 to 8 millimeters in total body length, and hiding in dark orange amber, one can imagine how it could have been overlooked as part of a larger batch.”

Image by Phillip Barden. Phillip Barden and David Grimaldi described this Haidomyrmex scimitarus queen in 2012. It was discovered in a piece of 99-million-year-old fossilized amber from a mine in Myanmar. (original image)

Image by Morgan Hill, James Thostenson and Henry Towbin/American Museum of Natural History Microscopy and Imaging Facility. A 3D reconstruction of the hell-ant Haidomyrmex scimitarus. The insect's unusually long head is thought to be an adaptation to accommodate its upward-pointing mandibles. (original image)

Determining the age of the ant in the amber, as well as where it fits into the evolutionary time scale, is an indirect business. Unlike Jurassic Park, where the fictional scientists extract DNA directly from an entombed specimen, paleoentomologists don’t destroy their samples by drilling into them, a tactic that probably wouldn’t yield any genetic material anyway. Instead scientists determine the surrounding amber’s age—crystals from the geologic layer in which the amber is found are dated based on the radioactive decay of their uranium-lead isotopes.

As for the ancient ants’ evolutionary placement, Barden and his colleague David Grimaldi at the American Museum of Natural History analyzed the insect's physical features—including head and antennae shape, mandible and thorax structure and a gland on the thorax unique to ants. The team then compared those traits with the characteristics of members of living ant groups and their outside relatives, such as bees and stinging wasps.

A series of analyses produced an ancestral tree that explains how that diversity might have evolved in the fewest number of steps. Based on that work, the researchers were able to conclude that haidomyrmecines sat on some of the first branches of the ant family tree.

“We only have a few portholes into early ant evolution,” Barden says. “That’s been a problem with ants in general. We don’t know the sister group, or most closely related group, to ants. Some say bees, then a more recent paper said stinging wasps, so we took a few different types—we included all of them. The idea is that you’ll get this polarity in the evolutionary tree for how closely these things match with each other.”

Barden and Grimaldi’s findings, published in February in Current Biology, may change subtly as more specimens are uncovered, says McKellar. But for now, the work lays out a plausible scenario.

“We are limited by the current amber record in our search for well-preserved ant fossils,” McKellar says. “Work on amber from places like Spain and Lebanon may extend the record of ants deeper into the early Cretaceous. The sort of detailed analysis Barden’s group conducted will be very difficult to expand without amber preservation.”

Scientists must scurry to collect pieces of amber before they are destroyed during lignite mining in India, where the amber is burned along with the lignite for cooking fires or as an insect repellent. In its raw state, amber is dark and somewhat sticky, making it difficult to quickly differentiate from the soft brown coal around it. (Phillip Barden)

Finding more entombed ants presents its own set of challenges. For instance, Barden describes collecting amber at a lignite mine in India, where the fossilized tree resin is usually discarded as a by-product and even burned to repel—ironically—insects.

But perhaps, like the hell-ants, the next bizarre discovery has already been scooped up and is waiting in a museum's collections for its chance to stretch our imaginations.

“If you asked a second grader what ants looked like in the time of dinosaurs, they’d probably draw this stuff,” Barden says. “But the early lineages are totally different from what we have today, and we wouldn’t know if it weren’t for these fossils. When E.O. Wilson described the first Cretaceous ant in 1967, it set the tone for what to expect, but this is more bizarre than anything we could have ever imagined.”

Researcher Identifies the Last Known Survivor of the Transatlantic Slave Trade

Smithsonian Magazine

In July 1860, a ship called the Clotilda docked off the shore of Mobile, Atlanta, under the cover of darkness. The 110 men, women and children onboard, all kidnapped from West Africa, were distributed to slaveholders despite the fact that Congress had outlawed the international slave trade more than 50 years earlier.

The Clotilda was, in fact, the last documented ship to transport people from Africa to slavery in the United States. And now, reports Sean Coughlan for BBC News, a British historian has identified the ship’s last known survivor.

Hannah Durkin of Newcastle University used genealogical data and a single newspaper interview to piece together the story of Matilda McCrear, who died in 1940 at the age of 81 or 82—three years after the death of Redoshi, a woman whom the historian had previously identified as the last survivor of the transatlantic slave trade.

Describing her research in the journal Slavery & Abolition, Durkin notes that McCrear does not seem to have appeared in any film footage; nor was she mentioned in any books. No obituaries mark her death. Instead, Durkin relied largely on an interview that appeared in the Selma Times-Journal after McCrear tried to claim compensation as a Clotilda survivor in 1931. The article, which Durkin discovered while researching Redoshi, is problematic; as Durkin notes, it was written by a white woman who “reveals a dismissive attitude to McCrear that elides much of her family’s suffering.” But the piece nevertheless offers key insight into McCrear’s often-heartbreaking biography.

She belonged to the Yoruba people of West Africa and was just 2 years old when she was captured by traders and brought on board the Clotilda along with her mother, Gracie; sister Sallie; and two other unnamed sisters. Two of her brothers were left behind in Africa, providing “rare insight into the Middle Passage as a site of maternal loss,” according to Durkin.

Upon their arrival in the United States, McCrear, Sallie and Gracie were purchased by slaveholder Memorable Walker Creagh; her two other sisters were sold to a different owner, per Newcastle University, and McCrear never saw them again. Gracie was sold to Creagh as the “wife” of a Clotilda survivor named Guy, though it is likely that their association “was random and part of a wider practice of selling off Clotilda survivors as ‘breeding pairs,’” writes Durkin.

Redoshi seen in “The Negro Farmer: Extension Work for Better Farming and Better Living" (Department of Agriculture / National Archives)

Because McCrear was so young during the journey from Africa to America, most of her knowledge of that time period was passed down from her mother. But she had a distinct memory of fleeing into a swamp with her sister to escape her captors and hiding for several hours until the overseers’ dogs sniffed the girls out. McCrear would have been 3 years old at the time, her sister 11. That they went “to such lengths to escape captivity,” according to Durkin, “brings to light the miserable treatment that they endured even as young children and shows how profound was their sense of dislocation and desperation to return home.”

McCrear was still a young child when the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, was adopted in 1865, but her family continued to work as sharecroppers, likely of cotton, for a landowner. As McCrear grew older, she displayed a determined, even defiant streak. She changed her last name from that of her former owner—Creagh—to McCrear; wore her hair in a traditional Yoruba style; and, though she never married, had a decades-long relationship with a white German man. Together, they had 14 children.

“McCrear’s long-term relationship with Schuler should be read as a major act of resistance to racist laws forbidding black and white people from marrying that were in place throughout the South until the U.S. Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional in ... 1967,” writes Durkin.

When she was in her 70s, McCrear traveled 15 miles from her rural cabin to the County Courthouse in Selma, Alabama, hoping to obtain financial assistance as a Clotilda survivor. She knew that Cudjo “Kossola” Lewis, another survivor of the ship, had received compensation, and asked that both she and Redoshi be granted similar benefits. Her plea, however, was dismissed, and she ultimately died in poverty.

Johnny Crear, McCrear’s 83-year-old grandson, tells Newcastle University that he was completely unaware that his grandmother had been on the Clotilda prior to Durkin’s research.

“Her story gives me mixed emotions because if she hadn’t been brought here, I wouldn’t be here,” he says. “But it’s hard to read about what she experienced.”

Researchers discovered the remains of the Clotilda along the Mobile River last year. As Allison Keyes reported for Smithsonian magazine in April 2019, the ship’s captain, William Foster, had ordered it taken upstream, burned and sunk to conceal evidence of his crew’s illicit actions. Though the Clotilda’s survivors were freed by Union soldiers in 1865, they were unable to raise enough funds to return to Africa. Instead, the men and women pooled their wages and purchased a plot of land nearby. Dubbed Africatown, the society was rooted in its residents’ “beloved homeland,” according to Smithsonian.

“I knew what that ship represents, the story and the pain of the descendant community. I’ve heard the voices; I can look them in the eye and see the pain of the whole Africatown experience over the past hundred plus years,” Kamau Sadiki, a diver involved with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture’s Slave Wrecks Project, told Smithsonian last year. “They have been very resilient. The Clotilda should be known by everyone who calls themselves an American because it is so pivotal to the American story.”

From this Desk, 100 Years Ago, U.S. Operations in World War I Were Conceived

Smithsonian Magazine

In the 21st century, the military’s central command usually means a buzzing operation of video screens, soldiers, updated data, visual reconnaissance and computer communications.

But just a century ago, central command for Gen. John J. Pershing at the height of World War I was a solid chair, a desk and a huge map marked with pins denoting troop movement. 

All are currently on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. as part of a compact exhibition, entitled "Gen John J. Pershing and World War I, 1917-1918" that sets the scene of Pershing’s war room in Damrémont Barracks in Chaumont, France.

“That was central command for Pershing,” says Jennifer Locke Jones, the museum’s curator of Armed Forces history. “Pershing directed the American forces in that office. That was his chair, his desk.”

A central command for battle plans “is all the same idea, and the same premise” a century later, whatever the technology, she says. “How it gets done is very different.”

When it came to Pershing, a war hero of the Spanish-American War who later went after Pancho Villa in Mexico before he was named head of the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I, the general was used to following his own path—favoring, for example, frontal assaults over trench warfare. 

Image by NMAH. Central command for General John J. Pershing was a desk and a chair and a map. (original image)

Image by NMAH. General headquarters in Chaumont, France with Gen. Pershing at his desk. (original image)

Image by NMAH. A portrait of Pershing by Joseph Cummings Chase (original image)

“The thing about Pershing is that he conducted the war in a very different way than the other forces wanted him to,” Jones says. “They wanted us to throw men in the French army and put them in with all the Allies and he refused. He wanted to keep them separate. And because he kept them separate, he ran the war the way he wanted to.”

It was effective—the addition of American troops in the war’s final months helped lead to victory over Germany in November, 1918. 

And while a lot of technology for World War I was new, including the use of planes, heavy artillery, and telephone communication, the bulk of Pershing’s strategy was done with a big map and pins.

The original map is in the Smithsonian collection but could not be put on display, because of light sensitivity issues and the length it will be on display—until 2019.

But the original was photographed with the highest resolution photography to make a full scale replica affixed with pins, Jones says.

General Pershing's map with pins marking the troop movements shows the battlefront at the time of the Armistice. (NMAH)

“It’s supposed to represent the battlefront at the time of the Armistice,” she says of its pin placements. “But the date on it was a week before the Armistice, and of course they didn’t update it. It was a stalemate, so the battle line did not change in that last week.”

As it happens, the portrait of Pershing by Joseph Cummings Chase on display is also a replica. The original was awaiting framing at the time the exhibit opened to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the U.S. declaring war on Germany to enter the war that had been raging for two and a half years. 

It is Pershing’s actual World War I victory medal that is shown, however, hanging from a long ribbon festooned with a clasps from each major battle for the American troops in the war.

“He’s the only one that received as many battle clasps,” says Jones. 

The desk itself is cleaner than depicted in period pictures—or when it was more recently on display as part of the museum's “West Point in the Making of America” exhibition from 2002 to 2004.

Because the desk is seen in open air instead of behind glass, there are none of the plentiful books or papers on the desk.

“Somebody might want to reach over and grab an artifact off the desk, so we didn’t put anything on it,” Jones says. “But we have all of the material that should be on there in the collections.”

There’s nothing particularly special about the desk and chair. “It’s not French Provincial furniture,” the curator says. “We’re assuming it’s American.”

But once the war was won, “they had the wherewithal of taking everything out of that room and putting it in crates and sending it to the United States.”

And when it arrived, “his officers and his team came over, brought the map over and assembled it for the Smithsonian Institution,” Jones says. “This was right after the war, and they put all the pins back and recreated the map.”

It’s one of several displays at the history museum that note the centenary of America’s involvement in the huge conflict that many have forgotten or never knew.

“Most people don’t even know who fought in World War I,” Jones says, though many things that resulted from orders given in that modest office continue to have lingering consequences in the world.

“Gen. John J. Pershing and World War I, 1917-1918” continues through January 2019 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. 

Renaissance Europe Was Horrified by Reports of a Sea Monster That Looked Like a Monk Wearing Fish Scales

Smithsonian Magazine

In the 16th century, the so-called “sea monk” became the talk of Europe. Drawings of the half-man, half-fish “monster” appeared in naturalists’ tomes and were circulated among naturalists and members of royal courts across the continent. It was the end of the Renaissance, when Europeans were enamoured with art, science, philosophy and exploring the natural world. 

But over the centuries, the creature, and talk of it, faded into obscurity. Whatever it was, it was never definitively identified. The lack of an answer has given scientists and folklore-loving researchers something to chew on over the years.

The sea monk was first described by a French naturalist and ichythyologist, Pierre Belon, in 1553, and again by a French colleague, Guillaume Rondelet, in 1554. The creature was also included in a 1558 volume of the widely-read and respected Renaissance natural history encyclopedia, Historiae Animalium, which was compiled by Conrad Gesner, a Swiss physician and professor. These rare books are all held in the collections of the Smithsonian Libraries and have been digitized for public viewing. 

The sea monk is just one of a host of creepy monsters and ghoulish visuals culled from rare and antique books and curated this month on the website PageFrights by the Smithsonian Libraries and other archives, museums and cultural institutions around the world to share for Halloween. 

Sometime between 1545 and 1550, the peculiar sea monk washed up on a beach near, or was caught in the Oresund, the strait between modern-day Denmark and Sweden. The actual circumstances of its discovery have never been well-documented. None of the naturalists of the day who drew or discussed the animal had ever actually laid eyes on the sea monk specimen. It was described as almost eight-feet-long, having mid-body fins, a tail fin, a black head, and a mouth on its ventral side.

A published account in the 1770s—which drew upon the Renaissance scholars’ work—described it as an animal with “a human head and face, resembling in appearance the men with shorn heads, whom we call monks because of their solitary life; but the appearance of its lower parts, bearing a coating of scales, barely indicated the torn and severed limbs and joints of the human body.” 

That description was unearthed by Charles G.M. Paxton, who, along with a colleague, published in 2005 a full accounting of their research into the sea monk’s origins. They also offered their own take on its true identity. Paxton, a statistical ecologist and marine biologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, says the sea monk is just one of his many forays into monster mysteries.

“For the past 20-odd years or so, I’ve had a strange hobby, which is exploring the hard science behind the accounts of sea monsters,” says Paxton.

The sea monk intrigued him because it seemed to him that maybe, in the attempts to classify the creature, something obvious had been overlooked. For instance, “monkfish” is a common name in Britain for a fish found in the North Atlantic.

Paxton was not the first in modern times to try to determine the sea monk’s identity. Japetus Steenstrup, an influential Danish marine biologist, delivered a lecture in 1855, in which he postulated that the sea monk was a giant squid, Archeteuthis dux. It wasn’t too surprising, given that Steenstrup was an authority on cephalopods, and one of the first zoologists to properly document the existence of the giant squid, says Paxton.

Steenstrup gave the sea monk the name Architeuthis monachus (Latin for monk). He noted that the sea monk’s body was similar to a squid; it also had a black head and red and black spots, just like a squid. He believed that some of the early descriptions mistakenly said the sea monk had scales, noting that Rondelet claimed it was scaleless—as would be true of a squid.

Paxton, however, isn’t buying it. He says in his paper that while Steenstrup’s giant squid was a good explanation for the many sea monsters described in the 16th and 17th centuries, “he may have been a little overenthusiastic in implicating Architeuthis as the prime suspect for the sea monk.”

Others have suggested that the sea monk was an anglerfish (Lophius), a seal, or a walrus. Another candidate is a “Jenny Haniver.” That’s what you call a tricked-out specimen that is fashioned into a devil or dragon-like creature by modifying a dried carcass of a shark, a skate or a ray.

No one knows where the term Jenny Haniver (sometimes Jenny Hanver or Havier) came from, but the trinkets were in existence in the 1500s, says Paxton. Even so, if the sea monk was found alive when discovered—as the accounts have suggested, it could not have been a Jenny Haniver, says Paxton. Also, the dried sharks are smaller than the sea monk.

The angel shark (Squatina) could have been the sea monk. (Wikimedia Commons)

Paxton says the most likely explanation is that the sea monk was a species of shark, known as the angel shark (Squatina), given its known habitat and range, coloration, length, subtle scales, and pelvic and pectoral girdles that might appear to be a monk’s habit.

“If you put a gun to my head and force me to say what the answer is, I’d say Squatina,” says Paxton. But, he says, “we can’t go back in time, so we can’t say for sure what the answer is.”

Paxton is continuing his investigation into the sea monk, and a similar creature from that period, known as the sea bishop.

Both of those animals caught the attention of Louisa Mackenzie, associate professor of French and Italian studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. The sea creatures serve as a window into Renaissance scholarship and the history of scientific inquiry, along with an animals’ place in the Anthropocene world, says Mackenzie.

The fervent interest in the sea monk and other creatures in the 16th century indicates that scientific inquiry was a serious business. “We might look at these images today and find them quaint, amusing, superstitious, or fantastical—proof of how ‘unscientific’ Renaissance science was,” says Mackenzie.

But, she argues in a recent chapter about the sea monk and sea bishop in the book Animals and Early Modern Identity, that those inquiries deserve more respect. “What I was trying to do with this chapter was to ‘call out’ our own tendency to not take these creatures seriously as sites of investigation,” Mackenzie says.

So, did 16th century scholars and royals truly believe the sea monk was a fantastical half-man, half-fish?

Paxton says it’s hard to know what they actually believed, but that some may have embraced the idea of a chimera. The naturalists most likely saw a resemblance, and then decided it was expedient to describe the sea monk in terms that would be familiar. “My gut feeling is that they weren’t suggesting there was a whole society of merpeople under the sea,” Paxton says.

But Mackenzie says “it’s very possible that naturalists believed it to be a true hybrid, and that, possibly, it was to be feared,” especially, since “theology was baked into natural history at the time.”

Paxton found a report that upon hearing of its discovery, the King of Denmark ordered that the sea monk be immediately buried in the ground, so it would not, according to the account, “provide a fertile subject for offensive talk.”

What kind of talk? Paxton theorizes that perhaps the sea monk could have represented some sort of primacy of Catholicism, with lots of monks swimming under the sea—given that monks were traditionally Catholic, not Protestant.

Remember, he says, that this discovery came during the time of the Protestant Reformation, when Europe was fulminating with religious sectional discord.

Paxton is moving on to his next mystery—a decidedly more ominous creature: a man-eating sea monk discovered during the medieval period.

Our Top 11 Stories of 2018

Smithsonian Magazine

Even when ignoring the crazed world of national politics, 2018 has been a turbo-charged year, headlines accruing faster than you can blink. The Pyeongchang Olympics dazzled. Archaeologists set eyes upon a Borneo cave painting created at least 40,000 years ago, making it the oldest known figurative cave art in the world. An American married into the British royal family in decadent fashion. In China, a scientist claimed that the first genetically edited babies had been born; back in the United States, high school students responded to tragedy by organizing a nationwide protest advocating for gun control. We lost artistic, culinary and political giants and contemplated their legacies. InSight, a NASA probe, successfully alighted on Mars. From the frivolous to the monumental, across a range of disciplines, we’ve offered perspective on the news and shared new discoveries. Here are’s top eleven stories of 2018:

1. Why the True Story of ‘Chappaquiddick’ Is Impossible to Tell

In our most-read piece of 2018, contributing writer Lorraine Boissoneault examines the real-life tragedy that inspired the John Curran film Chappaquiddick. The political scandal has a few irrevocable facts: then-Massachusetts-senator Ted Kennedy (JFK’s youngest brother) was in a car with Mary Jo Kopechne, a 28-year-old who’d staffed his brother Robert’s presidential campaign, after a party on Chappaquiddick Island. Kennedy’s car overturned on a bridge and landed in the water; Kopechne drowned but Kennedy survived; the senator didn’t report the incident to authorities until 10 hours later. What happened on the bridge, during those 10 hours and in the incident’s aftermath, however, remains murky almost 50 years later. Why?

2. For the First Time in More Than 20 Years, Copyrighted Works Will Enter the Public Domain

You can freely quote, at any length, something published on December 31, 1922, and have been able to do so since 1998. But excerpting a piece of literature that debuted in 1923? An act of Congress prohibited it—at least, until January 1, 2019, when the first copyright thaw in over two decades will occur. This piece from Smithsonian magazine explains which works will enter the public domain and why we’ve had to wait so long for them to do so.

3. Dads Pass On More Than Genetics in Their Sperm

Katherine J. Wu details how a pair of studies in mice revealed how fathers pass on vital epigenetic information—instructions that, while not encoded in DNA, still affect how an individual’s genetic template is ultimately expressed. The University of Massachusetts Medical School researchers found that as sperm moves through the male reproductive system, it discards vital non-genetic material and then absorbs distinct versions of that epigenetic cargo from surrounding cells, a discovery the studies' principal investigator called “stunning.”

4. Rare Case of ‘Coffin Birth’ Seen in Medieval Grave

Little excites our readers more than the unraveling of an archaeological mystery: the circumstances leading up to a medieval “coffin birth” (formal name: “post-mortem fetal extrusion”) discovered in the Italian town of Imola. How was a fetus born after its mother’s untimely demise? Why was there a small, neat hole in the skull of a woman who lived in the seventh or eighth century, A.D.? Brigit Katz navigates the questions raised by the 2010 discovery of the pregnant woman’s grave.

5. Inside Slab City, a Squatters’ Paradise in Southern California

Slab City used to be Camp Dunlap, a onetime U.S. Marine Corps base from the 1940s. Now, it’s “the last free place,” where squatters have pieced together residences from the nameplate concrete slabs amidst the Colorado Desert in the southernmost part of California. Here, writer and architect Charlie Hailey and photographer Donovan Wylie, who collaborated on a new book about the unconventional town, answer questions from writer Jennifer Nalewicki about the community.

6. Hitler’s Teeth Confirm He Died in 1945

A new study definitely lays waste to all the conspiracy theories surrounding Adolf Hitler’s death. He died in 1945 as Allied troops approached his bunker in Berlin, likely by both cyanide and a self-inflicted gunshot. French researchers got permission from the Russian government to analyze Hitler’s four remaining real teeth and numerous false teeth and concluded, in the words of the study’s lead author Philippe Charlier, “We can stop all the conspiracy theories about Hitler. He did not flee to Argentina in a submarine, he is not in a hidden base in Antarctica or on the dark side of the moon.”

7. Norway’s Melting Glaciers Release Over 2,000 Artifacts

Jason Daley looked at an “unexpected positive” of the gradual warming facing our planet: melting glaciers relinquish cultural artifacts dating as far back as 4,000 B.C. Among the treasures? Wooden skis and pack horse skulls, which archaeologists find by surveying the edges of the dwindling glacier during one month at the end of summer. Read on to learn what the thawed artifacts are teaching researchers about Scandinavian history.

8. British Doctors May Soon Prescribe Art, Music, Dance, Singing Lessons

The “an apple a day” maxim gets an update. By 2023, Britain plans to have a full-scale “social prescribing” program. The ambitious project would allow doctors to prescribe, in addition to normal medical treatment, treatments that involve appreciating a work of art or taking up a hobby. It’s a bold step intended to reduce over-medicating by turning to alternative therapies like dance classes or playing an instrument, both of which have benefitted the health of patients in trial groups.

9. How Native American Slaveholders Complicate the Trail of Tears Narrative

Smithsonian curator Paul Chaat Smith of the National Museum of the American Indian says history can be a “mangy, snarling dog standing between you and a crowd-pleasing narrative.” Case in point: a new exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian that delves into American Indians’ impact on American history and culture, including the complicated relationship between Native and African-American communities.

10. Do Not Fear the Drones Air-Dropping 50,000 Mosquitoes From Above

A swarm of genetically engineered mosquitos sounds like the stuff of science-fiction nightmares, but don’t worry: These mosquitos are there to wipe out their pathogen-spreading kin. This science report explains how teams of researchers and engineers are aiming to decrease the mosquito populations by introducing hordes of sterile males or fathers who will pass a deadly gene to their offspring, effectively whittling down the number of mosquitos who can infect humans with serious illnesses like malaria and Zika. And yes, the lab-grown insects have a futuristic ride to their drop-off locations—“mosquito limos,” aka modified drones.

11. The Costs of the Confederacy

This investigative project from Smithsonian’s December issue is crammed with stunning, sobering numbers, like the $40 million of taxpayer money that has gone towards Confederate monuments over the past 10 years. These are monuments that, as the writers discovered through a slew of site visits, perpetuate the “Lost Cause” ideology and elide the reality that the preservation of slavery motivated the Confederacy to secede and fight the Civil War.

An Airship The Size of a Football Field Could Revolutionize Travel

Smithsonian Magazine

Airships were, at one time, the future of air travel. During the 1920s and '30s, passengers and cargo weren't flown, but rather, airlifted to far off destinations. In fact, DULAG, the world's first passenger airline, operated airships that serviced more than 34,000 passengers and completed 1,500 flights prior to World War I. 

Fastforward to today and there are some who believe that airships are poised for a revival. Among them is a UK design firm that recently unvieled the Airlander, a football field-sized aircraft engineered to push the limits of transportation. Unlike planes, it can take off vertically, from just about any locale. And unlike helicopters, it can carry a payload of 50 tons and stay afloat for weeks, long enough to circumvent the globe—twice, creators say. 

The first thing the casual observer needs to know about the $40 million HAV 304 hybrid airship is that it's not a blimp. The sporting event staple is essentially a gargantuan inflatable balloon, but the Airlander is sturdier and easier to navigate. In a way, the aircraft is the kind of breakthrough aerospace engineers have been waiting for since the World War I era, when Zeppelins were used to transport passengers. But unlike those bygone relics, which used flammable hydrogen gas (remember the Hindenburg disaster?), the Airlander uses inert helium.   

Up until the Hindenburg's explosion in 1937, America had been prepping infrastructure in anticipation of a future where the world's expanding fleet of dirigibles—lighter-than-air aircraft that rely on rudders and propellers—would dominate the skies, floating people and heavy cargo to almost any destination. The art deco spire atop the Empire State Building, for instance, was constructed as a docking terminal to load and unload passengers. And the U.S. government was so convinced airships were going to be the next big thing, officials even began stockpiling billions of liters of helium. (After realizing their prediction wasn't panning out, reserves of the lighter-than-air stuff were sold for more festive purposes, like party balloons). 

Though the Airlander may be, oh, 70 years too late to that particular party, its technology still has the potential to revolutionize the aviation industry. For instance, the best efforts of aerospace companies to come up with a practical trans-oceanic, vertical take-off aircraft capable of lifting heavy cargo anytime, anywhere hasn't amounted to much beyond a couple multi-billion dollar military designs that probably, because of their incredible cost, will never be used commercially.

"There is a transport gap," explained Chris Daniels, Hybrid Air Vehicles' head of communications. "Even road vehicles need roads, and trains need tracks. Ships need water. Even airplanes need airports, and the more rugged cross-country vehicles struggle with some surfaces and aren’t amphibious, either. We need something that can land and take-off vertically, be robust enough to land on many surfaces, and have the range and affordability to travel long distances.”

The Airlander—all 44,000 pounds if it—was designed, from the bottom up, to fill this void. With a full tank of gas, it is expected to stay airborne and operational for as long as three weeks. To boot, the company also says the airship—easily the world's largest aircraft—uses 80 percent less fuel compared to conventional airplanes and helicopters, which should appease the environmentally-conscious set to some degree. This is made possible partly due to the ship's lightweight and semi-rigid hull, which is comprised of special leathery Kevlar material that's flexible, yet strong enough to withstand the impact of a shotgun bullet, Daniels says.

What's a bit surprising, though, is that the entire structure, when filled with helium, is actually heavier than air. While the weight ratio allows it to stay grounded without being tethered, only a small amount of forward speed is required to execute a take-off, thanks to unique wing-shape fins that give it an aerodynamic boost. The company estimates as much as 40 percent of the lift comes from the ship's aerodynamic design and propulsion system working in tandem. 

Once aloft, the aircraft can reach a maximum speed of about 100 miles per hour. It lands with the help of vectored propulsors, or in layman's terms, thrusters that gradually push the ship downward, reducing lift by about 25 percent.

Beneath the aircraft, an air cushion landing system features amphibious pneumatic tubes that extend downward, enabling it to land just about anywhere. The Airlander, Daniels boasts, can vertically descend onto bodies of water, ice, desert and rugged terrains such as scrubland, making it especially ideal for delivering heavy equipment to remote oil and mining sites. 

As seen in this illustration, the Airlander has a special system that lets it land virtually anywhere. (Hybrid Air Vehicles)

"The great thing about helium," he points out, "is that with each doubling in length of an airship, you get eight times the lifting capacity."

The original concept for the Airlander was so promising that, four years ago, the U.S. military decided to subsidize its development. However, the fate of the project took a turn. Budget cuts led to officials ultimately abandoning the idea, and the unfinished prototype was eventually sold back to Hybrid Air Vehicles for about $301,000—less than 1 percent of how much it cost to build. 

Though the airship passed a flight test in August 2012 in Lakehurst, New Jersey, U.S. government officials determined it was still too heavy to be flown uninterrupted for more than a few days.

The next test flight, over the city of Bedford, New Jersey, is scheduled for December. The company, which was recently awarded a £2.5 million ($4.1 million) government grant to build upon its existing technology, also plans to develop different models that can aid delivery in disaster relief or be deployed in hard-to-reach places, such as icy roads close to Canadian mines. 

While there's no target date for when such a model may exist—no companies have commissioned them yet—it isn't unrealistic to imagine the ships could also someday be piloted as an alternative to commercial air travel, which, in its current state, Daniels describes as an "unpleasant means to get somewhere desirable."

Among the most encouraging signs: Bruce Dickinson, lead singer of the rock band Iron Maiden, has since signed on as one of the project's principal financial backers. For a group in need of believers, having the "Futureal" frontman onboard isn't a bad start. 

Some of Barcelona's Most Acclaimed Musicians Will Rock and Rumba Washington D.C.

Smithsonian Magazine

Inside a large rehearsal space with high ceilings, about an hour outside of Barcelona, people were practicing climbing on top of each other to form human towers. The residents of Catalonia have been building these castells for centuries, and while the UNESCO-recognized tradition has changed little over time, the participants that day signed in to rehearsal using an app on their phones. Then the people forming the base of the tower put their feet against those of the participants in front of them and kept their head down for protection. And up the climbers went.

“You can see it on the television and that’s great,” Pablo Molinero-Martinez, a program coordinator for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, says about the human towers. But taking part in one, as the locals invited him to do that day last year, he adds, is “totally different.” Whereas many athletic teams have less than a dozen participants on a field or court at once, human towers sometimes involve hundreds.

Molinero and his colleagues visited Catalonia, located in northeastern Spain, during a years-long effort to bring the traditions of that region to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. The Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage began hosting the festival on the National Mall in 1967. With Molinero as program coordinator, Folklife Center director Michael Mason, Cristina Díaz-Carrera and David Ibáñez curated the festival program, called “Catalonia: Tradition and Creativity from the Mediterranean.”

“We have a program with a lot of spectacle in it,” says Díaz-Carrera, one of the curators. “There’s fire, there’s giant puppets, there’s human-tower building.” But the event is meant to celebrate the Catalan people who maintain those traditions. “Behind all of those really spectacular things is this really integrated, well-oiled network of people,” she says.

The Folklife Center began working with people in Catalonia, a region that has been seeking independence from Spain, on a language initiative years ago, studying languages historically spoken there. Those contacts led to talks about creating a festival program around the area’s local traditions. Folklife Center staff members made multiple trips to the region to train researchers and meet with individuals that the curators call “tradition bearers.” For the first time in the history of the festival, organizers put out an open call for participants. More than 120 people and groups applied.

Six Catalan musical acts will perform in the evenings, and more performances will happen during the days. The acts represent various Catalan musical traditions, including Catalan rumba, which is derived from flamenco music, and habanera, a form that curators say is experiencing a revival after years of decline.

One of the musical acts is Yacine and the Oriental Groove, consisting of Yacine Belahcene Benet, Massinissa Aït-Ahmed, Gabriel Fletcher and Alexandre Guitart. Based in the Catalan capital of Barcelona, the group describes its sound as “Mediterranean rock,” incorporating North African and Mediterranean musical traditions, as well as genres such as reggae and rock and roll. Emphasizing the Catalan tradition of embracing people from various places and cultures, the group sings in Catalan, French, Spanish and Arabic, as well as Amazigh, a language of indigenous North African people.

The fusion of those sounds comes naturally, according to the band, whose members are from countries including Algeria and Uruguay. “It just comes as it is because we are people from different places that met in this point of the world right now,” says Guitart, the drummer, translating for his bandmates. “So it’s just coming out, it’s just flowing from us.”

Their appearance at the Folklife Festival will be their first time performing in the United States, and they believe people should turn to their music for “more than just to listen.” “We want the people to dance,” Guitart says, translating for the others, “to get this unity, to get this moment that we can forget for a while the dark side and we can focus on the light.”

Also performing is the Catalan duo Maria Arnal and Marcel Bagés, who have been selling out shows in Europe. Arnal, who sings while Bagés plays guitar, says the festival will be her first visit to the U.S. and that she plans to explore Washington’s museums when she’s not busy performing.

The Catalan duo Maria Arnal and Marcel Bagés, who have been selling out shows in Europe. (YouTube)

Arnal and Bagés released their debut full-length album, 45 cerebros y 1 corazón (45 Brains and 1 Heart), last year and it has earned acclaim. The Barcelona-based newspaper La Vanguardia described the record as among “the few ‘instant classics’ that, from time to time, alter (for good) the musical panorama.” Spain’s Rockdelux magazine named their previous five-song disc Verbena the country’s best EP of 2016, and Barcelona’s Ara newspaper called them “one of the best things that has happened to Catalan music in recent years.” Their dreamlike music videos have garnered more than 1 million views online.

Arnal says about their sound, “It’s a very strange music, experimental, but can interest people that love traditional music but also people that love electronic music, even pop music.” She adds, “We don’t really work by thinking in genres.”

As Arnal tells it, she grew up in a musical household where her mother would often sing. Arnal went on to study performing arts, anthropology and literature, but she later decided she wanted to pursue her passion for singing. Her anthropology studies came in handy, as that is how she stumbled upon the archives of the late American folklorist and ethnographer Alan Lomax, who traveled the world, including to Catalonia, making field recordings of local folk songs. (Lomax advised Smithsonian festivals.) Those archives helped Arnal and Bagés find their unique sound, and their album incorporates remixes of field recordings.

“My repertoire, it’s somehow based on some of the songs that he recorded in Spain,” she says. “I include other lyrics and I include neo-melodies and things, but the base is there.”

The festival’s evening concerts will also feature the Catalan acts Les Anxovetes, a habanera group featuring women’s voices; the singer-songwriter Alidé Sans; the improvisation-heavy 10-member group Cobla Catalana dels Sons Essencials; and Joan Garriga i el Mariatxi Galàctic, a trio that performs rumbero and rumba music. Musicians from other parts of the world will also perform.

Besides the music, the festival lineup includes processions incorporating traditional Catalan elements such as giant puppets, on a scale that curator Díaz-Carrera says has never happened before in Washington. There will also be Catalan cooks who specialize in seafood, meats and other local culinary traditions.

And of course there will be tower climbers—more than 200 of them. But don’t expect the rival groups attending to collaborate. “Our idea was to explore if there was an option to do a human tower together,” Molinero says, “but this is something they have never done and will never do.”

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival will take place daily and most nights from June 27 to July 1, and July 4 to 8.

College Students Studied These Mail-Order Sea Creatures in the Late 1800s

Smithsonian Magazine

In the late 1870s, a biology professor could purchase a glass model of an angel clubhook squid for $2.75. The going rate for an Atlantic white-spotted octopus was $1, and a fuzzy-tipped anemone cost $4, according to Henry Ward's mail-order catalog of glass invertebrates.

Around this time, people across the world had a new appetite for natural history. Museums were popping up full of taxidermied animals, but since actual specimens of marine invertebrates faded and shriveled in jars, there was suddenly a demand for glass models of jellyfish, squid, sea cucumbers and worms. Aquariums suspended the sculptures in displays, avoiding the costs of maintaining live animals. And professors at Harvard, Cornell and other universities purchased glass animals by the hundreds to use as educational tools.

H. A. Ward's Natural Science Establishment, a company in Rochester, New York, became the sole distributor for Blaschka models in North America. Harvard ordered some of its glass invertebrates from this 1878 catalog. (Harvard University Library)

Two German glass artists, Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, had a corner on the market. The father-son team started out making jewelry and glass eyes for the blind and taxidermy projects before taking on work for museums. Leopold, an amateur naturalist, created models of some 50 species of orchids in the mid-1850s, mostly for practice. Then he tested his skills out on sea anemones—a set of models that the Dresden Museum ultimately purchased. Leopold had some exposure to marine invertebrates, having traveled by ship to the United States in 1853 for pleasure. On that trip, he observed jellyfish and drew them from life. His son, Rudolf, studied zoology and anatomy, and the two expanded their repertoire. The 1878 catalog of glass invertebrates from Ward's Natural Science Establishment, a supplier of educational materials in Rochester, New York, lists a total of 630 Blaschka models.

To show how these soft-bodied animals look in the wild, the artists first melted pieces of glass over the flame of an alcohol lamp and shaped them into different anatomical features. They then melded the parts of the sea creatures together, attaching tiny tentacles with glue or copper wire.

The Blaschkas used scientific illustrations as reference—books like naturalist Philip Henry Gosse's Actinolgia Britannica: A History of British Sea Anemones and Corals—and sometimes even live animals. They kept a tank in their studio in Dresden stocked with various species.

The models, ranging from about one to eight inches in length, are exceptionally detailed. In some cases, the Blaschkas used colored glass, and in others, they handpainted the glass to resemble particular species. They often applied an egg wash to the glass to tone down its sheen and more accurately capture what the animal looked like in the water.

"An expert, an invertebrate zoologist, can see discrepancies because they know the animals much better," says Linda Ford, director of collections at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology. "But if you put it in the time period for when it happened, it is pretty remarkable. They made them the best scientific rendition for the day."

Ford has overseen an eight-year effort to restore the 430 Blaschka models of marine and terrestrial invertebrates (there are some snails) at the Museum of Comparative Zoology. Louis Agassiz, MCZ's founder and first director, or his son and successor, Alexander, began acquiring the models in 1878, before Harvard would go on to commission the more famous glass flowers from the Blaschkas. The collection is now the second largest in the United States, after a sizeable trove at Cornell.

About 60 of the Blaschka invertebrates are on display in "Sea Creatures in Glass," a new permanent exhibition at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. The museum will rotate the models to show visitors the incredible variety of creatures in the collection and to protect any one from too much exposure to light.

MCZ hired Elizabeth Brill, a glass restoration expert from Corning, New York, to assess the condition of its sculptures. "She has a very interesting skill set," says Ford. "She is a preservation specialist, but she also works with glass herself. She understands the whole process, and then in her spare time she likes invertebrates. She knows enough about their anatomy to recognize a tentacle, or even to recognize the different kinds of invertebrates we have. It is a perfect combination."

Brill found evidence of crizzling on some of the Blaschka models. "Because of temperature and humidity issues, it makes the glass kind of look crackly," Ford explains. And some of the animal-hide glue that the Blaschkas used to assemble the models had failed in the hundred and some odd years since it was applied. "It's a very detailed and precise process to clean the glue off," says Ford. Brill, who has worked on Blaschka invertebrates at Cornell and elsewhere, reattached stray limbs and tentacles with archival-quality adhesive.

"In working with about 1,100 of these objects now, I find that there are little bits and pieces that have been tucked away in envelopes and bottle caps and little plastic boxes. It's like a giant jigsaw puzzle," Brill says in a video produced by the Harvard Museum of Natural History. "The tricky part about working with these models is that they are all made differently. They were made over the course of 25 years, and the two men who made them were working in different ways from one another. They were using different materials. It is really about evaluating each model as I come to it and treating it as a new object."

According to James Hanken, Harvard's Alexander Agassiz professor of zoology, the Blaschkas' scientifically accurate models of marine invertebrates provided a real service. "They're extremely effective teaching tools, even at the college level," he says. The Blaschkas tried to show the animals in life-like poses. Other times, they created models of dissected critters. A little sea squirt in the exhibition is opened up, so that viewers can see its internal organs.

"These things are still doing what they were made to do," says Brill.

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