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Part 2: Pick which photos of celebrations in African American life should go on our walls

National Museum of American History

We're thrilled that our new neighbor, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, will open its doors in September. To celebrate, we're opening a small display of photos in our Lower Level gallery bringing together photographs from two of the museum's Archives Center collections. As described in our previous post, we need your help selecting which photos to feature in the display, titled Celebrating Our Memories, Celebrating Our Lives: Snapshots of African American CommunitiesCheck out the photos below and cast your vote! If you like, you can add your own comments or memories sparked by a photo. We may use your contributions in the development of the display. If we use a comment in the show, we'll ask your permission and credit you appropriately.


Photo 1 

In what looks like a basement room, children celebrate a birthday party, wearing party hats and sitting at chairs with cake in front of each kid. The birthday girl slices the cake. Meanwhile, an adult wearing an apron helps another child keep her hat on her head. Many of the girls have pigtails. One or two make a big smile or silly face.

Naomi Coquillon
Manager, Youth and Teacher Programs, Department of Education and Outreach

"I like looking at the background and the small details in a photograph. Here, the party atmosphere is juxtaposed with the somber setting, in what appears to be a basement. As I look at this, I think about the world that these children are growing up in—a segregated city and a segregated nation. I know that this photograph was taken in Washington, D.C., in 1949, two years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line in professional baseball and five years before the Brown v. Board of Education decision. I think about the fact that these children will likely be in their teens and twenties in the 1950s and 1960s, the generation of young people who would mobilize as part of the modern civil rights movement.

"I look closely at the image on the post toward the right-hand side of the photograph, of the Capitol and the American flag, and I marvel at the parents and grandparents of these children, who believed in the promise of this nation even when they were denied full access to it. As I take in this image, I think about the many people who have believed in that promise and who work to ensure that the nation lives up to its ideals. And I think about my infant daughter. What will her birthday parties look like? What nation am I leaving for her?"

Photo 2

Indoor black and white photo of children gathered around a rectangular table, wearing party hats and waiting to eat cake. The birthday boy, in suit and tie, grins, standing with his hands behind his back with his two-tiered cake in front of him. Behind him, a patterned curtain. Wood-paneled room.

Lauren Safranek
Curatorial Assistant, Many Voices, One Nation

"To read an historical photograph, I need to look at it in two ways. First, I look for things in the photograph that I recognize and I think about how those things are similar to my own experiences. I've had plenty of birthday parties in my three decades, and some were incredibly similar to this one. The party hats; the birthday boy's proud face; a delicious cake about to be cut; carefully selected clothes I couldn't wait to put on that morning; a table too big for the space, put in special to fit all my friends. This is familiar to me, and perhaps familiar to many of you, too. I can certainly imagine what it must have felt like to be Donald Kelly standing there—his friends singing 'happy birthday to you!'

"It is also imperative to spend some time noticing the differences to my own experience. There are a lot of little differences I notice right away. My birthday parties were never this fancy. I never in my life had a two-tier cake to celebrate my birthday! But there is one key difference: he was an African American child in segregated Washington, D.C., in 1954. While I may try to imagine it, I'll never know what that was like. If I could talk with Donald now, I'd ask him how he remembers the city in his youth. At that age, how had racial prejudice and segregation affected his life? Had he felt threatened or demeaned in the racialized spaces of D.C.? His proud smile, askew tie, and easy stance lead me to believe he felt safe and comfortable in this space. I'm glad he had a happy birthday, and I'm glad a photographer from the Scurlock Studio was there to document it."


Photo 1 

A group of people is ready to make a procession, standing three abreast in a line that curves around a room with at least one column. They are in formal attire, with corsages and bow ties and the ladies in floor-length dresses. A woman in the front row and smiles and looks right at the photographer's lens.

Kathleen Franz
Curator, Division of Work and Industry

"As someone who studies youth culture, I was interested in this photograph for its potential to tell us more about African American cotillions, or debutante balls in the period after World War II. The photographer from the Scurlock Studio snapped this photo in 1949, freezing in time members of the Bachelor Benedict Club in Washington, D.C. The club organized social events for the city's African American professional class. Each debutant has seemingly two escorts—a young man and an older woman. We can almost see everyone's face clearly. But what were their names? What did the ball mean to them? Where did they go and who did they become after the ball? If you choose this photo and it goes on the wall, we may learn the answers to some of these questions from those who see it and can share their stories."

Photo 2

Black and white photo of a young lady wish a sash saying "Miss American Legion..." is crowned with a sparkly tiara but another smiling woman. Both are in fancy dresses. Around them, men (some wearing matching uniform hats) and women smile, chat, and pose, in a blend of posed and casual modes. A sign above says "Post 567 5th Anniversary."

Nancy Davis
Curator, Division of Home and Community Life

"This image, from our Archive Center's Fournet Drugstore Collection, is so fascinating because it holds so many stories.

"In 1954, African American women were ineligible to apply for the national Miss America contest. To celebrate its fifth anniversary, the American Legion Post 567 in St. Martinville, Louisiana, crowned its own Miss America. They did so in the Legion Hall, a place where many African Americans in the South felt free to gather. The smiling veterans had won a great victory a few years before. In 1948 (six years before this picture was taken) the Armed Forces had desegregated with President Harry Truman's Executive Order 9981. Likely the order was prompted by the Double V Campaign initiated by African Americans who insisted that America's victory over tyranny needed to take place on the home front as well as on the battlefield abroad.

"African American newspapers, such as the Pittsburgh Courier, featured the Double V girl—attractive and talented African American women such as these—who actively supported the campaign. The civil rights movement continued the effort. After much protest, and with the advances of this movement, African American Vanessa Williams was crowned Miss America in 1983. The Many Voices, One Nation exhibition, opening in 2017, will include a section on the military, the desegregation effort, and the Double V Campaign."


Photo 1 

21 women wearing white uniforms (all white cloth, high white collar, white nurse's hat, buttons, white, belt at waist, about mid-calf length, white shoes with low heels and white laces). They pose on the steps of a brick building with columns and door with decorative glass sections. Their facial expressions range from smiles to serious.

Alexandra Lord
Chair and Curator, Division of Medicine and Science

"Although Freedmen's Hospitals were established in the American South in the wake of the Civil War, most of these hospitals were short-lived. In Washington, D.C., however, dedicated physicians fought to keep the city's Freedmen's Hospital open and by 1894, the hospital had established a nursing program for African American women. In 1923, just seven years before this class of nurses graduated and was photographed by the Scurlock Studio, the superintendent of the Freedmen's Hospital nursing school said that the demand for nurses trained at the hospital was such that the program was unable to keep up with the demand. Today, Freedman's Hospital—which was renamed Howard University Hospital—still trains nurses."

Photo 2

Graduates in caps and gowns, some holding programs or diplomas, sit in chairs. Families sit in nearby chairs as well as in some bleachers. There is an aisle down the left side of the photo. In distance, cars, trees, and a building is visible.

Carrie Kotcho
A. James Clark Director of Education & Outreach, Department of Education and Outreach

"The work of historians is one of asking questions and finding answers, but you don't have to be a historian to 'do history.' An image like this sparks my curiosity, which leads to questions. Look at all of those determined faces. Who are they? Why are they gathered? The scene looks similar to graduation ceremonies I've seen, with people wearing caps and gowns, so starting there I look for more clues. The small group of scholars are wearing cloth 'hoods' around their necks that indicate they have been awarded master's degrees. The rest of the group are wearing suits, hats, dresses, and gloves, which give the impression this is a formal occasion. A graduation or other ceremony perhaps. The photograph was taken by the Scurlock Studio in Washington, D.C., so it's likely related to Howard University, one of two historically black colleges/universities in the district, but when was the photograph taken?

"My questions lead to looking even more closely at the image. There are a few cars in the background. After a quick Google image search, I find similar cars from many sources of information ranging from personal Tumblr pages to very reputable television networks. After choosing several trusted sources, I learn that the cars are likely from the 1930s. In 15 minutes, I've collected enough clues to begin investigating this frozen moment in time. Eventually, with visits to Howard University and other archives, I may be able to discover the individual stories behind each of these bright and determined faces. Learning their stories helps me better understand what it means to be American. Their journey is our journey."

Your turn to vote

Two of the same photos posted above labeled #1 and #2.

Two of the same photos posted above labeled #1 and #2.

Two of the same photos posted above labeled #1 and #2.



Voting closed on Friday, May 27 at midnight EDT. We'll announce the winning photos in June 2016.

As any museum employee or volunteer will tell you, developing and designing exhibitions and displays is a complex process. We'll do our best to include every winning photo, within the limits of the laws of exhibition math and physics. If a photo doesn't fit on the wall, we promise to display it on our website instead. Thanks for understanding and being part of our team!
Celebrating Our Memories, Celebrating Our Lives: Snapshots of African American Communities opens on Friday, September 9, 2016, and you can see it through Tuesday, December 27. Get involved with the National Museum of African American History and Culture to be part of the celebration.
Erin Blasco is an education specialist in the New Media Department and Cassie Mancer is a project assistant for the Office of Project Management and Editorial Services.










Posted Date: 
Thursday, May 12, 2016 - 10:00
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This is the Perfect Meal to Cook for This St. Patrick's Day

Smithsonian Magazine

As St. Patrick’s Day approaches, revelers in the United States and around the world are preparing for festivities. This includes a lot of green dye in rivers, in beer or milk, on your clothes or even in your food. Grocery stores sell “Irish soda bread” and the refrigerated meat aisles are full of corned beef, which in reality isn't even Irish. So what really is Irish food?

With a country that is basically all “farm to table,” Ireland is bound to have delicious food that is just waiting to be recognized. But, the majority of us have no idea what that is. Through his debut cookbook My Irish Table: Recipes from the Homeland and Restaurant Eve, James Beard nominee Cathal Armstrong, along with chef and food journalist David Hagedorn, opens the door for us to Ireland's Eden. In the book, chef Armstrong takes us on a journey from his childhood in Dublin, Ireland to Washington, D.C.. Through personal stories and recipes, he captures the essence of Irish life and its evolving food. "When we got the first copy in the mail, it really brought me home and made me think of those times when I’d be out playing a hurling match on a cold, rainy winter’s night," says Armstrong. "The things that my mother cooked or my father cooked you can almost smell." The Irish have a way with storytelling and Armstrong does it with food.

There is no better time to start giving Irish cuisine the spotlight than around St. Patrick’s Day. For a look into the holiday and Irish culinary traditions, we sat down with chef Armstrong.

What inspired you to become a chef?

Initially it was an accident you know? And, mostly just something to do until I tried to figure out what my real life’s goal was. There was always food in our household. Our lifestyle very much revolved around food. I guess it was kind of destiny more than anything else.

I went to college to study computer programming, and I hated it. It was so boring. I had a job in a restaurant washing dishes, and one of the kids got sick in the kitchen, so he asked me to cover him while he was away. And, he never came back. I ended up cooking there for a while. Then in an effort to escape the restaurant business, I came to America for a summer job to try and earn some cash to then go back to college. But, it just never worked out. Probably after two or three years of being in America, I began to embrace the possibility of a career in the industry. And it has really been a story of how one thing led to another more than anything else.

You were born in Ireland, you’re trained as a French chef, and you’ve lived in the U.S. for over 20 years. Why for your first cookbook did you choose to write about Irish food?

I think for the first book the most interesting part is how I became who I am and the history that is associated with it. Ireland is a tiny country, and you learn to be very patriotic and passionate about your home and your upbringing. Over the years of developing Restaurant Eve, every time we mentioned something Irish, people would say, "What the? There’s no such thing." People don’t know anything about Irish food. I wanted to illustrate that even in the traditional country cooking of the peasant people of Ireland from the 1600s and 1700s there was a tradition and a passion for food, though it may not have developed into a classic great cuisine. So I wanted to show what Ireland is capable of and I’m proud of it.

How would you define Irish cuisine?

Well, Irish cuisine is still really developing and had its first true opportunity to blossom in the 1980s. Mostly that was because of its history. Ireland was ruled by England for about 400 years and there really wasn’t an opportunity [for an independent cuisine to develop]. The Irish weren’t permitted to use available ingredients except for the potato. After the Easter Rebellion in 1916 and the War of Independence which ended in 1921, Ireland went into this long era where it had its own freedom for the first time in 100s of years. It was starting to develop its own economy and its own structure, its own identity as a free country.

The cuisine never really had an opportunity to develop because there was so much poverty over those decades. In the late '70s, '80s and '90s, we started to see a change driven by some individuals. Darina Allen and Myrtle Allen from the famous Ballymaloe House would have to be the godmothers of it, as well as Monica Sheridan who was a TV personality in those days. Then the economy of Ireland exploded in the '90s. With the Celtic Tiger we started to see people return from the continent and the United States. Also, some chefs started coming back to Ireland and they developed a new modern Irish cuisine using the ingredients that are indigenous to the island, which is very bountiful.

You don’t often think about Ireland in this way. Because of its geographic location, it has the same latitude as the southern part of Alaska. You would expect very cold winters and very harsh growing conditions. But, the Gulf Stream from the Gulf of Mexico crosses the Atlantic Ocean and keeps the sea from freezing in the winter. So Ireland gets a moderate temperate climate year round. It has grass year round, which is ideal for beef grazing, sheep raising and then they have this incredible access to dairy product because of the grass. If you can grow produce outdoors year round, then you have every opportunity to grow anything you want. That is where you see things like cabbage, sprouts, leeks and all of those things that grow in the winter months.

And, then it is a tiny island.  We know tiny islands are surrounded by oysters, lobsters, mussels, langoustines, the Dublin bay prawns, and the salmon that swim up the river Shannon. All the raw materials are there for an incredible cuisine. It just never really had an opportunity to blossom. And I think we have seen a change in that in the last 20 years more than ever before and a lot more to come.

How do you see Irish food evolving?

Like the rest of the world, Ireland’s been hit by the economic crisis so there has been a little stagnation, which is okay I think. I expect that you will see Irish cuisine, which kind of got into this really modern style, rethink itself and become more of what you expect, which is hospitable, warm and welcoming. Some of the dishes we have included in the book will be more obvious because they are great simple rustic cooking, which I think the world needs now more than ever.

What would you say are the main differences between St. Patrick’s Day in the U.S. and in Ireland?

St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland is really closer to Thanksgiving than it is in America. We don’t drink green beer. We don’t dye the rivers green. It really isn’t a drunk fest day. It is more of a religious holiday. We celebrate the fact that St. Patrick introduced Christianity to Ireland in the 4th century. It is a family day where we will cook a traditional spring meal at home. Nobody will be doing corned beef and cabbage. Lamb will pretty much be on everybody’s table.

There is definitely a tradition that you have to wear something green or you get pinched, so everybody wears something green. We do wear shamrocks. There is a big parade in every city similar to the Thanksgiving parade in New York with floats and all, but it is probably much more subdued. When I was a kid, all of the pubs were closed on St. Patrick’s Day, so there was no going out drinking like we do here. Not that that is bad.

In the book, you selected a roast lamb au jus with herb pesto for St. Patrick’s Day [recipe below]. Why lamb?

St. Patrick’s Day always falls somewhere in the Lenten season. Because Ireland is 95 percent Catholic, it is an important time of year for everyone when they are preparing for Easter. It is a very quiet time of year in general. People will be fasting and preparing for the Easter holiday, but because St. Patrick’s Day falls there it is a special day of dispensation from Rome where you are allowed to celebrate. The spring lamb is going to be what it is typically found on every table.

Do you have any tips for making it?

The most important thing when making the roast is knowing what the weight of it is. You are going to want about somewhere between 15-20 minutes per pound depending on how cooked you want the meat to be. I like it to be about medium so I am going to cook about a 9 lb roast for about an hour and a half. And, that gives you a nice pink color. I don’t like it too rare for leg of lamb because it is going to have kind of a tough texture. A good thermometer is useful; hit about 135 degrees Fahrenheit in the middle of the lamb.

What are sides that would accompany the lamb well?

Things that are going to be in season at the same time as the lamb are going to work really well. We always say things that grow together go together. Things that are in season are going to be natural, phenomenal accompaniments like carrots, parsnips, morels, peas, and asparagus will start to come in soon.

I am actually a huge fan of potato gratin and there is a really cool recipe for it in the book [below]. And, that nice creamy lusciousness of the gratin with some lamb and that pesto is really all you need. I don’t even make gravy anymore.

"And, that nice creamy lusciousness of the gratin with some lamb and that pesto is really all you need." (Scott Suchman © 2014 )

If you are not sure yet what to make this St. Patrick’s Day, try diving into Ireland’s culinary traditions and make Chef Armstrong’s Roast Leg of Lamb au Jus with Herb Pesto, Potato Gratin and Glazed Carrots.

Roast Leg of Lamb au Jus with Herb Pesto

Lamb, except for less expensive cuts like shanks, shin bones, or neck meat, was a special occasion meat in my family, reserved for days like Easter and Saint Patrick’s Day. One of the most vivid memories I have of growing up is sitting at the oval table in my Nana’s living room with her and Granda, the eight of our family, and anyone else lucky enough to have been invited for Sunday dinner’s leg of lamb.

Occasionally, I’ll be out somewhere and catch a whiff of a leg of lamb roasting, and it takes me back instantly to my place at that table in another time. Too bad if I want to do anything about it, though; Meshelle [Armstrong's wife] hates lamb. She never lets me make it at home, but lamb remains one of my preferred meats.

Serves 8 to 10

1 (9-pound) bone-in leg of lamb, H-bone removed by your butcher
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 cup lamb demi-glace (page 244)

Herb Pesto
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
6 cloves garlic, crushed
1 cup fresh basil leaves
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme leaves
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary leaves
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Roast the lamb: Preheat the oven to 350°F. Place the leg fat side up in a flameproof roasting pan. Rub it with the oil and season with the salt. Roast for 11/2 hours, until a meat thermometer inserted into thickest part of the lamb (but not touching the bone) registers 135°F for medium rare.

Make the pesto: Meanwhile, place the oil and garlic in the bowl of a food processor or blender and pulse briefly. Add the basil and process until a coarse purée forms. Add the thyme, rosemary, and salt and process briefly, until incorporated.

Add the pesto to the lamb: Transfer the lamb leg to a cutting board and spread 4 tablespoons of herb pesto over it. Cover the leg loosely with aluminum foil and let it rest for 15 minutes.

Make the jus: Meanwhile, skim and discard the fat from the roasting pan. Add the demi-glace to the pan and place over medium-high heat. Use a flatedged wooden spatula to scrape up all the brown bits from the bottom of the pan.

Present the dish: Pour the jus into a small pitcher or gravy boat. Spoon the remaining pesto into a small serving bowl. Transfer the lamb to a serving platter and carve it at table. At about the middle of the leg, use a carving knife to cut a horizontal wedge the width of the leg and about 2 inches wide, cutting at a 45° angle from both sides until you hit bone. Then cut thin slices from both sides of the wedge. Once you’ve carved as much meat that way as you can, grasp the bone and stand it on its end with one hand, using your other hand to cut slices off the leg. Spoon some jus over each serving and place a little pesto on the side. Serve with your chosen side dishes.

Veal or Lamb Demi-Glace

Demi-glace is the backbone of meat sauces. Without it, you'd have great difficulty creating the deep, lingering, complex flavor that makes a dish truly great. It used to be that making demi-glace involved roasting bones with tomato paste and incorporating flour into the process, but many modern cooks, I among them, prefer to use a simple stock reduction because the result is more straightforward.

Makes about 7 cups

3 1/2 quarts Veal or Lamb Stock, skimmed of fat

Reduce the stock: Bring the stock to a boil in a large saucepan over high heat. Lower the temperature to medium, or wherever is necessary to maintain a simmer, and simmer until the stock is reduced by half, 1 1/2 to 2 hours, skimming often.

Strain and cool the demi-glace: Strain into a container through a fine-mesh sieve or chinois. Cool the demi-glace as you did the stock. The demiglace can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 2 days and frozen for up to 3 months.

Potato Gratin

Gratin potatoes are rich and creamy and so always welcomed at special occasion dinners. Don’t go overboard with the nutmeg. As Chef Patrick O’Connell of The Inn at Little Washington likes to say, “If you can taste the nutmeg, you’ve used too much.” Two things are important to know for preparing this: do not begin by slicing all the potatoes at once and soaking them in water; they’ll lose their starch. Instead, slice and add them to the cream one at a time. And you can’t make this dish ahead of time, because the butterfat will separate when you reheat it.

Serves 6 to 8

1 clove garlic, halved crosswise
3 cups heavy cream
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
6 russet potatoes, peeled and placed whole in cold water

Prepare the cream mixture: Preheat the oven to 325°F. Rub the inside of a 2-quart gratin dish with one of the garlic halves. Rub the inside of a large, heavy slope-sided sauté pan with the other garlic half and add the cream, salt, and nutmeg; bring to a boil over medium-high heat.

Prepare the potatoes: Using a mandoline, Japanese slicer, or very sharp knife, slice 1 potato crosswise into 1/4-inch disks. Add those slices to the pan with the cream mixture, overlapping them like shingles. This will help create a layered effect and keep them from sticking together in stacks. Repeat with the remaining 5 potatoes, gently shaking the pan back and forth from tine to time throughout the process. As soon as all the potatoes are added, turn the heat off and spoon the sliced potatoes into the prepared gratin dish, maintaining overlapping slices as best you can. Pour any remaining cream over the potatoes.

Bake the gratin: Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil and place the gratin dish on top of it in case any cream boils over. Bake for 45 minutes, until the gratin is golden brown and bubbling and a sharp knife inserts easily into the center of the potato slices. Serve hot.

Glazed Baby Carrots

At Restaurant Eve we cook most root vegetables, including carrots, sous-vide (cooked slowly in vacuum-sealed bags in a water bath). The process cooks the vegetables in their own natural sugar and water, thereby concentrating their flavor. Since most households don’t have sous-vide capability, I’m offering this method of glazing, adding sugar to the cooking water to replace the natural sugar that leaches out and then enriching the glaze with butter. You can blanch the carrots the day before, but finish the dish when ready to serve.

Serves 4

24 baby carrots, trimmed and peeled
1 tablespoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter

Cook the carrots: Place the carrots, salt, and sugar in a heavy saucepan. Add water to barely cover the carrots and bring to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat to medium and simmer until the carrots are tender but still firm, about 5 minutes. Transfer the pan to the sink and run cold water into it in a thin stream for about 6 minutes to slowly stop the cooking process and cool the carrots completely.

Make the buttery glaze: Drain the carrots so that they still retain a bit of water and return them to the saucepan. Over high heat, stir in the butter until it melts completely, then lower the heat to medium. The idea is to create an emulsion by letting the butter thicken the remaining sugary water and coat the carrots; stop cooking as soon as this happens so the coating doesn’t separate. Add more salt if you wish and serve immediately.

Reprinted with permission from My Irish Table by Cathal Armstrong, copyright © 2014. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc.

How a Couple of Guys Built the Most Ambitious Alien Outreach Project Ever

Smithsonian Magazine

On May 24, 1999, a large radio transmitter in the city of Evpatoria in Ukraine turned its dish to the star 16 Cygni, 70 light-years away, and emitted a four-hour blast of radio waves. It was the beginning of the Cosmic Call, one of the most ambitious efforts ever made at sending a message to alien civilizations. It wasn’t a project run by NASA or some major government. It was a crowdsourced effort, put together by an unlikely team of Texan businessmen, Canadian astrophysicists, Russian scientists, and Eastern European radio engineers.

It was the brainchild of Charlie Chafer, the CEO of a Texan company named Team Encounter. Team Encounter hoped to launch a prototype solar sail, that is, a spacecraft driven by the pressure of sunlight. Its trajectory would take it out of the solar system altogether. It wouldn’t be fast, taking 100,000 years just to go as far as the nearest star. Chafer wanted it to carry a three-kilogram payload with messages, photographs, and DNA samples to show any alien finders what life on Earth is, or was, like.

But 100,000 years is a long time to wait. So Chafer also decided to send a radio message to various nearby stars with drawings, texts, and songs, many of them from ordinary people. “A sort of ‘we're coming’ announcement,” Chafer says. This became the Cosmic Call. (As it happens, the solar sail never flew, but the Cosmic Call project went forward.)

The Cosmic Call caught the attention of a Canadian astrophysicist named Yvan Dutil. He knew that a radio message would be incomprehensible to extraterrestrials without a preface explaining our number system, the makeup of our planet, the physical shapes and sizes of human bodies, and so on. In short, the message needed a primer. He contacted Chafer. “I said, Guys, I'm an astrophysicist,” Dutil recalls. “I would be pleased to help you to check your messages.”

But Chafer’s team had no idea how to write a primer. Dutil recalls, “They said, Why not write the message yourself?” So Dutil did. He enlisted his friend Stéphane Dumas, also a physicist. Together Dutil and Dumas read Hans Freudenthal's 1960 book Lincos: Design of a Language for Cosmic Intercourse, Part I. They were the only people ever to have checked it out of the local university's library. They soon saw why: “It's the most boring book in the world,” Dutil says. Freudenthal never made it to Part II.

Freudenthal had aimed to create a purely symbolic medium of communication that any species with a basic grasp of logic could understand. The book’s no page-turner. But Dutil and Dumas persevered, and spent six months writing a primer. Then they needed to find a radio transmitter powerful enough to send it. First they asked NASA, which politely turned them down. Dutil got on the Web and started searching for other radio transmitters. “On this webpage was a list of all the radar astronomy experiments done before, and one of those was from Evpatoria in Ukraine,” Dutil says. “I had never heard about that radio telescope. I sent a short email to the guy and said Hey! Do you think your radar would be available for SETI transmission?”

Chafer remembers it differently, with one of his employees hearing about the dish and handling the contract negotiations. (Possibly they both inquired.) Dutil recalls that the ex-Soviets were receptive to the idea: “I guess they were quite happy to get some money to operate these things, because in 1999 Russia had not recovered yet from the post-Soviet Union crash and in those times any money was good, so it was rather easy. Russia was open for business for anything.”

And Alexander Zaitsev, a prominent astronomer at the Russian Academy of Science, was glad to be involved. Zaitsev had used the Evpatoria transmitter for years to study Venus, Mars, Mercury, and several asteroids. But he also had a deep interest in SETI. He agreed to oversee the sending of the Cosmic Call from Ukraine. And with that, a DIY alien outreach project was born.

Zaitsev had to exercise some diplomatic delicacy. In 1999 memories of the Cold War were still fresh, and there were tensions over how the Americans were intervening against the Serbs during the war in the former Yugoslavia. “[Evpatoria] is the middle of nowhere,” Chafer says. “It's a base that was used to track Russian satellites that were used in submarine communications out of Sevastopol. It was a very highly sensitive military base.”

So it was politically awkward for the Cosmic Call team visiting Evpatoria to be led by Americans. But one of Team Encounter’s employees was Romanian, and one of its guests was Danish. So Zaitsev decided that the Cosmic Call team was a Romanian and Danish delegation with two American observers. Chafer recalls, “[Zaitsev] gets the gold star for making it happen. I mean, literally everybody he was dealing with had a uniform on, and here comes this Danish Romanian delegation with two American visitors.”

And that’s how the Cosmic Call team got to use what was, in 1999, one of the few radio transmitters in the world powerful enough to send a message to a star dozens of light-years away. The message was sent to four stars, and then in 2003 it was sent to five more. The Evpatoria transmitter’s 150,000-watt output was powerful enough, SETI experts agree, to be detectable at distances of 50 to 70 light-years. The message is now on its way. If anyone is there and listening, they will get it.

It was not the first attempt to send messages to extraterrestrial civilizations. In 1974 the astronomer Frank Drake devised a short message that was sent from the Arecibo radiotelescope to a globular cluster 25,000 light-years away. In 1977 Carl Sagan and his coworkers encoded images, music, and sounds onto phonograph records and attached them to the spaceprobes Voyagers 1 and 2. It’s hard to characterize these as serious attempts, though. We would have to wait 50,000 years for a reply to the Arecibo message. And the Voyager probes, which are tiny little chunks of metal drifting in space, are highly unlikely ever to be found. The Cosmic Call, though, was aimed directly at nearby stars.

And Dutil and Dumas set up a symbolic system in which information could be discussed. They wanted to be able to ask questions and provide a symbology that would let aliens answer them. This called for a new kind of message. Douglas Vakoch, a social scientist at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California and the editor of the 2011 book Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence, says their primer had “a complexity and depth that’s unparalleled in interstellar messages.”

It was transmitted in digital format, consisting of 370,967 bits. (A “bit” is a 1 or a 0.) The first 128 bits are ones. Then there’s a long bunch of zeroes. After that it becomes more complicated.


What's an alien to do with a string of numbers like that? (If you feel like decoding the primer yourself, click here. If you want to see the entire primer explained, click here. An insightful discussion of the primer is here.) Dumas and Dutil hoped the recipients would realize that the bits can be arranged in a series of pages 127 pixels on a side. The recurring long strings of 1’s ought to be a clue. Anyway, arranging the first 16,129 bits into a square 127 bits on a side yields this pattern.

That’s a message. And if the aliens divide 370,967 by 16,129, they will get the number 23. That will tell them, Dumas and Dutil hoped, that the message has 23 pages.

Or maybe not. What if they try to interpret the bits as a kind of speech or music, never realizing that they code for pictures? What if they don’t have vision and have never imagined two-dimensional forms of representation? Or think in polar coordinates instead of Cartesian ones, so it never occurs to them to arrange the bits into squares? Or having done that, what if they can’t figure out its convention of reading left to right, top to bottom? It might drive them crazy. “It’s perfectly conceivable that aliens and humans will represent that same key scientific concepts in such radically different ways that we’ll never understand each other,” Vakoch says.

But any effort to talk to aliens is going to run this risk. Dutil and Dumas essentially threw up their hands and said, “We have to make some assumptions.”

Humans might be rather confused by the first page too. It looks cryptic and eldritch, with all those strange glyphs. 

In fact, the first page is extremely simple. Dutil and Dumas took their cue from Freudenthal, who had argued that elementary math is the subject most likely to be mutually intelligible to sapient minds on different planets. “Mathematics is the most abstract subject we know,” Freudenthal had written, “and at the same time a subject that may be supposed to be universally known to humanlike intelligent beings.” 

So the first page simply establishes our number system. Its upper half lists the numbers 1 to 20 in three forms: as a group of dots, as binary code, and as a base-10 numeral. The symbol s_with_2_horizontal_lines.png means “equals.” So the line 8_symbols.png means 2 = 2 = 2. The lower half of the page lists the prime numbers 2 through 89, and the largest known prime as of 1999, which was 23,021,377-1.

The glyphs look strange because Dutil and Dumas designed them to be resistant to signal degradation. There is plenty of radio noise in space. A single flipped bit could make an 8 into a 0, or a 1 into a 7. But the glyphs are hard to confuse with each other even if corrupted by noise. As further insurance, the primer was sent three times to each target star so that each copy could be cross-checked against the others. Furthermore, none of the glyphs is a rotated or mirrored image of any other, so the message will still be intact if the recipients construct it upside down or in mirror-reverse. “Part of the genius of the Cosmic Call messages is that they are redundant,” says Vakoch.

Page 2 introduces the basic operators: addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Then it dips into fractions and negative numbers. 

Page 4 introduces the concept of the variable, using a new character, flower_symbol.png .

The first line, translated, goes like this:

flower_symbol.png X X+2=3  X=1

This can be read as, “What is X? X + 2 = 3.  X=1.” flower_symbol.png is a variable, then, an inquiry. This is one of the most important aspects of the message, since with this symbol it can begin enabling discussions about abstract quantities. At the lower right-hand of the page is a graph with the labels for the X and Y axes.

Page 5 introduces diagrams explaining pi and the Pythagorean theorem. Not that they need explaining, because any species that can build a radio receiver will know them, but they can serve as a basis for further communication.

On page 11 the message shows the planets of the Solar system, with Earth identified with a particular glyph, cobra.png. This is also used on several other pages in the hope of making it clear by using it in multiple contexts.

Page 14 specifies the molecular makeup of Earth’s soil, water, and air, using glyphs for atoms defined on page 6 (identifying them by the number of protons and neutrons in the nucleus). It has schematic drawings of mountains and water, labeled with the main components of Earth’s land, sea, and air, including nitrogen headdress_symbol.png headdress_symbol.png (NN), oxygen head_symbol.png head_symbol.png (OO), argon sunken_square_symbol.png (Ar), and carbon dioxide lamp_and_heads_symbol.png (COO).

On page 15 the primer helpfully provides a picture of a human male and female.

The figures are accompanied by glyphs noting their mass and size, with their orientation in gravity shown by the trajectory of a falling object in the lower left corner. Dutil and Dumas cribbed this drawing from plaques placed on the Pioneer 10 and 11 probes launched in 1972 and 1973.

Aliens might find this page one of the more mysterious ones in the primer. Perspective diagrams are so familiar to humans that we tend to forget they are based on social conventions for representing three-dimensional figures in two dimensions. Color and shading are ignored, for example. It is an open question whether aliens would understand them. One also rather doubts that aliens would understand the lines that signify man’s six-pack and the woman’s hair. They might think that humans have heads topped with chitin, or always wear helmets.

Page 17 shows the nucleotides of earthly DNA.

And finally, on the last page, it asks for a reply.

There is a large flower_symbol.png glyph at the center – the same “variable” glyph introduced on Page 4. The first two lines on the upper left mean, “What is your mass? What is your size?” (The term for mass was defined on pages 6 and 7 by referencing Avogadro’s number and the mass ratio of the proton and electron.) Here the flower_symbol.png glyph is being used to ask questions. It is a touching final page, saying What about you? It is an invitation to a conversation – and it offers a ready-made language in which a reply can be sent.

But the Dutil-Dumas primer was just the beginning of the message. It was followed by a medley of other materials—written messages, drawings, and photos from people around the world, many of whom had contributed small amounts of money to support the project. There was also a video by the ABC broadcaster Hugh Downs, pictures of country flags, a message from Sally Ride, David Bowie’s song “Starman,” and quite a bit more. What extraterrestrials would make of all this is hard to say.

The primer was sent at a very slow 100 bits per second to maximize its chances of clear transmission. (A high-end WiFi router can send about two billion bits per second.) The rest was sent at 2,000 bits per second to save time and money. Because of its slow speed, the primer is the part of the message most likely to remain readable after traveling for 50 to 70 years in a medium saturated with interstellar radio noise. It may also be the most likely to be understandable by nonhuman intelligences. It may be, in other words, that the primer effectively is the message.

In 1999 no one knew if any nearby stars had potentially habitable planets where a civilization could be living. So the Cosmic Call team did some guessing. Their target list consisted of nine stars that were, among other things, (a) similar to the Sun, (b) visible from Evpatoria, and (c) in the galactic plane. After all, if a target star is uninhabited, perhaps the next star after it will have someone at home. (Zaitsev gives the target list here.)

Today, three of those stars are known to have planets. Hip 43587, also known as 55 Cancri, is 41 light-years away and has five planets. One of them is in the habitable zone, that is, at the right distance from its star for water to remain liquid. However, it’s a Neptune-sized gas giant that couldn’t support life as we know it. But if it has moons, one of them might be habitable. If a moon is large enough, it can have an atmosphere just like a planet. So it’s just conceivable that someone there will get the message in 2044.

16 Cygni is a triple-star system, and one of its stars, 16 Cygni B, has a gas giant that was discovered in 1996 by ground-based telescopes. It, too, might have moons. It spends part of its orbit in the habitable zone, but only part; in the rest of its orbit water would either freeze or boil. It might be that on average the temperature on a moon would stay in the liquid range, making it habitable -- but that’s a long shot. The message will arrive there in 2069.

HD 190360, fifty-two light-years away, has two planets, but neither are in the habitable zone. The message will probably race past them in 2051 unobserved.

The other six stars haven’t been scrutinized for planets yet. The closest star in the target list, Hip 4872, is 33 light-years away, so the signal will reach it in 2036. If anyone there is paying attention, and replies right away, we will get that reply in 2069. 

But any realistic person will have to concede that it’s not likely. Time and space are not on humanity’s side. On Earth, uncountable millions of species have gone extinct in the planet’s four-billion year history of life, obliterated by the brutal contingencies of competition, catastrophe, and climate change. Are technological species like us exempt from that rule? No one knows. But we could easily miss neighbors simply because they came and went a million years ago.

Or because they will not emerge until a million years from now. To a planet, a million years is nothing. Proportionally speaking, if Earth was a senior citizen, a million years would be less than a week of its life. Missing a next-door civilization by a million years is like never meeting the love of your life because she moved to your city a week after you left.

And even if someone is home, and has the equipment to listen, they will have to be listening during the four-hour period in which the message sweeps past them. What if their antennas dedicated to SETI are pointing somewhere else that day? Clearly, any truly serious effort at interstellar communication will have to run continuously, and on both ends.

We can but hope.


The odds of getting a reply to the Cosmic Call seem remote. But should we be shouting into the cosmos in the first place? Could it bring aliens to our doorstep who want “to serve man” as dinner?

In fact, the National Space Agency of Ukraine, as it was called at the time, was alarmed enough to stop the transmission in 1999 after the message had been sent to the first star on the target list. According to Zaitsev, the agency was rattled by the attention the message was getting from the press. “Such energetic reaction of Western mass media also was an alarming news for Kiev's officers,” he says. In addition, they had been told that the transmissions were “very dangerous for terrestrials and that USA's deep space stations refused to make Cosmic Call transmission.” They pulled the plug. Zaitsev rushed to Kiev to reassure the brass, and the transmissions resumed on June 30, 1999.

The science fiction writer David Brin has expressed strong objections to projects like Cosmic Call. It’s not the act of messaging in itself that Brin objects to. He thinks the risks are probably small and agrees that the benefits of a reply could be immense. But the risk is not zero, he points out. Even friendly contact between cultures on Earth has led to the destabilization of the less-developed one. So consultation and mutual agreement are needed, rather than independent efforts. Brin writes, “But when that risk is also imposed upon our children – all of humanity and our planet – is it too much to ask that we discuss it first?

The problem with having such a discussion, Brin admits, is that fear might prevail. Given the impossibility of refuting the alarmists, humanity might choose never to send a message again. If every species in the cosmos goes by the same logic, then obviously no conversation will ever get started. But a discussion would also examine the benefits, Brin thinks, and aim for a compromise approach. It would be of profound interest, he says: “Televised worldwide, it could enthrall millions and deal with every topic from physics and biology to history and anthropology -- a win-win that would doubtless benefit SETI as well.”

Richard Braastad, now a writer living in Houston, was the Cosmic Call’s coordinator, responsible for assembling the message and preparing it for transmission. He downplays the risks, pointing out that on Earth developed countries often help people in less-developed ones via efforts like the Peace Corps. “Our motivations as a species are more complex than the simplistic either-or choice between absolute evil and absolute benevolence that seems to dominate debates about the possible moral nature of ETIs,” he says.

One might think sending messages to other stars would be a massive, expensive job. No. It isn’t. The Cosmic Call was essentially a crowdfunded hobby project. Chafer estimates that it cost about $50,000 in direct costs, plus another $50,000 in indirect costs such as staff time. Much of the money came from small donations triggered by media coverage. Chafer thinks it took fewer than 20 people, all told, to create the message and send it.

But the drawback of freelance projects like Cosmic Call is that there’s no institution to preserve a memory of them. The message hasn’t been particularly well-archived. (Sadly, Stéphane Dumas died unexpectedly in August 2016.) It would be embarrassing if we got a reply in 2069 and no one could remember what we had sent. All of the websites that had archived it have disappeared, except for an incomplete remnant preserved here by an Internet archive. The only documents that show the primers are PDFs buried on obscure websites. The 1999 primer is here, and both the 1999 and 2003 primers are explained here

So one of humanity’s most intellectually ambitious interstellar messages, and so far the one most likely to get where it’s going, was written by two people, Dutil and Dumas. There’s a lesson there. If we ever receive a message from another civilization, it may not be from a committee of its august wise heads (or whatever they have instead of heads.) It may not be from their equivalent of the United Nations or United Federation of Planets. A civilization modestly more developed than ours could be using Evpatoria-class transmitters for the local equivalent of high-school science projects. In other words, Earth’s long-awaited first message from aliens, if it ever comes, could basically be from a couple of guys

Ryan NYP "Spirit of St. Louis", Charles A. Lindbergh

National Air and Space Museum
Silver colored doped fabric covered high wing single radial engine monoplane. The "Spirit of St. Louis" was designed by Donald Hall under the direct supervision of Charles Lindbergh. It is a highly modified version of a conventional Ryan M-2 strut-braced monoplane, powered by a reliable 223hp Wright J-5C engine. Because the fuel tanks were located ahead of the cockpit for safety in case of an accident, Lindbergh could not see directly ahead, except by using a periscope on the left side or by turning the airplane and looking out a side window. The two tubes beneath the fuselage are flare dispensers that were installed for Lindbergh's flights to Latin America and the Caribbean.

"Our messenger of peace and goodwill has broken down another barrier of time and space." So spoke President Calvin Coolidge about Charles A. Lindbergh’s extraordinary solo transatlantic flight in 1927. Not until the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969 was the entire world again as enthusiastic about an aviation event as it was when Lindbergh landed his little Ryan monoplane in Paris.

In 1922, after a year and a half at the University of Wisconsin, Lindbergh left to study aeronautics with the Nebraska Aircraft Corporation. He was a ‘barnstormer" until 1924, when he enrolled as a flying cadet in the Army Air Service. He won his reserve commission and began serving as a civilian airmail pilot, flying the route between St. Louis and Chicago.

Early in 1927 he obtained the backing of several St. Louis men to compete for the $25,000 prize offered by Raymond Orteig in 1919 for the first nonstop flight between New York City and Paris. In February of that year Lindbergh placed an order with Ryan Airlines in San Diego for an aircraft with specifications necessary to make the flight.

Development began based on a standard Ryan M-2, with Donald A. Hall as principal designer. Certain modifications to the basic high-wing, strut-braced monoplane design had to be made because of the nature of the flight. The wingspan was increased by 10 feet and the structural members of the fuselage and wing cellule were redesigned to accommodate the greater fuel load. Plywood was fitted along the leading edge of the wings. The fuselage design followed that of a standard M-2 except that it was lengthened 2 feet. The cockpit was moved further to the rear for safety and the engine was moved forward for balance, thus permitting the fuel tank to be installed at the center of gravity. The pilot could see forward only by means of a periscope or by turning the aircraft to look out of a side window. A Wright Whirlwind J-5C engine supplied the power.

Late in April 1927 the work on the aircraft was completed. It was painted silver and carried registration number N-X-21 1, which, with all other lettering on the plane, was painted in black. Lindbergh made several test flights, and then flew the aircraft from San Diego to New York on May 10—12, making only one stop, at St. Louis. His flight time of 21 hours, 40 minutes set a new transcontinental record.

After waiting several days in New York for favorable weather, Lindbergh took off for Paris alone, on the morning of May 20, 1927. Thirty-three hours, 30 minutes, and 3,610 miles later he landed safely at Le Bourget Field, near Paris, where he was greeted by a wildly enthusiastic crowd of 100,000.

Lindbergh and the Spirit of St Louis returned to the United States aboard the U.S.S. Memphis on June 11. He received tumultuous welcomes in Washington, D.C. and New York City. From July 20 until October 23 of that year he took the famous plane on a tour of the United States. Then, on December 13, he and the Spirit of St. Louis flew nonstop from Washington to Mexico City; through Central America, Colombia, Venezuela, Puerto Rico; and nonstop from Havana to St. Louis. Beginning in Mexico City, flags of the countries he visited were painted on both sides of the cowling.

On April 30, 1928, the Spirit of St. Louis made its final flight—from St. Louis to Washington, D.C where Lindbergh presented the aircraft to the Smithsonian Institution.

"Our messenger of peace and goodwill has broken down another barrier of time and space." So spoke President Calvin Coolidge about Charles A. Lindbergh’s extraordinary solo transatlantic flight in 1927. Not until the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969 was the entire world again as enthusiastic about an aviation event as it was when Lindbergh landed his little Ryan monoplane in Paris.

In 1922, after a year and a half at the University of Wisconsin, Lindbergh left to study aeronautics with the Nebraska Aircraft Corporation. He was a ‘barnstormer" until 1924, when he enrolled as a flying cadet in the Army Air Service. He won his reserve commission and began serving as a civilian airmail pilot, flying the route between St. Louis and Chicago.

Early in 1927 he obtained the backing of several St. Louis men to compete for the $25,000 prize offered by Raymond Orteig in 1919 for the first nonstop flight between New York City and Paris. In February of that year Lindbergh placed an order with Ryan Airlines in San Diego for an aircraft with specifications necessary to make the flight.

Development began based on a standard Ryan M-2, with Donald A. Hall as principal designer. Certain modifications to the basic high-wing, strut-braced monoplane design had to be made because of the nature of the flight. The wingspan was increased by 10 feet and the structural members of the fuselage and wing cellule were redesigned to accommodate the greater fuel load. Plywood was fitted along the leading edge of the wings. The fuselage design followed that of a standard M-2 except that it was lengthened 2 feet. The cockpit was moved further to the rear for safety and the engine was moved forward for balance, thus permitting the fuel tank to be installed at the center of gravity. The pilot could see forward only by means of a periscope or by turning the aircraft to look out of a side window. A Wright Whirlwind J-5C engine supplied the power.

Late in April 1927 the work on the aircraft was completed. It was painted silver and carried registration number N-X-21 1, which, with all other lettering on the plane, was painted in black. Lindbergh made several test flights, and then flew the aircraft from San Diego to New York on May 10—12, making only one stop, at St. Louis. His flight time of 21 hours, 40 minutes set a new transcontinental record.

After waiting several days in New York for favorable weather, Lindbergh took off for Paris alone, on the morning of May 20, 1927. Thirty-three hours, 30 minutes, and 3,610 miles later he landed safely at Le Bourget Field, near Paris, where he was greeted by a wildly enthusiastic crowd of 100,000.

Lindbergh and the Spirit of St Louis returned to the United States aboard the U.S.S. Memphis on June 11. He received tumultuous welcomes in Washington, D.C. and New York City. From July 20 until October 23 of that year he took the famous plane on a tour of the United States. Then, on December 13, he and the Spirit of St. Louis flew nonstop from Washington to Mexico City; through Central America, Colombia, Venezuela, Puerto Rico; and nonstop from Havana to St. Louis. Beginning in Mexico City, flags of the countries he visited were painted on both sides of the cowling.

On April 30, 1928, the Spirit of St. Louis made its final flight—from St. Louis to Washington, D.C where Lindbergh presented the aircraft to the Smithsonian Institution.

1900 Wright Glider (reproduction)

National Air and Space Museum
Full-size reproduction of the Wright brothers' 1900 glider, built in 2003. Fabric-covered wooden-frame biplane, with no vertical tail. Only a horizontal forward elevator. Natural fabric finish; no sealant or paint of any kind.

On their path to the first successful powered airplane, the 1903 Wright Flyer, the Wright brothers built three full-size gliders to test their design ideas regarding control, aerodynamics, and structures. The first one in 1900 produced less lift than the brothers' calculations predicted, but its wing-warping system for lateral control and forward elevator for pitch control worked beautifully. The Wrights primarily flew the 1900 glider as a kite, with no pilot aboard, to test its performance, but they did make a few free glides with Wilbur Wright as pilot, totaling two minutes in the air.

None of the three experimental Wright gliders exist. The Wrights did not preserve them because they saw them merely as research tools, and they were rather beat up from testing. This reproduction was built during the 2003 Wright centennial year. Numerous groups and individuals built reproduction Wright aircraft to celebrate the first century of powered flight and to learn more about the Wright brothers' inventive process.

On December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers inaugurated the aerial age with their successful first flights of a heavier-than-air flying machine at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. This airplane, known as the Wright Flyer, sometimes referred to as the Kitty Hawk Flyer, was the product of a sophisticated four-year program of research and development conducted by Wilbur and Orville Wright beginning in 1899. During the Wrights' design and construction of their experimental aircraft they also pioneered many of the basic tenets and techniques of modern aeronautical engineering, such as the use of a wind tunnel and flight testing as design tools. Their seminal accomplishment encompassed not only the breakthrough first flight of an airplane, but also the equally important achievement of establishing the foundation of aeronautical engineering.

The Wright brothers had a passing interest in flight as youngsters. In 1878 their father gave them a toy flying helicopter model powered by strands of twisted rubber. They played and experimented with it extensively and even built several larger copies of the device. They also had some experience with kites. But not until 1896, prompted by the widely publicized fatal crash of famed glider pioneer Otto Lilienthal, did the Wrights begin serious study of flight. After absorbing what materials related to the subject the brothers had available locally, Wilbur wrote to the Smithsonian Institution on May 30, 1899, requesting any publications on aeronautics that it could offer.

Shortly after their receipt of the Smithsonian materials, the Wrights built their first aeronautical craft, a five-foot-wingspan biplane kite, in the summer of 1899. The Wrights chose to follow Lilienthal's lead of using gliders as a stepping stone towards a practical powered airplane. The 1899 kite was built as a preliminary test device to establish the viability of the control system that they planned to use in their first full-size glider. This means of control would be a central feature of the later successful powered airplane.

Rather than controlling the craft by altering the center of gravity by shifting the pilot's body weight as Lilienthal had done, the Wrights intended to balance their glider aerodynamically. They reasoned that if a wing generates lift when presented to an oncoming flow of air, producing differing amounts of lift on either end of the wing would cause one side to rise more than the other, which in turn would bank the entire aircraft. A mechanical means of inducing this differential lift would provide the pilot with effective lateral control of the airplane. The Wrights accomplished this by twisting, or warping, the tips of the wings in opposite directions via a series of lines attached to the outer edges of the wings that were manipulated by the pilot. The idea advanced aeronautical experimentation significantly because it provided an effective method of controlling an airplane in three-dimensional space and, because it was aerodynamically based, it did not limit the size of the aircraft as shifting body weight obviously did. The satisfactory performance of the 1899 kite demonstrated the practicality of the wing warping control system.

Encouraged by the success of their small wing warping kite, the brothers built and flew two full-size piloted gliders in 1900 and 1901. Beyond the issue of control, the Wrights had to grapple with developing an efficient airfoil shape and solving fundamental problems of structural design. Like the kite, these gliders were biplanes. For control of climb and descent, the gliders had forward-mounted horizontal stabilizers. Neither craft had a tail. The Wrights' home of Dayton, Ohio, did not offer suitable conditions for flying the gliders. An inquiry with the U.S. Weather Bureau identified Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, with its sandy, wide-open spaces and strong, steady winds as an optimal test site. In September 1900, the Wrights made their first trip to the little fishing hamlet that they would make world famous.

The Wrights primarily flew the 1900 glider as a kite, with no pilot aboard, to test its performance, but they did make a few free glides with Wilbur Wright as pilot, totaling two minutes in the air. Although the control system worked well and the structural design of the craft was sound, the lift of this, as well as their second glider in 1901, was substantially less than the Wrights' earlier calculations had predicted. They began to question seriously the aerodynamic data that they had used. Now at a critical juncture, Wilbur and Orville decided to conduct an extensive series of tests of wing shapes. They built a small wind tunnel in the fall of 1901 to gather a body of accurate aerodynamic data with which to design their next glider. The heart of the Wright wind tunnel was the ingeniously designed pair of test instruments that were mounted inside. These measured coefficients of lift and drag on small model wing shapes, the terms in the equations for calculating lift and drag about which the brothers were in doubt.

The Wrights' third glider, built in 1902 based on the wind tunnel experiments, was a dramatic success. The lift problems were solved, and with a few refinements to the control system (the key one being a movable vertical tail), they were able to make numerous extended controlled glides. They made between seven hundred and one thousand flights in 1902. The single best one was 191.5 m (622.5 ft) in twenty-six seconds. The brothers were now convinced that they stood at the threshold of realizing mechanical flight.

During the spring and summer of 1903 they built their first powered airplane. Essentially a larger and sturdier version of the 1902 glider, the only fundamentally new component of the 1903 aircraft was the propulsion system. With the assistance of their bicycle shop mechanic, Charles Taylor, the Wrights built a small, twelve-horsepower gasoline engine. While the engine was a significant enough achievement, the genuinely innovative feature of the propulsion system was the propellers. The brothers conceived the propellers as rotary wings, producing a horizontal thrust force aerodynamically. By turning an airfoil section on its side and spinning it to create an air flow over the surface, the Wrights reasoned that a horizontal "lift" force would be generated that would propel the airplane forward. The concept was one of the most original and creative aspects of the Wrights' aeronautical work. The 1903 airplane was fitted with two propellers mounted behind the wings and connected to the engine, centrally located on the bottom wing, via a chain-and-sprocket transmission system.

By the fall of 1903, the powered airplane was ready for trial. A number of problems with the engine transmission system delayed the first flight attempt until mid-December. After winning the toss of a coin to determine which brother would make the first try, Wilbur took the pilot's position and made an unsuccessful attempt on December 14th, damaging the Flyer slightly. Repairs were completed for a second attempt on December 17. It was now Orville's turn. At 10:35 a.m. the Flyer lifted off the beach at Kitty Hawk for a twelve-second flight, traveling 36 m (120 ft). Three more flights were made that morning, the brothers alternating as pilot. The second and third were in the range of two hundred feet. With Wilbur at the controls, the fourth and last flight covered 255.6 m (852 ft) in 59 seconds. With this final long, sustained effort, there was no question the Wrights had flown.

None of the three experimental Wright gliders exist. The Wrights did not preserve them because they saw them merely as research tools and they were rather beat up from testing. This reproduction of the 1900 glider was built during the 2003 Wright centennial year. Numerous groups and individuals built reproduction Wright aircraft to celebrate the first century of powered flight and to learn more about the Wright brothers' inventive process.

What Happened When Hong Kong's Schools Went Virtual to Combat the Spread of Coronavirus

Smithsonian Magazine

In the video, my son’s preschool teacher is sitting alone in an empty classroom, surrounded by wooden toy blocks. “When I am building, do I put the small block down and then the big block?” she asks the camera. “Or do I put the big block and then the small block?”

My 3-year-old son is lounging on the couch, half watching, half flipping through a pop-up book. He’s dressed in a fleece shark costume, his preferred attire when not forced to wear his school uniform.

This is what "school" looks like these days here in Hong Kong. Because of the coronavirus outbreak, all schools, including my son's private bilingual preschool, have been closed since January, and won’t reopen until late April at the earliest. "The exact date of class resumption is subject to further assessment," announced the Education Bureau, which controls all schools in Hong Kong, public and private, on February 25. It’s all part of the “social distancing” measures the city has mandated to slow the virus’s spread, which include closing libraries, museums and recreation facilities like pools. Students from preschoolers through PhD candidates are now doing all their education online, a move the Education Bureau calls "suspending classes without suspending learning."

As coronavirus spreads across the globe, other countries are joining Hong Kong and mainland China in this massive, unplanned experiment in online learning. According to Unesco, as of Friday, 14 countries have shut schools down nationwide, affecting upwards of 290 million students, while 13 countries, including the United States, have seen localized school closings. In recent days, schools from Scarsdale, New York, to San Francisco have closed temporarily over contagion concerns. The University of Washington and Stanford University have turned to online classes for the remainder of the quarter, and others are following suit for various lengths of time. Some experts believe more widespread and long-term closures will be necessary in areas with high levels of community transmission. States are preparing for that possibility by looking at their own online learning policies.

A teacher edits a video lesson he recorded for his students. (Isaac Lawrence/AFP via Getty Images)

But what does online learning involve here in Hong Kong? It depends. The city benefits from high internet penetration—90 percent of citizens over 10 years old are online. But beyond that it gets more complicated. The city has a diverse variety of schools, from free government-run schools to partially subsidized English-language schools for non-Cantonese speakers to private religious and international schools. Hong Kong has no specific online curriculum, so schools are cobbling together their own solutions using a myriad of platforms and apps, from Google Classroom, a free web service for assigning and sharing work, to BrainPOP, a site offering animated educational videos. Some students are expected to work alongside their classmates in real time. Others are allowed to watch pre-recorded videos or complete emailed worksheets at their own pace. Some parents are happy with their setups. Others have taken to Facebook to commiserate over “mommy needs wine” memes. The situation can give some insight into what Americans might expect as some schools transition to online learning.

“I’ve been working from home the past four weeks, and it’s been incredibly insightful to actually see what’s going on, because normally I’m not in school,” says Anna Adasiewicz, a business development manager originally from Poland, who has lived in Hong Kong for 16 years. Her 12-year-old daughter attends a subsidized English-language school run by the English Schools Foundation, which runs 22 schools in Hong Kong.

Unlike my son and his shark costume, Adasiewicz’s daughter is expected to be “dressed appropriately” and sit at a table, not a couch, when she logs on to Google Classroom each morning. Her school has been using the free service to share assignments, monitor progress, and let students and teachers chat. They're also doing interactive lessons via Google Hangouts Meet, a virtual-meeting software made free in the wake of the coronavirus.

“I actually think she’s more focused with this approach,” Adasiewicz says. “She’s not distracted by other kids. The class sizes are normally about 30, so I imagine a typical teacher spends a good portion of the time on behavior management. Here the teacher can mute anyone!”

Cat Lao, a special education classroom assistant, whose daughters are 3, 6 and 8, has also been happy with the experience. Her youngest daughter is in a local preschool while her older two attend an English Schools Foundation primary school. Her middle daughter has been using the Seesaw app to share assignments with her teacher and receive feedback. Her eldest daughter has been using Google Classroom and Flipgrid, an app that lets teachers set topics or questions for students to respond to via video. This child especially appreciates the real-time Google Meets, Lao says, since she misses the social aspects of school.

“They’re still learning, and still part of their community as much as they can be,” she says.

But many parents are not happy to find themselves working as de facto part-time teachers.

“For parents who have to work from home, managing school can be quite a task,” says Pragati Mor, a teacher and mother of two young daughters who attend the French International School of Hong Kong.

Her children’s online learning program has been full of technological glitches, Mor says, which requires taking time from her own workday to fuss with unfamiliar programs.

“It needs adult supervision,” she says. “It can be quite daunting.”

Susan Bridges, an education professor at the University of Hong Kong who studies online learning, admits, “It’s a challenge; lots of parents are having to adjust their lifestyles to what feels like homeschooling.”

Research shows that it’s more difficult to keep students motivated online, which means teachers need to mix up their strategies, Bridges says. This can include making lectures shorter, and incorporating real-time quizzes and online small group work. Another problem is testing. If a teacher had planned a proctored exam, they may need to switch to an unsupervised type of assessment instead, such as a term paper. Then there’s the question of hands-on learning, which is especially important in some higher education fields, such as medicine or speech pathology.

“All of that field work that’s essential for our professional and clinical programs, all of these are very difficult to replace, so that’s a big challenge,” Bridges says.

Charles Taylor, the owner of an English-language tutoring center in Hong Kong’s New Territories district, has had to think outside the box to make online learning successful. Before coronavirus hit, he’d already begun using a virtual classroom platform called WizIQ to connect his students with classrooms in Southeast Asia, as a sort of online exchange program. This put him in a better position than many to jump directly to online learning, he says. The main challenge is keeping young children engaged without the physical presence of a teacher. To deal with this, he’s shortened class lengths from an hour to 30 minutes for his 5- and 6-year-old students.

“I think this situation is a really great opportunity for people to be utilizing technology in a more fundamental kind of way,” he says.

Successful online learning is all about “engagement and interaction,” Bridges says. The University of Hong Kong has been helping its professors create more dynamic online learning environments using video meeting platforms like Zoom and recording technology like Panopto, which make it possible to insert quizzes, PowerPoints and captions into pre-recorded lectures. Beyond that, class formats have been up to the individual professors.

But, as Bridges points out, privacy and space are major concerns. Professors are discovering that students won’t turn on their video cameras because they’re embarrassed to be sitting in their childhood bedrooms in front of old K-Pop posters. Zoom has a solution for this, as Bridges demonstrates to me. She turns on a digital background and suddenly she appears to be in a sunny, minimalist office, a potted plant on the desk behind her. Other than a slight pixilation of her face, it looks pretty real.

“These are just little fix-its,” she says.

Still, a digital background can’t change the stresses of multiple people learning and working in Hong Kong’s notoriously tiny apartments.

“It’s crowded, it’s complicated, there are demands on technology,” says Adasiewicz, whose husband, a lawyer, has also been working from home. “We had to update our router.”

A woman and a boy wear a mask as they play basketball on February 27, 2020, in Hong Kong. (Vernon Yuen/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Childcare is a major issue as well. Many Hong Kongers are now returning to their offices after an extended period of working remotely, leaving children at home in front of screens. Some rely on their nannies—nearly half of Hong Kong families with children and a working mother employ a live-in “foreign domestic helper,” usually from the Philippines or Indonesia. Other families count on grandparents for childcare, which means elderly caregivers who may not speak English must serve as tech support.

And not all classes lend themselves to online education. It’s hard to teach physical education online, and missing out on exercise is a problem not only for obesity rates but also for vision. Hong Kong has one of the highest rates of myopia (near-sightedness) in the world, with some 70 percent of kids over 12 suffering, and experts believe it’s because children spend too much time indoors looking at close objects like books and tablets. For many kids, who live in crowded housing estates with little green space, schools’ tracks and rooftop basketball courts provide some of the few opportunities they have for outdoor play. Some schools are encouraging students to take frequent breaks to do mini-exercises like a minute of jumping jacks.

Many hope this experience will force Hong Kong schools to professionalize and standardize their online curricula. This could potentially provide a template for other cities and countries facing their own coronavirus school shutdowns.

“Could this crisis inspire the bureau [of education] to incorporate online learning into the official curriculum and take Hong Kong education to the next level?” wondered Chak Fu Lam, a professor of management at the City University of Hong Kong, in a letter to the editor of the South China Morning Post.

At the end of the day, most parents and teachers seem to understand the situation is out of their control, and that everyone is doing the best they can.

“We have to embrace technology,” Adasiewicz says. “It’s coming our way whether we like it or not.”

Unfortunately, it seems, so is coronavirus.

The Bold Accomplishments of Women of Color Need to Be a Bigger Part of Suffrage History

Smithsonian Magazine

The history of women gaining the right to vote in the United States makes for riveting material notes Kim Sajet, the director of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in the catalog for the museum’s upcoming exhibition, “Votes For Women: a Portrait of Persistence,” and curated by historian Kate Clarke Lemay. “It is not a feel-good story about hard-fought, victorious battles for female equality,” Sajet writes of the show, which delves into the “past with all its biases and complexities” and pays close attention to women of color working on all fronts in a movement that took place in churches and hospitals and in statehouses and on college campuses. With portraiture as its vehicle, the task to represent the story proved challenging in the search and gathering of the images—the Portrait Gallery collection itself is historically biased with just 18 percent of its images representing women.

In this conversation, Lemay and Martha S. Jones, Johns Hopkins University’s Society of Black Alumni presidential professor and author of All Bound Up Together, reflect on the diverse experiences of the “radical women” who built an enduring social movement.

Many Americans know the names Susan B. Anthony or Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but the fight for suffrage encompassed a much wider range of women than we might have studied in history class. What “hidden stories” about the movement does this exhibition uncover?

Lemay: Putting together this exhibition was revealing of how much American women have contributed to history but how little attention we have paid them.

For example, when you think of African-American women activists, many people know about Rosa Parks or Ida B. Wells. But I didn’t know about Sarah Remond, a free African-American who in 1853 was forcibly ejected from her seat at the opera in Boston. She was an abolitionist and was used to fighting for citizenship rights. When she was ejected, she sued and was awarded $500. I hadn’t heard this story before, but I was really moved by her courage and her activism, which didn’t stop—it just kept growing.

The exhibition starts in 1832 with a section called “Radical Women,” which traces women’s early activism. You don’t think of women in these very buttoned-up, conservative dresses as “radical” but they were—they were completely breaking from convention.

Jones: Some of these stories have been hiding in plain sight. In the section on “Radical Women,” visitors are re-introduced to a figure like Sojourner Truth. She is someone whose life is often shrouded in myth, both in her own lifetime and in our own time. Here, we have the opportunity to situate her as a historical figure rather than a mythical figure and set her alongside peers like Lucy Stone, who we more ordinarily associate with the history of women’s suffrage.

Image by NPG. Zitkála-Šá by Joseph T. Keiley, 1898 (original image)

Image by Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library, Emory University. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, unidentified artist, 1895 (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives. Anna Julia Haywood (Cooper) by H. M. Platt, 1884 (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives. Ida A. Gibbs Hunt by H. M. Platt, 1884 (original image)

Image by State Archives of Florida, Collection M95-2, Florida Memory Image #PROO755. Mary McLeod Bethune by William Ludlow Coursen, 1910 or 1911 (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives. Mary E. Church Terrell by H. M. Platt, 1884 (original image)

Image by NPG, gift of Frederick M. Rock. Lucretia Coffin Mott, unidentified artist, c. 1865 (original image)

Image by NPG. Ida B. Wells-Barnett by Sallie E. Garrity, c. 1893 (original image)

The exhibition introduces us to more than 60 suffragists primarily through their portraits. How does this particular medium bring the suffrage movement to life?

Lemay: It’s interesting to see how formal, conventional portraits were used by these “radical women” to demonstrate their respectability. For example, in a Sojourner Truth portrait taken in 1870, she made sure to be portrayed as someone who wasn’t formerly enslaved. Being portrayed as such would have garnered her much more profit as the image would have been considered a more “collectible” item. Instead, she manifested dignity in the way that she dressed and posed . . . she insisted in portraying herself as a free woman.

We see a strong element of self-awareness in these portraits. Lucretia Coffin Mott, a great abolitionist, dressed in Quaker clothing that she often made herself. She was specific about where she sourced her clothing as well, conveying the message that it wasn’t made as a result of forced labor.

On the exhibition catalogue cover, we see Mary McLeod Bethune, beautifully dressed in satin and lace. The exhibition presents the use of photography as a great equalizer; it afforded portraiture to more than just the wealthy elite.

Jones: The other context for African-American portraits, outside the bounds of this exhibition, is the world of caricature and ridicule that African-American women were subjected to in their daily lives. We can view these portraits as “self-fashioning,” but it is a fashioning that is in dialog with, and opposition to, cruel, racist images that are being produced of these women at the same time.

I see these images as political acts, both for making claims about womanhood but also making claims for black womanhood. Sojourner Truth’s garb is an interesting mix of Quaker self-fashioning and finely crafted, elegant fabrics. The middle-class trappings behind her are worth noticing. This is a contrast to later images of someone like Ida B. Wells, who is much more mindful of crafting herself in the fashion of the day.

African-American suffragists were excluded from many leading suffrage organizations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries due to discrimination. How did they make their voices heard in the movement?

Jones: I’m not sure African-American women thought there was only one movement. They came out of many movements: the anti-slavery movement, their own church communities, self-created clubs.

African-American women were oftentimes at odds with their white counterparts in some of the mainstream organizations, so they continued to use their church communities as an organizing base, to develop ideas about women’s rights. The club movement, begun to help African-American women see one other as political beings, became another foundation.

By the end of the 19th century, many of these women joined the Republican Party. In cities like Chicago, African-American women embraced party politics and allied themselves with party operatives. They used their influence and ability to vote at the state level, even before 1920, to affect the question of women’s suffrage nationally.

Lemay: The idea that there were multiple movements is at the forefront of “Votes for Women.” Suffrage, writ large, involves women’s activism for issues including education and financial independence. For example, two African-American women in the exhibition, Anna Julia Cooper and Mary McLeod Bethune, made great strides advocating for college preparatory schools for black students. It’s remarkable to see what they and other African-American women accomplished despite society’s constraints on them.

The 19th Amendment, ratified in 1920, did not resolve the issue of suffrage for many women of color and immigrant women, who continued to battle for voting rights for decades. Might we consider the Voting Rights Act of 1965 part of the 19th Amendment’s legacy?

Jones: Yes and no. I can’t say that the intention of the 19th Amendment was to guarantee to African-American women the right to vote. I think the story of the 19th Amendment is a concession to the ongoing disenfranchisement of African-Americans.

We could draw a line from African-Americans who mobilized for ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but we’d have to acknowledge that is a very lonely journey for black Americans.

Black Americans might have offered a view that the purpose of the 19th Amendment was not to secure for women the right to vote, but to secure the vote so that women could use it to continue the work of social justice.

Of course, there was much work to be done on the question of women and voting rights subsequent to the 19th Amendment. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was the point at which black men and women were put much closer to equal footing when it comes to voting rights in this country.

Is there one particular suffragist in “Votes for Women” who stood out for her persistence, perhaps serving as a guidepost for activists today?

Lemay: All of the suffragists showed persistence, but two that come to mind are Zitkála-Šá and Susette LaFlesche Tibbles—both remarkable Native-American women leaders. Their activism for voting rights ultimately helped to achieve the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, which granted citizenship to all Native-Americans born in the United States. But their legacy stretched well beyond 1924. In fact, some states excluded Native-Americans from voting rights through the early 1960s, and even today, North Dakota disenfranchises Native-Americans by insisting that they have a physical address rather than a P.O. box. More than a century ago, these two women started a movement that remains essential.

Jones: My favorite figure in the exhibition is Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Here’s a woman born before the Civil War in a slave-holding state who was orphaned at a young age. She emerges onto the public stage as a poet. She goes on to be an Underground Railroad and anti-slavery activist. She is present at the Women’s Convention of 1866 and joins the movement for suffrage.

The arc of her life is remarkable, but, in her many embodiments, she tells us a story that women’s lives aren’t only one thing. And she tells us that the purpose of women’s rights is to raise up all of humanity, men and women. She persists in advocating for a set of values that reflect the principles of human rights today.

On March 29, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery opens its major exhibition on the history of women’s suffrage—“Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence,” curated by Kate Clarke Lemay. The exhibition details the more than 80-year struggle for suffrage through portraits of women who represent different races, ages, abilities and fields of endeavor.

A version of this article was published by the American Women’s History Initiative.

The Year of Jackie Robinson's Mutual Love Affair With Montreal

Smithsonian Magazine

On April 18, 1946, Jackie Robinson, wearing a Montreal Royals jersey (#9)  stepped to the plate in front of 52,000 raucous fans at the over-capacity Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City. As he settled in for his first official at-bat as a professional in an integrated baseball game, Rachel, his wife of just over two months, was pacing in the aisles, too nervous to sit. On a full count pitch, Robinson grounded out to the shortstop. It was the only out he’d make that day. His next plate appearance was a three-run homer; he was met with an outstretched hand by teammate George “Shotgun” Shuba, the first known photographed moment of black and white players saluting each other on a diamond. Robinson followed up the dinger with a bunt single, a steal of second, and ultimately a balk home after rattling the pitcher dancing down the third base line. Robinson’s final stat line was 4-5 with four RBIs in a 14-1 victory.

Plenty of opposing fans were belligerent, shouting out racial slurs, but many more in the crowd roared his every move. Robinson’s debut was indicative of the year he was about to have with the Royals, a season that is often overlooked in his storied legacy. It was pivotal, coming on the heels of a spring training experience in Florida that was also a harbinger of the bigotry and ugliness he would face throughout his professional career.

“Coming from California, Jack and I had never been to the Deep South and the treatment we received there was just horrendous,” says Rachel Robinson about her husband in an interview.

About eight months prior to that day in Jersey City, Jackie Robinson first met with Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey. In October, 1945, the team announced that Robinson had joined the organization for $600 a month with a $3,500 signing bonus, but Rickey had devised a plan to ease the future star and civil rights pioneer into the spotlight. Sending Robinson to play with the team’s triple-A minor league affiliate in Montreal was by design; Rickey felt it was the best place for Robinson to get acclimated to baseball in relative tranquility.

Jackie Robinson, in military uniform, becomes the first African American to sign with a white professional baseball team. He signs a contract with the minor league club in Montreal, a farm team for the Brooklyn Dodgers. (Bettmann/CORBIS)

But first, the Robinsons had to endure a month of spring training in Florida. The Dodgers’ homebase of Daytona Beach, was relatively accepting for the time, but what they encountered in the Florida towns of Jacksonville, Sanford and Deland was hostility and bigotry.

Among the indignities the Robinsons suffered in spring training were getting bumped off of two flights with little or no official reason given (in both cases, their seats were given to whites), being shunted to the back of a bus on the way to Daytona by a driver who called him “boy,” not being able to dine with his teammates,, and being forced to live apart from the team in the home of Duff and Joe Harris, a local pharmacist and black leader. The Dodgers themselves weren’t immune from Jim Crow; they arrived in Jacksonville to find the stadium padlocked, and the game canceled because the lights weren’t working; it was an afternoon contest. For Robinson, racism even wore the same uniform. Years later, he would learn that early on, Rickey described a catch he made as a “superhuman play,” Montreal Royals manager Clay Hopper, a Mississippi native, responded, “Mr. Rickey do you really think a nigger’s a human being?”

Jackie Robinson, pictured with other members of the Montreal Royals on the bench at Kelley Field during a game with the Brooklyn Dodgers the Dodgers signed Robinson and farmed him out to the Royals. (Bettmann/CORBIS)

In Montreal, the situation was the polar opposite. “We were still shaking from the experience we had before going to Canada,” says Rachel Robinson, who started the Jackie Robinson Foundation in 1973 to provide college scholarships to disadvantaged students of color and still serves on its board today.

“When we got to Montreal it was like coming out of a nightmare. The atmosphere in Montreal was so positive, we felt it was a good omen for Jack to play well,” says Robinson.

Jack Jedwab 56, a Montreal native and the executive vice-president of the Association for Canadian Studies, says that although it wasn’t utopia, in general, his home country was more idyllic. Canada doesn’t have the history and legally-enforced prejudice towards African-Americans found in the United States.

“The issue of race was not as fundamental a marker of identity in Canada as it was in the U.S.,” says Jedwab, author of Jackie Robinson’s Unforgettable Season of Baseball in Montreal. “It wasn’t an existential issue here, our conflicts centered around the ongoing conflicts between the French and English, Catholics and Protestants, they were more religiously based. Some experts argue there was slavery in parts of the British Empire in Canada, but it had nowhere the legacy of the American narrative.”

Peace of mind allowed Jackie to do what he did best, play ball. And what a season the Montreal Royals had, tearing up the Triple-A International League with a record of 100-54, ranked one of the top 100 minor league seasons ever according to The 27-year-old Robinson led the league in average (.349) and runs scored (113), while stealing 40 bases, driving in 66 runs and striking out just 27 times.

Robinson’s year in Montreal was an overwhelming success, but it didn’t entirely erase the memories from spring training, or the abuse he took during the season in towns like Syracuse, where players on the Chiefs taunted him and one threw a black cat on the field, yelling out that it was Jackie’s “cousin.” In mid-season, Robinson became convinced he was seriously ill. In his autobiography I Never Had it Made, Robinson admits that he wasn’t aware of the toll the abuse was taking and says he, was “overestimating my stamina and underestimating the beating I was taking.”

Rachel understood the true source of his tension, the Jim Crow south. “Jack was very angry in Florida, but he had to restrain himself,” says Rachel. “He also wasn’t eating or sleeping well, so we took time off. After he rested and reclaimed his faculties, he was fine for the rest of the season.”

Robinson’s brief bout of mental and physical exhaustion was no match for the young couple’s other amazing development in Montreal. Rachel was pregnant with their first child, Jackie Jr. (who was later killed in an automobile accident at age 24.) Once Rachel began showing, the eight French-speaking children who lived above the Robinsons always carried her groceries. “The neighbors were all friendly and protective,” she says. “The women came over and helped sew my maternity gowns and brought me rationing tickets because they said I needed to eat more meat.”

Jackie Robinson is greeted by Leo Durocher, the Dodger's manager, at the Nacional Stadium in Havana, Cuba, during the team's series of exhibition games. (Bettmann/CORBIS)

Whatever Jackie was eating, it worked. The Royals barnstormed their way to the “Little World Series” against the Louisville Colonels, one of only two teams below the Mason-Dixon line in the rival American Association. The series was set to open in Kentucky, but Robinson wasn’t allowed to stay in the team hotel. It was a big question of whether the Royals were even going to show up. Robinson found lodging, but the discrimination didn’t end there as the Louisville owners put a quota on the number of black fans that could attend the games. Robinson went into an ill-timed slump, going 0-5 in Game 1--the only time that happened all season--and 1-10 in the first three games, His spirits, and his bat, picked up when he returned home to a hero’s welcome. Royals fans were livid at the treatment he’d received and they packed Delormier Downs with full-throated force. Down 2-1, the Royals won the next three games with Robinson driving in the game-winner in the 10th inning of Game 4.

After the 2-0 series Game 6 clincher, and knowing Jackie was headed to greener diamonds, the fans mobbed him after a final curtain call. They hugged and kissed him, tore at his clothes, and Robinson’s sportswriter friend Sam Maltin of the Pittsburgh Courier wrote that there were tears in Robinson’s eyes when the masses lifted him onto their shoulders. Maltin famously described the scene as, “probably the only day in history that a black man ran from a white mob with love instead of lynching on its mind.”

After Robinson’s season, even Clay Hopper shook his hand and sang his praises, saying he’s “a player who must go to the majors. He’s a big-league ballplayer, a good team hustler, and a real gentleman.”

Royals fans certainly embraced Robinson, but surprisingly, his year in Montreal didn’t have staying power in the annals of Canadian sports lore. In part because baseball isn’t hockey, but also because, as Jedwab notes in Canada, it’s a sports story not a civil rights one.

Grantland contributor Jonah Keri, a Montreal native who wrote Up, Up & Away, the definitive history of the Expos, says growing up, the Robinson story wasn’t as ingrained with Canadian kids as it is in America. “My maternal grandfather, who lived in Montreal when Jackie was around, talked about the Expos rather than the old Royals,” says Keri. “That said, city councilman Gerry Snyder's quest to bring professional baseball back to Montreal in the late 1960s definitely had its roots in his affinity -- and Montreal's affinity -- for the glory days of the Royals. To this day, the only statue outside the Expos' old home park Olympic Stadium -- where Hall of Famers Gary Carter and Andre Dawson, and many other greats played -- is of Jackie Robinson.”

The statue was erected in 1987, and in 2011, the former de Gaspes Avenue home of Jackie, Rachel, and their future son was commemorated with a plaque and dedicated as a heritage site, preserved in baseball immortality. On April 15 of this season, the Los Angeles Dodgers will host the Seattle Mariners in major league baseball’s Civil Rights Game, the culmination of its annual Jackie Robinson Day where players throughout baseball don his retired jersey #42.

Breaking major league baseball’s color line will always be the centerpiece of Jackie Robinson’s legacy, but there’s one fan who will never forget his 1946 season with the Montreal Royals.

“In Jack’s book he said he owes more to Canadians than they’ll ever know.  We were passionately in love and brimming with the anticipation of starting a family. I will always feel a deep sense of gratitude and appreciation for the attitudes of the people in Montreal,” says Rachel. “It had a lot to do with our future success.”

Jackie Robinson crosses homeplate after hitting a three-run home run, on Opening Day of the 1946 Montreal Royals season. (Bettmann/CORBIS)

The Men Behind the First Olympic Team

Smithsonian Magazine

Years later, it was said that the whole idea started as a joke.

It was January 1896, and at the Boston Athletic Association’s annual indoor track meet at Mechanic’s Hall, Arthur Blake—a 23-year-old distance-running star for the BAA—had just won the hotly contested 1,000-yard race. Afterward, stockbroker Arthur Burnham, a prominent member of the well-heeled association, was congratulating him on his performance. Blake laughed and said in jest, “Oh, I’m too good for Boston. I ought to go over and run the Marathon, at Athens, in the Olympic Games.”

Burnham looked at him for a moment, and then spoke in earnest. “Would you really go if you had the chance?”

Would I?” Blake responded emphatically. From that moment—or so high jumper Ellery Clark later claimed in his memoirs—Burnham decided that the nine-year-old BAA should send a team to the Games. The result was that the young men from Boston became, in large part, the de facto U.S. Olympic team: the first ever.

The BAA had been founded in 1887 by an eclectic group of former Civil War officers, Boston Brahmins and local luminaries including the celebrated Irish poet and activist John Boyle O’Reilly. With old Yankee wealth as the foundation and forward-minded thinkers at the helm, the Association had in less than a decade risen to become one of the most powerful sports organizations in America.

By January of 1896, most everyone in U.S. athletic circles had heard about the plan to revive the ancient Greek Olympic competitions, promulgated by an energetic Frenchman, Baron Pierre de Coubertin. The diminutive, 34-year-old baron was no stranger to the States or to Boston. In fact, he had attended a conference of physical educators held in the city in 1889, where he presented some of his ideas; Coubertin believed in the integration of intellectual discipline with athletic activity.

As a historian, Coubertin knew that an even greater precedent lay in the distant past; in the quadrennial Games held in ancient Olympia. An internationalist, as well, Coubertin began to envision bringing the world together through sports and athletics and a celebration of this classic “sound mind, sound body” tradition. He presented his ideas at a “jubilee” of French sports organizations held at the Sorbonne in November of 1892.As historian Richard D. Mandell described it in his 1976 book on the first modern Olympic Games, Coubertin had intended that the last paragraphs of his speech would have the greatest impact. Here, the baron’s passions—physical culture, history, Hellenism, internationalism, British public schools—converged to form the spark of his great, earthshaking idea:

“It is clear that the telegraph, railroads, the telephone, dedicated research congresses and expositions have done more for peace than all the treaties and diplomatic conventions. Indeed, I expect that athleticism will do even more.

Let us export our rowers, our runners and our fencers: that will be the free trade of the future. When the day comes that this is introduced... the progress toward peace will receive a powerful new impulse.

All this leads to what we should consider the second part of our program. I hope you will help us... pursue this new project. What I mean is that, on a basis conforming to modern life, we reestablish a great and magnificent institution, the Olympic Games.”

“That was it!” wrote Mandell. “This was Coubertin’s first public proposal for the ultimate step in the internationalization of sport.” As is often the case with bold, new ideas, it was met at first with puzzlement and derision. But Coubertin was tireless in promoting his vision, and four years later, by the time Arthurs Blake and Burnham had their fateful interchange on the track, the first Modern Games were taking shape, and would be held in Athens in April.

There was no official U.S. Olympic team in 1896. But there was a BAA team that would make up the majority of the American delegation. Interestingly, some of the other powerhouses—most notably the BAA’s archrival from New York—declined to participate. The New York Athletic Club had just defeated the London AC in an epic track meet in New York the previous fall. Beating the Brits in front of thousands of fans was big—who cared about some silly, shoestring-budget event in far-off Athens? That wasn’t a minority opinion, either. “The American amateur sportsman in general should know that in going to Athens he is taking an expensive journey to a third rate capital where he will be devoured by fleas,” sniffed the New York Times.

Yet, some people—like Blake, like Ellery Clark, like Burnham—saw something else; a chance to be part of something significant, maybe even historic. The association supported the idea, and an all-star team from the BAA was selected:

Arthur Blake, middle- and long-distance runner
Tom Burke, sprinter and middle-distance runner
Ellery Clark, high jumper
Thomas P. Curtis, hurdler
W. H. Hoyt, pole vault

Image by The Boston Athletic Association. The B.A.A. team in the stadium in Athens. (original image)

Image by The Boston Athletic Association. Tom Burke, one of the stars of the '96 B.A.A team, and later one of thetwo men behind the development of the B.A.A. (Boston) Marathon. (original image)

Image by The Boston Athletic Association. Connolly, the "hop step and jump" Olympic champion from South Boston. (original image)

Image by The Boston Athletic Association. Artist's rendering of the arrival of Spiridon Louis at the finish of the1896 Olympic Marathon. (original image)

Image by The Boston Athletic Association. A photo of Pierre de Coubertin, scanned from a reproduction of an 1896 Olympic souvenir programthat the B.A.A has in its possession. (original image)

Image by The Boston Athletic Association. Cover of official 1896 Olympic program (original image)

Image by The Boston Athletic Association. 1896 B.A.A Olympic team photo (original image)

Image by The Boston Athletic Association. Poster commemorating 1896 team (believe this was done in 1996, forcentennial of Olympic Games) (original image)

Accompanying the team would be John Graham, the coach of the BAA track team. Born in Liverpool in 1862 and a prominent sprinter in England, he emigrated to the U.S. while still a teenager. He was hired as an assistant by the pioneering physical educator Dr. Dudley Sargent at Harvard; the same Dudley Sargent who would later create and furnish both Harvard’s Hemenway Gymnasium and the state-of-the-art training facilities at the B.A.A’s opulent clubhouse, located on Boylston Street. Graham worked at Harvard for three years before going on to become the trainer (coach) at Brown University and Princeton (he would return to Harvard as track coach in the early 1900s).

Having served under Sargent, Graham was steeped in the most innovative ideas about training and exercise at the time.

The other members of the BAA who decided to compete in 1896 were not track athletes: John Paine and his brother Sumner were club members, along with their father, Charles Jackson Paine, a true BAA Brahmin. The elder Paine had been an oarsman for Harvard in the 1850s, and served as an officer in the 22nd Massachusetts in the Civil War, during which time he commanded a unit of African-American soldiers.

When he heard about the other athletes heading to Athens, his son John—a crack pistol shot—decided to go and compete in the shooting events that were also on the program for the Modern Games. He apparently traveled separately from Burke, Blake, Clark and the others, because he first went to Paris, where Sumner was working for a gunsmith, and persuaded his brother to accompany him to Athens.

Most of the rest of the 14-man American team that competed in 1896 were made up of young men from Princeton—where Prof. William Sloane, a friend of Coubertin’s, had championed the idea of the Olympic revival in the U.S.—plus one feisty and fiercely independent athlete from South Boston, James B. Connolly, who competed proudly in the hop, step and jump (the event now known as the triple jump) for the tiny Suffolk Athletic Club.

Like the BAA itself, the Boston contingent of the American team had strong Harvard connections. Clark was still a senior at the university, where he was a star all-around track athlete. He had to ask permission from his dean to interrupt his studies for eight weeks in the middle of the semester in order to travel to Athens. His dean took it under advisement, and when he gave his permission in writing, Clark said, “I gave a shout that could have been heard, I believe half way to Boston.”

Connolly’s departure from Harvard was on a much different note. “I went to see the chairman of the athletic committee about a leave of absence,” he recalled in his 1944 autobiography. “One peek at the chairman’s puss told me here was no friendly soul.”

The chairman questioned his motives for attending the games, implying that he was simply looking for an opportunity to gallivant through Europe. Connolly recounted the exchange:

You feel that you must go to Athens?”

“I feel just that way, yes, sir.”

“Then here is what you can do. You resign and on your return, you make reapplication to the college, and I will consider it.”

To that, I said: ‘I am not resigning and I’m not making application to re-enter. I’m through with Harvard right now. Good day!’

It was ten years before I again set foot in a Harvard building, and then it was as a guest speaker of the Harvard Union; and the occasion nourished my ego no end."

Just before the BAA members were set to depart for Athens, there was a crisis: Burnham’s efforts to raise money to pay for the trip had fallen short. The BAA’s politically connected and deep-pocketed membership saved the day. Former governor of Massachusetts Oliver Ames, a longtime BAA member, jumped in and managed to marshal the funds to cover the shortfall in three days.

As John Kieran and Arthur Daley wrote in their 1936 Story of the Olympic Games:

“With passage paid and enough money to provide board and lodging in Greece and return tickets to Boston, the little team started on what was to be a triumphal journey and the beginning of United States ascendancy in the modern Olympic Games.”

The BAA athletes dominated the first Olympic Games, winning six of the 11 first-place track-and-field medals accrued by the U.S. team (there was no “going for the gold” in the first Olympics; winners received silver medals). The crusty Connolly—technically not an Association member, but part of the Boston contingent, nonetheless—had the distinction of being the first man in the Modern Olympics to win an event, as the hop, step and jump was held early in the program.

In addition to their “athletics” (track–and-field) teammates, BAA members John and Sumner Paine each won first-place medals in the shooting events.

The fresh-faced, young BAA team was also a big hit with the Athenians, who imitated their “rah rah” college-type cheers; and feted and celebrated them throughout the time they were there.

Perhaps their most lasting contribution, however, was what the team brought back. The entire squad was in the Olympic stadium to watch the finish of the marathon, the final event of the 1896 Games, which was won by a Greek. They were so impressed by the drama of this event they came home with the idea of staging a similar long-distance running race in the U.S. The BAA coach Graham and Tom Burke, who had won two events, the 100 and the 400 meters, in Athens, spearheaded the effort. A year later, in April 1897, the first BAA Marathon was held. Now known as the Boston Marathon, the race attracts 25,000 participants a year and is one of the country’s longest-running annual sports events.

Excerpted from: “The BAA at 125: The Colorful, 125-Year History of the Boston Athletic Association” by John Hanc, to be published later this year by Skyhorse Publishing. For more information or to reserve a copy, visit

To Truly Experience Robert Irwin, You Simply Must View His Artworks in Person

Smithsonian Magazine

The new Robert Irwin survey at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., is a kind of a disappearing act.

Throughout his influential career, the California artist has tried to find ways to undermine every convention of the art world. First, he eliminated the need for walls around his abstract paintings by making them purposely “hand-held,” to be admired and examined as they were handled by viewers. Then he eliminated the slashes of the abstract expressionism that was drawing him some early attention, reducing the content to cool, austere lines on canvases.

Then, came the elimination of canvases themselves. Just before he ditched his studio entirely in 1970, he began to concentrate on cool discs of aluminum or plastic, whose interplay with shadows seemed to blur edges such that one was never sure where the object began or ended. And finally, for a time, he refused to allow his works to even be photographed.

It figures, then, that “Robert Irwin: All the Rules Will Change,” the first U.S. museum survey of the artist outside of California in nearly four decades, which is on view through September 5, 2016, begins with one of his sleek, untitled discs, commanding its own space, hovering in place amid unblinking spotlights.

The circular galleries of the Gordon Bunshaft-designed Hirshhorn seem perfectly suited for Irwin’s work; one begins not far from where one ends. But Irwin, still very active at 87, also plays with the space for his latest large-scale installation—one so subtle one might not think it’s there at all. Opposite one long expanse of the curved, freshly painted walls (in a tempered gray, not white) he’s installed one of his eye-fooling floor-to-ceiling stretches of straight white scrim, more than 100 feet of it. 

Robert Irwin (2012 Philipp Scholz Rittermann)

The most immediately discerned aspect of the installation is a rectangle of light surrounding the outlined doorway to the interior hall. Special lighting? No, it’s courtesy of light shining in from the courtyard windows beyond.

More significant in the piece titled Square the Circle is that the building’s very structure, curving around, is straightened such that its hidden rounded corner becomes barely discernible through the scrim. It’s seen as if through a cloud, dissolving, much like the edges of the discs nearby, into ether.

After having eliminated paint, canvas and even object in his career, Irwin succeeds in eliminating aspects of the museum as well.

The full act of elimination, though, came when his initial plans for a Hirshhorn installation first submitted three years ago, involving a series of outdoor scrims in the museum’s plaza in the underpinnings of Bunshaft’s famed building, were scrapped.

Because it would be exposed to D.C.’s unpredictable weather, it did not pass the muster of a year-long feasibility study that involved architects and structural engineers from the Smithsonian’s Office of Facilities Engineering and Operations and the staff of the University of Maryland’s Glenn L. Martin Wind Tunnel, as well as aerodynamics experts from the nearby National Air and Space Museum. 

“Ultimately,” says show curator Evelyn Hankins, “a design satisfying all requirements could not be achieved, and plans for Irwin’s outdoor installation were abandoned.” 

The subsequent indoor Square the Circle leaps ahead more than four decades past the concentration of the survey which otherwise covers 1958 to 1970. But it isn’t the only thing that provides a modern representation of the longtime artist.

Robert Irwin in his studio, 1970 (1970 Steve Kahn / Artwork 2016 Robert Irwin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

His two nearly 16-feet tall clear acrylic columns, which take advantage of another window that shines into the exhibition space, have an unusual completion date that spans decades—1969 to 2011. 

That means the work was conceived in the last century, but it wasn’t until more recently that the technology existed to successfully manufacture acrylic columns that tall. A Hirshhorn-owned Irwin column (not in the show) is 12-feet tall, but was made from two six-foot lengths laminated together. Seams detracted from a work that was meant to not call attention to itself but to fan and refract light into its dedicated gallery, which the tall ones do now. 

Considering Irwin’s strict involvement in every aspect of the exhibit design, though, one might consider the austere layout of "All the Rules Will Change" as a second example of one of his modern installations.

Robert Irwin in the studio working on an early line painting, 1962 (Marvin Silver/Courtesy of Marvin Silver and Craig Krull Gallery)

In a number of the galleries of the generally chronological overview, the larger earlier abstract paintings hang two to the gallery—one opposite another. There one can see the works with a series of slashes that gave them the name  “pick-up sticks paintings” gradually evolve to the more coolly composed abstracts of a few horizontal lines.

The line paintings become more subtle as time goes on, their initially contrasting colors giving way to harder to perceive contrasts against near identical background fields in an optical exercise worthy of Ad Reinhardt.

Then, for the Dot paintings, the lines drop away altogether (in fact, the floor demarcation that keeps viewers a safe distance from the Dot paintings at first looks like an Irwin line that has fully slid to the ground).

Robert Irwin in the studio working on an early line painting, 1962 (Marvin Silver/Courtesy of Marvin Silver and Craig Krull Gallery)

At first looking like barely perceptible, cloud-like variations in tone, the paintings are true to their name. We learn from a Susan Lake essay in the exhibition catalog, they are made instead of thousands of small dots, often of differing complementary colors, administered uniformly but of erratic shape and applied by the spikes beneath a cashier’s mat dipped in paint. 

Not only does the gauzy cloud of changed color point toward his upcoming disc works, so does their shape. The canvases jut out from the wall and curve convexly to the viewers, as if coming out to meet them halfway.

The eventual discs will soon provide a similar experience, using entirely different space age materials.


Robert Irwin: All the Rules Will Change

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From the time he was doing line paintings, Irwin earned some notoriety for refusing to have his work photographed. Photos never convey the experience of seeing art in person, he maintained, until he realized the very act of refusing cameras took attention away from the work as well.

“The ban itself had never been the point, and yet that is what I was becoming known for, which is silly,” Irwin told author Lawrence Weschler in the monograph Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. (Both Irwin and Weschler will speak at the museum at separate events in conjunction with the exhibit).

Though Irwin abandoned the photo rule, he eventually began making pieces that mere photographs simply could not convey.

They are works that, according to Hankins, “because of their extremely subtle nature, demand in-person viewing.”

“Irwin’s art becomes fully present,” she says, “only when you are standing in the physical space, experiencing it over an extended period of time.”

Says museum director Melissa Chiu, “The Hirshhorn is honored to introduce Irwin’s intellectually rigorous and indescribably beautiful work to a new generation of viewers.”

“Robert Irwin: All the Rules Will Change” continues through September 5, 2016 at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. 

UPDATE 4/12/2016: This article contains additional information about the acrylic columns. 

Playing Monopoly (and its discontents) on its 80th anniversary

National Museum of American History

Photograph of Monopoly board game produced in 1940s

This month marks the 80th anniversary for Charles S. Darrow's patent for the board game Monopoly. By the time Darrow was awarded the patent on December 31, 1935, Monopoly was already a financial success. Months earlier, in March, Darrow had sold his rights to Monopoly to the game manufacturer Parker Brothers. Rather than waiting for the patent, Parker Brothers had begun selling its version of the game almost immediately. The company's investment paid off. By Christmas 1935, Parker Brothers had sold a quarter of a million copies of the game. One year later, that number had grown to 1.8 million copies sold, and Parker Brothers had collected over two million dollars in profit.

Patent drawing for Monopoly, 1935

At first glance, Monopoly's initial success is quite surprising given that, when Parker Brothers started selling the game in 1935, the United States was still suffering through the Great Depression. Just two years earlier, a quarter of the nation's workforce had been out of a job, and the country's unemployment rate stayed above 15% for the rest of the 1930s. Despite the grim economy—or perhaps because of it—Parker Brothers discovered that Americans were eager to spend their leisure time playing as robber barons—buying and selling properties, cornering industries, and pushing their friends and family into bankruptcy.

Bull and Bear cards from Pit card game

Monopoly's success is even more remarkable considering that, historically, Americans have held deep misgivings toward monopolies, trusts, and other large concentrations of wealth. Thomas Jefferson's antipathy toward monopolies led him to initially oppose the U.S. patent system, and Andrew Jackson justified his 1832 veto of the Second National Bank's charter by, among other things, citing the bank's failure to repay the public for the monopoly privileges it had been granted by the government. Americans' concerns only grew more pronounced in the late 1800s as U.S. companies exploded in size and complexity, and a new generation of tycoons quashed their competition to consolidate entire industries under their control. As companies grew, Americans enacted a steady stream of laws and regulations to protect the public against the possible abuses of monopolies—from the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1890, to the Clayton Act and Federal Trade Commission in 1914, to the Robinson-Patman Act of 1936.

Next! cartoon from the magazine “Puck,” September 7, 1904

The dramatic success of Monopoly and its distinctive style of "greed is good" gameplay disappointed many contemporaries, none the least of which was Elizabeth "Lizzie" Magie. As a number of writers have shown, the Monopoly board game that Charles Darrow patented and sold to Parker Brothers in 1935 was based heavily on a modified version of The Landlord's Game, a board game that Magie—a lifelong inventor and social activist—had patented decades earlier, in 1903.

Patent drawing for The Landlord’s Game, 1903

Ironically, Magie had set out to educate the public about the dangers of monopolies. Specifically, Magie hoped that The Landlord's Game would publicize the reforms proposed by Henry George, a political economist who theorized that land monopolies were the ultimate source of inequality. In a later 1924 patent for the game, Magie explained that the object of The Landlord's Game was "not only to afford amusement to the players, but to illustrate to them how under the present or prevailing system of land tenure, the landlord has an advantage over other enterprises and also how the single tax would discourage land speculation."

Magie reportedly designed the game with two different rule sets, giving players the chance to choose whether they wanted to play as anti-monopolists or monopolists. Much to her disappointment, it was the latter variant that caught the attention of Charles Darrow and came to define Monopoly for generations of Americans.

Easy Money board game board, 1970s

Over the past 80 years, many board games have tried to unseat Monopoly and, like Elizabeth Magie, inspire players to adopt a more critical view of big business in America. In the 1970s, economist Ralph Anspach gave young people a chance to battle against monopolies in his aptly named game, Anti-Monopoly, which cast players as lawyers tasked with breaking up price-gouging conglomerates through indictments. And if the general message of the game wasn't clear enough, the rules to Anti-Monopoly II (Anspach's second version of the game), made the economist's views even more explicit: "In the real world, we're all in trouble when monopolists win because there is no second game to give consumers and competitors another chance. That's why Professor Anspach invented ANTI-MONOPOLY—to show in a fun way how our country tries to stop the monopolists with anti-monopoly laws."

Collage of photographs, including the boxes for Anti-Monopoly I and II, as well as the Anti-Monopoly II board.

Although Anti-Monopoly performed relatively well in the market, selling 200,000 copies in 1973, it also caught the attention of Parker Brothers and its parent companies, who in 1974 filed a complaint against Anspach for violating their trademark to the Monopoly name. The dispute set off almost a decade of grueling legal battles between Anspach and the game makers, but the economist eventually won the right to sell his game. Even so, it's doubtful whether Anti-Monopoly or any other title will ever secure as firm a place in popular culture as Monopoly. If the past eight years have taught us anything, it's that given the choice, many Americans, perhaps most, will choose to be the landlord.

Jordan Grant is a New Media assistant working with the American Enterprise exhibition. He has also blogged about how board games teach us to shop and six surprising objects from the history of the Internet.

Posted Date: 
Monday, December 21, 2015 - 09:00
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John Glenn and the Sexism of the Early Space Program

Smithsonian Magazine

News of the death of John Glenn – “the last genuine American hero” – ricocheted across the internet on Dec. 8, 2016, in less time than it had taken the famed astronaut to complete his first Earth orbit.

NASA, the U.S. Marine CorpsPresident Barack Obama and many others quickly posted laudatory tributes on social media. In the first 48 hours after it was published, The New York Times’ obituary garnered more than 500 online comments from readers sharing their sentiments and personal memories, many laced with nostalgia.

One commenter, “Mom,” wrote about being a fifth grader, listening at school to a transistor radio on the morning of John Glenn’s flight. “This was the definition of the future,” Mom wrote. “I wanted to do hard math with slide rules and learn hard languages and solve mysteries. I wanted to be like John Glenn.”

But was the pioneering starman really everybody’s hero?

At least in the early days after his flight, the relationship between John Glenn and his young female fans was complicated by the male-dominated cultures of 1960s America and the U.S. space program. Prevailing gender role stereotypes, limited opportunities, sexism and a lack of female role models in the world of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) all stood between girls’ dreams and the stars.

‘Even though I am a girl…’

Recollections of Glenn are of particular interest to me as a historian undertaking a major research project called “A Sky Full of Stars: Girls and Space-Age Cultures in Cold War America and the Soviet Union.” At the heart of the study is my analysis of hundreds of fan mail letters written by girls in the U.S. and USSR to three pioneers of human space flight – Yuri Gagarin, John Glenn and Valentina Tereshkova – whose respective orbital voyages around the Earth in 1961, 1962 and 1963 unleashed the imaginations of a generation of children swept up in the “space craze.”

I set out to discover how girls in both countries understood their life possibilities at the dawn of the space age and how science and technology fit into their equations.

Schoolgirls in New York, 1962 (John Glenn Archives, The Ohio State University)

Based on my research in the John H. Glenn Archives at Ohio State University, the majority of American girls’ letters to Glenn conformed to established gender conventions. Girls frequently congratulated the astronaut on stereotypically masculine characteristics – strength and bravery – while denying that they themselves possessed those qualities. Some were openly flirtatious, offering admiring personal comments on Glenn’s appearance, physique and sex appeal. Some also wrote to request an autograph or glossy photo, embracing a well-established culture of celebrity and fandom that was pervasive among American girls of the era.

The letters that interest me most are from girls who were so inspired by Glenn’s accomplishment that they envisioned for themselves a place in the STEM sphere. Some wrote to Glenn to report about their science fair projects or rocket design clubs and to ask for technical advice. Some expressed the desire to follow their hero into careers in aviation and astronautics, even as they expressed skepticism that such a path would be open to them.

The formulation “even though I am a girl I hope to be just like you” in various manifestations appeared as a steady refrain in girls’ letters. Diane A. of Fergus Falls, Minnesota, wrote, “I would very much like to become an astronaut, but since I am a 15-year-old girl I guess that would be impossible.” Suzanne K. from Fairfax, Virginia, was more defiant: “I hope I go to the moon sometime when I’m older. I’m a girl but if men can go in space so can women.” Carol C. of Glendale, New York, wrote to ask “this one simple question concerning a woman’s place in space. Will she only be needed around Cape Canaveral or will she eventually accompany an astronaut into space? If so I sure wish I were she.”

The news that “the Russians” had sent a woman into space in June 1963 emboldened some girls to ask Glenn more pointed questions. Ella H. of Meridian, Mississippi, wrote on behalf of her junior high school class to inquire, “What were our male astronauts’ reactions when Russia’s female astronaut made more orbits than they? …Do you seven male astronauts think that a women will go into space within the next two years?” Meanwhile, Patricia A. of Newport News, Virginia, asked Glenn outright, “Do you think that sending women into space is a very good idea?”

Glenn and the ‘problem’ of ‘lady astronauts’

While few of his replies to letter writers were preserved in the archive, those that exist suggest Glenn avoided encouraging girls’ dreams of flight and space exploration.

Fourteen-year-old Carol S. in Brooklyn wrote to her “idol” to share her “strong desire to be an astronaut” and seek Glenn’s advice on how to overcome the obstacle of being a girl, “a slight problem it seems.” Glenn replied four months later to thank Carol for her letter, but rather than answering her query directly he enclosed “some literature which I hope will answer your questions.”

A girl named “Pudge” from Springfield, Illinois sent a long enthusiastic letter sharing her plans to join the Air Force and her “thrill at the sight or sound of jets, helicopters (especially the H-37A ‘Mojave’) rockets or anything connected with space, the Air Force or flying.” Glenn sent a friendly reply including “some literature about the space program which I hope you will enjoy,” but said nothing about the viability of the girl’s aspirations.

Hard evidence of Glenn’s position on the question of “lady astronauts” came in the form of his congressional testimony in July 1962. A Special Subcommittee on the Selection of Astronauts of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics was formed in response to the quashing of the privately funded “woman in space” program and related allegations of sexual discrimination at NASA.

A March 1962 letter from the director of NASA’s Office of Public Services and Information to a young girl who had written to President John F. Kennedy to ask if she could become an astronaut stated that “we have no present plans to employ women on space flights because of the degree of scientific and flight training, and the physical characteristics, which are required.”

Glenn’s testimony before the subcommittee echoed that position. In his opinion, the best-qualified astronauts were those who had experience as military pilots, a career path that was closed to women. In a much-quoted statement, Glenn asserted that “the men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes and come back and help design and build and test them. The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order.” The subcommittee’s final report concurred, effectively barring female applicants from consideration for the Apollo missions.

Crucially, Glenn’s position soon evolved in a more egalitarian direction. As historian Amy E. Foster noted, a May 1965 Miami Herald article headlined “Glenn Sees Place for Girls In Space” quoted the astronaut as saying that NASA’s plans to develop a new “scientist-astronaut” program should “offer a serious chance for space women.”

John Glenn, circa 1923 (John Glenn Archives, The Ohio State University)

Not looking like John Glenn

While much of the commentary about Glenn since his death has been highly celebratory, a subtle line of critique has reawakened questions about the ways in which gender, race, ethnicity and class have been inscribed in the history of America’s space program. A woman identified as “Hope” was the lone voice in The New York Times comments to urge people to remember that the first astronauts “knew they were there because they were men, and were white, and were chosen above others who may have been just as fit but didn’t look like John Glenn.”

In fact, Glenn’s death has helped bring welcome attention to the accomplishments of some of the U.S. space program’s unsung heroes, individuals who did not look like the famed astronaut but who helped make his voyage possible. Mentions of the much-anticipated feature film Hidden Figures, set for debut in early January, are especially noticeable.

The movie focuses on Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughn – three African-American women of NASA who helped make John Glenn’s flight around the Earth possible. As writer and social critic Rebecca Carroll put it in a tweet, Glenn became “the first American to orbit the earth bc he trusted a black woman to do the math.” As of this writing, it was retweeted more than any other #johnglenn item in recent days.

President Obama wrote in his statement on Glenn’s death that “John always had the right stuff, inspiring generations of scientists, engineers and astronauts who will take us to Mars and beyond – not just to visit, but to stay.” The quest to broaden that group to include people who don’t look like Glenn, but who aspire to his highest goals has become a national priority. NASA has diversified the astronaut corps significantly since the heyday of Projects Mercury and Apollo, and has taken conscious steps to make the agency more inclusive overall. Meanwhile, a much wider spectrum of positive STEM role models exists today both in real life and mass culture.

The excitement of a Mars mission featuring a diverse set of heroes might be just the ticket America needs to inspire a new generation of children to reach for the stars. Fill out your application here.

President Cleveland’s Problem Child

Smithsonian Magazine

“Another Voice for Cleveland,” September 1884. Library of Congress.

“It seems to me that a leading question ought to be: do the American people want a common libertine for their president?” So wrote a preacher from Buffalo, New York, to the editor of the Chicago Tribune on the eve of the 1884 presidential election.

Maine Senator James G. Blaine, the Republican candidate, had been shamed some years earlier when it came to light that he’d been trading congressional favors for cash, something his Democratic rivals brought up at every opportunity. The Democrats, though, had troubles of their own. A scandalous tale about the misdeeds of their candidate, New York Governor Grover Cleveland, was gaining traction, along with a particularly grating chant directed at him: “Ma, ma, where’s my Pa?”

For on July 21, 1884, the Buffalo Evening Telegraph broke a story many in upstate New York had long known to be true—that 10 years earlier, a woman named Maria Halpin had given birth in that city to a son with the surname Cleveland and then been taken to a mental asylum while the child was adopted by another family.

Cleveland’s campaign, knowing there was no refuting the allegations, was almost blasé in admitting that yes, Cleveland and Halpin had been “illicitly acquainted.” At the time, the campaign provided this rationale: Cleveland was a bachelor, and Halpin had been rather free with her affections, including with some of Cleveland’s friends—prominent Buffalo businessmen all. As the only unmarried man of the bunch, Cleveland, though not certain the child was his, claimed paternity and helped Halpin name the boy and place him with a caring family. Really, he’d been looking out for his friends and for a woman in unfortunate circumstances. The scandal was, of course, unfortunate, but the governor’s involvement was far from nefarious, and certainly shouldn’t preclude him from serving as president (especially not when Blaine had already made it clear he was not a man to be trusted).

Undated photo of Grover Cleveland, Wikimedia Commons.

Nevertheless, newspapers ran with the story, and it was only a matter of time before reporters discovered Halpin’s whereabouts. Her tale differed from Cleveland’s, substantially.

In an October 31, 1884, interview with the Chicago Tribune, she proclaimed, “The circumstances under which my ruin was accomplished are too revolting on the part of Grover Cleveland to be made public.”

Halpin was a 38-year-old widow in 1874, according to the Tribune, which also reported:

Halpin said that Cleveland had pursued her relentlessly, and that she finally consented to join him for a meal at the Ocean Dining Hall & Oyster House. After dinner, Cleveland escorted her back to her boarding house. In an 1874 affidavit, Halpin strongly implied that Cleveland’s entry into her room and the incident that transpired there was not consensual—he was forceful and violent, she alleged, and later promised to ruin her if she went to the authorities.

Halpin said she told Cleveland she never wanted to see him again, but “five or six weeks later” was forced to seek him out because she was in the kind of trouble only Cleveland could help her with.

The trouble, of course, was pregnancy.

Nine months later, Halpin’s son was born and promptly removed from her custody. Halpin was admitted under murky circumstances to a local asylum for the insane. Doctors from that institution, when interviewed by the press during the 1884 campaign, corroborated Halpin’s insistence that she was not, in fact, in need of committing. The Chicago Daily Tribune reported:

Dr. William G. King, an honored citizen of Buffalo, was then attending physician at the Providence Asylum. When visited by a Telegraph reporter last week he said that he remembered Maria Halpin well. He says she was brought to the asylum without warrant or form of law. When he examined her he found that she was not insane, though she had been drinking. The managers of the asylum had no right to detain her, and she left in a few days—that is, as soon as she chose to after her terrible experience.

Upon her release, Halpin’s first order of business was to locate her son, who had been “spirited away” after she was taken to the asylum.

Maria Halpin, from A Secret Life: The Sex, Lies, and Scandals of President Grover Cleveland.

Halpin contacted Milo A. Whitney, a well known Buffalo attorney, and announced her intent to charge Cleveland with assault and abduction:

Whitney says Maria Halpin came to consult him about instituting proceedings against all concerned in the assault and abduction. She said she knew that Grover Cleveland had plotted the abduction and hired the men to carry it out, as he had previously tried less violent means to deprive her of the child and get her out of the way.

Shortly after Halpin’s initial meeting with Whitney, her brother-in-law arrived from New Jersey to offer assistance. Days later, the pair called at Whitney’s office with a document that would seem to resolve the whole business:

They showed the attorney an agreement which stipulated that upon the payment of the sum of $500, Maria Halpin was to surrender her son, Oscar Folsom Cleveland, and make no further demands of any nature whatever upon his father.

Whitney maintained in all subsequent interviews that the document was in Grover Cleveland’s handwriting.

Oscar Folsom Cleveland (given the middle name Folsom after Oscar Folsom, Cleveland’s closest friend) was adopted by the Providence Asylum’s Dr. King and raised in Buffalo separate from his birth mother.

When interviewed in 1884 and asked about Cleveland’s assertion that any number of men could have been Oscar’s father, Halpin was outraged: “There is not and never was a doubt as to the paternity of our child, and the attempt of Grover Cleveland or his friends to couple the name of Oscar Folsom or any one else with that of the boy, for that purpose, is simply infamous and false.”

Halpin was living in New Rochelle, New York, just outside New York City, and breathless accounts of her looks and disposition filled the pages of the New-York World:

Mrs. Halpin is still an attractive woman, and although said to be 45 or 50, does not look more than 35. A wealth of dark hair and dark eyes of great depth and of strange, fascinating power are in strong contrast to a pale, clear complexion while regular features, and rounded chin, and a classically-cut and curved mouth could not fail to make a pleasant impression on those with whom she came in contact. Although robust, her form still preserves its symmetry, and this rotundity of figure rather adds to her matured charms than otherwise.

The story filled major newspapers during the summer and autumn of 1884—had Cleveland really taken part in the “seduction and ruination” of such a goodly woman? Was he indeed too much of a libertine to lead the nation? Or was his campaign telling the truth—that Maria Halpin was a harlot looking to cash in on a distant dalliance with the upstanding lawyer running for office on a clean-government ticket?

Most observers seemed to agree that Cleveland bore some degree of guilt. Writing to the Buffalo Evening Telegraph in the fall of 1884, Pastor Henry W. Crabbe, of that city’s United Presbyterian Church, condemned Cleveland resolutely:

I am very sorry to say that he is a corrupt, licentious man. He has never been married, and is notoriously bad with women. Cleveland is well known here, and it is a reproach to the city that he ever got into the Gubernatorial chair. I most sincerely and earnestly pray that he will not be our next President. His public life is revealing his true character. It may be said these stories are put in circulation for political effect, but the trouble is they cannot be refuted.

Still, Cleveland was not without defenders—including the famed reformer Henry Ward Beecher, who stood by the candidate in the pages of the Sunday Mercury, a Democratic-leaning newspaper:

Indeed, many of Cleveland’s supporters wrote the affair off as a young man’s folly—even though the man was nearly 40 years old when he became acquainted with Halpin.

In the end, Cleveland’s personal life proved more palatable to voters than Blaine’s political indiscretions: The Democrat won the election, carried by a New York state victory with a margin of barely 2,000 votes. The chant of “Ma, ma, where’s my Pa?” was answered by Democrats: “Gone to the White House, ha ha ha!”

The scandal was soon replaced on the front pages by breathless coverage of Cleveland’s new bride. Frances Folsom, daughter of the president’s best friend, became the first woman to be married in the White House and, at 21 (27 years younger than her husband), the nation’s youngest-ever first lady.

Wedding of Grover Cleveland and Frances Folsom, 1886, Harper’s Weekly.

Oscar Folsom Cleveland faded from public record and seems to have come of age in privacy; some people believe he changed his name and became James E. King Jr., a Buffalo gynecologist who died childless in 1947.

Maria Halpin remarried and lived in relative obscurity until her death in 1902, and she seemed to take solace in her privacy to the last. According to her obituary, her last wish was that her funeral should not be public, “for she dreaded having strangers look curiously upon her dead face.”


THE DEFENSE.: A Man of 40 Lusty Summers “Sowing His Wild Oats”, Chicago Daily Tribune, 13 August 1884; THE CLEVELAND SCANDAL: A Fresh Scrutiny of the Charges Affecting the New York Governor, Chicago Tribune, 31 October 1884; THE CLEVELAND SCANDAL.: WHAT THREE BUFFALO CLERGYMEN SAY OF GROVER CLEVELAND–WILL ANY CLERGYMAN TESTIFY ON THE OTHER SIDE?, Chicago Daily Tribune, 11 August 1884; THE CHARGES SWEPT AWAY, New-York Times, 12 August, 1884; CORROBORATION.: A PHYSICIAN’S STATEMENT. SEEKING REDRESS. MR. WHITNEY’ Chicago Daily Tribune, 19 September 1884; CLEVELAND.: History of Wicked Maria Halpin; Chicago Daily Tribune, 13 August 1884; PASSING OF MARIA HALPIN; The Atlanta Constitution, 8 February 1902; Lachman, Charles, A Secret Life: The Sex, Lies, and Scandals of President Grover Cleveland, Skyhorse Publishing, 2011; Presidential Election of 1884 Resource Guide, Library of Congress; Nevins, Allan, Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage, Dodd/Mead, 1934.

Can Architecture Help Solve the Israeli-Palestinian Dispute?

Smithsonian Magazine

It’s 2015, and peace has finally come to the Middle East. Tourists stream to the Old City of Jerusalem from Israel and the new state of Palestine, passing through modern border crossings before entering the walls of the ancient site. Jerusalem has been divided, but creatively: the city’s busiest highway is used to separate the Jewish half of Jerusalem from the Palestinian one, the the border between the countries situated unobtrusively along the road’s median.

Both ideas were developed by a pair of young Israeli with an unusually practical approach to peacemaking.  Yehuda Greenfield-Gilat and Karen Lee Bar-Sinai, both 36, have spent years working on highly specific ideas for how policymakers could divide Jerusalem between Israel and Palestine without doing permanent damage to the delicate urban fabric of the city.

The architects say their top priority is to prevent Jerusalem from being divided by barbed wire, concrete walls and machine gun batteries.  That was the dire reality in the city until 1967, when Israeli forces routed the Jordanians, who had controlled Jerusalem’s eastern half since the Jewish state’s founding in 1948.  All of Jerusalem, including the Old City, has been under full Israeli sovereignity ever since.  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insists that will never change. Jerusalem, he said in July, is “Israel’s undivided and eternal capital.” Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he will accept nothing less than a partition of the city that leaves its eastern half, and much of the Old City, under Palestinian control.   

Greenfield-Gilat and Bar-Sinai have mapped out where the border between East and West Jerusalem would go and made detailed architectural renderings of what it would look like. They’ve even designed some of the individual border crossings that would allow citizens of one nation to pass into the other for business or tourism. They are trying to take big-picture questions about the future of the city and ground them in the nitty-gritty details of what a peace deal would actually look and feel like.

 “We’re trying to fill the gap between the broad stroke of policymaking and the reality of life on the ground,” says Bar-Sinai, who recently returned to Israel after a yearlong fellowship at Harvard University. “Only thinking about these questions from the 30,000 foot high perspective isn’t enough.”

Her work with Greenfield-Gilat begins with the premise that the heavily-fortified border crossings currently in use across the West Bank – each guarded by armed soldiers and equipped with mechanical arms that look like those found in American toll booths – would destroy Jerusalem’s unique character if they were imported into the capital.

Instead, the two young architects have tried to blend the new border crossings into their surroundings so they stand out as little as possible. In the case of the Old City, which contains many of the holiest sites of Judaism, Islam and Christianity, that approach calls for situating the structures just outside the walls of the ancient site so its architectural integrity is preserved even as Israeli and Palestinian authorities gain the ability to move visitors through modern security checkpoints that resemble those found in airports. Once in the Old City, tourists would be able to move around freely before leaving through the same border crossings that they had come in through.

The two young architects have also paid close attention to detail.  Their plan for turning Jerusalem’s Route 60 into the border between the Israeli and Palestinian halves of the city, for instance, includes schematics showing the motion detectors, earthen berms, videos cameras and iron fences that would be built on top of the median to prevent infiltration from one state to the other. A related mock-up shows a graceful pedestrian bridge near the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem that would arc over the highway so Israelis and Palestinians could enter the other country by foot.

Greenfield-Gilat and Bar-Sinai’s work is taking on new resonance now that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have returned to the table for a fresh round of American-backed peace talks, but it has been attracting high-level attention for several years. The two architects have briefed aides to retired Senator George Mitchell, the Obama administration’s chief envoy to the Israelis and Palestinians, and other senior officials from the State Department, White House and Israeli government. In 2008, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert presented their sketch of the American Colony bridge to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as an example of what the separation of Jerusalem would look like in practice.

Image by Photo by Yochi Dreazen. Karen Lee Bar-Sinai and Yehuda Greenfield-Gilat have been honing their ideas since they met as architectural students in the late 1990s. (original image)

Image by Image courtesy of SAYA. Among Greenfield-Galit and Bar-Sinai's ideas is one that allows for a footbridge near the American Colony hotel that would arc over a major highway in Jerusalem. (original image)

Image by Image Courtesy of SAYA. This map, envisioned by the two architects, shows one idea of how the Old City could exist in a Jerusalem split between Israel and a new state of Palestine. (original image)

Image by Image courtesy of SAYA. The blue pieces represent areas currently in the West Bank with large populations of Israeli settlers. (original image)

The journalist and academic Bernard Avishai, who first reported on the Olmert-Abbas meeting, describes Greenfield-Gilat and Bar-Sinai as “young and visionary.” In a blog posting about their work, Avishai wrote about “how vivid peace looked when you could actually see the constructions that would provide it a foundation.”.

The two architects have been honing their ideas since they met as students at Israel’s Technion University in the late 1990s. The Israeli government began building the controversial security barrier separating Israel from the West Bank in 2002, during their senior year, and talk of dividing Jerusalem was in the air.

Greenfield-Gilat and Bar-Sinai, joined by a close friend named Aya Shapira, began thinking about practical ways that the city could be partitioned without turning it into a modern version of Cold War Berlin. (Shapira was killed in the 2004 South Asian tsunami, and the name of their design studio, Saya, is short for “Studio Aya” in honor of their friend and colleague).

The three architects eventually settled on the idea of building parallel light rail systems in East and West Jerusalem that would come together outside the Damascus Gate of the Old City, turning it into a main transportation hub for the divided city. Their plan also called for turning the Damascus Gate rail station into a primary border crossing between the two states, making it, in Greenfield-Gilat’s words, a “separation barrier that was political but also highly functional.”

Part of their proposal was ahead of its time – Jerusalem has since built a light rail system with a stop outside of the Damascus Gate, something that wasn’t even under consideration in 2003 – but a peace deal dividing the city looks further apart than ever. There hasn’t been a successful Palestinian terror attack from the West Bank in more than a year, and Israelis feel little urgency about striking a deal with Abbas. The Palestinian leadership, for its part, distrusts Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and doesn’t believe he would be willing to make the territorial concessions they have demanded for decades as part of a comprehensive accord.

In the middle of a trendy duplex gallery near the Tel Aviv harbor, an exhibition showcases Greenfield-Gilat and Bar-Sinai’s plans and includes a vivid illustration of just how difficult it will be to actually bring about a deal. The architects installed a table-sized map of Israel and the occupied territories It is built like a puzzle, with visitors encouraged to experiment by picking up light-green pieces in the shapes and sizes of existing Jewish settlements and then comparing them to blue pieces corresponding to the swaths of land that would need to be given to a new state of Palestine in a peace agreement. (Greenfield-Gilat and Bar-Sinai have also developed an online interactive map that offers a similar experience.)

Two things become clear almost immediately. First, Israel would only need to annex a small amount of land to bring the vast bulk of settlers within the Jewish state’s new borders. Second, that annexation would still require the forced evacuations of dozens of settlements, including several with populations of close to 10,000. Some of the larger settlements are so far from Israel’s pre-1967 borders– and would require Israel to relinquish such an enormous amount of territory in exchange – that they can’t even be picked up off the puzzle board. Those towns house the most extreme settlers, so any real-life move to clear them out would hold the real potential for violence.    

Greenfield-Gilat and Bar-Sinai are open about their belief that Israel will need to find a way of relinquishing broad swaths of the West Bank. Greenfield-Gilat spent a year studying in a religious school in the West Bank before entering college and describes himself as a proud Zionist. Still, he says that many settlements – including the Israeli community in Hebron, the ancient city that contains many of Judaism’s most holy sites – will need to be evacuated as part of any peace deal. “The deep West Bank won’t be part of Israel,” he says. “The map is meant to show what’s on the table, what is in the zone of the possible agreements between the two sides, and what the cost would be.”

In the meantime, he’s is trying to find other ways of putting Saya’s ideas into practice. Greenfield-Gilat has worked as an advisor to Tzipi Livni, now Netanyahu’s chief peace negotiator, and ran unsuccessfully for the Israeli parliament as part of her political party. He’s now running for a seat on Jerusalem’s city council. “Our mission is to prove that these are not issues that should be put aside because they’re intractable,” he says. “Dealing with them is just a matter of political will.”

This project was supported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Editor's note: This story originally mispelled Yehuda Greenfield-Gilat's name as Yehuda Greefield-Galit. We regret the error.

Tetris: Fun in the Cold War?

National Museum of American History

When one thinks of symbols or images of the Cold War, one might say nuclear missiles, Sputnik, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Khrushchev's shoe, Berlin Wall, Miracle on Ice, Tetris, etc. Wait... Tetris? This year is the game's 30th birthday and the 25th anniversary of its release onto the Nintendo Game Boy, which launched both Tetris and the Game Boy system into the stratosphere (pun intended). While the core mechanics of the game have more or less stayed faithful for the past 30 years, the way that it was marketed has varied from iteration to iteration. I’ll show you how that is with the Amiga and Game Boy versions of the game.

The front of the instruction manual for the Amiga version of "Tetris"

The front of the instruction manual for the Amiga version of "Tetris"

Tetris was designed by Alexey Pajitnov in 1984 while working for Dorodnicyn Computing Centre of the Academy of Science of the USSR in Moscow. It was originally designed for the Electronica 60 computer and was ported to the IBM PC by Vadim Gerasimov. The word "Tetris" is derived from the Greek word for four, tetra, as each of the seven blocks featured in the game has four squares.

The game was one of the first, if not the first, entertainment software exported out of the Soviet Union. This presented problems for those who wanted to license the game since the Soviets had yet to establish a system for licensing intellectual property rights. The licensing saga is detailed in great depth in David Sheff’s book, Game Over, but in the end, Spectrum Holobyte received the PC rights for the United States, and Nintendo won the rights for the handheld and the console version of the game. A Founding Fragments video has been made to cover more of the history of the game.

The front of the advertisement for the Amiga version of the game
The front of the advertisement for the Amiga version of the game

Spectrum Holobyte released Tetris for the Amiga in 1988, and one of the advertisements boldly states that "The Cold War is Over. Almost… With the benefit of hindsight, we would say that it is obvious that the Cold War was indeed over. However, at that time, the Soviet Union was undergoing shocking changes under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, who was chosen as the General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1985. Gorbachev instituted Perestroika, which was the reforming of the Soviet political and economic system. That combined with Glasnost policy reforms which promoted openness and transparency instituted a new era of freedoms for their citizens. The USSR was also retreating from Afghanistan in 1987 and would not completely withdraw until 1989. The Berlin Wall would begin to fall in 1989. There was a sense of finality to the Soviet Union.

Two pages in the instruction manual that show the select screen with the USSR outline and an image of Russia that surrounds the gameplay field.
Two pages in the instruction manual that show the select screen with the USSR outline and an image of Russia that surrounds the gameplay field.

Yet the marketing slogan "The Cold War is Over. Almost..." attempted to stir the embers of the Cold War tension. Showing Saint Basil's Cathedral and the Tetris title in its Russian alphabet with a sickle added to the last letter invoked Russian imagery to make it clear that this is a Russian game. It is proclaimed to be "The Soviet Challenge," and you accepted the challenge when you clicked on the USSR to start the game. Once in the game, you randomly received an image of the Soviet Union that appeared along the side, such as a Russian cosmonaut in space looking at Earth from the space station Salyut, a scene in a fishing ship yard, or even the Miracle on Ice game. When the Tetris game ended, you were taken to a high score list of the "Top Ten Comrades."

The box for the Game Boy version of the game
The box for the Game Boy version of the game

The Game Boy version of Tetris was a stark change from the original Amiga version. The founder of Bulletproof Software, Henk Rogers, befriended Pajitnov while he sought to obtain the handheld license. I suspect it was a combination of this friendship as well as the desire to appeal to a wide audience that toned down the Russian element in the game. The title was in a font that is bold and rigid, seemingly Soviet-like, but was no longer in Russian. From the box, the only indication of its Russian origins was the tagline, "From Russia with Fun."

The game's introduction screen still contained St. Basil's Cathedral, but the gameplay screen lacked the Russian images seen in the Amiga version. Despite the lack of visual Russian imagery during the actual gameplay, choosing to listen to Type A while playing the game meant you heard the instrumental version of the Russian folk tune, "Korobeniki" on a repetitive loop. The popularity and simple nature of the tune led it to be known as the Tetris song.

In the Game Boy version of the game, as well as the Nintendo Entertainment System version, if a player ended with enough points, a rocket would launch. The higher you scored, the bigger the rocket. Score high enough and you could launch St. Basil’s Cathedral into space.

These two games show how even fun activities are shaped by the fears and realities of international crises and conflict. To paraphrase the historian Raiford Guins, who wrote in his book, Game After: A Cultural Study of Video Game Afterlife, it is not enough to ask "What is Tetris?" but also "When or even where is Tetris?" Doing so will reveal different answers that illuminate how the game is presented and received. As the Soviet Union collapsed and Tetrisbecame a household name, iterations of the game abandoned its Soviet heritage and focused on innovative gameplay and graphics to keep the game fresh. To question "What is Tetris?" today will result in a dramatically different answer and requires putting the pieces together to get the full picture... a lot like Tetris.

Watch our Founding Fragments episode on the history of Tetris here or on YouTube 

Museum Technician Drew Robarge has also blogged about the allure of early video game packaging.


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Why the Endangered Species Act Is Broken, and How to Fix It

Smithsonian Magazine

While a college student in the early 1990s at Northwestern, Peter Alagona became fascinated with the red-hot controversies swirling endangered species, from the California condor and desert tortoise to the northern spotted owl and black-footed ferret. As environmentalists and animal lovers pushed to do whatever it took to save them, there was strong resistance from the ranchers, loggers, and other communities threatened by the rigorous federal laws required to do so.

“I was watching this stuff unfold on a daily basis, wondering what the hell was going on, why it was so contentious, and why we couldn't figure it out,” recalls Alagona, now a professor of environmental history at the University of California-Santa Barbara. “It seemed like a zero sum game,” said Alagona, who saw few winners in such a convoluted process, “and, frankly, it was pretty confusing.”

Twenty years of investigation later, Alagona finally has some answers, and shares them in his first book, After the Grizzly: Endangered Species and the Politics of Place in California, due out this month just in time for the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act and for Endangered Species Day on May 17.  Blending his cross-disciplinary career in history, environmental science and geography, the book uses the Golden State as a lens to detail the history of America's quest to save rare species, with a special focus on the aforementioned condor and tortoise as well as the delta smelt and San Joaquin kit fox.

Among other discoveries, Alagona reveals that, while the act has saved certain birds and beasts from utter extinction, it hasn't really helped many of the listed animals recover to sustainable population levels, which was the supposed mission of the 1973 law. Below, he discusses that and other findings, and helps chart a course for a more effective ESA in the decades to come.

Forty years on, how would you grade the Endangered Species Act (ESA)?

There are a lot of pundits out there who will tell you that it has either been a disaster or a huge success. The truth is that it has really been a mixed bag to date, and “to date” is a really short time. For species that took centuries to decline, 40 years is probably not enough time to recover.

But based on the data that’s out there right now, the take home message is that the Endangered Species Act has done a pretty good job, a really good job actually, of preventing extinctions. But it’s done a really poor job promoting the recovery of species that are on the list. 

Your book critiques the prevailing strategy of tying species recovery to habitat preservation, the idea of, “Let’s just set some land aside and nature will take care of itself.”

Or that some wildlife manager out there will restore it to its natural state. I don’t want to caricature people—it’s not as simple as that—but that’s the kind of ideology that we’ve developed, and it started a long time ago.

Well, it has been an effective tool for preserving land.

It’s been very effective, so then the question becomes which is which: Are you saving species to preserve the land, or the land to preserve the species?

But you could safely say that preserving the land has prevented extinctions, right?

It’s really helped. But the problem is that, if you look at the recoveries that have occurred, all of the species that have recovered have recovered due to relatively simple problems.

Like removing DDT from their ecosystem (Congress banned it for agricultural uses in 1972)?

DDT is the perfect example, or the introduction of an exotic species, or overhunting. With the American alligator, hunters were just taking thousands of them to make them into boots. Stop shooting alligators, and they come back like crazy. Now they’re everywhere again.

It’s much harder for species that have lost large portions of their habitat to come back even if you set aside areas with the intention of restoring and preserving habitat. It’s never really the same, because the land is changing even within the reserves, the climate is changing, all this other sort of stuff is going on.

Is it a too-far-gone situation, or are their ways to improve the recovery of these species?

There's probably a spectrum. There are some animals that, if we expanded their range and our imagination with what we could do to establish partnerships with private landowners, we could really, really help. There are others that you could maybe help somewhat, but it’s going to be a pretty tough go. And then there are other species that seem like, for the long-term, they’re probably going to be really dependent on a pretty intensive set of management strategies to keep them afloat. 

Your book talks about the lack of flexibility allowed by the ESA, about how experimental but potentially successful recovery techniques are few and far between. Why is that sort of adaptive management hard to implement?

The problem is that the idea of adaptive management came along in the late 1970s and 1980s, which was after all of the major environmental laws were passed. So the concerns that drove the legislation of the 1960s and ’70s aren’t the same concerns that people are dealing with now.

One of the big concerns of the ESA and other laws of that time was just to develop more transparency around the process, since there weren't any established protocols then. When lawmakers are looking for transparency, flexibility is not the first thing on their mind—it might even be the last thing on their mind. What they wanted was a step-wise process that’s deliberate, that’s plotting, where they can actually watch what local, state, and federal agencies are doing in real time and, if the agencies are making decisions that are arbitrary and capricious, they can be taken to federal court. But one person’s arbitrary and capricious is another person’s flexible and adaptive management.

And with endangered species, you don’t want to do an experiment that kills animals. Think of the bad press!

There was a condor chick killed in the early ’80s when wildlife biologists were studying it, and that was a big scandal. So those things have happened before, and people are really wary of that, but it might be the only way to move forward.

Why doesn’t just saving habitat work out?

Some of the species that have had the largest areas preserved are still declining. The two best-known examples of that are the desert tortoise and the northern spotted owl. They are declining for different reasons—the regions are different, the economies are really different, the ecosystems are really different—but those are two vertebrate species that have had enormous areas set aside on their behalf.

The spotted owl wasn’t doing so well anyway for a number of reasons, but then another problem arose: the bard owl, which is indigenous to the Eastern U.S. but has been spreading across the continent because of all the land use changes. It’s closely related to the spotted owl, but it’s bigger, more aggressive and more adaptable. It breeds with them, it eats them, it kills their young, it usurps their habitat.

So now, we had these enormous political controversies. The government set aside all these areas, and people still feel like it took away their livelihoods and their communities. The ESA promised to bring back the species and others, and now this other owl comes in and messes everything up. The conservationists who go into this in the first place got into it because they wanted to save owls, and now they’re being faced with the idea of shooting one owl to protect another.

Is your book the first to point this out?

No. What I would say is that my book is the first to explain how we got into this situation from a historical perspective. How did we get to this predicament in the first place? It turns out that it goes back a long time. It’s kind of illuminating to realize that this didn’t start with the ESA in 1973. Americans  have been thinking about this stuff and trying to figure it out for a long time [since at least the 1870s]. There’s a reason scientists make the assumptions we do, and that’s because the assumptions have been built into the way we’ve thought about things for a century.

And they’re partially true.

They’re partially true, but we also are learning that the world is more complicated.

So if you had all the marbles, what’s your silver bullet solution?

There are a couple things we could do to the ESA to improve it. One is to create better arrangements so that landowners can be enrolled in the endangered species recovery programs.

From what I’ve seen over the years, despite the private property rights rhetoric, many landowners seem happy to help with species recovery and are actively involved.

There are a lot of great examples of this, such as the Paramount Farming Company's development of artificial dens for kit foxes in the San Joaquin Valley in 2002. It seems like every example is treated like a unique exception, and yet if you add them all together, there’s a trend there. So how can we take those examples and build them more into the policy in meaningful ways?

What else?

Another thing is that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has become bogged down with this critical habitat process. The ESA says that, when you list a species, you have to draw a map of its critical habitat—there’s a lot of debate about whether that is for its survival or its recovery—and, within that area, any project that will have a significant impact has to be reviewed.

That’s turned out to be hugely controversial, so there are people who have come up with ideas on how to make that more efficient and more transparent. So normalizing the critical habitat process would go a long way.

We also need better arrangements with the states. The ESA says that the states and federal government “should cooperate wherever practicable,” but it doesn’t say what that means. So how can you entice state fish and game agencies? They often have more credibility with the local populations, because they’re the ones that make sure there are ducks in the pond so you can go hunting next year. If we could do a better job with that, it would go a ways toward fixing things.

And then there’s flexibility.

The final thing is this issue of adaptive management. There are parts of the ESA where you could improve on the adaptive management portions without violating ESA procedures. For example, there’s an “experimental population” clause in the ESA that says you can dedicate a population experimental. If you do that, it should be a population that if it tanks, it won’t kill the species, but if you have an idea that a certain set of management strategies might work, you should have the flexibility to try new things without the hammer coming down in the form of the federal court.

To let that happen, we’d have to be ready and prepared for more failure, right?

But failure can be a success if you learn something from it—as long as safeguards are in place so those conducting such experiments are not going to wipe out a species in an experiment.

Matt Kettmann is the senior editor of The Santa Barbara Independent, where he has covered endangered species issues for more than a dozen years.

The Cherished Tradition of Scrapbooking

Smithsonian Magazine

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

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

What types of scrapbooks do you find the most interesting?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Poof to Proof: Inside the Mind of a Mathemagician

Smithsonian Magazine

For mathematician and "mathemagician" Arthur Benjamin, the best way to illustrate the basic concept of algebra is with a little magic trick: "Think of a number between one and ten. Now, double it. Add ten. Then, divide by two. Subtract the number you started with originally.”

"Is the number you arrived at 5?"

Then, he explains why the trick works: "Let's call the number you started with n—and right away, we've achieved the major goal of algebra, which is the concept of abstraction, using a letter to represent a value that we don't know. First, you doubled the number, so you had 2n. Then, you added 10, so you had 2n + 10. After that, you divided the number by 2. When you divide 2n + 10, you get n + 5. Finally, when you subtract n—no matter what number it is—you're left with 5."

That's just one example of how Benjamin, who is well known for his magic shows in which he performs mental calculations at lightning speeds, demonstrates the fun and fascinating aspects of math in his latest book, The Magic of Math: Solving for x and Figuring Out Why

"Many mathematicians say that math exists without humans. But Arthur epitomizes the social strain of math that involves sharing ideas with people and converting young people, getting them interested in math by reminding them it's a cool subject," says Paul Zeitz, professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of San Francisco. "Even when he gives math talks without magic, he's amazing at captivating an audience. He's done more for math than most people do in their entire careers."


The Magic of Math: Solving for x and Figuring Out Why

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Benjamin, a mathematics professor at Harvey Mudd College, became a "mathemagician" by accident, beginning the '70s. Growing up, he was an avid follower of the prolific popular mathematics writer Martin Gardner, reading books such as Mathematical Carnival and completing Gardner's puzzles in Scientific American. He started doing magic shows for kids while he was in high school, which then grew into shows for adults, featuring feats of mental agility that were less challenging than they appeared. Benjamin was good at doing quick math in his head, so he added that to his shows and developed various techniques for doing fast math in his head—the same way many others had. 

"What made me different was I had a knack for performing on stage," he says. After finishing graduate school in 1989, he settled in southern California and started performing again, earning a coveted spot at The Magic Castle in Hollywood, a clubhouse for the world's best magicians. Twenty-five years later, he's still performing, at roughly 75 events a year—a full-time job, in addition to his full-time teaching.

"I learned how to be a good teacher through my early experiences as a magician," he says. "My approach to teaching has always been, 'How do I make this material entertaining?' Math is a serious subject, but that doesn't mean it has to be taught in an overly serious way."

In The Magic of Math—his first high-profile release since 2006, when he wrote the popular Secrets of Mental Math—he explains why “9” is the most magical number, offers some mental math shortcuts, and shares his technique for figuring out the day of the week for any date of the current or upcoming year. "I want people to have two reactions to each exercise, or trick," he says. "First, I want them to say, 'Cool!' and second, I want them to ask, 'Why?' "

Both the fun and the explanations are often missing from math instruction in today's schools, according to Benjamin—despite the fact that so many people are calling for better education in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Frequent testing leaves little time for exploring math for the sake of beauty and pleasure, and students are often told they need to learn math skills only because they'll need them in future math classes. "I don't like delayed gratification," Benjamin says, "especially when the answer never comes. Math needs to be made relevant."

Another problem is that many teachers don't love math. "It's hard to fake a passion for math," he says. "A lot of elementary school teachers are math-phobic and I worry they are passing on those phobias to students. You can't expect students to be more excited about math than their teachers are." Yet, there are barriers that keep people who truly love math—such as math and engineering majors—from going back to classrooms as educators. "I wish we could do more to attract the best and brightest math students to teaching, and give great teachers more money and more respect," he adds.

In his 2009 TED Talk, Benjamin suggested that high school students should be taught statistics rather than calculus and he still advocates for this approach. While calculus is currently a must for students seeking acceptance to competitive colleges, "I would rather see the typical high school graduate have a good understanding of probability and statistics," he says. "Unless students are going into engineering, science, math or a related field, they're not going to use calculus in their daily lives, but probability and statistics are around us everyday, when we're reading the newspaper or making financial decisions. Data surrounds us, and the more you understand it, the better off you will be."

Keith Devlin, executive director of the Human-Sciences and Technologies Advanced Research Institute (H-STAR) at Stanford University, agrees: "Calculus is a totally inappropriate summit course for high school. Most students at that age do not yet have enough other mathematics beneath their belts, or sufficient mathematical maturity to do it properly."

Overall, Benjamin hopes that someday students will have more options, and less of a prescribed track, when it comes to studying math. "I believe that will allow a love of math to grow, and not be decimated," he says.

He hopes The Magic of Math will be a resource for students, parents, teachers and adults who are curious about math. At the end of the book, in a section called "Aftermath," he recommends other resources such as Kahn Academy, The Art of Problem Solving and videos by Numberphile. He says, "There are a ton of popular math books out there right now, perhaps because people are looking outside of the education system for fun math. If mine is the only math book you ever read, then I have failed."

A Guide to Buying Ethical Coffee

Smithsonian Magazine

New studies show that, despite the skyrocketing price of coffee in the past few decades and the seemingly impressive rise in coffee drinkers who seriously care about their drink, coffee farmers are not seeing much benefit. Coffee, as a luxury good, has the potential to make huge changes in the way farmers are treated and paid. But how do you know if you're supporting good coffee or contributing to the problem?

“People are more aware of sustainability issues with coffee because, you know, this isn’t food,” says Kim Elena Ionescu, the director of sustainability for the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) and a former coffee buyer for renowned North Carolina-based roaster Counter Culture Coffee. “It’s non-nutritive, not something you need for survival. This is something that we consume for pleasure.” Because of its status as a sort of luxury or specialty item, unlike, say, eggs, coffee consumers have the ability to demand more from their coffee producers than simply low prices.

And that’s important, because coffee farmers are among the worst-treated in the world. Largely coming from developing nations in Central America, Latin America, Africa and Asia, coffee farmers are faced with legendarily hard work, low prices and a crop that’s subject to rampant price pressures as well as various forms of blight and disease.

There are some forces working to make things better for coffee farmers, and some of those are quantified with various labels, slogans and certifications. But it can be hard to figure out what to trust and what to look for; some nice-sounding phrases turn out to be legally meaningless, and some really great certifications are saddled with terrible names that undersell their value. Ionescu led us through how to buy coffee in a way that ensures, to the best of your ability, that farmers are being paid and treated fairly.

This isn’t a perfect guide; coffee, like any other product grown in a developing country and destined for a developed country, has a long ways to go before the various certifications and regulations really provide good working conditions and wages to the producers. But that shouldn’t stop you from trying. It’s not every product that allows you to act ethically every single morning.

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The Price Difference

Coffee price is absurdly variable: A mass-market coffee like Folgers or Maxwell House can cost about $5 per pound, while ultra-rare coffees, like Black Ivory Coffee (made from coffee that’s passed through the intestinal system of elephants) can run up to hundreds of dollars per pound. More common “expensive” coffees, roasted by companies like Counter Culture, Stumptown and Blue Bottle, often cost around $20-$29 per pound.

It would be easy to assume that more expensive coffees would pass some of that premium on over to the farmers, but that’s not always the case. “You can’t necessarily assume that a high price means good working conditions, or that by paying a high price you’re paying for environmental sustainability, unless that is explicit,” says Ionescu. “I think you can make the assumption that if your coffee is cheap, the environmental and working conditions are probably not good.”

In other words, you have to dig a little deeper than just the price tag. You want to make sure it’s the farmers who are paid well, not the retailer or roaster.

The Fancy Labels

Higher-end coffee tends to be slathered with slogans, logos and banners claiming all sorts of things about the conditions of the farm and the relationship between the farmer and seller. Sometimes there will be photos of happy coffee farmers, or long narratives about how much the CEO of your local coffee roaster cares about his Honduran farms.

Proceed with caution.

There are a few legitimate badges that can appear on coffee packaging, which we’ll get to in a minute. But literally everything else is marketing, and has no legal, regulatory muscle to back it up. This can include some very popular labels!

For one: Direct trade. Theoretically, this refers to a cutting out of middlemen, and reveals that the roaster has a personal relationship with the farmer, therefore allowing the farmer to take a larger cut of the profits. In reality? This phrase has absolutely no legal meaning. Anyone can say it. That doesn’t mean that the companies that do use the phrase are lying or misleading, but even in the best-case scenario, the lack of a formal legal definition means that the customer really has no idea what information to glean from the phrase. “The words ‘direct trade’ are not regulated at all,” says Ionescu. “So each company can define that term differently, and there’s no body that determines what is and is not direct trade.”

Another: Shade grown. This one actually is a useful theoretical definition: It means that the coffee plantation is set up with various large, shady trees forming a canopy over the shrub-like coffee plants. It’s a great idea; it retains the natural multi-level character of the environment, which allows for farmers to grow coffee without uprooting every other plant and animal in the area. It also helps retain moisture so farmers use less water, and keeps the soil in place to prevent erosion. Shade-grown coffee is great! It should all be shade grown! But that phrase is, again, not a legally binding one; anyone can say it, to mean anything or nothing at all. Luckily there are actual labels that will let you know if your coffee fulfills the shade-grown requirements, but if all your coffee says is “shade grown”? Nope. Means nothing.

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The Real Labels

First off, the biggie: Organic. People often assume that “organic” is simply a marketing term, but in fact it’s a marketing term with various legal definitions. Items carrying the USDA Organic seal are verified by government-accredited inspectors and require that the farm in question use no synthetic pesticides, have a plan to prevent excess erosion (a real problem with coffee plants) and are spaced far enough from non-organic plants that non-organic fertilizers and pesticides won’t “accidentally” float over.

Another important one: Fair Trade Certified. This is a very tricky one because it’s only the complete phrase, “Fair Trade Certified,” that carries weight; “fair trade,” alone, without a label from an organization like Fairtrade International or Fair Trade USA, means nothing. But Fair Trade Certified coffee is a good one, though kind of complicated because it’s split up into two similarly named groups. Fairtrade International is made up exclusively of cooperatives of small producers. Fair Trade USA, a splinter group, is open to both cooperatives and single farms (meaning either large estates or small farmers who are not organized into co-ops). But both require a minimum price per pound to the farmer ($1.40 for non-organic, $1.70 for organic, plus a $0.20 cent community-development premium for each). If the market price is below that mark, Fair Trade Certified growers are ensured to get higher-than market rates. “Fair Trade Certified kind of grew up in coffee and spread to other products,” says Ionescu; you can find fair-trade sugar and many other products these days.

Then there are the labels which have legitimate meanings but are confusing in their execution.

Rainforest Alliance Certified is an okay certification, provided by an NGO of the same name. Its focus is ecological, requiring some shade, some clean water rubrics, some attempts to not destroy the environment. It also is a pretty decent protection against the exploitation of child labor. The problem is that, while Rainforest Alliance is absolutely a real certification with real requirements, those certifications aren’t … very strict. For one thing, sometimes only 30 percent of the coffee in a package needs to have passed muster for the package to be legally labeled Certified, which is pretty messed up. (The packaging does have to state that only 30 percent of the coffee is certified, and companies are required to scale up over time, but still.) For another, it doesn’t require a minimum purchasing price for coffee, nor does it actually do anything at all to ensure more equitable wages for farmers. It’s been widely criticized, but it’s certainly better than nothing.

UTZ Certified, certainly a lesser-known certification, is not specific to coffee, but is sometimes applied. (It’s also common in chocolate.) UTZ is agriculture-focused, working specifically on habitat preservation, water use, pesticide use and soil erosion prevention. But it’s attracted criticism for being too general, and for not requiring the use of shade trees.

The last big one is one of the best, and probably the least known: Bird-Friendly Certified. This certification comes from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and requires extremely strict adherence to the guidelines of shade-grown coffee—it even mandates a canopy height. Bird-Friendly Certified coffee is also, by requirement, organic, meaning you get kind of a two-for-one. The name of the certification isn’t great; something like “direct trade” sounds an awful lot more powerful and important than “bird friendly.” But this certification is hugely important. If you see the green and brown Bird-Friendly logo on your coffee? You’re getting some good stuff.

Ionescu notes that these certifications aren’t everything. “Just having a certification doesn’t guarantee that the farm is sustainable,” she says. “It could be organic certified but the farmer might not make much money, or the coffee quality might not be good.” And there’s basically no way for a consumer to casually learn reliable information about a coffee supply chain; companies have a firm incentive (in the form of dollars) to present themselves as the pinnacle of green-friendly, labor-friendly producers and the dearth of third-party verification can make it hard to trust any of that.

But this is one instance where looking for a label can legitimately make a difference. It’s worth trying.

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12 Unique Ways to Experience Armenia Off the Beaten Path

Smithsonian Magazine

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

1 | Paraglide Over Lake Sevan

(V. Grigoryan)

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

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

2 | Discover Prehistoric Petroglyphs

(C. Rapkievian)

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

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

3 | Create Porcelain Ornaments with Ceramics Masters

(H. Tadevosyan, AMAP)

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

4 | Explore a Mysterious Monolith

(C. Rapkievian)

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

5 | Forge Iron in a Historic City

(H. Tadevosyan, AMAP)

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

6 | Explore Spectacular Geological Formations in Mozrov Cave

(H. Tadevosyan, AMAP)

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

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

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

(C. Rapkievian)

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

8 | Join a Public Sing-a-long

(C. Rapkievian)

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

9 | Cook Up Traditional Recipes

(H. Tadevosyan, AMAP)

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

10 | Spot Rare Birds in Lake Arpi National Park

(H. Tadevosyan, AMAP)

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

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

11 | Hear Ancient Chants in Geghard Monastery

(H. Tadevosyan, AMAP)

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

12 | Sip Modern Wine Made With Ancient Techniques

(C. Rapkievian)

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

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

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

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

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

When Humans Begin Colonizing Other Planets, Who Should Be in Charge?

Smithsonian Magazine

Every summer for the past 20 years, Pascal Lee has traveled to the remote Canadian Arctic to pretend he’s on Mars. This cold, dry, pockmarked and essentially lifeless environment is one of the closest to the red planet that you can find on Earth—making it a great practice ground for driving Mars rovers.

Lee, a planetary scientist at the SETI Institute in California, is the director of the NASA Haughton Mars Project, where he uses this analog Mars environment to investigate scientific questions concerning how humans might threaten life on other planets we colonize. 

For example, if humans travel to Mars, would microbes transferred from our bodies thrive on Martian soil—threatening native Martian microbes and disrupting native ecosystems? Recent results from Lee’s research suggest the answer to that is no, at least not on the surface of Martian soil: Mars’ harsh climate and high UV radiation would kill off many of the microbes we may accidentally bring from Earth.

But the Haughton Mars Project—along with other Mars analog study sites in Antarctica and the Atacama Desert in Chile—also inadvertently bring to light numerous ethical questions of how we should behave as interplanetary colonists. As humans accelerate their space travel capacity and aim to colonize Mars in the next several decades, these questions are becoming less lofty and more immediately urgent.

Here's another scenario: If humans were to land on Mars and were somehow lethally threatened by Martians, should humans attack the Martians? In his personal opinion, Lee says the answer would be yes. “If at some point it came down to either me or the microbe on Mars that’s going to survive, I’m probably not going to hesitate,” he says.

Yet these are not simple questions to address, and are not within the realm of the Haughton Mars Project to answer. The International Council for Science, consisting of 142 countries, has organized a Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) to help answer some of these questions and a United Nations Outer Space Treaty, in place since 1967, also helps streamline some of the ethical and legal implications that this issue raises.

But the treaty is meant to protect the safety of humans and scientific evidence of life on other planets, not to protect the environments or ecosystems of those planets. Moreover, the contents of the treaty are just guidelines: They are not laws, and the legal implications of not following them remain unclear, says Catharine Conley, head officer at NASA’s Planetary Protection Office.

“The peer pressure approach has, up until now, worked,” she says, explaining that it’s in space agencies’ best interest to work together since they often rely on each other for collaboration and advancement. But now, as more private companies like SpaceX enter the field to visit Mars, the playing field has changed.

“When you have other entities included that don’t have those same long term science objectives, it gets more complicated,” says Conley.

A rover-like vehicle driving through the remote Arctic for the Haughton Mars Project. (Pascal Lee)

Under the current treaty guidelines, federal governments are responsible for the behavior of both their space agencies and nongovernmental space entities in their country. So a company like SpaceX must be authorized to launch by a government agency before lift off—but if it accidentally or intentionally fails to comply with the treaty guidelines at some point in flight, another country could theoretically sue the U.S. government or take other legal actions, says Conley.

Despite general good intentions and hard work to keep spacecraft free of contaminants, Conley says the biggest threat humans pose to other planets is what we don’t know—or what we think we know, but don’t. While research from the Haughton Mars Project suggests limited microbial transfer from rovers to Mars soil, other dynamics could exist on Mars or other planets that researchers haven’t even thought to anticipate.

“For certain types of Earth organisms, Mars is a gigantic dinner plate,” says Conley. “We don’t know, but it could be that those organisms would grow much more rapidly than they would on Earth because they have this unaffected environment and everything is there for them to use.”

So far, most of the attention to these ethical issues has focused on Mars, the most realistic subject of colonization in the near future. But other types of planets may bring up new concerns. “You can invent all kinds of scenarios, but the problem is currently it’s all open because no one has explored these things before,” says Conley, referring to the legal implications of contaminating Mars or another planet. “So until you have a case, you can’t decide what to do. But of course from the standpoint of planetary protection, as soon as you have a case, something has already gone wrong.”

There are also dangers that fall beyond the realm of planetary protection. Take energy production: In order for humans to live on another planet, we will need to develop a way to produce electricity. A substance called perchlorate exists in relatively high quantities on Mars (and also on Earth in bleach and other substances), making up about 1 percent of all the dust on the red planet. This highly energetic salt could potentially offer a good source of energy for humans on Mars, but not if humans accidentally introduce a microbe that eats it up before we have a chance to use it, says Conley.

Unfortunately, the guidelines put in place by the Outer Space Treaty won’t necessarily prevent this type of mistake from happening. The guidelines are strict on keeping spacecraft clean when looking for life on other planets, but less stringent for spacecraft traveling to a celestial body for other reasons. This is because planetary protection guidelines exist to preserve scientific evidence of extraterrestrial life—not the environments of other planets, says Gerhard Kminek, the planetary protection officer at the European Space Agency.

An artist’s interpretation of a human colony on Mars. (NASA AMES)

Working groups of COSPAR, including the Panel on Potentially Environmentally Detrimental Activities in Space, do explore how space activities might disrupt other planets’ environments. These panels report to the United Nations with their findings. But again, they only offer guidelines, not laws, says Kminek. So it’s up to international space agencies to recognize the importance of building best practices in spacecraft sanitation and keeping up with the sometimes onerous standards set by the Outer Space Treaty.

“If you do it badly once, that might be enough to compromise any future investigation related to life,” says Kminek. “And that’s why there is strong international consensus making sure there are no bad players around.”

The standards for travel also differ from one celestial body to another. For instance, Mars atmosphere is thick enough that it will burn off certain microbes upon entry—allowing spacecraft sanitation standards to remain laxer than they would be for vehicles landing somewhere with a very thin atmosphere, like Jupiter’s moon Europa, Kminek says.

That is, at least based on our understanding of these celestial bodies right now. During the Apollo missions to the Moon in the 1960s and 70s, we learned how unforeseen obstacles can cause critical problems in space travel. On the Moon, the threat lunar dust posed to astronauts was underestimated until it started getting stuck in the crevices of their face and in their zippers, jeopardizing the integrity of their spacesuits, says Margaret Race, a colleague of Conley’s at the SETI Institute.

“Had they been up there a little longer, their spacesuits would not have worked,” Race says.

Late astronaut and engineer Eugene Cernan, the last man to have walked on the Moon, stated the enormity of the dust problem during an Apollo 17 technical debrief in 1973: “I think dust is probably one of our greatest inhibitors to a nominal operation on the Moon,” he stated. “We can overcome other physiological or physical or mechanical problems except dust.”

Humans also didn’t do a good job limiting the transport of material from Earth to the Moon or vice versa, says Race. The Moon is lifeless, so this had little consequence on either celestial body. But if the Moon harbored life and a transfer of species did occur, the consequences would have been far greater. “If there were life on the Moon, we would have it here now,” she says. “We did the best we could at the time, but we didn’t understand.”

While space engineering has come a long way since the Apollo missions, plenty of work remains to determine the best practices in protecting life on other planets from humans, says Conley. And when we do finally land on Mars, the advancements will need to continue—even if it appears that scientists have sufficient knowledge of human threat to other planets.

“My response to that is, as soon as you eat your first candy bar, do you stop brushing your teeth?” says Conley. “We should keep doing it.” Because, in the end, what we don’t know will end up being the most dangerous threat humans pose to these other worlds. 

Aero Island Bike Ride (or Car Tour)

Smithsonian Magazine

This 18-mile trip shows you the best of this windmill-covered island’s charms. The highest point on the island is only 180 feet above sea level, but the wind can be strong and the hills seem long. This ride is good exercise. Rent a bike in town. While my map and instructions work, a local cycle map is helpful (free loaner maps if you rent from Pilebaekkens Cykler or buy one at the TI). Or it could be fun and easy--though pricier--to rent an electric car from the tourist information office.

Leave Aeroskobing to the west on the road to Vra (Vravejen, signed Bike Route #90).

Leaving Aeroskobing: You’ll see the first of many U-shaped farms, typical of Denmark. The three sides block the wind and store cows, hay, and people. Gaard (farm) shows up on many local surnames.

At Osemarksvej, bike along the coast in the protection of the dike built in 1856 to make the once-salty swampland to your left farmable. While the weak soil is good for hay and little else, they get the most out of it. Each winter, certain grazing areas flood with seawater. (Some locals claim this makes their cows produce fatter milk and meat.) As you roll along the dike, the land on your left is about eight feet below sea level. The little white pump house--alone in the field--is busy each spring and summer.

At the T-junction, go right (over the dike) toward Borgnaes.

Borgnaes: The traditional old “straw house” (50 yards down, on left) is a café and shop selling fresh farm products. Just past that, a few roadside tables sell farm goodies on the honor system. Borgnaes is a cluster of modern summer houses. In spite of huge demand, a weak economy, and an aging population, development like this is no longer allowed.

Keep to the right (passing lots of wheat fields and two Vindeballe turnoffs), following signs to Bregninge. After a secluded beach, head inland (direction: O. Bregninge). Pass the island’s only water mill, and climb uphill over the island’s 2,700-inch-high summit toward Bregninge. The tallest point on Aero is called Syneshoj (“Seems high”).

Gammelgaard: Take a right turn marked only by a Bike Route #90 sign. The road deteriorates as you wind scenically through “Aero’s Alps,” past classic “old farms” (hence the name of the lane--Gammelgaard).

At the modern road, turn left (leaving Bike Route #90) and bike to the big village church. Before turning right to roll through Denmark’s “¬second-longest village,” visit the church.

Bregninge Church: The interior of the 12th-century Bregninge church is still painted as a Gothic church would have been. Find the painter’s self-¬portrait (behind the pulpit, right of front pew). Tradition says that if the painter wasn’t happy with his pay, he’d paint a fool’s head in the church (above third pew on left). Note how the fool’s mouth--the hole for a rope tied to the bell--has been worn wider and wider by centuries of ringing. (During services, the ringing bell would call those who were ill and too contagious to be allowed into the church to come for communion--distributed through the square hatches flanking the altar.)

The altarpiece--gold leaf on carved oak--is from 1528, six years before the Reformation came to Denmark. The cranium carved into the bottom indicates it’s a genuine masterpiece by Claus Berg (from Lübeck, Germany). This Crucifixion scene is such a commotion, it seems to cause Christ’s robe to billow up. The soldiers who traditionally gambled for Christ’s robe have traded their dice for knives. Even the three wise men (each perhaps a Danish king) made it to this Crucifixion. Notice the escaping souls of the two thieves--the one who converted on the cross being carried happily to heaven, and the other, with its grim-winged escort, heading straight to hell. The scene at lower left--a bare-breasted, dark-skinned woman with a disciple feeding her child--symbolizes the Great Commission: “Go ye to all the world.” Since this is a Catholic altarpiece, a roll call of saints lines the wings. During the restoration, the identity of the two women on the lower right was unknown, so the lettering--even in Latin--is clearly gibberish. Take a moment to study the 16th-century art on the ceiling (for example, the crucified feet ascending, leaving only footprints on earth). In the narthex, a list of pastors goes back to 1505. The current pastor (Agnes) is the first woman on the list.

Now’s the time for a bathroom break (public WC in the churchyard). Then roll downhill through Bregninge past many more U-shaped gaards. Notice how the town is in a gully. Imagine pirates trolling along the coast, looking for church spires marking unfortified villages. Aero’s 16 villages are all invisible from the sea-- their church spires carefully designed not to be viewable from sea level.

About a mile down the main road is Vindeballe, which has a traditional kro (inn) if you’re hungry or thirsty. Just before the village (past the din fart sign--which tells you “your speed”), take the Vodrup Klint turnoff to the right.

Vodrup Klint: A road leads downhill (with a well-signed jog to the right) to dead-end at a rugged bluff called Vodrup Klint (WC, picnic benches). If I were a pagan, I’d worship here--the sea, the wind, and the chilling view. Notice how the land steps in sloppy slabs down to the sea. When saturated with water, the slabs of clay that make up the land here get slick, and entire chunks can slide.

Hike down to the foamy beach (where you can pick up some flint, chalk, and wild thyme). While the wind at the top could drag a kite-flier, the beach below can be ideal for sunbathing. Because Aero is warmer and drier than the rest of Denmark, this island is home to plants and animals found nowhere else in the ¬country. This southern exposure is the warmest area. Germany is dead ahead.

Backtrack 200 yards and follow the signs to Tranderup.

Tranderup: On the way, you’ll pass a lovely pond famous for its bell frogs and happy little duck houses. Still following signs for Tranderup, stay parallel to the big road through town. You’ll pass a lovely farm and a potato stand. At the main road, turn right. At the Aeroskobing turnoff, side-trip 100 yards left to the big stone (commemorating the return of the island to Denmark from Germany in 1750) and a grand island panorama. Seattleites might find Claus Clausen’s rock interesting (in the picnic area, next to WC). It’s a memorial to an extremely obscure pioneer from the state of Washington.

Return to the big road (continuing in direction: Marstal), pass through Olde, pedal past FAF (the local wheat farmers’ co-op facility), and head toward Store Rise (STOH-reh REE-zuh), the next church spire in the distance. Think of medieval travelers using spires as navigational aids.

Store Rise Prehistoric Tomb, Church, and Brewery: Thirty yards after the Stokkeby turnoff, follow the rough, tree-lined path on the right to the Langdysse (Long Dolmen) Tingstedet, just behind the church spire. This is a 6,000-year-old dolmen, an early Neolithic burial place. Though Aero once had more than 200 of these prehistoric tombs, only 13 survive. The site is a raised mound the shape and length (about 100 feet) of a Viking ship, and archeologists have found evidence that indicates a Viking ship may indeed have been burned and buried here.

Ting means assembly spot. Imagine a thousand years ago: Viking chiefs representing the island’s various communities gathering here around their ancestors’ tombs. For 6,000 years, this has been a holy spot. The stones were considered fertility stones. For centuries, locals in need of virility chipped off bits and took them home (the nicks in the rock nearest the information post are mine).

Tuck away your chip and carry on down the lane to the Store Rise church. Inside you’ll find little ships hanging in the nave, a fine 12th-century altarpiece, a stick with offering bag and a ting-a-ling bell to wake those nodding off (right of altar), double seats (so worshippers can flip to face the pulpit during sermons), and Martin Luther in the stern keeping his Protestant hand on the rudder. The list in the church allows today’s pastors to trace their pastoral lineage back to Doctor Luther himself. (The current pastor, Janet, is the first woman on the list.) The churchyard is circular--a reminder of how churchyards provided a last refuge for humble communities under attack. Can you find anyone buried in the graveyard whose name doesn’t end in “-sen”?

The buzz lately in Aero is its brewery, located in a historic brewery 400 yards beyond the Store Rise church. Follow the smell of the hops (or the Rise Bryggeri signs). It welcomes visitors with free samples of its various beers. The Aero traditional brews are available in pilsner (including the popular walnut pilsner), light ale, dark ale, and a typical dark English-like stout. The Rise organic brews come in light ale, dark ale, and walnut (mid-June-Aug daily 10:00–14:00, Sept-mid-June open Thu only 10:00-14:00, tel. 62 52 11 32,

From here, climb back to the main road and continue (direction: Marstal) on your way back home to Aeroskobing. The three 330-foot-high modern windmills on your right are communally owned and, as they are a non¬polluting source of energy, state-subsidized. At Dunkaer (3 miles from Aeroskobing), take the small road, signed Lille Rise, past the topless windmill. Except for the Lille Rise, it’s all downhill from here, as you coast past great sea back home to Aeroskobing.

Huts at the Sunset Beach: Still rolling? Bike past the campground along the Urehoved beach (strand in Danish) for a look at the coziest little beach houses you’ll never see back in the “big is beautiful” US. This is Europe, where small is beautiful and the concept of sustainability is neither new nor subversive.

Rick Steves ( writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.

© 2010 Rick Steves

How America Fell in Love With the Giant Panda

Smithsonian Magazine

On a chilly Wednesday in 1936, the day before Christmas Eve, a giant panda appeared in New York City. Its name was Su Lin. Two months earlier, the animal had been plucked from its jungle home, wailing, and swept halfway around the planet on airplanes and sea ships, wrapped inside blankets and baskets. No panda had ever survived a trip outside of East Asia. In the weeks before Su Lin's arrival, American newspapers reported each detail, every nugget of news, about his trip across the Pacific.

From the first moment Su Lin was carried out into Grand Central Station and reporters instantly trumpeted the news of America's first panda, celebrity clung to his coat. He clung too: to Ruth Harkness, a widowed socialite-turned-explorer, who went to China without any wilderness experience, vowed to complete her late husband’s hunt for a panda, and returned triumphant, nursing Su Lin from a baby bottle filled with instant milk. Harkness's journey sparked a "happy furor" across the country, as biologist George Schaller described in his book, The Last Panda.

It was the moment America fell in love with the giant panda.

The New York Times announced the news in a delightfully informative headline, "BABY PANDA HERE, ENJOYS ITS BOTTLE." As Harkness held court at the Biltmore Hotel, a brisk December breeze drafting through open windows "to preserve the native Tibetan climate," journalists gawked at the cub. "What they saw bore a threefold resemblance to a sucking pig, a tiny lamb, and a puppy" the Times reported. "Its general coloring is white, but its ears are black and it had tiny black-rimmed eyes, dark brown paws and legs and a brown belly. It is about eighteen inches long and weights a little more than ten pounds." The photo that accompanied the article was one of the first of a live panda ever published in a newspaper.


It may seem like a modern reaction, the cooing and the fawning and the aww-ing over cute animals — this website is no stranger to the art of leveraging panda cub photos for squee-hungry readers — but it’s far from a contemporary trend. The first panda craze gripped the United States in the early 20th century, sparked by Harkness, and ballooned into a cultural phenomenon by the end of the 1930s. Explorers raced to China to capture pandas, then sell them for a small fortune. Zoos competed to host their own exhibits, eager to attract the paying crowds that were guaranteed to come. A giant panda was as good as gold. Within six months of his debut, for instance, Su Lin drew more than 300,000 people to suburban Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo. Everyone from Helen Keller to Al Capone couldn't resist the chance to visit a panda.

This story, however, doesn't start with Su Lin, or with Harkness.

It starts with a 19th-century Lazarist priest named Armand David. In the 1860s, he worked as a missionary in China, where he studied hundreds of species of birds and animals. It was there, in March 1869, that a hunter brought him the skin of a young giant panda. No westerner had ever seen, as David wrote, evidence of the "black and white bear." He arranged to send a skin specimen back to Paris, where it still remains, and wrote to French mammalogist Alphonse Milne-Edwards with glee: "I have not seen this species in the museums of Europe and it is easily the most pretty I have come across; perhaps it will turn out to be new to science!" (Milne-Edwards was the man who, years later, proposed that the panda was related to raccoons, not bears.)

In the decades after David brought news of the panda back to Europe, though, sightings remained few and far between. Even art depicting pandas was rare, according to Stephen Allee, associate curator for Chinese painting and calligraphy at the Freer and Sackler galleries. Schaller notes several cases in The Last Panda: a botanist named Ernest Wilson noted "large heaps of its dung" in 1908, but didn't spot their source; British explorer J.W. Brooke claimed his hunting party shot a "parti-coloured bear" the same year, though he was killed by locals before he was able to explain further; and in 1916, a German zoologist named Hugo Weigold purchased a cub, which died soon after. By 1919, when the American Museum of Natural History exhibited its first mounted specimen, the truth couldn't be denied: pandas were out there, they were unlike any animal seen in America or Europe, and the first people to bring one to the west would be met with unfathomable fame.

Unless they already were famous. In May 1929, Teddy Roosevelt's sons, Kermit and Theodore Jr., became the first Westerners known to shoot and kill a giant panda. Their hunt was, in true Roosevelt fashion, something between sport and science; reports from the era claim they spent more than $10,000 on the ten-month trip through India, China, and Tibet, which was organized on behalf of Chicago's Field Museum. The panda they shot, along with another killed by a local hunter, are still on display at the museum today.

The press followed the exploits of their hunt with relish. "ROOSEVELTS BAG A PANDA. Cat-Footed Bear of the Himalayas First Shot By White Men," the Times announced in a headline. Each brother took a victory lap upon return to the States, too, with extensive interviews about their accomplishment. "We were extremely lucky, as a matter of fact, for after only four hours of tracking we discovered the beast taking its noonday siesta," Kermit said, apparently confusing East Asia with Latin America. "My brother and I approached carefully, fired simultaneously and got him. The [hired locals] with us refused to bring the animal into their village. It seems the giant panda is a sort of minor deity among them." They even wrote a book, Trailing the Giant Panda, in response to the public's demand.

From that point forward, the race was on. An eclectic collection of adventurers, including actor Douglas Fairbanks, struck out to China in search of giant pandas. Their expeditions led to an unprecedented number of collected specimens—by 1936, roughly a dozen were exhibited in museums—but still, no one had brought a living panda to the west. Until Ruth Harkness gave it a try.

When Su Lin arrived in the United States, newspapers didn't hesitate to relay every scintillating detail of Harkness's journey. In 1934, her husband William, shortly after marrying Ruth, had travelled to China and his attempts to capture a panda were stymied by permit issues. A year later, as he waited for bureaucratic approval from the Chinese government, William fell ill with cancer. He died shortly thereafter, without ever beginning his hunt. That's when Harkness decided to realize her husband's dream. "I inherited an expedition, and what else could I do?" she later explained.

The trip had no shortage of scandals, to the delight of the press. Nearly every story about her expedition makes mention of Quentin Young, a 22-year-old Chinese naturalist, with whom she had a secret affair. Floyd Tangier Smith, a rival panda hunter who worked with her husband, claimed that Harkness didn't find the cub in the jungle, but instead, bought him from Chinese hunters. (She and others rigorously denied the charge.) Later, when she tried to sail back to America, custom officials detained her; the spat would ultimately be resolved after the state levied a $20 tax for "one dog." By the time newspapers actually had an opportunity to photograph Su Lin, Harkness's story was already the stuff of gossip legend.

After Harkness sold Su Lin to the Brookfield Zoo in 1937, months after her return, massive crowds rushed to gawk at the never-before-seen animal. By the end of the decade, six more pandas would be imported to American zoos: two more at Brookfield, two at the Bronx Zoo, and two for the Saint Louis Zoo. Each brought a new round of goofy press coverage. When that second panda arrived at the Bronx Zoo, in May 1939, the Times published details about the animal's mid-air tantrum: "Chained in the rear of the pilots' cabin out of Kansas City, Bimbo lunged at M.H. Kassing […] according to Captain Don Terry, pilot of the plane, the panda tore out part of the trousers seat of Captain D.H. Tomlinson." The pandas were top attractions in all three zoos; one from the Bronx Zoo was even loaned out to headline the World's Fair.

Pandas were, and still are, big business. That's why whenever a panda died, the three zoos would rush to find a replacement as soon as possible. Between the late 1930s and early 1940s, a common pattern emerged: the old panda would be mourned, the zoo would announce it had purchased a new panda, and press coverage would erupt once the panda arrived. The pinnacle of the trend is this Times story about panda birthday party: "The boy panda, perhaps because his birthday passed unheralded, took over the party […] He climbed into his chair, up onto the table and sat on the cake. Then he began throwing pieces of cake at the guest of honor. Both ate a little."

By the early 1950s, though, the Cold War made it difficult for zoos to import animals from China. The number of pandas in America had dwindled to zero: Su Lin and two others, Mei-Mei and Mei-Lan, had died at the Brookfield Zoo; the Bronx Zoo's four were dead; and the Saint Louis Zoo had recently mourned its last one, Pao Pei. In May 1958, when a panda was up for sale in Peiping, the federal government made clear that it wouldn't be allowed in America: "The object of the ban is to deny United States dollars to Communist China," the Times reported. Another panda wouldn't step onto U.S. soil until 1972, when the Chinese government gifted two to President Richard Nixon.


There's something about the panda that stirs people to love it. Maybe it's wired into American culture. Maybe it's science. When a new cub was born at the National Zoo last month, almost eight decades after Su Lin arrived in America, the news seemed like it was everywhere. How much had really changed?

Well, at least one thing has. A panda's sex was notoriously hard to identify through the early 20th century. For years, Brookfield Zoo experts believed Su Lin was a female. It wasn't until 1938, after he died, that an autopsy concluded he was male. When Mei Xiang gave birth last month, veterinarians didn't have to worry about making the same mistake—they tested genes before announcing the news. It's a boy.

Why Do Chinese Restaurants Have Such Similar Names?

Smithsonian Magazine

Chinese restaurants are ubiquitous across America from big cities to suburban strip malls to dusty back roads, to highway gas stations. They are frequently the heart of small towns. They offer up a familiar menu of comfort food, but also similar-sounding names. And that’s no accident. Even though the majority of the 50,000 Chinese restaurants in the United States are not large chain franchises, family-owned mom-and-pop shops adhere to a tried and true gustatory tradition.

“Familiarity is one of their biggest selling points,” says Cedric Yeh, who as project head of the Sweet and Sour Initiative at the National Museum of American History, studies Chinese foodways (see artifacts below) and helped put together a 2011 exhibition on Chinese food in America at the museum.

Many Chinese restaurant names are chosen for their auspiciousness—out of the owners’ desire for success. They include words like golden, fortune, luck and garden. In Mandarin, garden is “yuan,” a homophone for money.

The word play, says Yeh, is usually lost on American diners. To Americans, some names may make no sense or translate in a funny way, says Yeh, whose parents had a Chinese restaurant named Jade Inn in Springfield, Massachusetts, when he was younger.

One of the words that means good fortune in Cantonese is spelled most unfortunately “fuk.” Restaurants incorporating that word have gotten lots of attention, especially in the social media era, says Yeh, who also serves as deputy chair of the division of Armed Forces History.

“I don’t think they ever stopped and thought about why that might attract attention,” says Yeh.

An online Chinese Restaurant Name Generator pokes playful fun at the stew of name possibilities, spitting out “Goose Oriental,” “Mandarin Wall,” “#1 Tso,” and “Fortune New Dynasty.” Auspicious, perhaps, but maybe not the catchiest.

“Wok,” “garden,” “house,” and “kitchen,” also were frequently used. “Golden” was the most-proffered color, and panda and dragon were the most well-used in the animals category. (bluebeat76 / iStock)

But Chinese restaurant names are packed with significance to Chinese people. Take “Fragrant Harbor”—the name for Hong Kong, says Andrew Coe, a Brooklyn-based author of Chop Suey, A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States. Chinese people would understand that it’s a Hong Kong-style restaurant, he says.

Names—along with menus and decor—established by the first owner of a restaurant rarely change, even if the business changes hands multiple times, as they often do, Coe says. The Chinese restaurants follow a formula. “They believe in consistency and not scaring away the customers,” Coe says. If the name changes, it could mean a change in cuisine.

Most Chinese restaurants in America also get their menus, their décor and even their workers from a small group of distributors, most based in New York, although some are in Chicago, Los Angeles and Houston, a city with a growing Chinese population, Coe says. 

Chinese restaurants—ones that also catered to Americans, and not just Chinese immigrants—didn’t start to proliferate until the late 19th century. The center of the Chinese food universe was New York City, where many Chinese ended up after fleeing racial violence in the American west. In the east, especially in the roiling immigrant stew that was New York City at the time, while anti-Chinese sentiment existed, it was no more virulent than the bigotry against other immigrants, Coe says.

Immigrants from Canton (the southern province that surrounds Hong Kong and now known as as Guangdong) opened most of the early U.S. restaurants. Cantonese influence continues to be strong, but with another wave of Chinese immigrants in the 1970s and 1980s, the cuisine and culture of Fujian province joined the American mix, along with dishes from Hunan, Sichuan, Taipei and Shanghai. And now, with growing numbers of Chinese students attending American universities, interesting regional influences are showing up in perhaps unexpected places like Pittsburgh, says Coe.

"What most Americans seem to believe about Chinese food is that it should be cheap and not very exotic and served very quickly,” says Coe. (annop24 / iStock)

But the names all continue to be similar and say something to both American and Chinese diners, says Yeh. “You want to give the customer the idea that you’re coming to a Chinese restaurant,” he says. The restaurant also has to pitch itself as something more exotic than the Chinese place down the street, so it may become a little more fanciful with the name, he adds.

The Washington Post in 2016 analyzed the names of some 40,000 Chinese restaurants and determined that “restaurant,” “China,” and “Chinese” appeared together in about one-third of the names. “Express” was the next most popular word, with “Panda” running close behind, in part because there are more than 1,500 “Panda Express” restaurants, part of a chain.

“Wok,” “garden,” “house,” and “kitchen,” also were frequently used. “Golden” was the most-proffered color, and panda and dragon were the most well-used in the animals category.

Image by National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. Artifacts collected for the National Museum of American History's 2011 "Sweet and Sour Initiative" include this wok, which early Chinese immigrants to California used to prepare meals during the 1880s. (original image)

Image by National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. This fortune cookie mold from the 1910s was used in the Benkyodo Candy Factory in San Francisco to mold and bake fortune cookies. (original image)

Image by National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. Artifacts collected for the National Museum of American History's 2011 "Sweet and Sour Initiative" include this skimmer from the 1880s, used to remove cooked food from oil or water. (original image)

Image by National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. Artifacts collected for the National Museum of American History's 2011 "Sweet and Sour Initiative" include these spoons, dating to the 1890s. (original image)

Image by National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. Artifacts collected for the National Museum of American History's 2011 "Sweet and Sour Initiative" include this bowl from the 1890s. (original image)

Image by National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. Artifacts collected for the National Museum of American History's 2011 "Sweet and Sour Initiative" include these chopsticks from the 1890s. (original image)

Image by National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. Artifacts collected for the National Museum of American History's 2011 "Sweet and Sour Initiative" include this fortune cookie tin from the 1930s. (original image)

Image by National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. “Chop Suey” was a marketing tool, which restaurant owners incorporated into their dinnerware pattern. (original image)

Image by National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. This 1930s baker’s hat was used by a worker at the Hong Kong Noodle Company in Los Angeles, California. (original image)

Image by National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. Artifacts collected for the National Museum of American History's 2011 "Sweet and Sour Initiative" include these contemporary take-out box, menu and chopsticks. (original image)

Image by National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. Artifacts collected for the National Museum of American History's 2011 "Sweet and Sour Initiative" include this teapot. (original image)

The panda-China connection in restaurant names is a more recent thing, but both the dragon and phoenix are traditionally associated with Chinese culture and history, Coe says. “Imperial” also has deep connotations for Chinese people, evocative of its past. For restaurants, “it implies a kind of elevation of the food,” says Coe, but often, not much else might be a cut above. One of Coe’s favorite restaurants in Queens, “Main Street Imperial Chinese Gourmet,” has wonderful food, but is basically a hole in the wall, he says.

As far as Coe is concerned, the name is far less important than the food. “What most Americans seem to believe about Chinese food is that it should be cheap and not very exotic and served very quickly,” he says. They expect something a little sweet, greasy, not too spicy, no weird ingredients, and some deep-fried meat.

Cantonese food is delicate and light, with many steamed or boiled items. “It’s one of the great cuisines of the world,” says Coe.

But at restaurants that cater more to Americans, the food has been altered to fit those diners’ expectations “that it’s almost completely unrecognizable”—unlike the names.

It's your turn to Ask Smithsonian.

This summer, a new permanent exhibition entitled "Many Voices, One Nation," and featuring a number of the items collected from Chinese immigrants and restaurant owners, opens June 28 at the National Museum of American History.

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