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In a Czar-less Russia, Winning Was Easy. Governing Was Harder.

Smithsonian Magazine

“The whole system of culture, the chief element in the condition of the people, must be completely transformed. Instead of poverty, general prosperity and content; instead of hostility, harmony and unity of interests. In short, a bloodless revolution, but a revolution of the greatest magnitude, beginning in the little circle of our district, then the province, then Russia, the whole world. Because a just idea cannot but be fruitful. Yes, it’s an aim worth working for.”

 –Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

After years of war and political tumult, there was optimism in Russia about the country’s future. As the news of the czar’s abdication spread from Saint Petersburg to Russia’s provincial towns, widespread celebrations erupted. The writer Konstantin Paustovsky, who lived in the small railway town of Yefremov 200 miles south of Moscow recorded that when a local provisional committee proclaimed its authority, “Never in my life have I seen so many tears of joy as on that day…Prisons were opened, schools were closed…The town and people were transformed. Russia had burst into speech. Gifted orators sprang up overnight.”

 The country celebrated Easter on April 15, the most significant holiday in the Russian Orthodox church calendar amidst hopes that a new government would bring stability and address the persistent issues supplying food to the cities and munitions to the military.

After Nicholas II abdicated in March, and was subsequently placed under house arrest with his family and servants at the Alexander Palace, the Provisional Government formed with Georgy Lvov as Prime Minister. Lvov was a member of the Constitutional Democratic (Kadet) party and had served in the Duma, Russia’s representative assembly, since 1906. The 55-year-old nobleman had a long history of taking initiative and demonstrating leadership in difficult situations. When he took charge of his family’s country estate during the agricultural depression of the late 1870s, it was nearly bankrupt. He consulted local peasants for their expertise and read agricultural textbooks, sowing new crops to transform the land into a profitable commercial farm complete with a cannery to preserve and sell produce from the once neglected orchards.

The Lvov estate was a few miles away from the home of Leo Tolstoy, the celebrated author of Anna Karenina and War and Peace. Lvov had shared his neighbor’s disdain for the lavish lifestyle of their fellow nobles and a strong view that the aristocracy existed to serve the people. Lvov recalled in his memoirs that his work on his estate, which included toiling in the fields alongside the peasants in the manner of Constantine Levin, one of the major characters in Anna Karenina, “separated [me] from the upper crust and made [me] democratic. I began to feel uncomfortable in the company of aristocrats and always felt much closer to the peasants.”

Lvov earned a law degree from the University of Moscow then entered the civil service. He organised relief work during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 then became the chairman of the All-Russian union of Zemstvos (municipal governments) during World War I, serving on committee that helped organize supplies for the military and treatment for wounded soldiers. With his extensive experience serving in government and organizational abilities, Lvov seemed to be the ideal figure to address Russia’s extensive infrastructure and supply problems in 1917.

But, there was a younger generation of rising political figures who viewed Lvov and his supporters as yesterday’s men. Tolstoy had died in 1910. Lvov was inspired by the abolition of serfdom in Russia in 1861 and the creation of the Duma in 1905, and had once hoped that Russia’s absolute monarchy would experience gradual reforms until it became a constitutional monarchy with an effective representative government, in the manner of the United Kingdom. With the collapse of czarism, this commitment to gradual reform and the development of parliamentary institutions seemed outdated.

Although Lvov treated members of different social backgrounds democratically, his noble origins made him suspect to the soviets, the councils of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies. The supporters of his Kadet party were primarily urban, educated professionals, not the working or peasant classes. Lvov soon found himself politically isolated. Conservative, czarist political factions refused to work with the revolutionary government and the soviets distanced themselves from a government run by a member of the nobility. The end of the Romanov dynasty opened the floodgates for more radical political change.

The key link between the soviets and the Provisional Government was Alexander Kerensky, a 35-year-old lawyer from Simbirsk (now Ulyanovsk), a small town on the Volga river 550 miles east of Moscow. Simbirsk was also the town where Vladimir Lenin grew up and the two families knew each other. Lenin’s father was superintendent for schools in the region and Kerensky’s father was the headmaster of the high school attended by the young Lenin, even writing the reference letter necessary for Lenin to get into law school.

While Lenin spent much of Nicholas II’s reign as a revolutionary in exile, Kerensky worked within existing government institutions. In 1912, Kerensky was elected to the Duma as a member of the Trudovik party, a moderate labor party affiliated with the socialists. After the abdication, Kerensky was elected vice chairman of the Saint Petersburg soviet and served as Minister of Justice under Lvov’s Provisional Government, the only person to hold a position in both the soviet and the government.

As Minister of Justice, Kerensky’s first order of business was investigating the wartime conduct of the former Czar, known after his abdication as Colonel Nicholas Romanov, the military rank he held at the time of his accession in 1894. While the Provisional Government entered into negotiations with Britain, where Nicholas’s cousin George V was king, in the hopes of sending the Imperial family into exile, the soviets, however, were determined to have the dethroned czar answer for his activities as ruler.

One of the many telegrams received by the Saint Petersburg soviet stated, “The Kuragino [a town in central Russia] general assembly protests the departure of Nicholas Romanov and his wife for England without trial in light of proof that they betrayed the fatherland….” George V and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George ultimately withdrew their offer of asylum, fearing that the “residence of the ex-Emperor and Empress would be strongly resented by the public, and would undoubtedly compromise the position of the King and Queen,” leaving Kerensky free to conduct his investigation.

He visited Nicholas repeatedly in late March and April. Kerensky recalled in his memoirs, “When I told [Nicholas] that there was to be an investigation and that Alexandra…might have to be tried, he did not turn a hair and merely remarked: “Well, I don’t think [Alexandra] had anything to do with it. Have you any proof?” To which I replied: “I do not know yet.”

Despite these circumstances, the two men developed a surprisingly cordial rapport. Kerensky wrote “I began to see a human side to [Nicholas]. It became clear to me that he had acquiesced in the whole ruthless system without being moved by any personal ill will and without even realizing that it was bad. His mentality and circumstances kept him wholly out of touch with the people.” Nicholas described Kerensky as “a man who loves Russia and I wish I could have known him earlier because he could have been useful to me.” Kerensky’s investigation lasted 18 days but it never led to a trial and the former Imperial family remained in comfortable confinement in their palace until the autumn.

Lenin, following the news from afar, distrusted Kerensky’s willingness to work with the Provisional government and leniency toward the former czar. He telegraphed his fellow revolutionaries in exile, “No trust in and no support of the new government; Kerensky is especially suspect; arming of the proletariat is the only guarantee.” Before returning to Russia, Lenin issued his April theses, which began, “In our attitude toward the war not the slightest concession must be made to "revolutionary defencism," for under the new government of Lvov & Co., owing to the capitalist nature of this government, the war on Russia's part remains a predatory imperialist war.” Once back in Russia (he arrived on April 16), Lenin established Bolshevik headquarters in a Saint Petersburg mansion that had once belonged to prima ballerina Mathilde Kschessinska and encouraged opposition to the Provisional Government and the war.

The new Provisional Government, however, struggled to meet the people’s expectations about the war. Its official policy was to maintain Russian participation in the war against Germany and Austria-Hungary in support of their allies Great Britain and France. On April 6, the United States had joined the allied war effort and an eventual victory seemed to be within reach. But while the Provisional Government remained committed to the war effort, Lenin demanded an immediate end to the hostilities. Lenin’s rallying cry of “Peace, Land, Bread” slowly began to undermine support for the Provisional Government, foreshadowing further political change.

Conflict over whether to continue Russia’s participation in war provoked the first test of the Provisional Government’s authority. On April 18, foreign minister Pavel Miliukov sent a telegram to Russia’s wartime allies promising to continue the war effort and observe all the treaties dating from Nicholas’s reign. When the telegram was leaked to the public, mass demonstrations by Saint Petersburg’s workers arose and both the war minister and the foreign minister had to resign to restore public confidence. With Kerensky’s help, Lvov formed a new coalition government to quell the unrest in Saint Petersburg  and appointed socialists to ministries. In spite of this, the provisional government still struggled to gain widespread support. The Bolsheviks refused to participate in the new political arrangement. Lenin, their leader, accused the other socialist parties of collaborating with a bourgeois government and an imperialist war, becoming the main opposition to the continued existence to the Provisional Government.

Kerensky emerged from the April crisis as Minister of War, a difficult assignment at a time when soldiers had formed soviets to represent their interests, officers had lost authority and mass desertions were commonplace. He needed a new approach. In May 1917, he received a proposal from Maria Bokchareva, one of the few women who had received permission from the czar to enlist in the Russian army. Bokchareva suggested the creation of women’s combat battalions to shame the men into continuing the hostilities. Kerensky charged Bokchareva with the creation of the 1st Russian Women’s Battalion of Death in time for a summer offensive.

Next: Russian women soldiers on the Eastern front

The Surprising Origins of Kotex Pads

Smithsonian Magazine

What’s in a name? For Kotex, the first-ever brand of sanitary napkins to hit the U.S., everything.

The disposable sanitary napkin was a high-tech invention (inspired, incidentally, by military products) that changed the way women dealt with menstruation. It also helped to create modern perceptions of how menstruation should be managed through its advertising, which was both remarkably explicit for its time but also strictly adhered to emerging stereotypes about the “modern” woman of the 1920s should aspire to. Kotex sanitary napkins paved the way for the wide variety of feminine hygiene products on the market today by finding an answer to the crucial question: How to market a product whose function can’t be openly discussed?  “Kotex was such a departure because there just wasn’t a product” previously, says communications scholar Roseann Mandziuk.

Prior to Kotex’s arrival on the scene, women didn’t have access to disposable sanitary napkins—the “sanitary” part really was a huge step forward for women who could afford these products. But the brand’s creator, Kimberly-Clark, also reinforced through its advertising campaigns that menstruation was something to conceal and a problem for women, rather than a natural bodily function.

This early ad for Kotex pads reminds buyers that the item is "on sale at stores and shops that cater to women." (Wisconsin Historical Society, WHS-7001)

In October 1919, the Woolworth’s department store in Chicago sold the first box of Kotex pads in what might have been an embarrassing interaction between a male store clerk and a female customer. It quickly became clear that giving Kotex sanitary napkins name recognition would be vital to selling the product, and the company launched a game-changing advertising campaign that helped to shape how menstruation–and women–were seen in the 1920s.

“Ask for them by name” became an important Kotex company slogan, Mandziuk says. Asking for Kotex rather than “sanitary pads” saved women from having to publicly discuss menstruation–particularly with male shop clerks.

In 2010, Mandziuk published a study of the 1920s ad campaign promoting Kotex sanitary napkins, focusing on advertisements that appeared in Good Housekeeping. Kotex’s campaign, which began in 1921, was the first time sanitary napkins had ever been advertised on a large scale in nationally distributed women’s magazines, and Mandziuk says they represent a break in how menstruation itself was discussed. By giving women a medically sanctioned “hygienic” product to buy, rather than a made-at-home solution, they established a precedent for how menstruation products were marketed up until the present day.

For their time and place, the advertisements are almost shockingly explicit–although, like many modern ads for menstrual products, they never explicitly state their use. “All feature a single woman or a group of women in active, yet decorative poses,” Mandziuk writes in her study. The first ad to run in Good Housekeeping describes Kotex sanitary napkins as the key tool for ensuring “summer comfort” and “poise in the daintiest frocks.” But it also describes details like the size of the pad and how to buy them, although the pads were never actually pictured in the ads. The ads also promised they came “in plain wrapper.”

Another ad shows two women in an office environment. “There is nothing on the blue Kotex package except the name,” it promises, adding that the purchase is small enough to fit in a shopping bag. Advertising for Kotex sanitary napkins framed menstruation as something that could–and should–be concealed.

“It was really playing off the anxiety of women wanting to fit into this new, confusing modern culture and be a part of it,” Mandziuk says. “And yet, to be a part of it, you had to hide even moreso that you had this secret, or this thing that was disturbing to men.”

Though some Kotex sanitary napkin advertisements show women in real working environments, throughout the 1920s, the advertising increasingly moved away from being about the real working women who might benefit most from the product and more into the sphere of an ideal. The woman shown in the ads might be an elegant picnicker, a partygoer or even a traveller, but she represents an ideal “modern” woman, Mandziuk says.

This presented women with a catch-22, she says: While Kotex did make the lives of 1920s women who could afford to buy the pads better, its ads framed menstruation as a handicap that required fixing rather than a natural process.

Before Kotex sanitary napkins hit the market in 1921, most women relied on homemade cloth pads (although some storemade cloth pads and disposables had been on offer since the late 1880s.) Different women had different ways of dealing with their periods each month and there was little social expectation that all women would deal with menstruation in exactly the same way. At the same time, menstruation was a commonly accepted (if still socially concealed) reason that women might not be in the public eye during their periods.

“[Menstruation] still was hidden among the society of men,” says Mandziuk. But between women, particularly women of the same family or who shared a household, it was normal to manage menstrual supplies like handmade pads or rags together.

“Practices for making cloth pads varied,” writes historian Lara Freidenfelds in The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America–but they were all based around reuse of things that already existed. “We used, just, old sheets, old things that you had around the house and things like that,” one woman told her during a series of oral history interviews.

Some women threw away their bloody cloths, writes Freidenfelds, but others washed and reused them. Either way, menstruation had the potential to be a messy and inconvenient business, as rags were hard to hold in place and didn’t absorb very much fluid.

For women who could afford such things and had access to them, there were options such as the “Hoosier” sanitary belt, which held cloth pads in place, or Lister’s Towels, possibly the first-ever disposable option, but the use of such products was not widespread, Mandziuk says.

“Kotex would have obvious appeal when it appeared on the market,” she writes, “given the discomfort and inconvenience of cloth pads, and growing expectations that women would work and attend school with their usual efficiency all month.

This ad depicts a nurse tending to a veteran in a wheelchair. The text reads, in part, "Although a woman's article, it started as Cellucotton--a wonderful sanitary absorbent which science perfected for use of our men and allied soldiers wounded in France." (Wisconsin Historical Society, WHS-49898)

Like a number of other products that first came to market in the 1920s, Kotex sanitary pads originated as a wartime invention. Kimberly-Clark, an American paper products company formed in the 1870s, produced bandages from a material called Cellucotton for World War I. Cellucotton, which was made of wood pulp,, was five times as absorbent as cotton bandages but much less expensive.

In 1919, with the war over, Kimberly-Clark executives were looking for ways to use Cellucotton in peacetime. The company got the idea of sanitary pads from the American Fund for the French Wounded, according to historians Thomas Heinrich and Bob Batchelor. The Fund “received letters from Army nurses claiming they used Cellucotton surgical dressings as makeshift sanitary napkins,” the pair write.

Kimberly-Clark employee Walter Luecke, who had been tasked with finding a use for Cellucotton, understood that a product designed to appeal to about half the country’s population could create enough demand to take the place of the wartime demand for bandages. He jumped on the idea.

But Luecke ran into problems almost immediately. The firms he approached to manufacture sanitary napkins from Kimberly-Clark’s Cellucotton refused to do so. “They argued that sanitary napkins were “too personal and could never be advertised,” Heinrich and Batchelor write. Similar doubts plagued Kimberly-Clark executives, but Luecke kept pushing and they agreed to try the idea, making the sanitary napkins themselves.

The name Kotex came from one employee’s observation that the product had a “cotton-like texture.” “Cot-tex” became the easier-to-say “Kotex,” creating a name that–like another Kimberly-Clark product, Kleenex–would become a colloquial way to refer to the class of product itself.

For the firm that Kimberly-Clark hired to do the advertising, their successful ad campaign gave them bragging rights. “I think they kind of patted themselves on the back, that if they could sell this, they could sell anything,” Mandziuk says.

For the women who used them, Kotex sanitary napkins changed how they dealt with menstruation. They set a precedent for how nearly all American women would understand menstruation and how they would deal with it up to the present day.

The History and Future of the Once-Revolutionary Taxidermy Diorama

Smithsonian Magazine

Let’s face it: taxidermy dioramas are so last century.

While some might think of these dead animal displays as a charming throwback, others consider them a dated anachronism—a blast from the past more spooky than scientific. “Super creepy,” is how a recent Washington Post Express headline recently described them. “Old and dusty,” is what comes to mind for many visitors when they picture the dimly-lit diorama halls of traditional natural history museums, says Lawrence Heaney, curator and head of the mammals division at Chicago’s Field Museum.

Today the classic taxidermy display—a vignette composed of stuffed and lifelike animals against a naturalistic habitat diorama—faces an uncertain future. At the University of Minnesota, the Bell Museum of Natural History is planning to move all of its exhibits to the university’s St. Paul campus by summer 2018. But not all of the museum’s taxidermied dioramas—which, according to the museum’s website, number “among the best examples of museum displays”—will be are coming with them. Some will be dismantled; others thrown out. “Not all the dioramas are going to go,” says Don Luce, curator of exhibits.

In 2003, the National Museum of Natural History made the controversial move to scrap its diorama displays and declined to replace its last full-time taxidermist when he retired (the museum now employs freelance taxidermists when needed, and some of its original dinosaur dioramas remain in storage). The museum substituted the old displays with specimens showcased in a more modern, scientific manner, meant to emphasize their "shared ancestry and evolution," according to Kara Blond, the museum’s assistant director for exhibitions.

Heaney, who grew up in Washington and volunteered at the Smithsonian museum when he was 14, says the switch was warranted. “Their dioramas were not particularly good,” he says. “No one would have argued that they were the finest work.”

As natural history museums around the world seek to revamp their reputations, many are reconsidering these types of dated displays altogether. Now, some are considering whether technology is the way to go. David Skelly, who directs Yale University’s Peabody Museum of Natural History, says his museum is looking into the possibility of having visitors don an Oculus Rift-style headset and experience animals’ habitats via three-dimensional digital displays. (This approach would also help address pressing worries about pests and degradation that come with closed diorama exhibits.) 

To be fair, any pronouncement of the death of the taxidermy exhibit would be premature. The profession of taxidermy is experiencing something of a modern resurgence among the young and female, as Matt Blitz reported last year for But as many question whether the diorama form has outlived its function, it’s worth asking the question: What made this idea so special in the first place?

Pam Henson, director of the Smithsonian’s institutional history division, sees taxidermy displays as part of a broader historical arc of how museum culture changed around the turn of the 19th century. At the time, museums catered mainly to upper class visitors, who didn’t need wall labels because guides explained everything to them. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, however, a shift to more inclusive museums saw the emergence of the self-tour. Taxidermy displays, which gave viewers more information through their relatively realistic habitats and scientific captions, marked a key step of that democratization.

These displays took visitors to worlds they could otherwise never visit. “They were the virtual reality machines of their age, the pre-television era,” says Skelly. Dioramas sought to drop viewers, who likely had limited travel experiences, into the African savannah or the mountains of western North America. “It gave them a sense of what wildlife looked like there, and what the world was like in the places where they’d never been and likely would never go,” Skelly says.

Image by Smithsonian Institution Archives. In April of 1913, East African lions, from the Smithsonian-Roosevelt African Expedition (1909-1910) and mounted by George B. Turner, are placed on display in Mammal Hall in the new United States National Museum, now the National Museum of Natural History. The building opened in 1910. Pictured are three full-grown East African lion with two cubs in a lifelike pose at an African water hole. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian Institution Archives. William Temple Hornaday, taxidermist, working on a tiger model in the Taxidermy Shop located in the South Yard. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian Institution Archives. William Temple Hornaday (center), Taxidermist and Zoo Keeper, Andrew Forney, and another unidentified man, working in the taxidermists' laboratory located in a shed in the South Yard behind the Smithsonian Institution Building. A bird hangs from the ceiling, and mounted animals line the shelves. Skulls and animal skins are scattered throughout the room. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian Institution Archives. Life group of American Buffaloes in the Mammals Exhibit in the United States National Museum, now known as the Arts and Industries Building, c. 1887. The buffaloes were collected and mounted by William T. Hornaday. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian Institution Archives. In the Mammal Hall in the United States National Museum, now the National Museum of Natural History, a puma (cougar) group is displayed within a case, in a reproduction of their natural habitat. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian Institution Archives. In the United States National Museum, now the National Museum of Natural History, the Hall of Mammals prior to its modernization. This photograph shows an exhibit case containing an Alaskan Moose group displayed in a recreation of their natural habitat. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian Institution Archives. Mammals exhibit in the South Hall of the National Museum (Arts and Industries) Building. Hanging overhead in the model of a whale, which includes its skeleton. The whale cast was formerly mounted on a stand; in 1887 it was removed and hung from the ceiling. In the foreground a small table with reading materials and chairs is visible. Thomas Crawford's "Statue of Freedom", which faces north, is visible in the Rotunda at the back. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian Institution Archives. Taxidermists Julian S. Warmbath, Charles R. Aschemeier, Watson M. Perrygo, and William L. Brown work on mounting a hippopotamus for exhibition in the United States National Museum (now the National Museum of Natural History) in the 1930s. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian Institution Archives. Three square-lipped rhinoceroses are displayed in a diorama in mammal hall of the National Museum of Natural History. These specimens come from the Smithsonian-Roosevelt Expedition of 1909-1910. (original image)

These exhibits had a loftier purpose as well: to foster an emotional, intimate and even “theatrical” encounter with nature, says Eric Dorfman, director of Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Dorfman compares taxidermy displays to the German composer Richard Wagner’s vision for the first modern opera houses. Wagner wanted the opera houses to be so dark that audience members couldn’t see those sitting in front of them, leaving individuals to grapple alone with the music.

“The same exact kind of theater is used in European gothic cathedrals, with the vaulted ceilings and the story of Christ coming through the lit, stained glass. That’s a very powerful image even to someone who is from a different religion, or an atheist,” Dorfman says. “If you imagine a hall of dioramas, frequently they’re very dark. They’re lit from inside. They create a powerful relationship between you and that image.”

While today’s viewers may not feel the same kind of intimate relationship with a taxidermied animal that Dorfman describes, they may still be getting an experience that’s hard to replicate. In a computer-mediated era, seeing a once-living animal up close offers something that digital displays can’t. “There is this duality, of the suspension of disbelief,” Dorfman says. “You’re seeing an animal in its habitat, but you’re also realizing that animal died.”

Many displays are carefully wrought in exquisite detail, right down to each starry constellation and miniature tree frog. Some of the background paintings are even considered artistic masterpieces themselves. The dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, for instance, are so renowned that the museum spent $2.5 million updating and restoring them for posterity in 2011. “These dioramas represent perhaps a kind of apotheosis of art and science in terms of craftsmanship,” Michael J. Novacek, the museum’s provost, told the New York Times

Even as it has moved away from traditional dioramas, the National Museum of Natural History remains mindful of that history. "We are adapting and reinterpreting the traditional diorama display style in each exhibition we mount," says Blond, pointing out that some of the taxidermied animals in the mammal hall are still presented in stylized habitats.  "Traditional dioramas were born in an era that emphasized understanding and celebrating individual cultures or life as part of a very specific setting or habitat. As priorities and values of society and globe have changed ... the museum has adapted accordingly."

Some curators argue that the diorama is still crucial for function of transporting viewers to places they couldn’t otherwise visit. It’s just that, today, the reasons these places are beyond most people’s reach are different: for instance, global conflict or deteriorating environments.

At the Field Museum, staff recently raised funds through a successful crowdsourcing campaign to create a new diorama for its striped hyenas collected in Somalia in 1896. Today, Somalia’s landscape has been “hammered” by conflict, making parts unsafe to visit, notes Heaney. “People want to know how those things have changed and what’s happening to these animals as a result,” he says. “We can’t go back to Somalia and get more hyenas. And we certainly can’t go back to 1896. These are things that are literally irreplaceable.”

Luce, of the Bell Museum of Natural History, points out that taxidermy dioramas are still important for getting children invested in nature—perhaps even more so today, when they tend to spend less time outside. “Heck, these kids are growing up and seeing everything on a screen,” Luce says. “Dioramas are a place where we can elicit that kind of search and observation experience.” He adds that, in the Bell Museum’s new building, dioramas will be accompanied—but not overpowered—by digital displays.

Despite their antiquity, Luce says the dioramas at the Bell Museum are worth the effort. “They’re a time capsule of that location and time,” he says. “You could say, ‘Why preserve the Mona Lisa? We could digitize that thing and see it better than you ever could going to the museum. Why waste my time going to Paris to see it?’” That the animals are real, he adds, makes them even more important to protect.

“They have given their life to science and education, and we should respect that,” he says. “We shouldn’t just toss them out.”

Editor's note, October 18, 2016: This article has been updated to reflect that the Field Museum raised funds for its new hyena diorama through a crowdfunding campaign.

The Prussian Nobleman Who Helped Save the American Revolution

Smithsonian Magazine

The baron wore an eight-pointed silver star on his chest, etched with the word Fidelitas. “Squad, halt!” he shouted—some of the few English words he knew. He walked among the 100 men in formation at Valley Forge, adjusting their muskets. He showed them how to march at 75 steps a minute, then 120. When their discipline broke down, he swore at them in German and French, and with his only English curse: “Goddamn!”

It was March 19, 1778, almost three years into the Revolutionary War. The Continental Army had just endured a punishing winter at Valley Forge. And a stranger—former Prussian army officer Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben—was on the scene to restore morale, introduce discipline and whip the tattered soldiers into fighting shape.

To one awestruck 16-year-old private, the tall, portly baron in the long blue cloak was as intimidating as the Roman god of war. “He seemed to me the perfect personification of Mars,” recalled Ashbel Green years later. “The trappings of his horse, the enormous holsters of his pistols, his large size, and his strikingly martial aspect, all seemed to favor the idea.”

Some of the baron’s aura was artifice. Von Steuben had never been a general, despite the claim of the supporters who recommended him. A decade past his service as a captain in the Prussian army, von Steuben, 47, filled his letters home with tall tales about his glorious reception in America. But the baron’s skills were real. His keen military mind and charismatic leadership led George Washington to name him the Continental Army’s acting inspector general soon after his arrival at its camp in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. In less than two months in spring 1778, von Steuben rallied the battered, ill-clothed, near-starving army.

“They went from a ragtag collection of militias to a professional force,” says Larrie Ferreiro, whose recent book, Brothers at Arms, tells the story of foreign support for the American Revolution. Ferreiro considers von Steuben the most important of all the volunteers from overseas who flocked to America to join the Revolution. “[It was] Steuben’s ability to bring this army the kind of training and understanding of tactics that made them able to stand toe to toe with the British,” he says.

Born into a military family in 1730—at first, his last name was the non-noble Steuben—he was 14 when he watched his father direct Prussian engineers in the 1744 siege of Prague. Enlisting around age 16, von Steuben rose to the rank of lieutenant and learned the discipline that made the Prussian army the best in Europe. “Its greatness came from its professionalism, its hardiness, and the machine-like precision with which it could maneuver on the battlefield,” wrote Paul Lockhart in his 2008 biography of von Steuben, The Drillmaster of Valley Forge.

Von Steuben spent 17 years in the Prussian army, fought in battles against Austria and Russia during the Seven Years’ War, became a captain, and attended Prussian king Frederick the Great’s elite staff school. But a vindictive rival schemed against him, and he was dismissed from the army during a 1763 peacetime downsizing. Forced to reinvent himself, von Steuben spent 11 years as court chamberlain in Hohenzollern-Hechingen, a tiny German principality. In 1769, the prince of nearby Baden named him to the chivalric Order of Fidelity. Membership came with a title: Freiherr, meaning “free lord,” or baron.

In 1775, as the American Revolution broke out, von Steuben’s boss, the Hechingen prince, ran out of money. Von Steuben, his salary slashed, started looking for a new military job. But Europe’s great armies, mostly at peace, didn’t hire him. In 1777, he tried to join the army in Baden, but the opportunity fell through in the worst way possible. An unknown person there lodged a complaint that von Steuben had “taken liberties with young boys” in his previous job, writes Lockhart. The never-proven, anonymously reported rumor destroyed von Steuben’s reputation in Germany. So he turned to his next-best prospect: America.

In September 1777, the disgraced baron sailed from France to volunteer for the Continental Army, bankrolled by a loan from his friend, French playwright Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. A letter from America’s diplomats in Paris, Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane, vouched for him and reported that France’s minister of war and foreign minister had done so too.

But Deane and Franklin’s letter also falsely claimed that von Steuben was a lieutenant general and exaggerated his closeness to Frederick the Great—“the greatest public deception ever perpetrated in a good cause,” wrote Thomas Fleming in Washington’s Secret War: The Hidden History of Valley Forge. Why? Only the highest recommendation would make an impression back home. Congress, desperate for volunteers earlier in the war, had been overwhelmed by unemployed Europeans eager for military jobs, and the number of officers from overseas had begun to stir resentment among American-born officers. “Congress had sternly warned they wanted no more foreigners arriving in America with contracts for brigadier and major generalships in their trunks,” Fleming wrote. Though von Steuben didn’t exaggerate his accomplishments to Franklin and Deane, he went along with the story once he got to America—and added some flourishes of his own. At one point, he even claimed he’d turned down paid positions with the Holy Roman Empire to serve in the United States.  

Von Steuben landed at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on December 1, 1777, with four French aides to translate for him and a large dog named Azor. His exaggerated reputation spread fast. In Boston, he met John Hancock, who hosted a dinner for him, and chatted up Samuel Adams about politics and military affairs. Next, von Steuben headed to York, Pennsylvania, the temporary American capital while the British occupied Philadelphia. Aware that the Continental Congress had soured on foreign volunteers, von Steuben offered to serve under Washington and asked to be paid only if America won the war. They took the deal and sent von Steuben to Valley Forge.

“Baron Steuben has arrived at camp,” Washington wrote soon after. “He appears to be much of a gentleman, and as far as I have had an opportunity of judging, a man of military knowledge and acquainted with the world.” Washington’s confidence in von Steuben grew quickly. Within two weeks, he made the baron acting inspector general and asked him to examine the Continental Army’s condition.

“What [Steuben] discovered was nothing less than appalling,” wrote Fleming in Washington’s Secret War. “He was confronting a wrecked army. A less courageous (or less bankrupt) man would have quit on the spot.” Unlike the American forces in New York, who had beaten the British at Saratoga in fall 1777, the army in Pennsylvania had suffered a series of defeats. When they lost the Battle of Brandywine in September 1777, the British had seized Philadelphia. Now—following common military practice of the era—they had camped for the winter. But Valley Forge, their winter quarters, was nearly as punishing as battle: hastily built huts, cruel temperatures, scarce food.

The baron found soldiers without uniforms, rusted muskets without bayonets, companies with men missing and unaccounted for. Short enlistments meant constant turnover and little order. Regiment sizes varied wildly. Different officers used different military drill manuals, leading to chaos when their units tried to work together. If the army had to fight on short notice, von Steuben warned Washington, he might find himself commanding one-third of the men he thought he had. The army had to get into better shape before fighting resumed in the spring.

So, von Steuben put the entire army through Prussian-style drills, starting with a model company of 100 men. He taught them how to reload their muskets quickly after firing, charge with a bayonet and march in compact columns instead of miles-long lines. Meanwhile, he wrote detailed lists of officers’ duties, giving them more responsibility than in English systems.

Soldiers gaped at the sight of a German nobleman, in a French-style black beaver hat, drilling poorly clothed troops. Though von Steuben raged and cursed in a garbled mixture of French, English, and German, his instructions and presence began to build morale. “If anything, the curses contributed to Steuben’s reputation as an exotic character who was good for a laugh now and then,” wrote Fleming.

And though the baron was appalled at the condition of the army he was tasked with making over, he soon developed an appreciation for its soldiers. “The genius of this nation is not in the least to be compared with that of the Prussian, Austrians, or French,” von Steuben wrote to a Prussian friend. “You say to your soldier ‘Do this and he doeth it’; but I am obliged to say [to the American soldier]: ‘This is the reason why you ought to do that: and then he does it.’”

Off the drilling field, von Steuben befriended the troops. A lifelong bachelor, he threw dinner parties rather than dine alone. One night, the guests pooled their rations to give von Steuben’s manservant the ingredients for a dinner of beefsteak and potatoes with hickory nuts. They also drank “salamanders”—cheap whiskey set on fire.

As von Steuben’s work progressed, news of the United States’ treaties of alliance with France reached Valley Forge. Washington declared May 6, 1778 a day of celebration. He asked von Steuben to ready the army for a ceremonial review.

At 9 a.m. on May 6, 7,000 soldiers lined up on the parade ground. “Rank by rank, with not a single straying step, the battalions swung past General Washington and deployed into a double line of battle with the ease and swiftness of veterans,” Fleming wrote. Then the soldiers performed the feu de joie, a ceremonial rifle salute in which each soldier in a line fires in sequence—proof of the army’s new discipline. “The plan as formed by Baron von Steuben succeeded in every particular,” wrote John Laurens, an aide to Washington.

The baron’s lessons didn’t just make the American troops look impressive in parades—under his tutelage, they became a formidable battlefield force. Two weeks after the celebration, the Marquis de Lafayette led a reconnaissance force of 2,200 to observe the British evacuation from Philadelphia. When a surprise British attack forced Lafayette to retreat, von Steuben’s compact column formation enabled the entire force to make a swift, narrow escape. At the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, the Revolution’s last major battle in the northern states, American troops showed a new discipline. They stood their ground during ferocious fire and bayonet attacks and forced the British to retreat. “Monmouth vindicated Steuben as an organizer,” wrote Lockhart. The Continental Army’s new strength as a fighting force, combined with the arrival of the French fleet off the coast of New York in July 1778, turned the tide of the war.

Von Steuben served in the Continental Army for the rest of the Revolutionary War. In 1779, he codified his lessons into the Army’s Blue Book. Officially the Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States, it remained the Army training manual for decades. The Army still uses some portions of it in training manuals today, including von Steuben’s instructions on drill and ceremonies.

After the war, the governor of New York granted von Steuben a huge wilderness estate in the Mohawk Valley as a reward for his service in the war. Von Steuben died there in November 1794 at age 64. His importance to the Revolution is evident in Washington’s last act as commanding general. In December 1783, just before retiring to Mount Vernon, he wrote von Steuben a letter of thanks for his “great Zeal, Attention and Abilities” and his “faithful and Meritorious Services.” Though his name is little known among Americans today, every U.S. soldier is indebted to von Steuben—he created America’s professional army.

Rethinking the Corny History of Maize

Smithsonian Magazine

Corn is one of the world’s most important crops. We don’t just pop it and munch it on the cob; corn can be turned into flour and syrup, it is fed to livestock, it is transformed into ethanol and it can even be used to make plastic. Between 2016 and 2017, about a billion tons of corn were produced around the globe, and corn yields more than six percent of all food calories for humans.

The story of this humble yet handy starch begins thousands of years ago in Mexico, with the domestication of an ancient grass called teosinte. But according to a new study published in Science, the trajectory of teosinte’s evolution into the golden grain we know today may be more complex than scientists previously thought.

Maize domestication, the commonly accepted theory goes, happened in the Balsas River Valley of south-central Mexico. Around 9,000 years ago, early farmers in this region began selecting for favorable traits of teosinte, which looks very different to modern corn and is not particularly palatable; its cob is small and its few kernels are surrounded by a tough casing. But with human intervention, teosinte evolved into tasty, tender corn, which was subsequently carried to other parts of the Americas. By the time of European colonization in the 15th century, corn was a major food source throughout many parts of the region.

Logan Kistler, the new study's lead author and curator of archaeobotany and archaeogenomics at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, says that according to this theory, gene flow from wild teosinte was still happening in some domesticated corn, but “in a major, evolutionarily important way, gene flow more or less stopped in the common ancestor of all maize.”

Recent revelations, however, prompted Kistler and his colleagues to rethink this idea. In 2016, two independent research groups analyzed the DNA of 5,000-year-old maize cobs from a cave in Mexico, and found that the ancient corn was still in the midst of the domestication process. The cobs had some genes associated with teosinte, dictating things like seed dispersal and starch production, and other genes characteristic of domesticated corn, like variants responsible for eliminating teosinte’s hard outer casing.

These findings, according to Kistler, were surprising. By the time the cobs ended up on the floor of the ancient cave, maize had already travelled far beyond Mexico, and had been cultivated in the southwest Amazon for around 1,500 years. The grain’s evolutionary story, in other words, appeared to have forked into two different paths.

“You have this paradox, this mismatch, where you already have maize being continuously cultivated in parts of the Amazon for thousands of years, and then it's still not even finished being domesticated in the center of origin,” Kistler explains. “In order to reconcile the archaeology and the genetics ... we had to think about a new domestication model.”

So, Kistler and his fellow researchers decided to take a closer look at corn DNA—and what they found suggests that while the domestication of teosinte did indeed begin in Mexico,

We shouldn’t think of maize domestication as a discrete event. Instead, the grain’s evolution was a long and convoluted process, with the final stages of its domestication occurring more than once, in more than one place.

The new study analyzed the genomes of more than 100 varieties of modern maize, around 40 of which were sequenced by the researchers. The team also looked at the DNA of 11 ancient plants. When they mapped out the genetic connections between the specimens, the researchers discovered several distinct lineages, each with their own unique relationship to teosinte. Most significantly, the results revealed that although maize domestication began with a single large gene pool in Mexico, the grain was carried elsewhere before the domestication process was complete.

“We found in the genomes evidence that South American maize actually originated within one of these semi-domestic lineages,” Kistler says. “You had these parallel evolutions happening in different parts of the Americas, with different groups of people.”

There was, according to the study, a major wave of “proto-corn” movement from Mexico to South America. The partially domesticated maize seems to have landed in the southwest Amazon, which was already a hotspot for the domestication of other plants, including rice, squash and cassava. Kistler theorizes that maize was adopted into farming practices there, giving the domestication process a chance to pick up where it left off. It is possible, though not certain, that maize in this new location evolved more quickly than maize in the center of domestication, which would explain why the 5,000-year-old cobs from the cave in Mexico appear to be in an intermediary phase of domestication at a time when maize was already being cultivated in the Amazon.

“The reason for that is you're not having constant gene flow from the wild population … where the wild maize at the edge of the field is going to be contributing some pollen,” Kistler says. “That's going to slow down the efficiency of selection, and you're not nearly as efficiently going to be able to drive selection for those traits.”

After incubating in the southwest Amazon for several thousand years, maize went on the move again, according to the study authors—this time to the eastern Amazon, where it grew amidst a general flourishing of agriculture that archaeologists have observed in the region.

Another interesting discovery lay in the fact that modern maize from the Andes and southwestern Amazon is closely related to maize grown in eastern Brazil, which points to another movement eastward. This aligns with archaeological evidence—like the spread of ceramic traditions, for instance—suggesting that people in the Americas started expanding to the east around 1,000 years ago, according to Kistler. Today, in fact, people who speak Macro-Jê languages near Brazil’s Atlantic coast use an indigenous Amazonian word for “maize.”

The pieces of this genetic puzzle did not fit together clearly at first. Kistler said that the genomic data he and his fellow researchers collected was “really confusing for a long time.”

“We couldn't make heads or tails out of what we were seeing until we started talking to linguistic experts, paleoecologists and archaeologists,” he elaborates. “Then it clicked.”

Some revelations came about by happy coincidence. While Kistler was presenting an early version of his findings in Brazil last year, Flaviane Malaquias Costa, a PhD student at the University of São Paulo, was in the audience. She pointed out that Kistler’s genetic map bore remarkable similarity to the distribution of an Amazonian word for maize. Later, Jonas Gregorio de Souza and Eduardo Ribeiro, researchers at the University of Exeter and the Museum of Natural History, respectively, helped further link this linguistic trend to the landscape.

The team’s collective work “nicely lays out an explicit model in which maize continued to evolve after it arrived in South America,” says Jeffrey Ross-Ibarra, a plant scientist at University of California, Davis, who studies the evolutionary genetics of maize and teosinte, but was not involved in this study. “While not a second domestication per se, it does highlight that South American maize has undergone a considerable amount of adaptation somewhat independently of maize in Mexico.”

For Michael Blake, an anthropologist at the University of British Columbia whose research focuses on the origins and spread of agriculture, the study’s sequencing of nine archaeological plants is particularly exciting. “We haven’t yet had very many good contexts [in South America] where we can get good samples of archaeological maize that are reliably dated and ... well enough preserved that they can yield genetic evidence,” he says.

But Blake also notes that these ancient samples were only around 1,000 years old, which is “pretty late in the evolution of corn.” There are very few archaeological maize samples from South America dating to five or six thousand years ago, which makes it difficult to get a complete picture of the grain that was carried out of Mexico.

“The genetic characterization itself may not tell us much about the morphology [or the form and structure of the plants] because we don't know precisely what the links are between aspects of morphology and the genes themselves,” Blake explains.

Kistler acknowledges that it would be “really nice” to have such old evidence from South America, but he is also thinking about the future. It’s important to understand how corn adapted to new environments in the past because the grain continues to be a vital food source today, Kistler says. The domestication of corn has to date been so successful because a symbiotic relationship between humans and the plant has flourished for millenia; by cultivating corn, humans got a reliable food source and corn was regularly sown in a nutrient-rich environment.

Our rapidly shifting climate is, however, “slightly upending that relationship,” Kistler explains. “So it's even more important to be thinking in terms of biodiversity and where adaptability is going to come from when our food production system starts to respond badly to changing, high-level climate characteristics.”

Nagler-Rolz NR 54 V2

National Air and Space Museum
During World War II, Bruno Nagler designed this sole prototype as a backpack portable helicopter. Although intended for sport or commercial courier duties, the German Air Ministry funded the project for military purposes with specifications for one-hour endurance and a 50-kilometer (31-mile) operational radius. The blade-mounted engines proved unreliable because the tremendous centrifugal forces of rotation interfered with carburation. The NR 54 V2 underwent ground testing at the end of the war, but it never flew.

The blade-mounted engines eliminated the need for a heavy and complex transmission or anti-torque tail rotor. The pilot only had two controls. One overhanging stick tilted the rotor in the desired direction, while another controlled engine RPM. The conical structure above the rotor is the fuel tank. The "strap-on" helicopter idea did not die with the NR 54 V2, and the U.S. military experimented with similar concepts in the 1950s.

Nagler-Rolz NR 54 V2 Tornistergeraet (Portable Equipment)

At the onset of World War Two, German rotary-wing pioneers, Heinrich Focke and Anton Flettner, gave Germany an early lead in military helicopter development. The success of Focke and Flettner designs encouraged Nazi Germany to fund further rotary-wing research in anticipation of producing helicopters that could support its military objectives. One of the most unusual aircraft to emerge from this effort was a small, portable helicopter - the NR 54 V2.

The designer was an Austrian, Bruno Nagler. In 1929, he assisted fellow Austrian, Raoul Hafner, on his RI Revoplane helicopter. The RI and its successor, the RII, managed to become briefly airborne during testing in Britain, but they lacked the performance or control required of a practical helicopter. Hafner later developed the Rotachute and Rotabuggy towed gyrogliders for Great Britain in World War Two.

In 1934, Nagler had constructed the Helicogyro, which could operate as either a helicopter or autogyro. In helicopter mode, the 90-horsepower Pobjoy engine powered a two-bladed rotor, with torque countered by a vertical control surface placed in the rotor downwash. In autogyro mode, a pusher propeller moved the aircraft in forward flight with the rotor freewheeling to provide lift. In 1937, the Helicogyro flew in Britain after considerable fine-tuning. However, Nagler realized that the increased mechanical complexity of helicopters put them at a severe disadvantage in terms of production cost.

Nagler then shifted his focus to the creation of the lightest and most mechanically simple helicopter possible for use as an individual sport aircraft or means of delivering parcels to outlying areas with limited road access. However, the impending war provided a new impetus for his designs.

German military interest in helicopters for observation and liaison duties aboard U-boats and other naval vessels provided Nagler with an opportunity to concentrate his research on single seat, lightweight helicopters without concern for funding. In 1938, Nagler received a research contract to construct a new helicopter. By this time, he had joined with Franz Rolz to create the Nagler-Rolz Flugzeugbau to gain eligibility for government contracts from the increasingly militaristic Nazi government. In 1940, the company completed its first effort, with the designation NR 55, at Nagler's Vienna home. This novel asymmetric design relied on only one rotor blade for lift. The 40 hp engine sat inside an aerodynamic fairing more than a meter from the axis of rotation the other side of the rotor hub to counterbalance the blade. It powered two small counter-rotating propellers mounted on the leading and trailing edges of the rotor blade at a point just over half of the rotor blade's 5.4-meter (17 ft 9 in) length from the hub. The drive shaft for these propellers passed through the rotor hub and the interior of the rotor blade. The entire rotor system was able to turn at up to 135 rpm. Amazingly, this 190 kg (418 lb) machine was able to hover during indoor testing with loads up to 110 kg (243 lb). Nagler did not attempt to fly the aircraft in forward flight, because the primary purpose of the aircraft was to demonstrate the validity of Nagler's unique rotor system. This aircraft was certainly one of the most unusual helicopter designs ever to take to the air, but it had a number of problems that carried over into his later models. The mounting of propellers on the rotor itself resulted in gyroscopic precession that interfered with the flapping action of the rotor blade. This caused considerable vibration when the engine misfired, which occurred quite frequently. The enormous centrifugal forces, which acted on the engine during rotation, caused fuel flow and ignition problems that continued to plague Nagler's later wartime models. The NR 55 went into storage at the Nazi glider club in Vienna, but a 1944 bombing raid destroyed it.

Nagler began to seek ways to reduce the size and weight of the NR 55 to create a truly portable aircraft, which troops in the field could fold and carry in a rucksack, or stow in the conning tower of a U-boat. The result was the NR 54 V1, which Nagler completed in 1941. This 80 kg (176 lb) model shared the same asymmetric engine and rotor configuration as the NR 55, but used a 24 hp engine, balanced against a smaller 4-meter (13 ft 2 in) rotor blade. The NR 54 V1 was ultimately a failure, because of the continuing carburetor troubles caused by centrifugal forces, which caused the engine to run at either full throttle or idle, but nowhere in-between.

Nagler built the NR 54 V2 in response to a new set of design specifications set forth by the German Air Ministry in 1943 for a folding man-portable helicopter. They required one-hour endurance, a 50-kilometer (31 mi) operational radius, a ceiling of 500 meters (1,640 ft), and a climb rate of 2.5 meters (8 ft) per second. The Air Ministry viewed the asymmetric engine and rotor configuration used of the NR 55 and NR 54 V1 as too unconventional, and insisted that Nagler's next design must have a symmetrical rotor system. Nagler did not abandon the rotor-mounted engine design, as it reduced the weight considerably without a drive shaft and transmission system, in addition to being torque-free. Nagler placed a small 8 hp one-cylinder, two-cycle engine at point 1.4 meters (4ft 7 in) from the axis of rotation on each of the two rotor blades. The 4.5 kg (10 lb) single-cylinder two-stroke Argus engines turned at 6000 rpm directly driving 0.6-meter (23 in) propellers, which produced 24 kg (53 lb) of thrust each. Argus had originally designed these engines as an auxiliary power source to start larger engines. A pull rope started the engines, and starting the second engine with the first already going was likely an interesting challenge. Rotor blades were 4 meters (13 ft) in length, with a .3-meter (12 in) chord. Only those portions of the blades outboard of the engine could change pitch collectively. The blades were equipped with flapping hinges but did not incorporate any drag hinges, which, given the minimal blade size and mass, was not a significant issue. The simple frame consisted of a tripod that rested on tiny non-castering wheels. A tiny seat that protruded from the framework, which supported the rotor hub, provided a tenuous means for the pilot to remain attached to the aircraft in flight. Nagler intended for a small fabric-covered vertical stabilizer to provide direction stability in forward flight, but there was not any means to control yaw. The NR 54 V2's conical fuel tank sat on top of the rotor hub, as was the case in Nagler's other wartime designs. Engine controls consisted of two handles, which projected downward from the rotor hub. One lever controlled the throttle, and the other tilted the rotor disc for directional control.

The Soviet advance on Vienna in 1945 interrupted the testing of the aircraft. Nagler and Rolz quickly relocated their operations to Zell am See alongside Friedrich von Doblhoff, another Austrian helicopter pioneer evading the Russian advance. The NR 54 V2 was undergoing ground testing at Zell am See when the war ended. However, the centrifugal force issues remained as the major obstacle to a successful flight and the machine never left the ground. In the aftermath of World War Two, allied intelligence experts sought out German aviation pioneers, including Nagler, to identify which technological developments were suitable for further development. The British interviewed Nagler at his home in Vienna in which he had kept the NR 54 V2 after the war's end and took the aircraft into custody. It eventually found its way to Freeman Field, Indiana for evaluation alongside other captured aircraft. The Air Force then tagged the NR 54 V2 for future display at the National Air Museum.

The U.S. Naval Technical Mission, which evaluated German helicopter programs immediately after the end of the war, included the following statement on the NR 54 V2 in its report:

"In the light of present day aerodynamics, the design is not deemed too practical, especially when dealing with troublesome one cylinder engines. They must be perfectly synchronized and matched in weight when subjected to large centrifugal force to avoid fatal vibration and poor carburation."

Nagler was not the only engineer trying to construct man-portable helicopters for the Nazi war machine. Another Austrian, Paul Baumgartl was attempting to construct strap-on gyro-gliders and helicopters in which the pilot's legs formed the landing gear. This design was to use the same engine that powered the NR 54 V2. Baumgartl completed several machines and, amazingly, even managed to fly one of them for short distances after the war.

Other helicopter designers attempted to pick up where Nagler and Baumgartl had stopped. American Horace Pentecost developed his Hoppi-Copters along the same lines as Baumgartl, and was able to achieve some success in developing several flyable ultra-light helicopters in the immediate post-war years, but was ultimately unable to find a suitable market for his designs. Nagler realized that war-ravaged Europe was not an ideal environment for developing new aircraft and sought to emigrate to Britain or the United States. He became a U.S. resident in 1952, and quickly set about starting a company to continue his lightweight helicopter development. The U.S. military funded several Nagler proposals for man-portable helicopters, but as in the case of his earlier designs, a truly practical design did not emerge. One of his first government contracts was for a "strap-on" helicopter in which a series of rockets brought the rotor up to takeoff speed. Nagler intended this design to allow a soldier to hop across a river and then autorotate down on the far side. Nagler then began work on conventional helicopters and gyroplanes and continued to focus on lightweight models for sport use, but achieved only limited success in marketing them. Throughout his designs, Nagler employed unconventional but very promising methods of weight savings, and aircraft control, such as the use of rotor mounted propulsion systems. However, like many inventors, he remained attached to innovative concepts that the technology of the period could not support.

Though Nagler's attempts at building a practical man-portable helicopter were not successful, several companies such as deLackner, Gyrodyne, and Hiller developed practical lightweight helicopters for the military that came close to achieving his vision in the 1950s. However, the stability, payload, range, and safety issues involved with the operation of this type of aircraft limited them to experimental use only.

Rotor Diameter:8 m (26 ft 3in)

Length:2.42 m (7 ft 11 in)

Height:2.18 m (7 ft 2 in)

Weight:Empty, 36.5 kg (80 lb)

Gross, 140 kg (309 lb)

Engines:2 x Argus A.S. 8 ZF 140 One cylinder, two cycle, 8 hp each

References and Further Reading:

Gersdoff, Kyrill von Die Deutche Luftfahrt Hubschrauber und Tragschrauber. Bonn:

Bernard & Graefe Verlag, 1999.

Labermont, Paul. Helicopters and Autogyros of the World. Cranbury, New Jersey:

Cassell & Company LTD., 1970.

Liptrot, R.N. British Intelligence Objectives Sub Committee Overall Report No.8:

Rotating Wing Activities in Germany During the Period 1939-1945. London: His

Majesty's Stationary Office, 1948.

Peter, Ernst. Tragschrauber/Hubschrauber: Osterreichs Pioniere. Graz, Austria: H.

Weishaupt Verlag, 1985.

Prewitt, R. H. Report on Helicopter Developments in Germany. SAE Information

Service, 1945.

Smith, J.R. German Aircraft of the Second World War. London: Putnam, 1972.

NR 54 V2 curatorial file, Aeronautics Division, National Air and Space Museum

R.D. Connor, revised 11-25-01

A Recently Acquired Hot-Air Balloon Reminds a Smithsonian Curator of Another Tale of Ballooning Adventure

Smithsonian Magazine

Visitors to the upcoming Innovations in Flight Family Day and Outdoor Aviation Display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, on June 18, are in for a real treat.

In addition to the wide variety of aircraft that will fly in for the event and the other special programs planned, Andrew Richardson, the owner of Adams Balloons LLC of Albuquerque, New Mexico, will be making tethered flights with a new Smithsonian hot air balloon, weather permitting.

Realizing that the museum had a beautiful example of a classic Adams wicker balloon basket on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center, Richardson asked if it would accept a modern hot air balloon envelope sporting the Smithsonian logo and colors into the collection.

While the museum has a world-class collection of balloon baskets and gondolas, we did not, in fact, have an envelope—the bag that contains the heated air. Anxious to fill that gap, we quickly accepted Richardson’s generous offer.

As a historian of lighter-than-air flight, I would like to point out that this is not the first Smithsonian balloon. In May 1859, John Wise, the leading American aeronaut of the day and a friend of the Smithsonian's first secretary Joseph Henry, took to the air in a hydrogen filled balloon named Smithsonian and decorated with the motto, “Pro Scientia et Arts.”

Wet-plate albumen portrait of noted American aeronaut, Professor John Wise (National Air and Space Museum Archives, SI)

For some time, Henry and Wise had been discussing the utility of balloons in the scientific exploration of the upper atmosphere. Wise first flew this new craft from the Centre Square of his hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, rising into the teeth of a thunderstorm.

Having noticed some remarkable phenomena during this voyage, such as an incipient thundercloud—the formation of a water-spout hanging down from this cloud—the increase of the cloud into a regular thundergust, and while sailing in the trail of the storm, that is in the rear of the ascending vortex, encountering large drops of rain dashing against the balloon and scintillating fire as they struck the balloon, it is needless to say I hurried down upon that demonstration.

Upon reading Wise’s report of the inaugural voyage of the balloon Smithsonian, Henry informed the balloonist that he would have “a few weeks of vacation” in the summer of 1859, and suggested that he “would be pleased to make some of the experiments with you which we contemplated last summer.”

It was not to be, however. Wise spent the summer of 1859 preparing to fly a balloon from St. Louis to the Atlantic coast, while Henry, whatever his dreams of aerial adventure, continued to struggle with his administrative burdens. Addressing a scientific meeting in June 1859, the Secretary noted that the, “observations of Mr. Wise have been of very great value.”

No images of that first Smithsonian balloon have survived. You can bet, however, that visitors to Innovations in Flight Family Day will take a great many photos of this colorful new addition to the Museum’s collection.

The “Innovations in Flight” family day and outdoor aviation display, held annually at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va., will feature tethered hot air balloon flights this year. In honor of the U.S. Coast Guard’s 100th anniversary, a variety of Coast Guard aircraft will join more than 50 military, recreational and home-built aircraft and classic automobiles. “Innovations in Flight” will take place Saturday, June 18, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

A version of this article was previously published on the National Air and Space Museum’s blog.

When it Comes to Predicting Solar Storms, Space May Not Be the Place

Smithsonian Magazine

When the first space-based solar observatories were launched, scientists quickly realized that they could do double duty—observe solar phenomena and help alert people back on Earth and in near orbit about incoming solar storms. But now, reports’s Samantha Mathewson, new research suggests that when it comes to getting quick information about space weather, Earth might be the best place after all. 

In a paper in the journal Space Weather, researchers propose a system that speeds up the detection of solar storms using information gathered on Earth. That’s counterintuitive, given that Earth’s surface is shielded from the sun by an entire layer of atmosphere that prevents people from cooking in its coronal rays. But as Mathewson explains, the space-based instruments that measure solar weather only sample data every 20 to 30 minutes. 

They’re called coronagraphs, and they’re installed on craft like NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory and ESA and NASA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory. The devices work by blocking the face of the sun’s bright star with a disc, then looking at what’s going on right outside of the disc. The atmospheric fluctuations there provide a clue as to what space weather is on the way to the rest of the solar system.

But there's a catch. Both the SDO and SOHO are really far from Earth—nearly 22,500 miles and more than 932,000 miles away, respectively. But that doesn’t present an advantage to researchers at home. They lament that the data they receive from the instruments is often already out of date.

It turns out that there’s another way to detect solar weather, though, using data collected right here on planet Earth. A relatively new coronagraph called K-Cor, located on top of Mauna Loa, a Hawaiian volcano, detects solar energetic particles up to 45 minutes before they head to Earth—and tens of minutes before they even leave the sun’s atmosphere. That’s a significant advantage over Earth-bound coronagraphs’ space-based cousins, providing space weather forecasts in near real-time.

Scientists from NASA and the National Center for Atmospheric Research have shown that data from a ground-based instrument called K-Cor can give scientists early warning of a certain type of incoming space weather that can impact astronauts. This composite image shows a coronal mass ejection, a type of space weather linked to solar energetic particles, as seen from two space-based solar observatories and one ground-based instrument. The image in gold is from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, the image in blue is from the Manua Loa Solar Observatory’s K-Cor coronagraph, and the image in red is from ESA and NASA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory. (NASA/ESA/SOHO/SDO/Joy Ng and MLSO/K-Cor)

Now, says NASA in a release, they’re working on improving the computing facilities at the Mauna Loa observatory to make the data available online even faster. In turn, that data could one day be used to provide forecasts to future astronauts almost instantaneously, allowing them more time to prepare for the effects of the incoming particles. Perhaps it could also allow Earthlings to power down electrical systems that could be susceptible to devastating damage during extreme solar storms.

Okay, so SDO and SOHO aren’t the best at warning people on or near Earth about incoming solar weather. Does that mean they should stop staring at the sun? No way: So far, solar data from the SDO has helped fuel over 2,600 scientific papers. It just goes to show that when it comes to space weather, it’s worth keeping an eye out no matter where you are.

A Dutch Art Dealer Says He Discovered a New Rembrandt

Smithsonian Magazine

In 2016, the Dutch art dealer Jan Six purchased a 17th-century portrait of an unidentified young man at a Christie’s auction in London. The painting, which shows its sitter draped in a luxurious velvet cloak with an ornate lace collar, was classified as being from the “school of Rembrandt.” But Six, an expert in Old Masters paintings, suspected that the unsigned work was by Rembrandt himself.

This week, following 18 months of research, Six published a book arguing that “Portrait of a Young Gentleman” should indeed be attributed to the famed Dutch artist, as Nina Siegal reports for the New York Times. His research has been backed by around a dozen Rembrandt experts—and if they are correct in their assessment, “Portrait of a Young Gentleman” is the first new Rembrandt to come to light in 44 years.

The portrait is believed to have been painted in 1634 or 1635, when Rembrandt was in his late 20s. According to Bart H. Meijer of Reuters, the work was likely cut out from a larger painting, which may have also featured the gentleman’s wife. Prior to Six’s discovery, “Portrait of a Young Gentleman” was completely unknown; there are no literary references attributing it to the artist. The last time a “new” Rembrandt surfaced was in 1974, when a small work titled “The Baptism of the Eunuch” was fully attributed to the Dutch master.

Six has a special connection to Rembrandt. His ancestor, also named Jan Six, sat for Rembrandt for a 1654 portrait. Six the (much) Younger, tells Naomi Rea of Artnet News that he began to suspect that “Portrait of a Young Gentleman” was a Rembrandt from the moment he saw it in the auction catalogue.

“Lots of great details gave away that Rembrandt was the artist,” he says. “Observe the curling of the lace ruff at its edges, you can almost put your finger under it! For me that was a clear giveaway, as none of Rembrandt’s contemporaries could pull this off.”

Once Six had the portrait in his possession, he began the long process of trying to verify its origins. According to Siegal of the Times, “Portrait of a Young Gentleman” was studied with paint sample analysis and scanning technologies like X-radiography. He consulted other experts, including Ernst van de Wetering, the world’s preeminent Rembrandt specialist. And Van de Wetering agreed that the work was painted by Rembrandt.

“I’m absolutely convinced,” Van de Wetering tells Siegal.

Other experts have been more reticent in their response to the painting. Petria Noble is the head of paintings conservation at the Rijksmuseum, which used scanning technology to compare “Portrait of a Young Gentleman” to two Rembrandt pendants. Noble tells Siegal that she thinks it is “possible” the newly discovered painting is a Rembrandt. But, she adds, “what I still want to be able to do is to investigate further.”

In an interview with Reuters TV, Six makes the case that “the greater group of Rembrandt scholars saw it, and see [that the portrait it genuine].”

“Now,” he continues, “it’s up to the public, those who love Rembrandt, to hopefully follow this conclusion.”

Art lovers who can make it to Amsterdam will be able to judge for themselves. “Portrait of a Young Gentleman” will be on display at the city’s Hermitage museum until June 15. After that, Six plans to sell the painting. He scooped it up for £137,000, or around $185,000, back in 2016. Now, it could be worth millions.

Election Day 1860

Smithsonian Magazine

The cannon salvo that thundered over Springfield, Illinois, at sunrise on November 6, 1860, signaled not the start of a battle, but the end of the bitter, raucous six-month-long campaign for president of the United States. Election Day was finally dawning. Lincoln probably awoke, like his neighbors, at the first cannon blast, if, that is, he had slept at all. Just a few days before, warning that "the existence of slavery is at stake," South Carolina's Charleston Mercury had called for a prompt secession convention in "each and all of the Southern states" should the "Abolitionist white man" capture the White House. That same day, a prominent New York Democrat prophesied that if Lincoln were elected, "at least Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina would secede."

Yet the danger that a Lincoln victory could prove cataclysmic did little to deflate the city's celebratory mood. By the time the polls opened at 8 a.m., a journalist reported, "tranquility forsook Springfield" altogether, and "the out-door tumult" awoke "whatever sluggish spirits there might be among the populace."

Less than three weeks earlier, Lincoln had confided to a caller that he would have preferred a full term in the Senate, "where there was more chance to make reputation and less danger of losing it—than four years in the presidency." It was a startling admission. But having lost two senatorial races over the past five years, most recently to Stephen A. Douglas—one of the two Democrats he now opposed in his run for the White House—Lincoln's conflicted thoughts were understandable.

Looking at his electoral prospects coolly he had reason to expect he would prevail. In a pivotal state election two months earlier, widely seen as a harbinger of the presidential contest, Maine had elected a Republican governor with a healthy majority. Republicans had earned similarly impressive majorities in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana. Lincoln finally allowed himself to believe that the "splendid victories... seem to fore-shadow the certain success of the Republican cause in November."

Complicating matters was the fact that four candidates were competing for the presidency. Earlier in the year, the sectionally riven Democratic Party had split into Northern and Southern factions, promising a dilution of its usual strength, and a new Constitutional Union Party had nominated Tennessee politician John Bell for president. Though Lincoln remained convinced that no "ticket can be elected by the People, unless it be ours," no one could be absolutely certain that any candidate would amass enough electoral votes to win the presidency outright. If none secured an absolute majority of electors, the contest would go to the House of Representatives. Anything might yet happen.

Stephen A. Douglas, the presidential standard-bearer of Northern Democrats, took care to deny that he harbored hopes for such an outcome, but privately dreamed of it. Outgoing President James Buchanan's endorsed choice, Vice President John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, had improbably emerged as the Democratic favorite in the president's home state of Pennsylvania, where "Old Buck" still enjoyed popularity. In New York, opposition to Lincoln coalesced around Douglas. Horace Greeley, editor of the pro-Lincoln New York Tribune, exhorted the Republican faithful to allow no "call of business or pleasure, any visitation of calamity, bereavement, or moderate illness, to keep you from the polls."

Despite the lingering uncertainty, Lincoln had done next to nothing publicly, and precious little privately, to advance his own cause. Prevailing political tradition called for silence from presidential candidates. In earlier elections, nominees who had defied custom appeared desperate and invariably lost. Besides, when it came to the smoldering issue of slavery, the choice seemed clear enough. Douglas championed the idea that settlers in new Western territories were entitled to vote slavery up or down for themselves, while Breckinridge argued that slave owners could take their human property anywhere they chose. Against both stood Lincoln.

Such profound disagreement might have provided fodder for serious debate. But no such opportunities existed within the reigning political culture of mid-19th-century America, not even when the canvass involved proven debaters like Lincoln and Douglas, who had famously battled each other face to face in seven senatorial debates two years earlier. Worried that Lincoln might be tempted to resume politicking, William Cullen Bryant, editor of the pro-Republican New York Evening Post, bluntly reminded him that "the vast majority of your friends...want you to make no speeches, write no letters as a candidate, enter into no pledges, make no promises, nor even give any of those kind words which men are apt to interpret into promises." Lincoln had obliged.

He was already on record as viewing slavery as "a moral, political and social wrong" that "ought to be treated as a wrong...with the fixed idea that it must and will come to the end." These sentiments alone had proven enough to alarm Southerners. But Lincoln had never embraced immediate abolition, knowing that such a position would have isolated him from mainstream American voters and rendered him unelectable. Unalterably opposed to the extension of slavery, Lincoln remained willing to "tolerate" its survival where it already existed, believing that containment would place it "in the course of ultimate extinction." That much voters already knew.

When a worried visitor from New England nonetheless urged him, the day before the election, to "reassure the men honestly alarmed" over the prospect of his victory, Lincoln flew into a rare fury, and, as his personal secretary John George Nicolay observed, branded such men "liars and knaves." As Lincoln hotly explained: "This is the same old trick by which the South breaks down every Northern victory. Even if I were personally willing to barter away the moral principle involved in this contest, for the commercial gain of a new submission to the South, I would go to Washington without the countenance of the men who supported me and were my friends before the election; I would be as powerless as a block of buckeye wood."

In the last letter of his noncampaign, composed a week before Election Day, one can hear the candidate refusing to be drawn into further debate: "For the good men of the South—and I regard the majority of them as such—I have no objection to repeat seventy and seven times. But I have bad men also to deal with, both North and South—men who are eager for something new upon which to base new misrepresentations—men who would like to frighten me, or, at least, to fix upon me the character of timidity and cowardice. They would seize upon almost any letter I could write, as being an 'awful coming down.' I intend keeping my eye upon these gentlemen, and to not unnecessarily put any weapons in their hands."

So Lincoln's "campaign" for president ended as it began: in adamant silence, and in the same Illinois city to which he had so tenaciously clung since the national convention. Like the solar eclipse that had obscured the Illinois sun in July, Lincoln remained in Springfield, hidden in full view.

Inside what one visiting reporter described as the "plain, neat looking, two story" corner house where he had lived with his family for 16 years, Lincoln prepared to accept the people's verdict. In his second-floor bedroom, he no doubt dressed in his usual formal black suit, pulling his long arms into a frock coat worn over a stiff white shirt and collar and a black waistcoat. As always, he wound a black tie carelessly round his sinewy neck and pulled tight-fitting boots—how could they be otherwise?—over his gargantuan feet. He likely greeted Mary and their two younger sons, 9-year-old Willie and 7-year-old Tad, at the dining table. (The eldest, Robert, had recently begun his freshman year at Harvard.)

Lincoln probably took his usual spare breakfast with the family—an egg and toast washed down with coffee. Eventually he donned the signature stovepipe hat he kept on an iron hook in the front hall. Then, as always—unaccompanied by retinues of security men or political aides—he stepped outside, turned toward the Illinois State Capitol some five blocks to the northwest and marched on toward his headquarters.

The bracing air that greeted Lincoln may have surprised—even worried—him. The unseasonable chill could dampen voter turnout. As the morning warmed, however, reports of sun-drenched, cloudless skies from one end of the state to the other stirred Republican hearts, clement weather being crucial to the task of enticing widely scattered rural voters, predominantly Republican, to distant polling places.

Once notorious for its muddy streets and freely roaming pigs, Springfield now boasted outdoor, gas-fed lighting; a large and growing population of lawyers, doctors and merchants; and clusters of two- and three-story brick structures surmounting wood-plank sidewalks.

Looming with almost incongruous grandeur over the city was the imposing State House, its red-painted copper cupola rising twice as tall as any other structure in town. Here, since his nomination in May, Lincoln had maintained his official headquarters—and his official silence—in a second-floor corner suite customarily reserved for the state's governor. For six months, Lincoln had here welcomed visitors, told "amusing stories," posed for painters, accumulated souvenirs, worked on selected correspondence and scoured the newspapers. Now he was headed there to pass his final hours as a candidate for president.

Lincoln entered the limestone State House from the south through its oversized pine doors. He ambled past its Supreme Court chamber, where he had argued many cases during his 24-year legal career, and past the adjacent libraries where he had researched the sensational speech he had delivered at Cooper Union nine months earlier in New York City. Then he climbed the interior staircase, at the top of which stood the ornate Assembly chamber where, in 1858, he had accepted the Republican Senate nomination with his rousing "House Divided" address.

Keeping his thoughts to himself as usual, Lincoln headed to a 15-foot-by-25-foot carpeted reception room and smaller adjacent office, simply furnished with both upholstered and plain wooden chairs, a desk and a table—ceded to him these many months by the new governor, John Wood.

Here the journalists who arrived to cover Lincoln's movements this Election Day encountered the candidate, "surrounded by an abattis [sic] of disheveled newspapers and in comfortable occupancy of two chairs, one supporting his body, the other his heels." Entering the crowded room to a hearty "come in, sir," a New York newspaperman was struck by the candidate's "easy, old fashioned, off-handed manner," and was surprised to find "none of that hard, crusty, chilly look about him" that "dominated most campaign portraits." Doing his best to display his "winning manner" and "affability," Lincoln spent the early part of the day "receiving and entertaining such visitors as called upon him," respectfully rising each time a new delegation arrived. "These were both numerous and various—representing, perhaps as many tempers and as many nationalities as could easily be brought together at the West."

When, for example, "some rough-jacketed constituents" burst in, who, "having voted for him...expressed a wish to look at their man," Lincoln received them "kindly" until they "went away, thoroughly satisfied in every manner." To a delegation of New Yorkers, Lincoln feigned displeasure, chiding them that he would have felt better had they stayed home to vote. Similarly, when a New York reporter arrived to shadow him, he raised an eyebrow and scolded: "a vote is a vote; every vote counts."

But when a visitor asked whether he worried that Southern states would secede if he won, Lincoln turned serious. "They might make a little stir about it before," he said. "But if they waited until after the inauguration and for some overt act, they would wait all their lives." Unappreciated in the excitement of the hour was this hint at a policy of nonaggression.

On this tense day, Lincoln offered the hopeful view that "elections in this country were like 'big boils'—they caused a great deal of pain before they came to a head, but after the trouble was over the body was in better health than before." Eager as he was for the campaign to "come to a head," Lincoln delayed casting his own vote. As the clock ticked away, he remained secluded in the Governor's suite, "surrounded by friends...apparently as unconcerned as the most obscure man in the nation," occasionally glancing out the window to the crowded polling place across Capitol Square.

As Lincoln dawdled, more than four million white males began registering their choices for the presidency. In must-win New York, patrician lawyer George Templeton Strong, an ardent Lincoln supporter, sensed history in the making. "A memorable day," he wrote in his diary. "We do not know yet for what. Perhaps for the disintegration of the country, perhaps for another proof that the North is timid and mercenary, perhaps for demonstration that Southern bluster is worthless. We cannot tell yet what historical lesson the event of November 6, 1860, will teach, but the lesson cannot fail to be weighty."

The Virginia extremist Edmund Ruffin also wanted Lincoln to win—though for a different reason. Like many fellow secessionists, Ruffin hoped a Lincoln victory would embolden the South to quit the Union. Earlier that year, the agricultural theorist and political agitator had published a piece of speculative fiction entitled Anticipations of the Future, in which he flatly predicted that "the obscure and coarse Lincoln" would be "elected by the sectional Abolition Party of the North," which in turn would justify Southern resistance to "oppression and impending subjugation"—namely, a fight for "independence."

Several hundred miles to the north, in the abolitionist hotbed of Quincy, Massachusetts, Charles Francis Adams—Republican Congressional candidate, son of one American president, grandson of another and proud heir to a long family tradition of antislavery—proudly "voted the entire ticket of the Republicans," exulting: "It is a remarkable idea to reflect that all over this broad land at this moment the process of changing the rulers is peacefully going on and what a change in all probability." Even so, Adams had hoped for a different Republican—William Seward—to win the nomination.

Closer to Springfield—and perhaps truer to the divided spirit of America—a veteran of the Mexican War evinced conflicted emotions about the choices his Galena, Illinois, neighbors faced. "By no means a 'Lincoln man,' " Ulysses S. Grant nonetheless seemed resigned to the Republican's success. "The fact is I think the Democratic party want a little purifying and nothing will do it so effectually as a defeat," asserted the retired soldier, now starting life anew in the family's leather-tanning business. "The only thing is, I don't like to see a Republican beat the party."

In Stephen A. Douglas' hometown of Chicago, meanwhile, voters braved two-hour waits in lines four blocks long. But Douglas was not there to cast a vote of his own. On the southern leg of a multi-city tour, he found himself in Mobile, Alabama, where he may have taken solace that Lincoln's name did not even appear on that state's ballots—or, for that matter, on any of the nine additional Deep South states. The man who had beaten Lincoln for the Senate only two years earlier now stood to lose his home state—and with it, the biggest prize in American politics—to the very same man.

As of Election Day, Lincoln had successfully avoided not only his three opponents, but also his own running mate, Hannibal Hamlin. Republicans had nominated the Maine senator for vice president without Lincoln's knowledge or consent—true to another prevailing political custom that left such choices exclusively to the delegates—in an attempt to balance the ticket. After asking a mutual acquaintance to convey his "respects" to Hamlin a week after the convention, Lincoln waited a full two months before initiating direct communication. Even then, pointing out that both of them had served in the 30th Congress from 1847 to 1849—Lincoln as a congressman and Hamlin as a senator—Lincoln admitted, "I have no recollection that we were introduced." Almost grudgingly did he add: "It appears to me that you and I ought to be acquainted."

Now, on Election Day, the Republican Party's running mates would be voting much as they had "run": separately and silently.

Frederick Douglass was skeptical. Like Lincoln, the former slave turned passionate civil rights pioneer was self-educated, a brilliant writer and a captivating orator. And while both men rejected the idea that the Constitution gave Americans the right to own slaves, Douglass did not agree that the Constitution protected slavery in states where it had existed before the founding of the Republic or in Southern states that had joined the Union since. And while Douglass decried "threats of violence" against Republicans in Kentucky and other states "and the threats of dissolution of the Union in case of the election of Lincoln," he could not bring himself to praise Lincoln directly. Their warm personal acquaintance would not begin for several more years.

Springfield's actual polling place, set up in a courtroom two flights upstairs at the oblong-shaped Sangamon County Court House at Sixth and Washington streets, consisted of two partially enclosed "voting windows close beside each other," one for Democrats, one for Republicans. It was "a peculiar arrangement" in the view of the correspondent from St. Louis, but one that had been "practiced in Springfield for several years." A voter had only to pick up the preprinted ballot of his choice outside, and then ascend the stairs to announce his own name to an election clerk and deposit the ballot in a clear glass bowl. This was secret in name only: voters openly clutching their distinctly tinted, ornately designed forms while waiting in line signaled precisely how they intended to vote. The system all but guaranteed bickering and ill feelings.

In this roiling atmosphere, it was hardly surprising that Lincoln had replied almost defensively to a neighbor about how he planned to vote. "For Yates," he said—Richard Yates, the Republican candidate for governor of Illinois. But "How vote" on "the presidential question?" the bystander persisted. To which Lincoln replied: " ballot," leaving onlookers "all laughing." Until Election Day afternoon, Lincoln's law partner William Herndon was convinced that Lincoln would bow to the "feeling that the candidate for a Presidential office ought not to vote for his own electors" and cast no ballot whatsoever.

But around 3:30 p.m., he peered out the window toward the crowd surrounding the courthouse, slipped out of the Governor's Room, headed downstairs and "walked leisurely over to deposit his vote," accompanied by a small group of friends and protectors to "see him safely through the mass of men at the voting place."

As Lincoln reached the courthouse to cheers and shouts from surprised Republicans, "friends almost lifted him off the ground and would have carried him to the polls [but] for interference." The "dense crowd," Lincoln's future assistant secretary John M. Hay recalled, "began to shout with...wild abandon" even as they "respectfully opened a passage for him from the street to the polls." People shouted out "Old Abe!" "Uncle Abe!" "Honest Abe!" and "The Giant Killer!" Even Democratic supporters, Herndon marveled, "acted politely—civilly & respectfully, raising their hats to him as he passed on through them."

A New York Tribune reporter on the scene confirmed that "all party feelings seemed to be forgotten, and even the distributors of opposition tickets joined in the overwhelming demonstrations of greeting." Every Republican agent in the street fought for "the privilege of handing Lincoln his ballot." A throng followed him inside, John Nicolay reported, pursuing him "in dense numbers along the hall and up the stairs into the court room which was also crowded." The cheering that greeted him there was even more deafening than in the street, and once again came from both sides of the political spectrum.

After he "urged his way" to the voting table, Lincoln followed ritual by formally identifying himself in a subdued tone: "Abraham Lincoln." Then he "deposited the straight Republican ticket" after first cutting his own name, and those of the electors pledged to him, from the top of his preprinted ballot so he could vote for other Republicans without immodestly voting for himself.

Making his way back to the door, the candidate smiled broadly at well-wishers, doffing the black top hat that made him appear, in the words of a popular campaign song, "in h[e]ight somewhat less than a steeple," and bowed with as much grace as he could summon. Though the "crush was too great for comfortable conversation," a number of excited neighbors grabbed Lincoln by the hand or tried offering a word or two as he inched forward.

Somehow, he eventually made his way through this gantlet and back downstairs, where he encountered yet another throng of frenzied well-wishers. Now they shed all remaining inhibitions, "seizing his hands, and throwing their arms around his neck, body or legs and grasping his coat or anything they could lay hands on, and yelling and acting like madmen." Lincoln made his way back to the Capitol. By 4 p.m. he was safely back inside "his more quiet quarters," where he again "turned to the entertainment of his visitors as unconcernedly as if he had not just received a demonstration which anybody might well take a little time to think of and be proud over."

Even with the people's decision only hours away, Lincoln still managed to look relaxed as he exchanged stories with his intimates, perhaps keeping busy in order to remain calm himself. Samuel Weed thought it remarkable that "Mr. Lincoln had a lively interest in the election, but...scarcely ever alluded to himself." To hear him, noted Weed, "one would have concluded that the District Attorneyship of a county in Illinois was of far more importance than the Presidency itself." Lincoln's "good nature never deserted him, and yet underneath I saw an air of seriousness, which in reality dominated the man."

After four o'clock, telegrams bearing scattered early returns began trickling in, uniformly predicting Republican successes across the North. When one cantankerous dispatch expressed the hope that the Republican would triumph so his state, South Carolina, "would soon be free," Lincoln scoffed, recalling that he had received several such letters in recent weeks, some signed, others anonymous. Then his expression darkened and he handed the telegram to Ozias Hatch with the remark that its author, a former congressman, "would bear watching." Indirect as it was, this was the candidate's first expression that he expected soon to be president-elect, with responsibilities that included isolating potential troublemakers. Shortly thereafter, around 5 p.m. Lincoln walked home, presumably to take dinner. There he remained with his family for more than two hours.

When Lincoln returned to the state house around 7 to resume reading dispatches, he still displayed "a most marvelous equanimity." Down the corridor, inside the cavernous, gas-lit Representative Hall, nearly 500 Republican faithful massed for a "lively time." The chamber "was filled nearly all night," Nicolay recalled, by a crowd "shouting, yelling, singing, dancing, and indulging in all sorts [of] demonstrations of happiness as the news came in."

Weed distinctly remembered the candidate's silent but evocative reaction when the first real returns finally arrived. "Mr. Lincoln was calm and collected as ever in his life, but there was a nervous twitch on his countenance when the messenger from the telegraph office entered, that indicated an anxiety within that no coolness from without could repress." It turned out to be a wire from Decatur "announcing a handsome Republican gain" over the presidential vote four years earlier. The room erupted with shouts at the news, and supporters bore the telegram into the hallway "as a trophy of victory to be read to the crowd."

Further numbers proved agonizingly slow in coming.

The day before, the town's principal telegraph operator had invited Lincoln to await the returns at the nearby Illinois & Mississippi Telegraph Company headquarters, in whose second-floor office, the man had promised, "you can receive the good news without delay," and without "a noisy crowd inside." By nine o'clock, Lincoln could resist no longer. Accompanied by Hatch, Nicolay and Jesse K. Dubois, Lincoln strode across the square, ascended the stairs of the telegraph building and installed himself on a sofa "comfortably near the instruments."

For a time, the growing knot of onlookers notwithstanding, the small room remained eerily quiet, the only sounds coming from "the rapid clicking of the rival instruments, and the restless movements of the few most anxious among the party of men who hovered" around the wood-and-brass contraptions whose worn ivory keys pulsated magically.

At first the "throbbing messages from near and far" arrived in "fragmentary driblets," Nicolay remembered, then in a "rising and swelling stream of cheering news." Each time a telegraph operator transcribed the latest coded messages onto a mustard-colored paper form, the three-by-five-inch sheet was quickly "lifted from the table...clutched by some of the most ardent news-seekers, and sometimes, in the hurry and scramble, would be read by almost every person present before it reached him for whom it was intended."

For a while, the telegraph company's resident superintendent, John J. S. Wilson, grandly announced every result aloud. But eventually the telegraph operators began handing Lincoln each successive message, which, with slow-motion care, "he laid on his knee while he adjusted his spectacles, and then read and reread several times with deliberation." Despite the uproar provoked by each, the candidate received every piece of news "with an almost immovable tranquility." It was not that he attempted to conceal "the keen interest he felt in every new development," an onlooker believed, only that his "intelligence moved him to less energetic display of gratification" than his supporters. "It would have been impossible," another witness agreed, "for a bystander to tell that that tall, lean, wiry, good-natured, easy-going gentleman, so anxiously inquiring about the success of the local candidates, was the choice of the people to fill the most important office in the nation."

Lincoln had won Chicago by 2,500 votes, and all of Cook County by 4,000. Handing over the crucial dispatch, Lincoln said, "Send it to the boys," and supporters whisked it across the square to the State House. Moments later, cheering could be heard all the way to the telegraph office. The ovation lasted a full 30 seconds. Indiana reported a majority of "over twenty thousand for honest old Abe," followed by similarly good news from Wisconsin and Iowa. Pittsburgh declared: "Returns already recd indicate a maj for Lincoln in the city by Ten Thousand[.]" From the City of Brotherly Love came news that "Philadelphia will give you maj about 5 & plurality of 15" thousand. Connecticut reported a "10,000 Rep. Maj."

Even negative news from Southern states like Virginia, Delaware and Maryland left the nominee "very much pleased" because the numbers from these solidly Democratic strongholds might have been far worse. Notwithstanding this growing arsenal of good news, the group remained nervously impatient for returns from the swing state of New York, whose mother lode of 35 electoral votes might determine whether the election would be decided this very night or later in the uncertain House of Representatives. Then came a momentous report from the Empire State and its impulsive Republican chairman, Simeon Draper: "The city of New York will more than meet your expectations." Between the lines, the wire signaled that the overwhelmingly Democratic metropolis had failed to produce the majorities Douglas needed to offset the Republican tide upstate.

Amid the euphoria that greeted this news, Lincoln remained the "coolest man in that company." When the report of a probable 50,000-vote victory quickly followed from Massachusetts, Lincoln merely commented in mock triumph that it was "a clear case of the Dutch taking Holland." Meanwhile, with only a few intimates able to fit inside the modest telegraph office, crowds built in the square outside, where, the New York Tribune reported, rumors "of the most gigantic and imposing dimensions" began wildly circulating: Southerners in Washington had set fire to the capital. Jeff Davis had proclaimed rebellion in Mississippi and Stephen Douglas had been seized as a hostage in Alabama. Blood was running in the streets of New York. Anyone emerging from the telegraph station to deny these and kindred rumors was set down as having his own reasons for concealing the dreadful truth.

Shortly after midnight, Lincoln and his party walked to the nearby "ice cream saloon" operated by William W. Watson & Son on the opposite side of Capitol Square. Here a contingent of Republican ladies had set up "a table spread with coffee, sandwiches, cake, oysters and other refreshments for their husbands and friends." At Watson's, the Missouri Democrat reported, Lincoln "came as near to being killed by kindness as a man can conveniently be without serious results."

Mary Lincoln attended the collation, too, as "an honored guest." For a time, she sat near her husband in what was described as "a snug Republican seat in the corner," surrounded by friends and "enjoying her share of the triumph." A fervent political partisan in her own right who had viewed the October state results in both Indiana and Pennsylvania as extremely hopeful signs, Mary had become more anxious than her husband in the final days of the campaign. "I scarcely know, how I would bear up, under defeat," she had confided to her friend Hannah Shearer.

"Instead of toasts and sentiment," eyewitness Newton Bateman remembered, "we had the reading of telegrams from every quarter of the country." Each time the designated reader mounted a chair to announce the latest results, the numbers—depending on which candidate it favored—elicited either "anxious glances" or "shouts that made the very building shake." According to Bateman, the candidate himself read one newly arrived telegram from Philadelphia. "All eyes were fixed upon his tall form and slightly trembling lips, as he read in a clear and distinct voice: 'The city and state for Lincoln by a decisive majority,' and immediately added in slow, emphatic terms, and with a significant gesture of the forefinger: 'I think that settles it.' "

If the matter remained in doubt, the long-awaited dispatch from New York soon arrived with a tally that all but confirmed that Lincoln would indeed win the biggest electoral prize of the evening—and with it, the presidency. The celebrants instantly crowded around him, "overwhelming him with congratulations." Describing the reaction—in which "men fell into each other's arms shouting and crying, yelling like mad, jumping up and down"—one of the celebrants compared the experience to "bedlam let loose." Hats flew into the air, "men danced who had never danced before," and "huzzahs rolled out upon the night."

In the State House, "men pushed each other—threw up their hats—hurrahed—cheered for Lincoln...cheered for New York—cheered for everybody—and some actually laid down on the carpeted floor and rolled over and over." One eyewitness reported a "perfectly wild" scene, with Republicans "singing, yelling! Shouting!! The boys (not children) dancing. Old men, young, middle aged, clergymen, and all...wild with excitement and glory."

As church bells began pealing, Lincoln eased past the dense throng of Watson's well-wishers, "slipped out quietly looking grave and anxious," and headed back toward the telegraph office to receive the final reports.

He appeared to steel himself. One observer saw him pacing up and down the sidewalk before re-entering the Illinois & Mississippi building. Another glimpsed his silhouette, his head bowed to stare at the latest dispatch while "standing under the gas jets" that lit the streets. Back inside, wires from Buffalo sealed the state—and the White House—for the Republicans. The final telegram from New York ended with the words: "We tender you our congratulations upon this magnificent victory."

Though the crowd inside the telegraph office greeted this climactic news with lusty cheering, Lincoln merely stood to read the pivotal telegram "with evident marks of pleasure," then silently sank back into his seat. Jesse K. Dubois tried to break the tension by asking his old friend: "Well, Uncle Abe, are you satisfied now?" All Lincoln allowed himself to say was: "Well, the agony is most over, and you will soon be able to go to bed."

But the revelers had no intention of retiring for the night. Instead they emptied into the streets and massed outside the telegraph office, shouting "New York 50,000 majority for Lincoln—whoop, whoop hurrah!" The entire city "went off like one immense cannon report, with shouting from houses, shouting from stores, shouting from house tops, and shouting everywhere." Others reacted more solemnly. One of the final telegrams Lincoln received that night came from an anonymous admirer who signed himself only as "one of those who am glad today." It read: "God has honored you this day, in the sight of all the people. Will you honor Him in the White House?"

Abraham Lincoln won election as the 16th president of the United States by carrying every Northern state save New Jersey. No candidate had ever before taken the presidency with such an exclusively regional vote. In the end, Lincoln would amass 180 electoral votes in all—comfortably more than the 152 required for an absolute majority. Lincoln could also take comfort from the fact that the rapidly growing nation awarded him more popular votes than any man who had ever run for president—1,866,452 in all, 28,000 more votes than Democrat James Buchanan had earned in winning the presidency four years earlier. But Lincoln's votes amounted to a shade under 40 percent of the total cast, second only to John Quincy Adams as the smallest share ever collected by a victor. And the national tally alone did not tell the full story.

Testifying alarmingly to the deep rift cleaving North from South, and presaging the challenges soon to face his administration, was the anemic support Lincoln garnered in the few Southern states where his name was allowed to appear on the ballot. In Virginia, Lincoln received just 1,929 votes out of 167,223 cast—barely 1 percent. The result was even worse in his native Kentucky: 1,364 out of 146,216 votes cast.

Analyzed geographically, the total result gave Lincoln a decisive 54 percent in the North and West, but only 2 percent in the South—the most lopsided vote in American history. Moreover, most of the 26,000 votes Lincoln earned in all five slaveholding states where he was allowed to compete came from a single state—Missouri, whose biggest city, St. Louis, included many German-born Republicans.

Forced to "the lamentable conclusion that Abraham Lincoln has been elected President," the anti-Republican Washington Constitution forecast "gloom and storm and much to chill the heart of every patriot in the land....We can understand the effect that will be produced in every Southern mind when he reads the news this morning—that he is now called on to decide for himself, his children, and his children's children whether he will submit tamely to the rule of one elected on account of his hostility to him and his, or whether he will make a struggle to defend his rights, his inheritance, and his honor."

According to a visiting journalist, Springfield remained "alive and animated throughout the night." Rallies continued until dawn, growing so "uncontrollable" by 4 a.m. that revelers toted back the cannon with which they had inaugurated Election Day and now made it again "thunder rejoicings for the crowd." John Nicolay tried going to bed at 4:30 but "couldn't sleep for the shouting and firing guns." By most accounts, the celebrations ended only with daybreak.

No one is entirely sure when Lincoln himself finally retired. According to one eyewitness, he left the telegraph office for his house at 1:30 a.m.; according to another, shortly after 2. Not until 4:45 a.m. did the New York Tribune receive a final bulletin from its Springfield correspondent confirming that "Mr. Lincoln has just bid good-night to the telegraph office and gone home."

Moments before his departure, whenever it came, Lincoln at last received the final returns from his hometown—a matter about which he admitted he "did not feel quite easy," national victory notwithstanding. But Lincoln could take heart. Though he lost Sangamon County to Douglas by a whisker—3,556 to 3,598—he won the hotly contested city of Springfield by all of 22 votes. At this latest news, "for the first and only time" that night, Lincoln "departed from his composure, and manifested his pleasure by a sudden exuberant utterance—neither a cheer nor a crow, but something partaking of the nature of each"—after which he "contentedly" laughed out loud.

The president-elect thanked the telegraph operators for their hard work and hospitality, and stuffed the final dispatch from New York into his pocket as a souvenir. It was about time, he announced to one and all, that he "went home and told the news to a tired woman who was sitting up for him."

To several observers, Lincoln suddenly seemed graver—his thoughts far away. Nicolay could see the "pleasure and pride at the completeness of his success" melt into melancholy. The "momentary glow" of triumph yielded to "the appalling shadow of his mighty task and responsibility. It seemed as if he suddenly bore the whole world upon his shoulders, and could not shake it off." Even as the outer man continued absentmindedly studying final election returns, the "inner man took up the crushing burden of his country's troubles, and traced out the laborious path of future duties." Only later did Lincoln tell Gideon Welles of Connecticut that from the moment he allowed himself to believe he had won the election, he indeed felt "oppressed with the overwhelming responsibility that was upon him."

From "boyhood up," Lincoln had confided to his old friend Ward Hill Lamon, "my ambition was to be President." Now reality clouded the fulfillment of that lifelong dream. Amid "10,000 crazy people" outside, the president-elect of the United States slowly descended the stairs of the Illinois & Mississippi telegraphic office and disappeared down the street, "without a sign of anything unusual."

A contemporary later heard that Lincoln arrived home to find his wife not waiting up for him, but fast asleep. He "gently touched her shoulder" and whispered her name, to which "she made no answer." Then, as Lincoln recounted: "I spoke again, a little louder, saying 'Mary, Mary! we are elected!' " Minutes before, the final words his friends heard him utter that night were: "God help me, God help me."

From Lincoln President-Elect by Harold Holzer. Copyright © 2008 by Harold Holzer. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc., NY.

Image by Library of Congress. Northern Democrat Stephen Douglas. (original image)

Image by Bettmann / Corbis. During the campaign, Lincoln confided he would have preferred a full term in the Senate "where there was more chance to make a reputation and less danger of losing it." (original image)

Image by Library of Congress. John Bell represented the newly formed Constitutional Union Party. (original image)

Image by Library of Congress. Southern Democrat John Breckinridge. (original image)

Image by National Park Service. Lincoln woke up on Election Day in the two-story corner house where he had lived with his family in Springfield for 16 years. (original image)

Image by Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. As election results began trickling in, nearly 500 Republican faithful massed for a "lively time" in the fas-lit, cavernous Representative Hall at the Illinois State House. (original image)

Image by Library of Congress. Campaign banner consisting of an American flag pattern, with thirty-one stars and "Lincoln and Hamlin" overprinted in black. (original image)

How Smithsonian Curators Are Rising to the Challenge of COVID-19

Smithsonian Magazine

As families, communities and colleagues around the world grapple in their own ways with the invisible threat of the novel coronavirus, humankind shares an unusually acute sense of traversing a period of deep historical import. Once-bustling downtown areas sit deserted while citizens everywhere sequester themselves for the common good. Social media platforms and teleconferencing services are ablaze with the messages of isolated friends and loved ones. As medical workers risk their lives daily to keep ballooning death tolls in check, musicians and comedians broadcast from their own homes in the hopes of lifting the spirits of a beleaguered nation. It is a time of both ascendant empathy and exposed prejudice, of collective fear for the present and collective hope for a brighter future.

It is, in short, a time that demands to be documented. Stories institutional, communal and personal abound, and it is the difficult mandate of museums everywhere to collect this history as it happens while safeguarding both the public they serve and their own talented team members. This challenge is magnified in the case of the Smithsonian Institution, whose constellation of national museums—19 in all, 11 on the National Mall alone—has been closed to visitors since March 14.

How are Smithsonian curators working to document the COVID-19 pandemic when they are more physically disconnected from one another and their public than ever before? The answer is as multifaceted and nuanced as the circumstances that demand it.

In a statement calling for a Rapid Response Collecting Task Force to address the COVID-19 pandemic, the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History announced it would be "pursuing leads to many kinds of objects and archival materials from medical history and business history to social structures and culture." (Photo illustration by Meilan Solly / Photos via Getty Images)

In recognition of the sociocultural impact of the current situation, the curatorial team at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH) has assembled a dedicated COVID-19 collection task force even as it has tabled all other collection efforts. Alexandra Lord, chair of the museum’s Medicine and Science Division, explains that the team first recognized the need for a COVID-specific collection campaign as early as January, well before the museum closures and severe lockdown measures took effect nationwide.

They've been working with their partners since before the crisis, she says. “The Public Health Service has a corps of over 6,000 officers who are often deployed to deal with emerging health crises, some of them work at CDC and NIH. We started talking to them during the containment stage and started thinking about objects that would reflect practitioners as well as patients.”

These objects range from personal protection equipment like N95 respirators to empty boxes emblematic of scarcity, from homemade cloth masks to patients’ hand-drawn illustrations. Of course, physically collecting these sorts of items poses both logistical and health concerns—the last thing the museum wants is to facilitate the spread of COVID through its outreach.

“We have asked groups to put objects aside for us,” Lord says. “PHS is already putting objects to the side. We won’t go to collect them—we’ll wait until all of this has hopefully come to an end.”

Image by NMAH. This camphor- and chloroform-laced liniment was first marketed around 1895. Following the deadly influenza pandemic of 1918, the Jones Medicine Company claimed their product contained “germ-destroying ingredients” that would positively prevent an attack of this “frightful disease.” (original image)

Image by Collection of NMAAHC, gift from the family. In the collections of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, a World War I diary belonging to soldier Roy Underwood Plummer chronicles his day-to-day experiences, including the 1914 flu epidemic. (original image)

Image by NMAH. Before the advent of antitoxin and vaccines, diphtheria was an ever-present source of terror. Known as "the strangling angel," the disease causes a thick build up in the throat and nose that makes breathing and swallowing extremely difficult. Intubation was a method used to open the throat to prevent asphyxiation. This intubation kit, 1886-1891, contains tools for inserting and removing the gold-plated tubes, which were used to keep the patient’s airway open. (original image)

Image by NMAH. This vaccine was formulated specifically to combat the H2N2 “Asian strain” of the influenza virus which caused the pandemic of 1957-58. Scientists at Walter Reed Medical Center obtained a sample of the virus in April 1957, and the first vaccines were ready for distribution by September. (original image)

The artifacts collected in this push will feed into Lord’s upcoming “In Sickness and In Health” exhibition, a scholarly look at infectious disease in America across hundreds of years of history. Already deep in development before the COVID crisis, the exhibition—which will include studies of two antebellum epidemics and one pandemic followed by a survey of the refinement of germ theory in the 20th century—will now need a thoughtful COVID chapter in its New Challenges section to tell a complete story.

A complete medical story, that is; the economic ramifications of the coronavirus are the purview of curator Kathleen Franz, chair of the museum’s Division of Work and Industry.

Franz works alongside fellow curator Peter Liebhold to continually update the “American Enterprise” exhibition Liebhold launched in 2015, an expansive overview of American business history that will need to address COVID’s economic impact on companies, workers and the markets they serve. “For me, as a historian of business and technology,” Franz says, “I’m looking at past events to give me context: 1929, 1933, 2008. . . I think the unusual thing here is this sudden constriction of consumer spending.”

Image by NMAAHC. The U.S. Coast Guard used this rescue basket during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The artifact is now held by the National Museum of African American History and Culture. (original image)

Image by NMAAHC . Also held by NMAAHC, is a door scrawled with rescue markings from the recovery effort following Hurricane Katrina. (original image)

As federal and state governments continue to place limits on the operations of non-essential businesses, it is up to Franz and her colleagues to document the suffering and resilience of a vast, diverse nation. Usually, she says, “We collect everything: correspondence, photos, calendars. . . and we may collect that in digital form. But we’re still working out the process.” Above all, she emphasizes the need for compassion now that Americans everywhere are grieving the loss of family, friends and coworkers.

Museum as Educator

With many busy parents suddenly thrust into de facto teaching jobs with the closures of schools across the country, the museum has placed special emphasis on shoring up its educational outreach. From the beginning, says director Anthea Hartig, the museum “privileged K-12 units, because we knew that’s what parents would be looking for.” Some 10,000 Americans responded to a recent survey offered by the museum, with most pressing for a heightened focus on contemporary events. Now is the perfect time for the museum’s leadership to put that feedback into practice.

Hartig sees in this crisis the opportunity to connect with the public in a more direct and sustained way than ever before. Thousands have already made their voices heard in recent discussions on social media, and fans of the Smithsonian are taking on transcription projects for the museums with fresh zeal. Beyond simply livening up existing modes of engagement, though, Hartig hopes that her museum will be able to seize on the zeitgeist to make real strides with its digital humanities content. “Our digital offerings need to be as rich and vibrant as our physical exhibitions,” she says. “They should be born digital.”

An airplane panel recovered after the 9/11 terrorist attacks became part of the American History Museum's collections. (NMAH)

For inspiration amid all the flux and uncertainty, Hartig is reflecting on the NMAH’s response to the terrorist attacks that rocked the nation nearly 20 years ago. “We learned a lot through 9/11, where the museum was the official collecting authority for Congress,” she says. That moment in history taught her the value of “quietness and respect” when acquiring artifacts in an embattled America—quietness and respect “matched by the thoroughness of being a scholar.”

Hartig appreciates fully the impact of the COVID moment on America’s “cultural seismology,” noting that “every fault line and every tension and every inequity has the capacity to expand under stress, in all our systems: familial, corporate, institutional.” She has observed a proliferation in acts of goodness paralleled by the resurfacing of some ugly racial prejudice. Overall, though, her outlook is positive: “History always gives me hope and solace,” she says, “even when it’s hard history. People have come out through horrors of war and scarcity, disease and death.” History teaches us that little is unprecedented and that all crises, in time, can be overcome.

Inviting Participation

Benjamin Filene, NMAH’s new associate director of curatorial affairs, shares this fundamental optimism. On the job for all of two months having arrived from North Carolina Museum of History, the experienced curator has had to be extremely adaptive from the get-go. His forward-thinking ideas on artifact acquisition, curation and the nature of history are already helping the museum to effectively tackle the COVID crisis.

“For a long time, I’ve been a public historian committed to helping people see contemporary relevance in history,” he says. Against the backdrop of the coronavirus crisis, he hopes to remind Smithsonian’s audience that they are not mere consumers of history, but makers of it. “We [curators] have something to contribute,” he says, “but as a public historian, I’m even more interested in encouraging people to join us in reflecting on what it all means.”

And while hindsight is a historian’s best friend, Filene maintains that historians should feel empowered to leverage their knowledge of the past to enlighten the present as it unfolds. “I personally resist the notion that it has to be X number of years old before it’s history,” he explains. “We’ll never have the definitive answer.”

He views history as an ongoing refinement that begins with contemporaneous reflection and gradually nuances that reflection with the benefit of added time. “Even when you’re talking about something a hundred years ago, we’re continually revisiting it,” he says. “We can ask questions about something that happened five months ago or five days ago. But no doubt we will be revisiting this in five years, in 50 years.”

With that future reconsideration in mind, Filene’s priority now is the collection of ephemeral items that could be lost to history if the Smithsonian fails to act quickly. “Using our established community networks, full range of digital tools, publicity outreach,” and more, Filene hopes the museum can persuade Americans everywhere to “set aside certain items that we can circle back on in a few months.”

Image by Collection of NMAAHC. A button promotes American Red Cross programs to help African victims of HIV and AIDS in the 1980s. (original image)

Image by NMAAHC, gift of Jack Vincent in memory of Marlon Riggs. A poster advertises a 1996 exhibition of the NAMES Project Foundation AIDS Memorial quilt. The artifact was gifted to NMAAHC in memory of filmmaker, poet and gay rights activist Marlon Riggs. (original image)

Image by NMAH. A panel from the famous AIDS Memorial Quilt Panel, 1985-1990, honors Roger Lyon, who died in 1984 shortly after testifying before Congress to appeal for funding to combat the growing epidemic. The quilt was first displayed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in 1987. (original image)

Paralleling the efforts of NMAH, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is mounting its own campaign to document the impact of COVID-19 across the country. Curator William Pretzer frames the museum’s objective as “collecting as a way of building community.” In the coming days, NMAAHC will be issuing a “plea” to “organizations, community groups, churches” and individuals to pinpoint artifacts emblematic of this time and allow the museum to collect them.

Many of these materials will be digital in nature—diaries, oral histories, photographs, interviews—but Pretzer makes clear that internet access will not be a prerequisite to participation. “We’re going to work with local organizations,” he says, “without violating social distancing, to talk to members of their communities who maybe aren’t online.” Then, at a later date, NMAAHC can employ these same relationships to preserve for posterity “the signs people put up in their stores, the ways they communicated, the works of art they created, the ways they educated their children.”

Since its founding, NMAAHC has committed itself to building relationships with African Americans nationwide and telling emphatically African American stories. Pointing to the heightened tensions of COVID-era America, Pretzer says this collection effort will offer the chance to “analyze topics we often talk about casually—the digital divide, health care, educational gaps, housing problems—under this pressure cooker circumstance, and see how communities and individuals are responding.” He stresses that the museum’s interest in these narratives is far from strictly academic. “People want to have their stories heard,” he says.

A 2015 "Black Lives Matter" T-shirt resides in the collections of the National Museum of African American History and Culture after being donated by Baltimore City Council Member Sharon Green Middleton. (Collection of NMAAHC, gift of Glenard and Sharon Middleton)

Pretzer likens this all-out community push to the one the museum mounted when collecting Black Lives Matter materials in 2014, which told a richly textured story using artifacts from community groups, business owners, activists, photographers and law enforcement personnel. “It took us to Ferguson, it took us to Baltimore,” he recalls. “That’s when we made connections with local churches." Now, as then, Pretzer and the other curators at the museum hope to uncover the “institutional impact” of current events on African Americans, “which will by nature demonstrate inequalities in lived experience.”

The Smithsonian’s curatorial response to COVID-19 extends beyond NMAH and NMAAHC, of course—every Smithsonian knowledge hub, from the Anacostia Community Museum to the National Air and Space Museum to the National Museum of the American Indian, is reckoning with COVID in its own way. But the various teams are also collaborating across museum lines like never before, supporting one another logistically as well as emotionally and sharing strategic advice. Pretzer says that roughly ten Smithsonian museums have put together “a collaborative proposal to conduct a pan-Institutional collection effort” and are currently seeking funding to make it happen. The concept is a 24-hour whirlwind collection period “in which we would try to collect from around the country the experiences of what it’s like to be under quarantine. And from that initial binge, we would create connections that would allow us to continue.”

As far as physical artifacts are concerned, all Smithsonian museums are taking the utmost care to avoid acquiring items that Americans may still need and to thoroughly sanitize what materials do come in to ensure the safety of museum staff.

“What we’re learning is to give ourselves a lot of room,” says Hartig. “We’re trying to be courageous and brave while we’re scared and grieving. But we’re digging deep and playing to our strengths.”

Ultimately, she is proud to be a part of the Smithsonian during this trying time and is excited for the Institution to nurture its relationships with all the communities and individuals it serves in the weeks and months ahead. “We’re very blessed by our partnership with the American people,” she says. “What can we be for those who need us most?”

What William Shatner Would Put on His Gravestone

Smithsonian Magazine

Few performing artists of the past 60 years are as iconic, or as mystifying, as William Shatner. The captain of the Starship Enterprise cut a heroic figure in the 1960s, when I watched the pilot episode of “Star Trek” as a preteen. Today, the hale and engaging actor, director, documentarian, author, singer, sportsman and rapper —who turned 81 in March—still seems possessed of boundless energy and bluster.

In many of his stage and screen appearances (and certainly in his music), Shatner often appears to teeter on the edge of self-parody. Face to face, he’s a warm hearted raconteur who inhabits his affable egoism without explanation or apology. I interviewed Shatner in June, shortly after the whirlwind national tour of his one-man show, Shatner’s World: We Just Live in It. On July 28 his new documentary about “Star Trek” fans, “Get A Life!”, premieres on Epix.

So how long do I have you for? How fast do I have to talk?

No; it is I who have to talk fast. It’s you who have to think fast. Half an hour?

Then we better get started!

I thought we already were.

You’re almost as well-known for your singing as for your acting. Did you grow up around music?

No, there was very little music in the house, little common music. My father would come home on Saturday afternoon, after six days of work. He’d grab a bite, lie down for a couple of hours, and play the Metropolitan Opera. That was the only music in the house: The Met from New York. So I never sang, or played an instrument. It was only when I got to McGill University that I began to write and direct and act in college musicals, and to admire Al Jolson and think: "God, if only I could do that."

What qualities in a song inspire you to create an interpretation?

I turn to my conservative Canadian, simplistic, uncomplicated background in music. I like to be able to hum the song and understand the lyrics. I love the musicality of words. Think about children's fairy tales. Fairy tales are supposed to be stories of inherent fears, dramatizations of human nightmares and cares and worries. The words "Once upon a time"—don't they suggest music? Sometimes words carry their own rhythm. I love to say the words and have the music enhance the words so that it aids and abets and supplants and supports those rhythms.

Some actors are like blank slates. I think of Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady. You can dress that woman up any way you like, and she will embody a totally different character. In your work, though—from the early Twilight Zone episode Nightmare at 20000 Feet through Shatner’s World— there's a substrate; like the base layer artists use to prepare a canvas.

What an interesting simile.

Can you define the single quality that unites all of your work?

That's me. Because my opinion is that even Meryl Streep, as wonderful as she is, can only bring herself to the role. For example, let’s look at you: a curly-haired guy who's athletic and intellectual, now being the observing reporter. I can play that. But I bring to it me, because all I’m doing now is imitating you. So even in The Iron Lady: Meryl puts on the wig, learns the smile and assumes—assumes—the persona. But she cannot bring anything else but her.

In your roles there's often a commanding tone; you’re cast as the man in charge. Is that who you really are?

It never used to be. But what has happened is, though I still realize I don't know what I’m doing, I've come to the conclusion that nobody else does, either—[nobody] knows what they're doing or knows what I’m doing. So in that mass confusion, there has to be a voice saying, "Well, here's where I am.”

I recently saw your documentary The Captains, in which you interview the four other actors who have commanded the Enterprise and its spin-offs. In the film, you make the surprising claim that for much of your life you suffered from a sense of inferiority. Do you think you've gotten over that?

Essentially not. It's just I don't put myself in those situations anymore. I once said to a girl—a society girl with whom I was having a fling— "Am I anywhere near the people you go out with? Have I got anything?" That's how badly I felt about myself. I look back on that question, and wonder what kind of a guy I must have been. 

You seem to have a good relationship with the other “Star Trek” actors in The Captains, as well.

 I love each one of those people. I didn't know them before making the film, except for Patrick Stewart—vaguely. Now they’re all friends of mine. I saw them recently, at the ComicCon in Philadelphia. All five captains were there—and all five are my buddies, based on a day or two in their presence.

Let’s talk about your recent one-man show, Shatner’s World. Performing live can be a huge challenge. I once read that many people would rather lose a toe than speak in public.

Well, I think it depends on which toe. If you look at the construction of the foot, that big toe really gives you a lift.

The success of Shatner's World was phenomenal. I wonder if there's a life lesson that you learned from the process of doing that show?

I'll tell you the life lesson I learned—but I don't know if I'll ever be able to use it again. I was first asked to do a one-man show in Australia. I said "Well, I’m not going to fly all the way there and do a one-man show; I've never done it." They said, "We'll send over a director, and you'll talk.

So we essentially put together a sequence of stories—an extended interview, if you will, with some songs and footage. And I had to make each of those stories dovetail. I had to have a beginning, a middle and an end. I realized, I’ve got to say something, I’ve got to have some meaning in what I’m doing. And so I spent months talking to myself, obsessed, trying to find the right words. Because if you find the right word, the rest of the sentence falls into place.

I finished the six cities in Australia and got good reviews. People clapped. And I thought, “Well, that's over; I’ve done that.” Then I was asked to tour Canada. And then I was invited to Los Angeles and New York.

The more I did it, the more rhythm it got. It started to take shape. But it still wasn't good enough. I had one week in LA, trying to put it together. Then I got to New York. We had a couple of rehearsals, and one preview. The night before the preview my wife and I went out to dinner. I wanted to be careful of what I ate, so I ordered a little hamburger. And I got a stomach flu that night.

So I’m looking at a Broadway opening, and I am frightened to death that I’m going to fail. I mean, I’m not going to die; I’ve got enough money in the bank to survive, I'll be able to pay the rent. But to be laughed at—stomach flu means you can’t go from here to there. All I know is, I've never been so frightened of anything.

What did you do?

I had to go on stage. It’s an hour and 40 minutes without an intermission. Somewhere in the middle, I had to stop the show and get to a bathroom. I said,"Ladies and gentlemen, there's been a technical difficulty. Don't move, we'll be back in 10 minutes." I dashed to my dressing room.

There's undoubtedly a life lesson in there somewhere.

The lesson is this: You never know what you can accomplish until you try. The problem is—what people don't talk about—is that a fair number of times, you fail. You try to climb K2, and you die. I faced that fear and was successful. There is a great deal to be gained by trying something that you’re horribly afraid of—because even if you do fail, you've learned something. Even if it’s that you don’t want to fail again!

It's easy to say “no.” Saying “yes” embodies risk. Yes to new ideas, yes to new opportunities, yes to doing a one-man show in whatever town I’m in. That's what my whole show is about: saying yes.

I know you’re a risk taker, but I wonder if you're also a creature of habit. Do you have a morning routine?

I love double rye bread toasted, peanut butter and tea. When my wife brings it to me in bed, it's an act of love that has to be repaid.

You’re known to be a man of many passions—and famously passionate about horses.

Yes; I run a horse show every year. The Hollywood Charity Horse Show, sponsored by Wells Fargo. We’ve raised a lot of money for kids, and now veterans. It benefits over 40 charities.

How did that come about?

People have an affinity towards things; you don't always know where it comes from. I got on a horse when I was about 12 years of age and started galloping around. My mother came up said, "Where did you learn to ride?" I said "This is the first time I've ever been on a horse." I just knew. I just felt the horse.

There followed a long period of time which I didn't have a horse, because horses are expensive. Now I have many, and I've been riding a long time. And on some horses, at some times, I’m in the zone: that Zen zone of unity. You can get there as an actor—and I've also gotten it as an archer. Zen in the Art of Archery [a classic Zen Buddhist text] explains how the bow unites heaven and earth, and the arrow unites you and the target. If you are really in the zone, you will lose that arrow at the most appropriate time. Riding a horse is like that. The horse is talking to you, and you're talking to the horse with your legs and your body. It's a beautiful art form, a legendary art form, as primitive as man: 10,000 years of horses.

What can you tell me about “Get a Life!”, your upcoming documentary on the mythology of “Star Trek”?

We are hard-wired to receive information in story form. If that information is about things that are unknown—death, the future, the universe—we devise stories to fill that gap. This is called mythology, and Star Trek has become mythological. The people who come to the conventions are participating in that mythology. I thought they were coming to see me; now I realize they’re coming to see each other!

In my 1999 book [also called Get a Life!] I did what I thought was due diligence—but I didn't go deep enough. I thought "Mythology? I’m part of a mythology?”

So you now see “Star Trek” as a cultural touchstone, not just as another television show?

It's not just another television show. But what does it tap into? What is the mythology? Well, the mythology is a group of people seeking out life. They're looking for the meaning of life, and of their own lives and relationships; for an explanation of all these mystical, wonderful questions that people ask and for which they have no answer. Their life journey. In Star Trek, we are the heroes; we are Odysseus.

Do you think mythology exists to explain the unexplainable or to set a code of conduct?

Probably both. Mythology needs heroes, and it needs villains. It needs heroes to fail; it needs heroes to struggle. Oh my god, the guy I worship, the guy I love, he fails— and tries again? Fears failing, and then succeeds? Kills the minotaur? Come on!

Is there someone like that for you? Outside of myth?

No; I think maybe I’m embodying it for myself. I don't know.

If you could choose one film clip to summarize your acting career, which one would it be?

I did a segment of a series called Rookie Blue, in which I played a grandfather whose granddaughter was stolen away at the age of 3, in his presence. He sees her now at 11—eight years later—and he comes apart. I followed the script vaguely, but I just let it happen. That could be the purest acting moment I've had in a long time.

The science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke has a wonderful epitaph carved onto his tombstone: “He never grew up, but he never stopped growing.” Any inspirations for your own?

I wish I could be as erudite and as lyrical as that! But I've got mine right now—just in this moment. I hadn't thought of it before: “What was I afraid of?”

That’s really good!

I’ve got to write that down. What was I afraid of? Because I’ve been thinking about that: how the advent of death, to me, is frightening. I’m overwhelmed with fear and sadness. Look at all this! [Shatner gestures at the trees, the sky, the pool.] To leave this!

At 81, do you still have many long-term goals?

Absolutely! On Saturday morning I’m going to Dubai; I’m traveling 22 hours on an airplane, then getting on another airplane for Johannesburg. I’m going to do some work in South Africa, and then I’m going on safari.

I also want to live long enough to see my five beautiful grandchildren see their lives—I had so little time with my own three daughters, who now live close around me. And I've got to make more documentaries!

You seem to have a very far-reaching curiosity. Is there something you still wish to do that you’ve never done before?

I want to discover a truth for myself. Something that is really true: whether it's a piece of scientific knowledge or a philosophical truth. Like, “What was I afraid of?” I hope that's true. But I won't know until it's too late.

Jeff Greenwald, author of Future Perfect: How Star Trek Conquered Planet Earth, is a regular contributor to Smithsonian.

This Tiny, Uninhabitable Islet in the North Atlantic Has Attracted Fishermen and Adventurers for Decades

Smithsonian Magazine

After a week at sea, fishermen round Drumanoo Head before dropping anchor in Killybegs Harbour, Ireland. Carefully, they unload their catch onto the quay, box after box of mackerel, haddock, monkfish, and squid; spindly tentacles and scaled bodies packed tightly under ice. These trawlermen have come back from the North Atlantic, where conditions are treacherous. High waves and powerful gales range across those waters even in the summer months. Protection only comes with the return to Killybegs, sheltered as it is from the worst of the storms up its narrow bay.

This geographic advantage has helped make Killybegs the largest fishing port in Ireland. Last year, its trawlermen landed almost 200,000 tonnes of fish, helping to feed a burgeoning national export market for seafood. A large part of this catch is found around 420 kilometers north in the Rockall Trough, a remote stretch of the Atlantic between Ireland, Scotland, and Iceland. Here, the fish gather in vast schools, especially near the region’s namesake pinnacle: Rockall, a tiny, uninhabited, jet-black outcrop of granite crowned by a pointillist splattering of guano.

This unassuming speck on the map was thrust into the spotlight this past summer when the Scottish government accused Irish trawlermen of overfishing in its territorial waters, before announcing that its coast guard would board any Irish fishing boat venturing into a 19-kilometer zone around the islet of Rockall. Trawlermen from the town of Killybegs, who have been casting their nets in those waters since the late 1980s, were dumbfounded.

“They find it incredible,” says Sean O’Donoghue, chief executive of the Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation. “The attitude, certainly among my members, [has been], we are not going to take this. They can come and arrest us and we’ll fight this all the way.”

Map data by OpenStreetMap via ArcGIS

For fishermen in Killybegs—where economic activity is concentrated overwhelmingly in the harbor—any exclusion from the water around Rockall could prove economically disastrous. O’Donoghue estimates that up to a third of the town’s herring and blue whiting catch comes from the 19-kilometer area around the outcrop. What’s more, he argues, Scotland has no right to prevent Irish fishermen from plying these waters. British claim of ownership over Rockall has never been legitimate, he says. “We … as an industry, and as an Irish government, have never recognized that.”

As Edinburgh and Dublin clash in distant boardrooms, Irish trawlermen continue to drop nets around Rockall, now under the watchful eye of Scottish enforcement vessels. For the moment, the outcrop’s status remains uncertain. But with Brexit threatening to cut off access to these waters to European Union trawlermen, Killybegs’s fishing community is set to be the first casualty in a maritime legal dispute decades in the making.


Rockall is at least 52 million years old, the battered remnant of an extinct volcano. As high as a four-story building and slightly wider than a city bus, the seamount only began appearing on navigational charts in 1606. Early descriptions portray a familiar, if unusual, sight for mariners crossing the Atlantic. “Rokel [sic] is a solitary island … not unlike [Sule] Stack, but higher and bigger, and white from the same cause,” wrote Captain William Coats of the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1745.

That cause—namely, the abundance of guano deposited by resting gannets and guillemots—along with Rockall’s almost vertical cliffs must have put off most sailors from landing, because it wasn’t set foot upon until 1811 when Lieutenant Basil Hall of the HMS Endymion led a small crew in two longboats to its summit. After having mistaken the islet for a ship under sail, an expedition was mounted as, Hall later wrote, “we had nothing better on our hands.”

The trip was a waking nightmare. First came the difficult landing and ascent, complicated by a high swell and Rockall’s slippery cliffs: one false step, Hall wrote, “might have sent the explorer to investigate the secrets of the deep.” By some miracle, the crew clambered up to the summit, only for a dense fog to descend. Frightened about losing their ship, Hall and his men hopped back onto their boats as fast as the rising swell would allow. After several hours rowing through dense mist, they made it back to the Endymion.

The Royal Navy wouldn’t return in force until 1955—this time with a helicopter, four marines, and a plaque declaring Rockall British territory to prevent it from being used as a base for the Soviet Union to spy on the United Kingdom’s missile tests. The annexation briefly fixed the islet at the forefront of British cultural imagination. Many found the episode faintly ridiculous. Satirists Michael Flanders and Donald Swann captured the public’s bemusement in a loving ditty:

We sped across the planet
To find this lump of granite
One rather startled gannet
In fact, we found Rockall.

Lord of the Flies author William Golding used the islet as a convenient, if unlikely, metaphor for the human condition. In his 1956 novel Pincher Martin, Golding’s protagonist is stranded after his ship is torpedoed, only to slowly realize that he is dead and Rockall is his purgatory.

The United Kingdom’s annexation also provoked a spree of visits from a cavalcade of nationalists and adventurers who considered the rock their personal ultima Thule. In 1975, the Dublin rock climber Willie Dick almost drowned attempting to plant the Irish tricolor on the summit, an act that grew out of the simmering outrage among Irish nationalists at Rockall’s incorporation into Inverness-shire, Scotland, three years earlier. A decade later, British Special Air Service (SAS) veteran Tom McClean sought to reaffirm British sovereignty over Rockall by becoming the first man to live on the rock. He spent 40 days huddled in a plywood box.

McClean was followed by activists from Greenpeace in 1997, who rechristened Rockall the Republic of Waveland in protest of oil and gas exploration in its surrounding waters; a group of Belgian ham radio operators in 2011 who became so violently seasick during their trip to the island that they had to return to Scotland the next day; and Englishman Nick Hancock, who holds the world occupation record of 45 days for his stay on the islet.

As the founder of the Rockall Club, membership in which is extended to anyone who has successfully landed on the islet, Hancock is probably the world’s leading expert on its history and morphology. Hancock spent most of his stay sitting and sleeping inside an adapted water tank hauled up on the islet’s flattest ledge. He remembers a windswept, barren place that stank of dead fish. Legacies from past landings, he says, were easy to find.

“There’s a couple of plaques left by the Royal Navy, and one commemorating Tom McClean’s stay,” says Hancock. On the summit lies the remnants of a light beacon installed by British military engineers in 1972 which, from the sea, resembles a subterranean hatch, and a piece of half-carved graffiti on the side of the main ledge left by the SAS veteran. “He got as far as Tom McCl——”

Hancock worried about getting lonely on the rock and vowed to keep himself busy. Sometimes that meant making friends with passing birds, including two pigeons and a starling. For the most part, though, Hancock spent his time reading, learning the harmonica, and conducting a series of scientific experiments, including the successful confirmation of Rockall’s height (0.85 meters lower than previously thought). Aside from the fierce storm that cut his expedition to just three days over the existing record, the memories that stick most in his mind are of sitting under crystal blue skies, “watching gannets diving and minke whales surfacing around the rock. And you were the only person there.”


For fishermen like O’Donoghue, however, Rockall is less important for its natural beauty than its capacity to block access to vital fishing grounds. Their concerns are shared by the Irish government, which has never recognized the United Kingdom’s claim to Rockall.

On the face of it, Dublin’s position is in opposition to international maritime law, as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This agreement, signed by the vast majority of the world’s governments, lays out the rules for deciding a country’s maritime territory, stating that rocks that “cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no economic exclusive zone or continental shelf.” However, it does permit the creation of territorial waters around said outcrop if a country stakes a valid claim to it.

The Irish government, however, refuses to recognize the United Kingdom’s title over Rockall. This means, in turn, that the waters around Rockall are not British territory at all, but just the far reaches of the United Kingdom’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Since both nations are currently members of the European Union, Irish trawlermen are entitled to fish in the United Kingdom’s EEZ under the European Union’s Common Fisheries Policy. In Dublin’s eyes, therefore, Rockall should have as much bearing on fishing rights as an iceberg or a shipwreck.

The United Kingdom, of course, believes otherwise. It considers Rockall and the water around it to be British territory, and therefore exempt from the Common Fisheries Policy. It has continuously reinforced this claim through symbolic acts, including fixing various plaques by the Royal Navy on the outcrop proclaiming British sovereignty over it and legally incorporating the islet into Inverness-shire in 1972.

Vintage engraving from 1862 showing Rockall, a small, uninhabited, remote rocky islet in the North Atlantic Ocean. (duncan1890/Getty Images)

Though this may not seem like much, a “symbolic act on a tiny, uninhabitable speck of land is very significant in terms of getting international ownership,” explains Clive Symmons, a professor of maritime law at Trinity College Dublin. What is actually more unusual, Symmons says, is that though the United Kingdom maintains Rockall is its territory, it has given up using the islet to further its EEZ into the North Atlantic. Typically, a country’s EEZ is calculated to extend 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) from its claimed territory. In 1997, however, the United Kingdom unilaterally decided to pull back the starting point for this calculation from Rockall to St. Kilda, an archipelago around 180 kilometers off the Scottish mainland.

Ironically, it is the last remnant of Britain’s hold over Rockall that is proving to be the most troublesome. And with Brexit looming, this situation could deteriorate even further.

The latest version of the Political Declaration on withdrawal seeks to preserve the status quo of fishing rights until a new agreement on access is reached between London and Brussels by July 2020, a deal the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation has endorsed provided no further concessions are made in permitting its European Union rivals to fish in British waters. However, because the federation’s members consider Rockall’s waters United Kingdom territory, and therefore never subject to the Common Fisheries Policy, access to the outcrop is likely to become an object of intense negotiation.

The situation will become much simpler if Britain leaves the European Union without a deal. Since Rockall lies at the westernmost edge of the United Kingdom’s EEZ, the British government would be within its rights to throw all Irish (and all European Union) fishermen out of these waters. The inverse is also true for British fishermen in European Union waters, says O’Donoghue. “They’re not going to accept that we can put them out.”

The Killybegs association chief executive suspects the Scottish government’s newfound belligerence is an attempt to whip up support for its own nationalist party against the Conservative Party in the country’s fishing communities, a claim disputed by officials in Edinburgh. As the United Kingdom’s withdrawal date nears, few can predict whether Brexit will lead to new opportunities for British trawlermen no longer bound by the Common Fisheries Policy or clashes with their European counterparts over who can fish where, as occurred last summer when French boats rammed their British counterparts in a row over scallop stocks in the Baie de la Seine.

Other observers, however, are keen to see how the British claim to the islet might evolve under these pressures.

“The Japanese are particularly interested in Rockall,” Symmons says. Japan, too, claims ownership of an isolated rocky outcrop hundreds of kilometers from shore. While the largest islet in the Okinotorishima reef is no larger than a double bed, the Japanese government has spent an estimated US $600-million literally shoring up its island status with concrete barriers and titanium netting. Unlike the United Kingdom, though, Japan continues to claim a 200-nautical-mile EEZ around the formation, “much to the displeasure of the Chinese, [who] of course cite the UNCLOS convention,” says Symmons.

Any future horse-trading over the territoriality of a granite outcrop in the North Atlantic could, therefore, set a valuable precedent in the ongoing tussle over an artificially sheltered atoll in the western Pacific.

The capacity for Rockall to create such mischief would have been unimaginable to its first visitors in 1811. To Hall and his crew, it was nothing but a curiosity that broke the endless monotony of the North Atlantic. “The smallest point of a pencil could scarcely give it a place on any map, which should not exaggerate its proportion to the rest of the islands in that stormy ocean,” he wrote. A moot point now, perhaps.

Related stories from Hakai Magazine:

Teaching Resources From the Smithsonian

Smithsonian Magazine

These resources, compiled by the education teams across the Smithsonian Institution feature lessons, activities, exhibitions, videos and tools that can be used to teach students about the broad climatic, biodiversity, and other forces underway that will shape Earth’s future.

Climate Change

Second Opinion: Forging the Future – Smithsonian Resources
This is a Smithsonian Learning Lab topical collection, which contains interdisciplinary education resources, including student interactives, videos, images and blogs to complement the Smithsonian's national conversation on "Forging the Future" and our ever-changing planet, highlighted on Second Opinion. Use this sample of the Smithsonian's many resources to introduce or augment your study of this topic and spark a conversation.
Provider: Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access
Grade(s): K-12

High Tide Case Study
Why would the Guna people of Panama leave the place where they've lived for over 150 years? Use these sources to determine if the environment and our relationships with it can be factors that force people from their homes.
Provider: National Museum of the American Indian
Grade(s): 7-8, 9-12

Idealabs: Prehistoric Climate Change (and Why It Matters Today)
Online interactive in which students compare leaf fossils to learn about the climate millions of years ago. They also meet a Smithsonian paleontologist in a video.
Provider: Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access
Grade(s): 4-8, 9-12

Traveling Lightly: What's My Footprint?
Teacher-created lesson in which students use measurement and basic math as they learn about the role of transportation in climate change. They consider ways of minimizing their impact on the environment.
Provider: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Grade(s): 4-8, 9-12

Environmental Dilemma Part I
Teacher-created lesson in which students devise a plan or create an invention to combat global warming.
Provider: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Grade(s): 4-8

Arctic: A Friend Acting Strangely Classroom Activities
This companion to the exhibition Arctic: A Friend Acting Strangely includes seven activities for classroom use. Students look at changes in the Arctic’s climate, which have been observed by both polar scientists and polar residents – changes that impact the Arctic’s wildlife and its peoples.
Provider: National Museum of Natural History
Grade(s): 4-8

Weather Lab
Weather Lab is a tool to help visualize how North America’s weather is formed. This lab is designed to model the complex interactions between air masses and ocean currents, but like all models it represents probable outcomes. Each prediction you make is for possible outcomes during Spring.
Provider: Smithsonian Science Education Center
Grades: 5-8

Disaster Detector
Disaster Detector teaches players how to analyze and interpret data on natural hazards to forecast future catastrophic events and how to implement tools to mitigate the effects of those disasters.
Provider: Smithsonian Science Education Center
Grade(s): 6-8

Create an Ecotourism Plan
Students will identify a threatened area and conduct research to learn what it used to be like, what it's like now and why it changed. They will come up with an ecotourism plan that will encourage people to visit the area and show respect for the land.
Provider: Smithsonian
Grade(s): 3-10

Hold a Class Debate
Students will share what they know about Dubai and discuss reasons why that city wants to use flying taxis. They they will consider the merits of flying taxis and debate to decide whether or not flying taxis should be allowed in their own community.
Provider: Smithsonian
Grade(s): 3-10

Life on Earth

Showbiz Safari
Showbiz Safari is an educational life science game that will help teach your student about the diversity of plants and animals in different habitats.
Provider: Smithsonian Science Education Center
Grade(s): 1-3

Morphy is a life science game that teaches students that animals have external structures that function to support survival and behavior.
Provider: Smithsonian Science Education Center
Grade(s): 1-3

Expedition: Insects
Expedition: Insects is an eBook designed and written by the Smithsonian Science Education Center and aligned with national science standards for grades 3-5. In the eBook, readers travel around the world to visit six different types of insects in their natural habitats. The young explorers learn about how evolution is responsible for all the beauty, fearsomeness and awe found in nature’s insects.
Provider: Smithsonian Science Education Center
Grade(s): 3-5


Good Thinking! and Fired Up About Energy
“Good Thinking! The Science of Teaching Science” is an original animated series by the Smithsonian Science Education Center and FableVision Studios that brings viewers into the classroom of science educator Isabella Reyes as she explores “the science of teaching science”. Drawing from peer-reviewed research in science, cognition, and pedagogy, “Good Thinking! Fired Up About Energy” explores common student misconceptions from research related to the study of energy and suggests methods for effectively representing and discussing the topic in the classroom.
Provider: Smithsonian Science Education Center
Grade(s): 5-8

Exploring Solar Energy: The Science Behind Design
Lesson about energy-related problems and design solutions in which students investigate the sources and properties of energy, conduct Internet research and create a workshop for their classmates.
Provider: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Grade(s): 9-12

A Tall Ship and a Star to Steer Her By
This lesson explores transportation past and present, and addresses the use of inexhaustible power sources. Students design their own water transportation using inexhaustible power sources such as solar or wind power.
Provider: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Grade(s): 9-12

Design Competition: Energy Systems of the Future!
Teacher-created lesson in which students develop concepts for using renewable resources.
Provider: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Grade(s): 4-8, 9-12

Designing "Green" to Save Our Green Planet
Teacher-created lesson in which students design environment-friendly homes. Their client: the planet Earth.
Provider: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Grade(s): 4-8, 9-12

Energy, Power to the People
Teacher-created lesson in which students research local energy issues and design a policy to address them.
Provider: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Grade(s): 4-8, 9-12

Energy, Sun Today, Sun Tomorrow; Sun Yesterday?
Teacher-created design lesson in which students consider the uses of solar energy. They learn how to track and measure the sun's radiance and study ways that past civilizations have harnessed the sun's energy.
Provider: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Grade(s): 4-8, 9-12

The Energy-Efficient Chemical House
Teacher-created lesson in which students design a house with efficient heating and cooling. They use their knowledge of conduction, convection and radiation in the design. 
Provider: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Grade(s): 4-8


Smithsonian in Your Classroom: Tale of a Whale (and Why It Can Be Told)
Multistep lesson in which students do the work of scientists who study the endangered North Atlantic right whale. They compare photos to identify an individual whale and use a record of sighting to track this whale’s movements along the eastern seaboard.
Provider: Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access
Grade(s):4-8, 9-12


American Indian Responses to Environmental Challenges
Multimedia website and lessons on the cultural, economic and scientific motivations behind environmental preservation in four American Indian communities.
Provider: National Museum of the American Indian
Grade(s): 4-8, 9-12

Explore Smithsonian Video Series
This video series takes an exclusive look at the science and research of the Smithsonian Institution. Each video in this series is designed for use in the classroom by highlighting a driving question and following Smithsonian scientists as they go about the process of science. Viewers are taken from the waters of the Chesapeake Bay at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, to the Chandra Telescope Mission Control Center at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Viewers even get to visit the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoological Park to learn about the types of adaptations pandas, like Bao Bao, have for their distinctive bamboo diet. Each video is an adventure of science and learning, and we use the world’s largest museum and research complex as our own personal classroom.
Provider: Smithsonian Science Education Center
Grade(s): 3 - 8

Food and Habitats

Do you know where the red-eyed tree frog calls home? Play this game based on animal habitats to learn! Explore the desert, coral reef, jungle, and marsh to discover where many animals live by matching each animal to their correct habitat!
Provider: Smithsonian Science Education Center
Grade(s): 3 - 5

Composting Conundrum
In this lesson plan, students use a graphic organizer to determine what might be involved in composting food scraps from the cafeteria. They learn new vocabulary, work in groups on a design solution and build a prototype of a food collector. 
Provider: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Grade(s): 4-8

Soil, Design a CSA/Food Market
Teacher-created lesson in which students design a system of community-supported agriculture (CSA). Includes such math applications as measurement and geometry. 
Provider: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Grade(s): 4-8, 9-12

Soil, Food Mapping
Teacher-created lesson in which students analyze the "food system" in their community. They look for solutions to any ecological or social problems inherent in the system.
Provider: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Grade(s): 4-8

Shorelines: Life and Science at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center
Blog follows the ongoing work of the Smithsonian's Environmental Research Center as they investigate climate change, invasive species, food webs, and other environmental issues around the world.
Provider: Smithsonian Environmental Research Center
Grade(s): General Audience

STEMVisions Blog: Chronicling Climate Change
This blog shares science stories focused on climate change, invasive species, food webs, and other environmental issues around the world. For example, read about the bristlecone trees, which act as chroniclers of climate history.
Provider: Smithsonian Science Education Center
Grade(s): General Audience

Design a Food Forest
Students design a plan for a food forest in their community. The plan includes details about location, content, maintenance, customer base and funding. 
Provider: Smithsonian
Grade(s): 3-10

Spanish Resources

Nuestra casa en el universe
Spanish-language introduction to environmentalism and “our home in the universe” in comic-book form.
Provider: Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
Grade(s): PreK-3, 4-8

Montgolfiere Lancee a Tivoli 1800

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

Present at Creation:

The NASM Collection of Objects Related to Early Ballooning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom D. Crouch

Senior Curator, Aeronautics

National Air and Space Museum

Smithsonian Institution

How One Amateur Historian Brought Us the Stories of African-Americans Who Knew Abraham Lincoln

Smithsonian Magazine

The memoir of Elizabeth Keckly, a formerly enslaved woman who became a dressmaker to First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, struck a nerve when it was published in 1868. Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House was an unprecedented look at the Lincolns’ lives in the White House, but reviewers widely condemned its author for divulging personal aspects of their story, particularly the fragile emotional state of Mary Lincoln after her husband’s murder.

For decades after its publication, the book was difficult to find, and Keckly lived in relative obscurity. In black Washington, however, many African-Americans personally knew and admired her, and remained a beloved figure.

When journalist and Democratic political operative David Rankin Barbee claimed in 1935 that Keckly had not written the book and, remarkably, had never existed, one determined Washingtonian, an African-American high school teacher named John E. Washington, felt compelled to speak up. The encounter with Barbee about Keckly and Behind the Scenes changed Washington’s life and led him to write a remarkable book of his own—They Knew Lincoln.

Part memoir, part history, part argument for the historical significance of common people, They Knew Lincoln was the first book to focus exclusively on Lincoln’s relationship to African-Americans.  They Knew Lincoln not only affirmed the existence of Keckly, but revealed that African-Americans, from the obscure folk preacher known as Uncle Ben to the much more prominent Keckly, had shaped Lincoln’s life, and it insisted that their stories were worth knowing.

The book, reprinted by Oxford University Press this month, makes Washington’s research newly available to 21-century readers. The 2018 edition also includes my new introduction, adapted here, which sheds light on Washington’s life and how his pioneering work of history came together.

A part-time dentist and full-time art teacher, owner of two homes, and a history buff, John E. Washington was a married man with no children in the fall of 1935 when he took it upon himself to contest the scandalous assertion that Elizabeth Keckly could not possibly have written Behind the Scenes.

David Rankin Barbee, a Washington, D.C., gadfly who regularly sought to explicate and defend the white South to outsiders, had offered his theory about the authorship of Behind the Scenes to up-and-coming Washington journalist Bess Furman. Furman, who wrote for the Associated Press and spent much of her time covering Eleanor Roosevelt, was interested in the history of women newspaper correspondents in Washington and had first sought Barbee’s expertise on Jane Grey Swisshelm, a Civil War–era correspondent from Minnesota. When Barbee told her that Swisshelm was the true author of Behind the Scenes, Furman believed him. Upon filing her story on this supposed new discovery, Furman jotted in her daily diary that the work revealed “Madame Keckly the Negro seamstress . . . being really Jane Swisshelm, the best darned newspaper woman out blazing trails.”

Furman’s piece ran in the Washington Star on Saturday, November 11. Four days later the paper published John E. Washington’s refutation. Washington established his authority by stating “that for over 30 years, I too, have been a close student of Lincoln” and that he possessed “some of the rarest items pertaining to the assassination period.” From there, Washington insisted that Keckly had indeed lived and that, while others might have helped her write the book, Keckly had taken “full responsibility” for it.

Barbee quickly countered with his own letter to the editor a few days later, claiming he had never denied Keckly’s existence but, instead, had argued that “no such person” had written Behind the Scenes. He maintained that position, reiterating that Swisshelm was the real author and that Behind the Scenes was a work of fiction.

His claim rested on the thinnest of evidence—one line of a satirical news item written in 1868 that had noted “Swizzlem” in the gallery of the Senate and nonsensically identified her as “the colored authoress of Mrs. Keckly’s book.” But that tiny clipping was probably far less important to Barbee than his deeply held beliefs about race and gender. No one, he told a friend in private correspondence, could “find in all the United States of 1869 [sic] one negro woman who had enough culture to have written such a book.”

Meanwhile, he insisted, Mary Lincoln “was not the type of woman who would gossip before servants. No well-bred Southern woman would do that.” He also claimed (incorrectly) that Mrs. Lincoln bought all her dresses in New York and Paris and had no need of a fine seamstress in Washington.

Barbee’s condescension toward African Americans knew few limits. In a letter to a white Lincoln aficionado, Barbee called the Washington Star the “Negroes’ newspaper Bible.” He told Louis Warren, whose newsletter, Lincoln Lore, had cited an early 20th-century interview with Keckly to challenge Barbee’s assertions, that Keckly was evidently the “patron saint” of Washington’s African-Americans and warned: “Had you, like myself, grown up among Negroes in the South—we had a family of them under our roof for many years, and educated them—you would be skeptical about what any old colored woman eighty years old might say.”

Barbee insisted to Warren that there was no evidence “acceptable in the court of history” that Keckly had ever worked for Mrs. Lincoln or Varina Davis, as stated in Behind the Scenes. Over and over again he told acquaintances that black people’s memories were faulty and that Washington’s research was poor.

On learning of black Washingtonians’ strong objections to Barbee’s claims, Furman decided to investigate further. “Someone who knew Madame Keckly turned up,” she recorded in her calendar a few days after the initial story ran. She headed to the home of Francis Grimké, Keckly’s former pastor, who had a photo of Keckly and talked extensively about having known her and preaching at her 1907 funeral service. Soon Furman was at Washington’s home, interviewing him about Keckly and taking down the names and addresses of other black Washingtonians who could attest to her existence. Furman’s new story, which she privately called a “correction,” went over the AP wire and appeared in the Washington Star on December 1. Barbee’s assertions had “brought Negro leaders forward in spirited defense of Elizabeth Keckly as an author,” Furman wrote. “In old albums they found photographs of her to prove her a decidedly dressy and intelligent person.”

At that point, Washington thought it possible that Swisshelm had persuaded Keckly to tell her story and that Swisshelm might even have “rearrange[d] the matter in good form and English for the publishers.” He was certain, however, that the stories contained in the book were true and that Keckly had been Mrs. Lincoln’s confidante.

The experience with Barbee confirmed something Washington had observed as a boy: African-Americans harbored, in their homes and in their memories, great quantities of meaningful history, untapped and at risk of being forgotten or even destroyed. His long-standing interests in both Lincoln and African-American history converged as he envisioned further research and a pamphlet that would vindicate Keckly. By 1938, he was deeply engaged in collecting further information about her, conducting interviews with local people and taking a summer trip to the Midwest for more digging. He had launched a new phase of his multifaceted life.

At first he imagined writing a pamphlet that would explain who Keckly was and how Behind the Scenes came into existence, but the project expanded as he became increasingly interested in the largely unknown lives of the African-American domestic workers the Lincolns had known in Springfield, Illinois, and Washington, D.C. The work required not just reading and interpreting documents but also dedication, creativity and a willingness to travel to new places and talk to living people. He conducted research in collections across the Southeast and Midwest. He interviewed elderly African Americans in Washington, Maryland, Virginia, and Illinois. And he reached out to the foremost Lincoln scholars and collectors of his era, hoping for leads and new information. This would be a book on the “colored side of Lincolniana,” he told one of his correspondents.

As he pursued his research, Washington began to make inroads into the white Lincoln establishment. A culture of Lincoln fandom had flourished in the wake of Lincoln’s 100th birthday in 1909, as Americans hunted for new stories about the man many considered the nation’s greatest president. Amid jokes about the quantities of Lincoln books published and whether anything remained to say or discover, hobbyists searched out autographed Lincoln documents and debated the minutiae of his life.

Interest in Lincoln grew in subsequent decades and reached its 20th-century apex during the Depression, when Americans of varying political stripes lauded him as a representative of perseverance through hard times and the dignity of common people.

The world of Lincoln buffs and collectors was diffuse, with local “roundtable” organizations operating relatively autonomously. Yet a measure of centralization existed through organizations such as the American Lincoln Association, based in Springfield, and the Abraham Lincoln National Life Insurance Company in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where Louis Warren directed the Lincoln Library Museum and published Lincoln Lore.

Washington’s path into that world began with Valta Parma, the curator of the Library of Congress’s Rare Books Collection who, early on, had affirmed Barbee’s thesis that Swisshelm had written Behind the Scenes. Parma was receptive to Washington’s research on Keckly and encouraged him to keep digging. He also helped Washington connect with leading Lincoln aficionados. Louis Warren was particularly helpful, encouraging Washington to write the book that would become They Knew Lincoln. “You could give us a very excellent story about Lincoln’s appreciation for his colored associates,” he wrote.

Washington took pleasure in the quest. Among the people he encountered was Aunt Vina, an old acquaintance of another elderly woman he knew from childhood. Driving a team of horses, Washington and his friend traveled hours to Aunt Vina’s remote and tidy home. “Unscrupulous relic hunters” had already been in the neighborhood and had “beaten” people like Aunt Vina “out of some of their most cherished objects.” Aunt Vina therefore talked about her experiences only after assurances from their mutual acquaintance that Washington was an honest man. Then she told of her experiences during the war: how her children had left to find work elsewhere but stayed in touch by mail; how she and her friends had traveled to the capital to witness Lincoln’s second inauguration; and how she had been among the mourners at Lincoln’s funeral.

In southern Maryland and Caroline County, Virginia, Washington also gathered African-Americans’ perspectives on the Lincoln assassination, a topic of perennial interest. Washington interviewed John Henry Coghill, an elderly man who said he had witnessed Booth’s demise on a Virginia farm at the hands of US soldiers. Coghill’s account of the capture and killing of Booth may have added little of substance to what people already knew of the incident, but Washington believed it important to publish Coghill’s verbatim testimony and his photo in They Knew Lincoln, giving him a voice and a place in history he would never otherwise have had.

Washington also included in the book interviews with two white men who he believed had something new to say about the assassination. One was Tom Gardiner, a dental patient of Washington’s who had been a close associate of the conspirators. The other, William Ferguson, was an actor who claimed to have been the only person who actually saw Booth shoot Lincoln—a vantage he had because of where he stood on the stage that night. Washington, always interested in art work and illustrations, had rare pictures of Ford’s Theatre and a diagram of the stage and seating. On the images, Ferguson made marks showing where he was standing and where the other actors were positioned. Washington, with a sense of duty to the historical record, published the picture with Ferguson’s annotations drawn in.

In the main, however, it was African-Americans’ perspectives that Washington sought to emphasize. The dignity and possibility of black history stood at the center of his endeavor. “I hope to produce a book with the soul of a disappearing people in it, and I think we have the material to do so,” Washington told one of the white Lincoln experts with whom he was in touch.

His emphasis on the validity and significance of African-Americans’ testimony about their own experiences and the nation’s history stood in stark contrast to others’ efforts to diminish Elizabeth Keckly. Washington filled his book with an accumulation of black voices, demonstrating convincingly that African-Americans had a great deal to say about the past and that their perspectives mattered.

As an African American, amateur historian, and outsider to the largely white world of Lincoln scholarship and collecting, Washington faced steep challenges in getting his book published. He hired Parma, the Library of Congress curator, as his editor and literary agent, and by fall 1940, Parma had secured contract with publisher E. P. Dutton. Despite some pitfalls along the way, They Knew Lincoln went into production in fall 1941 and hit stores in January 1942, carrying with it a strong endorsement by the famed poet and Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg.

Newspapers and magazines across the country reviewed They Knew Lincoln, and most critics acclaimed the work as an important new contribution in the crowded field of Lincolniana. Many noted the unprecedented nature of Washington’s collection of African-American perspectives on Lincoln. Prominent actors dramatized portions of the book in a Harlem radio show, and the editors of an anthology of African American literature printed an excerpt. The book’s initial print runs sold out almost immediately. Yet Dutton never republished it, and copies became exceedingly hard to find. Scholars and collectors have been aware of the book as a valuable source for the history of the Lincolns and African Americans, but it has been inaccessible to the larger public until now.


They Knew Lincoln piqued my interest many years ago when I checked out a copy from the University of Michigan library.  I wondered who had written this unique work of history and memoir and how it had come into existence.  They Knew Lincoln is the product of its own moment in time and of the particular interests of its author.  It captures something important about the significance of Abraham and Mary Lincoln for many southern African Americans who lived through the Civil War. Many enslaved people interpreted the crisis of war and emancipation through biblical stories of Exodus and salvation, and they hoped and imagined that Lincoln would come among them and deliver them from slavery. Washington’s assertion of an earlier generation’s universal admiration does not tell a complete story, but it does reveal a crucial thread of African American thought, both during the Civil War and in the several decades that followed.

They Knew Lincoln was a forward-looking book. Washington’s compilation of former slaves’ views of Lincoln and his concern for the lives of everyday people, particularly as workers, represented an innovation not only in Lincoln circles but in the study of African-American history. During the 1930s, researchers were increasingly turning attention toward elderly former slaves, whose memories and perspectives they valued in new ways and sought to record. The most famous example of that impulse is the Slave Narratives project of the Works Project Administration, but African-American scholars like Washington led the way.

Moreover, through its national distribution by a major publishing house, They Knew Lincoln became the first book to bring black perspectives on Lincoln directly into the homes and collections of white Lincoln fans and the white reading public. The book’s very existence challenged people’s tendency to exclude or diminish the testimony of African-Americans, and it broke new ground by arguing that African-Americans were not simply passive recipients of Lincoln’s benevolence, but shaped his attitudes. Washington’s book remains a decisive reminder of the centrality of African-American history to the nation’s past.

From They Knew Lincoln by John E. Washington, with a new introduction by Kate Masur. Copyright © February 2018 by Oxford University Press and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

The Great British Tea Heist

Smithsonian Magazine

In 1848, the British East India Company sent Robert Fortune on a trip to China's interior, an area forbidden to foreigners. Fortune's mission was to steal the secrets of tea horticulture and manufacturing. The Scotsman donned a disguise and headed into the Wu Si Shan hills in a bold act of corporate espionage.

This is an excerpt from For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History by Sarah Rose.

With [his servant] Wang walking five paces ahead to announce his arrival, Robert Fortune, dressed in his mandarin garb, entered the gates of a green tea factory. Wang began to supplicate frantically. Would the master of the factory allow an inspection from a visitor, an honored and wise official who had traveled from a far province to see how such glorious tea was made?

The factory superintendent nodded politely and led them into a large building with peeling gray stucco walls. Beyond it lay courtyards, open work spaces, and storerooms. It was warm and dry, full of workers manufacturing the last of the season’s crop, and the woody smell of green tea hung in the air. This factory was a place of established ceremony, where tea was prepared for export through the large tea distributors in Canton and the burgeoning tea trade in Shanghai.

Although the concept of tea is simple—dry leaf infused in hot water—the manufacture of it is not intuitive at all. Tea is a highly processed product. At the time of Fortune’s visit the recipe for tea had remained unchanged for two thousand years, and Europe had been addicted to it for at least two hundred of them. But few in Britain’s dominions had any firsthand or even secondhand information about the production of tea before it went into the pot. Fortune’s horticultural contemporaries in London and the directors of the East India Company all believed that tea would yield its secrets if it were held up to the clear light and scrutiny of Western science.

Among Fortune’s tasks in China, and certainly as critical as providing Indian tea gardens with quality nursery stock, was to learn the procedure for manufacturing tea. From the picking to the brewing there was a great deal of factory work involved: drying, firing, rolling, and, for black tea, fermenting. Fortune had explicit instructions from the East India Company to discover everything he could: “Besides the collection of tea plants and seeds from the best localities for transmission to India, it will be your duty to avail yourself of every opportunity of acquiring information as to the cultivation of the tea plant and the manufacture of tea as practised by the Chinese and on all other points with which it may be desirable that those entrusted with the superintendence of the tea nurseries in India should be made acquainted.”

But the recipe for the tea was a closely guarded state secret.

In the entry to the tea factory, hanging on the wall, were inspiring calligraphic words of praise, a selection from Lu Yu’s great work on tea, the classic Cha Ching.

The best quality tea must have
The creases like the leather boots of Tartar horsemen,
Curl like the dewlap of a mighty bullock,
Unfold like a mist rising out of a ravine,
Gleam like a lake touched by a zephyr,
And be wet and soft like
Earth newly swept by rain.

Proceeding into the otherwise empty courtyard, Fortune found fresh tea set to dry on large woven rattan plates, each the size of a kitchen table. The sun beat down on the containers, “cooking” the tea. No one walked past; no one touched or moved the delicate tea leaves as they dried. Fortune learned that for green tea the leaves were left exposed to the sun for one to two hours.

The sun-baked leaves were then taken to a furnace room and tossed into an enormous pan—what amounted to a very large iron wok. Men stood working before a row of coal furnaces, tossing the contents of their pans in an open hearth. The crisp leaves were vigorously stirred, kept constantly in motion, and became moist as the fierce heat drew their sap toward the surface. Stir-frying the leaves in this way breaks down their cell walls, just as vegetables soften over high heat.

The cooked leaves were then emptied onto a table where four or five workers moved piles of them back and forth over bamboo rollers. They were rolled continuously to bring their essential oils to the surface and then wrung out, their green juice pooling on the tables. “I cannot give a better idea of this operation than comparing it to a baker working and rolling his dough,” Fortune recalled.

Tightly curled by this stage, the tea leaves were not even a quarter the size they had been when picked. A tea picker plucks perhaps a pound a day, and the leaves are constantly reduced through processing so that the fruits of a day’s labor, which filled a basket carried on a tea picker’s back, becomes a mere handful of leaves—the makings of a few ounces or a few cups of brewed tea. After rolling, the tea was sent back to the drying pans for a second round of firing, losing even more volume at every contact with the hot sides of the iron wok.

With leaves plucked, dried, cooked, rolled, and cooked again, all that was left to do was sort through the processed tea. Workers sat at a long table separating the choicest, most tightly wound leaves—which would be used in the teas of the highest quality, the flowery pekoes—from the lesser-quality congou and from the dust, the lowest quality of all.

The quality of tea is partly determined by how much of the stem and rougher lower leaves are included in the blend. The highest-quality teas, which in China might have names like Dragon Well, or in India FTGFOP1 (Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe First Grade), are made from the topmost two leaves and the bud at the end of each tea branch. The top shoots taste delicate and mild, and are only slightly astringent; therefore the most pleasant and refreshing.

The distinctive quality of tea comes from essential oils that leach flavor and caffeine into a cup of hot water. These chemical compounds are not necessary for the primary survival of the tea plant’s cells; they are what is known as secondary compounds. Secondary chemicals help plants in many different respects, such as defending them against pests, infections, and fungus, and aiding them in their fight for survival and reproduction. Tea, like other green plants, has several defense systems against predators: Caffeine, for instance, is a natural insecticide. Almost all of tea’s thick waxy leaves, apart from the topmost shoots, are bitter and leathery and difficult to bite through. Tea also has hard, fibrous stalks to discourage animal incursion. Clumsy pickers can compromise the quality of tea by including a leaf farther down the stem and even some of the stem itself; this will make for a harsher, more tannic brew, and in China it will be qualified by names suggesting crudeness, such as dust.

The workers sat at long low tables to pick through the leaves and sort out any pieces of stem. They also looked for any insects that might have tainted the batch, as well as small stones and pieces of grit from the factory floor. Even with a measure of quality control, tea was not a clean product in any sense, which is one of the reasons that Chinese tea drinkers traditionally discard the first cup from any pot. “The first cup is for your enemies,” the saying goes among connoisseurs.

Culinary historians know nothing about who first put leaf to water. But where human knowledge has failed, human imagination has inserted itself. Many Chinese believe that tea was discovered by the mythical emperor Shennong, inventor of Chinese medicine and of farming. The story goes that one day the emperor was reclining in the leafy shade of a camellia bush when a shiny leaf dropped into his cup of boiled water. Ripples of light green liquor soon began to emerge from the thin, feathery leaf. Shennong was familiar with the healing properties of plants and could identify as many as seventy poisonous plants in a daylong hike. Convinced that the camellia tisane was not dangerous, he took a sip of it and found that it tasted refreshing: aromatic, slightly bitter, stimulating, and restorative.

Image by Getty Images. Botanist Robert Fortune gained access to the green tea factory by dressing in mandarin garb and pretending to be a wise official who had traveled to see how such glorious tea was made. (original image)

Image by The Granger Collection, New York. Among Fortune's tasks in China was to learn the procedure for manufacturing tea, as shown in this 18th century tea plantation. (original image)

Image by The Granger Collection, New York. While the concept of tea is simple, the manufacturing process is not as intuitive. It is a highly processed product. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Penguin Group (USA). For All The Tea In China: How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History, by Sarah Rose. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Penguin Group (USA). Author Sarah Rose. (original image)

Ascribing the discovery of tea to a revered former leader is a characteristically Confucian gesture—it puts power in the hands of the ancestors and links the present day to the mythic past. But Buddhists in China have their own creation story for tea, featuring Siddhartha Gautama (Gautama Buddha). As a traveling ascetic, legend tells us, the young monk Siddhartha was wandering on a mountain, perfecting his practice, and praying without ceasing. The weary supplicant sat down by a tree to meditate, to contemplate the One and the many faces of redemption, and promptly fell asleep. When he awoke, he was furious at his own physical weakness; his body had betrayed him, his eyes were leaden, and drowsiness had interfered with his quest for Nirvana.In a fit of rage and determined that nothing would again impede his path to Truth and Enlightenment, he ripped out his eyelashes and cast them to the wind, and in all the places they fell sprang forth a fragrant and flowering bush: the tea plant. Indeed, the fine, silvery down on the undersides of the highest-quality tea leaves resembles delicate eyelashes. Buddha, all great and compassionate, bequeathed to his followers a draft that would keep them aware and awake, invigorated and focused, an intoxicant in the service of devotion.Before Fortune, botanists had failed in their attempts to decode the formula for tea. His first collecting trip to China in 1843, for the Royal Horticultural Society, had taken him to the fringes of tea territory as part of his general collecting mandate. At that time he had made an important discovery: Green tea and black tea came from the same plant.The Linnaean Society had hitherto declared unequivocally that green and black tea were siblings or cousins, closely related but under no circumstances twins. The great [Carolus] Linnaeus, a century before, working from dried samples brought back from China by earlier explorers, concluded that the two were distinct taxa: Thea viridis and Thea bohea. Thea viridis, or green tea, was said to have alternating brown branches and alternating leaves: bright green ovals that were short-stalked, convex, serrated, shiny on both sides, and downy beneath, and with a corolla, or flower, of five to nine unequally sized white petals. Thea bohea, black tea, was described as looking nearly the same—only smaller and somewhat darker.On his first trip Fortune expected to find identifiable black tea plants in gardens known to produce black tea. Yet he discovered that the tea plants there looked just like the green tea plants in the green tea gardens. Over the course of that first three-year visit, when procuring several tea samples and thoroughly investigating them, he had concluded that any difference between green tea and black was the result of processing alone. His botanical colleagues were slow to agree, requiring more proof.Black tea is fermented; green tea is not. To make black tea, the leaves are allowed to sit in the sun for an entire day to oxidize and wilt—essentially to spoil a little. After the first twelve hours of stewing, black tea is turned, the liquor is stirred around, and the mixture is left to cure for another twelve hours. This longer curing process develops black tea’s tannins, its strong bitter flavor, and its dark color. Although it is called fermenting, the process of making black tea is technically misnamed. Nothing ferments in a chemical sense; there are no microorganisms breaking down sugars into alcohol and gas. Black tea is, rather, cured or ripened. But the language of wine colors the language of all beverages, and so the label of “fermentation” has stuck to black tea. (Indeed, if tea does ferment and fungus grows, a carcinogenic substance is produced.)Given that to that point no European botanist had seen tea growing or evaluated it in its living state, the Linnaean Society’s confusion on the subject is understandable. Fortune’s documentary evidence ultimately changed tea’s Linnaean classification. It would soon be known categorically as Thea sinensis, literally tea from China. (Later still it would be reclassified as part of the Camellia family, Camellia sinensis.)As he made his way through the green tea factory, Fortune took note of something both peculiar and more than a little alarming on the hands of the tea manufacturers. It was the kind of observation that, once reported, would be an invaluable boon to the burgeoning Indian tea experiment, with the power to boost the sales of Indian tea over Chinese. While staring at the workers busy in the final stages of processing, he noticed that their fingers were “quite blue.”Among the blenders and tasters of the London auction it was generally assumed that the Chinese engaged in all manner of duplicity, inserting twigs and sawdust into their teas to bulk up the loose leaves. It was said that the Chinese were brewing their own breakfast tea, saving the soggy leaves to dry in the sun, and then reselling the recycled product as fresh tea for the gullible “white devils.”There was no trust in the trade, no faith in the goodwill of the Chinese manufacturers.But the blue substance on the fingers of the Chinese workmen seemed to Fortune a matter of legitimate concern. What could be the source of this? He and others had long suspected that the Chinese were chemically dyeing tea for the benefit of the foreign market. He was now in a position to prove or disprove the charge.He watched each step of the processing carefully, saying nothing, making notes, and occasionally asking Wang to put a question to a manager or worker. At one end of the factory the supervisor stood over a white porcelain mortar. In the bowl was a deep blue powder, made finer and finer with each grind of the pestle. The superintendent was in fact preparing iron ferrocyanide, a substance also known as Prussian blue, a pigment used in paints.When cyanide is ingested, it binds to iron inside cells, interfering with the absorption of certain enzymes and compromising a cell’s ability to produce energy. Cyanide affects the tissues most needed for aerobic respiration, the heart and lungs. In high doses cyanide can bring on seizures, coma, and then cardiac arrest, killing quickly. At lower doses cyanide leads to weakness, giddiness, confusion, and light-headedness. Exposure to even low levels of cyanide over long periods of time can lead to permanent paralysis. Fortunately for the tea drinkers of Britain, Prussian blue is a complex molecule, so it is almost impossible to release the cyanide ion from it and the poison passes harmlessly through the body.Elsewhere in the factory, however, over the charcoal fires where the tea was roasted, Fortune discovered a man cooking a bright yellow powder into a paste. The smell was terrible, like that of rotten eggs. The yellow substance was gypsum, or calcium sulfate dehydrate, a common component of plaster. Gypsum produces hydrogen sulfide gas as it breaks down. While the gas is produced naturally by the body in low doses, in high doses it acts as a broad-spectrum poison, affecting many of the body’s systems simultaneously, particularly the nervous system. At lower concentrations gypsum acts as an irritant; it reddens the eyes, inflames the throat, and causes nausea, shortness of breath, and fluid in the lungs. Consumed over the long term it might produce fatigue, memory loss, headaches, irritability, and dizziness. It can even induce miscarriage in women, and failure to thrive in infants and children.Fortune estimated that more than half a pound of plaster and Prussian blue was included in every hundred pounds of tea being prepared. The average Londoner was believed to consume as much as one pound of tea per year, which meant that Chinese tea was effectively poisoning British consumers. The additives were not included maliciously, however, for the Chinese simply believed that foreigners wanted their green tea to look green.“No wonder the Chinese consider the natives of the West to be a race of barbarians,” Fortune remarked. But why, he asked, were they making green tea so extremely green, since it looked so much better without the addition of poison and since the Chinese themselves would never dream of drinking it colored?“Foreigners seemed to prefer having a mixture of Prussian blue and gypsum with their tea, to make it look uniform and pretty, and as these ingredients were cheap enough, the Chinese [have] no objection to [supplying] them as such teas always fetch . . . a higher price!”Fortune surreptitiously collected some of the poisonous dyes from the factory, bundling them up in his wax-dipped cloth sacks and stowing them away in the generous folds of his mandarin costume. As a scientist he wanted samples to analyze, but most of all he wanted to send additional ones back to England.These substances would be prominently displayed in London’s Great Exhibition of 1851. In the glittering Crystal Palace, Britain displayed to the world all its industrial, scientific, and economic might, including the green tea dyes. This public exhibition marked the moment when tea, the national drink of Britain, came out of the shadows of myth and mystery and into the light of Western science and understanding. Fortune unmasked unwitting Chinese criminality and provided an irrefutable argument for British-manufactured tea.This is an excerpt from For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History by Sarah Rose.

Preserving Silence in National Parks

Smithsonian Magazine

The preservation of natural sounds in our national parks is a relatively new and still evolving project. The same can be said of our national parks. What Wallace Stegner called "the best idea we ever had"* did not spring full grown from the American mind. The painter George Catlin first proposed the park idea in 1832, but it was not until 1872 that Yellowstone became the first of our current 391 parks. Only much later did the public recognize the park's ecological value; the setting aside of Yellowstone had more to do with the preservation of visually stunning natural monuments than with any nascent environmentalism. Not until 1934, with the establishment of Everglades, was a national park instituted for the express purpose of protecting wildlife. And not until 1996 was Catlin's vision of a prairie park of "monotonous" landscape, with "desolate fields of silence (yet of beauty)," realized in Tall Grass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas.

As one more step in this gradual evolution, the Park Service established a Natural Sounds Program in 2000 with the aim of protecting and promoting the appreciation of park soundscapes. It would be a mistake to think of this aim as having originated "on high." In a 1998 study conducted by the University of Colorado, 76 percent of the Americans surveyed saw the opportunity to experience "natural peace and the sounds of nature" as a "very important" reason for preserving national parks.

But noise in parks, as in society at large, is on the rise—to the extent that peak-season decibel levels in the busiest areas of certain major parks rival those of New York City streets. Airplanes, cars, park maintenance machinery, campground generators, snowmobiles, and personal watercraft all contribute to the general commotion. The more room we make for our machines, the less room—and quiet—we leave for ourselves.

*Apparently Stegner was not the first to think so.  In 1912 James Bryce, the British ambassador to the United States, said that "the national park is the best idea American ever had."


Several times I heard park officials refer to the Natural Sounds office in Fort Collins, Colorado, as "Karen Trevino's shop," a good description of what I found when I stepped through the door. Cases of sound equipment—cables, decibel meters, microphones—were laid out like a dorm room's worth of gear on the hallway carpet, not far from several bicycles that staffers, most of them in their 20s, ride to work. A few members of the team were preparing for several days of intensive work out in the field. As animated as any of them was Karen Trevino.

"If the mayor of New York City is trying to make what people expect to be a noisy place quieter," she said, referring to the Bloomberg administration's 2007 revision of the city noise code, "what should we be doing in places that people expect to be quiet?" 

As a step toward answering that question, Trevino and her crew calibrate sound level information and convert it into color-coded visual representations that allow a day's worth of sound levels, and even an entire park's sound profile, to be seen at a glance. (Probably by the beginning of 2009 readers will be able to see some of these profiles at The technicians also make digital sound recordings to develop a "dictionary" by which these visual depictions can be interpreted. Much of their research is focused on creating plans to manage the roughly 185,000 air tours that fly over our parks each year—a major mandate of the National Parks Air Tour Management Act of 2000. The team is currently working on its first proposal, for Mount Rushmore, a 1200 acre unit with 5600 air tour overflights a year. Franklin Roosevelt once called this park "the shrine of democracy."

"When you think about it," Trevino says, "what's the highest tribute we pay in this country—really, in the world—of reverence and respect? A moment of silence. Now, that said, nature isn't silent. It can be very noisy. And people in parks aren't quiet all the time." Neither are things like cannon in a historical park like Gettysburg—nor should they be, according to Trevino. "Our job from a public policy standpoint is asking what noises are appropriate, and if they're appropriate, are they at acceptable levels?"

Trevino sees this as a learning process, not only for her young department but also for her. Some of what she's learned has passed to her private life. Recently she asked her babysitter to stop using the terms "indoor voice" and "outdoor voice" with her young children. "Sometimes it's perfectly appropriate to scream when you're indoors and to be very quiet when you're outdoors," she says.


Though much remains to be done, the Park Service has already made significant progress in combating noise. A propane-fueled shuttle system in Zion National Park has reduced traffic jams and carbon emissions and also made the canyon quieter. In Muir Woods, library-style "quiet" signs help keep the volume down; social scientists have found (somewhat to their surprise) that the ability to hear natural sounds—15 minutes away from San Francisco and in a park celebrated mostly for the visual magnificence of its trees—ranks high with visitors. In Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, which have a major naval air station to the west and a large military air training space to the east, park officials take military commanders on a five-day "Wilderness Orientation Overflight Pack Trip" to demonstrate the effects of military jet noise on visitor experience in the parks. Before the program started in the mid-1990s, rangers reported as many as 100 prohibited "low flier" incidents involving military jets every year. Now the number of planes flying less than 3000 feet above the ground surface is a fourth to a fifth of that. Complaints are taken seriously, especially when, as has happened more than once, they're radioed in by irate military commanders riding on jet-spooked pack horses on narrow mountain trails. In that context, human cursing is generally regarded as a natural sound.

Image by Alexandra Picavet. View of Mineral King Valley at Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park from a honeymoon cabin. (original image)

Image by Mark Lellouch, NPS. A group of boaters make their way down the peaceful Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. (original image)

Image by National Park Services. Sheep Lakes at Rocky Mountain National Park (original image)

Image by Mark Lellouch, NPS. View of the Grand Canyon from the Yavapai Observation Station. (original image)

Image by National Park Service. Sprague Lake at Rocky Mountain National Park (original image)

Image by National Park Services. A rainbow emerges over the Grand Canyon. (original image)

Image by Alexandra Picavet. Large sequoia trees at Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park. (original image)

Sometimes the initiative to combat noise has come from outside the park system. Rocky Mountain National Park, for example, has the distinction of being the only one in the nation with a federal ban on air tour over-flights, thanks mostly to the League of Women Voters chapter in neighboring Estes Park. Park Planner Larry Gamble took me to see the plaque the League erected in honor of the natural soundscape. It was in the perfect spot, with a small stream gurgling nearby and the wind blowing through the branches of two venerable aspens. Gamble and I walked up a glacial moraine to a place where we heard wood frogs singing below us and a hawk crying as it circled in front of snow-capped Long's Peak. But in the twenty minutes since we'd begun our walk, Gamble and I counted almost a dozen jets, all in audible descent toward the Denver airport. I'd flown in on one of them the day before.

The most intractable noise problem in our national parks comes from the sky. The reasons for this are both acoustical, in terms of how sound propagates from the air, and political. The skies above the parks are not managed by parks. All commercial air space in the US is governed by the Federal Aviation Administration, which has a reputation for safeguarding both its regulatory prerogatives and what is often referred to in aviation parlance as "the freedom of the skies." Passengers taking advantage of that freedom in the United States numbered around 760 million last year. But much of the controversy about aircraft noise in our parks has centered on air tours.

A twenty-year dispute over air-tours above the Grand Canyon has involved all three branches of the federal government and, for protraction and difficulty, makes the court case in Bleak House look like a session with Judge Judy. A breakthrough seemed likely when the Grand Canyon Working Group, which includes representatives of the Park Service, the FAA, the air tour industry, environmental organizations, tribal leaders, and other affected parties, eventually managed to agree on two critical points. First, the Park Service's proposal that "the substantial restoration of natural quiet" called for in the 1987 Grand Canyon Overflights Act meant that 50 percent or more of the park should be free of aircraft noise 75 percent or more of the time (with no limits established for the other 50 percent). They also agreed on the computer model of the park's acoustics that would be used to determine if and when those requirements had been met. All that remained was to plug in the data.

The results were startling. Even when air tour overflights were factored out entirely, the model showed that only 2 percent of the park was quiet 75 percent of the time, due to noise from hundreds of daily commercial flights above 18,000 feet. In other words, air tours could be abolished altogether and the park would still be awash in the noise of aviation. Those findings came in over two years ago. The Park Service has since redefined the standard to apply only to aircraft flying below 18,000 feet. The Working Group has yet to meet this year.


Noise can be characterized as a minor issue. The pollution of a soundscape is hardly as momentous as the pollution of the seas. But the failure of an animal to hear a mating call—or a predator—over a noise event is neither insignificant nor undocumented. (One 2007 study shows the deleterious effects of industrial noise on the pairing success of ovenbirds; another from 2006 shows significant modifications in the "antipredator behavior" of California ground squirrels living near wind turbines.) On the human side, the inability of a park visitor to hear 10 percent of an interpretative talk, or the inability to enjoy natural quiet for fifteen minutes out of an hour's hike—as the Grand Canyon plan allows—does not mean that the visitor understood 90 percent of the presentation or that the hiker enjoyed her remaining forty-five minutes on the trail.

In dismissing the effects of noise, we dismiss the importance of the small creature and the small human moment, an attitude with environmental and cultural costs that are anything but small. Not least of all we're dismissing intimacy: the firsthand knowledge and love of living things that can never come exclusively through the eye, the screen, the windshield—or on the run. This struck home for me in a chat with several members of the League of Women Voters in a noisy coffee house in Estes Park, Colorado. I'd come to learn more about the air tour ban over Rocky Mountain National Park and ended by asking why the park and its natural sounds were so important to them.

"Many people just drive through the park," said Helen Hondius, straining to be heard above the merciless grinding of a latte machine, "so for them it's just the visual beauty." For Hondius and her friends, however, all of whom walk regularly over the trails, the place needed to be heard as well as seen. "It's like anything else," Lynn Young added, "when you take the time to enjoy it, the park becomes a part of what you are. It can shape you."

Robert Manning of the University of Vermont has worked with the park system for three decades on issues of "carrying capacity"—the sustainable level of population and activity for an environmental unit—and more recently on issues of noise. He feels that the park system should "offer what individuals are prepared for at any given stage in their life cycle." In short, it should offer what he calls "an opportunity to evolve." He admires people "who've developed their appreciation of nature to the extent that they're willing and anxious to put on their packs and go out and hike, maybe for a day, maybe for a two-week epic adventure, walking lightly on the land, with only the essentials. But—those people probably didn't start there. I bet a lot of them went on a family camping trip when they were kids. Mom and Dad packed them into the car in the classic American pilgrimage and went out for two weeks' vacation and visited fifteen national parks in two weeks and had a wonderful time."

Seen from Manning's perspective, the social task of the national parks is to provide an experience of nature that is both available to people as they are and suitable to people as they might become. Such a task is robustly democratic and aggressively inclusive, but it is not easily achieved. It obliges us to grow, to evolve as the parks themselves have evolved, and we may best be able to determine how far we have come by how many natural sounds we can hear.

Garret Keizer is at work on a book about the history and politics of noise. You can contribute a story to his research at:

T-6 Hours, 50 Minutes for Apollo 16

National Air and Space Museum
Watercolor painting on paper. T-6 Hours 50 Minutes for Apollo 16, 16 April 1972. A page from a spiral-bound sketchbook that contains other accessioned artworks. A dark blue square with brownish-red tints in the center of the page is defined by a thin blue border. Bright white and blue beams radiate from the middle of the image, illuminating a small white rocket standing in the very center. Text in the lower right corner of the entire page reads: "The view from the steps of the NASA briefing stand at the press site…The barge canal reflects the waiting rocket at six o'clock on the morning it will come to life." Text in the upper left margin reads: "-A giant cathedral of light…and tonight it will be gone."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom D. Crouch

Senior Curator, Aeronautics

National Air and Space Museum

Smithsonian Institution

July 26, 2007

The Child Prodigies Who Became 20th-Century Celebrities

Smithsonian Magazine

In the first few decades of the 20th century, child prodigies became national celebrities. Much like the movie stars, industrial titans and heavyweight champs of the day, their exploits were glorified and their opinions quoted in newspapers across the United States. 

While every generation produces its share of precocious children, no era, before or since, seems to have been so obsessed with them. The recent advent of intelligence testing, which allowed psychologists to gauge mental ability with seemingly scientific precision, is one likely reason. An early intelligence test had been demonstrated at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893—the same exhibition that introduced Americans to such wonders as the Ferris wheel, Cracker Jacks and hula dancing. Then, in 1916, Stanford University psychologist Louis Terman published the Stanford-Binet test, which made the term intelligence quotient, or I.Q., part of the popular vocabulary.

A child’s I.Q. was based on comparing his or her mental age, determined by a standardized series of tests, to his or her chronological age. So, for example, a 6-year-old whose test performance matched that of a typical 6-year-old was said to have an average I.Q., of 100, while a 6-year-old who performed like a 9-year-old was awarded a score of 150. Ironically, Alfred Binet, the Frenchman whose name the test immortalized, had not set out to measure the wattage of the brightest children but to help identify the least intelligent, so they might receive an education that better suited them.

Also contributing to the prodigy craze was a change in the nature of news itself. The early 20th century marked the rise of tabloid newspapers, which put greater emphasis on human interest stories. Few subjects were of more human interest than children.

It was the highest I.Q. children and other spectacularly precocious youth who made the best stories, of course. Generally the press covered them with reverence, if not awe. “Infant Prodigies Presage A World Made Richer by A Generation of Marvels,” gushed one New York newspaper in 1922. Others treated them simply as amusing curiosities, suitable for a Ripley’s “Believe It or Not!” cartoon, where, indeed, some of them eventually appeared. Meanwhile, for parents wondering whether they might have one under their own roof, the papers ran helpful stories like “How to Tell If Your Child Is a Genius.”

At roughly the height of the prodigy craze, in 1926, Winifred Sackville Stoner, an author, lecturer, and gifted self-publicist, had the ingenious idea of bringing some of the little geniuses together. The founder of an organization called the League for Fostering Genius and herself the mother of a famous prodigy named Winifred Sackville Stoner, Jr., Stoner wanted to introduce the celebrated children to one another and to connect them with rich patrons who might bankroll their future feats. “Surely there is no better way in which to spend one’s millions,” the New York Times quoted her as saying. 

Though the full guest list may be lost in time, the party’s attendees included William James Sidis, a young man in his twenties who had been a freshman at Harvard at age 11, and Elizabeth Benson, a 12-year-old who was about to enter college. Benson would later remember Nathalia Crane, a precocious poet of 12, as being there as well, although if she was, contemporary news accounts seem to have missed her. So what became of these dazzlingly bright prospects of yesteryear? Here, in brief, are the very different tales of Sidis, Benson and Crane, as well as Stoner, Jr.

William James Sidis, Boy Wonder

Perhaps the most celebrated prodigy of the early 20th century, William James Sidis would grow up to become the poster child for the perils of early fame. 

Born in New York City in 1898, Sidis was the child of Russian immigrant parents, both high achievers themselves. His father was a noted psychologist and protégé of the philosopher-psychologist William James, after whom the boy was named. His mother had earned an M.D. but seems never to have practiced medicine, devoting her time instead to her husband and son.

Spurred on by his parents, in particular his father, who believed that education should begin in the crib, Sidis showed a gift for languages and math at an age when most children are content just to gurgle. According to The Prodigy, a 1986 biography by Amy Wallace, older kids would stop his baby carriage as he was being wheeled through the park to hear him count to 100. At 18 months he was reportedly reading The New York Times, and as a 3-year-old he taught himself Latin.

Sidis made headlines when he started high school at eight and Harvard at 11. His lecture to the Harvard math club on one of his favorite subjects, the fourth dimension , an obscure area of geometry, was widely covered, even if few people seemed to know what he was talking about.

By the time Sidis graduated from college, he’d had his fill of fame and was known to run at the sight of newspaper reporters. He taught briefly, spent some time in law school and flirted with Communism, but his greatest passion seemed to be his collection of streetcar transfers, a subject he wrote a book about using a pseudonym. He would later write other books under other pseudonyms, including a history of Native Americans.

To support himself, Sidis worked at a string of low-level office jobs. When the New Yorker tracked him down for a “Where Are They Now?” article in 1937, it described him as living in a small room in a shabby section of Boston and quoted him as saying that, “The very sight of a mathematical formula makes me physically ill.” Sidis, then 39, sued the magazine for invading his privacy and lost in a landmark case.

Sidis died in 1944 at age 46, apparently of a cerebral hemorrhage. He left behind a pile of manuscripts and at least one big mystery: Was he simply a pathetic recluse who never fulfilled his early promise or a man who succeeded in living life on his own terms, free from the demands of being a prodigy?

Image by Courtesy of the author. The early 20th-century obsession with child prodigies was well documenting in tabloid newspapers, turning the kids into national celebrities. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of the author. Elizabeth Benson became a national celebrity when she was eight, boasting an I.Q. of 214 plus. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of the author. Winifred Sackville Stoner, Jr.'s mother read her baby classic poetry and decked out her nursery with paintings and sculptures. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of the author. Winifred supposedly translated Mother Goose into Esperanto at five, passed the entrance exam for Stanford at nine, and spoke eight languages by 12. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of the author. William James Sidis, known as the Boy Wonder, was perhaps the most celebrated child prodigy of the early 20th century. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of the author. Newspapers reported that child prodigies continued to remain successful well into their teens and adulthood, but most did not follow this trajectory. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of the author. For parents wondering whether they might have a child prodigy under their own roof, newspapers ran helpful stories like “How to Tell If Your Child Is a Genius.” (original image)

Image by Courtesy of the author. While the press generally covered 20th-century child prodigies with reverence, some argued that intense early education aged children too quickly. (original image)

Elizabeth Benson, Test-buster

With an I.Q. of 214 plus, then the highest ever recorded, Elizabeth Benson was a celebrity at the age of eight, though her mother wouldn’t let her read her clippings for fear she’d become conceited. The “plus” meant she had broken the scale, successfully answering every question until her testers ran out of them. There was no telling how high she might have scored.

Benson, born in Waco, Texas in 1913, was raised by her mother, Anne Austin, a journalist who later wrote popular mystery novels with titles like Murder at Bridge and The Avenging Parrot. As her mother’s career progressed, the two moved around, with stops in Iowa, California and Missouri, as well as several Texas cities. By the time young Elizabeth graduated from high school, at age 12, she had attended a dozen different schools.

Though she seems to have excelled at just about everything, Benson’s interests were mainly literary. She taught herself to spell by age 3 and was soon consuming a dozen library books a week. At 13, during her sophomore year at Barnard College in New York City, she published one of her own, The Younger Generation, offering her wry take on the antics of Roaring Twenties youth. In his introduction to the book, Vanity Fair editor Frank Crowninshield marveled not only at the young teenager’s writing skill but also her athletic ability. “A learned physician has hinted to me that the hair-trigger balance between her physical and intellectual natures is probably due to the perfect functioning of her endocrine glands,” he explained, or at least attempted to.

After graduating from college in 1930 Benson dropped from public view. She reemerged four years later, when a reporter found her living in a small apartment in New York, married, and working as a cashier. Time magazine then picked up the story, treating her to further national acclaim, not for being a genius but for turning out so normal.

In the late ’30s, however, Benson’s life appeared to take a radical turn, literally: She returned to her native Texas as Communist organizer. When her group tried to hold a rally at San Antonio’s municipal auditorium, the result was a riot by a reported 5,000 anti-Communist Texans. 

Benson next headed to Los Angeles, where she continued her organizing work in the movie industry. But by the late 1950s, she’d grown disenchanted with Communism, finally breaking with the party in 1968, according to her son, Morgan Spector. She then earned a law degree, taught real property courses and practiced as a labor lawyer. She died in 1994, at age 80, an event that seems to have gone unnoticed by the media that once followed her every move.

Nathalia Crane, Precocious Poet 

Nicknamed the “Baby Browning of Brooklyn,” Nathalia Crane, born in 1913, was a nationally known poet by age 10, acclaimed for such works as “Romance,” later retitled “The Janitor’s Boy,” a girlish fantasy about escaping to a desert isle with the red-haired title character from her apartment house. Crane, her poems, and even the ordinary, real-life boy who inspired her poetic effusions were celebrated in newspapers from coast to coast. 

Nunnally Johnson, later to make his name as a screenwriter and director, observed the spectacle as a young reporter. “Camera men and moving picture photographers shuffled through the apartment-house court to Nathalia’s door,” he wrote. “She was asked imbecile questions: her opinions on love, on bobbed hair, on what she wanted to be when she grew up.” 

It wasn’t long, however, before Crane’s unusual way with words had raised suspicions that she might be a fraud. Conspiracy theorists tried to attribute her poems to everyone from Edna St. Vincent Millay to Crane’s own father, a newspaperman who had demonstrated no particular gift for poetry. Eventually the doubts subsided, and by the end of her teens, Crane’s credits included at least six books of poetry and two novels.

Crane would publish little from the 1930s until her death in 1998. Instead, she went to college and took a series of teaching jobs, ending her career at San Diego State University.

Aside from a brief brush with controversy as a supporter of the Irish Republican Army, Crane rarely stood out in her later years, according to Kathie Pitman, who is working on her biography. “She seems to have been a very quiet, very diffident person, certainly not larger than life,” Pitman says. “It may be that she just tired of all the emphasis that was put on her as a prodigy.”

Though Crane’s work is largely forgotten, it enjoyed a recent revival when Natalie Merchant set “The Janitor’s Boy” to music for her 2010 album, Leave Your Sleep.

Winifred Sackville Stoner, Jr., the Wonder Girl

The curiously named Winfred Sackville Stoner, Jr., born in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1902, was the daughter of Winifred Sackville Stoner, a self-styled education expert who read her baby classic poetry and decorated her nursery with copies of great paintings and sculptures. Her father was a surgeon with the U.S. Public Health Service, whose frequent reassignments kept the family on the move. By the age of 10, his daughter had lived in

Evansville, Indiana, Palo Alto, California, and Pittsburgh—and become a local legend in each of them.

Young Winifred supposedly translated Mother Goose into Esperanto at five, passed the entrance exam for Stanford at nine, and spoke eight languages by 12, when she wasn’t playing the violin, piano, guitar or mandolin. Remember the famous line “In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue”? She wrote it. No wonder the newspapers gave her nicknames like the Wonder Girl.

As Winifred, Jr., gained a reputation as a prodigy, her mother became equally well-known as the brains behind one. Mother Stoner, as she was often referred to, published several books explaining how she had reared her amazing daughter and lectured widely on her theories, which she called “natural education.” Like William Sidis’s father, Boris, whom she quoted admiringly, she believed that a child’s education couldn’t begin too early. Indeed, she did Sidis one better and didn’t even wait for her baby to be born to start classes. “Through prenatal influence,” she wrote somewhat cryptically, “I did all in my power to make my little girl love great literature in many languages.”

By the late 1920s, however, the younger Stoner was getting more attention for her chaotic personal life than her artistic achievements. Still a teenager, she had married a phony French count who turned out to be a con man. After he faked his own death, she remarried, only to discover that she now had two husbands. She won an annulment from the “count,” but divorced her second husband anyway, saying he had insulted her coffee. Further husbands and other embarrassments would follow. 

Stoner died in 1983, having long since renounced any claim to being a role model. In a 1930 article she described her youth as being “puffed to the skies and then pitch-forked.” Her closing words: “Take my advice, dear mothers; spare your children from so-called fame, which easily turns to shame, and be happy if you have a healthy, happy, contented boy or girl.”

Inuit Wisdom and Polar Science Are Teaming Up to Save the Walrus

Smithsonian Magazine

This article is from Hakai Magazine, a new online publication about science and society in coastal ecosystems. Read more stories like this at

The air is calm this Arctic morning as Zacharias Kunuk prepares for a long day. His morning routine does nothing to quell his nerves—today he’s going on his first walrus hunt.

It’s 1980, late July—the month walrus hunters climb into motorized freighter canoes and leave Igloolik, a small Inuit community in Nunavut, Canada. Every summer since he was a boy, Kunuk has watched the hunters return, weary but triumphant with walrus meat. He’s always wondered how far these men travel to reach the floating rafts of ice where walruses rest during the summer. And he’s pondered how just a few men can possibly kill a creature that might weigh more than 20 men and then wrestle it into a canoe. This is the day Kunuk will get answers. He also plans to capture it all on camera. A young filmmaker in his mid-20s, Kunuk has a small budget to finance the hunt, a cultural practice so vital to his community’s identity that he wants to record it for future generations.

The temperature on an Arctic summer day rarely exceeds 10°C, with much cooler air out by the sea ice, so the hunters dress for the climate: skin boots, mittens, and knee-length parkas with fur-lined hoods. Kunuk joins an experienced elder and the man’s brother as they load their boat with harpoons, guns, knives, tea, and bannock (a fry bread). Nearby, other men ready their own freighter canoes.

Then they push off—a tiny flotilla in a great big sea—on their way to hunt an enormous animal. As they travel, the hunters explain how to read the angle of the sun, the direction of the currents, and the subtle movements of the seaweed—a navigational system so baffling to young Kunuk that he silently questions how they will ever find their way home.

After several hours spent listening to the engine’s mechanical chug, Kunuk hears a chorus of mumbling and chattering, grunts and growls, a sign that they are close to the walruses. (That sound will later remind him of the cacophony in a busy bar). They shut down the motors and drift toward the ice. As the walruses lift their hefty heads, the hunters raise their rifles and aim.

Throughout the Arctic, the traditional walrus hunt happens today much like it has for thousands of years—in teams armed with knowledge about walrus behavior accumulated over generations. But times are changing, and it’s not just that the hunters now have global positioning systems, speedboats, and cell phones. A rapidly changing environment is also altering walrus behavior in ways scientists are struggling to understand. As Arctic sea ice melts at a worrisome rate—in 2015 reaching the smallest maximum extent ever recorded—walruses are behaving strangely in parts of their range. That includes gathering in unusually large numbers on land.

Normally, females and calves prefer to haul out on sea ice instead of on land with the males. But as the ice disappears, the beaches are filling up. In September 2014, 35,000 Pacific walruses piled together near the village of Point Lay, Alaska, making international headlines for a record-setting heap of jostling tusks and whiskers on American soil. In October 2010, 120,000 walruses—perhaps half the world’s population—crowded onto one Russian haul-out site.

For their part, scientists are racing to gather information about walruses, including attempts to get the first accurate head count amidst increased shipping traffic, proposed oil drilling, and other disturbances in key walrus habitat. A 2017 deadline for a decision by the United States government on whether to list walruses under the Endangered Species Act is fueling a new sense of urgency. A major goal is to explain changing walrus behaviors and understand what, if any, protections they might require. But there is another unanswered question that is just as critical, if less quantifiable: What do new walrus behaviors mean for indigenous people who have long depended on the animals? 

(Paul Souders/Corbis)

Though related, these questions represent a clash between two contradictory ways of seeing the natural world. There’s science, which respects numbers and data above all else. And then there’s traditional knowledge, which instead prioritizes relationships between people and animals. In the Inuit view, walruses have a sense of personhood and agency, says Erica Hill, an anthropologist at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau. They act and react. As Kunuk points out, animal populations—caribou, fish, seals, and walruses—have always cycled. Unlike the scientists, the Inuit feel it’s best not to talk about how many come by each year. The animals might overhear, feel disrespected, and choose to stay away.

“If we talk about the walrus too much, they’re going to change,” says Kunuk. “If we were farmers we would count our stock. But we’re hunters and these are wild animals.”

Because scientists and hunters use wholly different systems to process knowledge, merging what they know is like trying to read a book in a foreign, if slightly familiar, language. Still, both worldviews share a deep caring for the animals, suggesting that a true understanding of the walrus may come only by allowing each perspective to teach the other. To accurately interpret emerging science, perhaps researchers must incorporate a much deeper history, one embedded in native traditions.

Walruses—and the people who have long relied on them—have, after all, been dealing with hunters, climate variations, and other obstacles for centuries. And Inuit hunters know that walruses have repeatedly adapted to change with more resilience than several decades of scientific data can detect. Within that intricate relationship may lie important lessons for maintaining a delicate balance between species that have coexisted in a harsh and unpredictable environment for millennia. This often-overlooked complexity adds a twist to the standard narrative surrounding Arctic creatures—that environmental change leads to certain catastrophe. It might not be so simple.

“We’re really good in the science world at seeing how things can go wrong, like ‘Gee, walruses need ice and the ice is going away, so whoops, we have a problem,’” says anthropologist Henry Huntington, who has been interviewing native hunters to complement a walrus satellite-tagging study by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “We know that ice is getting thinner in the summer, and it is easy to draw a straight line and extrapolate and say that at the end of this line is doom and gloom for the walrus population. What we’re not good at anticipating is what adjustments walruses can make. Walrus hunters are able to put that in perspective.”

On that first expedition some three decades ago, young Kunuk watched and filmed as the hunters shot and butchered walruses, then wrapped parcels of meat in walrus skin. When they returned to Igloolik, he kept filming as the men dug pits for the meat in the gravel beach. After fermenting for several months, the aged meat, called igunaq, takes on the consistency of blue cheese and smells like a week-old carcass, Kunuk says. Yet once acquired, a taste for this valuable delicacy is a lifelong love, and, along with fresh, boiled walrus meat, is coveted.

For a 700-kilogram polar bear, calorie-dense walrus is also fair game and, in the emerging quagmire of changing Arctic dynamics, this is the crux. As Arctic ice melts, polar bears are spending more time on land where they’re smelling hard-won igunaq, digging up the meat, and occasionally wandering into Igloolik or other villages. A generation ago, Kunuk’s father told him that one bear a year might come into the village. But between August 2012 and January 2013, over 30 bears were seen on Igloolik Island, including in and around Igloolik village.

Along the coasts of Alaska and Russia, another temptation lures polar bears closer to villages: extra-large gatherings of live walruses that are, like the bears, increasingly driven to shore, largely because of the lack of sea ice. Walruses are notoriously skittish and often stampede when spooked by something like a bear. In a stampede’s wake, they leave trampled animals, sometimes thousands of them. It’s like a free buffet for hungry bears.

(Paul Souders/Corbis)

Escalating conflicts between walruses, polar bears, and humans have prompted a new era of adaptation by indigenous communities, often with scientists supporting their efforts. In Igloolik and nearby Hall Beach, hunters are testing electric fences as deterrents to protect igunaq. Sometimes the bears get over or under the fences, but several years into the project, they have learned to avoid the live wires, which deliver a harmless but effective jolt. And communities are losing less of their valuable meat, especially when they’re vigilant about checking the fences, says Marcus Dyck, a polar bear biologist with the government of Nunavut. “I’ve seen polar bears move a thousand pounds of rocks to get at walrus meat. If a bear is determined, there’s nothing that can stop [it],” he says. “Surprisingly, electricity from the fences really spooks the shit out of them.”

On the Pacific side of the Arctic, efforts to manage the walrus situation began in 2006 after a polar bear killed a teenage girl in the Russian village of Riyrkaipiy. Along with a growing sense that more polar bears were hanging around on land, the concerned villagers took charge by restricting disturbances at haul-out sites and creating umky (polar bear) patrols to chase bears away with flares, pots and pans, and rubber bullets. Their work was so effective that at least seven communities now have active polar-bear patrol teams that keep watch along the northern coastline of Russia. In Alaska, communities are managing walrus stampedes in terrestrial haul-out sites—and thus deterring bears—by minimizing noise and other human-caused disturbances. Low-flying planes are diverted, film crews turned away, and hunting is avoided in an attempt to keep the herds calm.

The people who live among walruses, in other words, are adapting to new realities. But what about the walruses? What do the numbers show?

Before the onset of industrial European walrus hunting in the 19th century, it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of walruses swam freely throughout the Arctic. But the animals became so valued for their oil, meat, skin, and ivory that by the 1950s the population had fallen as low as 50,000. After a recovery that peaked in the 1980s, when there seemed to be more walruses than the environment could support, numbers declined again. Today, the best available data suggests that there may be as many as 25,000 Atlantic walruses and some 200,000 Pacific walruses. 

But nobody knows for sure. Walruses spend a lot of time underwater, diving for shellfish on the seafloor. And they tend to clump within an enormous range that is both inaccessible and inhospitable to people, which means that extrapolating the size of an entire population by surveying a fraction of the environment can lead to wild miscalculations. The last attempt to make an aerial count of Pacific walruses, in 2006, came up with an estimate of 129,000 individuals, but error margins were huge. The possible range was between 55,000 and 507,000.

“They’re the gypsies of the sea and they’re a very challenging species to study,” says Rebecca Taylor, a research statistician with the United States Geological Survey (USGS) Alaska Science Center in Anchorage. “If you find walruses, you often find a lot of walruses. But you can go a long time at sea without finding any walruses. The logistics of getting out there and observing them are very challenging.”

Among the variety of scientific endeavors aiming to learn, once and for all, how walruses are faring, researchers at the USGS are tagging animals to track their movements and using statistical analyses to understand population trends. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) is studying biopsies and DNA sequences to try and get the first accurate count of Pacific walruses. Results, as they emerge, will help focus conservation efforts where they’re needed most.

Still, many questions remain unanswered. “We can definitively say they’ve altered their behavior in an unprecedented way,” says USGS wildlife biologist Anthony Fischbach. “We can report that they have a different energy budget, that they’re spending less time resting and more time in the water burning calories. And that leads us to think that is not a good thing. But integrating that into what it’s going to be like in the future, whether they will do fine or not, that is an open question. There is more science to do.”

An Inuit pipe carved from a walrus tusk. (Werner Forman/Werner Forman/Corbis)

There may also be more history to unearth before researchers can blend that science with the trove of indigenous knowledge. For at least 2,000 years, people have relied on walrus for food for themselves and their dogs, Hill says. Her research also shows that native communities have long built their villages near haul-out sites that have remained in the same areas for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. But while hauling out on land appears to be normal behavior for walruses, it’s the staggering size of recent gatherings that is cause for concern. This new behavior suggests that the places walruses gather are limited. With less sea ice for walruses to rest on, Hill suspects that the beaches are only going to become more overcrowded. “It’s not a matter of walruses going someplace else to haul out,’” she says, adding that walruses return repeatedly to the same haul-out locations for generations. “Because they have specific requirements for their [haul-out sites], they can’t just move elsewhere. There is no other place.”

Further scrutiny of the deep past offers insight into how, for many indigenous communities, animals are woven into the fabric of life. Early hunters used walrus bones, teeth, tusks, and skin, for instance, to fashion sled runners, ornaments, and sails. Scapulae became shovel blades, penis bones became harpoon sockets, intestines were stretched into skylights, and skulls formed the structural foundation of walls for homes. In Iñupiaq, a language spoken in northern Alaska, 15 words exist to describe a walrus’s position relative to a fishing boat, including samna, “that one on the southern side.” Walruses are also ingrained in Inuit religion. “There is an idea people still talk about today,” says archaeologist Sean Desjardins of McGill University in Montreal, “that the Northern Lights are actually spirits playing a ball game with a walrus head.” 

Merging these cultural tales with the stories that scientists piece together offers a chance to fully assess the walrus’s condition. Modern walrus research is wide-ranging geographically, but reaches back just 40 years, while indigenous hunters have longer-term knowledge that is more locally focused, says Jim MacCracken, a wildlife biologist with the USFWS in Anchorage. Together, these understandings build a fuller picture that goes beyond the usual story told to the public. “Environmental groups are quick to latch on to [dramatic stories of changing walrus behavior] and with 2014’s big haul outs, they were the ones pretty much making a big story out of it, telling people that walruses are in serious trouble and have no place to go but to shore,” MacCracken says. “These one- or two-minute reports on TV tend to sensationalize these events with ‘the world is coming to an end’ sorts of stuff. They can’t get into all the complexity of what’s going on there.”

Reaching across time and culture has other benefits, too. If studies show that walruses are in trouble, saving them is going to require that scientists and hunters listen to one another.  “Nobody likes it if you come in and say, ‘I studied your problem and here’s what you need to do,’” Huntington says. “Ultimately, if some kind of management action is needed, we need everyone working together.”

For his part, Kunuk continues to join the hunt each year. Today, he is also an established filmmaker who directed and produced the award-winning 2001 film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. Much of his work aims to preserve his culture in the midst of rapid change. In, “Aiviaq (Walrus Hunt),” an episode of the television series Nunavut (Our Land), Kunuk tells the fictional story of a priest who arrived in Igloolik in 1946. Through the eyes of this outsider, viewers watch weathered, red-cheeked Inuit drink steaming tea and discuss the wind before piling into a boat At the hunting site, some passengers cover their ears when a rifle fires. Soon, the hunters are chewing on raw meat as they slice through blubber, then bundle meat for igunaq. A more recent educational film called “Angirattut (Coming Home),” features an elder explaining the walrus hunt as it happens.

“When your son asks you how to butcher walrus, we have to know,” Kunuk says. “It’s part of our culture. It’s just our way, the way we live. It’s part of the routine. I hope it goes on forever.”

This article originally appeared under the headline "What Now, Walrus?"

Six Things to Do and Places to See Before Climate Change Swamps the Party

Smithsonian Magazine

If the polar bear fails to adapt to a world without ice, it may be doomed—or be forced to interbreed with brown bears. Photo courtesy of Flickr user adjacknow.

The conversation of climate change and its possible effects on our world and our future often hinges on millimeters of sea level rise and half degrees of temperature increase—little enough, perhaps, to make it all sound irrelevant if you’re already a skeptic, or by no means an emergency, anyway. Yet, little by little, ice is melting, storms are getting worse, deserts are expanding and islands are going under. In 2005, a hundred residents of Tegua, an island in the Torres group, turned off the lights, closed their doors and sailed away for good. It was reported as the first known instance when a modern community was abandoned to rising sea levels—though people have questioned what role global warming really had in the abandonment. Now, more islands, coastal cities, low-lying farmlands and wild wetlands are looking at a future growing grimmer by the year. Here are a few ideas of things to do and places to see before climate change swamps the party.

Walk on the beaches of Tuvalu. While standing on the sand and staring across the world of water that surrounds this Polynesian island group with roughly 10,000 people, climate change suddenly seems a force far beyond reckoning with—for predictions that the seas will rise by a full meter or more by 2100 plainly spell doom for a place like this, whose highest point stands no more than 15 feet above sea level. The island is already famous for its very inadequacy as a sustainable nation. There is not enough freshwater to drink, and there is virtually no economy. Now, sea level rise seems to be gnawing at Tuvalu’s wispy, sandy figure—and at its future. Although climate change doubters have accused islanders in Tuvalu of seeking economic gain by exploiting their predicament—and maybe even exaggerating it (islanders have threatened to sue nations of the developed world for reckless carbon emissions)—some scientists say that Tuvalu, and other islands like it, can count their days. Take a walk on this beach while you can. Other islands to visit while they’re above water might include Vanikoro, Kiribati and the Florida Keys.

Scientists predict that 75 percent of the world’s coral reefs, like this dying clump of coral on a reef in Cuba, are threatened by sea temperature rise and ocean acidification. Photo courtesy of World Resources.

Snorkel on a coral reef. Throughout the world’s tropical oceans, coral reefs are dying. Bleaching and diseases are destroying these rich sites of micro- and mega-organisms. Ocean acidification—caused by CO2 absorption into the sea and characterized by dropping pH levels—is also having severely deleterious effects on coral and could render some marine regions downright corrosive to certain materials by 2050. As of 2011, according to the environmental news source Grist, 75 percent of the earth’s coral reef environments were deemed to be threatened, while 20 percent were reported already dead—their busy, subsurface communities, occupying just 1 percent of the seafloor but home to 25 percent of marine species, gone silent. The timely correlation to rising global temperatures, plus the rapidity of the phenomenon, leaves little doubt that humans are at fault. Put on your masks and fins and jump in—soon.

Taste the fine wines of the Napa Valley before they turn to plonk. While midocean islanders might have to take to lifeboats as climate change unfurls, winemakers may also have consequences pending. In the Napa Valley, some bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon sell for more than $1,000—but a report in 2006 by Southern Oregon University climatologist Gregory Jones predicted that by the year 2050, this most esteemed of American winemaking areas could be too hot to grow premium wine grapes. Jones has said that just a 2 degree Celsius increase by 2050 could place the Napa Valley at the “upper limit of its capability.” But Jones recently told this reporter during a phone interview that the distinction between a fine wine and a mediocre wine is a nuance only detectable by, perhaps, 25 percent of wine drinkers.

Fine wines—like inky, opulent Cabs that can cost $1,000 for a newly released bottle—may lose value as global warming bakes the Napa Valley of California. Photo courtesy of Flickr user naotakem.

See a polar bear. The intrigue and mystique of the polar bear, to say nothing of its camouflaging properties, are so embedded in a world of floating ice that we may wonder just how this greatest of carnivores could live anywhere else. In fact, it may not be able to. While the polar bear is no stranger to munching berries and shoreline grasses, such bruins always take to the ice again at first freeze to resume the blubber hunt. But the ocean’s northerly ice cap, year by year and acre by acre, is disappearing. This summer, for instance, the Arctic sea ice shrank to less than half of its what it was 40 years ago. For the polar bear, extinction is the worst possible, and perhaps likely, outcome—while speciation is another. This could leave the earth without the polar bear but create a new one—a hybrid between Ursus maritimus and its close cousin, U. arctos, the brown bear. Already, the two have been observed mating and producing fertile offspring in the wild. This may be great news. Nonetheless, you may want to go see a wild polar bear while you can—before the great white bear turns brown.

Hike through the woods in the Everglades. The Everglades is among the world’s wild areas most threatened by climate change. A three-foot increase in sea level will flood much of this forested wetland, stealing precious habitat from the indigenous cougar subspecies, the Florida panther, and the local black bear. What’s more, millions of Floridians are looking at serious consequences of climate change. The entire coast is considered extremely vulnerable to the expected sea level rise, which may be accompanied by inundating storm surges during hurricanes.  Florida’s highest point is only 345 feet above sea level, and about 10 percent of its coastal zone could be swamped by seawater by 2100.

Kayak the streets of Venice. The future of Venice is nothing but a watery one—though it’s unclear whether the city will prosper or just go under. In 2009, residents held a mass mock funeral for their town when the declining population hit a benchmark low of 60,000. And while an expensive sea wall could save this city, already a gray urban swamp teeming with gondolas and aquatic taxis, some people—call them curmudgeons or realists—are talking about abandoning it. Exacerbating matters is the fact that Venice is sinking and has been for centuries. Four hundred years ago, occasional high tides washed into the streets. By 1900, high waters were washing over St. Mark’s Square at least a half dozen times annually. In 1996, the city flooded 99 times. Today, monuments and buildings are considered threatened by saltwater intrusion, many first floors have been vacated and thriving tourism on the order of 20 million visitors per year seems to be replacing the resident community itself. But it all spells good times for kayak rental companies—and this is at least one vacation you have plenty of time to take. Other cities that could be swallowed by the sea include New York City, Houston, Bangkok and New Orleans.

Sea kayaking in Venice is one vacation idea that you’ll have plenty of time to realize. As waters rise, this city is simultaneously sinking. Photo courtesy of Flickr user ECV-OnTheRoad.

The Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower. Twice.

Smithsonian Magazine

The air was as crisp as a hundred dollar bill, on April 27, 1936. A southwesterly breeze filled the bright white sails of the pleasure boats sailing across the San Francisco Bay. Through the cabin window of a ferryboat, a man studied the horizon. His tired eyes were hooded, his dark hair swept backwards, his hands and feet locked in iron chains. Behind a curtain of grey mist, he caught his first dreadful glimpse of Alcatraz Island.

“Count” Victor Lustig, 46 years old at the time, was America’s most dangerous con man. In a lengthy criminal career, his sleight-of-hand tricks and get-rich-quick schemes had rocked Jazz-Era America and the rest of the world. In Paris, he had sold the Eiffel Tower in an audacious confidence game—not once, but twice. Finally, in 1935, Lustig was captured after masterminding a counterfeit banknote operation so vast that it threatened to shake confidence in the American economy. A judge in New York sentenced him to 20 years on Alcatraz.

Lustig was unlike any other inmate to arrive on the Rock. He dressed like a matinee idol, possessed a hypnotic charm, spoke five languages fluently and evaded the law like a figure from fiction. In fact, the Milwaukee Journal described him as ‘a story book character’. One Secret Service agent wrote that Lustig was “as elusive as a puff of cigarette smoke and as charming as a young girl’s dream,” while the New York Times editorialized: “He was not the hand-kissing type of bogus Count—too keen for that. Instead of theatrical, he was always the reserved, dignified noble man.”

The fake title was just the tip of Lustig’s deceptions. He used 47 aliases and carried dozens of fake passports. He created a web of lies so thick that even today his true identity remains shrouded in mystery. On his Alcatraz paperwork, prison officials called him “Robert V. Miller,” which was just another of his pseudonyms. The con man had always claimed to hail from a long line of aristocrats who owned European castles, yet newly discovered documents reveal more humble beginnings. 

In prison interviews, he told investigators that he was born in the Austria-Hungarian town of Hostinné on January 4, 1890. The village is arranged around a Baroque clock tower in the shadow of the Krkonoše mountains (it is now a part of the Czech Republic). During his crime spree, Lustig had boasted that his father, Ludwig, was the burgomaster, or mayor, of the town. But in recently uncovered prison papers, he describes his father and mother as the “poorest peasant people” who raised him in a grim house made from stone. Lustig claimed he stole to survive, but only from the greedy and dishonest.

More textured accounts of Lustig’s childhood can be found in various true crime magazines of the time, informed by his criminal associates and investigators. In the early 1900s, as a teenager, Lustig scampered up the criminal ladder, progressing from panhandler to pickpocket, to burglar, to street hustler. According to True Detective Mysteries magazine he perfected every card trick known: “palming, slipping cards from the deck, dealing from the bottom,” and by the time he reached adulthood, Lustig could make a deck of cards “do everything but talk.”

The FBI fingerprint file for Lustig (Courtesy of Jeff Maysh)

First-class passengers aboard transatlantic ships became his first victims. The newly rich were easy pickings. When Lustig arrived in the United States at the end of World War I, the “Roaring Twenties” were in full swing and money was changing hands at a fevered pace. Lustig quickly became known to detectives in 40 American cities as ‘the Scarred,’ thanks to a livid, two-and-a-half inch gash along his left cheekbone, a souvenir from a love rival in Paris. Yet Lustig was a considered a “smoothie” who had never held a gun, and enjoyed mounting butterflies. Records show that he was just five-foot-seven-inches tall and weighed 140 pounds.

His most successful scam was the “Rumanian money box.” It was a small box fashioned from cedar wood, with complicated rollers and brass dials. Lustig claimed the contraption could copy banknotes using “Radium.” The big show he gave to victims was sometimes aided by a sidekick named “Dapper” Dan Collins, described by the New York Times as a former ‘circus lion tamer and death-defying bicycle rider.’ Lustig’s repertoire also included fake horse race schemes, feigned seizures during business meetings, and bogus real estate investments. These capers made him a public enemy and a millionaire.

A counterfeit $5 banknote that it is believed to be created by Lustig and Watts. (Courtesy of Jeff Maysh)

America in the 1920s was infested with such confidence rackets, operated by smooth-talking immigrants like Charles Ponzi, namesake of the “Ponzi scheme.” These European con artists were professionals who called their victims ‘marks’ instead of suckers, and who acted not like thugs, but gentlemen. According to the crime magazine True Detective, Lustig was a man who “society took by one hand, the underworld by the other…a flesh-and-blood Jekyll-Hyde.” Yet he treated all women with respect. On November 3, 1919, he married a pretty Kansan named Roberta Noret. A memoir by Lustig’s late daughter recalls how Lustig raised a secret family on whom he lavished his ill-gotten gains. The rest he spent on gambling, and on his lover, Billie Mae Scheible, the buxom owner of a million-dollar prostitution racket.

Then, in 1925, he embarked upon what swindling experts call “the big store.”

Lustig arrived in Paris in May of that year, according to the memoir of U.S. Secret Service agent James Johnson. There, Lustig commissioned stationary carrying the official French government seal. Next, he presented himself at the front desk of the Hôtel de Crillon, a stone palace on the Place de la Concorde. From there, pretending to be a French government official, Lustig wrote to the top people in the French scrap metal industry, inviting them to the hotel for a meeting.

“Because of engineering faults, costly repairs, and political problems I cannot discuss, the tearing down of the Eiffel Tower has become mandatory,” he reportedly told them in a quiet hotel room. The tower would be sold to the highest bidder, he announced. His audience was captivated, and their bids flowed in. It was a scam Lustig pulled off more than once, sources said. Amazingly, the con man liked to boast of his criminal achievements, and even penned a list of rules for would-be swindlers. They’re still circulated today:



1. Be a patient listener (it is this, not fast talking, that gets a con-man his coups).

2. Never look bored.

3. Wait for the other person to reveal any political opinions, then agree with them.

4. Let the other person reveal religious views, then have the same ones.

5. Hint at sex talk, but don’t follow it up unless the other fellow shows a strong interest.

6. Never discuss illness, unless some special concern is shown.

7. Never pry into a person’s personal circumstances (they’ll tell you all eventually).

8. Never boast. Just let your importance be quietly obvious.

9. Never be untidy.

10. Never get drunk.


Like many career criminals, it was greed that led to Lustig’s demise. On December 11, 1928, businessman Thomas Kearns invited Lustig to his Massachusetts home to discuss an investment. Lustig crept upstairs and stole $16,000 from a drawer. Such a barefaced theft was out of character for the con man, and Kearns screamed to the police. Next, Lustig had the audacity to trick a Texas sheriff with his moneybox, and later gave him counterfeit cash, which attracted the attention of the Secret Service. “Victor Lustig was [a] top man in the modern world of crime” wrote another agent called Frank Seckler, “He was the only one I ever heard of who swindled the law.”

Yet it was Secret Service agent Peter A. Rubano who vowed to put Lustig behind bars. Rubano was a heavy-set Italian-American with a double chin, sad eyes, and endless ambition. Born and raised in the Bronx, Rubano had made his name by trapping the notorious gangster Ignazio “The Wolf” Lupo. Rubano delighted in seeing his name in the newspapers, and he would dedicate many years to catching Lustig. When the Austrian entered the counterfeit banknote business in 1930, Lustig fell under Rubano’s crosshairs.

Teaming up with gangland forger William Watts, Lustig created banknotes so flawless they fooled even bank tellers. “Lustig-Watts notes were the supernotes of the era,” says Joseph Boling, chief judge of the American Numismatic Association, a specialist in authenticating notes. Lustig daringly chose to copy $100 bills, those scrutinized most by bank tellers, and became “like some other government, issuing money in rivalry with the United States Treasury,” a judge later commented.  It was feared that a run of fake bills this large could wobble international confidence in the dollar.

Catching the count became a cat-and-mouse game for Rubano and the Secret Service. Lustig traveled with a trunk of disguises and could transform easily into a rabbi, a priest, a bellhop or a porter. Dressed like a baggage man, he could escape any hotel in a pinch—and even take his luggage with him. But the net was closing in.

The "Count" (at right) leaves for Alcatraz (Courtesy of Jeff Maysh)

Lustig finally felt a tug on the velvet-collar of his Chesterfield coat on a New York street corner on May 10, 1935. A voice ordered: “Hands in the air”. Lustig studied the circle of men surrounding him, and noticed Agent Rubano, who led him away in handcuffs. It was a victory for the Secret Service. But not for long.

On the Sunday before Labor Day, September 1, 1935, Lustig escaped from the ‘inescapable’ Federal Detention Center in Manhattan. He fashioned a rope from bed sheets, cut through his bars, and swung from the window like an urban Tarzan. When a group of onlookers stopped and pointed, the prisoner took a rag from his pocket and pretended to be a window cleaner. Landing on his feet, Lustig gave his audience a polite bow, and then sprinted away ‘like a deer.’ Police dashed to his cell. They discovered a handwritten note on his pillow, an extract from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables:

He allowed himself to be led in a promise; Jean Valjean had his promise. Even to a convict, especially to a convict. It may give the convict confidence and guide him on the right path. Law was not made by God and Man can be wrong.

Lustig evaded the law until the Saturday night of September 28, 1935. In Pittsburgh, the dashing crook ducked into a waiting car on the city’s north side. Watching from a hiding position, FBI agent G. K. Firestone gave the signal to Pittsburgh Secret Service agent Fred Gruber. The two federal officers leapt into their car and gave chase.

For nine blocks their vehicles rode neck-and-neck, engines roaring. When Lustig’s driver refused to stop, the agents rammed their car into his, locking their wheels together. Sparks flew. The cars crashed to a halt. The agents pulled their service weapons and threw open the doors. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Lustig told his captors:

“Well, boys, here I am.”

Count Victor Lustig was hauled before the judge in New York in November 1935. “His pale, lean face was a study and his tapering white hands rested on the bar before the bench,” observed a reporter from the New York Herald-Tribune. Just before sentencing, another journalist overheard a Secret Service agent tell Lustig:

“Count, you’re the smoothest con man that ever lived.”

Lustig's death certificate (Courtesy of Jeff Maysh)

As soon as he stepped onto Alcatraz Island, prison guards searched Lustig’s body for concealed watch springs and razor blades and hosed him down with freezing seawater. They marched him along the main corridor between the cells—known as ‘Broadway’—in his birthday suit. There was a chorus of howls, whistles, and the clanging of metal cups against bars. “He is somewhat superficially humiliated,” Lustig’s prison record said, referring to him as ‘Miller’, “he asserts that he was accused of everything in the category of crime, including the burning of Chicago.”

Whatever his true identity, the cold weather took its toll on prisoner #300. By December 7, 1946, Lustig had made a staggering 1,192 medical requests and filled 507 prescriptions. The prison guards believed he was faking, that his illness was part of an escape plan. They even found torn bed sheets in his cell, signs of his expert rope making. According to medical reports, Lustig was “inclined to magnify physical complaints... [and] constantly complaining of real and imaginary ills.” He was transferred to a secure medical facility in Springfield, Missouri, where doctors soon realized he was not faking. There, he died from complications arising from pneumonia.

Somehow, Lustig’s family kept his death a secret for two years, until August 31, 1949. But Lustig’s Houdini-like departure from earth was not even his greatest deception. In March of 2015, a historian named Tomáš Anděl, from Lustig’s home town of Hostinné, began a tireless search for biographical information about the town’s most famous citizen. He searched through records rescued from Nazi bonfires, pored over electoral rolls and historical documents. “He must have attended school in Hostinné,” Anděl reasoned in the Hostinné Bulletin, “yet he is not even mentioned in the list of pupils attending the local primary school.” After much searching, Anděl concluded, there is not a scrap of evidence that Lustig was ever born.

We may never know the true identity of Count Victor Lustig. But we do know for certain that the world’s most flamboyant con man died at 8:30pm on March 11, 1947. On his death certificate a clerk wrote this for his occupation:

‘Apprentice salesman.’

Adapted from ‘Handsome Devil’ by Jeff Maysh

Scientists Capture Rare Photographs of Red Lightning

Smithsonian Magazine

Sprites over Red Willow County, Nebraska, on August 12, 2013. Image courtesy of Jason Ahrns via Flickr.

Jason Ahrns, a graduate student at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, and other scientists from the U.S. Air Force Academy and Fort Lewis College—all part of a project sponsored by the National Science Foundation—have been on a mission. This summer, the group has taken to the skies in the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s Gulfstream V research aircraft, logging a total of 30 hours over multiple flights, in search of sprites.

Sprites, also known as red lightning, are electrical discharges that appear as bursts of red light above clouds during thunderstorms.Because the weather phenomenon is so fleeting (sprites flash for just milliseconds) and for the most part not visible from the ground, they are difficult to observe and even more difficult to photograph, rather like the mischievous air spirits of the fantasy realm that they’re named for. Ahrns and his colleagues, however, have captured extremely rare photographs of the red lightning, using DSLR cameras and high speed video cameras positioned in the plane’s window. The researchers hope to learn more about the physical and chemical processes that give rise to sprites and other forms of upper atmospheric lightning.

What’s it like to capture images of some of nature’s most short-lived and erratic features? I questioned Ahrns over email, and he explained what sprites are, why they occur, how scientists find them and why he’s so interested in the elusive phenomena.

First of all, what is a sprite? 

A sprite is a kind of upper atmosphere electrical discharge associated with thunderstorms. A large electric field, generated by some lightning strokes, ionizes the air high above the cloud, which then emits the light we see in the pictures. They obviously beg comparison to the regular lightning bolts we see all the time, but I like to point out that the sprites are much higher, with the tops reaching up to around 100 kilometers, and higher. A lightning bolt might stretch around 10 kilometers from the cloud to the ground, but a sprite can reach 50 kilometers tall.

A “jellyfish” sprite captured over Republic County, Kansas, on August 3, 2013. Image courtesy of Jason Ahrns via Flickr.

Under what conditions do they occur?

They’re associated with positive lightning strokes, which is when the cloud has a buildup of positive charge and releases a bolt of lightning. Negative strokes, from a buildup of negative charge, are about 10 times more common, so sprites aren’t strongly associated with the most common kind of lightning, but it’s not really that uncommon either. More than just a positive stroke, the more charge that was moved during the stroke, the better the chances for a sprite. So we look for a large positive charge-moment-change, which is basically the positive strokes weighted by how much charge was moved. Most large thunderstorms seem to produce the conditions that lead to sprites, but some more than others. We just look for a storm with a history of lots of large positive charge-moment-change and go look at it.

What’s your scientific background? And how did you get interested in sprites?

I’m primarily an aurora researcher, that’s what I’m doing my thesis on at UAF. I got involved in sprites because one of my graduate committee members is organizing these campaigns and needed some extra help. I thought sprites were fascinating, and my advisor was supportive of me branching out a bit, so I hopped aboard the team.

Sprites over Red Willow County, Nebraska, on August 12, 2013. Image courtesy of Jason Ahrns via Flickr.

From what I understand, not much is known about red lightning, discovered just 25 years or so ago. With the NSF project, what are you and the other scientists hoping to learn? What are the biggest questions you have?

With this campaign we’re focusing on three questions. First, what basic physical and chemical processes are occurring? It’s still not clear what exactly is happening in a sprite, and why there are different kinds of sprites, and what conditions give you a column sprite vs. a carrot sprite, for example. (All the sprite names just refer to their shape.) Next, do sprites have a large scale impact on the middle atmosphere? Sprites clearly represent some kind of transfer of energy, but is it on a scale that has a significant effect on the weather and climate? We can’t answer that without studying them. And, then, what can we learn about basic streamer physics? The tendrils coming off the bottom of the sprites are ‘streamers’—little balls of ionization—moving about. Streamer speed and lifetime is related to air density, so studying sprites in the very low density upper atmosphere is like looking at streamers with a magnifying glass in slow motion, though they’re still quite fast!

How many sprite-hunting missions have you been on?

Personally, this is my second aerial campaign. The first, in 2011, flew a total of 40 airborne hours, and this campaign did another 30 hours. It’s probably around 15ish total flights. The same crew, minus me, did one other aerial campaign in 2009.

Ahrns captured these blue jets, which look like flames from a butane lighter, over Republic County, Kansas, on August 3, 2013. Unlike sprites, blue jets aren’t directly triggered by lightning, but seem to be somehow related to the presence of hail storms. Image courtesy of Jason Ahrns via Flickr.

What conditions, times of the day, areas of the country and altitudes are ideal for these flights?

The midwest is productive, mostly because it gets these powerful thunderstorms that last all night. Obviously, we need it to be dark, but other than that the time of night doesn’t seem to matter much, only how strong the storm is and how much powerful positive lightning it’s producing. We do notice that when the storm is going good it produces the column sprites and carrot sprites, but as it dies off it seems to switch over to less frequent, but bigger and brighter, jellyfish sprites. We fly as high as we can get, usually between 41,000 and 45,000 feet, but that’s simply to get a view over the clouds. We’re still below the sprites.

The lightning lasts just milliseconds, so I’m especially curious about how you photograph it. What equipment do you use?

For the still photographs, I just set my camera (a Nikon D7000 and a fast lens) facing out the window and set an intervalometer so the camera just constantly snaps pictures. Then I go through later and delete everything that doesn’t have a sprite in it. It’s the same principle as lightning photography; it seems like you’d have to get the timing just right but it’s really just statistical, if you snap a bunch of pictures one of them is going to get something sooner or later. I probably snap on the order of 1,000 pictures for every sprite I come away with.

For the high speed video cameras, the camera has a buffer that constantly cycles through the previous however many frames of video, and when I see a sprite I hit a trigger that tells the camera to stop and save whatever it just recorded. When we’re running at 10,000 frames per second, the buffer fills up in about a second, so that’s how long I have to recognize a sprite and hit the button. This can be pretty taxing on a slow night when you have to watch nothing happen for 45 minutes straight and still be ready with that less than one second reaction time.

Can you describe the setup? How do you actually take photographs from the plane window?

A picture is worth a thousand words, right?

Ahrns’s setup near the plane’s window. Image courtesy of Jason Ahrns via Flickr.

And for the high speed video…

His setup for capturing high speed video. Image courtesy of Jason Ahrns via Flickr.

We have an internet connection aboard the plane so we can watch weather conditions in real time. We just point the above cameras at the most productive looking part of the storm and wait for sprites.

How rare are photos like these that you have taken?

As far as I can tell, they’re pretty rare. There are some sprite images taken with meteor cameras and webcams out there, but they’re usually low resolution due to being very far away and using a wide angle lens. I’ve seen two or three sprite images taken with a DSLR, but they’re still from the ground and a good distance away, and usually shots of something else that got lucky with a sprite in the background. I have the advantage of being up in the air, close to the sprite producing region, with a good guess of where the sprites will appear, so I can use a lens with a narrower field of view to capture the sprite up close.

As for the images I got of blue jets, as far as I can tell they’re actually the first images of jets taken with a DSLR. That makes some sense, because the jets are a lot closer to the top of the clouds than sprites so much harder to see from the ground. Being in the air is a major advantage.

Taken over Red Willow County, Nebraska, on August 12, 2013. Image courtesy of Jason Ahrns via Flickr.

What do you find artful about the images, if anything?

I think there’s a really otherwordly starkness about them. Take this one (above), for example. You’ve got this nice serene starfield, and some cool, calming blue light coming up from the lightning below. Then BLAM! This weird, menacing, totally alien looking sprite just takes over the whole scene, like ‘I’m here, what are you gonna do about it?’

Hans Nielsen, the principal investigator on the campaign (and my previously mentioned committee member), says this one (below) reminds him of the classic Dutch paintings, with its sepia tones and slight blurring from the atmospheric haze.

Taken over Canadian County, Oklahoma, on August 6, 2013. Image courtesy of Jason Ahrns via Flickr.

What have you learned thus far about sprites by participating in this project?

Personally? When I joined the 2011 campaign I knew nothing about sprites beyond the Wikipedia entry. I learn more every night of the campaigns, listening to the others talk about conditions beforehand, what we’re seeing during the flights and our ‘what we did right, what we did wrong’ discussions over post-flight beer. I’m still a newbie compared to the other guys, but I’m now at the point where I can field most general public questions about sprites and sprite hunting.

Where and when are you flying next?

Nothing is set in stone, but we’d really like to fly again next summer. Hopefully we can make that happen.

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