It's often said that necessity is the mother of invention, but it can be the father of invention too. Here’s the story of an innovative father whose solution to an everyday problem is still in use today.
On November 14th, 1961, David and Doris Wagner of Illinois welcomed Jane, their fourth child and first daughter, into the world. Feeling that their family was now complete, Doris soon began taking oral contraception.
The Food and Drug Administration had approved the first oral contraceptive pill only about two years before, in May 1960. Soon known simply as "the pill," it quickly gained popularity, taken by over 1 million women by 1963, most of whom were married.
The oral contraceptive promised a convenient and reliable form of birth control, but it also demanded a certain amount of attentiveness and discipline on the part of the user. When first developed, the pill was dispensed in a bottle of twenty—one pill each day for twenty days, five days off, and then the cycle began again.
Nevertheless, David Wagner explained to historian (and former National Museum of American History curator) Patricia Gossel, "there was a lot of room for error in whether 'the pill' was actually taken on a given day... I found that I was just as concerned as Doris was in whether she had taken her pill or not. I was constantly asking her whether she had taken 'the pill' and this led to some irritation and a marital row or two."
The couple eventually developed a system of laying the pills out on a makeshift paper calendar on the bedroom dresser, which worked well enough for a time. "This did wonders for our relationship," Wagner stated. "It lasted for about two or three weeks until something fell and scattered the pills and the paper all over the floor."
Realizing that the system necessitated a kind of carrying case to be truly efficient, Wagner began sketching ideas.
His background in engineering helped him to build a prototype dispenser using just "a ¼' drill, a fly cutter to be used in the drill, paper, a saw, a staple, pencil, double-faced transparent tape, several drill bits, a snap fastener that [he] took off a child's toy, and several flat, clear sheets of either acrylic or polycarbonate plastic." In choosing a shape, he made the case "indistinguishable from a lady's cosmetic 'compact' and adapted to be carried among the personal effects of a lady in a purse without giving a visible clew [sic] as to matters which are no concerns of others." His prototype is recognizable as the father of the still familiar compact-shaped dial packs for oral contraceptives.
David received a patent for his invention on August 4, 1964. Nearly every American pharmaceutical company who brought a birth control pill to the market in the 1960s employed some adaptation of his design. Though other forms of packaging have since joined the market, the compact-style dial pack remains a common sight in medicine cabinets (and purses) throughout the country.
Come see the pill pack prototype in person! It's on display in the exhibition case The Early Sixties: American Science through August 2015.Can’t make it to the museum? Enjoy our digitized collection of historic birth control. Diane Wendt is a curator of pharmacy and public health in the Division of Medicine and Science. Mallory Warner is a curatorial assistant in the Division of Medicine and Science.
April Fool's! It is not Yo-yo Heritage Month, so we unfortunately will not be sharing yo-yo facts all month. But we do have a few for you today!
The origins of toys like yo-yos are said to stretch way back to ancient Greece or China, but it is believed that the yo-yo we know today comes from the Philippines, where "yo-yo" means "come come" in one of the local languages. The popularity of the toy in America began growing in the 1920s, when a Filipino bellhop at a Southern California hotel, Pedro Flores, attracted attention with his yo-yo tricks on his breaks. Seeing an opportunity, Flores began manufacturing the toys, and was soon bought out by entrepreneur Donald F. Duncan, who began a wildly popular marketing campaign for yo-yos.
Our yo-yo collections span the decades. Here are a few of my favorites:
This "Musical Ka-Yo" was made in the early 1930s by the Caro Manufacturing Company. "Musical" comes from the holes in the side that cause the steel yo-yo to whistle as it travels up and down. "Ka-Yo" comes from the Cayo Company avoiding the term "yo-yo," which had been trademarked by the Duncan toy company.
Yo-yos and pop culture often go hand-in-hand. This Round Up King yo-yo from the 1950s features cowboy actor Roy Rogers and his horse Trigger. The yo-yo was made by Nebraska's All Western Plastics. The yo-yo's packaging (not pictured) reads: "It's smooth and fast, it's inside walls are slick as glass, no rough wood to catch the string, does all the tricks…it's Roundup King."
For those with memories of the Happy Meal toy and/or appreciation for anything food shaped: The McDonald's Hamburger Yo-Yo of the 1980s.
Yo-yos aren't all fun and games. This yo-yo, manufactured by the Hummingbird Toy Company in about 1990-1991, commemorates Operation Desert Storm, Saudi Arabia. For every one bought in the U.S., one was sent to a serviceman overseas.
Competitors and record-setters take their yo-yos seriously. Trick yo-yos are specially made to perform all the maneuvers you might have tried to master as a kid: "walk the dog," "rock the cradle," "loop the loop." This yo-yo was made by Mega SpinFaktor in 2001, to help yo-yo master Rick Wyatt set a world "sleep" record. "Sleep" is when a yo-yo spins at the end of the line. Wyatt successfully set a new record with this yo-yo in 2001, with 13 minutes and 5 seconds of sleep.
Here's a yo-yo that we here at the museum get excited about! This colorful wooden specimen was made by What's Next Manufacturing Inc in 1995 as part of the BC yo-yo line. It bears a golden Smithsonian Institution sunburst logo.
Take a minute to explore our yo-yo collections online. Which one is your favorite?
Julia Falkowski is an intern in the New Media Department of the National Museum of American History. She has also blogged about hearing historic voices on fragile recordings.
It was a cold January afternoon 150 years ago this week. Joseph Henry, the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, was working in his office on the second floor of the building commonly known as the "Castle." He was interrupted by a loud crackling sound from above and, looking up, quickly realized that the building was on fire. The blaze was the result of a stove that had been incorrectly installed in the Picture Gallery on the second floor. When it was all over, the damages to the Castle and its collections amounted to what The New York Times called a "national calamity."
But not all was lost, of course. Today, objects and equipment that survived, and artifacts collected as a direct result of the fire, are housed throughout many of the museums here at the Smithsonian, where we still do our best to guard against fire, flood, and even earthquake. The National Museum of American History holds a number of objects that speak to the legacy of that tragic day as well as the resilience of the Institution.
This telegraph sounder was manufactured by Charles T. and John N. Chester of New York City, a firm that began making batteries and telegraphic equipment in 1855. The sounder is thought to have belonged to Joseph Henry as part of his experimental equipment while he served as Secretary of the Smithsonian. As such, it may well have been housed in the Castle building, where Henry both worked and lived, along with his family. Indeed, Henry's pioneering work in electricity and electromagnetism in the 1830s was instrumental in the invention and development of the telegraph, as well as the electric motor and the telephone.
When it came to telegraphy, however, Joseph Henry was not only concerned with scientific theory. He was also a leading force behind the development of modern meteorology, and as Secretary, he created a network of over 600 volunteer weather observers through Central and North America who would send data to the Institution regarding local conditions. Their timely information was transmitted to Henry by—you guessed it—telegraph.
This beautiful and detailed engraving, a version of the biblical scene of the adoration of the Magi by Hendrik Goltzius, dates to 1594. It came to the Smithsonian when the Institution purchased a large collection of fine art prints and books in 1849 from George Perkins Marsh, an American congressman, linguist, and diplomat who also served as a member of the Smithsonian's Board of Regents. The engravings, numbering around 1,300 in total, constituted the first collection purchased by the nascent Institution and the first public print collection in the nation's history.
In 1865, the print collection was held in the library, which was housed in the West Wing of the Castle, an area that was fortunately spared from damage by the fire, which was concentrated in the center of the building. Later that year, with the fire in mind, Secretary Henry deposited the Smithsonian's library, along with portions of the Marsh collection, with the Library of Congress. Today, some books and prints from this pioneering Smithsonian collection are still held at the Library of Congress, as well as by the National Museum of American History.
Just six years before the fire, Joseph R. Priestley, grandson of the chemist Joseph Priestley, donated his famous grandfather's burning lens and condensing air pump to the Smithsonian Institution. Secretary Henry, who was against the idea of the Smithsonian Institution becoming a national museum, nevertheless presented the objects to the Smithsonian Board of Regents as precious scientific relics. He described the lens as, "undoubtedly connected with the history of one of the most important chemical discoveries of the latter part of the last century," referring to its use in the discovery of the gas oxygen. Sadly, as the apparatus room of the Castle went up in flames, so did Priestley's lens and air pump.
Priestley, however, would once again find his place at the Smithsonian in 1883. After hearing of the death of a Priestley descendant, Secretary Spencer Baird (Henry's successor) wrote to the surviving family members inquiring about the potential to donate more Priestley relics. The Smithsonian, he was careful to note, had recently completed the construction of a "thoroughly fireproof building" (today known as the Arts and Industries building) where the new donation could be stored.
Perhaps convinced that these objects wouldn't also meet a fiery fate, the family agreed to the gift. Today, the gift, comprising more than 20 pieces of glassware and scientific instruments, remains an important part of the museum's Chemistry and Electricity collections.
Timothy Winkle is an associate curator in the Division of Home and Community Life. Mallory Warner is a project assistant in the Division of Medicine and Science. The Smithsonian Institution Archives has more about the January 24, 1865, fire on their blog and in historic correspondence.
Curator Dr. Katherine Ott invited students in Dr. Samuel J. Redman's Museum/Historic Site Interpretation Seminar to explore the museum's collections and write blog posts sharing their research.
On the surface, disability history and social networks such as Pinterest do not appear to have anything in common. One is a story of a fight for the passage of laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of disability. The other is a popular social media site that allows people to exchange information and ideas on everything from recipes, to crafts, and more.
However, the answer to the question is quite simple: Pins! Disability rights activists used pins for clothing (also called buttons or pin-backs) to convey quick, simple messages aimed at raising awareness for disability issues as well as trying to convince people to support the passage of the ADA.
As a person who grew up during the digital age, I have to confess that I thought pins were a thing of the past. It was not until my friend Chelsea showed me her backpack covered in buttons that I realized how wrong I was. When I asked her what was so special about buttons, she told me that the pins served multiple functions. For Chelsea, they are a way to "add personal flair to an accessory." She told me that many of her pins were gifts from friends and that "it always feels good to carry something with you that is both portable and has sentimental value." On the other hand, Chelsea also uses the pins to raise awareness for a number of issues, including her union, body positivity, gender politics, and reproductive rights. In this way, she uses them "to show solidarity with other activists in the community, or peers who might be struggling with these issues."
Chelsea showed me that despite the proliferation of digital pins, physical pins still have the power to spread messages while also serving as a neat collectible. The power of physical pins made me wonder just how long these pins have inspired similar feelings of activism and collecting. I found out that political pins have been used for hundreds of years. Commemorative garment pins were used for every presidential election or administration. The museum even has a clothing button souvenir from George Washington's inauguration!
In the 1820s, political candidates began to use buttons and other material objects specifically for campaigning purposes. In 1893, a Boston woman named Amanda Lougee invented a button where a textile surface was covered by a thin sheet of transparent celluloid (a material considered the first semi-synthetic plastic) with a fastener on the back. The Whitehead and Hoag Company from New Jersey acquired the patent to her design in 1896. According to Roger Fischer, author of the book Tippecanoe and Trinkets Too: The Material Culture of American Presidential Campaigns, 1828-1984, "no other innovation in the history of material culture in American politics ever gained acceptance so rapidly or on such a massive scale." Lougee's design is basically the same as modern-day buttons; the only real difference is the current use of paper rather than textile.
In the early 20th century, pins became easier and cheaper to manufacture, which facilitated their use by politicians and activists alike. Disability activists certainly used this easy method of increasing awareness. One interesting pin in the museum's collections is one that says "National Committee, 504, We are Watching" with a caricature of Ronald Reagan. The number "504" refers to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a predecessor to the American with Disabilities Act. The presidential administration of Ronald Reagan often sought to weaken the regulations of Section 504 and successfully eliminated disability benefits for nearly half a million people. Thus, this pin represents the views of a person who disapproved of the actions of Reagan and promised to continue watching the administration.
Physical pins have a long history in American culture; digital pins are much newer, but the digital version certainly has a significant place in current activism and communication. On Pinterest, users post virtual pins to boards based on a theme, such as Activism, Recipes, History, Places to Go, or Disability Pride. Though many users' pins focus on crafting or fashion, there are no limits to the themes. The Smithsonian actually has many boards that showcase museum collections, such as Critters in the Collection and Fashion Backward.
The pins also contain links to their original source (i.e. a website). Physical pins work the same way. Through short, pithy sayings, the pins entice people to ask a wearer about what the button refers to. It's the same thing as when Twitter users post short messages with a hashtag. If Twitter had existed during the fight to pass ADA, many activists might have used tweets containing #ADA or #SignTheBill, not only to draw awareness to their message but also to connect to the wider community of activists.
No matter what pins people wear on their clothes or on their social media pages, they ultimately are an expression of interests and causes, as well as membership in a wider community of people who share the same views. Anybody looking at my Pinterest page could immediately see that I am a graduate student from the Midwest/Upland South who loves pithy quotes, Christmas, and innovative home designs. Other people use Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook to convey their interests, often through the use of quick, catchy slogans, hashtags, or graphics—all of which could have been used on clothing pins in earlier times.
Today, buttons are still fairly cheap and proliferate at social activities, sporting events,and rallies. Of course, social media pins and tweets are even cheaper and quicker, but it seems that physical pins have quite a bit of staying power for not only spreading political messages but also as a neat collectible.
Rebecca Schmitt is a graduate student in the Public History Program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is also an avid social media user and has a Pinterest board dedicated to all things history, featuring pins of objects from the Smithsonian collections.
Happy 100th Birthday, Les Paul!
June 9, 2015, is an important day for the guitar and music world: It is the centennial of the birth of electric guitar icon and innovator, Les Paul, who was born in 1915 in Waukesha, Wisconsin. An American jazz, blues, and country guitarist and songwriter, Les Paul is remembered for his experiments with innovative recording techniques and with solid-body amplified guitars.
In a salute to one of the grandfathers of the unforgettable sound of the electric guitar, we are taking a moment today to look through the array of electric guitars in the museum’s collection. Did you know that we have over 90 acoustic and electric guitars and bass guitars in our musical instruments collection? Join us as we share five electric guitars from the collection, highlighting exciting moments in history that led to the electric guitar as we know it today.
The concept of an electric guitar, or a guitar amplified "by means of electricity," started in the era of big band jazz, early recordings, and radio broadcasting, around the 1920s and into the 1930s, all around the singular challenge of making the guitar louder.
There were many early inventions and experiments that explored this challenge but, as we know today, what truly won out was the solid body electric guitar. Les Paul is widely known for his first attempts at a solid body guitar, nicknamed "the Log," developed in the early 1940s.
The Slingerland Company based in Chicago introduced a solid-body electric guitar for commercial sale in 1939 in their company catalog. Seen above, the guitar echoes the traditional "Spanish-style" acoustic guitar shape adapted to a solid wooden body with a combination of magnets in its pickup to capture string vibrations. While Slingerland stopped producing electric instruments in the 1940s to focus on percussion instruments, this guitar is possibly the earliest solid-body electric guitar on record.
By the 1950s, the solid-body electric guitar had risen significantly in popularity, largely thanks to the jazz, blues, and country musicians who explored new sounds and ways to play with this electrified instrument. But what about the other stringed instruments in a band? In 1951, Leo Fender—whose company created the iconic Fender Telecaster and Stratocaster solid-body electric guitars—introduced the first electric bass that could be worn and played like a Spanish-style guitar.
The Precision Bass (or "P Bass" as it is usually known today) revolutionized the music world as it took the stand-up bass, an instrument that was difficult to transport, tune, and amplify, and simplified it down to the essentials. While there were already electrified versions of the upright bass, the ability to play the bass like a guitar was groundbreaking and its amplified voice became a musical sensation.
With the arrival of the 1960s, the cultural revolution of rock and roll was in full swing. Guitarists were less and less interested in the clean sounds that earlier musicians had sought to achieve and instead began experimenting with ways to create a more unique electric guitar voice that suited their own particular music and sound.
This Danelectro Silvertone acoustic-electric guitar belonged to Jesse Fuller (1896-1976) who purchased it from a Sears store in Detroit when his original guitar was stolen and he needed an instrument for a gig later that evening. A blues and folk music one-man-band, Fuller would play his guitar along with a harmonica, percussion and a foot-operated double-bass, which he built himself and dubbed "fotdella." Talk about unique sounds and innovations!
The search for even more volume with the rise of heavy metal music and the power chords, flashy solos, and raunchy sounds that defined rock and roll in the 1970s and 1980s led to changes in both the technology of the electric guitar and the aesthetic design.
In the 1970s, Eddie Van Halen began to experiment and push the limitations of his instruments, and ended up building his own electric guitar using the body of a Stratocaster and pieces and parts from other guitars. The end result was an instrument lovingly nicknamed by his fans as "Frankenstein," which he decorated with strips of colored tape.
As guitarists sought to establish increasingly personalized musical styles, the visual design of guitars began to blossom. Because solid-body electric guitars don't depend on the physical shape to produce sound (as compared to hollow-body acoustic guitars), musicians and manufacturers alike could experiment more with the design and shape of the instrument itself. For music genres from heavy metal, to psychedelic rock—the guitars themselves became identifiable "signatures" of those styles.
Musicians were equally focused not only on the sounds they could tease out and create with this instrument, but also with the look. One of the best examples of this is none other than Prince's Yellow Cloud—which he designed himself and adorned with his distinctive symbol along the fingerboard.
So, are you ready to become a guitar expert and to learn more about the electric guitar's invention, commercial success, and design? Now that we've sampled a little bit of each decade, take a moment and journey through The Invention of the Electric Guitar online exhibit by the museum's own Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. It's a fascinating story about the creative people, groundbreaking technology, and inventive American spirit that coalesced to create this iconic instrument.
Megan Salocks is a project assistant in the Office of Programs and Strategic Initiatives, where she focuses on jazz and food history. She recommends that you sign up for the museum's jazz newsletter to learn more.
Today, museum staff members are answering questions sent in to us through social media, particularly Twitter. Here are a few of our favorite questions and answers. We'll update this blog throughout the day on September 16, 2015. Have a questions? Check the schedule to find out who is answering questions at what time and send us a tweet.
Christy Wallover, Project Assistant in the Division of Armed Forces History: Before I worked in a museum or went to school for museum studies, I was a cultural resources management archaeologist for four years. I excavated sites ranging in time from the archaic period to the turn of the 20th century and anywhere from the Northeast Corridor to the Mid-West. During an excavation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, I was able to participate in a public program that connected the present community to artifacts that we recovered from excavations from around that area. We made exhibitions and were able to talk directly to the public. The experience changed the direction of my career—I was hooked on museum work.
Group answer from staff members on the 10-11 a.m. EDT shift: I haven't read the book but appreciate the recommendation, as someone who values things, joy, and a tidy life. Encouraging people to "discard" could encourage people to contact a museum or archive earlier than they would have, when more information is available. Also, knowledgeable collectors would definitely hold onto objects/papers of significance (or would ask a specialist, like a museum, to help them determine what is significant). And I think some people are collectors and will collect no matter what popular organizing trend is happening. Perhaps this trend toward minimalism means people will go out and see things vs. keep them? That might mean an attendnce boost for museums!
Hillery York, Collections Manager for the National Numismatic Collection: We have a selection of feathers from Quetzal birds that were once used as currency in Mayan Culture. This is how Fred ended up in our numismatics collection!
Patri O'Gan, Project Assistant in the Division of Armed Forces History: We have a fairly large collection of World War I sheet music. Patriotic music was very popular before and during the war. Our "Women in World War I" object group has a section on music that contains a lot of great info and links to collection objects. Music was also important during the Civil War. Our Archives Center has a collection of illustrated sheet music from both the Confederate and Union sides of the Civil War.
Favorite moment in a movie or TV show where a Museum was involved? #AskACurator— Erin Leitner (@erinleitner) September 16, 2015
Hillery York, Collections Manager for the National Numismatic Collection: When Parks and Recreation filmed a scene here in our America on the Move exhibition. The episode and related photos are hilarious.
Jennifer Gloede, Project Specialist, National Numismatic Collection: Obivously, "This belongs in a museum!!!" - Indiana Jones
Christy Wallover, Project Assistant in the Division of Armed Forces History: We have an extensive collection of Civil War Navy objects. For example, we have uniform articles that include a flat hat from a man stationed aboard the U.S.S. Kearsarge as well as a jumper that belonged to Charles Gillette Pratt, who enlisted on August, 29, 1864, and served aboard the U.S.S. Rhode Island. (Both of those objects will be in an online object group coming soon!). The collection also holds numerous objects from Admiral David G. Farragut. We have models of the U.S.S. Monitor and the C.S.S. Virginia.
Hillery York, Collections Manager for the National Numismatic Collection: These objects give us a detailed look at the intended designs for much of our nation's currency history. The value lies in comparing changes in design and spellings from the approved proof to what was actually circulated and printed!
Sage Xaxua Morgan-Hubbard, Youth Programs Coordinator: Museum professionals can support school teachers with professional development trainings such as our free Let's Do History and Teach it Forward workshops for educators on how best to use objects in their classrooms. We also have a twitter feed @explorehistory where we send daily tweets with resources from our vast collections and an incredible amount of lesson plans and activities listed on our website where teachers can find specific exercises, books, and links to specific topics/subject areas and search by resource type, grade level, historical era, and cross-curricular connections. For more information on commonly asked questions from educators please see our FAQ.
@amhistorymuseum did women serve in the armed forces?— Shivani B. (@sbhogaraju) September 16, 2015
Patri O'Gan, Project Assistant in the Division of Armed Forces History: Yes! Women have been serving with the Armed Forces for a long time! Army Nurse Corps was established in 1901. Navy Nurse Corps was established in 1908. June 1948 marked the passage of Women's Armed Services Integration Act, which helped establish women as permanent part of U.S. Armed Forces. Here are a few links you might enjoy from World War I and World War II.
World War I:
World War II:
@amhistorymuseum how do u decide what 2 collect?— Jeanne Benas (@arcsjbenas) September 16, 2015
Katherine Ott, Curator in the Division of Medicine and Science: It depends on how something relates to projects in the works, other objects in the collection, and can we respectfully care for it (size, materials, condition)
John Hasse, Curator of American Music: We seek to take the long view—500 years from now, what objects will endure and help tell the story of the American musical experience?
Patri O'Gan, Project Assistant in the Division of Armed Forces History: I would say it's definitely a very powerful way! Especially before photography became more widespread. See World War I American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) Art collection. My favorite is below. It's called "On the Wire."
Sage Xaxua Morgan-Hubbard, Youth Programs Coordinator: This is a great question. There are many ways to engage teens. Many of our exhibits are interactive by design so that teens can use touch screens or games to better understand the narrative of the exhibit. It also is helpful to use our self-guides and prepare the teens before they arrive here for the shows they are going to see. Teens like to be in charge of their own learning as much as possible, so challenge them to do research beforehand or a scavenger hunt competition that makes them dig deeper. You will be surprised by what the teens might enjoy and pay attention to. Each teen is different but our museum is so large, we have something for everyone!
Sage Xaxua Morgan-Hubbard, Youth Programs Coordinator: This depends, but our teens in our summer program this summer especially loved the DJ turntables in Places of Invention. They loved Muhammad Ali's boxing gloves in American Stories, interactive elements in American Enterprise and Object Project. Teens also say that they are "wowed" by the large objects such as the "El" train in America on the Move and Julia Child's Kitchen. There is also always a teen that is blown away by some of our military history objects because "they were really at war." But don't take my word for it. Come in yourself or browse our online collections and see what your teens are wowed by. I bet you will be surprised by what might catch their attention and impress them. I am always surprised by what objects particular teens are impressed by daily.
Katherine Ott, Curator in the Division of Medicine and Science: I try to keep on top of current practice and events, for sure. But it is very tricky to weigh the significance of an event for the long term and documentation. I wish knowledge of history was a better predictor.
John Hasse, Curator of American Music: We take the long view, and it usually takes some years to achieve the psychic and temporal distance to put developments into perspective. We use lots of judgment and discussions with our colleagues to determine what ought to be added to the National Collections.
Katherine Ott, Curator in the Division of Medicine and Science: Joseph Lister got that going in the 1860s. He noticed that dressing wounds with bandages soaked in carbolic acid dramatically reduced infections. Sterilizing instruments followed quickly after that.
@amhistorymuseum What is the earliest camera in your collection? Earliest photograph?— C Lundquist-Wentz (@Chels_Talks) September 16, 2015
Shannon Perich, Curator of Photographic History: The Morse Daguerreotype camera was made for the inventor and artist best known for his telegraph. While in Paris in 1839, visiting with Jacque Louis Mande Daguerre, he acquired a daguerreotype lens. There were no camera manufacturers yet, so the box of the camera was made by a furniture maker! The first U.S. patent issued for a camera is the Walcott camera, May 8, 1840. It was tiny and made one little daguerreotype at a time. It's about the same size as a smart phone like this one used by John Paul Caponigro. Think about the difference in the capacity and power!
Roger Sherman, Curator of the Modern Physics collection: What appeals to me about physics is that it is a never-ending search to find out how the world works, in the most fundamental sense. For many centuries, what we now know as physics was treated as part of philosophy and handled in a speculative way. Then, in the 17th century, the techniques of experiment and careful observation became popular, and physics took off. From then on, we have example after example of clever thinkers, individually or as members of teams, devising and implementing ingenious ways to answer specific questions about nature. As a museum curator, I am responsible for preserving and understanding the instruments, the gadgets, and the apparatus for asking nature these questions. The opportunity for examining, close up, these goodies can be a real thrill.
Shannon Perich, Curator of Photographic History: I'm not a conservator, but the most pungent identifier of nitrate is the smell. It often has vinegar syndrome. Nitratre film, ironically, usually has the word "safety" on it. If you think you have nitrate film, call a conservator!
@amhistorymuseum Shannon: What's the turning point where photography became more accessible to everyone, not just professionals?— Beth (@happiestmint) September 16, 2015
Shannon Perich, Curator of Photographic History: There isn't a single moment, but the most noted, and perhaps most deliberate was Kodak's 1888, "You push the button, we do the rest" moment when they separated the processing from the picture taking. But each new innovation seems to open the possibilities for more participation. Photography is patented in 1839, but it took until 1842 until there were good mass manufactured daguerreotype plates. That opened the doors for photographers because it was one less step they had to do. The Brownie camera in 1900 at $1, made cameras accessible because they were cheap! So there a lot of moments where entry into photography is made easier depending on your skill level, ambition and economics.
Roger Sherman, Curator of the Modern Physics collection: Not only are many everyday things radioactive, but to greater extent scientific artifacts embody radioactive materials. Modern Physics has its fair share of artifacts that embody radioactive materials, ranging from some samples representing the refining of radium, prepared early in the 20th century when that novel energy-emitting element was all the rage, up to a trowel with a uranium blade, made for President Eisenhower to lay the cornerstone for the Atomic Energy Commission's headquarters. (In what ought to take some prize for irony, the White House staff, worried about radiation danger, would not allow the President to use it!)
So, radioactivity in the collections is a real concern, and we take it seriously. I have been designated the museum's Radiation Safety Officer, and provided with a Geiger counter. From time to time colleagues call me in to check things, either new acquisitions, or artifacts they find in the collections. It is quite remarkable how many old watches, compasses, and gun sights turn out to have glow-in-the-dark radium paint on them. In almost every case, the radiation itself is not hazardous; what is important is to make sure the material cannot flake off and contaminate things or get on skin. I keep careful records of what is radioactive and to what degree and this is true acros the Smithsonian Institution.
Shannon Perich, Curator of Photographic History: There are so many great photographs out in the world! I look for a photograph or group of photographs that make about how individual lives or stories are connected to larger historical narrative. For example, I recently collected a group of snapshots from about 1910-1960. One photo might not tell me much, but the group of them say something larger about this particular tradition in the U.S. One of my favorites is one in which there is a Christmas tree, a Buddah, and a Menorah. Fine art is one aspect of the collection, as most people would expect, but we collect for the technology, art and history of photography. So, I've even collected a giant IRIS printer to document the history of digital photography.
@amhistorymuseum Working in photog, what do you think about the craze of instagram in museums - people taking pictures of pictures?— Balboa Park Online (@BPOC_SD) September 16, 2015
Shannon Perich, Curator of Photographic History: First let me say, the flash is bad for a lot of paper based art and especially textiles, so that's often where the no photography policy comes from and we all want to preserve museum objects. But, today, to take a picture of something is usually do it out of enthusiasm, appreciation, and desire to remember. Often, we use this kind of act of photography as memory making. But if you take a photograph, give credit to the artist and don't do anything with it that takes away from the artist's integrity and rights!
Roger Sherman, Curator of the Modern Physics collection: As most people know, only a small fraction of a museum's collection is on display at any one time, something like 5%. In the past, Modern Physics has had a number of exhibitions, the two most ambitious being Atom Smashers: 50 Years and Atomic Clocks. Both came down many years ago, and at present there is only one single small Modern Physics artifact on display here. It can be a little frustrating to be in charge of a collection filled with remarkable objects, and not be able to put them out for people to enjoy and learn from.
One practical consideration is that many Modern Physics objects are big and heavy. The liquid hydrogen bubble chamber from the Brookhaven National Laboratory is a huge mass of stainless steel and optical glass that weighs many tons and looks like a modern abstract sculpture. It was barely able to fit under the museum's high ceiling in Atom Smashers, and no doubt will not go on exhibit again for a long time.
Another piece from that exhibition appeals to me more, though: the Van de Graaff accelerator from the Carnegie Institution of Washington. It consists of a big aluminum ball on three legs, with a glass tube going up into it, looking very much like a prop from a 1930s science fiction movie. (Could the movie makers of those days have been inspired by it? I wouldn't be surprised.) It was constructed in the early 1930s and, despite its outlandish appearance, it was used for some very serious and important research that shed light on the forces between protons in atomic nuclei. It is so tall that it had to be installed in a special pit in the museum floor, with a staircase going down into it. When the time came to dismantle it, I had to identify, number, and tag every one of the hundreds of pieces that we dismantled it into. That was a huge project, but I like to think that some curator way in the future will be able to put the machine back together thanks to my efforts.
Shannon Perich, Curator of Photographic History: At the Smithsonian, there are over seven hundred (no, that's not a typo!) photography collections. Each will have a specific collecting plan, scope, and use. No doubt one of photography's chief attributes is its reproducibility, so there are photographs that exist in multiple collections. This museum has over twenty photography collections alone! The Photographic History Collection is the largest collection, though, with almost 250,000 images and pieces of apparatus.
Roger Sherman, Curator of the Modern Physics collection: Before World War I, physics in this country was a minor discipline that lacked prestige and did not attract much attention from the general public. At schools and universities, it was generally treated as an academic discipline whose chief value was to train minds in careful thinking and teach that the world is fundamentally an orderly place. Little emphasis was placed on research, and what research there was came from universities.
Industries at that time were far more interested in supporting research in chemistry, and the government provided little support. Nevertheless, the field was growing slowly.
Albert Michelson won the first American Nobel Prize in physics for his optical researches. Experiments by him and others to measure the speed of light attracted attention, and right around the turn of the century Nichols and Hull carried out an elaborate, carefully performed experiment that detected the pressure of light and confirmed James Clerk Maxwell's prediction of this extremely delicate effect. More and more, students with a serious interest in physics went to Germany for graduate work, and came back, building up a corps of young physicists whose accumulated expertise before long began training the next generation here. The result was that by the time of World War II, the nation had built up a highly competent, motivated generation of physicists whose exploits transformed the discipline and brought it to world prominence.
Dan Gifford, Manager, Museum Advisory Committees, and Project Historian: I guess my favorite is actually a whole bunch of stories—women's stories. One of things I find fascinating about the history of charities and giving in American history is the role of women. Women in the 1800s were incredibly active and successful fundraisers, running charitable organizations that often were basically large, complex businesses. And this gave women access to financial worlds, contracts, investments, bookkeeping, etc. –realms that supposedly were reserved just for men. So the history of charities is in part the history of women gaining access to that kind of power… and of course, ultimately demanding more.
Jon Grinspan, Jefferson Fellow, Division of Political History: Alcohol is inherently political, and has been from the start of the country. Some campaigners have used it to rile up voters, or as a cheap give-away to win friends, while others opposed alcohol, preached Temperance and Prohibition, and saw it as the root of all evils, from poverty to prostitution to domestic violence.
Most important, alcohol blurs the line between politics and culture, which is really what I'm most interested in. It makes it impossible to distinguish what parts of a campaign are about ideologies and personalities, and what parts are about getting drunk and hollering in the street.
@amhistorymuseum When was electricity considered a "necessary" part of building a home?— Todmorden Mills (@TodmordenMills) September 16, 2015
Harold Wallace, Curator in the Division of Work and Industry: That depends on who's doing the consideration. Building buyers began demanding electricity in the 1890s in urban areas. But building codes are set at the local and state level and they vary widely. Most codes began including electrical sections in the early 20th century and not all require a building to be electrified. Even today, people can build a recreational cabin, for example, and if they don't want electricity, they don't have to install it. Some interesting history here.
@amhistorymuseum Jon, another Q on where alcohol & politics intersect: What do you think about drinking games and debates/returns watching?— Leslie Poster (@leslieposter) September 16, 2015
Jon Grinspan, Jefferson Fellow, Division of Political History: There's a long history of drinking before, during, and after debates, not just in taverns but in the public square and even in Congress. Before amplification, when debates were held by two shouting men in a town square, the drinking often got out of hand and many spectators couldn't hear the candidates. We have records of all these debates, including the Lincoln-Douglas debates, but very often the audience just heard the drinking going on around them.
And in the Capitol, especially before the Civil War, congressmen often drank openly while their colleagues were speaking. Rachel Shelden wrote about it in her book on the social lives of congressmen before the Civil War.
As for me, I'm not much of a drinking-game guy. I don't like to have to wait for an excuse to pour myself another drink, especially when the debates get dull.
Monica Smith, Exhibition Program Manager, Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation: From an invention perspective, I'd say the construction is extremely interesting because it provides insights on the inventive process of the inventor making it. What problem were they trying to solve and why? Then how did they design the solution? Did they do sketches? Build prototypes? What materials did they test and end up selecting? How did they tinker and tweak their design? The 3D product is just the tip of the iceberg of a fascinating creative process!
Hey curators: if you weren't curating at your museum, what's your dream museum at which to curate? #AskACurator— Elissa Frankle (@museums365) September 16, 2015
Jon Grinspan, Jefferson Fellow, Division of Political History: P.T. Barnum's American Museum, in lower Manhattan, in the 1830s through 1860s. He put up something like 10,000 exhibits a year, and always kept his visitors guessing. He often went too far, but no one ever did more to define American museums, or popular culture. I'd like to get to watch a flimflam-artist like Barnum at work.
Erin Blasco is an education specialist in the New Media Department. She's facilitating the Q&A today and appreciates your questions.