July 10, 2012
Television penetrated the average American life with astonishing speed. At the end of World War II, just a half percent of U.S. households had a TV set; by 1962, that number had increased to 90 percent. But no matter how many TVs we bought and broadcasting stations we constructed, the reach of broadcast signals over long distances was still limited by a basic physical problem: the curvature of the earth.
“The TV signal, which is a radio wave signal, travels in straight lines,” says Martin Collins, a curator at the Air and Space Museum. “So if you’re having to overcome the curvature of the earth, signals can only go so far before they need to be picked up by an antenna and repeated.”
All this changed with the launch of a rocket in Cape Canaveral on July 10, 1962, exactly 50 years ago, today. The rocket carried the Telstar communications satellite, the first ever spacecraft that served to actively relay communications signals between distant points on earth. “In essence, it meant putting a relay station high up in orbit, instead of on the ground,” Collins says. ”From a technical perspective, the satellite was a nifty solution to a basic problem of physics.”
The spacecraft allowed broadcasting stations in both the U.S. and Europe to send signals up into space, bounce them off the satellite, and have them received across the Atlantic nearly instantaneously, revolutionizing mass communications between the continents. The device could also be used for phone calls and even faxes. To celebrate the achievement, authorities conducted an international demonstration of Telstar’s capabilities. “There was an exchange of programs—first from the United States to Europe, and then from Europe to the U.S.” says Collins. The American broadcast included a press conference with President Kennedy, a baseball game and images of famous places such as the Statue of Liberty and Mt. Rushmore.
Telstar, an experimental satellite, successfully relayed signals for just under a year before various technical problems forced it offline. But it played a crucial role in shaping the development of subsequent satellites and helping us understand how we could conduct communications through space. The satellite employed solid state technology, provided information about how electronics functioned in the radiation of the Van Allen Belt and assisted in developing techniques to establish contact between ground antennae and spacecraft.
The launch was also tremendously valuable for an American psyche rattled by the early Soviet dominance of space during the Cold War. “Telstar was an event that signaled U.S. achievement in an area that the Soviets themselves had not done,” Collins says. “The perception was that the Soviets were ahead in human space flight, and they were creating new accomplishments faster than the U.S., but Telstar represented an aspect of space flight that the U.S. was clearly first in.” The fact that the satellite was developed primarily by AT&T, a private firm, further served to demonstrate the power of private industry, as compared to the U.S.S.R.’s state-run model.
To celebrate the golden anniversary of the achievement, the Air and Space Museum—which is home to a backup duplicate of Telstar, produced along with the actual satellite launched—is hosting a day of special events on Thursday, July 12. A live satellite connection will be established with the Telecommunications Museum in Pleumeur-Bodou, France, which was the site of the original French ground antenna. The broadcast will be followed by a special symposium of space historians and industry experts, including Martin Collins, and will feature original footage from the 1962 broadcast. The event is open to the public, and will be available as a live webcast for those outside Washington.
In addition to the museum’s special events, there’s yet another way to celebrate Telstar’s legacy: by looking to the skies. Although the satellite was ultimately disabled by radiation in 1963, it has remained in orbit ever since, reliably circling the earth every 2.5 hours. Modern satellites have outstripped Telstar’s capabilities by several orders of magnitude, but the relic lives on as a physical reminder of our first successful foray into space communications.
May 25, 2012
This post is part of our ongoing series in which ATM invites guest bloggers from among the Smithsonian Institution’s scientists, curators, researchers and historians to write for us. The National Portrait Gallery’s cultural historian Amy Henderson recently wrote about Louis Armstrong’s last recorded performance at the National Press Club.
A front page article in May 23’s Washington Post captures a signature irony of life in 2012: the past is revealed best not by digging through dry-as-dust artifacts and manuscripts, but by the wonders of today’s technology. The article describes how one woman researching her family history was overjoyed at finding details of their daily life revealed in the recent release of the 1940 U.S. Census. On a digitized image of the original census ledger, she discovered a long-lost cousin who lived at a boarding house on P Street NW. It was like a magical secret door to her past had suddenly opened, and her next step was going to be finding that house and photographing it to paste in a family album.
The 1940 Census, embargoed for 72 years to maintain confidentiality during the then-normal life span of seven decades, is today an enormous boon for researchers of all kinds. The Census reveals details about life in 1940 that are rich, poignant, and illuminating. And, as the Post reports, “thanks to technology, the information will be more accessible, more quickly, than that from any previous census.”
The Census release made me think about how new technologies enhance contemporary culture by personalizing everything that attracts attention—movies, music, fashion, even the way we get our news. Today’s interactive media has created a culture whose common experience is Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and Tumblr. Connected 24/7, we are a species soldered to our media devices: our whole world is in our hands…and eyes and ears.
The ubiquity of this experience is showcased in two fascinating new exhibitions that opened recently in Washington: “The Art of Video Games” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Hewlett-Packard New Media Gallery at the Newseum.
The American Art Museum’s exhibition focuses on how video games have evolved as an increasingly expressive medium in modern society. Beginning with Pac Man in 1980, games have entranced generations with striking visual effects and the creative use of the newest technologies: for SAAM, the virtual reality of video games has generated “a previously unprecedented method of communicating with and engaging audiences.”
At the Newseum, the HP New Media Gallery “places visitors at the center of the news revolution” through live Twitter feeds on touch-screen monitors that instantly connect visitors to news stories as they happen around the world. This instant communication allows people to experience first-hand how new media is changing the way news is generated, reported and absorbed in the 21st century.
Because social media customizes individual experience, today’s culture tends to be dominated by information that is personalized and “narrowcast” rather than “broadcast” to a mass audience. When I’ve talked about this with my interns, their eyes pop at the very idea that media once served as a cultural unifier. But as alien as this seems to today, American culture in the 1920s and 30s was shaped by a mass media that targeted a mass audience. Media then consisted of a mere handful of outlets—NBC and CBS radio, movie studios like MGM, Warner Bros., and RKO, and magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and LIFE—and all combined to generate a mainstream, shared culture. Everyone listened to such top-rated radio shows as “The Jack Benny Show” and “Burns and Allen,” smiled at Norman Rockwell’s illustrated magazine covers, and congregated in neighborhood movie theaters to experience Hollywood’s golden age in communal gatherings. Mass media generated a cultural flow that, even during the Depression, glued the nation together by common experience.
Why this happened is partly because mass media technology kept enlarging its ability to reach ever-broader audiences. But the rise of a shared mainstream culture was also possible because mid-20th century America was so radically different from America today. The revelations of the 1940 Census provide quantitative clues that help explain why a shared culture was possible.
In today’s terms, the 1940 Census is an historical Facebook of the 132 million people who then lived in the United States. In 1940 almost 90 percent of those surveyed identified themselves as white; 9.8 percent were black and 0.4 percent registered as “other.” Contrast that to 2010: 72.4 percent said they were white, 12.6 percent African American, 16.3 percent Hispanic, 4.8 percent Asian, and 2.9 percent declared themselves to be two or more races.
Education levels have changed radically: in 1940 only 5 percent had college degrees; in 2010, that had risen to 28 percent. Occupations have also transformed American life: in 1940, the top five industries were manufacturing (23.4 percent), agriculture (18.5 percent), retail (14 percent), personal services (8.9 percent), and professional services (7.4 percent). In 2010, nearly a quarter of the population was employed in educational services, health care, and social assistance; next came retail (11.7 percent), professional, scientific, management and administrative services, waste management services (10.6 percent), and construction (6.2 percent). The median annual wage for men in 1940 was $956, and $592 for women; in 2010, the median income for men was $33,276, and for women, $24,157.
In 1940, Ira May Fuller became the first person to receive Social Security benefits—a check for $22.54. Glenn Miller had such hit songs as “In the Mood” and “Tuxedo Junction,” while Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra featured Frank Sinatra and the Pied Pipers singing “I’ll Never Smile Again.” American inventions included rayon, zippers and cellophane. Men wore wide ties and sported fedoras, while women wore hats, gloves and padded shoulders. Radio’s top-rated program featured Edgar Bergen, a ventriloquist, and his wooden dummy Charlie McCarthy. The 1940 Academy Award ceremony gave the Best Picture Oscar to Gone with the Wind, and Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Academy Award (Best Supporting Actress). There were 7 million cars on the road, and Franklin Roosevelt ran for an unprecedented third presidential term.
Today, the 309 million people in the United States live in a world that is infinitely more diverse and educated. Many work at jobs that didn’t exist 72 years ago. And for generations immersed in social media, culture means a different thing than it did in 1940. As the American Art Museum, the Newseum, and many other museums have figured out, the way culture is presented and interpreted needs to reflect a 21st century perspective. Contemporary audiences may be attracted to “retro,” but like their predecessors, they search out experience in real time. Even if it’s virtual.
May 24, 2012
From now through Friday, you have the chance to do something special: choose a figure from American history to put in the American History Museum. As part as the Frame an Iconic American contest, the public has the chance to play curator, voting among five different choices to determine who will have a biographical portrait composed by artist Robert Weingarten.
Right now, salsa music queen Celia Cruz is in the lead with 44.6 percent of the vote, followed closely by World War II hero Audie Murphy, who has 34.2 percent. Women’s suffrage activist Alice Paul, inventor Samuel Morse and abolitionist Frederick Douglass round out the field. To read more about all of the candidates and to cast your vote, visit the museum’s blog, “O Say Can You See?”
The contest was inspired by an upcoming exhibition of Weingarten’s works that will open at the Ripley Center on July 2nd, “Pushing Boundaries,” which features 16 innovative digital composite portraits of a range of notable Americans, including Dennis Hopper, Hank Aaron and Sandra Day O’Connor.
The noted artist’s portraits are rather unusual in one particular sense: they don’t contain any images of the actual subject. Rather, the layered composites include photographs taken by Weingarten of a number of items and places that the subjects themselves chose to represent them. ”These sit in a unusual position in terms of the difference between portraiture and self-portraiture, because I ask the subjects to define their own list,” Weingarten says. “I go to a chosen icon and I ask, ‘If you were to make a self portrait, but you couldn’t photograph yourself or family members or friends, what would be the items that would metaphorically represent you?’”
Weingarten then photographs the selected items and creates a digital composite image, combining the elements to achieve a composition he feels represents the subject. “They’re layered compositions,” he says. “Especially in person, you can look through each layer to the one behind it, so it’s almost like you’re pulling back the metaphorical layers of a person.”
When Weingarten gets to work crafting a portrait of the contest winner, he’ll be presented with a new challenge: whoever wins won’t be around to tell him which items and places they want to be represented by. “All my previous subjects were alive, and I worked closely with them in terms of creating the list and understanding the relative importance of each of the things on it,” he says. “Now, I’ll be working with a curator, so it’ll be a little more of a historic look, rather than a personal look.”
While you’re waiting until July to see Weingarten’s acclaimed works at the Ripley Center, take the chance to vote now and have your say in whose portrait he creates next. Instead of collaborating with an American icon, he’ll be working with the American public. “It’s really intriguing,” he says. “I’m looking forward to see what excites the public, and who they want to see in the Smithsonian.”
May 23, 2012
On April 23, veterinarian Copper Aitken-Palmer was examining Ally, a cheetah from the National Zoo who had just given birth to a male cub. As she leaned in closer, she was surprised to hear a faint beating, distinct from the animal’s own heartbeat.
Listening carefully, she realized what it was: the heartbeat of several more cubs, who had remained inside Ally despite the fact that she had stopped having contractions several hours earlier. Quickly, a team of vets and scientists performed an emergency cesarean section to deliver the remaining offspring in the litter.
“Given how rare this procedure is, we thought it’d be unlikely for any of the cubs to survive,” said Adrienne Crosier, a cheetah biologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) in Front Royal, Virginia, according to a Zoo press release. “But that little female is a fighter. Once we got her breathing, she just kept going. It was a very intense, stressful experience, but among the most inspiring of my career.”
Three weeks later, after intensive efforts to resuscitate the litter and provide round-the-clock care, the surviving cub (a female) and the first-born male took up residence at the National Zoo on May 18. The two cubs and the mother all appear to be in good health, a cause for celebration among Zoo staff and cheetah enthusiasts everywhere.
Because the mother had abandoned the male cub from the start—relatively common practice for first-time mothers in captivity—the pair are being hand-raised, and still require vigilant care. Late this summer, once they have developed further and keepers are confident they are ready, they will make their debut to the public. “The cubs will continue to need care and we’re not out of the woods yet,” said Tony Barthel, curator of the Zoo’s Cheetah Conservation Station. ”The goal is to ensure that the cheetahs thrive and become ambassadors for their species.”
Part of the cause of celebration for these births is how vulnerable the species already is. There are only an estimated 7,500 to 10,000 cheetahs left in the wild after decades of hunting and habitat loss in Africa, the species’ native range. Ally and the father, Caprivi, were specifically paired as part of the cheetah’s Species Survival Plan, which is put in place by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to maximize genetic diversity and stability in the threatened population.
“There are now two new genetically valuable cubs in a population that so desperately needs them,” Aitken-Palmer said. “So this is really a success for this struggling species.”
The other cause for celebration: the cheetah cubs are just so darn cute. Take a look at the Zoo’s flickr page for more photos of the pair, and keep checking in throughout the summer to see when the cubs will make their public debut.
May 17, 2012
Washington, D.C. lost a musical icon yesterday. The legendary Chuck Brown died at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore at the age of 75. Brown will be remembered for his decades of engaging live performances, his distinctive stage personality and his development of go-go music, a sub-genre of funk which incorporated R&B, early hip-hop elements and audience participation.
“He’s got such a legacy in music in creating a genre of its own,” says Dwan Reece, a curator of music at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. “The chanting, the call-and-response—it was, more than anything, one long party.”
Brown was born in Gaston, North Carolina in 1936; after moving around as a child, his family settled in Washington, D.C. in the early 1940s. As a boy, he hustled, shining shoes and selling newspapers in the street. During this time, he met many prominent African-American entertainers—he said that he once shined Louis Armstrong’s shoes at the Howard Theater. His musical talent showed early on, as he sang in church from the age of two and learned to play the piano by ear as a seven-year-old.
The performer endured a turbulent adolescence, in which he worked odd jobs, hopped trains as a hobo and served three years of prison time (the crime was assault, but Brown maintained that he acted in self-defense). While at Lorton Penitentiary, Brown rediscovered his love of music, teaching himself to play guitar and putting on shows for other inmates. Once he was paroled, he began performing in clubs and lounges around D.C.
In the early ’70s, Brown put together a band called the Soul Searchers and began innovating his signature sound: go-go. He blended funk, R&B, the call-and-response tradition from African-American church culture and other elements to create a highly energetic, danceable style that took the city by storm. “He started off playing with rhythm and percussion, and adding Latin instruments,” Reece says. “Then he learned that he could keep the percussion going between songs, so there was always some kind of activity, no break. He would chant, he would rhyme, and it became like a house party, a really familiar, down home environment.” His biggest early hits included “We Need Some Money” and “Bustin’ Loose.”
Brown’s close relationships with neighborhood audiences enabled him to take participation to a whole new level. “People would shout out birthdays, they’d send notes of things for him to say. he would call them out, and the audience would repeat back, and then he’d break into the next song,” Reece says. “There was an energy, and it was infectious. There was no line between the performer and the audience.”
Brown never became well-known nationally—his music had to be appreciated in a live setting to truly understand what made it so special. In D.C., though, where he played as often as six nights a week and sometimes twice a night, he became an icon. “He was so intricately tied to this city,” says Reece. “There are certain cities that are just defined by their music—when you think jazz, you think of New Orleans, and for R&B, you think Memphis. When you look at go-go, it is really the only music indigenous to Washington, DC.”
Although it never took off as a country-wide phenomenon, go-go had an indelible impact on contemporary American music. “It was definitely influential, especially with hip-hop,” Reece says. “His music involved samples, and was all about rhyming and the beat, and using energy to keep it going.”
Brown said that the genre took its name because “the music just goes and goes.” And just like his music, the legendary performer kept on going, regularly performing through his final years.
The National Museum of African-American History and Culture, set to open in its own building on the Mall in 2015, will feature an exhibition called “Musical Crossroads” that examines the influence of African-Americans on music. “The exhibit will have a section on music on the city, with go-go as a case study, looking at the role that place and community play in helping to define music,” says Reece. “We had been talking to Chuck Brown, and he was very excited about it, so I’m sad that he won’t be able to see it, but it will certainty illustrate his legacy in a larger way.”