March 15, 2012
Readers questions continue this month with some really intriguing queries. Can you identify a bird just by its feather? The aptly named Carla Dove, a Smithsonian ornithologist weighs in on that one in the video above. And speaking of our fine feathered friends, another reader wonders why it is that birds all seem to want to hang out near electrical transformers? From dinosaurs to telescopes to gemstones, you asked and we found the answers.
Are there any paleontological discoveries, such as dinosaur bones, left to be made in the United States?
Susanne Ott, Bern, Switzerland
There sure are. This is such a large country, and there are so many areas yet to be searched, that we may not run out of finds for several lifetimes. Just think: We have found only about 2,000 species of dinosaurs for the 160 million years they were alive on Earth. Given that a species lasts only a few million years, we must be missing many thousands of dinosaur species. The most promising places are out West, where it’s drier and paleontologists can get access to fossil-bearing rocks.
Matthew Carrano, Paleontologist
Museum of Natural History
How much artistic license do scientists use when they portray astronomical features detected by radio telescopes?
Jeanne Long, Atlanta, Georgia
A lot, actually. Radio-telescope images differ from the images captured by the Hubble Space Telescope—while Hubble images are recorded in the visible wavelengths of light we see in rainbows, radio telescopes record electromagnetic radio waves sent out by distant galactic objects. They detect what our ears might pick up if we could hear the universe. (Luckily, we can’t, or the world would be a jumbled mess of rumbling sounds.) Based on the intensity of the radio waves, astronomers plot signal strengths and assign different colors to them.
Although it would be handy and logical, there is no set convention to those color assignments. Scientists choose different colors to bring out specific details or molecules found in the image. (If you do a quick Google image search for the Trifid Nebula, you’ll see images with different color representations of the same object.) Is it fair to randomly assign different colors to objects in space? To astronomers, that’s not an issue. They are simply trying to isolate data. And the truth is, the human eye is not sensitive enough to pick up the true colors of these objects anyway. So, the next time you see a breathtaking picture from space, thank a scientist for putting it all together.
David Aguilar, Astronomer and illustrator
Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory
Is it true that the Smithsonian is still cataloguing items from Charles Wilkes’ United States Exploring Expedition?
Kevin Ramsey, Washington, D.C.
That expedition returned from its four-year exploration of the Pacific in 1842 with an immense trove—hundreds of fish and mammal specimens, more than 2,000 bird specimens, 50,000 plant specimens, a thousand live plants, some 4,000 ethnographic objects, such as Fijian war clubs, Samoan fish hooks and New Zealand baskets. But no, the Smithsonian is not still cataloguing them. That job largely fell to the scientists who accompanied Wilkes, and they completed it, well, expeditiously. The collection was exhibited in the Patent Office Building in Washington, D.C. for several years, before it came to the Smithsonian.
Pamela M. Henson, Historian
Smithsonian Institution Archives
Did Mathew Brady really take all the Civil War photographs that are credited to him?
Patrick Ian, Bethesda, Maryland
No. By 1861, Mathew Brady was one of the best-known photographers in America, with portrait studios in New York City and Washington, D.C. While his staff handled day-to-day operations, Brady provided the creative vision and marketing expertise that made his studios famous. When the Civil War began, he assembled and outfitted teams of photographers and sent them into the field to ensure that his cameras would be present to produce a visual record of the conflict. Although Brady traveled periodically to battlefields and encampments, the Civil War photographs that carry his credit line were typically made by his cameramen. The look of the portraits produced in Brady’s studios—such as those featured in the National Portrait Gallery’s new exhibition, Mathew Brady’s Photographs of Union Generals (March 30, 2012-May 31, 2015)—reflected his aesthetic even when he was not present for the portrait session.
Ann M. Shumard, Curator of Photographs
National Portrait Gallery
Why do birds like to congregate around electric transformers?
Luis Tewes, Palm Beach Gardens, Florida
While the ever-growing electrical grid spells trouble for most species of birds, some have incorporated human structures into their lives. Power lines are a flight hazard to many species, but they also provide elevated perches, particularly in open country where there are few natural alternatives, for sit-and-wait predators, such as bluebirds, shrikes and small raptors. Many species use electric lines to rest or monitor their territories; and flocks of blackbirds and starlings and other birds gather on wires before they join large communal roosts. Power-line poles and towers and their attendant transformers provide additional support and protection for flocks and larger species, such as raptors. A few species even commandeer power poles and transformers as nesting sites. Transformers may produce some heat, which may explain why some birds like them. The monk parrakeet, introduced from Argentina, nests and roosts around transformers and has expanded into some pretty cold urban areas.
Birds’ use of power equipment illustrates their impressive adaptability, but awareness of high-voltage electric currents is not in their DNA. While a bird can perch on a high-voltage line in complete safety, as soon as it makes secondary contact with a conductor that leads to a ground, it will be fried. Large birds taking flight or producing “streamers” of fecal material often complete the circuit to their demise. Fecal build-up, gnawing (by parrots) and nesting material can short out lines or transformers, leading to massive power outages. Bird mortality might be reduced, and electrical service might be more reliable, if we had a better-designed grid.
Russell Greenberg, Wildlife Biologist,
Migratory Bird Center, National Zoo
In aserated (or “starred”) gemstones, such as the ruby and sapphire varieties of corundum, what is the average amount of rutile per square millimeter? And how many asterated gemstones does the Smithsonian Institution have?
Davis M. Upchurch, Fletcher, North Carolina
In synthetic asterated corundum, about 0.1 to 0.3 percent titanium oxide is typically mixed with the aluminum oxide. That gives you a ballpark idea as to the fraction of rutile (which is usually given as an amount per cubic millimeter). The Museum of Natural History has about 50 asterated gems in its collection, including, 21 specimens of corundum. We add new ones sporadically, and we’re always on the lookout for different or better examples.
Jeffrey Post, Curator of Gems and Minerals,
Museum of Natural History
We’re ready for still more questions. Please submit your queries here.
October 13, 2011
In honor of American Archives Month, the Smithsonian Institution is hosting an Archives Fair on Friday, October 14 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Ripley Center. There, meet archivists and see some of the ephemera and materials held within the Smithsonian collections in person. Bring your own family heirlooms and precious items to participate in the popular “Ask the Smithsonian” program and get tips on preserving them (free consultation appointments can be made online).
With Archives Month in mind, we bring you a list featuring items from the Smithsonian Institution Archives, home to pieces of the Smithsonian’s history from its 19th century birth through recent times. Here are a few of the archive’s offerings:
1. The Last Will and Testament of James Smithson: The Institution’s founder James Smithson was a wealthy British scientist who never set foot in America. He stipulated that, if his nephew died without a legitimate heir, the Smithson fortune would go towards creating an establishment for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge” in Washington, D.C. The Smithsonian Institution bears the name of this unlikely founder and strives to carry out his mission to this day.
2. 1894 Exhibit of Automobiles: This 19th-century photo looks like one of a historical exhibition. At the time, though, the display of automobiles on view in the Arts and Industries Building (now closed for renovation) must have looked like the future. Nearly a decade before the Ford Motor Company was even established, the cars on display were still a new-fangled invention with little practical application.
3. The Wright Brothers’ Letters to the Smithsonian: Before the Wright brothers became world famous for inventing the first successful airplane, they wrote to the Smithsonian asking for help. This set of six letters, beginning in 1899, asked for information on aeronautics and suggestions for relevant readings. The last letter, dated June 1903, came just six months before their legendary flight, December 3, 1903.
4. Letter Offering to Sell a Two-Legged Dog: In 1902, Frank Elliott of Phillips Station, Pennsylvania, wrote to the Smithsonian with a proposition: that the Institution pay him $800 for a remarkable two-legged dog named Clelonda. The dog, Elliott wrote, “is the liveliest dog I ever saw, handling himself with only the two hind leggs [sic] as well as other dogs can with four.” Despite its reputation as “the Nation’s Attic,” the Smithsonian declined the offer.
5. The World’s Longest Beard: Hans Langseth was born in Norway in 1846. When he died on November 10, 1927, he was an American citizen and had a beard 18-and-a-half feet long. During his years as a farmer in Minnesota and North Dakota, he used to roll up the beard and tuck it into his jacket. Later on, he joined a circus act and displayed his beard full-time. His relatives cut off the beard and donated it to the Natural History Museum upon his death, where it remains one of the Smithsonian’s strangest artifacts, and a photo of museum staff “trying on” the beard resides in the Institution Archives.
July 13, 2011
The Smithsonian Institution Archives is celebrating the 86th anniversary of the Scopes Monkey Trial this month with the release of 25 newly digitized photographs from the trial. The images depict the scientists who served as evolution experts in defense of teacher John T. Scopes. The cache of images were discovered in the archives in 2005 by independent researcher Marcel C. LaFollette among papers and files donated to the Smithsonian in 1971. This marks the first time the photos have been assembled together on the web and have been added to the Smithsonian Flickr page.
The photographs were taken by Watson Davis, the managing editor of Science Service, an Associated Press-like news organization that produced and published science and technology stories from 1920 to 1963. “Watson Davis and Frank Thone, a writer for Science Service stayed in the “Defense Mansion”—an antebellum home on the outskirts of Dayton used as headquarters by Scopes’ defense team—with the prospective expert witnesses. They took photos of the group as well as individual portraits. This addition to our Scopes Trial set on Flickr represents a rare, complete, grouping of images of the witnesses in one place. We are always looking to add more of our great collections online and the anniversary of the trial offered an occasion to highlight more from the material in our collections documenting the events of July 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee,” says Tammy Peters, Supervisory Archivist with SIA, via e-mail.
July 21, 1925, marked the announcement of the verdict of “The Trial of the Century,” The State of Tennessee vs. Scopes, also referred to as the Scopes Monkey Trial, and the subject of the famous play and film Inherit the Wind. Set in the small Tennessee town located a few miles outside of Chattanooga, high school teacher John T. Scopes was tried for breaking a law that banned the teaching of evolution in the state’s public schools. The arrest and prosecution of the teacher brought fame to Dayton, attracting the attention of lawyer Clarence Darrow and three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan.
Darrow was chosen as lead defense attorney for Scopes with Bryan heading up the prosecution. The result was an eleven-day trial beginning on July 10, that saw the defense team call as witnesses a panel of scholars of the day, including geologist Wilbur Armistead Nelson, anthropologist Fay-Cooper Cole, zoologist Horatio Hackett Newman and zoologist Winterton Conway Curtis.
Curtis, (left) a professor from the University of Missouri and a trustee of the Marine Biological laboratory at Woods Hole, MA, testified on day seven.
On July 21, Scopes was convicted of violating the Tennessee law, a big win for pro-creationist Bryan, who died 5 days later, but the decision would not stand for long as the anti-evolution law was later repealed.
During the trial, Watson Davis, photographed the proceedings while serving as a reporter for the Science Service. Nearly 80 years later Davis’s nitrate negatives were found by LaFollette, who has meticulously worked to identify the subjects and date each of the images. Her 2008 book Reframing Scopes: Journalists, Scientists, and Lost Photographs from the Trial of the Century, highlights these and other images from the trial.
Additionally, the Smithsonian Archives needs your help. A number of the subjects in the photographs are as yet unidentified — can you help them figure out why they are and what their involvement in the trial was? Leave your comments on the “Unidentifed-Scopes Trial” Flickr set with your insight.
May 19, 2011
Renowned jazz singer Nancy Wilson recently donated two of her designer gowns to the National Museum of American History, fulfilling a long-time dream of John Edward Hasse, the curator of American music.
“Mindful of her importance in American song and jazz, I’ve been seeking a donation from Nancy Wilson for some years,” says Hasse.
Born in Chillicothe, OH in 1937, Nancy Wilson knew she wanted to be a singer from a young age. With early influences like Billy Eckstine, LaVerne Baker and Nat King Cole, she began her professional singing career at 15, when she became the host of a local television show. In 1956 she began singing and touring with The Rusty Bryant Band throughout the Midwest, but Wilson had bigger ambitions. She moved to New York City in 1959, and soon after her arrival, the artist had a regular gig singing in a nightclub and within six weeks, she had a record deal with Capitol Records. Her songs were so successful that she recorded and released five albums in two years. The three-time Grammy award winner would go on to perform on variety shows, host one season of her eponymous Emmy Award-winning television show, and take acting roles on many popular TV series into the 1990s, including the The Cosby Show and Hawaii Five-O.
Hasse says he pursued an acquisition from Wilson because of her distinctive song styling, versatility, range of intensity, clear respect for the lyrics and her impeccable musicianship. “We can’t literally collect her voice, of course,” says Hesse, “so the question becomes, what material culture represents her?” Her distinctively-styled dresses seemed like an obvious choice .
The jazz vocalist’s decision to donate the gowns came in the wake of two events—her participation in an oral history interview for the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Program and the decision of her manager, John Levy, to donate his professional archives to the museum.
As is true with most donations to the museum, these two dresses have stories.
In February of 2007, Nancy Wilson wore a sliver-gray silk velvet wrap-dress with poet sleeves to the 49th Annual Grammy Awards, where she received her third Grammy Award for “Turned to Blue,” selected as best jazz vocal album. “I designed this dress for Nancy with an expression of elegance and timelessness,” said dress creator Angela Dean, according to a report.
In October of 2010, Wilson appeared at a special event at Jazz at Lincoln Center wearing a strapless “Trumpet” gown in champagne silk and wool. The dress, with hand-draped embroidered tulle and a matching tulle bolero, was designed by b michael. “Nancy has a sound and a motion that is visual and inspires the epitome of glamor, sophistication and sensuality,” said the designer, who grew up listening to Wilson’s music, according to a report.
“I’m not an expert on fashion design,” says Hasse, “but it seems to me that the dress styling, like Ms. Wilson’s public personae and her singing style, are graced with individuality, ‘class,’ and elegance.”
Wilson’s dresses now join the museum’s collection of famed ensembles, including gowns from: the First Ladies, Ella Fitzgerald, Beverly Sills and the Supremes.
While plans have not been established for the display of the Wilson dresses, the Levy Collection and the Jazz Oral History Collection can be found in the museum’s Archives Center.
Update: Nancy Wilson made the donation official April 22, signing the deed of gift after her sold-out performance at the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda, Maryland.
March 22, 2011
It’s extremely rare to find negatives of Edward Sheriff Curtis, the iconic photographer of Native American life and the Old West. And that’s what makes Jim Graybill’s gift to Smithsonian’s National Anthropological Archives all the more exciting. Graybill, the grandson of Edward Curtis, recently donated his collection of over 700 Curtis glass negatives and positives, which includes over 500 original negatives, 432 of which have not been published.
Curtis’ photography served as an important historical record to capture a “romanticized” version of Native American culture as it was slowly disappearing, and his work culminated in an epic 20-volume project, The North American Indian, funded by J. Pierpont Morgan. In it, Curtis photographed and documented Native American life and traditions around the continent. He was not without his critics, however, for his manipulation of subjects and images. For the purpose of image “reality” and composition, Curtis at times posed Native Americans, had Native Americans re-enact ceremonies, or removed modern-day objects from photos.
“It’s interesting that among Native Americans, even to the present, Curtis’ work has a very strong resonance, because he ennobles them,” says Jake Homiak, director of the Smithsonian Anthropology Collections and Archive Program. “They have a very positive, beautiful aesthetic. I would consider his style ethnographic romanticism, because he shows them in an immemorial timelessness, and that’s all a part of dressing them, or asking them to appear before him in traditional dress with all the erasures of modernity. That was the style he mastered.”
Curtis prints and photogravures are not exactly common, but they can be found in museums and at art dealers–it’s Curtis’ negatives that are difficult to find. “They’re extremely rare,” says photo archivist Gina Rappaport of Smithsonian National Anthropological Archives. “The original negatives, he probably made 40,000 during the course of this [The North American Indian] work. The negatives are the original object. Very few of these have survived. It’s believed that most of them were destroyed over the years.”