Virginia Tech Atomic Energy Laboratories

In July of 1956, Virginia Tech became the first university in the United States to install a Nuclear Reactor Simulator. The simulator was installed as part of an atomic energy laboratory in Davidson Hall which was home to the Department of Physics at that time.

The TECHGRAM  Vol. XXXIII, No. 7 JANUARY 1, 1956   Tech First University To Get Nuclear Reactor Simulator  Device Along With Accelerator Being Built By Staff Will Make One Of Best Instructional Atomic Labs In Country  Virginia Tech is the first college or university in the country to have a nuclear reactor simulator. An order has been placed, John W. Whittemore, dean of engineering and architecture, announced Dec. 14. The reactor simulator that will be installed here is similar to the one which the United States exhibited at the Geneva Conference.  Leeds and Northrup Co. of Philadelphia has been contracted to build the installation. That company has advised officials here that Virginia Tech will be the first college or university in the country to have such a facility.  Delivery is scheduled for spring. It will be placed into immediate operation, Dr. Thomas M. Hahn, Jr., head of the physics department, explained.  This simulator with the nuclear accelerator and other equipment that is presently available from outside sources will make the atomic energy laboratory at Virginia Tech one of the most complete of any college in the country, Dean Whittemore pointed out.  It will be possible through this equipment and staff at Virginia Tech not only to give the best training for personnel in this field, but also to do many kinds of research for all industries interested in the use of atomic energy.  Many of the staff members of the science and engineering departments have had training and experience at atomic energy installations and have made significant contributions in this field.  The nuclear reactor simulator is the answer to the question of how nuclear reactor theory and operation can be taught when costly reactors are not readily available. The device consists of a regular reactor control console, a model reactor, and an electronic analog computer. The electronic computer causes the model reactor to respond just as would an actual thermal nuclear reactor, and by suit- able adjustments an operator can obtain experience necessary for operating the various types of nuclear reactors.  Despite its tremendous value as an educational installation, the reactor simulator is priced at a fraction of the cost of a reactor, and does not require the special building and large operating budget necessary for a nuclear reactor.  The new graduate degree in nuclear engineering physics is in response to suggestions from industry and was set up after much study. Virginia Tech for several years has been offering course work in the nuclear field, and quite extensive research programs have been administered by the Virginia Engineering Experiment Station of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute. Virginia industries are contributing heavily to the program, and college officials hope that payment for the reac- tor simulator can also be made without the use of state funds.  Dean Whittemore reports that the new program, which is dedicated to the specific end of training and research in the nuclear field, is a joint engineering and physics effort. The program is under the direction of Dr. Hahn and will utilize the combined equipment and staff resources of several engineering and science departments.  Graduates in either engineering or science are eligible for study toward the new graduate degree.  Dr. Hahn states that the plans for the program are in line with the general Atomic Energy Commission policy of encouraging university training of nuclear scientists.  Plans are underway for Virginia Tech to be host to a two-day Oak Ridge Regional Symposium to be held during the coming summer in cooperation with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Oak Ridge Institute of Nuclear Studies. Virginia Tech will also offer at that time a two-week short course, featuring lecturers from industry prominent in the atomic energy field.  To start up the reactor simulator, Dr. Hahn explained, a trainee operates the same sort of controls as he would if he were at an atomic energy installation. As the rods of the reactor begin rising in the scale-model of the core, recording instruments draw continuous records of the reactor operating conditions. When the reactor-model reaches the critical operating range, this is recorded on the simulator.  Then the trainee carries the reactor up to the desired level. As the pile rods rise still higher, the indicating instruments keep the trainee posted on operating conditions. Once the reactor-model is up to the desired power level, servomechanical controls take over. If the trainee fails to judge correctly the various factors and reactor operation threatens to go beyond safe limits, the recording instruments automatically drop the rods. Or, if the student realizes that reactor operation is threatening to get out of hand, he can hit an emergency button on the console with the same results.  Also to be used for training in the new nuclear engineering physics program, as well as basic nuclear research, is the two million volt nuclear accelerator now nearing completion at Virginia Tech. This accelerator, although it will be valued at approximately $100,000, has cost the State of Virginia nothing. Funds and materials have been contributed through the Virginia Tech Educational Foundation and Virginia Engineering Experiment Station by Virginia industries interested in the nuclear program. The accelerator is being built by staff members and graduate students working under the supervision of Dr. Hahn, and Dr. Andrew Robeson '50, associate professor of physics. Graduate students working on the machine include John Rogers, of Front Royal, a graduate of the United States Naval Academy who is doing a master's thesis on features of the machine; David Oliver, of Washington, a graduate of VPI, and George Bell, of Berea, Ky., a graduate of Berea College. The Virginia Tech nuclear accelerator, or atom-smasher, will be used to bombard various materials of interest in the atomic energy field.  An editorial commending Virginia Tech on its progressive action appeared in the Dec. 15 "Roanoke Times."
Tech First University to Get Nuclear Reactor Simulator. January 1, 1956, The Techgram, Special Collections and University Archives, Virginia Tech.
Virginia Tech is first college to own nuclear reactor simulator. July 30, 1956. WSLS-TV News Film Collection, 1951-1971. Special Collections, University of Virginia. https://search.lib.virginia.edu/sources/uva_library/items/uva-lib:2267277

The laboratory also included a two-million-volt nuclear accelerator “built by staff members and graduate students,” and the “first university-owned graphite-moderated exponential reactor”, a sub-critical reactor made possible after the Atomic Energy Commission (now the Nuclear Regulatory Commission) approved Virginia Tech to receive “a neutron source and 2,500 pounds of natural uranium metal”.

THE TECHGRAM Vol. XXXIII, No. 19 JULY 1, 1956 Tech Gets Uranium For Reactor A neutron source and 2,500 pounds of natural uranium metal, to be used in connection with expanding instruction in nuclear engineering, have been approved for Virginia Tech, the Atomic Energy Commission announced in Washington June 21. The uranium will be used by Virginia Tech in the construction of the first university-owned graphite-moderated exponential reactor. Commenting on the AEC's action, Dr. T. M. Hahn, Jr., head of the physics department, said, "When completed, the new exponential reactor, along with the 2,000,000-volt nuclear accelerator, nuclear reactor simulator, and associated nuclear equipment, will give Virginia Tech nuclear facilities valued at nearly a half million dollars." He pointed out that all of these facilities have been acquired at a very little cost to Virginia taxpayers. Dr. Hahn predicted that the new sub-critical reactor made possible by the AEC will be completed and in operation by the end of the summer and will "provide an invaluable training and research facility for Virginia Tech's graduate nuclear engineering physics program." This early completion date is possible because college technicians have been at work for two months machining the 32,000 pounds of reactor graphite to be used in this new facility. The exponential pile will therefore be nearing completion and will be a tour feature when Virginia Tech is host to the Eighth Oak Ridge Regional Symposium on Atomic Energy and Science in its first Virginia appearance July 30-31. As a result of the AEC loan, Virginia Tech has acquired the new nuclear facility at minimum cost to the state. The new sub-critical reactor that will be constructed requires no unusual safety controls, expensive shielding or heat removal equipment, and can be maintained on a negligible operational budget as compared to that required for a critical reactor. "Yet such a sub-critical assembly," says Dr. Hahn, "provides a valuable laboratory training device." The sub-critical assembly consists of an arrangement of uranium rods in a graphite moderator. When a neutron source is introduced, a high neutron flux is obtained from nuclear fissions in the arrangement but the reaction can not be sustained without the presence of the main neutron source. The AEC announcement said, "Under a recent amendment to the Commission's assistance policy, neutron sources composed of plutonium and beryllium are now available for licensing to the users of sub-critical assemblies. This type of source is considered superior in many ways to those previously available." Concluded the AEC, "The Commission for some time has been supplying certain materials for these assemblies without a use charge being made, subject to the availability of the materials and to a determination that such loans will result in a net advantage to the Commission's program to assist in alleviating the current shortage of nuclear scientists and engineers." According to Dr. Hahn, plans are already afoot to use the nuclear accelerator, constructed by graduate students and faculty members, as a neutron source for the new exponential reactor, thus making possible more extensive fundamental and unusual reactor research. All of the nuclear facilities at Tech will have a prominent place in the Oak Ridge Symposium July 30-31 and the Short Course in Nuclear Engineering Physics to be given at Virginia Tech August 1-10. Sponsored by Virginia Tech, in cooperation with the Oak Ridge Institute of Nuclear Studies, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and the Atomic Energy Commission, the symposium will feature a traveling exhibit from the American Museum of Atomic Energy, a General Electric film "A Is for Atom," and a variety of symposia on nuclear topics. The short course, first and most extensive of its kind in Virginia, will have leaders from major nuclear industries as lecturers in addition to members of the faculty.
Tech Gets Uranium For Reactor. July 1, 1956. The Techgram. Special Collections and University Archives, Virginia Tech.
Black and white semi-profile portrait of a white man with dark receding hair in a crew cut wearing a white dress shirt, dark tie with a single light stripe wrapping around it, and dark browline glasses.
Dr. T. Marshall Hahn, Jr. as Head of the Physics Department, circa 1950s.

According to The Techgram following their interview with Dr. T. Marshall Hahn, Jr., the sub-critical reactor was scheduled to come online in July (only six months after the approval) “because college technicians have been at work for two months machining the 32,000 pounds of reactor graphite to be used in this new facility. The exponential pile will therefore be nearing completion and will be a tour feature when Virginia Tech is host to the Eighth Oak Ridge Regional Symposium on Atomic Energy and Science in its first Virginia appearance July 30-31.”

The symposium hosted by Virginia Tech with support from the Oak Ridge Institute for Nuclear Studies (now the Oak Ridge Associated Universities – Virginia Tech has been a sponsoring institution since 1946) marked the opening of the lab. It included a short course in nuclear engineering physics, a traveling exhibit from the American Museum of Atomic Energy (now the American Museum of Science & Energy), a film from General Electric “A is for Atom”, and various symposia on nuclear topics.

General Electric film “A is for Atom” from the Nuclear Vault YouTube channel.

Two years after the opening of the lab, in 1958, Virginia Tech was awarded a grant from the Atomic Energy Commission that allowed the institution to purchase a 10-kilowatt Argonaut (Argonne Nuclear Assembly for University Training) reactor, a class of small nuclear research reactors based on the one developed at the Argonne National Laboratory. Unlike the sub-critical reactor that was already in operation, the Argonaut was a critical reactor meaning that the nuclear chain reaction would be self-sustaining. Virginia Tech was set to be the first university in the United States to install this new type of research reactor (according to Wikipedia, it’s possible the University of Florida beat Virginia Tech into operation by about six months).

The TECHGRAM Vol. XXXV, No. 19  July 1, 1958  Tech Gets $114,098 In Grant From AEC  The Atomic Energy Commission announced June 7 that it has granted VPI an additional $114,098 in support of continued expansion and strengthening of its program in nuclear engineering.  The new grant brought to a total of $350,000 the funds awarded Tech by the AEC and the maximum amount available to any academic institution from the commission. According to Dr. Thomas M. Hahn, Jr., head of Tech's department of physics, VPI is one of the first institutions in the country to receive the $350,000 limit. In addition to these funds, the AEC has made available to VPI 2,500 pounds of uranium and other special nuclear materials and equipment.   The new grant will be used for the pur- chase of a 10-kilowatt Argonaut reactor which was recently developed by the AEC specifical- ly for college and university use. VPI will be the first institution in the country to install the new reactor.  The Argonaut critical reactor will supplement the outstanding facilities already available for graduate nuclear engineering education here. These facilities, which have been attracting graduate students from all over the country, include a nuclear reactor simulator; two exponential reactors; a sigma pile; two accelerators; and well equipped counting, radio-chemistry, nuclear metallurgy, heat transmission, and nuclear engineering technology laboratories. Construction of a new physics building is scheduled to begin at Tech within the next few months.  The U. S. Naval Development Center plans to send several of their nuclear staff members to VPI this summer for special experimental training in reactor engineering under a special contract.
Tech Gets $114,098 In Grant From AEC. July 1, 1958. The Techgram. Special Collections and University Archives, Virginia Tech.

This new reactor was installed in the New Physics Building (now Robeson Hall) which was about to begin construction. It first achieved criticality in mid-December 1959 and was officially placed into operation on January 6, 1960. The occasion was marked by a dedication ceremony featuring an address by Lieutenant Governor A.E.S. Stephens. Eventually, the reactor’s operating capacity was increased from 10-kilowatts to 100-kilowatts.

Black and white illustration of a large piece of machinery with cutouts to show interior sections. A label at the bottom reads "Figure 3-1. Reactor Assembly"
Illustration of the nuclear reactor assembly from Andrew Robeson’s “Report on Utilization of Nuclear Materials on Loan from U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.” December 1962. Special Collections and University Archives, Virginia Tech.
Black and white photo of a white man in a dark suit kneeling next to an assembly of metal tubes, wires, and concrete blocks.
Cockcroft-Walton accelerator set up for use in polarized neutron experiments. The man is not named but is likely John T. Rogers, Ph.D. student. From Andrew Robeson’s “Report on Utilization of Nuclear Materials on Loan from U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.” December 1962. Special Collections and University Archives, Virginia Tech.

The atomic energy laboratories were expanded again in 1968 with the addition of a van de graaff accelerator. Four years later, on November 12, 1971, there was a “Nuclear Event” and Robeson Hall was evacuated. Our collections include a document called the “Appendix to Report of the Nuclear Event of November 12, 1971”. Despite searching extensively, I have not been able to locate the actual report to which this is an appendix. The document we have includes 161 pages of transcribed interviews with people involved in the event. The document has not been digitized but I’ve scanned the first few pages which include a description of the event by Ronald J. Onega. The full report is available in Special Collections and University Archives (https://catalog.lib.vt.edu/cgi-bin/koha/opac-detail.pl?biblionumber=603347).

The scram was at 3:05, … Bill attempted to bring the sample up and all the alarms went off. … This was in Room 106 where the experiment was being carried on and the reactor console is in Room 108, so I ran over there to find out if it was serious, if it was real or to see what the situation was. The alarm went on to begin with, as well as I recall, and then it went off and then it came back on. … It was suggested that the sample be knocked loose. We could see that the sample didn’t return, so I think that Keith suggested that we try to dislodge the sample, which was the reasonable suggestion, it seemed to me at that particular time, to dislodge the sample by firing another one in. We did that and whenever we brought the sample back, it was radioactive. It was very hot and so when we discerned this I think Bob Stone went out to get a lead container to put the hot radioactive sample in, and we fired it in again as I recall. We fired this sample in twice in order to try to dislodge this and bring it back, and neither time did the original sample come back. The sample was then – the container to dislodge the original one was then taken out of the rabbit, put into the lead container, as well as the end cap for the rabbit. Bill Raymond went and got another lead container in case we could get the original sample back, and he also got another end cap for the rabbit which I think he got from Room 17 from Furr’s lab. We tried several times to bring the sample back but none of it was successful. Well, after we saw we weren’t going to get it loose, Bob Stone, Sy Meyers, Bill Raymond and myself took some survey meters and we were trying to find out exactly where this sample was hung up. The sample was hung up right at the edge of the reactor shield itself. It was in the rabbit tubing, right at the edge of the shield and whenever we discerned exactly where it was, we got a screwdriver and disconnected the tubing there, taped the end shut and also disconnected the tubing, the other end of this aluminum tube that the sample was in, and taped that end shut. I handed the tube to Bob Stone who was standing on the top of the hot cell and he lowered the tube, with the sample in the tube, down into the hot cell where it still remains. Both ends of the remaining tubing were also sealed shut. … I guess I neglected to say that sometime previous to this, the building had been evacuated. I don’t remember exactly what that time was. I estimate, Bill and I estimated, that the whole incident required, perhaps from the time the sample, from the time the building alarm went off, originally, until the sample was secured in the hot cell may have been around twenty (20) minutes. But that is as good as we can estimate. During this time I also had a pocket dosimeter on, and during the whole business I got 51 millirem of radiation. After the sample was secured, then we tried to discern exactly what the situation was and we saw that we did have a contamination problem. Furr’s lab was used to discern exactly whether fission fragments were scattered around or not, and it was discerned that they were.

“Appendix to Report of the Nuclear Event of November 12, 1971” 1971. Virginia Polytechnic Institute. Special Collections and University Archives, Virginia Tech.

Other than that incident, the atomic energy laboratories seem to have operated smoothly under both the Physics and Mechanical Engineering departments. The Virginia Tech Argonaut Reactor (VTAR) was remodeled in 1983 with new control panels. Three years later, in 1986, it was decommissioned. It was removed from Robeson Hall in 1989.

Students working on the Virginia Tech Argonaut Reactor being observed by an instructor, circa 1950s.
Students working on the Virginia Tech Argonaut Reactor being observed by an instructor, circa 1950s.

A Blot On History

Paw through enough manuscript collections, and you’ll eventually run across some advertisements printed on a thick, porous paper, usually with a pink or blue backing. For those not in the know, it’d be easy to dismiss these little items, which come in a variety of shapes and sizes–and often in bright colors– as simple promotional cards, but in fact, they had an ulterior and important function in 19th-century household and business environments.

This N&W Railway ink blotter promotes the company’s J-class locomotive no. 600, built in 1941 (from the Wayne Perkins Collection, Ms2010-078).

Through the 18th century, the best countermeasure that correspondents, clerks, and other writers had against the inconvenience of slow-drying ink was to sprinkle sand (or sometimes its more costly alternative, salt) over their handwriting to set the ink, then shake the page to remove the temporary coating. The early 19th century saw the invention of the blotter, a handheld device with felt attached to a curved base that could be rocked over the written page to absorb excess ink. About fifty years later, a soft, thick, porous paper was developed as an effective means to absorb excess ink and speed the drying process. Pressed against the written page, the blotting paper soaked up the surplus ink and allowed the writer to complete a task more quickly and with fewer smears and smudges. The paper was also used in used in removing the excess ink from the pen’s nib, making for fewer drips and stains.

Following its introduction, blotting paper quickly replaced sand as the method of choice in drying ink. As noted in an opinion piece within the July 6, 1883, edition of the Maryland Independent, lamenting the end of an era:

It is not so many years since blotting sand was an article of foreign export and domestic use. … Some of the merchants of to-day remember when, as clerks in stationery stores, they occupied leisure hours and rainy days in putting into convenient packages blotting sand that came from Block Island by the barrel … The use of blotting sand led to the manufacture of sand-sifters, which in itself was an industry of some magnitude. A piece of paper has displaced them, sand and all.

It was only a matter of time before some enterprising individual determined that desktop blotting paper would provide an excellent medium for commercial advertising, and in that same Maryland Independent piece, the writer notes that the sale of ink blotters would be even larger if the marketplace weren’t flooded with free blotters distributed by companies peddling their goods and services.

Among the advertising ephemera found in the papers of Fields M. Young (Ms1985-018) are ink blotters from several companies hoping to do business with the Grayson County, Virginia, merchant.

In a November 10, 1895 article about the role of job printers in a recent political campaign, the Omaha Daily Bee related the opinion of a printer who claimed that ink blotters were a much more effective form of advertising than traditional campaign cards: “Cards were thrown away, he argued, while blotters were kept for use on the desk and thus held attention of the voter to the name of the candidate. The blotters, good ones, could be furnished at $3.50 per 1,000, printed with the name of the candidates …”

As a free and useful item for household or business consumers, the blotters proved very popular. The Topeka State Journal of April 20, 1900 reported: “A man went through the court house a few days ago distributing advertising blotters. When he started he ahd two large bags full. When he escaped he had a few left, but very few.” At the turn of the 20th century, competition from blotter advertising led newspaper publishers nationwide–at least those not connect to job printers who benefited from printing the blotters–to denounce the medium as an effective form of advertising.

These blotters, all from businesses in southwestern Virginia, performed double duty by including a calendar, a ruler, a football schedule, and a list of early aviation records to insure that consumers would be less likely to discard them (click for full-sized images) (from the O’Shaughnessy Family Papers, Ms1987-052).

The development of quick-drying ink and improvements in fountain pen design were harbingers of doom for the advertising blotter. In the 1940s, Parker Pens promoted a new design by claiming that it made the use of blotting paper unnecessary. Though blotters continued to retain their place among other promotional giveaways in the advertising world for several more years, the mass manufacture and ready availability of the ballpoint pen sounded the medium’s death knell. Blotting paper can of course still be purchased for many other uses, and I suppose it’s possible that there’s a manufacturer out there somewhere who’s churning out desktop advertising blotters for some niche retro market, but the day of the advertising blotter–like that of blotting sand before it–has long passed.

By the time this 1942 blotter employed patriotism and Mickey Mouse to sell Sunoco Oil, the advertising blotter was nearing the end of its popularity (from the O’Shaughnessy Family Papers, Ms1987-052).

Inspiration, Comedy, and Drama in the Department of Geology

About a month ago, I had a chance to look through the Byron Nelson Cooper Papers (Ms1973-004) for the first time. I don’t routinely transfer collections of faculty papers from storage just for my own entertainment, but I’ve been exploring collections weekly as part of a live Twitch broadcast, Archival Adventures, for nearly two years (the full playlist of past episodes is on YouTube and the live show airs Wednesdays on twitch.tv/VTULStudios).

I try to include materials from all of our collecting areas on the show and I thought a geology professor’s papers might contain some interesting things. While the collection did have some interesting geology-focused items (including an envelope of actual rock samples), the standout for me was Cooper’s writing. His speeches, lectures, and creative writing feature a strong narrative voice filled with personality and humor.

Note: There’s also a lot of misogyny and possibly some racism (I honestly haven’t had time to fully read Whisky for the Cat, included later in this post, but some skimming of it made me think there may be some Hispanic stereotyping happening.) Since these are historic documents, it’s not surprising to find these types of sentiments reflected as they were quite common at the time. Knowing about these problems in advance, one can look to see what else the documents have to offer beyond the problematic biases while still recognizing that the problems exist.

First, a bit about Byron Nelson Cooper. He was born in Plainfield, Indiana on August 19, 1912. We don’t have any information about his life before college but we do know that he attended a geology field camp run by Oberlin College before graduating from DePauw University in 1934. According to the Geological Society of America’s memorial of Cooper, this was his first introduction to Virginia geology. He then went on to earn master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Iowa with both of his theses focusing on the geology of southwestern Virginia. While researching the region, he established familial ties to the area through marriage to Elizabeth Doyne of Pulaski County. After his Ph.D., Cooper was an assistant professor of geology at Wichita University for five years (1937-1942). He then served as associate geologist of the Virginia Geological Survey for four years before joining Virginia Polytechnic Institute as the head of the Department of Geological Sciences in 1946. As head, Cooper led a two-person department to become nationally recognized. He also consulted for business, industry, and local governments throughout Virginia on geological matters, particularly issues relating to water supply. He died on March 26, 1971, suffering a heart attack in his office on campus at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

Untitled Speech, 1964

Reading the text of his lectures, speeches, and other writings, it’s not hard to see how his leadership inspired excellence from the Department of Geology. Cooper is an excellent writer, crafting persuasive phrases that retain the audience’s interest. In Box 6 of his papers, there is an untitled speech from mid-December of 1964. The speech is clearly meant to inspire students in the program to work toward their maximum potential. (The last page seems to be an excerpt from another speech regarding campus unrest and student solidarity which is also quite interesting.)

I don’t know what Cooper’s voice sounded like, but I can almost hear him speaking with conviction the lines he has written.

If you live for tomorrow with the objective of
making today’s dreams come true tomorrow, you
begin to pace yourself and to deny yourself small
rewards in favor of engineering bigger things. In
a matter of months one can gain a pretty accurate
assessment of his personal power and of his capacity for
work, and time enables one to not only
play the game but to keep his own side.

Every quarter or semester in a university is
a test of planning ahead. You learn to work,
you learn to meet deadlines, you learn to avoid the pitfalls
of goofing off. You learn how to pilot yourself to avoid
most of the bumps. Each setback only stiffens the determination
to win in the end. The daily lesson is the mind’s food, unless
you feed the mind it doesn’t grow.

Some silly students believe you learn in college
what you have to know + then you go out + use your
knowledge. This just is not so. You leave here with a
bullied and bruised head + many facts though they
be filed in your mind will never be recalled. You
do leave even if its by flunking out –
with an enlarged view – of the world + of yourself.

The great men of history have possessed a sense
of their histories being even as they lived. If
you tie your wagon to a star + work to reach the
goal you have set – you have given your life meaning
but perspective and some historicity – and in the
process if you do so I assure you that you will have
one helluva good time in the best sense of that
phrase.

Really, this entire speech is quite inspiring (if one can get past the students being constantly referred to as men). If offers some great perspective on what is important in the educational experience and acknowledges the fact that not all learning on campus comes from the details learned in the classroom. You can find a full transcription of the speech on Virginia Tech Special Collections and University Archives Online.

How to Catch a Genius, undated, likely 1957

While exploring the finding aid, two other pieces of writing caught my attention thanks to their titles. The first is How to Catch a Genius, a play in two acts with a prologue and an epilogue. It’s a comedy about a professor (Dr. Claude Sidney Magnabrayne) coming to Virginia Tech for an on-site interview and the unacknowledged and vitally important role that the women of the university community have in persuading potential professors to accept offers of employment despite the clueless behavior of their husbands (Dr. George A. Blurt being an example). Again, this piece is misogynistic in its portrayal of women. It’s also full of stereotypes including ones about politics, brainy-but-clueless academics, stressed-out over-drinkers, and many more. While the play is undated, its portrayal of women and the stereotypes seem to fit the 1950s or 1960s. The play itself gives us a clue about the date being portrayed (if not the date it was created). At the beginning of Act I, there is a bit about a phone number:

                                                                                           As Scene
1 opens, we find Sid leafing the pages in the local phone book for the
Covington, Kentucky Area Code. So he dials 606—-then 5-5-5-­-
then 1-2-1-2. (For those unfamiliar with Long Distance dialing, what
Sid is trying to do is find out his own phone number which was changed
recently—as a matter of fact about 26 months ago.)

The important part in dating the item is the parenthetical addresed to “those unfamiliar with Long Distance dialing” and the notation that Magnabrayne’s phone number changed 26 months earlier. From the context of the play, it’s clear that we’re mid-20th century. According to the North American Numbering Plan Administrator (NANPA), the numbering plan we’re familiar with today (1-digit country code, 3-digit Numbering Plan Area code, 7-digit local number) was developed by AT&T in 1947 to allow consumers to dial long-distance calls without operator assistance. The plan began implementation in 1951. The NANPA database also tells us that area code 606 was put into service on January 1, 1955. This tells us that the play is set around March of 1957, 26 months after Magnabrayne’s phone number would have changed from something like “Covington-5000” to the 606 number given in the play. Given the 1957 setting of the play (which is probably also near in time to when the play was written), it’s not at all surprising to see the misogyny and stereotypes present in this piece.

The play itself is a short humorous play that would have been entertaining for faculty since it makes fun of a common experience. We don’t know why the play was written, whether for entertainment or some other purpose. Perhaps it was intended as a fun training tool to help orient faculty to the recruitment process for new faculty. I do find it interesting that the play is centered around recruiting a forensics professor. Forensics in this case is referring to public speaking rather than scientific analysis of physical evidence. Given Cooper’s skill with turning a phrase, this evidence of his interest in the field of forensics stood out to me. I think my favorite part of the play comes in the epilogue when Cooper basically suggests that recruiting Magnabrayne was ultimately all Myrtle Blurt’s doing:

Who can say that Mrs. Blurt may not have rendered the telling
act of consummate kindness in driving Sid Magnabrayne back to his
motel after the power went off. You know she just could have called
the Vice President and asked him to cut the power off and thereby
end those awful Beethoven symphonies. Sort of funny the way that
power came on just as she drove her guest up to the motel. He could
have stalked out of the house and headed back for Covington if that power
had not gone off during the playing of the redundant Sixth. Or perhaps
something she said about Blacksburg just convinced Sid Magnabrayne
that B-burg was the place for his Tillie and their six geniuses.
Remember, Sid Magnabrayne just could be President here some day,
and if my surmises are true, wouldn’t Myrtle Blurt have a reason to smile
knowing that she helped get old Sid Magnabrayne to sign.

The play, with a full transcription, is available on Virginia Tech Special Collections and University Archives Online.

Whiskey for the Cat, undated, likely 1960s

The last item I wanted to share today caught my eye because of the title. On the finding aid, it just said Box 6, Folder 28: “Whiskey for the Cat” n.d. (no date). How could I ever resist taking a look to see what this item was? What I found is 85 handwritten pages of what appears to be the first chapter of a novel. While the document is undated, I suspect it is set in (and likely written during) the 1960s based on a sentence on page 84: “In the brief span of the seventh decade of the twentieth century man suddenly begins to understand himself and the world in which he lives.”

As with the play, this story is set on a university campus. This time, it’s set at a fictional university in the midwest. While the book chapter is clearly in a crime or detective fiction genre, I notice what seem to me to be small bits of Cooper’s signature humor that poke through here and there. For example, the fictional university is named Enneagh University (pronounced Any University). Again, this work of fiction seems like it would most appeal to someone who had lived and worked at a university, but it’s also well written. Cooper crafts scenes well, providing just the right amount of detail for the reader to be able to imagine the scene without becoming bogged down in details. It does have some outdated language usage such as referring to the faculty and staff of a university as the “indigenous population” of a university town. Today, the term Indigenous peoples is understood to refer to the earliest known inhabitants of a geographic area and would correctly be applied to one of the many Mississippian peoples who inhabited the region referenced in the text.

     Most American universities go into some
level of hibernation during the summer and anyone
who has lived through a summer in the Middle Mississippi Valley
can readily understand why summer is the idling
period of the university year. It is too hot
and sultry in the midwest during the summer for
heavy thinking. The indigenous population in a
university community – the professors and
ancillary personnel who keep the faculty in line
have had it after nine months of intensive
association with students and they need time to
regain a modicum of patience and compassion to
fortify them for the next year. The ancillary
personnel need uninterrupted time during the hot months
to clean up the accumulation of junk, paper, the
cigarette butts with their indestructible cork tips, and the
decorative graffiti deposited on desk tops, toilet stalls,
dormitory rooms, and classroom walls has to
be cleaned off or painted over. The university admini-
stration needs the summer to process its final admis-
sions of new students conduct the on-campus visitations of bewildered
parents who want to examine the environment into which
their John’s and Mary’s will move as unprepared children
(or so the parents think).

Given the length of this item, I haven’t yet had time to read it in its entirety; however, skimming through, it seems that in this first chapter (I have not noticed any point where a Chapter II begins) a university professor and his student endeavor to solve a mystery involving marijuana, organized crime, and murder on a typical American midwestern college campus. There are again stereotypes present in the work, with the professor and student being likened to Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. There’s also possibly some racism present in the stereotypes with two criminal characters being Jose Rivera and Steuben Kessel (Kessel being noted in the text as “an alien whose work permit had run out”). But, I get the impression that this story is less blatantly misogynistic than the other works since I didn’t notice it in the portions I have read. A full transcription of this 85 page document is not yet available, but it will be on Special Collections and University Archives Online.

Looking over these three items, I notice a consistent authorial voice while also noting that Cooper can work in different genres and fit into them well. He seems equally comfortable writing a rousing inspirational speech, a situation comedy script, and a detective novel. They each fit their genre well, while still incorporating elements that can be seen in the others. These are just three folders from six boxes of material and I haven’t had time to search thoroughly to find what other stories might be in the collection, but I do hope I can find the time someday because I was very entertained by the inspiration, comedy, and drama I found in the papers of the former head of the Department of Geology.

If you’d like to look through the Byron Nelson Cooper Papers in person, you are welcome to visit us on the first floor of Newman Library. Please note, this collection is housed in off-site storage and you should contact us in advance to request materials be brought to the library for your use.

The Future’s Past

Electric Vehicles of the Early 20th Century and the H. H. Skinner Papers

 

With all of the attention that electric vehicles have received in recent years, it may seem at times that they’re a new invention, a product of the same 21st-century march of progress that has brought us smartphones, 3D printing, and virtual reality. But in fact, battery-powered vehicles have been around since the 1800s. According to the Department of Energy’s website, electric vehicles accounted for about a third of all vehicles traveling the nation’s roads and streets in 1900, and sales remained strong into the 1910s. This first heyday of the electric vehicle is documented in the H. H. Skinner Papers (Ms1988-061), a small but fascinating collection in Special Collections & University Archives.

A native of New York state, Herbert Harold Skinner (1886-1971) had worked for several electric companies before becoming an engineer/salesman with the Narragansett Electric Lighting Company of Providence, Rhode Island, around 1909.  Three years later, the company became interested in electric vehicles, attracted by their potential as a source for additional sales of electricity, and Skinner’s papers suggest that the young engineer oversaw the company’s foray into electric vehicles. Included in the collection is an in-house report describing how the company would directly benefit from its own use of electrics and how it might realize as much as $188,000 ($5.5 million in today’s dollars) in additional sales per year through the use of such vehicles by its customers. In arguing for electrics, the report delves into their history, technology, and economy.

The Baker Electrics coupe (top) and Buffalo Electric Company roadster (bottom) were marketed to upscale residential customers.

While emphasizing luxury or sportiness when marketing electrics to residential customers, manufacturers focused on utility when promoting the battery-powered vehicles to business and industry. This electric truck (which looks like something from a post-apocalyptic movie) was manufactured by Boston’s Eldridge Manufacturing Company and  was owned by the Metropolitan Coal Company.

Although the gasoline-powered vehicle’s eventual and complete dominance of the automotive market may appear to have been inevitable in hindsight, such an outcome couldn’t be foreseen at the advent of the 20th century. The horse, as it had for millennia, continued to serve as the primary choice for personal transportation and short-distance haulage. (Steam-powered cars, relying on a long-familiar technology, also maintained a small place in the market during this era.) Early gas-powered vehicles were difficult to start and operate, and they emitted fumes, smoke, and noise. Battery-powered electrics, in contrast, were simple, clean and quiet–advantages that offset their higher price tags. The electric vehicle was particularly well suited for urban, short-distance driving, and many of the ad campaigns for electrics targeted women; others promoted the technology’s use for commercial delivery or for public services.

In marketing electric vehicles to Providence residents and businesses, Skinner and the Narragansett Electric Lighting Company performed a number of cost-analysis studies, several of which are contained within the collection. In late June, the H. M. Phelps Company conducted a five-day demonstration to determine the cost-effectiveness of an electric delivery truck for the Shepard Company’s local parcel delivery service. The report includes complete details for the demonstration routes and the power used  during the five-day period, determining that delivery by electric vehicle would cost the company between $.059 and $.061 per mile and between $.014 and $.019 per delivery. (Supplementing the figures are images of several electric truck and wagon options.) In concluding the report, Skinner extols the virtues of the electric vehicle and its battery, claiming that a full night’s charge would provide sufficient power for a 60-mile route in Providence under ordinary circumstances. Interestingly, one of the benefits listed by Skinner relates to labor. Knowing the desire by businesses to keep all costs low, Skinner asserts: “The electric does not require a chauffeur. When a man has learned to operate the car, he has learned nothing that will justify him in asking for a higher salary. “

A fleet of Baker electrics employed as parcel delivery trucks by Halle Bros. of Cleveland, Ohio. According to the promotional blurb on the back of the photo, use of the electrics had halved the company’s annual delivery expenses.

Skinner’s customer files contain many smaller studies and reports on electric vehicle performance and cost. In some cases, the reports provide head-to-head cost comparisons with other modes of transportation. A 1913 letter to the Outlet Company, for example, compares the costs of a 1-ton electric delivery truck to those of a horse and accompanying equipment, concluding that the truck would be 51% cheaper to operate. Elsewhere, in a study comparing costs of an electric 4-ton Baker truck with a 4-ton gasoline-powered Packard, the figures show that while the $4500 price tag of the Baker was $1000 higher than that of the Packard, the Baker would cost $1500 less to operate per year. The collection is full of such data and would lead anybody reading it to conclude that electric vehicles were fated to be the mainstay of personal transportation and short-distance haulage for years to come.

An electric armored vehicle used by a trust company of Newark, New Jersey. A note on the back of the photo claims that the vehicle was “absolutely burglar proof.”

As it happened, the Narragansett Lighting Company’s venture into the electric vehicle market was ill-timed, as the confluence of several developments would soon cause the collapse of the electric vehicle industry. Ford’s introduction of the Model T in 1908 further reduced the initial cost of a gasoline-powered vehicle, while the development of the electric starter simplified the starting process. Moreover, as rural road conditions improved, long distance personal transportation became more feasible and demanded a cheap, easily accessible fuel source. Few rural areas had electricity at the time, and gasoline had become a cheap, readily available and inexpensive. Internal combustion technology also continued to advance, somewhat reducing complaints about noise and exhaust.

Its use limited to haulage over very short distances, this lift, manufactured by the Automatic Transportation Company of Buffalo and owned by Atlantic Mills of Providence, illustrates the somewhat unglamorous service to which electric vehicle power would be relegated for several decades.

Of course, none of this happened overnight, and electrics continued to be a significant part of the automotive market for several more years. Soon, however, the battery-powered vehicle virtually disappeared from the nation’s roads and streets. While electricity continued to power such niche vehicles as forklifts, it would be decades before concerns over the environment and the availability of fossil fuels would again spur serious interest in electric and hybrid vehicles as a viable mode of transportation. None of that was obvious to H. H. Skinner and the Narragansett Lighting Company in 1912, however, and in this small collection we can see an optimistic outlook for a then-flourishing industry.

More on H. H. Skinner and his papers may be found in the collection’s finding aid.

“The Words of Children” April 16th Remembrance Exhibit

Displayed on Newman Library’s 2nd floor now through April 22 during the library’s open hours, “The Words of Children” exhibit highlights items that Virginia Tech received following the tragic events of April 16, 2007. It features children’s letters, drawings, condolence books, and objects from elementary, middle, and high school students from around the world. The more than 150 items are filled with messages of love, hope, and peace, many of which have not been displayed for exhibition before.
 
A complimentary digital exhibit includes the letters and drawings on display as well as memories of those affected by April 16th collected in the April 16, 2007, Oral History Collection and from VT Stories. The digital exhibit is available at https://tinyurl.com/April162022Exhibit.
 
The exhibit is one of many events honoring the 23 Hokies we lost 15 years ago. Visit the Remembrance website at https://www.weremember.vt.edu/ for more information.
 

We continue to remember the 32 victims:

Ross A. Alameddine
Christopher James Bishop
Brian R. Bluhm
Ryan Christopher Clark
Austin Michelle Cloyd
Jocelyne Couture-Nowak
Daniel Alejandro Perez Cueva
Kevin P. Granata
Matthew Gregory Gwaltney
Caitlin Millar Hammaren
Jeremy Michael Herbstritt
Rachael Elizabeth Hill
Emily Jane Hilscher
Jarrett Lee Lane
Matthew Joseph La Porte
Henry J. Lee

Liviu Librescu
G.V. Loganathan
Partahi Mamora Halomoan Lumbantoruan
Lauren Ashley McCain Daniel
Patrick O’Neil
Juan Ramon Ortiz-Ortiz
Minal Hiralal Panchal
Erin Nicole Peterson
Michael Steven Pohle, Jr.
Julia Kathleen Pryde
Mary Karen Read
Reema Joseph Samaha
Waleed Mohamed Shaalan
Leslie Geraldine Sherman
Maxine Shelly Turner
Nicole Regina White

Addressing difficult topics can be stressful and cause anxiety, difficulty concentrating, sleep loss, and even concerns about safety. If you or a loved one needs help, visit https://www.weremember.vt.edu/ for available resources.

The Unrealized Vision of Architect Merle Easton’s “School Street Concept:” A Window Into Public Education Reform in 1970s West Philadelphia

The Merle Easton Collection is fully processed and the finding aid is available here.

Born in 1940, Merle Easton grew up in Sitka, Alaska, a port town on Baranof Island, southwest of Juneau, just to the west of British Columbia. She attended several schools in the Pacific Northwest before ultimately earning her Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Washington in Seattle in 1966. Interested in patterns of urban development and accounting for community needs in design, she developed a plan for a Community Center in central Seattle for her thesis project.

Following graduation, Easton found steady work in the Mid-Atlantic states. She worked independently, but also with agencies focused on concerns around urban renewal, affordable housing, and community displacement. As an independent architect, Easton developed the “street school” concept that was an outgrowth of the Mantua-Powelton Mini-School (MPMS) in West Philadelphia. Her conceptual design was intended to become a template for decentralized, modular schools, using inexpensive prefabricated units, integrated into their local neighborhoods. While the mini-school itself wasn’t a product of Easton’s design, it was her direct inspiration. An urban renewal project focused on refurbishing an abandoned factory building to house a small, integrated, and community-controlled school, the Mini-school sought to implement a radically different curriculum in a “found” space. The school served roughly 120-150 students (nearly all Black) in the two years it was open, all drawn from the surrounding area, and was meant to be a bridge between the middle class Powelton neighborhood and the predominantly Black and underserved Mantua neighborhood.

Riffing on the underlying philosophy of the Mini-school, Easton collaborated with neighborhood activist and MPMS principal Forrest Adams to develop a design geared toward scaling the existing school into a “mini-school system.” This prototype would offer affordable and sustainable growth that would expand the school without disrupting community life – it would rehabilitate and reuse space and resources, minimize waste and impingement, and weave community life and experiential learning into the fabric of elementary education. Easton developed drawings, scale models, and a film to promote the concept and get critical buy-in from the Mantua and Powelton communities and various funding agencies.

The project was written about in two issues of Progressive Architecture, Design and Planning: The New Schools by James Morisseau, and in Women in American Architecture: A Historic and Contemporary Perspective, edited by Susana Torre. In Torre’s book, Easton’s vision is described as “designed to cut time and expense in school construction, to revitalize high density inner city neighborhoods and to provide a more complete and relevant education including the entire community in the process. The school utilizes ‘found’ spaces, such as streets and empty lots. Prefabricated classrooms and toilets, multimedia domed meeting rooms and retractable barrel vaults plug into a community and draw upon people, existing businesses, and institutions as educational resources” (Torre 164). Adams and Easton both advocated for the idea of a “street school” as more cost effective than the traditional alternatives, arguing it would cost $7-10 per square foot compared to $21-30 per square foot of conventional school construction (Progressive Architecture 34). And yet the idea failed to garner enough critical traction to be fully realized.

The Mantua-Powelton Mini-School foundered for a few reasons, some rooted in a lack of critical oversight, others located in the novelty of its power structure. In Seven Schools, a 1972 publication from The Young Great Society Building Foundation, the authors cite the fact that the school had too little time to fully develop multiple radical approaches to education. This, coupled with not making good on its promise of engaging the community, lack of continued funding, and disagreements among its teachers regarding both curriculum and discipline, made for chaotic implementation and practically doomed the school from the start (Goldfarb et al. 33-35). On top of these problems there was the additional stressor of the refurbished factory being poorly adapted as an educational environment.

The mission of the school and, later, the “school street concept” was and continued to be community empowerment, but as Mark R. Shedd, superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia from 1967 to 1972, admitted in a private interview: “In the early days I thought community control was the thing. Now I think shared power is more realistic. I don’t think the central administration or the board or the superintendent can abdicate. I don’t think that’s proper or realistic. The mini-school represented, in part, an abdication of our responsibilities. We didn’t insist from the outset on the proper kind of management controls… We should have insisted upon a much closer audit and monitoring function. But we didn’t” (Shedd as qtd. on 35). Here there are multiple interlocking structures at play: the educational system itself, local power structures, community participation incentives (needed to generate buy-in), zoning (and redlining), resource allocation, and so on. While the mini-school and Easton’s “school street concept” were distinct from each other, I think it’s an interesting exercise to map the lessons of the mini-school onto the larger vision of the “street school.” That’s not to say that the school street or mini-school system would necessarily have failed in its implementation, but the exercise aims to understand how fraught it can be to navigate multiple entrenched systems while trying to generate innovative design solutions.

After her work on the mini-school Easton went on to work as a draftsperson, job captain, and staff architect at several firms and on a variety of projects, including hospitals, churches, and schools. As job captain at Victor H. Wilburn & Associates, she produced a report, included in her collection, analyzing the programs of the Wilmington Housing Authority and proposing measures and policy adjustments to make their programs more effective. In the introduction to the WHA report she summarizes the problem with Wilmington planning: “policy sprawl.” Quoting an interviewee: “‘Policy sprawl’ – that ungraceful, bits-and-pieces spread of plans and projects without any overall vision to offer the public” (representative of Gauge Corporation quoted in WHA Report). A consistent thread running through Easton’s materials is her commitment to “big picture” thinking about long-term development and planning and I’m so glad her collection is now fully accessible to researchers.

References

  • Epstein, Ed. Race, Real Estate, and Education: The University of Pennsylvania’s Interventions in West Philadelphia, 1960-1980. Diss. University of Pennsylvania, 2020.
  • Goldfarb, Lawrence, Peter Brown, and Thomas P. Gallagher. Seven Schools: A Story of Community Action for Better Education. The Young Great Society Building Foundation: Philadelphia, 1972.
  • Materials relating to the Mantua-Powelton Mini-School and “school street concept,” Folders 9-13, Box 2, Merle Easton Architectural Collection, Ms2021-028, Special Collections and University Archives, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Va.
  • “School in the Streets” in Progressive Architecture. New York: Reinhold, October 1970. Print.
  • Torre, Susana (ed.). Women in American Architecture: A Historic and Contemporary Perspective : A Publication and Exhibition Organized by the Architectural League of New York through its Archive of Women in Architecture. Whitney Library of Design, New York, 1977.
  • Victor H. Wilburn and Associates, Progress Report to Wilmington Housing Authority, Folder 7, Box 2, Merle Easton Architectural Collection, Ms2021-028, Special Collections and University Archives, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Va.

 

 

An Incident of Reconstruction

Very often when reading old letters, it’s easy to lose a large part of the writer’s meaning, even when the penmanship is perfect and the grammar impeccable. Being far removed from the writer’s time and place, we lose a great deal of the context, of the experiences and culture shared by the correspondents, and may, in our ignorance, overlook accounts of significant events. The C. L. Porcher Letter (Ms1988-072) relates an event in Black history–albeit from the perspective of a white woman–but that aspect of the letter could easily be missed without a careful reading of its contents.

A native of Charleston, South Carolina, Clelia Lightwood Porcher was living and working as a teacher in that city when she sat down to write a letter on September 12, 1876. After briefly discussing a family matter, Porcher remarks that “Isaac was summoned and was out until after one, but Sunday + Monday night the rain was so steady that no disturbance was even looked for …” (“Isaac” was probably Isaac Mazyak, or Mazyck, who appears in the 1880 census as a 24-year-old clerk, boarding in the Porcher home.) Later, Porcher adds that “[t]he Mayor’s and Governor’s proclamation has only had the effect of making them more determined than they were before.” She continues by noting that the city is well protected and the danger likely over, then describes a large meeting of women at the Confederate Home, held for the purpose of organizing refreshments for men serving guard duty throughout the city. (She’s not optimistic about the women’s organization, however: “We were there three blessed hours and came away as wise as I went about what was to be done.”) Porcher also expresses her feelings about the mood in the city: “I have never been so excited in my life before + every body can think and talk of nothing else … We hear the slightest unusual sound during the night, so as you may imagine our sleep is not very profound.” But the following day, Porcher reports that the unrest has been quelled: “[I]t is thought that everything now will be quiet, the only thing is, our men cannot relax their vigilance.”

     

All of this hints at some civil disturbance experienced in Charleston, but what was it? Who were the “them” to whom Porcher refers? Why were they “more determined” after hearing the mayor’s and governor’s proclamations? A few online searches reveal that Porcher’s letter relates to politics and race relations in Charleston near the end of Reconstruction.

Early in September 1876, Charleston saw two Democratic Party meetings in which several local Black residents spoke about their reasons for abandoning the Republican Party. In a Black Democratic Party club meeting held on King Street on September 6, two Black speakers spoke against the Republican Party. Afterward white Democrats escorted the speakers through a crowd of Republicans that had gathered outside the Democratic meeting. Violence between the two groups ensued, and the intervention of federal troops and an integrated local police force was of little consequence. (Not on hand that first night were the city’s many “rifle clubs”–essentially local militia–which were the clubs to which Porcher refers.) Windows were smashed, stores were looted, a number of people were assaulted, and one white man was accidentally killed.

That Porcher’s letter was written six days after the incident suggests that the unrest continued for some time. In response to the violence, Republican South Carolina Governor Daniel Henry Chamberlain issued a proclamation promising to “secure to every man, of whatever political party, the right to speak, act and vote freely and safely …” Neglecting to state what actions he would take to restore order, Chamberlain called on all citizens to do their utmost in preserving the peace: “The spirit of poiltical intolerance, in all its forms,” he wrote, “is the direst curse which now oppresses our State, and peace and prosperity will never come until that foul spirit is finally exorcised.” Despite his lofty ideals, Chamberlain was seen as ineffective in suppressing the violence. A lack of voter confidence in his ability to quell the violence, coupled with suppression of Black voters and the defection of others to the Republican Party, led to Chamberlain’s defeat in November.

The feelings aroused that fall in Charleston and elsewhere would play out in the national election. Losses by Republicans in November, together with the Compromise of 1877, which led to the withdrawal of the remaining federal troops from the South, ended the promises of Reconstruction. A close reading of the Porcher Letter provides a look at this incident of Reconstruction.

 

Physics and The Man: Cold War Science and Dr. Robert Marshak

Robert Eugene Marshak was born October 11, 1916 in the Bronx in New York City to Jewish immigrant parents Harry and Rose Marshak. He excelled at school, attending City College of New York for a brief time before finishing his undergraduate degree at Columbia University. He then went on to receive his PhD in Physics from Cornell in 1939. He and his thesis advisor, Hans Bethe, researched the role of fusion in star formation. This work landed him a spot on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos a few years later, where he assisted in the development of atomic weapons technology. Of particular note were his contributions to our understanding of how shock waves behave during high energy events such as nuclear explosions, which led to such waves being known as “Marshak waves”. 

After the war, Marshak returned to New York to take up a position in the Physics Department at Rochester University in Rochester. In 1947, as a participant in the Shelter Island Conference, Marshak presented a hypothesis theorizing the existence of a new class of subatomic particle, which was shortly to be confirmed. After becoming head of the University of Rochester Physics Department in 1950, Marshak established the Rochester Conference, now known as the International Conference on High Energy Physics, which still meets to this day. His work on weak interactions was instrumental to establishing the electroweak theory, which won Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann a Nobel Prize.

It is unclear what Marshak’s beliefs were before World War II, but, following his work on the Manhattan Project, he became a staunch supporter of open science and an end to the militarization of science and technology. He worked tirelessly to enhance scientific communication, protest nationalist scientific policies, and promote peace. While people who knew him frequently described him as being prickly, arrogant, and difficult to work with, he nevertheless used his position and renown within his field to support and advocate for scientists who found themselves persecuted by their own governments. He maintained an active correspondence with physicists and scientists all over the world and attended conferences, symposia, meetings, and workshops to learn and share his own knowledge. 

 

A letter to Marshak from Albert Einstein.

 

In 1970, he was offered the position of President at City College of New York, which he had once attended. He accepted, and ran the school for 9 years. As time wore on, he found he missed physics and teaching, so in 1979 he took up the position of University Distinguished Professor of Physics at Virginia Tech, where he stayed until his retirement in 1991. In 1983, while at Virginia Tech, he also served a year-long term as President of the American Physical Society, which is the largest organization of American physicists. 

One incident in particular highlights Marshak’s commitment to scientific freedom and openness.  Andrei Sakharov was a nuclear physicist from the Soviet Union. His life had a similar trajectory to Marshak’s. He too worked on nuclear technology for his country, and he too came to believe that weaponizing science was a sure path to war and destruction. However, his life turned out much differently than Marshak’s. In the 1950’s and 60’s, Sakharov began to advocate for peace and an end to nuclear testing. He became a well-known dissident within his own country, work which would eventually lead to his arrest, exile, and a Nobel Peace Prize. It is during this period where his story intersects with Marshak’s. In Marshak’s papers, one can trace the American’s growing concern with the danger and persecution facing his Soviet colleague, as well as his efforts to bring the situation to the attention of the global community and prevent harm from coming to Sakharov, who by now was known much more for his political actions than for his work as a physicist. Marshak did not face such overt threats, but his support of and communication with Soviet scientists throughout the Cold War period brought him under scrutiny at a time when the specter of communism made any connection to the USSR a dangerous one. He was forced to undergo several investigations by the House Un-American Activities Committee as a result of his work. Despite this, Marshak never stopped being an advocate for the peaceful sharing of science and technology. 

This only skims the surface of Marshak’s papers. The finding aid for his collections can be found here.  

 

This project was supported by a grant from the American Institute of Physics.

Deadly Obsession

Homer Davis and His Unusual Legacy

With the Halloween season upon us, our thoughts naturally turn to the eerie and macabre, and so I thought I’d tell you today about the morbid souvenirs collected by a creature who once haunted American cemeteries from coast to coast.

Okay, Homer Davis was no ghoul. But if I’d opened by saying that this would be a post about somebody who enjoyed visiting cemeteries as a pleasant past-time (as many people do) and took photos of the noteworthy graves that he found within them, you’d have been less inclined to take a moment to read about a nice  little collection here in Special Collections and University Archives that deserves some attention.

The Homer E. Davis Papers (Ms2001-051) contain materials collected by a Civil War enthusiast and amateur historian, including Civil War maps, memorabilia, and publications—the types of things found in any number of other such collections. Born in 1922 and a veteran of World War II, Homer Davis was working as a stockbroker when health problems forced him into early retirement in 1971. It was this forced retirement that led to an unusual component of his collection.  In his newfound leisure time, Davis began visiting and photographing the gravesites of Civil War generals. Because that’s a relatively short list of people, Davis’s interest soon expanded to the resting places of other Civil War veterans, and eventually he began documenting the graves of other noteworthy individuals, including  politicians, entertainers, authors, and others. And so the Homer Davis Papers include photographs documenting approximately 12,000 gravesites in all 50 states.

Davis was hardly alone in his interest in graveyards. Cemeteries have long been frequented by those seeking a tranquil retreat or a link with our shared past. The hobby of visiting cemeteries with a view toward preservation of gravesites through photography is a relatively recent one, however. Today, millions of gravesites are photographically preserved on findagrave and other websites through the efforts of “gravers,” but during Davis’s active years, 1971-1982, few people were making a systematic effort at photographic preservation, and it’s a good bet that some of the gravesites visited by Davis have since fallen into ruin or have even disappeared, with his photographs being their only surviving record.

 

 

A few random gravesite images from among the thousands photographed by Davis: poet-author Carl Sandburg, abolitionist-statesman Frederick Douglass, and actress-singer Lillian Russell.

Though without attention to craft, seemingly composed in haste, and sometimes lacking in sharpness, Davis’s photographs preserve the setting and appearance of the subject matter. He often took multiple photos of a single gravesite, attempting not only to document the entire monument, but the inscriptions thereon. Like a good hobbyist of any kind, Davis was a stickler for details, and the verso of each photograph contains the name of the interred, the location of the grave, the date of the photograph, and a brief description of the deceased’s claim to fame. Complementing the photo collection are Davis’s cemetery research folders (one for each state and the District of Columbia), including research notes, correspondence, local maps, and—most significantly—information on individual cemeteries.

Among the lesser-knowns memorialized by Davis is Timothy Dexter (1748-1806) of Newburyport, Massachusetts, identified by Davis on the verso as an “[e]ccentric merchant and author of a humorous autobiography. The town clown.”

The back of the photograph documenting the grave of Philip John Schuyler contains a mini-biography of Philip John Schuyler, Revolutionary War major general and congressman.

Tragically, Homer Davis’s life was cut short as a result of injuries received in an automobile accident during a Michigan graving excursion in 1982. When Peggy Davis, his wife and graving companion, died in 2000, Davis’s papers (and a sizable Civil War book collection), were donated to Special Collections and University Archives. (A selection of Davis’s gravesite photos from southwestern Virginia were scanned soon after the donation and may be found in our Imagebase.)

Because the Davis papers were the first that I processed at Virginia Tech, I have a bit of a soft spot for them, and I hope they’ll see more use in the future. Certainly, they’d be of interest to anybody researching general burial practices and specific burial places, or possibly the nature of celebrity, or somebody exploring graving as a hobby or even the compulsive world of hobbyists. In fact, Special Collections and University Archives and our researchers have been the ultimate beneficiary of the disparate passions of a number of hobbyists, from the collections of amateur ornithologists Eugene Law and Harold Bailey, to the railroad memorabilia collected by Wythe County’s Wayne Perkins, and from the research notes of several family and local historians to the scrapbooks of many Virginia Tech students. But none are quite as unusual as the legacy of Homer Davis.