Summer technology changes at Special Collections and University Archives!

Please be aware that both Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA) and the University Libraries will be going through several major technology changes in the next few weeks. During this time, you may notice that resources are moving to a new “look,” are temporarily unavailable, or have broken links. We appreciate your patience while we work through these changes and have an opportunity to make decisions and update resources behind-the-scenes. We apologize that some resources may be interrupted, but our services should not be.

As we get through these transitions, we’ll have a new post or two to talk about what these changes mean for visitors, researchers, and staff at SCUA, and if we expect some longer-term temporarily solutions in place.

We encourage you to contact us if you have questions ( or 540-231-6308)–we’re here to help, especially when things are temporarily disrupted!

Universal Design: Approaching Accessibility and Sustainability with Intention in the Present and Future of Design

This post was written by IAWA Student Library Assistant Neera Naran. She studies landscape architecture in the College of Art, Architecture, and Design at Virginia Tech.

The Steven and Cathi House Architectural Collection is available for research in the University Libraries’ Special Collections and University Archives at Virginia Tech.

On the Baja Peninsula, overlooking the Sea of Cortez, sits Casa Cabo Pulmo, House + House Architects’ one-of-a-kind, fully accessible home. Covered in rich hues of red, orange, and yellow and an abundance of floor-to-ceiling windows, the two-story house radiates warmth, reflecting the surrounding landscape. Casa Cabo Pulmo, built in 2010, is just one of many environmentally conscious and well-choreographed establishments that Cathi and Steven House have created in their careers. Alumni of the Virginia Tech architecture program, where they met in the 1970s, the Houses formed House + House Architects in 1982 and since then have garnered over 50 design awards, been featured in numerous national and international publications, lectured across North America, and published three books. When beginning the creative process for Casa Cabo Pulmo, Steven and Cathi approached the home through the lens of universal design, something that can be observed across many of their projects.

In the practice of architecture, historically, accessibility has often been an afterthought, i.e., not intentionally integrated into the design and aesthetic of a project. Universal design is making things accessible regardless of physical or mental ability and doing so without the need for adaptation or specialization. The term was coined in the 1980s by architect Ronald Mace, who created universal design as someone with first-hand experience living in a world that didn’t always consider accessibility, as he used a wheelchair for his whole life after contracting polio at the age of nine. Universal design simply refers to design usable by all people. To ensure the creation of a space suitable for all types of abilities, it’s important to take on accessibility as a key part of the design process, thinking about how it shapes user experience in the present and future of the project.

Accessibility and sustainability were considered throughout all the design moves with Casa Cabo Pulmo. The house is a happy blend of the owners, Patricia Wright and Debra Zeyen, as Patricia is a disability rights activist and Debra is an executive director for an institute in Baja, Mexico, striving to protect coastal ecosystems. Wright and Zeyen wanted to make sure the house could withstand time and provide for their needs long into the future, as they had current physical demands for themselves and friends, as well as a future where they could both possibly have disability concerns.

House + House Architects believe that accessibility shouldn’t be an afterthought in design. In the words of Steven House, “A lot of it comes down to common sense. We assume people are going to get older in their home, and you might eventually have a harder time working and seeing. For every project we do, we think about these concepts and incorporate them from the beginning so they’re not tacked on” (2015). Accessibility should be fully incorporated in design strategies, addressed as an integral part of the experience it provides, not merely baseline functionality. Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance is done in a tasteful manner in the style of Cathi House, showing there was thought and intention behind it, and displaying accessibility in a beautiful way.

South elevation view where the ramp entrance is shown, the entire structure incorporated into the design of the house. From the Steven and Cathi House Architectural Collection, Ms2006-017, Special Collections, University Libraries, Virginia Polytechnic and State University.

One of the main features of the house is a winding 165 ft. ramp that can be used to get from one level of the house to the other, including terraces for stopping and observing surrounding views of the landscape and water. Many of the design choices were informed by the landscape, including the intricate hand railing for the ramp that casts shadows which mimic the waves of the ocean. The ramp presents twists and turns in order for the user to spend time in the space, appreciating the beauty it has to offer, rather than just passing through. In addition to the ramp, Cathi House included hydraulic lifts on ceilings, lower light switches and handles, accessible bathrooms and showers, access to all patios, appliances and counters at a lower level, higher outlets, curved benches, and wide hallways to contribute to the universal design of the house. While some of these features may seem insignificant to an able-bodied person, these make all the difference in the everyday life of someone with accessibility concerns. Although they were made with the intention of being used primarily by those with disabilities, the owners believed these design additions to be helpful for all, regardless of ability.

Along with accessibility, sustainability was also heavily addressed in the design of the house, as the owners wanted an energy-independent home. Features like passive and active solar heating, convection and shading, and cross ventilation were added to the establishment. Additionally, water storage in the ADA accessible ramp for rainwater with an irrigation and purification system was designed. Material usage was also informed by sustainability and energy use, as Palapa roofing and shades, concrete flooring, and solar panels were included.

First floor plan with view of the open layout, including features like concrete flooring and the 165 ft. ramp. From the Steven and Cathi House Architectural Collection, Ms2006-017, Special Collections, University Libraries, Virginia Polytechnic and State University.

Not only does House + House Architects put the idea of universal design into practice, but they spread their knowledge of it, as well. Cathi and Steven believe that universal design isn’t discussed or taught properly at universities, and they make it a mission to have accessibility be a large part of their teachings to students. In their program, The Center for Architecture Sustainability + Art (CASA), the Houses host a group of Virginia Tech architecture students every summer at their school in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. This study abroad program strives to teach students how to make their environment a thoughtful and sustainable place. The group travels to multiple cities in Mexico, observing the history of architecture in the past in order to create connections to architecture of the future. They prioritize informing young designers with the knowledge of accessibility and sustainability so that in the future, they are able to think of these as integral parts of the process. Ultimately, CASA provides students with a deeper understanding of what it means to be a designer living in a place that harmonizes with an interconnected and diverse environmental system.

Universal design is key to the future of architecture, as it creates spaces made for the widest range of bodies, centering user experience in the creative process. How people function in a space and how they feel in a space should go hand in hand when developing a design, as Cathi House has demonstrated in Casa Cabo Pulmo, which is a beautiful testament to what accessibility and sustainability can look like when considered essential factors of design.


Carey, Lydia. “Award-winning Baja home proves accessibility can be beautiful.” Mexico News Daily, 28 August 2019,

House + House Architects. “Casa Cabo Pulmo.” House and House, undated,

Sisson, Patrick. “A Remote Baja Home Built to Be Accessible to Everyone.” Curbed, VOX Media, 13 August 2015,

The Universal Design Project. “What is Universal Design? – The UD Project.” The Universal Design Project, undated,

Letters from a Galvanized Yankee

Despite twin victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the Union Army continued to sustain heavy losses–in the form of casualties and desertions–in 1863, leading President Lincoln to  authorize the somewhat unorthodox proposal of recruiting soldiers from among Confederate prisoners of war. Organization of the 1st United States Volunteer Infantry (USVI) commenced at Point Lookout Prison on January 21, 1864.

Among the first prisoners to take the oath of allegiance and enlist was Andrew Jackson “Jack” Lewis, formerly of the 40th Virginia Infantry. The Andrew J. Lewis Correspondence (Ms1988-097) in Special Collections and University Archives contains three letters from Andrew and one from Harriet Lewis, his wife.

A native of Orange County, Virginia, Lewis grew up in Spotsylvania County, where he married Harriet C. Tapp in 1859. By 1860, he was working as a laborer while he and Harriet lived with Harriet’s mother and family. Through the first year of the Civil War, Lewis apparently remained uninvolved in the conflict. When the 40th Virginia Infantry—composed of men recruited from Lancaster, Northumberland, and Richmond counties—encamped in the vicinity of the Spotsylvania-Caroline county line in April, 1862, however, Lewis may have found the lure of army life impossible to resist. On May 7, he enlisted in Company B. Whether he participated just a few weeks later in the Battle of Seven Pines, in which the 40th sustained heavy losses, is unknown. He most likely participated in the Battle of Chancellorsville the following May, and evidence places him in the Battle of Gettysburg in July, 1863. While on retreat from Gettysburg, the 40th engaged Union forces in the Battle of Falling Waters on July 14. Lewis was among 500 Confederates (including 73 from his regiment) taken prisoner at the battle. After being imprisoned in Baltimore for a month, Lewis was transferred to Point Lookout, Maryland. It’s likely that their first news that Lewis’s family had of his whereabouts came from a letter within our collection, written at Point Lookout 13 weeks after his capture. In this brief letter, written to his mother, Lewis advises her that he is well but despairs of any hope of an impending release.

Organization of the 1st USVI provided Lewis with the opportunity for an early reprieve. While the choice of joining the ranks of a former enemy would have been a highly personal matter, subject to many individual considerations, prison conditions undoubtedly won the argument for many inmates. Andrew J. Lewis, whose Confederate service may have owed more to a yen for adventure than to ideology, became one of the earliest recruits, taking the oath of allegiance and enlisting for three years’ service in Company A, 1st United States Volunteers on January 23.

Nearly 6,000 other prisoners made the same decision. They came to be known derisively among both their former and future comrades as “Galvanized Yankees,” soldiers, who, despite the outward appearance of their uniform, were considered of suspect loyalty. As such, the regiments of former Confederates were generally assigned to duty far removed from the front lines of the war. Many of them ultimately were assigned to duty in the American west.

Following its organization, the 1st was assigned to provost duty in eastern Virginia and North Carolina for several months before being transferred in August to the Department of the Northwest in Wisconsin. While enroute, several companies were detached from the regiment in Chicago, Company A being among four companies continuing to Milwaukee for assignment to the District of Minnesota. In an interesting letter written to his wife on September 10, 1865, Lewis discusses a number of topics, among them his favorable impression of the local prospects for a farmer and the possibility of moving there permanently:

I think if you could Bee in this State a while and Enjoy the nice Breeses and good helth you would Bee Sadisfied to live in this Country, thir is plenty of good land and costes But little[.] men can get 160 acres in this State for fifteen dollars … I think that a man that has Bin Broken up By the ware can do Better, and make a Better living that any other State I have Bin Since I have Bin traveling [.] a man working By the month can get from 35 to 40 dollars per month and at some work he can get fifty.

Lewis further writes of his great desire to return home once more before deciding whether to permanently relocate to Minnesota following his discharge. He writes of being desperate to see Harriet again and that when he received her last letter, he and a friend “went out to the Bank of the Miss [Mississippi River] an he read it for me [postwar census records indicate that Lewis was illiterate] and I tel you we had a time of it we Boohooed an while and then we [illegible] our eyes allmost out.” Lewis notes that Company A is soon to depart for Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and he hopes to be mustered out upon arrival “as I have Bin told that is a place for mustering out all ex rebel troops.”

Lewis’s optimism for an early discharge was misplaced. On November 27, Harriet writes from home, expressing a desperate need to hear from him, having recently written three letters with no response. She then shares news of family members, including Andrew’s mother, who is soon to be remarried, and asks Andrew to send her an ambrotype of himself.

By this time, Company A was in western Kansas, manning the outpost at Monument Station, an “eating station” along the Butterfield Stagecoach Line. Responding to Harriet’s letter, Andrew describes the territory as “a lonesome Country – we cant get Stamps or nothing Else except Buffalow meat.” His lonesomeness spurs him to offer to pay Harriet’s way to Kansas and to ask about the possibility of finding a substitute to complete his military service obligation: “I think you had Better make up your mind to come out hear – if you will come I will Send you money to come on – please send me word who that is that wants to take my place in the army, and then I will let you know what I can do – I will send you Some money the first opportunity[.]”

Andrew and the rest of the 1st USVI mustered out at Fort Leavenworth on May 22, 1866. Whether Harriet ever had the opportunity to visit him while he was in Kansas, we don’t know. We do know that after returning home, Andrew relinquished the idea of moving to Minnesota. Postwar census records show that the Lewises continued to live in Spotsylvania County with their three children. Andrew Jackson Lewis died in Spotsylvania County on April 25, 1883; Harriet, on September 9, 1914.

John Counselman Talks Football

As we’re well into college football season, I thought this would be a good time to share a letter, relevant to the game’s history, written by a one-time Tech player and found within our collections:

Born in Wythe County, Virginia, in 1880, John Sanders Counselman matriculated at Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute (often referred to as VPI, for the sake of much-needed brevity) at the age of twenty. Upon graduating with a bachelor’s degree in science in 1903, he was awarded a fellowship in surveying and drawing, and he earned a master’s degree in civil engineering the following year. Soon afterward, Counselman accepted a position as instructor of mathematics and civil engineering  at the Georgia School of Technology (today, Georgia Tech).

On January 7, 1906, Counselman sat down to write a letter to his friend and former civil engineering classmate, Louis O’Shaughnessy, to acknowledge receipt of the solutions to some shared mathematical problems. Counselman then discusses at length a particular problem involving the area of a cone. Those who aren’t math nerds might be forgiven for not reading past the opening paragraph, but those who are football nerds might regret the decision.

John S. Counselman (from the 1903 Bugle)

In addition to his mathematical prowess, John Counselman displayed great skill on the gridiron from 1901 to 1903, starting at fullback for VPI’s team, then most often known as the Polytechs or the Techmen. For his abilities, Counselman was named Second Team All-Southern in 1901. He may have received many more accolades had he not been overshadowed on the playing field by VPI’s legendary halfback, Hunter Carpenter.

After discussing mathematical conundrums, Counselman quickly transitions to other matters, noting that he’d recently sent O’Shaughnessy a “copy of the system of F. B. … [m]ost of it being Heisman’s.” It takes only a moment to realize that “F. B.” is “football,” and that “Heisman” is none other than John W. Heisman, the iconic coach for whom college football’s Heisman Trophy is named. Over a 35-year career as a head coach, Heisman amassed a record of 186-70-18, and he’s credited with a number of early football innovations, among them the forward pass. In January, 1906, Heisman had just finished the second season of what would be a 16-year stint at Georgia Tech. Counselman apparently served as assistant coach during both of Heisman’s first two seasons at Georgia Tech.

I find no record of Heisman having published anything about his system of coaching prior to his 1921 book, Principles of Foot Ball (or “Football,” in subsequent editions), but it’s obvious from Counselman’s letter that the coach had already made a name for himself as a football guru.:

“The old maxim that tricks won’t win games in F. B. is true till Heisman takes charge of affairs, and then the ‘saying’ is false. Since his migration to the South since when he has coached Auburn Ala. 4 years, Clempson [sic] 4, [Georgia] Tech. 2 and coached 3 yrs prior to them, he has lost few games.” He continues by lauding Heisman’s system and claiming that a team coached by him would defeat any team of similar skills. Counselman expresses wariness of running any of Heisman’s “trick plays,” however, concluding that “no coach can make them go, but Heisman.”

Counselman then diagrams and describes a favorite play of Heisman’s, one that he had used when coaching Clemson against VPI in 1901. “You see that Quarter faces slowly to the left, taking one step in that direction but not moving one foot. The Back who finally takes the ball hides behind the Q and the two other Backs running between these two completely hide the runner. Suddenly the Q shoots thro [through] in front of them, taking out any defensive player in the road.” (Whether or not the play itself was successful, Clemson fell to VPI in that game, 11-17.)

Counselman shares Heisman’s “criss-cross” play with O’Shaughnessy

Why Counselman would be showing Heisman’s plays to O’Shaughnessy is something of a mystery. By early 1905, O’Shaughnessy had been working as an instructor at VPI for nearly a year, but I find no record of his having been associated with the football team in any way. As athletic programs were then less structured than they are today, however, it’s not unlikely that members of the faculty may have been pro viding informal assistance to VPI’s head coach at the time, Clarence “Sally” Miles.

Counselman’s letter is written on the letterhead of the Georgia School of Technology, but the envelope was posted from Ann Arbor, Michigan, and by the time of its writing, Counselman was halfway through a year’s study at the University of Michigan. Counselman would soon be searching for a job. The former Polytech writes that Heisman has been using his influence to win him a teaching/coaching position at Mississippi A. & M. (today Mississippi State University), but he expresses reservations about taking the position: “[T]heir math course strikes me as being rotten.”

Counselman then discusses the future of college football: “What is going to become of the game? They are surely giving it h—. Representation from the Big Nine meet next Friday in C— to discuss it, and they are discussing it lots in the East. Well I don’t care my self what they do. It is a brutal game and one that I got damn tired of playing at V. P. I. I love to watch it, however, and am of the opinion that the more they open it, the more dangerous it will become. I think Billy Ried [sic] is correct in his views and especially when he says that those who expect the roughness to be eliminated had as well abandon the game entirely. “

As indicated by Counselman, representatives of the Western College Conference, the “Big Nine,” met in Chicago that January to address the problem of a game that had become increasingly violent. Between 1900 and 1905, according to the Washington Post, more than 40 players died from injuries sustained on the playing field.  In the east, talks were held in the White House. Together, these and other reform meetings resulted in a number of changes that made the game safer and led to the formation of a rule-making authority, the Intercollegiate Association of the United States, now the NCAA. (The “Billy Ried” to whom Counselman refers was William T. “Bill” Reid Jr.,” who coached Harvard in 1905/1906 and, despite initially resisting changes, would eventually play an important role in reforming college football.)

In the end, Counselman didn’t get the position in Mississippi. Later in 1905, he was hired as physical director at Cumberland University (Lebanon, Tennessee), where he also served as football coach. On October 28, Counselman faced his former boss when Cumberland met Georgia Tech on the playing field. Despite having firsthand knowledge of Heisman’s system and having a hand in developing it, Counselman was no match for his mentor. Georgia Tech came away with an 18-0 win, largely credited to the “double-pass” play, on which Counselman himself had drilled the Georgia Tech players the previous season.

Counselman ended his first season as head coach with a 5-4 record. The following year found him at Howard College (now Samford University) in Birmingham, Alabama, coaching the team to a respectable 6-2-1 record in his first year. The following season, at 3-6, was much less successful, however, and after losing the first two games of the 1908 season, Counselman resigned. It was his last experience as a head coach. Counselman’s career in education continued, however. He remained in Birmingham, heading the Central High School Mathematics Department until 1920. He also had stints as professor of mathematics at the College of William and Mary and superintendent of schools in Tallahassee, Florida.

Counselman could never quite give up participating in the game he loved. Beginning in 1912, his name appears among those officiating games at Auburn. The former fullback continues to be listed as a game official in various directories and game summaries through 1924. John S. Counselman died in 1955.

This isn’t Louis O’Shaughnessy’s first appearance in our blog. More can be found here. And more about the J. S. Counselman Letter (Ms1993-009) may be found here.

Connecting Southwest Virginia: Congressman Rick Boucher’s Early Internet Legacy

This is a guest post by Miranda Christy, recent Virginia Tech History MA graduate and former Special Collections and University Archives graduate assistant.

In recent years, COVID-19 has led many Americans to work or attend school virtually from their homes. The pandemic created an education crisis as schools struggled to transition to online learning and many Americans, especially those in rural areas, lacked internet access to support remote education. The medical industry also faced difficulties as high-risk Americans hesitated to risk infection by seeing doctors onsite. This led the federal government to recognize issues like gaps in internet access and increased internet traffic, prompting responses like this from the Federal Communication Commission (FCC). The Rick Boucher Congressional Papers, recently gifted to Special Collections, shows Southwest Virginia’s role in state and federal internet issues since the early 1990s. While conversations about the role of technology in education and healthcare infrastructure, the materials in this collection show that politicians had thought about these questions since the internet became publicly available.

Image of woman of television. Text on screen: Paid by the Boucher for Congress Committee
Screenshot from 1992 campaign ad focused on electronic classrooms.

Rick Boucher served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1983 to 2011 as the representative for Virginia’s 9th congressional district, a region that covers most of Southwest Virginia, including Blacksburg. Boucher showed a skillfulness in addressing technology issues, serving as chair of the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet and the House Internet Caucus. Through his involvement, Boucher helped create policies and legislation that caused the internet to expand outside its limited use through the National Science Foundation into public and commercial uses. Rick Boucher sponsored a congressional bill to expand the NSF’s development of its networks, known as NSFNET, for commercial purposes. After the NSF removed restrictions on its networks, internet service providers came on the scene to offer web access at competitive prices while new web browsers made the internet both more accessible and more secure for business. In the coming years, internet use grew rapidly, and politicians continued thinking about the possibilities this created.

Email from Laura Lee to Rick Boucher
Email conversation regarding broadband service for UVA telemedicine.

Congressman Boucher’s work also led him to consider ways that broader internet access could fill the needs of his rural constituents. Rick Boucher’s television campaign ad in 1992, the same year he introduced a House bill that allowed internet use for commerce, promoted “electronic classrooms” that connected rural schools to classes in “advanced science and math” through fiber optic internet access. Boucher’s interest in electronic classrooms continued into 1994, where an ad opens by telling viewers that “in the global economy, education provides a competitive edge” while the camera pans over a busy Japanese street scene, before transitioning to a broadcasted math lesson in a Virginia classroom. Congressman

Japanese street scene
Screenshot of 1994 campaign ad focused on electronic classrooms.

Boucher’s campaigns in the early 1990s promised Southwest Virginians access to better education through Boucher’s technology-focused leadership. By 1996, 30 schools had functioning electronic classrooms in Southwest Virginia, with ten more in development.

Rick Boucher and group stands next to a television.
Testing telehealth capabilities in Abingdon, 2001.
Four men at a ribbon cutting event.
Wifi launch event in Dickensen County, 2003.

From the late 1990s into the 2000s, telemedicine became another focus of technology development in Southwest Virginia. The region’s rural residents had limited options for medical care. New telehealth services hoped to link rural providers with UVA and other larger medical systems, so Southwest Virginians could seek medical care without long, expensive travel to other parts of the state. While telehealth has become more accessible in recent years, Congressman Boucher wrote about the barriers to rural telemedicine as recently as 2018, especially the lack of rural broadband access and costs for broadband infrastructure. As for Southwest Virginia, federal funds paved the way for internet access across the region. Rick Boucher encouraged these towns to become “electronic villages,” with classes and other community activities connected through the internet. By 1998, Boucher launched twenty-four electronic villages in Southwest Virginia. Some, like Floyd, included freely accessible computers and lessons on internet use.

Rick Boucher and group holding a large check.
Rick Boucher presents check for federal broadband funding in Tazewell County, 2008.

The region’s growing broadband infrastructure, along with the cheap costs to move business into the region, also brought new jobs to the county. Businesses like Travelocity, EchoStar, XM Radio, and AT&T opened call centers in the region. Many businesses were drawn through Boucher’s “Showcasing Southwest Virginia” program, which brought executives to tour the region and consider the benefits of its low operations costs and untapped workforce. This campaign grew from Congressman Boucher’s hope that a robust broadband infrastructure would bring rural Americans into the twenty-first century economy. 

Rick Boucher speaks with woman at computer.
Rick Boucher visits Travelocity office, 2001.

Rural communities like those in Southwest Virginia still struggle to secure reliable broadband access even as the internet has become more central to Americans’ daily lives. Rick Boucher’s internet in Southwest Virginia still hold relevance for current policy decisions, as his recent publications calling for government support of broadband access and telehealth further reveal.  A look back into Congressman Rick Boucher’s career reveals the ways that contemporary discussions around the connectivity divide and the importance of internet use aren’t so different from the conversations Southwest Virginians prioritized in past decades.

All images from the Rick Boucher Papers, 1968-2017, Ms.2021.048.

Charge It With Charga-Plate!

The O’Shaughnessy Family Papers (Ms1987-052) is one of those manuscript collections that keeps pulling me back for another look. (For those few who had the misfortune to miss my previous post about the collection, you can read it here.) In brief, Louis O’Shaughnessy was a 1903 VPI graduate who returned to his alma mater in 1918 as a professor of applied mechanics and continued to teach here until his retirement in 1954. Professor O’Shaughnessy, his wife Ida Surface O’Shaughnessy, and their daughter Betty lived at what was then 120 Pepper Street, but is today home of the Alpha Phi Chapter of Beta Theta Pi, on Turner Street.

While at first glance the O’Shaughnessys’ papers don’t appear to hold anything of great historical significance, the collection is full of interesting little items that are worthy of exploration and discussion. Among these is an aluminum identification token, somewhat reminiscent of a military dog tag, measuring just 2 ½ x 1 ¼”. The front is embossed “L O Shaughnessy, Blacksburg, Virginia.” On the reverse, the plate holds a card imprinted with “Charga-Plate Associates of Richmond” and a blank line for the holder’s signature.  (The O’Shaughnessys’ card  remains unsigned, indicating that the family never actually used it.) The item is housed in a red leather case, with “Charga-Plate” embossed on one side and “Richmond” on the other.

Charga-Plate and carrying case issued by Charga-Plate Associates of Richmond to the Louis O’Shaughnessy family of Blacksburg.

Largely forgotten today, Charga-Plate was an outgrowth of the time-honored practice by merchants of extending credit to favored customers. While retail credit provided advantages to both seller and buyer, the recording of individual credit transactions presented a cumbersome task for the salesclerk and a time-consuming inconvenience for the customer. Developed by Farrington Manufacturing in 1928, Charga-Plate was an attempt to streamline the process so that salesclerks could forgo writing customers’ names and addresses on every credit sales slip.

Upon charging a purchase, the consumer presented the identification token to the clerk, who placed the plate in a small imprinter (about the size and shape of a stapler), with a charge slip on top of the plate. Downward pressure on the imprinter recorded the customer’s data from the plate onto the charge slip via an inked ribbon. Upon receiving a bill for their purchases, customers could pay the amount in full or maintain a revolving credit account.

In addition to the customer’s name and city of residence, each Charga-Plate contained two additional, unseen pieces of information: the position of the circular notch in the edge of the plate represented the city for which the plate was issued, while the position of the square notch represented a specific store  within that city. A single plate might contain several square notches, if more than one local retailer participated in the Charga-Plate system.

The O’Shaughnessys’ Charga-Plate is accompanied by this timeworn postal card, showing that the plate was issued by Thalhimers department store. The small print in the lower right corner suggests that the card was issued in 1949.

Charga-Plate soon became a common way for larger stores to offer their customers credit. As such, retailers often promoted their use of Charga-Plate in newspaper advertisements, touting the system’s  convenience, accuracy, and security for customers. Use of the credit tags grew throughout the 1930s and 1940s, but the advent and expansion in the 1950s of general-use credit cards, with credit issued by a third party, spelled eventual doom for Charga-Plate, restricted as the credit tags were to local, single-store use.

In the 1950s, Ida Surface O’Shaughnessy made frequent use of Charga-Plate at Heironimus, a Roanoke department store, as evidenced by the many Heironimus credit sale slips within the collection that bear her inked name and address.

As is the case with many superseded workaday conveniences, the demise of Charga-Plate went unheralded. And so despite the Charga-Plate era being not so far removed from our own, I couldn’t pinpoint the year of the system’s final abandonment. While several sources indicate that the system reached its end around 1960, newspaper advertisements show that Charga-Plate remained in use, albeit in scattered pockets, well into the 1970s. Miller & Rhoads of Roanoke, for example, continued to offer Charga-Plate to its customers as late as 1974, even as the department store extended credit through BankAmericard and Master Charge (now Mastercard). In Mt. Pocono, Pennsylvania, newspaper advertisements for both Oppenheim’s clothing store and Hess’s department store touted their use of the system as late as 1977, while an advertisement in the Daily American Republic of Poplar Bluff, Missouri, hints that at least one St. Louis store continued to use Charga-Plate as late as 1981.

By that time, of course, the use of plastic, bank-issued credit cards had become increasingly commonplace and soon would become ubiquitous. Today, the plastic credit card is, in turn, giving way to systems that no longer require the customer to use any physical artifact to make a credit purchase. Charga-Plate, and other systems like it, represented a significant step from the burdensome task of recording credit transactions by hand to the instant, automated systems that we have today.

For more on the O’Shaughnessy Family Papers, see the collection’s finding aid.


Saving Professor Woodruff (from Obscurity)

It’s said that in archaeology, context is everything. The physical relationship of found items allows researchers to accurately identify the time and place of their origin, thus providing a more comprehensive picture of the past, one that goes beyond a mere description of the item at hand. Much the same can be said about archival records. If context isn’t everything when looking at a particular document, it’s certainly a big chunk of everything. Let’s consider the Marion Eaton Woodruff Diary (Ms1988-118), which until recently had lingered in a state of anonymous semi-obscurity for several decades. The diary provides a good example of how just a little detective work can immeasurably increase the research value of an item.

The Woodruff Diary was purchased by Special Collections and University Archives in 1988. The rare book dealer who sold the small, thick volume had assigned the diary a short, workaday title (“Diary, 1924-27”) and provided the briefest of descriptions, noting that the item “[i]ncludes entries in 1924 about [a] trip to France and Italy (year long trip)” and concluding that the diary had been kept “by an American woman?, possibly from Boston.” Upon its accession by Special Collections and University Archives, the diary came to be known simply as “The Travel Diary.”

Pages from the Marion Eaton Woodruff Diary

When the author of a diary isn’t explicitly identified, the contents can sometimes provide clues that will eventually yield the writer’s name and offer us that all-important context. Any place names or personal names—the more unusual, the better—mentioned within a diary’s entries are potential clues to the writer’s identity. The volume at hand, bearing the title “A Diary of Days” and manufactured by Jordan & Company of Chicago, provides its owner with a format designed for four years’ worth of entries. Because the years aren’t pre-printed on the pages, and because the diary entries were often recorded out of chronological order, it can be difficult to follow the sequence of events, but the diary seems to commence with September 5, 1923, with the writer having just left Elgin for Chicago, bound for New York. The writer also mentions Wilda. So, right away, we have two clues: the writer likely lived in Elgin and is acquainted with somebody named Wilda. With a Google search revealing that there are 22 communities named Elgin in the United States and with no surname provided for Wilda, the clues may seem of little value, but still we can file them away for future reference.

Through the next year, the diary’s entries detail the experiences of the unknown writer during a lengthy tour of Europe, with long stays in France, Italy, and Switzerland, before a return to Elgin the following August. During the European tour, the writer names restaurants, shows, and historical sites visited. Returning home, the writer describes a busy life of social engagements and entertainments (e.g., attending the play Boris Gudunov and seeing a vaudeville performance by Sophie Tucker). In all, the diary chronicles the social life of an unidentified upper-middle class woman living a century ago. As interesting as this may be, the contents would be so much more valuable if associated with a specific name.

The diarist makes frequent mention of “Helen” while traveling in Europe and elsewhere. In 1925, the two traveled eastward so that Helen could lecture at Wellesley College. And it’s here that the identity of the writer finally comes to light. Fortunately for us, the Wellesley College News has been digitized and is available in the Wellesley College Digital Repository . An online search on the name “Helen” within the newspaper’s contents isn’t likely to reveal much—or, more correctly, is likely to reveal too much, with too many extraneous, irrelevant hits—so we search on “Elgin,” expecting that if a visiting scholar were delivering a set of lectures on campus, her place of residence may be mentioned in any articles about her. And so it is: in the October 1, 1925 issue of The Wellesley News, under the title “Art Department Note,” we learn that Helen Woodruff of Elgin, Illinois, had been hired as a substitute instructor in the college’s art department. With that little piece of information, everything else begins to fall into place. Through quick searches of census and other vital records, we learn that Helen was the daughter of Marion Eaton Woodruff (1899-1939), widow of successful iron foundry owner Charles H. Woodruff. By now checking known information about Marion Eaton Woodruff against clues found elsewhere in the diary, we can establish beyond doubt that Marion Woodruff was the diary’s author.

Helen Marion Woodruff—from the Wellesley College Legenda, 1922 (Wellelsey College Digital Repository)

Helen (1899-1980), the Woodruffs’ youngest daughter, graduated from Wellesley College in 1922. Upon obtaining her master’s degree from Radcliffe College the following year, Woodruff (accompanied by her mother) departed for a yearlong study in Europe, through a fellowship in medieval and renaissance archaeology awarded by the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA). Returning to Elgin in 1924, she worked as an instructor at the local junior college and as curator of the Sears Museum. (Entries in the diary reveal that during this time, Woodruff was briefly married to Daniel Crane Taylor, a 1919 graduate of the University of Chicago who later became an English professor and published works on William Congreve and John Stoddard. The marriage isn’t documented in any published sources.)

After teaching at Wellesley for a year, Helen Woodruff returned to Radcliffe, where she obtained her doctoral degree in 1928. By 1930, Woodruff was employed by Princeton University as an archaeologist. That same year, her dissertation was published as a monograph by Harvard University under the title The Illustrated Manuscripts of Prudentius. In 1933, Woodruf became director of Princeton’s Index of Christian Art, and in 1942, she published the Index of Christian Art at Princeton University: a Handbook. The standards that Woodruff established in the handbook are said to have revolutionized the process of iconographic classification and to have guided the format of the indexing project for decades to come. That same year, Woodruff took a leave of absence to join the U. S. Navy WAVES [Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service], eventually rising to the rank of lieutenant commander. She was discharged from the WAVES in 1945. Woodruff seems to have retired early: the 1950 federal census shows her still living in Princeton, and—despite being without a recorded occupation—being of sufficient means to afford an older, live-in housekeeper. Mentions of her in Princeton University’s newspaper indicate that, following retirement, she busied herself with club work and other civic activities. Helen Marion Woodruff died in New York in 1980. Apart from her professional accomplishments, a bequest secures her legacy through funding of the Helen M. Woodruff Fellowship of the AIA and the American Academy in Rome.

Though it was written by Marion Woodruff and chronicles the life of an upper-middle class woman in the Midwest and her travels abroad, the frequent mentions of Helen Woodruff provide insights into the life of a professional woman and her work in higher education, art history, and archaeology during the early 20th century. And that’s something worth a little digging.

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.

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 (

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

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

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.