The Flying Man: 18th-century style

One of the great things about working in a place like Special Collections is that discovery can be an everyday occurrence. Ive written at this blogeither obliquely or directlyabout this dimension of the job, as have many of my colleagues. Whether the find is a promotional flyer for D.W. Griffiths Birth of a Nation, a journal from an arctic expedition, a letter written by Victoria Cross (one of several pseudonyms of British writer, Annie Sophie Cory), or a copy of The Great Gatsby autographed by F. Scott Fitzgerald . . . there is always some excitement even if you know that the discovery really may mean that you havent seen the item before. Someone else, perhaps a colleague, likely a predecessor, may have very well known about the book, letter, paper that youve just discovered.

Cover of LUomo Volante per Aria, per Acqua, e per Terra
Cover of LUomo Volante per Aria, per Acqua, e per Terra

So, several years ago, when I was perusing the part of our stacks that deals with aviation (the TLs for all you library-folk out there), I saw for the first time a nondescript book with a rough, brownish, handmade paper cover and pages that were clearly handmade, a book with a lot of age on it. When I opened up the book, this is what I saw: LUomo Volante per Aria, per Acqua, e per Terra. Novissima Invenzione di un Anonimo Italiano Dell Anno 1784. In Venizia Presso LAmico Dell Autore.

Roughly translated: Man Flying over the air, water, and land. New Inventions/Innovation of an Anonymous Italian of the Year 1784. In Venice at a Friend of the Author’s.

Title page ofTitle page of LUomo Volante per Aria, per Acqua, e per Terra. Novissima Invenzione di un Anonimo Italiano Dell Anno 1784. In Venizia Presso LAmico Dell Autore.
Title page of LUomo Volante per Aria, per Acqua, e per Terra. Novissima Invenzione di un Anonimo Italiano Dell Anno 1784. In Venizia Presso LAmico Dell Autore.

Most translations of the title that Ive seen are close variations of this. Could be through air or on water or on land, I suppose, but the date is clear; that it was published anonymously is clear; and it is completely clear that Id never heard of this work. A quick check showed that no English translation exists. A handwritten note on the inside front cover, reads (translated), The author is Count Carlo Bettoni. Again, he was unknown to me, but a little bit of investigating confirmed that is known to be the author of the book . . . and that only six copies are listed in Worldcat. This is the kind of discovery, a felicitous thing, that drives curiosity! That the two languages of the book, Italian and mathematics, are languages in which I am less than fluent, did nothing to quell my desire to know more.

"Dual-language" spread from LUomo Volante
“Dual-language” spread from LUomo Volante

So many things to investigate! What do we know about Count Bettoni? A few quick searches on the book title indicate that an individual named Giuseppe Avanzini contributed the mathematical content of the book, but what do all those equations seek to describe? Even more tantalizing . . . Worldcat shows that four of the six copies listed also include illustrations or folding plates! Our copy does not. The year of publication, 1784 is, itself, interesting. Only in late 1782 did the Mongolfier brothers of France start their experiments with balloons, with the first untethered balloon flight with a human aboard occurring on 21 November 1783 in a system of their design. It is fair to say that the early and mid 1780s saw the craze of ballooning emergeespecially in Britain and France, but also in Italyas a popular craze and a seductive possibility for scientific investigation. Apparently, Bettoni took part, but he also seems to have let his imagination range over . . . what, improved methods of transportation over land and sea, as well?

Bettoni was born in 1725 to a wealthy landowning family in what is now Brescia in the Lombardy region of north Italy. The aptly-named [?] Biographical Dictionary of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (184244) describes him as “a nobleman passionately fond of science, and a munificient patron of scientific men.” In 1768, he founded the Academy of Agrarian Brescia and, apparently, conducted experiments to protect mulberry trees from a rampant epidemic. In some circles, (see A General Collection of the Best and Most Interesting Voyages and Travels in All Parts of the World . . . Digested on a New Plan by John Pinkerton, vol. 4, 1809), and as a result of these experiments, Bettoni was credited with discovering a new silkworm! Bitten by the ballooning bug in 1783, Bettoni went to work with Avanzini on what would become L’Uomo Volante.

Born in 1753, Avanzini studied theology and mathematics at Brescia, while preparing himself for the priesthood. He came to Bettoni’s attention and had gained recognition for his skill as a mathematician by the time he collaborated with Bettoni on Thoughts on the Government of the Rivers (1782) a work that reported on the practice of planting specific kinds of trees along riverbanks to impede erosion and decrease the dangers of flooding. They would work together again after L’Uomo Volante on a large and unfinished project to produce a topographical map of the area surrounding Lake Garda, the largest lake in Italy located about halfway between Brescia and Verona. Whatever the nature of the collaboration between the two men, it is clear that the substance of the mathematical element Avanzini contributed to L’Uomo Volante and to other projects, was the work of a man who would go on to become professor of mathematics and, later, of physics and applied mathematics at the University of Padua. His work, primarily in the area of fluid dynamics, would earn him membership in the Italian National Academy of Sciences (Societ Italiana). While I am not qualified to judge the quality and appropriateness of the mathematics in L’Uomo Volante, I would guess that it could be evaluated seriously.

The Enciclopedia Italiana di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti describes L’Uomo Volante, in one of the few characterizations I have found, as “miscuglio piuttosto audace di prosa scientifica e di progetti palesemente utopistici” (translated as “a rather bold mixture of scientific prose and blatantly utopian projects”). The Enciclopedia, also known as Treccani says that Bettoni, an “agricultural and technical aviation pioneer,” was the first to propose a dirigible balloon and a system of propulsion based on rowing. Other sources also suggest his is the first recorded version of an elongated airship, a spindle-shaped balloon, rather than the spherical balloons either in use or proposed at the time. (The use of the word “dirigible” suggests a rigid frame, but I do not know if this is part of the Bettoni/Avanzini design.)

Macchina volante per aria (Flying machine for the air, Tav. 2 (with permission:  Fondazione Istituto Internazionale di Storia Economica "F. Datini" Biblioteca in Linea)
Macchina volante per aria (Flying machine for the air, Tav. 2 (with permission: Fondazione Istituto Internazionale di Storia Economica “F. Datini”
Biblioteca in Linea)

Of course, there were plans for the more typical version, as well, but with some accommodation for steering and/or propulsion.

Macchina volante per aria (Flying machine for the air, Tav. 1 (with permission: Fondazione Istituto Internazionale di Storia Economica "F. Datini" Biblioteca in Linea)
Macchina volante per aria (Flying machine for the air, Tav. 1 (with permission: Fondazione Istituto Internazionale di Storia Economica “F. Datini”
Biblioteca in Linea)

There were also two drawings included for water travel, one involving an elongated system of paddles:

But now, when we come to land, well, this giant-sized hampster wheel really got my attention! Check it out!

Carro volante per terra, Flying chariot/cart/wagon for land (with permission: Fondazione Istituto Internazionale di Storia Economica "F. Datini")
Carro volante per terra, Flying chariot/cart/wagon for land (with permission: Fondazione Istituto Internazionale di Storia Economica “F. Datini”)

So, should we ignore this work that seems to have garnered little attention over a couple of centuries? Is it the work of a wealthy amateur scientist (read: crackpot) whose mathematician colleague lent his skills for a free ride? Is it to be taken seriously? Doesn’t someone want to translate it? Is this the basis for a thesis or dissertation just waiting, screaming, in fact, to be tackled? Surely, some student in the history of science and technology wants to rediscover Signori Bettoni and Avanzini. Ladies and Gents, Studente e Studentesse . . . step right up!

Click here for the Full Text of L’uomo volante per aria, per acqua e per terra. (Will open in a new window.)

Beckett and Gorey at Gotham

All Strange Away by Samuel Beckett, Illustrated by Edward Gorey; Published by Gotham Book Mart, 1976
All Strange Away by Samuel Beckett, Illustrated by Edward Gorey;
published by Gotham Book Mart, 1976

A few days ago, for no apparent reason, except, perhaps all the rain we’ve been having, I thought of a quote from a book by Samuel Beckett. Even though it had been about forty years since I first read it, I remembered the quote quite well. The in-and-of-the-world lyrical beginning was especially unusual for Beckett, in my experience. Still, I could not remember which book it came from. Beckett was a favorite in those days, and I had read a lot of his work (maybe more than was good for me) in a pretty short period of time. I didn’t think it was a particularly famous quote. For example, it wasn’t the end of The Unnamable:

. . . you must say words, as long as there are any, until they find me, until they say me, strange pain, strange sin, you must go on, perhaps it’s done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.

Nope, not that one. It wasn’t from the scene in Molloy that involves sixteen sucking stones, a number of pockets in a greatcoat (and trousers), and an attempt to place the stones in those pockets in such a way that Beckett’s character could most easily assure himself of sucking those stones in equal measure over time.

And it wasn’t the passage that begins with, “I can’t help it, gas escapes from my fundament on the least pretext” and ends with, “Extraordinary how mathematics help you to know yourself.” This is also from Molloy, and I’ll let you imagine what comes between those two fragments.

At about the same time I was trying to remember which book “my” quote came from, I realized that I’d never seen nor gone in search of a book by Beckett in Special Collections. This, of course sent me to the stacks (ok, to Addison, first) in search of Beckett. I know we have a large collection of modernist fiction, but over more than seven years . . . no call for Beckett. What I came up with surprised me. Not only was it a book I’d never seen before, it was one I’d never heard of. This required a bit of sleuthing.

The book, All Strange Away, was written in 1963–64, but not published until 1976 in the special edition we have in Special (naturally) Collections . . . an edition illustrated by Edward Gorey! (! The idea of a collaboration between Gorey and Beckett is amazing itself !) That’s a picture of Gorey at the top of this post, along with one of Beckett and the covers and spine from All Strange Away. Gorey wrote more than 100 books and illustrated many more. His dark sensibilities are often front-and-center in books like The Gashlycrumb Tinies in which twenty-six children whose names begin, in sequence, with each letter of the alphabet, have their deaths described (and illustrated) in one of twenty-six ways . . . all in rhyme, of course. (“M” is for Maud who was swept out to sea. “N” is for Neville who died of ennui.) Beckett’s text in All Strange Away begins:

Imagination dead imagine. A place, that again. Never another question. A place, then someone in it, that again. Crawl out of the frowsy deathbed and drag it to a place to die in. Out of the door and down the road in the old hat and coat like after the war, no, not that again. Five foot square, six high, no way in, none out, try for him there.

All Strange Away, title page
All Strange Away, title page

Like several of Beckett’s works from the mid-sixties, All Strange Away takes place in a bare space, or nearly bare. A stool is present, but the only dynamic seems to be imagination, that and the alternate presence and absence of light. Oh, and, maybe, the space changes size. In this text, the space is called the Rotunda and only one person inhabits it. In The Lost Ones, started by Beckett in 1966 and published in 1970, the space is a flattened cylinder 50 meters around with rubber walls 18 meters high. Two hundred people inhabit this space, which leaves about 1 square meter per person. Light and heat fluctuate, and there are ladders with which to climb the walls, and recessed spaces in the upper parts of the wall to occupy. I remember reading The Lost Ones, too.

Gorey’s illustrations, one or two per page, grace the margins of All Strange Away. Here are three of them:

But wait, there’s more. How did Beckett and Gorey, who could be seen as an ideal illustrator for Beckett, ever get together in the first place? The key lies in the publisher, the Gotham Book Mart of New York. First, if you’ve never had the opportunity to visit the Gotham Book Mart, forget it. You missed your chance. This literary bookshop and meeting place—the kind of place that just doesn’t exist anymore—closed in 2007 after operating continuously somewhere in midtown Manhattan (it did move a few times) since 1920. It was still enjoying its long heyday when I used to visit in the 1970s and 80s. The James Joyce Society, for example, was founded there in 1947 with the founder and owner of the shop, Frances Steloff, serving as the society’s first treasurer.

If you lived in New York and were interested in things literary, it was a regular stop. If you were visiting town, you’d go to see books that you’d see nowhere else, along with dozens and dozens of photographs of writers, often in the shop, perhaps standing where you were standing.

Gotham Book Mart, 9 November 1948. Among the authors present: W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, Gore Vidal, Delmore Schwartz, Tennessee Williams, Randall Jarrell
Gotham Book Mart reception, 9 November 1948. Among the authors present: W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, Gore Vidal, Delmore Schwartz, Tennessee Williams, Randall Jarrell

Although Gorey’s first book, The Unstrung Harp was published in 1953 and The Doubtful Guest (1958), did much to establish his standing among a wider readership, it was his friendship with Andreas Brown, owner of the Gotham beginning in 1967, that really propelled his career. Actually, the Gotham Book Mart published more than a dozen of Gorey’s books, exhibited his illustrations, and, generally, brought him and his work to something like a mass audience. (Gorey’s annimation appears every time Mystery! is introduced on PBS.) One presumes that Brown may have brought the Beckett to Gorey, but I know of no details on the matter. I now know that Gotham Book Mart also published another collaboration between the two, Beginning to End, in 1989, just before Beckett died.

And . . . did I mention that the book is signed by both Beckett and Gorey . . . and numbered! Our copy is number 136 of 200.

signednumbered_withInset

All in all, this was quite the find. You never know what will show up in Special Collections until you have reason to look. (Today, I found out that we have a first [1854] edition of Thoreau’s Walden. But that’s a story for another day.)

So what was the quote that provided the germ for this post? It was from a work of Beckett’s called The End, written in 1946:

The earth makes a sound as of sighs and the last drops fall from the emptied cloudless sky. A small boy, stretching out his hands and looking up at the blue sky, asked his mother how such a thing was possible. Fuck off, she said.

How do you top that on a rainy day?

The First Rochester Conference on High Energy Physics . . . . . . . . A Unique Discovery

Typescript Cover for Manuscript Proceedings and Notes, First Rochester Conference on High Energy Physics
Typescript Cover for Manuscript Proceedings and Notes, First Rochester Conference on High Energy Physics
Robert Marshak in 1979
Robert Marshak in 1979

Original materials. One-of-a-kind documents. This is what one expects to find in Special Collections. Any Special Collections. All Special Collections. It is our business. But every once in a while, you come across a unique document and, “surely,” you say to yourself, “there must be another copy of it somewhere.” Yes, it is unique because it is a particular individual’s copy, maybe with his or her annotations, but this can’t possibly be the only copy that exists! And then you find out, maybe, it is. Could the proceedings from the first Rochester Conference on High Energy Physics, part of the Robert E. Marshak Papers, 1947-1990, be such a document?

The first Conference on High Energy Physics to be held in Rochester, NY took place on 16 December 1950. It was organized largely by Robert Marshak, then the new chair of the Physics Department at the University of Rochester. Marshak had started at Rochester in 1939 and, following the outbreak of the war, worked first in Boston on furthering the development of radar and then, in Montreal, contributing to the British effort to produce an atomic bomb. In 1944, he joined the American atomic effort at Los Alamos, where he was a deputy group leader in theoretical physics. With the end of the war, however, inquiry into the realm of nuclear and particle physics no longer needed to be restricted to its practical aspects.

That first meeting in Rochester followed by 20 months the last of the three Shelter Island conferences that had been organized by Robert Oppenheimer between 1947 and 1949. Marshak, who attended these meetings and at which he first proposed the influential two-meson theory, described them as having been “limited to a small number of theorists, with a couple of ‘token’ experimentalists,”* nearly all American. The goal for the Shelter Island meetings, which involved approximately 25 attendees, was to assess the post-war status of particle physics and to provide an outlook for future developments. Marshak’s vision was to invite a more equal mix of theorists, accelerator experimentalists, and cosmic ray experimentalists and to make the meeting truly international. The increased emphasis on the experimental aspect of the field reflected not only Marshak’s interests, but also the fact that five new high-energy accelerators had been built in the U.S. since the end of the war—including one at Rochester—and they were producing results.

An early proposal for the Rochester conference was sent to the University of Rochester’s provost, Donald Gilbert, on 11 January 1949, before the last of the three Shelter Island meetings. The proposal was for a five-day event that included a one-day trip to the accelerator facilities at Cornell. It came with a request to the university for $7500. A letter written by Marshak to Joseph C. Wilson, head of The Haloid Company (which would become Xerox Corp.), dated 22 January 1950, makes clear that funding for the proposal would need to come from private sources.

Conference Invitation, 29 November 1950
Conference Invitation, 29 November 1950

Click here to see Invitation, Annotated Attendee List, & Attendee Sign-in. (Will Open in New Window)

By the fall of 1950, the conference was planned as a one-day event and scheduled for 16 December. The Physics building on campus would remain open the following day for post-conference meetings/ presentations and Professor Wolfgang Panofsky extended his visit for a week to include a public lecture and special colloquia on new frontiers and recent experiments. A first round of invitations to general attendees may have been sent out in late October or early November, as the earliest acceptance among the materials is dated 7 November. Another general invitation in the collection is dated 29 November. Invitations were sent to approximately 100 top physicists as well to interested representatives of local industries, including Haloid, which provided financial support for the conference.

Interestingly, in a hand-written reply to a request that he participate in some of the post-conference discussion, Richard Feynman wrote:

Richard Feynman's Reply, 13 December 1950
Richard Feynman’s Reply, 13 December 1950

O.K. I’ll stick around a couple of days more and talk things over. We’ll worry about what the lectures are later. In the meantime something general like ‘Field Theory’ or something will do as a title I guess. You make the title, I’ll talk on it.

Three sessions were scheduled for the day-long program: a morning session dealing with experiments with nucleons, chaired by Abraham Pais; an afternoon session on experiments with mesons, chaired by Robert Oppenheimer; and an evening session chaired by Hans Bethe on experiments with photons and electrons. In a June 1970 article for “Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists,” Marshak wrote:

There were three sessions of invited papers at this first Rochester Conference, chiefly experimental reports on nucleon elastic scattering and meson production by nucleons and photons. Theoretical discussion on the experimental findings was useful, but I do not recall any breakthroughs.

Scientific Program, Original, page 1
Scientific Program, Original, page 1

Click here to See the Scientific Program for the Conference, both Original and Annotated. (Will Open in New Window)

The manuscript of the proceedings begins with a 6-page summary of the morning session written up by R.S., possibly R. Scalettar, a colleague of Marshak’s from Rochester’s Physics Department. What follows are approximately 120 pages of marked-up typescript, a transcript of the days presentations and discussion. As is clear from the manuscript, the days events were recorded on audio tape, which provided the basis for the transcription. (The fate of the original tape is anyone’s guess.) In addition to notes on various pages regarding “reel” and “side” numbers, the following note is found very early in the transcription of the morning presentation:

about 3 minutes of Ramsey’s speech is not available to us at this point because the plug to the recording machine was kicked out of wall.

Is it comforting—or, perhaps, simply humbling—to recognize that our knowledge of this conference of the most esteemed representatives of the most advanced technology of the day depended, in part, on the recognition that an electric plug had been kicked out of the wall?

There is also the following note from the person producing the transcript:

(broke tape at this point, after spending nearly two hours learning operation of machine and taking notes. It took from 30 to 45 minutes to learn the machine and listen to the speech once and the rest of the time was taking notes, a few words at a time and rewinding frequently when I couldn’t keep up or missed a word. B.)

There is some indication that written proceedings were to be distributed to the participants in the conference. It remains unclear whether this was done, but it appears doubtful. John Polkinghorne, in his 1989 book, Rochester Roundabout: The Story of High Energy Physics, states unequivocally, “No Proceedings are publicly available of the first Conference.” (p.198). I have found no others. In his 1986 book, Inward Bound: Of Matter and Forces in the Physical World, Abraham Pais, a participant in the 1950 conference, notes his thanks to Robert Marshak for “making available to me an unedited transcript of that meeting.” (note, p.461). These are, presumably, copies of the typescript held here in the Marshak Papers. Lastly, in June 2014, a set of the proceedings of the First through Seventh Rochester Conferences on High Energy Physics was sold through Bonhams auction house. The description specifies:

Nuclear Physics, Rochester Conferences: Bonhams Auctioneers
Nuclear Physics, Rochester Conferences: Bonhams Auctioneers

Vol. I: mimeographed typescript draft with ms corrections, in 3-ring binder, with ms note to Abraham Pais from Robert Marshak, founder of the Rochester Conferences. (http://www.bonhams.com/auctions/21652/lot/130/ last viewed 10 July 2015)

Can we presume that this is the copy Pais refers to in his book? Are there any others? Perhaps not.

Marshak’s initial conference grew to become the event of lasting and international significance that he envisioned. The Third Conference, held December 18–20, 1952, had 150 participants, had governmental support for the first time, and included scientists from Great Britain, Italy, Australia, France, Holland, and Japan, among other countries. The Sixth Conference, held in April 1956, saw the attendance of the first Soviet delegation. The following year, 300 scientists from 24 countries attended the Seventh Conference, which ran for 5 days. It had become what John Wheeler, physicist from Princeton, called the “premier opportunity for the physicists of the world to exchange ideas.” After the Seventh Conference, the newly organized High Energy Commission of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) decided to establish a three-way rotation for the annual conference with the 1958 meeting in Geneva and the 1959 meeting in Kiev. In 1960, the Tenth Conference&—lasting eight days and with 36 scientific secretaries also participating—was back in Rochester, but for the last time before the officially named International Conference on High Energy Physics left permanently for more varied venues and a biennial schedule.

Robert Marshak joins faculty at Virginia Tech, 1 Sept. 1979
Robert Marshak joins faculty at Virginia Tech, 1 Sept. 1979

In 1970 Marshak left Rochester to become president of the City College of New York, and in the fall of 1979 became a University Distinguished Professor of Physics at Virginia Tech. He retired as Emeritus University Distinguished Professor in 1987. Robert E. Marshak died on 23 December 1992.

Although the conference that began with Marshak’s small one-day event is now being held around the world, it is still commonly referred to as the Rochester conference. The proceedings of that first meeting are now publicly available, likely for the first time.

First Rochester Conference, Manuscript Notes and Proceedings, page 1
First Rochester Conference, Manuscript Notes and Proceedings, page 1

Click here for the Full Text of the Proceedings and Notes of the First Rochester Conference on High Energy Physics, held 16 December 1950. (Will open in a new window.)

All of this material and more will eventually find its way to this department’s platform for digital content, Special Collections Online, but until then, for this material, this post will have to serve in its place.

Notes:

*Marshak, Robert E., Scientific impact of the first decade of the Rochester conferences (1950–1960, in Pions to Quarks: Particle Physics in the 1950s, Laurie M. Brown, Dresden, and Hoddeson, eds., New York: Cambridge University Press, 198

Not Every University Has One of These. . . .

It’s graduation weekend and maybe you’d expect us to serve up some nice photographs of past graduations, the whole pomp and circumstance thing. Well, certainly congratulations to the graduates!!! But, no, we’ll have no old caps and gowns this time. No historic commencement addresses. Not this year. After being in Washington, D.C. this past weekend, I was reminded of a small part of Virginia Tech historyMontgomery County history, reallythat just might offer some bragging rights to graduates and alumni alike. Of course, some might shrink from this decades-old bit of business, but I get that, too.

Look around this campus and you’ll see the Virginia Tech name and/or logo on many different kinds of objects. Banners, posters, rings, flyers, diplomas(!), buildings, and signs just to mention a few. But how many universities have had their name emblazoned on a Boeing B-29 Superfortress? That’s right, 99 ft. long, a wingspan of 141 ft 3 in, and a top speed of 365 mph . . . and “Virginia Tech” written right across the nose. How did this come about?

B-29 "Virginia Tech" from The Techgram, 15 August 1945
B-29 “Virginia Tech” from The Techgram, 15 August 1945

VT_B-29_Image2

 

 

 

In May 1944, The Techgram, a V.P.I. publication, ran its first announcement for a war bond drive that, if successful, would result in a B-29 named “Virginia Tech.” This effort was administered by the war bond committee of Montgomery County. It ran from 12 June to 8 July and was part of the fifth nationwide War Loan Drive. Over $500,000 in Series E bonds would have to be sold in or attributed to Montgomery County for the drive to be successful. (That’s nearly $7 million in today’s money!) The article also claimed that if the required total was reached, an attempt would be made to have the bomber’s crew be made up entirely of Tech graduates.

Techgram, 15 May 1944, announcing the war bond drive to name a B-29 "Virginia Tech."
Techgram, 15 May 1944, announcing the war bond drive to name a B-29 “Virginia Tech.”

By 8 July, the drive was still $75,000 short, but purchases reported through 31 July could still be credited towards the necessary total. An article in the 15 July issue of The Techgram reminded readers that purchases from folks outside of Montgomery Countyespecially from university alumscould be counted towards that figure. The 15 August edition announced, “Soon a bomber named “Virginia Tech” will be flying against enemies of the U.S.” The drive had been successful, though as later articles would announce, the plan to have only “Techmen” serve onboard the new airplane was not feisible.

Techgram, 1 October 1944
Techgram, 1 October 1944

The “Virginia Tech” (serial number 44-61529) arrived on Tinian in the Pacific at the end of May 1945 as part of the 45th Bombardment Squadron, 40th Bombardment Group, 58th Bomber Wing, 21st Bomber Command. First Lieutenant C. Thornesberry was listed as the airplane commander. “Virginia Tech” was first deployed on 7 June on a mission over Osaka, Japan. It flew eight missions over Japan that month, each lasting approximately 15 hours. It continued to fly with a variety of crews until the war ended following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August, respectively. (The only atomic bombs/nuclear weapons ever used during wartime were, of course, dropped by B-29s. That’s where the potential ambivalence comes in.) On 8 October 1945, “Virginia Tech” received orders to return to the States via Kwajalein to Mather Field, California. Under the command of Captain John Mewha, it arrived home sometime around 14 October and by the end of November 1945 was assigned to March Field in southern California.

Whether or not the “Virginia Tech” flew missions in Korea is unclear, at least to me. How long it kept its name is also unclear. In the post-war era, nose art and named designations for individual aircraft started to become less common than they had been during World War II. We know that when B-29 serial #44-61529 met its end in 1951, it was part of 22nd Bomb Group, 19th Bomb Squadron, a unit that did serve in Korea. We also know, according to US Air Force accident reports, that on 2 April 1951, while stationed at March Field and under the command of Captain Max G. Thaete, the B-29 formerly(?) known as “Virginia Tech” crashed in the California desert, about 20 miles ENE of Desert Center. An engine fire was reportedly the cause of the accident. No one onboard was seriously injured, but the airplane was damaged beyond repair.

Owosso Argus Press, 3 April 1951
Owosso Argus Press, 3 April 1951
St. Petersburg Times, 3 April 1951
St. Petersburg Times, 3 April 1951

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

So, the next time you speak with your friends from some other university and you’ve unaccountably run out of things to say about Virginia Tech, you can ask whether their school has an airplane of the type that brought World War II to a close named after it.

And if you’ve never seen a B-29, there is only one still in flying condition (named Fifi, by the way) and it flew over Washington, D.C. just last week to commemorate the 70th anniversary of V-E Day along with over 50 other WWII warbirds.

B-29 Over Washington, D.C., 8 May 2015
B-29 Over Washington, D.C., 8 May 2015

Or, if you’re just needing to see a photograph of a Virginia Tech graduation . . .

From the Col. Harry Temple Collection, Ms1988-039: Cadets in cap and gown at commencement - VPI
From the Col. Harry Temple Collection, Ms1988-039: Cadets in cap and gown at commencement – VPI

Congratulations!!

From These Few Letters . . . The Life of John C. Watkins

A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of speaking at Virginia Tech’s annual Civil War weekend. Not being a Civil War scholar, per se, and not wanting to just present a roundup of new acquisitions at Special Collections, however interesting that might be, I decided to talk about one collection, The John C. Watkins Letters, and, perhaps, give a little insight into the kind of window that even a few letters can open onto a life.

The collection consists of 17 letters, 11 of which were written during the war. The first nine were written while Watkins was a private in the 6th Massachusetts Infantry serving in and around Suffolk, Va. in 1862 and ’63. From Lowell, Massachusetts, he was 20 years old when he arrived in Suffolk.

Suffolk Va. Sept. 16th 1862 Dear folks at home, It is after Tattoo but I am determined to commence a letter for home and finish it when I can.
Suffolk Va. Sept. 16th 1862
Dear folks at home,
It is after Tattoo but I am determined to commence a letter for home and finish it when I can. . . .

Four more letters were written from Washington, D.C. from 31 March 1864 to 17 April 1866. Two were written from Camp Winfield Scott, Nevada in 1868. One other is from Winnemucca, Nevada, dated 17 January 1870, and though it was not written by John and despite lack of a last page and a signature, we know it was written by his wife. The final letter was written by John, but, again, is a fragment with no date or location specifically indicated, though clues in the letter may suggest a location.

Harpers Weekly, 2 May 1863: This view of Suffolk, Virginia possesses some interest just now in consequence of the attach of the rebels under Longstreet. The place has been fortified, and is held by a considerable force of Union troops under General Peck, who, it is said, feels satisfied of his ability to maintain himself. Suffolk is a small, filthy town of great antiquity, small population, little trade, and a great deal of Virginia dirt and Virginia pride.
Harpers Weekly, 2 May 1863: This view of Suffolk, Virginia possesses some interest just now in consequence of the attack of the rebels under Longstreet. The place has been fortified, and is held by a considerable force of Union troops under General Peck, who, it is said, feels satisfied of his ability to maintain himself. Suffolk is a small, filthy town of great antiquity, small population, little trade, and a great deal of Virginia dirt and Virginia pride.

The wartime letters are pretty straightforward in offering terrific detail about camp life and the battle known as the Siege of Suffolk of April and May 1863, as well as the movements and skirmishes that anticipated that action. But the other letters raise questions and often only offer tantalizing hints to their answers. What was Watkins doing in Washington? Or Nevada? Who did he marry? What happened to them after 1870?

Letter from Hattie Watkins to "dear home friends," 17 January 1870, Winnemucca, Nevada
Letter from Hattie Watkins to “dear home friends,” 17 January 1870, Winnemucca, Nevada

It’s not often that, as an archivist, one has the time to answer these questions. Usually, these questions and more are answered by researchers as the archivist moves on to other responsibilities. In my case, having been intrigued by the clues and the trails and traces of possibilities, I stayed with it, a little at a time. Census records, military records from the National Archives, and Wyoming(!) newspapers, among others, all helped to fill out the story.

Catalog of Georgetown College that shows John C. Watkins earned a Medical degree, 1 July 1865
Catalog of Georgetown College that shows John C. Watkins earned a Medical Degree, 1 July 1865
Bill Barlow's Budget, 13 April 1892
Bill Barlow’s Budget, 13 April 1892

Well, that is just the start of a story that includes an M.D. from Georgetown College, travel to California, the Indian Wars, frontier medicine, Westward Expansion, marriage to Harriet (Hattie) Clark Clary of Deerfield, Ma., a decade as an itinerent physician, an active interest in mining, hired gunfighters and monied interests, the Johnson County Cattle (or Range) Wars . . . a short-lived stint as county coroner, and death. But there is also the backstory of a father named Ruggles who went west for the Gold Rush in 1850 and never returned; as well as the story of a sister, Mary, and wife, Hattie, who met(?) while teaching in one of the first post-war free schools in Richmond, traveled west, first joined and then outlived the brother and husband, and earned the right to be included in a 1927 publication, Women of Wyoming: Including a Short History of Some of the Early Activities of Women of Our State, Together with Biographies of Those Women Who Were Our Early Pioneers as well as of Women Who Have Been Prominent in Public Affairs and in Civil Organizations and Service Work (Casper, Wyo.: C.M. Beach). (You just have to love long subtitles!)

Maybe I’ll write it all up one day. It is a remarkable story.

I. J. (Jack) Good: Virginia Tech’s Own Bletchley Park Connection


Enigma, Ultra, Alan Turing, Bletchley Park, the British efforts to break German codes in World War II. Maybe you’ve seen or are waiting to see the 2014 movie, The Imitation Game, which tells part of this story with Turing, quite rightly, as its central character. Perhaps you became aware of this highly classified historical episode when the secrecy surrounding it gave way to public sensation in the early 1970s, almost thirty years after the end of the war . . . or in the many books and movies that have followed. An interest in wartime history, cryptography, or the early development of computers provide only a few of the possible avenues into the story. But did you know that one of the primary characters in that story, a mathematician who earned a Ph.D from Cambridge in 1941 with a paper on topological dimension, was a professor of statistics at Virginia Tech from 1967 until his retirement in 1994, and lived in Blacksburg until his death just a few years ago at the age of 92? Maybe you did, but I didn’t. His name was I. J. Good, known as Jack.

He was born Isidore Jacob Gudak in London in 1916, the son of Polish and Russian Jewish immigrants. Later changing his name to Irving John Good, he was a mathematical prodigy and a chess player of note. In a interview published in the January 1979 issue of Omni, Good says of the claim that he rediscovered irrational numbers at age 9 and mathematical induction and integration at 13, “I cannot prove either of these statements, but they are true.”

In 1941, Good joined the code-breakers at Bletchley Park, specifically, to work on the German Naval Enigma code in Hut 8 under the direction of Alan Turing and Hugh Alexander, the mathematician and chess champion who had recruited him. This is the story that is told in The Imitation Game, in which Jack Good is played by actor James Northcote. Along with Turing’s story, it is the story of the development of the machines that would break the German Enigma codes. The Enigma machine was an electromechanical device that would allow the substitution of letters–and thus production of a coded message–through the use of three (later four) rotors that would accomplish the substitutions. If you knew which rotors were being used and their settings, (changed every day or every second day), one could decode a message sent from another Enigma. If you didn’t know the rotors and the settings, as James Barrat writes in Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era, “For an alphabet of twenty-six letters, 403,291,461,126,605,635,584,000,000 such substitutions were possible.”

This is the world Jack Good entered on 27 May 1941, that and the world of war and the urgent need to defeat the Axis. Turing had already built some of the first Bombes, electromechanical machines–among the earliest computers, really–and had achieved initial and significant success. Good belonged to a team that would make improvements to the process from an approach based in a Bayesian statistical method that Good described in 1998 speech as “invented mainly by Turing.” He also called it “the first example of sequential analysis, at least the first notable example.” For the duration of the war, Good would work to further the British code-breaking technologies, adding his knowledge and understanding of statistics to the development of machines known as the “Robinsons” and “Colossus.” The program was remarkably successful. In its early days, it is credited with helping in the effort to sink the German battleship Bismarck; then helping to win the Battle of the Atlantic, directing the disruption of German supply lines to North Africa, and having an impact on the invasion of Europe in June 1944. What came to be known as “Ultra,” the intelligence obtained by the work of the Bletchley Park code-breakers, is, generally, thought to have shortened the war by two to four years. Jack Good, who worked with Alan Turing both during and after the war, said, “I won’t say that what Turing did made us win the war, but I daresay we might have lost it without him.”

After the war, Good was asked by Max Newman, a mathematician and another Bletchley Park alum, to join him at Manchester University, where they, later joined by Turing, worked to create the first computer to run on an internally stored program. A few years later, he returned to Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) for another decade of classified work for the British government. A three-year stint teaching at Oxford led to a decision in 1967 to move to the United States, but not before he served as a consultant to Stanley Kubrick, who was then making 2001: A Space Odyssey. The HAL (Heuristically-programmed ALgorithmic computer) 9000–the computer with a mind of its own–presumably owed much to the mind of Jack Good.

The camera eye of the HAL 9000 from Stanley Kubrick's 2001 : A Space Odyssey
The camera eye of the HAL 9000 from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 : A Space Odyssey
Jack Good (right) at Hawk Films Ltd., 1966, as adviser on Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey
Jack Good (right) at Hawk Films Ltd., 1966, as adviser on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

At Virginia Tech, Good arrived as a professor of statistics. Always a fellow for numbers, he noted:

I arrived in Blacksburg in the seventh hour of the seventh day of the seventh month of year seven of the seventh decade, and I was put in apartment seven of block seven of Terrace View Apartments, all by chance.

Later, he would be University Distinguished Professor and, in 1994, Professor Emeritus. In 1998, he received the Computer Pioneer Award given by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Computer Society, one of a long list of honors. Good’s published work spanned statistics, computation, number theory, physics, mathematics and philosophy. A 1979 Omni article and interview reports that two years earlier a list of his published papers, articles, books, and reviews numbered over 1000. In June 2003, his list of “shorter publications” alone included 2278 items. He published influential books on probability and Bayesian method.

In that Omni interview, the conversation ranges over such topics as scientific speculation, precognition, human psychology, chess-playing computers, climate control, extraterrestrials, and more before settling in on the consequence of intelligent and ultraintelligent machines. On the latter topic, in 1965, Good wrote:

Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an “intelligence explosion,” and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.”

Special Collections at Virginia Tech has a collection of the papers of Irving J. Good that includes 36 volumes of bound articles, reviews, etc. along with a videotape of him and Donald Michie that commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of the work they both did at Bletchley Park. Among the rest of the material is some correspondence and a group of papers described as “PBIs,” which I now know to be “partly baked ideas,” some his own, many sent to him by others, but for which he appears to have had a fondness.

In the end, however, and as his 2009 obituaries suggest, it will be his code-breaking and other intelligence work, particularly from the days at Bletchley Park that I. J. Good will be most remembered. Even though he and all the participants were prevented from talking about that work for years, one guesses that Jack Good wanted to leave others with a sense of it, particularly once in Virginia, as he drove away, with his customized license plate:

Photograph of Jack Good's Virginia license plate (from Collegiate Times, 10 Feb. 1989)
Photograph of Jack Good’s Virginia license plate (from Collegiate Times, 10 Feb. 1989)

Polar Expeditions, Part 2

An Arctic Boat Journey, in the Autumn of 1854 (1860)
by Isaac I. Hayes, Surgeon of the Second Grinnell Expedition

Cover of Hayes' An Arctic Boat Journey
Cover of Hayes’ An Arctic Boat Journey
Title page for Hayes's An Arctic Boat Journey
Title page for Hayes’s An Arctic Boat Journey

 
 
On 19 May 1845, John Franklin, an experienced Arctic explorer, led two ships and 128 men from England in search of the Northwest Passage. The last reported sighting of the ships occurred in July 1845. Between 1848 and 1859, some 30 expeditions were launched to search for the lost ships. Isaac Hayes took part in one of those efforts, one that is known as the Second Grinnell Expedition. Largely financed by shipping magnate Henry Grinnell, the brig Advance set out from New York on 30 May 1853 to succeed where his first attempt, launched in 1850, had failed. Though this first effort had located Franklins first wintering camp on Beechey Island off Greenland, it had not solved the mystery of Franklins disappearance.

Under command of Dr. Elisha Kent Kane, a veteran of Grinnells first expedition, the Advance, having spent one winter as planned in Rensselaer Harbor on the west coast of Greenland, was by August 1854, again icebound. With conditions deteriorating, Hayes and seven others, half of the surviving crew, set out for Upernavik, a Danish outpost, some 1300 miles to the south.

Chart of the Upper Limit of Baffin Bay, Illustrating an Arctic Boat Journey
Chart of the Upper Limit of Baffin Bay, Illustrating an Arctic Boat Journey

Hayess narrative is the story of a four-month journey that began with a departure from Advance on 23 August 1854 and ended, unsuccessful, nearly four months later on 12 December with a return to Advance.

The winter passed slowly away. Then spring returned, with its daylight, sunshine, and increased warmth; fresh food was obtained, chiefly form the natives; and with these aids, the people rallied. Gradually the gloom which had settled over us was dispelled. The carpenter hobbled out to repair the boats; and in proportion as our strength increased, preparations were carried on for the final abandonment of the vessel.

Despite having to spend a second winter in the ice, Kane led his crew to Upernavik after an 84-day trek over land and water that began on 20 May and ended on 8 August 1855. All but three of those who left Advance in May arrived in New York on 12 October.

Within a year Kane published Arctic Explorations: the Second Grinnell Expedition in Search of Sir John Franklin, leaving Hayes to tell the story of his own harrowing journey.

Kane died at age 37 in February 1857. Isaac Hayes would travel twice more to the Arctic.

Special Collections’ copy of Hayes’s book is the original 1860 edition published by Brown, Taggard, and Chase of Boston.

Embossed illustration from the book's cover
Embossed illustration from the book’s cover

The Ill-fated Voyage of the U.S.S. Jeannette, 1879-1881

Title page
Title page and frontispiece of The Voyage of the Jeannette with an engraving of George De Long and an image of the ship.

As I was scouting the bookshelves a few months ago in search of something to inspire a new exhibit, I came across two volumes of “The Voyage of the Jeannette: The Ship and Ice Journals of George W. De Long, Lieutenant-Commander U.S.N., and Commander of the Polar Expedition of 1879-1881. I was familiar with several 19th-century polar expeditions, particularly that of John Franklin, which left England in 1845, never to return, but De Long was unknown to me. In the end, I found first-hand accounts of many voyages of discovery, which led to the idea to assemble an exhibit on the themes of Discovery, Travel, and Exploration, but it was the Jeannette with which I began and whose story continues to enliven my curiosity.

When the U.S.S. Jeannette set out from San Francisco on 8 July 1879 with 33 men aboard, including its commander, George Washington De Long, its mission was to reach the supposed Open Polar Sea, attain the North Pole, and to record all manner of scientific observations along the way. Initially built as a gunboat for the British Navy and named Pandora, it had three masts and was equipped with a steam engine and propeller. The ship had passed into private hands and successfully survived two trips to Greenland before James Gordon Bennett Jr., owner of the New York Herald bought her, renamed her Jeannette, and had her structure massively reinforced, all in preparation for the polar mission that De Long would command. She would carry provisions to last three years.

The Jennette enters the ice.
The Jeannette enters the ice.

By 6 September of that year, the Jeannette was locked in the ice, sooner and further south than anticipated. Through disappointment and routine, mostly good spirits prevailed. On 28 October, De Long wrote:

I think the night one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. The heavens were cloudless, the moon very nearly full and shining brightly, and every star twinkling; the air perfectly calm, and not a sound to break the spell. The ship and her surroundings made a perfect picture. Standing out in bold relief against the blue sky, every rope and spar with a thick coat of snow and frost; she was simply a beautiful spectacle.

The Jeannette would drift in the ice in a northwesterly direction through the frozen summer of 1880 and into the spring of 1881. On 11 June–nearly two years after leaving San Francisco–just after midnight, as De Long wrote, the ice suddenly opened alongside and the ship righted to an even keel. For the first time in twenty months, the ship was afloat. Cruelly, some forty hours later the situation had changed:

At four P.M. the ice came down in great force all along the port side, jamming the ship hard against the ice on the starboard side of her, and causing her to heel 16 to starboard. From the snapping and cracking of the bunker sides and starting in of the starboard ceiling . . . it was feared that the ship was about to be seriously endangered. . . . Mr. Melville . . . saw a break across the ship . . . showing that so solidly were the stern and starboard quarters held by the ice that the ship was breaking in two from the pressure upward exerted on the port bow of the ship.. . . At five P.M. the pressure was renewed and continued with tremendous force, the ship cracking in every part. The spar deck commenced to buckle up, and the starboard side seemed again on the point of coming in.

The Jennette sinks, 11 June 1881.
The Jennette sinks, 11 June 1881.

By 6 PM. the Jeannette began to fill with water and as provisions were removed, the ship heeled 30 to starboard. The starboard side had broken in and at 8 PM all hands were ordered off the ship. At 4 AM, the ship went down. They had reached just beyond 77 N latitude, some 700 miles south of the pole, and would head southwest hauling their boats and equipment towards the Lena River on the Siberian coast.

Dragging the boats over the ice.
Dragging the boats over the ice.
Nindemann and Noros in search of help.
Nindemann and Noros in search of help.

Upon reaching open water 91 days later, the crew boarded three boats on 12 September. A gale separated the three and one boat was lost. De Longs boat, carrying 14 men, reached the marshy Lena delta on 15 September and would soon be abandoned. On 9 October, with the entire party suffering from starvation and exposure, a weakened De Long sent two men ahead in search of help. These two men, Nindemann and Noros, found a small group of hunter-fisherman on 22 October, who took them to the larger settlement they sought. The third boat, commanded by George Melville with eleven aboard, reached the delta on 14 September, nearly 100 miles from the first group, but on a navigable branch of the river. Five days later, they found a fishing camp. Neither Melvilles group nor Nindemann and Noros were able to mount a rescue for De Longs group, though on 2 November, they did find each other. George W. De Long, however, had written his last log entry on 30 October:

One hundred and fortieth day. Boyd and Grtz died during the night. Mr. Collins dying.

Melville continued the search for his comrades and on 13 November, he found the Jeannettes log books, instruments, and other items that De Long had buried on 19 September. It wasnt until the following spring, on 23 March 1882, that Melville and Nindemann found the bodies of De Long and two other members of his party, then those of the remaining seven. One mans body was never found. They also found the ice journal that De Long had kept and which recorded the journey they had taken since the Jeannette was lost. All ten bodies were placed in a makeshift coffin and interred in a cairn on the highest point in the area.

De Long's last entries.
De Long’s last entries.

George Melville arrived in New York on 13 September 1882 and brought De Longs papers, journals, and personal effects to his widow, Emma.

The cairn that temporarily held the bodies of  De Long and nine of his men.
The cairn that temporarily held the bodies of De Long and nine of his men.

By Act of Congress, the remains of De Long and the nine crew were ordered returned for burial in the US. On 20 February 1884, after a 12,000 mile journey westward, they arrived in New York. De Long and six others were buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. On 18 June 1884 a broken box bearing the name Jeannette and other items from the ship were found off the southern coast of Greenland, thousands of miles east of Jeannettes final location. Having made their own journey, these items gave new support to the theory of trans-Arctic drift.

So, this was the story that was the spark for an exhibit that will soon go up, one that will present materials offering a range broader than that of polar exploration . . . but, interestingly, the Collection has several accounts of trips using various means to arrive at various poles. Watch for it:

On the 70th Anniversary of D-Day

Jimmie W. Monteith, Jr.

Grave marker of Jimmie Monteith, died Normandy, 6 June 1944
Grave marker of Jimmie Monteith, died Normandy, 6 June 1944

. . . it would not be unusual, on this campus, to focus on the story of Jimmy W. Monteith Jr. He came to Virginia Tech in 1937 from Richmond to study Mechanical Engineering. In October 1941, before completing his studies, Monteith, like many of his contemporaries, joined the armed forces, and by 6 June 1944 had already seen combat in North Africa and Sicily, and was among the thousands of soldiers who had trained for the invasion of France. On that day, as a lieutenant in the 16th Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division, Monteith was among the first to land in Normandy on Omaha Beach. What happened next is summed up in the Citation that accompanied the Medal of Honor awarded to him for the action of that day:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty on 6 June 1944, near Colleville-sur-Mer, France. 1st Lt. Monteith landed with the initial assault waves on the coast of France under heavy enemy fire. Without regard to his own personal safety he continually moved up and down the beach reorganizing men for further assault. He then led the assault over a narrow protective ledge and across the flat, exposed terrain to the comparative safety of a cliff. Retracing his steps across the field to the beach, he moved over to where 2 tanks were buttoned up and blind under violent enemy artillery and machinegun fire. Completely exposed to the intense fire, 1st Lt. Monteith led the tanks on foot through a minefield and into firing positions. Under his direction several enemy positions were destroyed. He then rejoined his company and under his leadership his men captured an advantageous position on the hill. Supervising the defense of his newly won position against repeated vicious counterattacks, he continued to ignore his own personal safety, repeatedly crossing the 200 or 300 yards of open terrain under heavy fire to strengthen links in his defensive chain. When the enemy succeeded in completely surrounding 1st Lt. Monteith and his unit and while leading the fight out of the situation, 1st Lt. Monteith was killed by enemy fire. The courage, gallantry, and intrepid leadership displayed by 1st Lt. Monteith is worthy of emulation.

Monteith is one of seven Virginia Tech alumni who have received this nation’s highest award for valor. But if you want to get beyond the descriptions of war, seek out the manuscript collection that bears his name, the Jimmie W. Monteith Collection, Ms1990-062, in Special Collections and read the letters he wrote home before dying in France, or the letters of condolence and sorrow sent to his mother afterwards.

Letter from Jimmy Monteith to his mother, 14 May 1944, first page

Letter from Jimmy Monteith to his mother, 14 May 1944, first page

In this letter, written home on 14 May 1944, just a little more than two weeks before the invasion, Monteith explains that he can’t always write as often as he might like: “Old Uncle Sam has a way of taking up a fellows time. However we are old soldiers now and we can stand a few hardships without too much grief.” He’s 25 years old at the time and he ends the letter by trying to set his mother’s mind at ease by understanding the difficulty of her situation and downplaying his own:

By the way Mother I know that these are hard times for you. The nerve strain must be afull. Please don’t pay too much attention to the papers and the radio, those people always try go get a scoop or something sensational (or something) and most of the time they don’t know too much what they are talking about. I am sure nerve strain is cracking up more people than this old war is. Please don’t let it happen to you. Love Jimmie

But as I mentioned earlier, it would not be surprising to talk about Monteith on this anniversary. But we would do well to remember the others.

On two occasions in January and September 1945, The Techgram, a publication of the university, presented photographs with brief captions of those alumni who had died in service during the war. Without claiming to be complete, The Techgram shows eight others who died on 6 June or shortly thereafter, the result of wounds received during the invasion:

Fourteen others died in France before the end of August 1944:

I’m guessing it doesn’t matter if you first learned about the Normandy invasion from contemporary newsreels, or from watching The Longest Day (1962) or Band of Brothers (2001) or from reading Clayton Knight’s book for kids, We Were There at the Normandy Invasion (1956), or any of the fine books of scholarly history written since. It might not matter whether your experience is burdened by the brutality of war or enraged by the politics of it, it is hard—in simple human terms—to look at these faces and read a simple sentence or two for each one and not get a bit choked up . . . on this 70th anniversary.

The Checkered History of April Fool’s Day

For better or for worse, I don’t make a habit of looking at the Collegiate Times, at least not the issue of the day. This isn’t a judgement, just the reality. I do often look at it in the course of my job as an archivist at Special Collections, and just a few days ago I came across the 1986 April Fool’s Parody issue. The masthead proudly (or, maybe not so proudly) proclaimed Collegiate Slime and “Virginia Technical Institute’s Stupid Yellow Rag.” The location was “Bleaksburg, Fajenyah” and the index listed sections for Sex, Beastiality, Scandal, Lies, Demagogery, and Free Beer.
 
April Fool's Parody Issue, 1986

OK. College humor, what can you do? In one form or another, it’s probably as old as the oldest university. But I got curious, given that April 1st was coming up and decided to do a less-than-comprehensive review of the history of these issues. The 1977 issue served up The Cowlegiate Crime and Virginia Polywrecknic Institute and State Asylum.
 
1977 Parody Issue

The Crime appeared again the next year with the lead story, “Corps Demands Total Power” and again in 1982 with what was becoming a usual mix of effrontery, barely(?) post-adolescent male humor, and a penchant for superimposing an image of someone’s head on a body to which it did not belong. In 1988, the Slime was back, this time as “Virginia Wreck’s Fascist Rag,” still in Bleaksburg, now Virginny, and, again, in 1990. That year Bart Simpson and WelWhee Tried can be found among the bylines, and a few sample pages are numbered 2BE, NOT2BEE, and 4AUTNBEA. In 1991, however, something else happened.

In the April 2nd issue of the Collegiate Times, editor Jim Roberts published a commentary in which he describes how the annual issue of the Slime had been produced and was ready for distribution. He writes:
 
Last April, I argued that the parody issue was good for the CT and the university, because it allowed the staff to take a satirical look at the issues which have surrounded us all year. Twelve months later, I have decided that is not within the scope of responsibilities of a news organization. . . . I decided last night to have the 14,000 issues destroyed.
 
Roberts described the adverse reactions to the previous issue of the “parody” as well as the tradition of producing the issue. Many thought the issue “insensitive,” that it had gone too far, and he concluded “the traditions of the CT far exceeds whatever fun we could [have] with six pages of jokes and unflattering pictures.” In the end, he writes that many may think he made a “poor decision,” but that, in the news business, “we’re often better off being criticized not for what we print, but for what we don’t print.”
 
The April 5th issue of the CT suggests just how right he was. As reported on page one, sometime in the early morning of the 3rd, a former CT employee distributed copies of the paper that had been set aside to be recycled. By 7:30 that morning, copies had been found and removed from Burruss, Newman Library, and Norris Hall.

According to the article, “Professors, women, minorities, SGA leaders and by and large almost every sector of the university contacted administrators about the issue.” Darrel Martin, assistant to President McComas commented on the line between parody and “the occasion where attitude and language are not part of the journalism profession or part of an educational environment.” In the same issue an editorial titled “Slime offensive” made the point more directly. The writer, coordinator of the Sexual Assault and Victim Education Support Services peer education program, wrote:
 
In reference to Adolph McMillan and Paul Hell’s articles (who, by the way, provided only pseudonyms), your writings outraged me. Your words were offensive and debilitating to women. . . . As long as attitudes such as Adolph’s and Paul’s are continued to go without a challenge . . . violence against women will continue to persist.
 
Also in the same April 5th issue, the CT editorial board member who would be editor-in-chief for 1991-1992 said that after consulting with CT staff several changes would be made for the next year’s parody issue. The name would be changed to avoid association with the past issues of the Slime, it would be printed in tabloid form to differentiate it from regular CT issues, and it would be completed a week before distribution.
 

1 April 1992
1 April 1992

 
Honestly, I’m not sure they quite got the point.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Maybe by 1994?
 
1 April 1994
1 April 1994

 
1 April 2011
1 April 2011

 
 
 
In any case, by 2011, the CT simply let us know it’s April Fool’s Day in its masthead.
 
 
 
 
 
 
The VA. Wreck, Vol. 1. (1905)
The VA. Wreck, Vol. 1. (1905)

Oddly enough, this same week when I looked into the CT Parody issues, I came upon another bit of Virginia Tech (ok, Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College) humor. In June 1905, the first (and only?) issue of The VA. Wreck, a take-off on the college’s newspaper, The Virginia Tech, was published. (Yes, the real newspaper was called The Virginia Tech.) Blacksburg is said to offer Hot Summers, Arctic Winters, Reasonable Board, Poor Food, and Hard Beds. The paper was published by “The Deanery” on a “Tri-Weekly” basis: “Comes out one week and tries to come out the next.”

Perhaps to set the stage for what will follow, the four-page paper comments:
 
Some seem to think this paper is a burlesque on the Virginia Tech, but such is not the case, and we decline the honor. If anything, the Virginia Tech is the burlesque; anyway it is a parody of some sort too deep for us to fathom.
 
And so much more. It felt a little odd to be spending so much time with documents from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, let alone newspapers from just a couple of years ago. After all, I’m an archivist. Ahhh, the Va. Wreck. 1905. That’s better. We’re not just concerned with the past . . . but with the PAST! Right? At least 50 years ago! The older the better! Right? That’s the real joke. April Fool’s!