The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Smithsonian History
The Reference team gets more than 5000 – yes, thousand – inquiries per year. They come from all over the world and cover everything from soup to nuts. I’ll save the nuts for another post, and focus on the soup or, more specifically, tea and how refreshments are vital to a successful volunteer effort.
One of our perennial topics of interest is, Operation Moonwatch. Moonwatch was initiated in 1958 by Dr. Fred Whipple at the Harvard-Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory during the International Geophysical Year (IGY).
Operation Moonwatch created an international network of dedicated and enthusiastic volunteer sky-watchers of both genders (women made up about a third of all observers) and from every walk-of-life. These citizen-scientists joined professional astronomers to track and report on satellites travelling through the night sky. Often we hear from old "Moonwatchers" or, increasingly, genealogists that have learned through family lore or old paperwork about a relative's participation in the project and are eager to learn more.
Recently I received an email from Greg Roberts of Johannesburg, South Africa, a former Moonwatcher who had been corresponding with some of his fellow observers. Greg wanted to track down details on several South African observation teams operating out of Johannesburg and Blomenfontein. Luckily we have great records documenting the Moonwatch program in Record Unit 255 where I could find what he was looking for.
The report from the Blomenfontein observation station, on Naval Hill near the old Lamont-Hussey Observatory, was detailed and complete. It also included photographs of the observational set-up and drawings diagramming the layout of the entire observation station. What I enjoyed best, though, were the detailed organizational lists. These provided names of volunteers, their occupations, tasks and responsibilities and descriptions of nightly activities.
As I read through the report's detailed description of the locality and how well-suited it was to the task, it became clear that the proximity of the telescopes to the canteen – and its' "pepping-up" the volunteers – made the whole arrangement "most satisfactory" for all involved.
That made me smile, but I don't think you'd see that sort of personal touch in reports covering a partnership like Moonwatch today. And that's too bad. I mean, what a great recruiting tool – a night out, under the stars with others who share a common interest and cake, too. Heck, I'm all over that!
For more information about Operation Moonwatch, check out, Keep Watching the Skies: The Story of Operation Moonwatch and the Dawn of the Space Age by Patrick McCray. Dr. McCray made extensive use of Record Unit 255 for this book.
- Record Unit 255 - Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory Moonwatch Division, Records, 1956-1975, Smithsonian Institution Archives
On this day in 1987, the Enid A. Haupt Garden, named for the American philanthropist and publisher, officially opened to the public. The Haupt garden, which is located adjacent to the Smithsonian Institution Building, sits above a three-story underground complex, known as the Quad, that includes the National Museum of African Art, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, and the S. Dillon Ripley Center. A few times a year, the colorful flowers displayed in the garden are changed to reflect the foliage currently in bloom.
Click through the slideshow for photos of construction of the Quad and the Enid A. Haupt Garden!
The naming of ships in the United States Navy has a complex set of guidelines that has evolved over time. In the early years, there were no set rules. Vessels were named after people, places, character traits, and even insects. In 1819, Congress assigned the job to the Secretary of the Navy and defined certain classes of ships to be named after states, rivers, and cities and towns. Submarines became part of the Navy in 1900 and initially had no naming guidelines. Soon, however, submarines were named after "fish and land creatures that sting." With the rapid advancement in technology and the numerous submarines being built, the names evolved into a letter and numbering scheme. In 1931 they were again designated a naming category, but this time it was to be "fish and denizens of the deep." This convention was followed faithfully (with only 2 exceptions) until 1947 when the Secretary said that submarines should be named after famous World War II boats. But since most of these World War II vessels were named after fish, the naming did not change much in practice. However, with the increase in the types of submarines and the ideas of various Secretaries in subsequent years, these guidelines were often altered as it suited the moment's needs. (For more information about the naming of Naval ships, see "A Report on Policies and Practices of the U.S. Navy for Naming the Vessels of the Navy").
In 1958, the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings published a humorous account by Captain William F. Calkins, USNR, of his experience with naming ships in his position as Special Assistant to the Chief of Naval Personnel during World War II. It fell to the Chief to provide naming recommendations from which the Secretary could choose. During this time, the naming of submarines still followed the convention of "fish and denizens of the deep," so Captain Calkins often consulted the United States National Museum (now the National Museum of Natural History) for assistance.
Captain Calkins described the many difficulties involved in choosing a name for any vessel. The names could not be similar to another ship's name currently in the fleet and it had to be appropriate, i.e. not something that would easily be made fun of. In addition: "Spelling and pronunciation both had to be reasonably simple. The average enlisted man (and his girl friend) must be able to say the name comfortably. If his best girl couldn't spell it, he might not get her letters."
This proved a problem with fish names since ichthyologists like to use Latin names. The most common and recognizable names were used up fast leaving him to come up with some creative workarounds, such as names in different languages for the same fish type. The fleet was growing so fast that sometimes a popular fish name was created and then assigned to an already existing scientific name in order to have something more pronounceable.
Smithsonian Institution ArchivesAccession 12-530 is a small collection of correspondence between staff in the Division of Fishes and members of the U.S. Navy. Smithsonian curators would provide the requesting commander with information and pictures of the fish for which his ship was named. The letter and photograph were often hung onboard, and the sailors took pride in knowing about the ship's namesake.
- Frequently Asked Questions about Submarines, Submarine Welfare Division, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations
- A Report on Policies and Practices of the U.S. Navy for Naming the Vessels of the Navy, Department of the Navy
- Accession 12-530 - National Museum of Natural History, Division of Fishes, Correspondence, 1943-1987, Smithsonian Institution Archives
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