Stories tagged history

Apr
27
2012

Beaker & Brush
Beaker & BrushCourtesy Science Museum of Minnesota
A few weeks ago I attended the Beaker & Brush Discussion in St. Paul, a public event about the intersection of science and art put on by the Science Museum of Minnesota the second Tuesday of each month. April’s topic was titled "Why We Collect", a discussion about why we as a society and as individuals like to collect things. Museum staff members were on hand to relate the museum's and their personal perspectives on the nuts and bolts of collecting. The subject particularly interested me because ever since I was a kid, I’ve collected stuff. Things like rocks and fossils, silent movie posters, space memorabilia, historic Duluth material, and early paleontology ephemera – I’ve collected them all. Lately it’s been dinosaur-related postcards. I got interested in collecting those because I designed some dinosaur postcards sold here at the museum gift shop, which, you know, I think is kind of cool. I like how it connects me to the long history of dinosaur postcards, which goes back quite a while. The two oldest cards in my collection date back before 1910. Both are related to industrialist Andrew Carnegie’s namesake dinosaur, Diplodocus carnegiei, which he had spared no expense extracting from the High Plains of Wyoming for his museum in Pittsburgh. Carnegie was so proud of his collection of bones that he had several mounted casts of the great sauropod created that he presented to heads of state in many countries around the world.

Field Museum postcard: reproduction of paleo-artist Charles R. Knight's "Flying and Swimming Reptiles" mural.
Field Museum postcard: reproduction of paleo-artist Charles R. Knight's "Flying and Swimming Reptiles" mural.Courtesy Mark Ryan collection
This brings me to a recent postcard I saw on eBay from the Field Museum of Natural History. The card showed a sepia-toned reproduction of one of paleo-artist Charles R. Knight’s murals. Knight was (and still is) a highly regarded natural history artist known for his exceptional talent at bringing long-extinct animals to life in his fantastic paintings. This one showed flying and swimming reptiles in the Cretaceous sea that once extended across the middle of the North American continent. Knight created the original painting (along with 28 others) between 1926 and 1930 for the Field Museum exhibits in Chicago, where they can still be seen today. A color reproduction of the same painting portrayed in the postcard also sets beneath the mosasaur skeleton seen at the Science Museum of Minnesota. Knight, by the way, was my grandmother’s maiden name. She was born in London, as was Charles Knight’s father, so I like to think that somewhere in the past, we might share a family connection.

Reverse of Field Museum postcard: the addressee and address are significant.
Reverse of Field Museum postcard: the addressee and address are significant.Courtesy Mark Ryan Collection
But beyond that, I like Knight’s images and have several in my collection, so even though this postcard wasn’t actually of dinosaurs per se (dinosaurs didn’t fly or live in water), I considered bidding on it. But what clinched it for me was the address on back of the postcard. The reverse side, which the seller included in his listing, displayed a 1932 postmark and was addressed to Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt at 640 Fifth Avenue in New York City, an address with which I happened to be familiar.

Let me explain the connection.

Old quarry in Barryville, New York: stone from here was used for pavement in Manhattan.
Old quarry in Barryville, New York: stone from here was used for pavement in Manhattan.Courtesy Mark Ryan
A couple summers ago, we went to visit my son, who at the time was living in upstate New York. He and his girlfriend were living in Barryville, a small hamlet in the Catskills on the Delaware River about 100 miles northwest of New York City. They were renting a place for the summer with another couple on an old farm and quarry once owned by a man named Hickok. The site contained three residences, two for rental and another used by the property owners. It was a very quaint and idyllic setting, surrounded by woods, with the three buildings close together on the property and set before a steep wall of quarry rock where a small waterfall tumbled over one corner.

The rock in the quarry, I discovered, was primarily sandstone (or more precisely a feldspathic greywacke) of Devonian age, and the largest bedrock unit of the Catskill formation. Deposited in a delta environment during the Acadian orogeny (ancestral Appalachians Mountains) about 360 million years ago, it’s essentially the same rock that underlies the Pocono Mountains to the south in Pennsylvania. The rock unit was first quarried in Ulster County, New York and became known as bluestone because of its color at that location but the stone can come in several hues – in Barryville it’s red. Over the years, the rock has been heavily quarried as an architectural and building stone because of its durability, resistance to weathering, and how easily it splits into slabs. Today, the term “bluestone” is a commercial designation rather than geological and can include many kinds of rock used for building.

One evening the owners related to me how some of the rock quarried behind their house had been used to pave the sidewalks of New York City, and in fact back in the late 19th century, the house they lived in had been moved several yards toward the river so quarrymen could get at one very large, continuous slab of rock. Once removed, the single slab was shipped by barge over the Delaware & Hudson Canal and down to NYC for placement in front of the Vanderbilt Mansion on Fifth Avenue. The Vanderbilt name is practically synonymous with “filthy rich”, at least back then during the Gilded Age. I enjoy history and geology so the story intrigued me, and later that evening I went online to see what I could find out about the story.

William H. Vanderbilt's Twin Mansions: William H. lived in the nearer building (640 Fifth Avenue) while his two married daughters and their families lived in the 642 Fifth Avenue address which was divided into two residences.
William H. Vanderbilt's Twin Mansions: William H. lived in the nearer building (640 Fifth Avenue) while his two married daughters and their families lived in the 642 Fifth Avenue address which was divided into two residences.Courtesy Public domain
It didn’t take long at all to come across this 1881 clipping in the New York Times archives that describes, in detail, getting the massive 25-foot rock from Barryville to NYC and placed in front of the William H. Vanderbilt mansion being built on Fifth Avenue between 51st and 52nd Streets in Manhattan. If by now you guessed that the address was 640 Fifth Avenue, you’d be right (actually William H. Vanderbilt built two identical mansions at the same time on the block, one for himself - the 640 address - and another at 642 Fifth Avenue that was divided into two residences for his two daughters and their families).

The Commodore and son: Cornelius Vanderbilt, aka "The Commodore" and patriarch of the family, constantly berated his oldest son when William was growing up, referring to him as incompetent and a blockhead. It wasn't until later in life that William proved him wrong, finally convincing his critical father that he was capable of taking on the family railroad business and other interests. William subsequently inherited the bulk of his father's millions and doubled it during his own lifetime.
The Commodore and son: Cornelius Vanderbilt, aka "The Commodore" and patriarch of the family, constantly berated his oldest son when William was growing up, referring to him as incompetent and a blockhead. It wasn't until later in life that William proved him wrong, finally convincing his critical father that he was capable of taking on the family railroad business and other interests. William subsequently inherited the bulk of his father's millions and doubled it during his own lifetime.Courtesy Public domain via Wikipedia
William Vanderbilt’s father, Cornelius “The Commodore” Vanderbilt, had amassed the family fortune via shipping and railroad interests in the mid-1800s, rocketing the ultra-wealthy Vanderbilts to the very stratospheric top layer of the socio-economic heap. To put their vast wealth in perspective compare the Commodore’s $100,000,000 (an inheritance that William Vanderbilt doubled) to the guys who led the mules that pulled the canal barge transporting William’s monster sidewalk slab. They’d have to walk 15-20 miles a day, tend to the mules, and pump out the barges – all for about $3 a month! Even the other wealthy families of the time (i.e. Astors and Carnegies) paled in comparison to the House of Vanderbilt. The extended Vanderbilt clan owned several properties along Fifth Avenue but William Vanderbilt’s Triple Palaces, as they were also known, would be the finest along Vanderbilt Row.

Nine-foot Malachite Vase: The ornate Neo-classical vase made of the mineral malachite stood in the vestibule of William H. Vanderbilt's Fifth Avenue Twin Mansions. This is one of two matching urns originally created for Czar Nicholas of Russia. He presented one to Count Demidoff, and Vanderbilt purchased it from his estate in 1880. It now resides at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Its twin can be seen at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Nine-foot Malachite Vase: The ornate Neo-classical vase made of the mineral malachite stood in the vestibule of William H. Vanderbilt's Fifth Avenue Twin Mansions. This is one of two matching urns originally created for Czar Nicholas of Russia. He presented one to Count Demidoff, and Vanderbilt purchased it from his estate in 1880. It now resides at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Its twin can be seen at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia.Courtesy Public domain
For nearly two years, six hundred laborers (including 60 sculptors and artisans from Europe) toiled on William H. Vanderbilt’s 640 residence, creating a brownstone behemoth which he filled with extreme opulence, including over 200 original pieces of art now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. According to a book about the mansion published privately by Vanderbilt, everything inside "sparkles and flashes with gold and color...with mother-of-pearl, with marble, with jewel effects in glass...and every surface is covered, one might say weighted, with ornament." The gigantic five-story oblong pile of stone and marble contained seventy rooms - “most of them huge” - and 33 bathrooms. Many of the dozens of servants lived on site, maids on the 5th floor and attic, manservants in the sub-basement. One employee’s only job was to keep the building’s furnaces stoked with coal.

The Picture-Gallery: William H. Vanderbilt privately published a catalog detailing the art and architectural treasures found at his 640 Fifth Avenue mansion. Much of his artwork collection was later donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Picture-Gallery: William H. Vanderbilt privately published a catalog detailing the art and architectural treasures found at his 640 Fifth Avenue mansion. Much of his artwork collection was later donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.Courtesy Public domain
When he died in 1885, William H. Vanderbilt was the richest man in the world (at a time when the US had no income tax!). The mansion at 640 was willed to his brother, George Vanderbilt (who also built a giant 125,000 acre estate in Ashville, North Carolina, called Biltmore), and when George died in 1914, the huge house with the pavement stone from Barryville passed down to Cornelius Vanderbilt III and his wife, Grace Wilson Vanderbilt, the postcard’s addressee.

Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt: born Grace Graham Wilson in 1870, she became New York's leading socialite after her marriage to Cornelius Vanderbilt III.
Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt: born Grace Graham Wilson in 1870, she became New York's leading socialite after her marriage to Cornelius Vanderbilt III.Courtesy Public domain
Grace Wilson Vanderbilt was the darling of European royalty, and for many years New York’s leading socialite. Her marriage to Cornelius III caused him to be disinherited by his father (Cornelius II) and ostracized by many of the other Vanderbilts. (When his father died, rather than getting $60-$70 million, Cornelius III (nicknamed Neily), inherited only half a million dollars plus income from a million dollar trust fund. His brother Alfred threw another $7 million his way to somewhat even the score). Grace’s own father, Richard T. Wilson, was a New York banker of great wealth and close friends with Andrew Carnegie, but the Vanderbilts, for whatever reason, considered her a social climber. Despite the family animosity, Grace managed to make herself the Mrs. Vanderbilt, the family’s last grand dame of the social set. (An article in the November, 1905 Munsey’s Magazine stated Grace had attained her social status by learning “the art of success scientifically, from approved models” – meaning all the European royalty she met as a young girl). During her reign, Grace hosted huge dinner parties, usually twice a week, and even larger, lavish balls for a thousand guests (I guess this is when having 33 bathrooms comes in handy). She once claimed to have entertained 37,000 guests in a single year. Neily wasn’t as interested in his wife’s social activities. As a boy he longed to be a scientist, and graduated from Yale a mechanical engineer. He was also an expert sailor and career military man. When he wasn’t yachting or soldiering he’d spend his time creating various railroad improvement devices for which he owned several patents, or co-founding businesses like the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT), New York’s very first subway system.

Postcard inscription: "Dearest Grace, I can't tell you how sorry I was to miss you. I tried to telephone but you were out. Many thanks for the lovely box of candy. We are all enjoying it. You were a dear to think of us. Much love from us all. Eleanor"
Postcard inscription: "Dearest Grace, I can't tell you how sorry I was to miss you. I tried to telephone but you were out. Many thanks for the lovely box of candy. We are all enjoying it. You were a dear to think of us. Much love from us all. Eleanor"Courtesy Mark Ryan Collection
So back to the postcard. The fact it had been addressed to the Vanderbilt mansion where the big sidewalk slab from the Barryville quarry ended up was enough to make it desirable to me, so I bid on it and won it. While waiting for its arrival in the mail, I looked more closely to the card’s inscription: a social regret and thank you for a box of candy to Grace signed simply “Eleanor”. This intrigued me, and investigating it further, I eventually came to the realization that the writer was Eleanor Roosevelt.Eleanor Rooselvelt
Eleanor RooselveltCourtesy LIbrary of Congress
At the time her husband Franklin Delano Roosevelt (we share birthdays!) would have been governor of New York, and within 8 months become the president-elect of the United States. Now that was something. The card was cancelled with a St. Paul & Williston RPO postmark (railroad post office – my grandfather worked the Chicago-St. Paul leg). Eleanor could very well have been west visiting her nephew, Teddy Roosevelt, Jr. at the Field Museum. Like his father, TR - the former president - Teddy Jr. was a naturalist and explorer. Perhaps Eleanor was in Chicago to attend a memorial service for William V. Kelley who had fully financed her nephew’s 1929 Asian expeditions (Kelley-Roosevelts Expedition) for the natural history museum. Kelley had just died days before the postmark date.

Grace Vanderbilt was close friends with Alice Roosevelt, TR’s daughter, and Teddy, Jr’s half-sister, and obviously knew Eleanor, although, later, she and Neily would be vocal opponents of FDR and his New Deal recovery program, which they thought were socialistic. Sounds familiar, does it not? (Neily even called the president a traitor to his class). Of course the Great Depression had little effect on the Vanderbilts or their friends. The House of Vanderbilt’s range was widespread. Besides the Fifth Avenue mansions (and a boatload of private yachts), family members owned several summer homes in Newport, Rhode Island (e.g The Breakers, Marble House, and Grace and Neily’s Beaulieu. At Hyde Park, New York, a Vanderbilt mansion combines withFDR’s birthplace, and Eleanor Roosevelt’s getaway Val-Kill, to form the National Park Service’s Vanderbilt-Roosevelt National Historic sites. .

So, why do people collect things? According to this informative site, it can be for a number of reasons. Personally, I think I do it for several of the reasons listed: it connects me with memories of my youth or to some place I’ve visited, or just hooks me in with something that fascinates me. I know when I’m in the heat of my obsession - whatever that may be at the time, I find it difficult to part with any of my collection. Sometimes I’ll sell a lesser item to acquire something better, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. At some point my interest flags and I sell or give away most of the collection and move on to something else. But I find no matter what I collect, it often triggers an intense desire in me to find out as much as I can about it. Like this Vanderbilt postcard. Because of one silly postcard and a giant slab of sandstone, all these odd historical, geological, architectural, political, and socioeconomic connections have been brought together here. It makes for a good story anyway.

Titanic disaster in 1912: George Vanderbilt and his wife changed their plans to sail aboard the doomed vessel.
Titanic disaster in 1912: George Vanderbilt and his wife changed their plans to sail aboard the doomed vessel.Courtesy Public domain via Wikipedia
I’ll end with one last anecdote. With all the interest this month with the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, there’s a Vanderbilt connection to it. In April of 1912, George Vanderbilt and his wife – the second owners of the 640 Fifth Avenue mansion - were in Europe and had booked passage on the maiden voyage of the Titanic. But George’s mother-in-law expressed a very strong premonition and convinced them to make other plans. Lots can go wrong on maiden voyages, she said. Lucky for them, they followed her advice and removed their luggage from the doomed liner and made the trip back on its sister ship RMS Olympic instead. George’s footman, Frederic Wheeler, however wasn’t as lucky. Wheeler remained on the Titanic and perished in the disaster.

ADDITIONAL SOURCES
Queen of the Golden Age by Cornelius Vanderbilt IV, McGraw-Hill, 1956
Beetlehead’s 640 Fifth Avenue (excellent blog)
Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, Munsey’s Magazine, Nov. 1905
Vanderbilt home and info on Flickr

In this recent Ted Talk, historian David Christian of the Australian Academy of the Humanities lays out a Big History of the universe from the Big Bang to the internet, complete with many thresholds and all sorts of complexity.

High-tech imaging techniques have revealed an edit made in the rough draft of the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson likely made the edit as he wrote, smudging the original word "subjects" out with his finger and writing "citizens" over it.

Nov
29
2009

Wadena county, Minnesota
Wadena county, MinnesotaCourtesy wikipedia image
During the summer of 2009, I had the opportunity to spend four weeks in the field doing actual scientific investigation. From mid-June until mid-July, I was a participant in the University of Minnesota's archeology summer field school run by Professor Kat Hayes. The mission of the field school was to attempt to confirm the presence of a European footprint in this remote part of what would become a young Minnesota territory.

The site of Little Round Hill is located in Wadena County, Minnesota, part way between the towns of Staples and Wadena. Currently, it is part of a county park system. Located at the confluence of the Crow Wing River and the Partridge River, Little Round Hill is believed to be a historical site from the early French fur trading days.

The story goes something like this. In the mid- 1800's, William Warren wrote an account of Ojibwe life in a growing Minnesota territory. In his work, Warren interviewed an elderly Ojibwe man. This elderly man recounted days spent at a fur trading encampment while he was just a young boy. The encampment centered around the dwelling of a French fur trader and his handful or so of Coureur-des-bois . Staying with this trader were around ten Ojibwe hunters and their families. According to the account, Little Round Hill became the focus of contention between rival bands of Ojibwe and Lakota hunters. By oral recollection, there was an incident of more than 200 Lakota warriors approaching and attacking the outpost. The Frenchmen and Ojibwe held the attackers at bay with guns while barricading themselves into the main encampment. The attackers, with only a few guns and armed mainly with bow and arrow for projectiles, were unable to overcome the defenses and eventually retreated.

The site itself had been recognized for its historical implications for quite some time. For years, local residents have pondered that possible remains may lie buried at the Little Round Hill location. In 1992, Douglas Birk conducted an initial survey of the site. While artifact remains spanning several centuries were recovered in his explorations, they didn’t produce evidence of any of the structures described in the oral account.

The summer of 2009 excavations started out with a whimper. Rain and uncooperative weather hampered our beginning efforts. As the clouds passed, the field crew opened a handful of excavation pits and began searching for artifacts. The results were productive and encouraging. Items of distinct European influence started to appear in most of the test areas including musket balls, cut pieces of finished copper, small trade beads, a couple pieces of worked metal (still of undetermined nature), a few pottery shards and even a small ring (possibly silver).
musket ball: the first such item found and it came from my pit!
musket ball: the first such item found and it came from my pit!Courtesy K.Kmitch

Additional materials such as a stone arrowhead, lithic debris, and animal bones both broken and charred were recovered. After a month of work and close to a dozen open explorations, much more habitation evidence was revealed. While no sign was uncovered of the fortifications mentioned in the oral account, at least three of the excavation points did expose strong support for likely hearth locations. These may have been centered near the possible dwellings of the occupants.

Alas, the season of excavation is a short one in Minnesota. After a month of work, the crew retreated home with bags of evidence in hand. During the 2009-2010 academic year, the materials are being analyzed and cataloged at the University of Minnesota. A full report on the findings is expected this coming spring. While the preliminary data does not show conclusive evidence of the mentioned encampment, enough material was recovered to warrant further investigation. Plans are to return to the site next summer to resume excavations and expand exploration of the area. I, for one, can not wait and hope to have my hand in the dirt once again come summer 2010.

Dec
21
2008

Catholic Pope salutes 400 year anniversary of Galileo and his telescope

Galileo telescope replica
Galileo telescope replicaCourtesy Michael Dunn
Pope Benedict XVI chose today's winter solstice to remark that the 400th anniversary of Galileo's use of a telescope is soon upon us. Galileo was condemned by the Catholic Church for supporting Nicholas Copernicus' discovery that the Earth revolved around the sun. In 1992, Pope John Paul II apologized, saying that the denunciation was a tragic error.

Benedict said understanding the laws of nature can stimulate understanding and appreciation of the Lord's works. Newsvine

International Year of Astronomy (IYA2009)

2009 has been designated International Year of Astronomy (IYA2009) by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). I recommend checking out the International Year of Astronomy website for news and events.

The vision of IYA2009

The vision of IYA2009 is to help people rediscover their place in the Universe through the sky, and thereby engage a personal sense of wonder and discovery.

Learn more about IYA2009

I just got sucked into this wonderful list of commonly held scientific beliefs which are in fact not true. Some of my favs: when a meteor lands on earth it is generally cold not hot, Koalas are not bears, and blood is never blue, veins appear blue because of the same reason the sky does, Rayleigh scattering. It's not exactly topical or current but I just couldn't resist posting these. I'm a sucker for random facts.

Oct
16
2008

I would so not do this: Joseph Kittinger jumps out of the Excelsior III balloon at 102,800 feet.
I would so not do this: Joseph Kittinger jumps out of the Excelsior III balloon at 102,800 feet.Courtesy US Air Force
I attended yet another great Cafe Scientifique event put on by the Bell Museum the other night called: Art and Aeronautics—A Conversation with Tomás Saraceno. Tomás and his teammate Alberto are artists in residence at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and have been working with the Aerospace Engineering and Mechanics department at the University of Minnesota. In short they are building a giant balloon out of reclaimed trash--primarily plastic bags. This talk got me on an balloon science research kick and thought I would share some links:
First off, check out some of the pics of Tomás and Alberto's project, the Museo Aero Solar.

There was lots of talk at the presentation about women's important role in the early days of flight when ballooning dominated. There was even some debate about whether a woman was the first person in space...via balloon...in the 1920s! I couldn't immediately find any information on this claim on ye old internets, but I would love to hear from any buzz readers who might know more information.

Getting to space by balloon might seem crazy, but that's exactly what the Air Force was trying to do before our attempts with rockets. Check out Project Manhigh(yep its really called that) and Project Excelsior. Several of these early space balloons were piloted by Air Force Colonel Joseph Kittinger, the first, possibly only, man to ever break the speed of sound, without a vehicle. He did it by jumping out of a balloon about 20 miles up.

Students are getting into the high altitude balloon game all over the place as well: reusable experiment platform goes to the edge of space, pics at the edge of space, and legos in space.

I think balloons are my new favorite science obsession.

Scientific Frontline has a video celebrating 50 years of exploration by NASA which was created Oct. 1, 1958.

Researchers have used a solar eclipse to determine that Odysseus returned home from the Trojan Wars on April 16, 1178 B.C. Not bad for a character widely thought to be fictional.