Stories tagged Scientific Enterprise

Oct
05
2014

Yes, that’s a whale skull! Whale skulls and solar panels – things you don’t normally see together.
Yes, that’s a whale skull! Whale skulls and solar panels – things you don’t normally see together.Courtesy OMSI
Researcher Nick Day checking on the solar panels.
Researcher Nick Day checking on the solar panels.Courtesy OMSI
You don’t really smell the whale bones drying in the sun, unless you’re close to them. I’m on the roof of Science Building 2 at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon. I’m not here to check out the whale bones (which are pretty cool!) but to see the PSU Photovoltaic Test Facility.

Plants and solar cells both need sunlight. Roofs can be great places for capturing sunlight if they aren’t shaded by tall trees or buildings. PSU professors Carl Wamser, David Sailor, and Todd Rosentiel wondered if putting green roofs and solar panels together could increase the effectiveness of both. Researchers from the Wamser, Sailor, Rosentiel, and Erik Johansson labs have been experimenting with different plants in the green roofs, irrigating the plants, and different roofing materials to see how they affect the power produced by the solar panels and how much energy the building uses.

As it gets hotter, photovoltaic solar panels become a little less effective. About 80% - 90% of the solar panels in use today in the US are crystalline silicon photovoltaic panels. Over temperatures of 25°C (77°F), these solar panels drop 0.4-0.5% in power for every 1°C that the temperature rises. How can green roofs help solar panels? Plants and soil give off water in a process called evapotranspiration. As the water evaporates, it cools the air. The PSU researchers wondered if that temperature drop is enough to cool solar panels. They are still analyzing the results, but the plants do cool the solar panels a little, with sedum plants doing a better job than a mix of sedums and grasses.

While analyzing the data, researchers Matt Smith and Hanny Selbak noticed that there was an unexplained power spike in the solar panels one day. After trying to figure out what caused that increase in power, they traced it to biologists in the Rosentiel lab irrigating the plants. The water ran over the solar panels on the way to the plants. The solar panels cooled, and their power went up. Serendipity!

From that observation, researchers from the labs devised an experiment where they pumped water continuously over a solar panel using a 7 watt aquarium pump. This cooled the panel from about 55°C (131°F) to 40°C (104°F). After subtracting the power used by the pump, the average net gain in power was around 5%. The cooling system cost about $15 in materials per panel. If a home owner with an average 3 kilowatt solar panel system used a similar cooling system, she could generate an additional 150 watts of power. That’s enough to run most televisions or computers.

Find out more about the green roof and solar panel project here: http://www.sciencebuzz.org/topics/green-roofs-solar-panels-better-together

Meet some of the researchers and find out why they do what they do here: http://www.sciencebuzz.org/topics/meet-scientist

Sources and Links:
To read this article click here:

Smith, Matthew K., H. Selbak, C.C. Wamser, N.U. Day, M. Krieske, D.J. Sailor, T.N. Rosentiel. Water Cooling Method to Improve the Performance of Field-Mounted, Insulated, and Concentrating Photovoltaic Modules. Journal of Solar Energy Engineering 2014; 136(3).

Jun
24
2014

A dye absorbing blue light from a laser pointer
A dye absorbing blue light from a laser pointerCourtesy OMSI
Dye-sensitized solar cell ready to be tested
Dye-sensitized solar cell ready to be testedCourtesy OMSI
Did you know that you can make small solar cells out of things like berries, tea, and doughnuts – yum! Berries and teas have dyes (organic molecules that absorb light) that give them color. Instead of using berries, there are researchers synthesizing dyes to use in solar cells. These solar cells are called dye-sensitized solar cells - DSSC for short. DSSCs convert sunlight energy into electrical energy. They work like this. Love that Scottish accent!

Most commercial solar panels are made with silicon because silicon absorbs much of the light spectrum in sunlight. Silicon solar cells absorb a wider range of the light spectrum than DSSCs currently do. The best silicon solar cells are about 20% efficient. The best DSSCs are about 11% efficient. Why use dyes instead of silicon to make solar cells? Dyes are much cheaper and less resource intensive to make. Most silicon cells are made from purified single-crystal silicon. About 40% of the crystal is lost as it is sliced into thin wafers.

I recently met scientists at Portland State University (PSU) in Portland, Oregon who are working on making dye-sensitized solar cells more efficient. Alex Rudine has been manipulating porphyrin dyes to get them to absorb more of the light spectrum. The advantage of using porphyrins is that they absorb light well and their structure is versatile and relatively easy to manipulate.

In a DSSC, as sunlight hits the dye, an electron is excited and moves to an electron acceptor. An electron flows from the electron donor to fill the hole, creating an electrical current. One of the challenges of DSSCs is that a wet solution of iodide is the typical medium for the electron donor. There are labs working on synthesizing a solid state medium. Carl Wamser’s lab at PSU in Portland, Oregon is one of those. They have synthesized a porphyrin with a nanofiber structure with a very high surface area. A high surface area means there are more places where the energy conversion can happen.

One of the things limiting more wide-spread use of solar energy is the higher set-up costs of solar panels compared to fossils fuels. If researchers can develop a commercially successful DSSC, it would be a cheaper, more sustainable source of solar energy. Unlike burning fossil fuels which releases heat-trapping gases, solar is a clean energy source that doesn’t contribute to global warming. Enough sunlight falls on the Earth in one hour that if we could collect it, we could power for one year all the machines on Earth. That’s an amazing amount of potential clean energy we could tap into.

Researchers at PSU also have a pretty cool experiment running that combines silicon photovoltaic panels with green roofs. Click here to find out more.

Sources and Links

To read this article click here:
Walter, Michael G. and Carl C. Wamser. Synthesis and characterization of electropolymerized nanostructured aminophenylporphyrin films. Journal of Physical Chemistry C 2010: 114, 7563 -7574.

To read this article click here:
Walter, Michael G., Alexander B. Rudine, and Carl C. Wamser. Porphyrins and phthalocyanines in solar photovoltaic cells. Journal of Porphyrins and Phthalocyanines 2010; 14: 759 -792.

Nov
21
2013

3D printed dinosaur bone
3D printed dinosaur boneCourtesy Radiological Society of North America
Using state-of-the-art medical scanning and printing technology, German paleontologists have been able to scan and reconstruct a dinosaur vertebrae that survived a World War II bombing raid that left hundreds of fossils unidentified. Dug out of a clay pit south of Halberstadt, Germany in the early 20th century, the fossil was jacketed in plaster (for protection during transportation from the field) and stored in the basement of the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin along with numerous other fossils from Halberstadt in southern Germany and another dig site in Tanzania. When the Allies made a bombing raid over Berlin during WWII, a portion of the museum was hit and collapsed, leaving the poorly labeled fossils in one big messy pile of plaster jackets and rubble. Museum workers sorted the jacketed fossils from the rubble but which fossil came from which dig? The labeled plaster jackets gave no clue.

Plateosaurus mount: Early postcard of a Plateosaurus skeleton seen in a museum in Stuttgart, Germany.
Plateosaurus mount: Early postcard of a Plateosaurus skeleton seen in a museum in Stuttgart, Germany.Courtesy Mark Ryan
Modern technology came to the rescue from technicians from the Department of Radiology at Charité Campus Mitte in Berlin. One of the jacketed fossils was first scanned with a CT (computed tomography) scanner - similar to those used to scan and diagnose medical patients. Because the radiation absorption (attenuation) of the fossil differs from that of the surrounding matrix - the rocky material in which the fossil is encased - making it easy to outline and create a digital copy of the fossil. The resulting image was compared to field drawings from the two expeditions and identified as a vertebrae of a Triassic Period prosauropod known as a Plateosaurus. The dataset was entered into a computer, cleaned up a bit, and then fed into a 3D printer where - layer by plastic layer - an exact replica of the hidden and unprepared fossil was "printed" in 3-dimensions.

CT scanning and 3D printing of fossils has been in use for a while now but this is a first time paleontologists have been able to identify and copy a dinosaur bone still encased in a matrix wrapped in a plaster field jacket.

In the past, this couldn't have been done without first cutting open the field jacket and spending long hours of detailed lab preparation - i.e. removing all the matrix from around the fossil. Making copies of fossils usually entails creating molds using rubber or something similar, then filling the void with plaster or other casting materials. Now with 3D printing technology, exact (or scaled) duplicates of important fossils can be created and shared with scientists or schools for study and comparison. The dataset of the scan can serve the same purpose.

Both the cost and size of the technology have been reduced in recent years, making it both affordable and portable for many museums. The following videos show the processes in action. Desktop scanning of dinosaur bones and the printing a dinosaur skull with a simple desktop 3D printer.

SOURCES and LINKS
Story on Science Daily
Live Science story

Apr
09
2013

Are we too sexy for research?: A controversy over government funding of research about duck genitalia has people asking bigger questions about public funding for scientific purposes.
Are we too sexy for research?: A controversy over government funding of research about duck genitalia has people asking bigger questions about public funding for scientific purposes.Courtesy Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez
They're the favorite punching bags and punchlines for politicians and late night comics: those seemingly odd science research projects. Right now there's a turmoil over a National Science Foundation grant of some $385,000 to study the genitalia of ducks.

The Washington Post today digs deeper into these kinds of projects. Are they frivolous? Do they lead to deeper scientific findings? If the government doesn't provide the funding, would anybody else? Does the government have a obligation to help provide opportunities for such research to happen? Who and how do we decide if a study is worth funding for the greater good of society? They're all interesting questions.

One of the problems of the past, the article notes, is that scientists typically have kept quiet and take their lumps from the critics while their research goes on. The thinking is that the critics don't want to understand science, so why even engage them in an argument. And unknown benefits can emerge from such projects. A researcher looking into why bluebirds are blue is now on the cusp of developing a new way to make paint.

It's a great topic for debate. Read the article and share your thoughts here with other Science Buzz readers.

Jan
23
2013

Rolling, rolling, rolling: Tomorrow marks the 10-year anniversary of the landing of NASA's Mars rover Opportunity. It's still taking pictures and collecting data on the Red Planet.
Rolling, rolling, rolling: Tomorrow marks the 10-year anniversary of the landing of NASA's Mars rover Opportunity. It's still taking pictures and collecting data on the Red Planet.Courtesy NASA
Can we expect to get more than 10 years out of our cars today? At best, they get listed as a "late model" vehicle in some classified ads. So how about our space cars?

This week the Mars rover Opportunity is marking its tenth year of rolling around the Red Planet. Not too shabby for something that was designed for just a quick three-month life span. It's partner rover, Spirit, seized up and got permanently stuck in sand three years ago. And now both vehicles are being overshadowed by Curiosity, the high-tech rover that just landed on Mars five months ago.

Like any older vehicle, Opportunity has its quirks. It gets around mostly in reverse these days because one of the front wheels doesn't turn well. Its robot arm needs some extra coaxing from operators to get jobs done. But it's still collecting samples and data. It total, it's logged 22 miles across the Martian terrain. Not too shabby for a late model rover.

Here's a link to NASA's webpage of photos and information that Opportunity has collected over the years.

Oct
16
2012

A plankton bloom: Not the new bloom off of Canada, but this is what it looks like. The green stuff in the water is sucking up carbon dioxide and doing ... we don't know exactly what else yet.
A plankton bloom: Not the new bloom off of Canada, but this is what it looks like. The green stuff in the water is sucking up carbon dioxide and doing ... we don't know exactly what else yet.Courtesy NASA
Have you ever wanted to change the world? Of course you have. Who hasn’t? Even JGordon, world renowned for being more or less satisfied with his immediate surroundings, keeps a list of Things I Will Change When I Am King.

Some sample items from the list:
31: No more cake pops. What a joke.
54: Round up the jerks, make them live on Jerk Island.
55: Make sure Jerk Island isn’t actually an awesome place to live.
70: Transform Lake Michigan into biggest ball pit. Cover dead fish with plastic balls.
115: More eyepatches.
262: Regulate burps.

I think you get the idea. As Tears for Fears almost said, everybody wants to change the world.

And we do change it. We change it in a huge way. Cumulatively, the tremendous force of the human race has drastically altered the face of the planet, from oceans to atmosphere. But a lot of that change is sort of accidental; we don’t mean to affect the acidity of the oceans or warm the atmosphere, but we like driving around, making things, using electricity, and all that, and the byproducts of these activities have global effects that we can’t always control.

The notion that we could control these effects is called geoengineering. So we’re accidentally causing global warming … what if we could engineer a global solution to actively cool the planet. We’re causing ocean acidification … what if we could chemically alter the oceans on purpose to balance it out? The trick would be to balance out the positive effects of geoengineering with the potential side effects … if we could even figure out what those side effects are.

Geoengineering is necessarily a really large-scale thing, so for the most part it’s been limited to theoretical projects. But it’s been pointed out that some geoengineering projects would be within the capabilities of not just international bodies or individual countries, but corporations or even wealthy individuals. The Science Museum of Minnesota even has an exhibit on just this possibility: What would you do if you had the wealth to literally change the world?

But there are rules against that sort of thing, and it’s potentially really, really dangerous. So no one would actually do it in the real world ever, right?

Wrong!

Apparently someone did do it. Back in July.

A guy named Russ George, in partnership with a First Nations village, is thought to have dumped about 100,000 kilograms of iron sulfate into the ocean off the Western Coast of Canada. Why iron sulfate? Because iron sulfate is an effective fertilizer for plankton, the microscopic plant-like things in the ocean. The idea is that if you could cause massive growth in plankton, the plankton would suck up a bunch of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere before dying and falling the ocean floor, taking the CO2 with it.

The first part of the plan seems to have worked: satellites have detected an artificial plankton bloom about 6,200 square miles large off the west coast of Canada (which is how the operation was discovered).

George was hoping to make money selling carbon credits gained from the CO2 captured by the plankton, and he convinced the First Nations group involved to put about a million dollars into the project, telling them that it was meant to help bolster the area’s salmon population.

The thing is, it’s really hard to say what dumping almost half a million pounds of iron sulfate into the ocean will do, besides capture some CO2. And, what’s more, it looks like it was illegal: conducted as it was, the operation violates the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity and the London convention on dumping wastes at sea. Whoops.

So does this spell the end for individually funded geoengineering projects? Or has George’s scheme just opened the door for similar operations?

And, more importantly, is this a good thing or a bad thing? Are people like George taking big steps toward addressing human-caused global change? Or are they creating what I like to call “Pandora’s Frankenstein*”?

Weigh in in the comments, and let us know what you think!

(*My friend Pandora has a pet chinchilla named Frankenstein, and he is horrible. I can’t wait until that chinchilla dies.)

Jun
28
2012

Sensing Strain: This new system will allow you to detect strain anywhere, in any direction, and at any time.
Sensing Strain: This new system will allow you to detect strain anywhere, in any direction, and at any time.Courtesy Bruce Weisman
Scientists at Rice University developed a new type of paint, infused with carbon nanotubes, that can detect strain in bridges, buildings, and airplanes before the signs of deformation become visible to the naked eye.

This is how it works: The paint is applied to the desired structure and allowed to dry. A laser beam is then focused on the structure, which excites the carbon nanotubes, and in turn, causes them to fluoresce in a way that indicates strain. Finally, a handheld infrared spectrometer is used to measure this fluorescence.

The advantage of strain paint over conventional strain gauges is that the gauge (the paint, in this case) and the read-out device don't have to be physically connected. Also, strain paint allows you to measure strain anywhere on the structure, and along any direction. This product is not yet on the market, but it will benefit all of us, as I'm sure we all find the structural integrity of our planes, bridges, and buildings to be pretty important.

May
29
2012

Plastics!
Plastics!Courtesy IonE
This is a couple weeks old, but I just noticed that the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment (one of the Science Museum's partners on the Future Earth exhibit) has posted another "Big Question" video. These are short, fun videos that cover some of the challenges humans will be facing in the coming decades. This one is about plastics, and whether we can make them sustainable.

Anyway, here you are:

(And for more on the subject, check out Science Buzz posts on plastics, plastic, and sustainability.)

May
07
2012

Carbon dioxide, you light up my life. Or you could, anyway, if this weirdo has his way. Said weirdo is biochemist Pierre Calleja, who has developed a light that can run on carbon dioxide rather than electricity. His secret: green algae that produce energy when they consume CO2.

The mucklight powerhouse: Gross.
The mucklight powerhouse: Gross.Courtesy Jim Conrad

One large lamp he installed in a parking garage consumes up to one ton of CO2 per year. While that's just a drop in the air--the US alone emits almost 5.5 thousand metric tons per year--just think how much these lamps could consume if we replaced all the streetlamps, parking ramp lights, and other environmental lamps with them. It sounds like a pretty great idea when you consider that CO2 is a major driver of global-scale changes in our climate. Whoda thunk we could tackle our warming climate by turning on the lights?

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