The centennial of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire

March 2nd, 2011

Police officer and onlookers with bodies of Triangle fire victims, looking up at workers jumping out of burning Asch BuildingMarch 25, 2011 will be the hundredth anniversary of the tragic fire at Greenwich Village’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory which saw 146 young men, women and children die burned, or trampled, or from hurling themselves out of the top stories’ windows in a desperate attempt to flee the fire. It was New York City’s largest workplace disaster until 9/11.

Firefighters spray tons of water on the Triangle fireA huge crowd of onlookers bore horrified witness to a carnage that even the remarkably swift action of firefighters (it only took them a few minutes to get there and half an hour to put out the fire) could not prevent. The ladders on their engines only reached the 6th floor, and the water pumps of the era weren’t strong enough to force water to the top of the building.

Women at their sewing stations in the Triangle Shirtwaist FactoryOwned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, the Triangle Factory in the Asch Building was notorious for dangerous working conditions. Shirtwaists, women’s blouses that were popular in the late Victorian and Edwardian era, were made in rooms full of young, mainly female immigrants. They were crammed back to back along 75-foot tables. There were work baskets filled with loose cotton scraps in the aisles and on the tables. These were a major fire hazard because loosely-packed pieces of cotton ignite immediately into a blaze; there’s no slow burn or delicate plumes of smoke to warn you.

Twisted and broken fire escape ladderThe owners locked the back exit to prevent workers from absconding with a few bucks worth of fabric or thread, leaving only one way out in case of emergency, plus a rickety fire escape ladder that stopped two stories before the ground. The fire escape ladder would buckle under the weight of the fleeing workers, dropping them to a crushing death.

Blanck and Harris also had an enormously shady record of multiple early morning fires breaking out in two different factory locations. Said early morning fires just happened to coincide with the close of the peak shirtwaist selling season, thus destroying their inventory surplus while more than covering their losses with the payout from their insurance.

In 1909, 400 Triangle Factory employees had walked out, inspiring 20,000 garment workers from all over the city to follow in a general strike on November 23. Blanck and Harris hired prostitutes as scab workers and their pimps and the police to taunt and beat on the picketing workers. When in 1910 the cloakmakers joined the strike, industry and labor leaders signed an agreement that in theory established a grievance system in the garment industry. In practice, unscrupulous owners like Max Blanck and Isaac Harris just ignored it.

Workers on the ninth floor had their escape blocked by machines, chairs, work basketsIn the wake of the horrific deaths, on April 11th Harris and Blanck were indicted on seven counts of second degree manslaughter on the grounds that it was a violation of the Labor Code to keep a door locked during working hours. On December 27th, a jury acquitted of them of all charges, even though multiple witnesses testified that the Washington St. exit door was locked leaving workers with no escape when the Greene St. exit was choked with fire. The owners’ defense attorney, Max Steuer, cast doubt on the testimony by making the main witness, Kate Alterman, repeat her story over and over, then pointing to her repetition of certain words and phrases as the mark of memorization or coaching. He suggested a socialist conspiracy was afoot, a conspiracy that also explained the discovery of the actual locked lock from the Washington St. door 16 days after the fire.

In the end, Blanck and Harris made a tidy profit from the hideous death of 146 people. They filed insurance claims far in excess of their monetary losses and Steuer scared the insurance companies into settling for reimbursement in the amount of $60,000 above the documented loss. Steuer then prevented any of the Triangle Factory fire victims or survivors from collecting any of it. Blanck and Harris made $400 for every dead body.

Twenty-three civil suits were filed against them. They settled those lawsuits on March 11, 1914, almost three years to the day after the fire, with a payment of $75 per dead body. The year before that in the summer of 1913, Max Blanck had been arrested for locking yet another factory door. He got off with a $20 fine and an apology from the judge for having troubled him.

The tragedy of the fire and the sham of an aftermath galvanized the labor movement in New York City. The New York State Legislature created an investigating committee to report on factory conditions and how sanitation and worker safety issues could be addressed. Its 1915 report would be key to New York’s new laws that made the state one of the most progressive in the country in terms of labor relations.

The Occupational Safety & Health Administration, created 60 years after the fire, has a memorial page on its website in honor of the anniversary of the tragedy. The Industrial and Labor Relations School’s Kheel Center at Cornell University has an exceptional collection of photographs and primary sources on the fire and its aftermath.

On Monday PBS aired an American Experience episode about the tragedy entitled Triangle Fire which you can now view online. I saw it and it’s a solid overview, but a little short on details, especially about the aftermath. On March 21st, HBO will be airing its more in-depth documentary Triangle: Remembering the Fire, with the DVD to follow shortly.

If you’re in New York City, there will be a commemoration of the centennial on March 25th at 11 a.m. at the site of the fire, one block east of Washington Square Park in New York City. The building was one of them newfangled “fireproof” structures so it survived the fire even though its contents sure didn’t. It was refurbished and purchased by philanthropist Frederick Brown who donated it to New York University in 1929. Now it’s the Brown Building of Science, and Chemistry and Biology classes are held in it. Two plaques commemorate the victims of the 1911 fire.

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Gold Rush records from Yukon shipwreck identified

March 1st, 2011

A view through the rails at the bow of A.J. Goddard shows the windlass used to raise and lower the steamer’s anchors.In July of 2008, researchers found the nearly intact shipwreck of the Gold Rush paddle steamboat A.J. Goddard sitting upright on the floor of Lake Laberge, in Yukon Territory, Canada, where it had sunk in October of 1901 killing all but two of the crew. The Goddard was a famous ship in its day for having been the first to reach Dawson City traveling down the Yukon River after the first winter of the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897. The two survivors had grabbed on to the pilot house that came off the top of the boat and were rescued by a nearby trapper.

The A.J. Goddard on Lake Bennett in the 1890sExcept for that missing pilot house, the rest of the Goddard was in excellent condition thanks to the very cold waters of Lake Laberge. The ship was immediately billed a “ghost ship” because of the time capsule-like preservation of the boat itself and its cargo. Even the belongings of the crew, like the boots of all five crewmen who presumably kicked them off when they abandoned ship, and everyday artifacts like axes and kitchen utensils were found where they fell.

Some of the more important ones were removed for conservation, among them a gramophone and three records, one of which was actually in the player and may have been jangling a happy minstrel tune when the boat went down. Researchers were able to conserve the records, repairing them enough that the titles were visible, although sadly they are still not playable.

Gramophone records when recovered from Goddard[Texas A & M's Nautical Archaeology Program graduate student Lindsey] Thomas said the three recordings, including Rendezvous Waltz and a rare 1896 minstrel recording of Ma Onliest One, were previously unknown to Gold Rush-era music experts.

“These are three new songs that we now know people were listening to during the Gold Rush, and they were playing it,” she said. “Ma Onliest One was the disc that was attached to the gramophone.”

Thomas said minstrel songs were popular at the time because they were “easy for the miners and for the people up there to perform.”

“It became popular in the 1820s, but they were able to put on shows and pass the time amongst themselves as they were stuck in cabins over the winter,” she said.

It was Conservator Tara Grant, from the Canadian Conservation Institute in Ottawa, who was able to retrieve the titles from the unplayable — one of them broken in two pieces — records. The third tune was “The Harp that Once thro’ Tara’s Halls” by Thomas Moore. The conservator for the territorial Department of Tourism and Culture, Valery Monahan, looked far and wide for copies of the songs, none of which were particularly popular pieces at the time. She tracked all three titles down in the Library of Congress, but only one of them was listenable online: “Rendez Vous Waltz” performed by the Metropolitan Orchestra.

Rendezvous Waltz

Although the other two songs are in the Library of Congress’ collection, they can not be uploaded for our listening pleasure because, get this, they are under copyright by Sony Music. They’d probably sue the dead sailors for file sharing.

The records and gramophone will be returned to the Yukon for long-term preservation and display at the Yukon Transportation Museum. As items of exceptional value to Canadian history, they will be conserved free of charge.

Not only are Gold Rush shipwrecks exceptionally rare, intact ones are practically unheard of, but the records show a whole new side of life on the workhorse of the Klondike waterways. These steamboats were utilitarian vehicles. Cooking pots, work equipment, even the remarkably useful tool-repair shop found on board were all to be expected. Luxury, space-hogging items like a bulky gramophone and records to play, on the other hand, were surprising finds.

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Frank Buckles, last WWI Doughboy, dies at 110

February 28th, 2011

Frank Buckles, during a Veteran’s Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery at Arlington, Virginia, 2007, left, and in his U.S. Army enlistment photo, 1917.

Frank Woodruff Buckles lied about his age and joined the Army in August of 1917 when he was 16 years old. Since he was anxious to see action, he volunteered to drive ambulances, a duty that he had heard would get him to the Western front the fastest. He was deployed in December of that year, sailing to England on the Carpathia, the ship that rescued the survivors of the Titanic, then going on to various places in France.

“The little French children were hungry,” Mr. Buckles recalled in a 2001 interview for the Veterans History Project of the Library of Congress. “We’d feed the children. To me, that was a pretty sad sight.”

Mr. Buckles escorted German prisoners of war back to their homeland after the Armistice, then returned to America and later worked in the Toronto office of the White Star shipping line.

He traveled widely over the years, working for steamship companies, and he was on business in Manila when the Japanese occupied it following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. He was imprisoned by the Japanese, losing more than 50 pounds, before being liberated by an American airborne unit in February 1945.

He worked for a steamship until he retired in the mid-1950s, then he ran a cattle farm for another 50 or so years. As one of very few remaining World War I veterans, Buckles was a frequent participant in parades and national memorial events during the past decade. He was extensively interviewed, relaying his unique memories of the Great War. For instance, he told an interviewer how he had seen veterans of the Crimean War in a ceremony in England. That’s the Charge of the Light Brigade war, from the 1850s. One 110-year-old man connected us to so much history that seems so distant when we read about it.

He passed away on Sunday at his home in Charles Town, West Virginia. In 2007, he was one of four U.S. World War I veterans still alive, two of whom served Stateside and one with Canadian forces in Britain, so even then Buckles was the only surviving veteran of the Western front. As of February 2010, he was the last US World War I veteran alive and only one of three people remaining in the world who had served in the war in any capacity.

Now there are only two: Claude Choules, of the British Royal Navy, now living in Australia, and awesomely, Florence Green, of the British Women’s Royal Air Force, now living in England. Florence joined the Women’s Royal Air Force right at the end of the war, in September 1918, when she was 17. She worked in the mess halls of two Norfolk airbases. Choules saw much action from 1916 onwards, serving on the HMS Revenge, and witnessing the scuttling of the German fleet at Scapa Flow, Scotland, on June 21, 1919.

The Veterans’ History Project and the Library of Congress have an exceptional series of interviews with Frank Buckles, plus documents and pictures from his collection online. It’s not to be missed, seriously. Then when you’re done being fascinated by Frank, check out the rest of the VHP’s World War I archive.

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Milton’s poems bound in murderer skin on display

February 27th, 2011

Poetical Works of John Milton bound in human fleshA very special 1852 edition of The Poetical Works of John Milton was put on public display for the first time at the Westcountry Studies Library on February 26th as part of Devon’s Local History Day. As you might have cleverly deduced from the title, what makes this volume special is that it was bound in the skin of executed murderer George Cudmore.

George Cudmore, a short, humpbacked rat-catcher, was convicted in 1830 of poisoning his wife Grace by putting arsenic in food and medicine. He claimed to have been driven to the act by his lover Sarah Dunn. Dunn confessed that she had seen him messing around with a white powder, that she had told him not to poison his wife as he would be hanged. He put it in his wife’s elder tea anyway and she saw him do it without stopping him. She said that even though she wasn’t actively involved in the murder, she did let it happen and she did live “in criminal intercourse” with Cudmore, so she felt she was equally guilty.

The jury disagreed. Dunn was acquitted and Cudmore convicted at the Lent Assizes in March, 1830. He was sentenced to hang, and to have his cadaver donated to the Devon and Exeter Hospital for dissection. On March 25th, George Cudmore was hanged from his neck until dead as Dunn watched. Cudmore’s last request was that she be be kept in Devon County Gaol and made to witness his execution. For some reason that is unclear, they fulfilled his request even though she had been judged not guilty. She reportedly fell into hysterics and fainted when he dropped.

His corpse was promptly sent to the Devon and Exeter Hospital where it was promptly dissected. It’s unclear exactly how it got from the hospital onto a book, but it’s thought that a portion of his skin fell into the hands of one Mr. W. Clifford, an Exeter bookseller, in 1853. He dressed it white (which I gather is some kind of tanning process) and bound Tegg’s 1852 edition of Milton’s Works with Cudmore’s skin. From Clifford it entered into the collection of Ralph Sanders, Esq., who left it to Exeter’s Albert Memorial Museum. Eventually it wound up in the Westcountry Studies Library where it remained in the rare book collection, out of public view, until a couple of days ago.

Senior assistant librarian Tony Rouse said: ‘It is certainly an unusual and grisly thing, but if it weren’t for the description, it would be difficult to discern its past.

‘There is no hair or stray nipple or anything like that. It is outwardly unremarkable but a closer inspection reveals it to be a surprising artefact.’

No hair or stray nipple?! EVIL DEAD LIED TO ME!1

The book is going on display this year because the theme of Local History Day is crime and punishment. There will be other talks and exhibits on the theme, including lectures on other Devon executions and witch trials.

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A new old face for Otzi

February 26th, 2011

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the discovery of Otzi the Iceman. On September 19, 1991, tourists Helmut and Erika Simon stumbled on a mummified corpse lying on his front embedded in the ice of the Ötztal Alps, just 100 yards inside the Italian border. At first authorities thought he was recently deceased and thus dug him out in a slapdash manner, damaging him with jackhammers and allowing lookie-loos to collect pieces of his clothing and accessories.

It was only after he was sent to the morgue that people realized he was 5,300 years old, Europe’s oldest natural mummy. He’s been on display in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology since 1998, where a panoply of researchers study him, regularly releasing new information about his life and death.

This year, the museum plans a variety of events and new exhibits to celebrate the 20th anniversary, including a new state-of-the-art reconstruction model of what Otzi might have looked like. There have been earlier attempts using anatomical data and measurements. In 1993, National Geographic published a reconstruction done by anthropologically-trained artist John Gurche, but he didn’t have a 3D cast of the skull to work from, which is a major stumbling block to creating anything like an accurate facial reconstruction. Gurche had to use CT scans and pictures as the basis for his model.

Now Alfons and Adrie Kennis, two Dutch experts in anthropological reconstruction models have created a new model of Otzi to display at the South Tyrol Museum’s Otzi20 exhibit. They used the latest scientific information and an exact 3D copy of the skull created from the most recent X-rays and CAT scans.

This latest work by these artists, famous for their reconstructions, shows a denizen of the Alps from the Stone Age, striking in the lifelike nature of every detail, from his skin colour down to the smallest wrinkle on his brow: of medium height, slight yet wiry, with narrow, sharp features, an unruly beard and tanned skin.

He looks much older than the earlier reconstructions. He was 40 when he died, so he was at first depicted as a strapping middle-aged man. However recent findings suggest that Otzi would have been weatherbeaten and prematurely aged by the harsh environment of the Copper Age Alps, and that his eyes were brown, not blue as previously thought.

Here’s the new reconstruction on the left, the early 90s version on the right:

New reconstruction of Otzi the Iceman, courtesy National Geographic Germany 1993 National Geographic reconstruction of Otzi

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Nine Wari tombs found in Cuzco

February 25th, 2011

Archaeologists excavating one of the last standing Inca citadels in the Andean jungle region of Cuzco, Peru have discovered nine tombs from the pre-Incan Wari culture. Some Wari artifacts were first found last July; then over the next three months the tomb complex was discovered and finally announced to the public Wednesday.

Wari noble gold and silver piecesOne of the tombs includes gold and silver burial goods which mark it as having belonged to a person of high status. Archaeologists have dubbed him the “Lord of Vilca” in a nod to the Lord of Sipán, the Moche aristocrat whose intact burial (from ca. 100 A.D.) was found in northern Peru in 1987 still full of jewelry, art and precious metals. The Lord of Vilca was buried with a large Y-shaped silver chestplate, a silver mask, two gold bracelets and two walking sticks laminated with silver.

The Wari civilization flourished between 600 and 1100 A.D., 300 years before the Inca built the largest pre-Columbian empire on the continent. The Lord of Vilca’s tomb dates to right in the middle of that range, around 1000 A.D.

The tombs are within the archaeological complex of Espiritu Pampa, in the Cuzco district of Vilcabamba, some 1,100 kilometers (680 miles) south-east of Lima.

Vilcabamba was the last refuge of Inca resistance after Spanish conquistadors captured and executed the Inca emperor in 1532. The last resistance leader, Tupac Amaru I, was captured by the Spaniards after fleeing the site and executed in 1572.

It is a “spectacular, truly surprising” discovery, said archaeologist Luis Lumbreras, former director of the National Cultural Institute (INC).

“This will make us revise part of Inca history.”

Historians previously thought the Wari civilization had reached Cuzco, but only up to the mountainous sierra. The Espiritu Pampa jungle region where Vilcabamba is found was thought to have been inhabited only by the Incas. It might suggest a closer link between the rise of the Inca Empire and its Wari predecessor.

Wari burial complexes are always found inside cities and were part of complex formal funerary rites. They don’t yet know the exact dates and extent of the citadel in which the tombs were found, but the burial complex covers an area of 450 square meters (about 4,844 square feet).

Add this find to the 2008 discovery of a Wari city in Chiclayo, way up north, and the enormous reach of the culture becomes unmistakable. They covered almost the entire length of modern Peru and more than halfway inland.

Nine Wari tombs found in Vilcabamba Wari reach

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Buy your own genuine historic Soviet space capsule

February 24th, 2011

The first man in space, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, blasted out of the Earth’s atmosphere on April 12, 1961 in a wee little sphere called the Vostok 3KA-3 Space Capsule. Three weeks before that momentous day, the Soviets sent up the last of their test spheres, the Vostok 3KA-2, carrying a mannequin named Ivan Ivanovich and a dog named Zvezdochka into low earth orbit.

The Soviet Vostok 3KA-2 Space CapsuleAfter completing one full orbit of the earth, the capsule reentered the atmosphere with only minor scorching and landed in a gully near the city of Izhevsk. Ivan Ivanovich ejected as planned before landing, and Zvezdochka emerged from the capsule unharmed.

V.P. Efimoz, one of the people who worked on the pressurized spacesuit that kept Ivan and later Yuri intact, described its retrieval: “[arriving] by sleigh, the rescue team reached the landing place of the descent capsule. Half scorched, slightly bent over the ground, it seemed an enormous animal driven too hard, lying in a narrow snow-covered gully, the snow melting around the charred and still hot body of the unit. Attached to it by slings, lay sprawling the voluminous canopy of the parachute.”

With the success of this test mission using an identical twin of the capsule Gagarin would stuff himself into, the historic mission to put a man in space got the final green light.

Ivan Ivanovich is on display at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum. Gagarin’s Vostok 3KA-3, later renamed Vostok 1, is part of the permanent collection of Russian rocket company Rkk Energia’s Museum outside Moscow. The Vostok 3KA-2 is going up for auction at Sotheby’s New York on April 12, 2011, the 50th anniversary of the first man in space.

The bottom half is blackened from scorching while reentering the Earth’s atmosphere. The top half of the outside shell, made of synthetic materials, is bronze-colored and bears a huge dent. Inside, the cramped space is littered with remains of old wires and the ejector seat.

“These were very primitive,” Redden said. “There was a good shot that whoever went into space was not coming back.”

And even if they did, just the fact of being shot into space in a 2.5 meter (8 feet) cabin would be challenge enough.

Sotheby’s estimates the sale price at $2-10 million. The seller is an anonymous American who bought it from Russia (thank you, post-Soviet cowboy capitalism) some years ago. Plutocrats with money to burn are major buyers on the Russian antiquities and collectibles market right now, so my guess is that this item will sell big and will end up back in Russia. Here’s hoping it goes on public display instead of being squirreled away into another secret collection like the one it came from.

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Rare color film of JFK’s last night alive posted

February 23rd, 2011

Rare color footage of John and Jackie Kennedy taken at the Rice Hotel in Houston just before 9:00 PM on Nov. 21, 1963, has been restored and posted online by the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza.

The film was made by Roy Botello who was in town for a convention of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) held at the Rice. He was the first Scholarship Corporation Chairman of LULAC in San Antonio, so as a high level functionary he had a unique opportunity to film John and Jackie Kennedy up close on his Bolex 8mm camera as they arrived and greeted dignitaries in the ballroom.

There is no audio so we although we see the President and the First Lady at the microphone, we can’t hear him speak or hear Jacqueline Kennedy wow the crowd when she addresses them in fluent Spanish without notes, but she certainly looks the part in her black dress and triple strand of pearls. Audio recordings of the event capture the crowd shouting “ole!” after she finished speaking.

Botello returned home to San Antonio the next day. He put the film in a steel case, locked it in a drawer and kept it there for almost 50 years. Last year it finally saw the light of day again after a reporter tracked him down and asked to see it. After that first public viewing, Roy Botello decided to donate the film to the Sixth Floor Museum.

The museum has restored it, commissioning a new film-to-video transfer, correcting the color and exposure, and posted the raw footage online. With this latest addition to its collection, the Sixth Floor Museum now has home movies of every city Kennedy visited during his final trip to Texas, minus Fort Worth.

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Trove of Thomas Jefferson’s books found in St. Louis

February 22nd, 2011

Freart de Chambray’s "Parallele de l'architecture antique avec la moderne" with calculations by Thomas Jefferson in the marginResearchers have found 28 books in 74 volumes from Thomas Jefferson’s last library in the Coolidge collection of St. Louis’ Washington University. This makes Washington University’s library the third largest repository of Thomas Jefferson’s books after the Library of Congress and the University of Virginia. Jefferson sold 6,700 of his books to the Library of Congress after the British burned Washington, D.C. in 1814, and he founded the University of Virginia in 1819, so that’s impressive company for Washington University to keep.

After Jefferson gave the Library of Congress most of his books, he immediately started to collect again. Those 1,600 books he purchased in the last decade of his life are known as the retirement collection, and they were unfortunately scattered in 1829, three years after his death, when his relatives sold them at auction to pay his extensive debts. Researchers at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s estate and a National Historic Landmark, have been trying to track down the retirement collection since 2004 so it can be digitized and made available to the public in an online database called Thomas Jefferson’s Libraries.

Plutarch's Lives with handwritten note by Thomas JeffersonEndrina Tay, the Thomas Jefferson’s Libraries project manager, found a number of auction catalogs from the 1829 sale, but they didn’t include the names of the buyers. Then she found a letter from Joseph Coolidge, the husband of one of Jefferson’s granddaughters, asking the husband of another Jefferson granddaughter to secure some of the books for him at auction.

Coolidge wrote Nicholas Philip Trist, who married another Jefferson granddaughter, saying, “If there are any books which have T. J. notes or private marks, they would be interesting to me.” He added, “I beg you to interest yourself in my behalf in relation to the books; remember that his library will not be sold again, and that all the memorials of T. J. for myself and children, and friends, must be secured now! — this is the last chance!”

When Ms. Tay found the letter “C” next to some of the lots in one of the catalogs, she thought those volumes might have been successfully purchased by Coolidge. Then another piece of the puzzle snapped into place.

While [Tay] was tracking down the retirement library, one of her fellow Monticello scholars, Ann Lucas Birle, was researching a book about the Coolidges and, searching Google Books, found a reference in The Harvard Register to a gift in 1880 from a Coolidge son-in-law, Edmund Dwight, to a fellow Harvard alumnus and possible relative, William Greenleaf Eliot, a founder of Washington University.

“It could have been his parents have died, he’s left with 3,000 books, what should he do with these that would really do good?” Dean Baker said. “A great-uncle just founded a new university. If you send them to a university that doesn’t even have 3,000 books, it could make a world of difference.”

Tay and Birle alerted Washington University to their find, and rare books curator Erin Davis and assistant archivist Miranda Rectenwald scoured the rare book collection for all the ones donated by the Coolidge family in 1880, which had long since been dispersed throughout the library’s holdings with no particular indicators of their origin. They used a turn of the century ledger that included a listing of the Coolidge books for reference and were able to track down the Jefferson volumes.

Their work isn’t over yet, though. The curators will continue to examine the Coolidge collection for any more Jefferson books that have escaped notice. University officials are on cloud nine, needless to say. Shirley K. Baker, Washington University’s vice chancellor for scholarly resources and dean of university libraries, enthuses: “It is particularly appropriate that these books should be here in Missouri. It was Jefferson who acquired this land in the Louisiana Purchase, and St. Louis was the jumping-off point for the expedition Jefferson sent to explore the new territory.”

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Bust of James Watt cast from old mold and 3D scan

February 21st, 2011

Watt's garret workshop at his home near BirminghamWhen James Watt, inventor of the separate condenser (an essential improvement to the Newcomen steam engine that helped usher in the Industrial Revolution) retired to his home near Birmingham in 1800, his wife exiled him to the garret room where he could tinker loudly and make stinky messes far from the main living areas. He continued to make new inventions in that garret workshop, among them two machines for copying sculptures.

He died in 1819, and his workshop was locked and left untouched until 1853 when his biographer J.P. Muirhead was allowed to view it. After that, visitors to Watt’s home — he became something of an Industrial Revolution hero and his house was a pilgrimage site — would sometimes get a glimpse of the garret, but nothing was touched or moved.

Watt's workshop at the Science Museum of LondonWhen the house was demolished in 1924, the entire workshop, including the door, window, skylight, floorboards and 6,500 objects used or created by Watt, was moved to London’s Science Museum where it was on display for years until the gallery it was in was closed.

On March 23, the workshop will finally open again to visitors. In preparation for the new exhibit, museum staff examined a collection of 26 plaster molds Watt had created, some of them still bound in the original string. There were molds for a lion, a variety of deities and one person that curators thought might just be James Watt himself.

Plaster mold of James Watt bust, tied with original string, 1807The early 19th century mould consisted of 25 separate pieces and was thought too fragile to allow a plaster cast to be taken.

It was examined with a colour triangulation scanner to produce a perfect digital “cast”, enabling a sculpture to be created. [...]

Andrew Nahum, Principal Curator of Technology and Engineering, said: “Finding a new representation of a major national figure like Watt is a real discovery, a quite exceptional event. The bust is not in the historical record and its display in the gallery will be the first time it has ever been seen in public.

“Aside from the scarcity of the image, the bust itself is of high artistic quality. In fact, Watt devoted much of his own time in later years to copying sculpture.

“Perhaps surprisingly, as a result of his interest in this area, the Science Museum holds what may be Britain’s largest collection of early 19th century sculpture moulds.”

The Science Museum has a wonderful blog with a whole section about Watt’s workshop. It’s very much worth a read.

Here’s a rough sculpture of Watt’s bust cast from the mold compared to a late portrait. They’ll be making a neater one for the exhibit.

Bust of James Watt derived from the 1807 mold using 3D digital scanner James Watt portrait

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