Digging Deep in the Archives: We keep finding cool stuff!

Correspondence from Henry Bacon to Frederick Slocum

Correspondence from Henry Bacon to Frederick Slocum. Image courtesy of Wesleyan Special Collections & Archives.

A lot of our exhibit artifacts, in a way, come straight from Wesleyan’s Special Collections and Archives. We’ll be displaying correspondences between the first Van Vleck Observatory Director, Frederick Slocum and the Observatory’s architect, Henry Bacon (correspondence pictured right), reproductions of many historic photographs, and even a commemorative plate with an etching of the historic observatory; we could not display any of these objects, of course, without the help and support of the Wesleyan SC&A.

Moreover, one of our tasks for the last several weeks of the project has been to perform a final sweep of the archives for relevant images, documents, and things of the sort. I posted earlier about our sweep through Wesleyan’s yearbooks, and now I’d like to share some more images that I happened upon most-recently.

I’ve been working with Melissa Sullivan at the Wesleyan New Media lab, trying to get some of our footage from the summer turned into to polished, comprehensible videos to go on this website soon, hopefully! (If you’re interested about our film shoots over the summer, you can check out this post, this post, or this post). I was looking specifically for pictures of the IBM card-reader in the the Exley basement, and so I asked Leith if he had seen anything of the sort. He said he hadn’t, but that I could take a look at the file for the original Exley computer room. I said “Ok, sure why not?” and scheduled an appointment for a couple days from that point.

Boxes and folders of archival material at Wesleyan Special Collections & Archives

Leith set up a space for me in the Wesleyan Special Collections & Archives with several boxes to examine. The most fruitful folder was the “[Exley] Computer Room” folder. Like some other things in our exhibit, I handled all photographs with white gloves. Photo by the author.

Looking through the photographs of the Exley Computer Lab, I saw some crazy things. Computers as big as rooms! The original desk-sized computers, that were themselves desk-sized! Students and staff crunching numbers! And a random photograph of Frederick Slocum thrown into the mix?

Computers as big as rooms

Computers as big as rooms! Photo by the author. Image courtesy of Wesleyan Special Collections & Archives.

Student at Desk-sized computer

Desk-sized computers! Photo by the author. Image courtesy of Wesleyan Special Collections & Archives.

Image of Frederick Slocum

Random picture of Frederick Slocum thrown in the mix? Photo by the author. Image courtesy of Wesleyan Special Collections & Archives.

I didn’t know quite what I was looking at or why there was an image of the Van Vleck Observatory’s very first director (long deceased by the time the Exley Science Tower was built) in a folder for the Exley Computer Room, so I snapped a bunch of photos and showed them to Roy at our Monday meeting the following week. Zooming in and rotating the photos a bit on my tiny cellphone screen, he mumbled, “This might be…well, this actually is the VVO basement.” And I kinda just stood there dumbfounded, like, “really?”

“Abby, these might the only photographs we have of the Van Vleck Observatory computing room [AKA the basement]. This is amazing.”

My rather lame response: “Ok, cool! I’m glad I looked in that folder then.”

That very Monday morning, Roy and Amrys were sending out a finalized list of images to get reproduced for the exhibit, and they wanted some of these new pictures. I emailed Leith and asked him to take high-quality scans of 6 of the images; in less than an hour he had written back to me, explaining the scans plus a few extra were uploaded to our shared folder. I forwarded the email to Roy and Amrys, and now several images of the original “computers” (i.e. those students and staff who did computations) are in our exhibit!

Although we cannot be certain of the dates of the photographs, Leith guesses they’re mostly from the late 1960s. Check out some of the images below!

Student working at IBM keypunch machine. Van Vleck basement identifiable based on the chalkboard (that's still there).

Student working at IBM keypunch machine. Van Vleck basement identifiable based on the chalkboard (that’s still there). Image courtesy of Wesleyan Special Collections & Archives.

Students working in the Van Vleck computing center basement.

Students working in the Van Vleck computing center basement. You might recognize the radiators, chalkboard, and windows–which let us know this is the Van Vleck. Image courtesy of Wesleyan Special Collections & Archives.

A puzzle at the data processing unit.

A puzzle at the data processing unit. Image courtesy of the Wesleyan Special Collections & Archives.

Row of keypunch machines with students and secretaries working.

Mac desktop computers have since replaced this row of keypunch machines. Alas, ’tis naught but nostalgia. Image courtesy of Wesleyan Special Collections & Archives.

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