Letters from an old friend

My favorite part of putting together a history exhibit is getting to look through other people’s things. Certainly Frederick Slocum will not walk in on me as I’m hunched over his letters, and yet, I still feel like I’m intruding. But I’m not going to stop poking around, so let’s intrude together.

Slocum’s correspondence shows that he frequently allowed elementary school classes and intrigued guests into his observatory. He would let them look through the telescope, teach them about the moon and visible planets, and maybe leave them with some pictures of the stars. Classroom teachers in particular reached out to him from far and wide, from Flint, Michigan to Middletown itself. Though Slocum mostly published his work in academic journals, he clearly had an interest in making astronomy accessible to those outside of academia as well.

Amidst all of the letters to Slocum in our collection, one from a fifth grade class in Franklin, North Carolina stood out to me. The letter, dated October 31, 1934, is written in perfect grade-school cursive.

My Dear Prof. Slocum, We have been studying about the moon and wish to learn more about it. We don’t want to take your valuable time or inconvenience you, but if you have one new interesting thing that you can tell us about this heavenly body we will appreciate it very much. Just disregard this letter entirely if it seems impertinent. Yours sincerely, The Fifth Grade. Fifth grade students of Franklin, NC to Frederick W. Slocum, 31 October 1932. Frederick W. Slocum correspondence files, Van Vleck Observatory collections, Wesleyan University.

My Dear Prof. Slocum, We have been studying about the moon and wish to learn more about it. We don’t want to take your valuable time or inconvenience you, but if you have one new interesting thing that you can tell us about this heavenly body we will appreciate it very much. Just disregard this letter entirely if it seems impertinent. Yours sincerely, The Fifth Grade. Fifth grade students of Franklin, NC to Frederick W. Slocum, 31 October 1932. Frederick W. Slocum correspondence files, Van Vleck Observatory collections, Wesleyan University.

If the adorableness of their letter doesn’t hook you in enough, maybe this will: this fifth grade class’s teacher was Mrs. S. Edward Eaton, née Olive Eddy, who was Slocum’s own student in 1905 at Pembroke Hall. Enclosed with the students’ letter was her own, asking if the professor remembered her, and then immediately answering her own question with: “Of course you don’t.”

Mrs. Eaton was wrong. A mere two weeks later, Slocum responded, “I certainly do remember Olive Eddy and I am delighted to hear from her.” Enclosed with this letter to Mrs. Eaton was an extensive reply to her fifth graders’ queries. He included more than one interesting thing: he wrote about when the next eclipses were (down to the exact hour); what exactly to look at in the sky in order to see them; and also gave them a few photographs of the moon, Venus, the Van Vleck Observatory, and the observatory’s telescope.

He concluded,

I cannot easily tell you much about the moon at this distance, but if you can induce Mrs. Eaton to sew some wings on your shoulders so you can all fly up here, I will show you the moon through the telescope, and tell you all I know about it while are you looking.

Slocum’s writing and research proved that he knew how to address crowds steeped in academia, but this letter shows that he also knew how to appeal to children’s whimsy and blossoming interest in science.

Words of thanks

As the fall semester quickly approaches its conclusion, we at the Under Connecticut Skies project have much to be thankful for.  The support of Wesleyan University, Connecticut Humanities, and, as of this week, the NASA Connecticut Space Grant College Consortium, which has just awarded us a Faculty STEM Eduction Programming Grant to help make our exhibition a reality next spring. The students, faculty, staff, alumni, and amateur astronomers who have contributed to our oral history project.  The folks at WESU 88.1 FM, who have generously been helping us record some of our oral histories.  The reporters and journalists who have covered our work.  Staff at the New Haven Museum, Middlesex County Historical Society, Connecticut Historical Society, and Connecticut River Museum, who have shared ideas and techniques with us.  And, most of all, our dedicated team of faculty, staff, students, and community partners who have made this project possible.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Don’t judge a book by its cover: the hidden treasures of Mildred Booth Stearns’s library

The books of Mildred Booth Stearns are a prime example of the joy and insight that can be found by poking through a few objects. Mildred Booth Stearns was a computer at the Yale Astronomy Department after graduating in 1920 from Vassar having specialized in Mathematics. Today, the word computer is only used to describe the object you’re probably reading this blog post on, but in the pre-IBM world, a computer meant a person, often a woman, who made calculations, especially for scientific work. She would have been doing complicated and time-consuming measurements and calculations at Yale, and it is within the Yale Astronomy Department that she met her future husband  Professor Carl L. Stearns, then a grad student. She moved to Middletown, 8 Brainerd Avenue, when Carl became a professor at Van Vleck Observatory, and during World War II she taught physics to Navy cadets at Wesleyan.

Van Vleck Observatory has eleven books that Mildred wrote her name in the front cover of, with such scintillating titles as The Elements of Electricity and Magnetism, New Analytic Geometry, and Simplified Theory of Flight. Many of the books were college textbooks, indicated by her dorm room number inscribed and her annotations like “Learn,” “Do some,” and “Try a few.” Those college textbooks must have stayed relevant to her life, considering that they did not stay behind at Vassar but followed her to Yale and then Wesleyan. Mildred Booth Stearns’s life shows the opportunities for women in the sciences during early and mid twentieth centuries, opportunities that are now often forgotten. Pieces of paper tucked unobtrusively inside her books suggest the priorities and diversions of a woman actively engaged in scientific research and teaching during the first half of the twentieth century.

I opened up one book, The Elements of Electricity and Magnetism, expecting annotation but nothing else. And while I found an inscription “Mildred Booth – 1920/201 Lathrop” in the front cover as expected, I also found something completely unexpected. When I opened the book, I found three yellowing, folded newspaper cut-outs, and when I unfolded them, I discovered three crosswords. They were all from the New Haven Evening Register, and dated Monday, November 17th, 1924, Tuesday, November 18th 1924, and Wednesday, November 19th, 1924. Monday and Tuesday are blank: Wednesday is completed except for 26 across and down, each three letters, with the clues being, respectively, “A unit of electricity” and “Part of a wheat plant.” Wednesday’s crossword is Valentine’s Day themed, a heart with February 14th written in it: she had married her husband in 1923, and one wonders whether that influenced her decision on which crossword puzzle to complete and which to leave blank.

An almost-finished Cross Word Puzzle by Mildred Booth in the shape of a heart

A crossword puzzle with a Valentine’s Day theme, nearly completed by Mildred Booth. Van Vleck Observatory collections, Wesleyan University. Photo by the author.

By leaving crosswords from 1924 in a textbook inscribed in 1920, Mildred Booth gives further context to her life and usage of these books. According to the Vassar Alumnae Register, Mildred Booth Stearns was a computer at Yale between 1920 and 1923, meaning that she left the same year she was married, probably after marriage—but she was still using her textbook on Electricity and Magnetism in 1924, consulting it frequently enough to tuck unfinished crosswords in it. It is impossible to know whether she was helping Carl Stearns with his research or just looking at the books because she genuinely enjoyed physics, but either way, this technical physics textbook was still important to her after marriage, when she no longer had an official scientific position. Women’s interest and participation in science cannot be measured by job records alone, as this serendipitous clipping tells us.

Mildred Booth Stearns’s books did not only contain crosswords; they contained a wealth of primary sources on the domestic war effort during World War Two. During the war, Mildred brushed up on her college courses in order to teach physics to Navy cadets at Wesleyan, but she also learned new things about the practical reasons such cadets would be learning physics: flight. The only paperback in the collection is a slim book entitled The Effects of Flight, published in 1943 “by the Authority of and under the Supervision of Training Division, Bureau of Aeronautics U.S. Navy.”

Paperclipped to the title page of this book were two yellowing clippings of text with parts of color pictures on the back. They are excerpts from newspapers, and begin: “Tension is the enemy of endurance. We civilians haven’t got a right to indulge in it, for it’s dangerous to the war,” and on the next clipping, “effort.” The clippings are from an essay called “Give Yourself A Chance!” by Louise Redfield Peattie, which was printed in the Spokane Review in Spokane, Washington, on June 19th, 1943 with the same layout, but possibly in other newspapers as well. The article discussed the dangers that would be encountered if civilians worked too relentlessly on the war effort, to their own detriment and the detriment of the country.  To remedy this problem, the piece encouraged “recreations that really make us into better Americans.”  It’s a poignant clipping for a teacher and mother of three who was making an essential contribution to the war effort. It made me wonder whether Mildred Booth Stearns clipped it for herself or whether a friend or relative, possible in Spokane, clipped it out of the newspaper and sent it to Mildred to encourage her to enjoy herself more and work less.

Effects of Flight, Mildred Stearns’s personal copy. A slim book with a drawing of a men piloting a plan into a large bomb cloud.

Effects of Flight, Mildred Stearns’s personal copy. Van Vleck Observatory collections, Wesleyan University.  Photo by the author.

 Simplified Theory of Flight is another book Mildred used during the war, one with two pieces tucked into it that illustrate the economic effects of the war effort. Between the back cover and the last page is a pamphlet on the 4th War Loan, encouraging people to “Display Your Colors” by buying bonds. The pamphlet admonishes readers that “We can’t afford to let up now” and informs them that the starting date is January 18th, 1944.

Even more charmingly, the book also contains the July 1943 record catalogue from Columbia Masterworks, a record label owned by Columbia Records specializing in classical music, with 231 Mary and 107 Jon written in Mildred’s handwriting. The pamphlet is stamped with the label Payne’s Music House, Middletown – Conn. Payne’s Music House occupied a historic building, build in the mid-nineteenth century, at 107 College Street, right off Main Street, between 1929 and 1974. The pamphlet is intensely aware of the war: the back advertises Henry Lowell’s “Tales of Our Countryside,” music “essentially simple, direct, melodious, affecting, and richly and racily American in spirit.” It also announces that “OUR FIGHTING MEN NEED RECORDS, TOO” and promotes an organization called “Records for Our Fighting Men, Inc.” which collected unwanted records to be sold as scrap in order to fund the purchase of new records for soldiers. The pamphlet is from July 1943, the month after “Give Yourself a Chance” was printed, suggesting that Mildred Booth Stearns took the advice to heart and invested in her own recreation through classical music. Did she fear becoming burned out from the work of teaching physics to Navy cadets, a role that would not be open to women at Wesleyan except during war time?

Columbia Masterworks – a patriotic design of red, white, and blue shows the infusion of the war effort into all facets of life.

Columbia Masterworks – a patriotic design shows the infusion of the war effort into all facets of life. Van Vleck Observatory collections, Wesleyan University.  Photo by the author.

A section in the back tells reader “You can help supply this need” and admonishes them – “Act today!”

A section in the back tells reader “You can help supply this need” and admonishes them – “Act today!” Van Vleck Observatory collections, Wesleyan University.  Photo by the author.

Mildred Booth Stearns’s books indicate that historians must leave no stone unturned: more importantly, they must leave no page unturned. The intimate artifacts of historical lives linger with us, and can be found through just a little bit of flipping through some books or shuffling some objects around. Mildred Booth left pieces of herself in every dry textbook she had, and her sources of small joys and concerns, such as crosswords, music, or articles telling the reader they are working too hard and it is dangerous, are immediately familiar to anyone. Mildred Booth Stearns was a woman involved in the sciences for her whole life: from mathematics at Vassar to her continued use of physics textbooks even after she was no longer a professional computer to her return to the world of professional science as a physics instructor who had to teach students about flight in the Second World War. Her life shows the limitations of the ways women were professional scientists in her era, but more so, it drives home the point that women in the past were doing so much more than fulfilling the stereotypes of the era.

The Mann’s still got it

Today was our third and final film shoot in the Van Vleck this summer. Previously, we’d shot Roy & the Millionaire and Fred & the 20-inch. In front of the camera this time was Linda & the Mann Measuring Machine. Linda Shettleworth is currently the Astronomy Department’s administrative assistant, but thirty years ago she was measuring stars on glass plates for Professor Art Upgren. Because we wanted to show off the Mann Measuring Machine (helpful tip: do not google image search), and since Linda is pretty much the only person left around here who knows how to use it, she naturally became the star of our demonstration video.

Melissa films Linda adjusting a plate on the Mann Measuring Machine.

Melissa films Linda adjusting a plate on the Mann Measuring Machine. Photo(s) by the author.

Linda holds up glass plate to the light.

Linda holds up a glass plate–that she marked up in the 1980s–to the light. She used this plate in the demonstration video.

Matt at the Camera

I snapped this HILARIOUS picture of Matt and got his full consent to post it on this blog.

Selfie with Matt and Mann

Author takes a selfie with the Mann Measuring Machine and Matt–who is looking at the old punched card we found under the machine. Author clearly needs to stop taking selfies during film shoots.

The other Frederick

Who would’ve guessed that “film shoot” would be on the task list for a student summer historical researcher like myself? Rather inexperienced historian that I am, I did not.

These weeks, our research group is teaming up with Melissa Sullivan at Wesleyan’s New Media Lab to produce a series of three videos of cool things and people we have at the Van Vleck Observatory. Today we shot our second video featuring Fred Orthlieb giving a behind the scenes peek at the telescope restoration. Melissa provided and operated all the audiovisual equipment, and she and Matt–who earlier wrote about the first Frederick to operate the telescope–directed the shoot.

Melissa puts a mic on Fred.

Melissa puts a mic on Fred’s collar. Matt is probably laughing at something funny Fred said.

What was my role in the shoot (no one but my parents would ask)? I was on audio duty, which essentially meant I sat on a step ladder in the corner off of the telescope platform making sure that the audio sounded ok for the entire time and took a lot of pictures. Many of these pictures, I must confess, were selfies.

Abby looks at audio recorder

Author looks at the nifty H4 Zoom recorder. Author is a little bored.

Fred told me that from where he was standing, I looked like “a little panda” in my “little panda cage” with my “little earmuffs.” The reason that must have been quite accurate is that this was my view for a lot of the shoot:

Fred film shooting on raised platform

Amazing things are happening above me, probably!

But enough of me kvetching, I was SO EXCITED to even be in the same room as these wonderful people during this shoot. And this room that I was in was none other than AN OBSERVATORY DOME!!! WITH A HISTORIC TELESCOPE, no less!!! I clearly have the best job. I learned so much even though I spent the majority of my time taking selfies and writing down funny things that Fred said.

Melissa films Fred explaining how the telescope works.

“Naivety is natural. No one comes out of the womb knowing anything about telescopes.”

Fred in the pier.

Matt: “Do you have anything left to say about the pier?”
Fred: “I do, and most of it has to do with squirrels.”

On a final note, I will say that our film shoot almost didn’t even happen today. At around 9:15am, Fred came into the basement where our research team works, and told me that the elevator was not working and that we might need to reschedule the shoot. Luckily, he was able to troubleshoot the issue and get the 100 year old elevator back to operational status. During our filming, Fred even got a visit from an Otis Elevator Co. representative (who he had called earlier this morning).

Fred and the Otis representative

Fred explains the problem with the elevator to the Otis representative. I had a bird’s eye view because the elevator was at the lowest point during this part of the shoot.

Thankfully, everything went well, and as Paul said, Fred was “the man of the hour–for two hours.”

Shooting stars

It’s been an exciting morning in the observatory. Upstairs, members of our team are working with a videographer to shoot our first footage for the project: Roy demonstrating how to use our historic “Millionaire” calculating machine to perform addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Our plan is to assemble some short videos that show this marvelous contraption in action.

Setting up the library for the shoot.

Setting up the library for the shoot. Photo by the author.

Roy contemplates the Millionaire after brushing up on his long division.

Roy contemplates the Millionaire, while pen and paper stand at the ready for long division. Photo by the author.