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.

The annals of frustration and repair

As the shelves and file cabinets at the Van Vleck Observatory attest, keeping accurate records has been crucial to the work astronomers, measurers, and computers have performed here over the past century. Faculty, staff, and students used logbooks to keep track of the stellar objects they observed, the photographic images they took of the sky, the measurements they made using those images, and the instruments they relied on to perform those measurements and calculations. These logbooks are a record of the process of making astronomical data, as well as the many different kinds of work that went into it.

On the left, we can see the exact measurements, times, and information put into a single observation. Here, the observer does not make to many individual notes, but does state, however, that the machine, the Mann, is being temperamental. Astronomy Department collections, Van Vleck Observatory. Photo by the author.

On the left, we can see the exact measurements, times, and information put into a single observation. Here, the observer does not make to many individual notes, but does state, however, that the machine, the Mann, is being temperamental. Astronomy Department collections, Van Vleck Observatory. Photo by the author.

In the margins, the logbooks also tell a story of ongoing maintenance and repair that underscores that labor. Many observers and measurers commented on issues with the instruments they were using: a stiff wind that shook the tube of the telescope, resulting in a blurry image; chronometers that were not keeping accurate time; malfunctioning electronics and equipment that stymied their attempts to record accurate data. These problems functioned as maintenance requests as well as repair logs, as observers informed one another about the problems they were having and the steps they took to address them.

The observer blames himself for the inaccurate measurements obtained, but then states later on that the digitizer is not working. Astronomy Department collections, Van Vleck OBservatory. Photo by the author.

The observer blames himself for the inaccurate measurements obtained, but then states later on that the digitizer is not working. Astronomy Department collections, Van Vleck OBservatory. Photo by the author.

Observatory staff also used the logbooks to joke around about the travails of their often tedious work.  They documented the frustrating and the funny, the technical and the personal.  In the logbooks for the Mann comparator, which allowed staff to make highly accurate determinations of distance, some plate measurers complain about the key-punch device “mis-punching” the computer cards that recorded the data, asking their colleagues to “pray for them and their failing measurements.”  Between April 1972 and December 1980, the device was repaired almost daily. We can see how irritating this was for those tasked with doing the grunt work of astronomy in the comments they left for one another as they went about their tasks.

Observers informed one another about the problems they were having, and even asked for "HELP"; based of off the different scripts, we can deduce the problems that each observer encounters with the machinery. Astronomy Department collections, Van Vleck Observatory. Photo by the author.

Observers informed one another about the problems they were having, and even asked for “HELP”; based of off the different scripts, we can deduce the problems that each observer encounters with the machinery. Astronomy Department collections, Van Vleck Observatory. Photo by the author.

Stellar parallax or Cold War espionage?

At the dedication of Van Vleck Observatory on June 16, 1916, the observatory’s first director, Frederick Slocum, outlined an agenda for the new institution: determining the distances of stars. This stellar parallax program constituted the observatory’s main research effort for the majority of the twentieth century.

The parallax program involved researchers as well as many human “computers” who were aided by tools, such as the Millionare mechanical calculator, to perform the necessary calculations. Advances in technology allowed for more accurate measurements and faster computations, changing the kinds of work people did. The Mann comparator, which the Astronomy Department purchased in the late 1950s, was one of the observatory’s most important acquisitions in this regard.

A photo of the Mann Machine

The Mann Measuring Machine. Photo by the Author. Van Vleck Observatory collections, Wesleyan University.

The Mann was an important aid to the people tasked with measuring the distances between the different stars recorded on glass plate images of the sky. The stellar parallax program’s results were contingent on both how the plates were recorded and how they were interpreted, so accurate measurements were crucial for exact results. Previously, plate measurers had worked solely relying on their eyes to gauge the minute distances that would be used in their calculations. With the Mann, the measurers could insert each plate and look into a viewfinder, using a mechanical crank to move the plate very slowly by degrees in order to pinpoint the exact locations of the stars and make measurements between them.  It was still tedious work that required a practiced eye, but the comparator made accuracy easier to achieve.

When you take a closer look at our Mann comparator, you can see that there are two small name plates attached to it. One, close to the crank, indicates the manufacturer and serial number of the device. The other, larger plate is affixed to the base and reads, “PROPERTY OF U.S.A.F – 866477 – DO NOT REMOVE THIS TAG.” What do these two tags tell us?

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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.

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.

How much for a Millionaire?

In an earlier post, I noted that early 20th-century astronomy’s demand for number-crunching prompted the Van Vleck Observatory’s first director, Frederick Slocum, to set aside two rooms in the observatory specifically for “computing.”  These rooms would presumably have been occupied by human “computers” who would perform the intricate calculations needed to figure out stellar distances.

The human computers were not unaided, however.  It appears that Slocum purchased a mechanical calculator in the fall of 1915, soon after his arrival at Wesleyan.  The device’s unforgettable name was the “Millionaire”:

The Millionaire (photos by author).

The Millionaire. Photos by the author.

This thing looks like a millionaire might own it (although from browsing the web it sounds like it was mostly banks and insurance companies that purchased them).  Note the mahogany case; the gleaming chrome knobs; the black lacquer top plate.  And it works beautifully, despite being over a century old!   It still adds, subtracts, multiplies, and divides with a twirl of its well-oiled gears.

Addition and subtraction are dead easy, as is multiplication (apparently, the Millionaire’s key advantage over earlier calculating machines was that it multiplied directly via a special gear, rather than forcing the user to add repeatedly.)  Division is a little trickier: you essentially must guess the digits in the quotient as in pencil-and-paper long division, although the machine helps immensely by computing the remainder for each subsequent round of quotient-guessing.  (Computers still aren’t particularly good at division, even in the age of microprocessors.)  For more on how to use the millionaire (not to mention instructions on how to take it apart) see the amazing material at John Wolff’s Web Museum.

Slocum’s correspondence with New York-based W.A. Morschhauser (who sold the Swiss-made Millionaire in the United States) suggests the relative cost of the machine.  It wasn’t quite a supercomputer — but even in those days, Millionaires didn’t come  cheap.

Morschhauser's letters to Slocum, 1915 (photo by author).

Morschhauser’s letters to Slocum, 1915, from the Astronomy Department files. Photo by the author.

The least expensive hand-cranked model could handle six-digit numbers and cost $280 ($6,615 today, per BLS statistics).  The top of the line could handle 10-digit numbers and cost $665 (over $15k today).  Slocum purchased the 8-digit model that would have been $364 ($8,600) new, but it seems that being a thrifty New Englander, he opted to get a factory-refurbished one for $275 (or about $6,500).

Astronomical numbers

It’s more than 4 light years (or about 23,513,999,300,000 miles) to the nearest star (after our own sun, of course).  Figuring out how far away the stars are was the signature achievement of the Van Vleck Observatory’s astronomers in the 1920s and 1930s.  But how did they get from photographs of the stars, taken by fur-clad observers using the observatory’s 20″ telescope, to estimates of their distance?

Of course, the answer is calculations, and lots of them!  Today, in an age of cheap computing power, big numbers seem easy to handle.  But in the 1920s, astronomers had recourse to pen, paper, and perhaps a clunky mechanical calculating engine.  As a result they set aside specific spaces where computers — that is, humans who did astronomical calculations — could work, as you can see here in the Observatory’s original floor plans:

Computing Rooms

Copies of the original architectural blueprints, ca. 1914, are held by the Wesleyan Astronomy Department.

Today, these “computing rooms” have been converted into offices for Wesleyan’s astronomers.  Most of the calculations that might have been done in them can now be performed almost effortlessly by a laptop or an iPhone.  And the job title of “computer” disappeared from the astronomy department by the early 1960s.  But for the first forty years of the Observatory’s existence, humans were how astronomical numbers got made.

Tune in again soon for more on the human computers of the Van Vleck Observatory.