One does not readily associate “firsts” in aviation history with either Washington, D.C. or with the Scottish-born scientist and engineer Alexander Graham Bell. Alas, the first fatality in a powered aircraft connects both the nation’s capital and the inventor of the telephone. The Smithsonian’s collections give testament to many aeronautical and military milestones, including the brief but significant life of Thomas E. Selfridge.
Author: Julia Blakely
Julia Blakely is a Rare Book Catalog Librarian at Smithsonian Libraries. She has undergraduate and master's degrees in art history from the George Washington University and a M.S., with a specialization in rare books, from Columbia University. For many years she was a lab instructor at Rare Book School at the University of Virginia (formerly at Columbia) and currently serves on its William T. Buice Scholarship Committee. She is the Libraries' representative for the Smithsonian's Material Culture Forum. Julia wrote the bibliographical descriptions for An Oak Spring Flora (1997) and has worked with several other private collections.
Familiar with its waters, I was delighted when an early chart of the Chesapeake Bay, entitled Map of part of Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware of 1861, appeared in my cataloging queue. But then who doesn’t like looking at old maps? Getting absorbed in what is fanciful, long-gone or merely changed, and finding remnants of the well-known from a long association with the landscape. And reading any map on paper doesn’t happen every day now, let alone a very rare one.
James Smithson, whose bequest led to the establishment in the mid-19th century of the American institution that now bears his name, famously stated in his will that funds should be used for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” This seemingly vague request is rooted in Enlightenment philosophy, the desire to create order and understanding in the world. As Heather Ewing wrote in The lost world of James Smithson, he was a member “of this distinct breed of English Enlightenment gentleman: citizens of a new republic of science, dedicated to the cause of ‘improvement.’”
The Catesby Commemorative Trust launched the publication of The Curious Mister Catesby with a program at the National Museum of Natural History this past April. Smithsonian Libraries’ own Leslie Overstreet, a contributor to these various perspectives on Mark Catesby’s The natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama islands (London, 1729-1747), spoke on that work’s long, complicated printing history. Another speaker, E. Charles Nelson, presented his research into the naturalist’s biography. His mention of the author’s maternal family name, Jekyll, caught my attention˗˗could this early 18th-century Englishman, who produced the great study of the flora and fauna of colonial America, be related to the later renowned horticulturist, influential garden designer and wonderful writer Gertrude Jekyll?
Last fall, I marked the season for the harvesting of grapes to honor John Adlum, the little-known “Father of American Viticulture.” The origins of the first commercially viable vine in the American wine industry can be traced to the District of Columbia.
Now, with the great interest in Alan Turing, the recent auction sale of this English mathematician’s 56-page notebook for more than a million dollars, and the success of the movie, “The Imitation Game,” let’s look at another (and earlier) computer pioneer genius, Herman Hollerith, and the importance of his Washington invention. Hollerith was, as stated in the title of his principle biography, “The forgotten giant of information processing.” Again, it was the beginning of a huge industry—surprisingly but not at all incidentally—in the nation’s capital.
In honor of Earth Day and National Garden Month, we take a look at one of the lesser known influences in the seed and garden business – the Shaker community.
Rhubarb, that harbinger of spring for many, is honored in the United States on January 23rd with National Rhubarb Day. Having let National Rhubarb Vodka Day (first Saturday in December) pass without note, I wanted to bake a pie in preparation. Thanks to the generosity of a neighbor and his bountiful garden last spring and summer, I had plenty set by. Rhubarb does freeze well. Inspired by the scholars transcribing, as well as cooking with and blogging about, culinary manuscripts dating from 1600 to 1800 in the University of Pennsylvania collections (recently profiled in The Washington Post), I turned to the Smithsonian Libraries for my commemorative effort.