Can Objects Talk?
THF155560 / Radio Receiver Used in the Piccards' Stratospheric Balloon Ascension, 1934.
Objects have a tendency to develop lives and stories of their own, and I love figuring out the various ways they “speak” to us, the networks and worlds they form, and the variety of angles they can be looked at from. Part of the challenge of studying the history of media, information and communication is in knowing how to draw scattered data back together again, and how to weave a story out of it, to make it accessible and interesting — all the while rooting it to the object in question.
The microlevel details and histories of objects can be coaxed into connecting to big ideas. For example, the same “never leak” gaskets used in the modest Star-Rite electric toaster were also used in the engine of the Spirit of St. Louis airplane. So here, gaskets migrate out of the kitchen to become silent players that made the first transatlantic flight possible. This, in turn, connects not only to the development of aero technology but also to the desire to conquer space and time.
It makes me think of a shortwave radio receiver in our collection that was custom-built by William Duckwitz for ground communication during a balloon flight. The knobs, wires and tubes are typical of a DIY ethos. The flight itself took off from Ford Airport in 1934 and rose nearly 11 miles into the stratosphere. Who was manning the gondola below the hydrogen-filled balloon? Jeannette Piccard, a streetwise woman with impressive credentials. She was the first woman to be licensed as a balloon pilot and became the first American woman to enter the stratosphere and, technically speaking, space. Piccard once said: “When you fly a balloon, you don’t file a flight plan; you go where the wind goes. You feel like part of the air. You almost feel like part of eternity, and you just float along.”
The objects in my curatorial care are essentially a huge collection of “black boxes”— a concept that means the more seamless and successful a technology is, the more mystifying and opaque its inner functions become to the everyday user. And so, another exciting task is to figure out a way to reveal the invisible networks among the collections, to allow patrons to see communications and IT devices and think beyond their sleek shells (or messy tubes and wires) and understand how they relate to ideas, stories, invention and to themselves — as users.
Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communications and Information Technology. This article originally appeared in the Ask + Answer section of The Henry Ford Magazine, January-May 2014.