In October 2017, Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation was awarded another Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) grant, allowing us to continue working to catalog, conserve, package, and rehouse over 3,000 items out of our Collections Storage Building. We've had the opportunity to work with some very interesting objects for this grant, from agricultural equipment to advertisement signs. There is a wide array of objects passing through the labs, visible to the public through the windows at the back of the museum.
This spring we treated many batteries made by Thomas Edison. Most of these originated from the late 19th century and varied in condition and composition. These early battery types consist of metal plates that were immersed in an electrolyte solution to generate electricity. The batteries themselves were stable and safe to handle because they contained no electrolyte. The batteries with unknown compositions sparked our curiosity (pun intended), since we needed to know what they were made of so that we could properly conserve them.
Sometimes while working in the lab, we need specialized equipment that we may not have on site. Fortunately, museums often work collaboratively to help each other find solutions. In this case, we collaborated with Conservation Scientist Christina Bisulca and the well-equipped analytical conservation lab at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The DIA had the right tool for the job - a high-powered optical microscope and X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometer. An XRF spectrometer is essential to conservators because it is used to identify metals. It uses an X-ray beam to produce enough energy to excite electrons within the atoms of metal elements. When that energy is released, a specific signal is registered within the XRF spectrometer and the metal is identified.
The DIA’s XRF spectrometer analyzing the central core of one of the batteries. (Photo courtesy of Misty Grumbley.)
At the beginning of March, we brought several batteries to test at the DIA, including an Edison-Lalande battery, a Samson battery, and an Edison S-Type battery. The Edison S-type battery was particularly interesting, since we were not able to find any similar batteries to compare it to, and could not confirm the materials used through research alone.
In this blog post, conservator Louise Stewart Beck shared some incredible photographs of corrosion products that seemed to grow from the metal itself. We have found a lot of corrosion products where metal and hard rubber materials meet. In this collection, it happens frequently, and it makes sense to find these two materials so often due to the physical properties of the materials and their uses in regards to electricity.
Let’s start with the metal. Metals are strong materials, allowing the objects to withstand the working environments where they were used. Additionally, metals make great conductors, allowing the electricity to readily flow through the desired path along wires.
While metals are conductors, rubber is an insulator. This means it restricts the flow of electrons and prevents the electricity from transferring to separate entity—like a person—accidentally.
With this in mind, it makes sense that both metals and hard rubber would be found next to each other for the electrical objects to perform their function when first created. The long-term proximity of metal and hard rubber on these objects, unfortunately, also leads to active deterioration of the object. This situation is called inherent vice: The deterioration of physical objects due to the instability of the materials that make up the object.
Group of metal objects with hard rubber carrion on the surface. (Accession number 31.1217.252).
Detail of hard rubber corrosion on surface of the metal. (Accession number 31.1217.252).
When Louise and I encounter the strange corrosion products where hard rubber and metal touch, we end up removing the product of a chemical reaction occurring due to the physical properties of the two materials. If the corrosion product is only removed, it will be back in a few years because the chemical reaction has not been stopped by simply removing the corrosion. Whenever possible, a barrier is placed between the hard rubber and metal to keep them from chemically interacting with one another. Our barrier of choice is Incralac, a clear non-reactive coating. When possible, we apply the coating to the metal after separating it from the hard rubber and allow it to dry. Once dry and reassembled, the barrier layer should prevent the chemical reaction that results in the interesting corrosion growth.
Conservator Louise using a scalpel to mechanically remove the hard rubber corrosion. (Accession Number 31.1217.252).
Conservator Louise submerging metal in Incralac after removing corrosion to form a barrier layer between the metal and the hard rubber to prevent further corrosion. (Accession number 31.1217.252).
Of course, a lot of thought goes in to each treatment for each unique object, making working with this collection both challenging and rewarding. Understanding the ways objects are originally created that may cause or increase deterioration allows us in the Conservation Lab to actively work to slow this deterioration down to ensure the object can be enjoyed by visitors for years to come.
Corrosion removed, waiting for the Incralac to dry. (Accession number 31.1217.252).
Mallory Fellows Bower is the IMLS Conservation Specialist at The Henry Ford.
Bergmann & Company Edison Chemical Meter, Used at the City Hotel, Sunbury, Pennsylvania, 1883. THF164679
As work progresses on the Electrical Collection thanks to an Institute of Museum and Library Services grant, the fascinating context in which these objects were used is discovered. This Edison chemical meter used at the City Hotel in Sunbury, Pennsylvania, the first hotel commercially wired for electricity, and was part of the first three-wire power system in the world.
Following the success of the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of New York, the first central power station in the world, Thomas Edison sent his agent, P. B. Shaw, to find other ideal locations for more central power stations. The locations needed to have high gas prices to make the switch to electric lights appealing, and inexpensive fuel to help compete in the lighting business.
Shaw traveled the Coal Region of Pennsylvania to find a place that met the criteria, and organized multiple Edison Electric Illuminating Companies including Shamokin (1882), Sunbury (July 1883), and Mount Carmel (November 1883). The site selected in Sunbury backed up onto a stream flowing down from Shamokin, which would deposit coal on its banks after heavy rainfall or melting snow. Sunbury’s high cost of gas, free coal, and proximity to water meant that it was the perfect location for a power plant; however, the location was outside the town’s business center, which would add to the cost due to the length of wires needing to be strung from the power plant to potential customers.
To offset costs, Edison took a party of potential donors on his electric railway to demonstrate his innovative technology. After the demonstration, Edison was inspired to improve his two-wire system in use in New York by adding a third-wire to act as a neutral line, as well as using two dynamos to generate 220 volts while still allowing 110 volt lamp usage to ensure consistent distribution of power throughout the long wires. After a brief test, Edison applied for a patent and the three wires with conductors were strung to the City Hotel, thus making it the first building to be commercially wired for electricity and Sunbury the first city to have three wire commercial direct current incandescent lighting and overhead conductors.
On July 4, 1883, the City Hotel of Sunbury became the first building lit with incandescent carbon-filament light bulbs using the three wire system. To measure the electricity used by the hotel, an Edison Chemical Meter, one of the first electric wattmeters, was installed. These electrolytic meters measured electricity through electroplating, but needed to be removed and measured at the central station in order to bill customers. The meters were reliable, despite the cumbersome method for billing, but were phased out in the 1890s and replaced by mechanical meters, which were easier to read.
Laura Lipp Myles is Collections Specialist at The Henry Ford.
While researching the many electrical objects being digitized as part of the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences grant, a few stories have stood out to me. These stories sometimes involve the people behind the scenes: manufacturers, inventors, etc., and other times are about how the object was used. Below are four such objects and their stories.
This Jenney Electric Motor Company rheostat has uncovered an interesting story about the company’s namesake. It was designed by Charles G. Jenney who was awarded a patent for it in 1892. Jenney, originally from Ann Arbor, Michigan, moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana with his father to design and produce electrical equipment for the Fort Wayne Jenney Electric Light Company. On February 27, 1885, Jenney, who had been contracted to the Fort Wayne Jenney Electric Light Company by his father while still a minor, successfully petitioned to be removed from the company, and, a month later, he founded the Jenney Electric Light Company later the Jenney Electric Company. The Jenney Electric Company was demonstrating Jenney’s dynamos, arc lamps, and incandescent lamps by August that same year. This company was bought out and Jenney started again, this time with the Jenney Electric Motor Company in 1889 for which he produced electrical equipment like this rheostat, filed for more patents, and wired and lit the streets of Indianapolis.
We had a busy and productive fall 2016, with some new adventures thrown in with continuing progress on objects themselves. If you haven’t already seen them, you should check out our Facebook Live videos – we’ve done a few so far (in October, November, and December), and the plan is to continue doing them on the first Friday of each month.
Gaulard & Gibbs transformer on the shelf before treatment (29.1333.229).
This Gaulard & Gibbs transformer had several conservation issues when we first saw it, most notably that the wooden base had broken under the strain of the weight of the object itself. You can see this in the before picture, where the object is lying on its side because it cannot stand anymore. There are also faint hints of color along the metal tabs that run up the body of the object.
The Gaulard and Gibbs transformer after treatment (29.1333.229).
You can see that this transformerhad a fantastic transformation during conservation treatment – simply removing years of built-up dust revealed a very vivid red and black coloration. The broken wooden base was also very successfully repaired, and it is now possible for the object to stand on its feet again. When it’s packed for storage, it will be lying down again, so that the weakened wooden base isn’t put under too much strain for long periods of time.
We featured this object briefly in our Facebook Live videos – you may have noticed, if you tuned into both, that you could see the ‘before’ and ‘after’ as they happened.
The interior of a meter, with strange accretions on white enameled metal. Note that this view is of the reverse of the top face (29.1333.63)
We’ve also encountered some interesting materials and material problems in the first half of our IMLS grant work. One of the most interesting was this strange accretion, found on the interior of a meter. Those brownish bulbs appeared to be seeping into the object from the top, but were only present on the enameled portions of the metal. They were friable and lighter on the inside than the outside. We looked at samples under the microscope, and even attempted to culture a sample, in case it’s a type of mold (it does not appear to be). We’re still not sure what exactly they are, but we will continue to try to figure it out! Mysteries of the museum, indeed.
An ohmmeter with a great example of hard rubber – note that the cylindrical casing which would usually go over the black area is removed in this photo (31.1217.235)
We have also recently come across a fantastic example of perfectly preserved hard rubber. The base of the object is one solid slab of hard rubber, but the protected interior area has retained the original black, mirror-like finish. The discoloration and matte surface of hard rubber occurs primarily from light exposure over time, and the colors possible range from a light black to the red-brown color on this object. We’ve put the exterior cylindrical case back on the object, sealing it well, so that the very tight case can continue to preserve this fantastic interior.
Conservator Cuong Nguyen and Conservation Technician Andrew Ganem working on motors in their lab.
We have also been very fortunate to have Cuong and Andrew working with us for a little while. They're tackling some larger motors, which take longer to complete. Their help allows Conservation Specialist Mallory Bower and I to continue to work at the pace necessary to keep the project on target, while ensuring that as much of the collection as possible is treated. We greatly appreciate their help.
As always, this is only a small sampling of what we have been up to on the IMLS project. Please feel free to stop by our window at the back of the museum and see what we’re working on – there is always something interesting on our desks. Keep your eyes peeled for our next Facebook Live, as well. As we continue to move into 2017 and are fully into the second half of the project, we are excited to continue our work and continue keeping you updated
Louise Stewart Beck is former IMLS Project Conservator at The Henry Ford.
During the latter half of the nineteenth century, Professors William E. Ayrton and John Perry collaborated on inventing an array of instruments from electrical devices for railways to meters to measure electricity. The London, England-based company, Latimer Clark, Muirhead, & Co., manufactured this Ayrton and Perry ammeter between 1883 and 1890.
Confident in their work, Ayrton and Perry personally certified the accuracy of their meters, which were touted as being among the most reliable. This ammeter, with its fascinating story, is one of the many objects being rediscovered as work progresses on The Henry Ford’s IMLS-funded grant.
While the project team is suffering from a bit of meter overload (no pun intended), every once in a while one catches our eye for some reason or other. One recent example is this Fort Wayne Prepayment Meter, which allowed energy customers to insert coins to start electricity flowing, rather than being billed for usage after the fact.
If you’d like to learn more about our work on this grant, visit our Digital Collections to browse electricity-related artifacts, or like us on Facebook to see live behind-the-scenes updates from the Conservation Labs (previous updates can be viewed on our Facebook video page).
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
One of the main components of The Henry Ford’s IMLS-funded grant is the treatment of electrical objects coming out of storage. This largely involves cleaning the objects to remove dust, dirt, and corrosion products. Even though this may sound mundane, we come across drastic visual changes as well as some really interesting types of corrosion and deterioration, both of which we find really exciting.
An electrical drafting board during treatment (2016.0.1.28)
Conservation specialist Mallory Bower had a great object recently which demonstrates how much dust we are seeing settled on some of the objects. We’re lucky that most of the dust is not terribly greasy, and thus comes off of things like paper with relative ease. That said, it’s still eye-opening how much can accumulate, and it definitely shows how much better off these objects will be in enclosed storage.
Before and after treatment images of a recording & alarm gauge (2016.0.1.46)
The recording and alarm gauge pictured above underwent a great visual transformation after cleaning, which you can see in its before-and-after-treatment photos. As a bonus, we also have an image of the material that likely caused the fogging of the glass in the first place! There are several hard rubber components within this object, which give off sulfurous corrosion products over time. We can see evidence of these in the reaction between the copper alloys nearby the rubber as well as in the fogging of the glass. The picture below shows where a copper screw was corroding within a rubber block – but that cylinder sticking up (see arrow) is all corrosion product, the metal was actually flush with the rubber surface. I saved this little cylinder of corrosion, in case we have the chance to do some testing in the future to determine its precise chemical composition.
Hard rubber in contact with copper alloys, causing corrosion which also fogged the glass (also 2016.0.1.46).
Hard rubber corrosion on part of an object – note the screw heads and the base of the post.
This is another example of an object with hard rubber corrosion. In the photo, you can see it ‘growing’ up from the metal of the screws and the post – look carefully for the screw heads on the inside edges of the circular indentation. We’re encountering quite a lot of this in our day to day work, and though it’s satisfying to remove, but definitely an interesting problem to think about as well.
There are absolutely more types of dirt and corrosion that we remove, these are just two of the most drastic in terms of appearance and the visual changes that happen to the object when it comes through conservation.
We will be back with further updates on the status of our project, so stay tuned.
Louise Stewart Beck is Senior Conservator at The Henry Ford.
We continue to work on our IMLS-grant funded project to conserve, catalog, photograph, rehouse, and digitize 900 artifacts from our electrical distribution equipment collection. A number of the meters and other artifacts we’ve turned up during that project were created by the Fort Wayne Electric Works (also known as the Fort Wayne Electric Corporation), an Indiana company that manufactured electrical equipment and other items in the late 19th century. To accompany the artifacts, we’ve just digitized photographs from our Fort Wayne Electric Works archival collection, which show various parts of the factory around 1894—including this shot of the testing and calibrating laboratory.
If you’ve ever walked by the conservation labs at the back of Henry Ford museum, you’ve probably seen the conservators at work on a variety of objects, of a variety of sizes. With a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, we are primarily working on “bench-top” objects – which can be picked up and moved by hand. There are, however, a handful of extra-large objects that we have planned to work on over the course of the grant, including (but not limited to!) historically significant motors, electrostatic producers, and transformers. These objects are important within the electrical scope of the grant, and they need work to be stabilized and preserved for the future.
Note that “extra-large” for us is a lot different than extra-large for the rest of the museum – the Allegheny is magnitudes larger than anything we are working with, for example! The “extra-large” objects that we are working on range up to 2 tons in weight, and require specialized equipment such as forklifts to move. We draw the line at artifacts requiring specialist rigging or outside contractors. These sorts of objects do bring their own issues – moving them from one place to another is difficult and requires careful planning, they require a good deal of space in the lab, and the treatments can take a significant length of time. We’re moving at a quick pace with the work on this grant, so taking two to three weeks just working on one object isn’t a good solution for us.
The first extra-large object we’ve grabbed, viewed top-down – a Sprague streetcar motor.
So how do we balance the amount of time it takes to treat very large objects with the need to keep up a pace in order to achieve completion goals? We’ve tackled this perennial problem in an interesting way. Since we don’t have an enormous number of extra-large objects to complete, we are allowing three months for the conservation of each. What this means practically is that we can bring the object into the lab, give it a space, and then as we have breaks between work on smaller objects, we can dedicate a few hours to it here and there. Breaking up the conservation work in this way has been very successful so far!
The first object that we’ve treated in this way is a Sprague streetcar motor. This is a really interesting and important object, believed to have been used in Richmond, Virginia on the first major electric street railway system, and dating to the end of the 19th century.
Two of the coils on the motor before treatment.
In the image above are shown two of the coils on the motor before treatment – the textile covering was loose and dirty, and in some places the damage extended to the layer below the outer wrapping as well. The treatment for this object required not only cleaning, but repair to these areas of damage.
Their ‘tails’ have been rewound and reattached, and the dust and dirt have been removed. The area around the coils has also been cleaned and the wire wrappings have been tidied. The engine overall is nearing completion, but does have some areas that still need cleaning. It’s been great to have it as a project we can come back to for small spurts of time, which is exactly what we were hoping for our extra-large object treatment plan.
Louise Stewart Beck is IMLS Conservator at The Henry Ford.