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.
We are about 35% of the way through our 24-month project to digitize 900 artifacts from our electrical distribution collections, thanks in large part to a generous grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS), and nearly 100 objects from the grant are currently accessible through our Digital Collections.
Outside that project, but on a related note, we’ve just finished digitizing 132 photos of figures associated with the same companies as the objects we’re digitizing in the grant. For example, now you can see images of people associated with Westinghouse Electric Company, and also find objects created by that company, most of which were conserved and photographed through the grant. One intriguing image we found is this 1880 photograph of Thomas Edison associate Charles Batchelor, which notes it is “the first photograph ever taken by incandescent electric lamps.”
Visit our Digital Collections to see all of these portraits of electrical pioneers, and keep an eye out for more artifacts digitized through the grant to be added over upcoming months. Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
Conservation specialist Mallory Bower and collections specialist Jake Hildebrandt removing objects from shelving in the Collections Storage Building.
The Henry Ford has recently embarked on a new adventure, thanks to a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) which allows us to spend time working on the electrical collections currently housed in the Collections Storage Building. This is The Henry Ford’s second IMLS grant dedicated to improving the storage of and access to collections. The first grant focused on communications technology, and was completed over two years, ending in October 2015. At the end of that grant, more than 1000 communications-related objects were conserved, catalogued, digitized, and stored, marking a huge improvement in the state of the collections and their accessibility. We have similar goals for this grant, as we aim to complete 900+ objects by October 2017.
Marketed as ‘the material of a thousand uses’, Bakelite was the first truly synthetic plastic, patented by the American inventor Leo Hendrik Baekland in 1907. Very soon, dozens of household and technical uses were found for it from fountain pens and ashtrays to electrical and communications equipment, including radios and radio equipment. It’s no surprise that conservators working on the IMLS communications grant encounter it so often.
Leo Baekland had already achieved commercial success with the invention of Velox photographic paper, and was able to maintain a home laboratory in New York State.
Almost exactly two years ago, The Henry Ford embarked on a project to identify, conserve, photograph, catalog, rehouse, and make available online at least 1,000 items from our communications collections. This project was made possible through a generous $150,000 Museums for America grant (MA-30-13-0568-13) from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, or IMLS. Though we will continue to work on some straggler artifacts that have not yet made it through the entire process, the grant officially ended on September 30, with a total of 1,261 artifacts available online. One of the very last artifacts to be added during the official grant period was this computer trainer, used in the metro Detroit area in the 1960s to teach students to operate computers, a skill increasingly needed in the American workforce. You can see some of the other artifacts that worked their way through the IMLS grant process by browsing our digital collections for such communications-related artifacts as typewriters, radio receivers, phonographs, amplifiers, cameras, motion-picture cameras, mimeographs, and magic lanterns, among many others. We extend our thanks once again to IMLS for enabling us to make these significant collections accessible to everyone.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
A date, and a place, written by hand: 10.-22.-38. Centered underneath: Astoria. The letters are composed of bold strokes, defined at the edges and flaking towards the center. The whole arrangement seems to be crumbling towards the bottom of the page, like it is made of dust that could be wiped away by the backstroke brush of a hand. Its purpose uncertain, this is not a “note to self” to be in a place, on a certain date—this is the first successful Xerox copy ever made.
The inventor of the modern photocopier, Chester Carlson, began thinking about mechanical reproduction and the graphic arts at a young age. His first publishing effort was a newspaper called This and That, circulated among family members when he was ten years old. The first edition was handwritten, with later issues composed on a Simplex typewriter given to him as a Christmas present in 1916. In high school, Carlson was forced to work multiple jobs in order to support his impoverished and ill family; one of these jobs found him sweeping floors at a printing shop. Working around printing machinery inspired him to publish a science journal, but the tedium of setting type by hand, line by line, led him to give up on this idea quickly. The machines did not support the quickness of his mind. It was in these frustrations with printing equipment—the fussiness of equipment that reproduced documents during his youth—that motivated Carlson to create the instantaneous printing process that would eventually be central to the creation of the Xerox photocopier.
Many reading this post will remember that in 2013, The Henry Ford was awarded a two-year, $150,000 Museums for America: Collections Stewardship grant by the United States Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS). In this grant, The Henry Ford set out to identify, clean, treat, rehouse, and create digital catalog records for more than 1,000 communications-related artifacts related to photography, data processing, printing, telecommunications, sound communication, and visual communication. We’re pleased to announce that with about a month left to go in the grant period, we have put more than 1,000 objects through almost every step of the process, and expect to finish up a number of additional objects before we run out of time.
Given how close we are to the end of this project, I asked a few of the staff who’ve spent time working with these objects to weigh in with their thoughts on what was interesting, what was challenging, or what they’ve learned through this process.
Our IMLS Grant Conservation staff uses scientific and aesthetic training to conserve, clean and repair a large number of Communications collections. A familiar problem we often encounter is copper “rust” that disfigures objects. Conservators call these damages “corrosion products”. The corrosion is actually “eating” the metal as it forms on a range of object types. Copper corrosion products form on copper and copper alloys (like brass) through chemical reactions that are initiated by contact with various materials nearby and from the air pollution. Nearby materials that corrosion include fatty acids in waxes and leather dressing, sulfur in rubber products, or salts in water or human sweat. Copper corrosion products vary greatly. They can be very waxy or hard and mineralized or soft and powdery, depending on what caused it.
We are more or less three-quarters of the way through the two-year timeframe on our “Museums for America” grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to conserve, catalog, photograph, and rehouse some of our communications collections. We’re pleased to report that as of now, we are on track with digitization of these objects, with 743 of 1,000 grant-related artifacts from our collections available online, and for many of these, we’ve been able to track down their specific origin. The insulator shown here, for example, was originally used on telegraph lines running along the Oregon Trail. Visit our collections website to see more of the insulators we’ve uncovered in our collection through this project. You can also learn more about the grant and see some of the behind-the-scenes work it entails on our blog, or peruse some of Curator of Communication and Information Technology Kristen Gallerneaux’s favorites here.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.