Artifacts in the Archives – Our Most Thrilling Artifacts!

Today’s  blog post is a collaborative blog post, from several Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA) staff, about the artifacts that give us the most thrills and chills. Some staff interpreted this as the spookiest artifact and some as the coolest most exciting artifact. Whatever the interpretation, here are the artifacts that give us the most chills and thrills.

Quartz Fiber Balance

Quart fiber balance, looks like a bottle with legs sitting on a wooden stand, stopper on one end and cut on the other, so it's open, and the open end covered in plastic wrap held on by a rubberband. There is a clear looking scale inside the bottle.

Quartz Fiber Balance (Artifact #2003-2-3.003)

From Amy Bishop, Rare Books & Manuscripts Curator

I nominate the Quartz Fiber Balance (artifact number 2003-203.003) from the Harry J. Svec Papers (RS 13/6/53) as the most thrilling artifact in our collections. Why the thrill? This particular balance, created by Svec as the ISU chemistry department’s glassblower, was used in Ames as part of the Manhattan Project during World War II. The thought of the Manhattan Project always gives me mixed thrills and chills. Thrills from the thought of cutting-edge, top secret scientific research. Chills because of the purpose and ultimate conclusion of the Manhattan Project: atomic bombs, two of which were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing horrific numbers of people. And of course what that led to – the nuclear arms race of the Cold War and the proliferation of nuclear weapons around the world.

Also thrilling, though, is to think of the skill of an ISU graduate student who worked as a glassblower, creating by hand precise apparatus for chemical experiments. To quote from the item’s catalog record: “The balance mechanism inside is entirely quartz and balances on a thin quartz thread. This mechanism is very delicate and is sensitive to one-millionth of a gram. Up to one gram of material can be held on each end.” Very impressive indeed. See more about the Ames Project in the Ames Laboratory Records.

 

General Geddes Sword (1827)

General Geddes Sword (Artifact #2015-R003)

General Geddes Sword (Artifact #2015-R003)

From Chris Anderson, Descriptive Records Project Archivist

James Lorraine Geddes (1827-1887) led an adventurous life before his association with Iowa Agricultural College. Born in Scotland, he also lived in Canada and India before settling in the United States. In India, served in the Royal Horse Artillery of the British Army. In this capacity he distinguished himself in the ongoing Anglo-Afghan conflicts in Punjab and the Khyber Pass. He retired a Colonel in 1857 and moved to a farm in Iowa. This peaceful interval did not last long, however. He fought for the Union in the U.S. Civil War, beginning as a private and rising to the rank of Brevet Brigadier General (1865). After the war he returned to Vinton, Iowa. His many achievements in higher education were to follow (1867-1887).

His sword, therefore, makes me think of dire battles. Our information associates the year 1827 with the sword, which is puzzling – Geddes was born in that year.

 

Candelabra

Candelabra from Gravesend Manor

Candelabra from Gravesend Manor (uncataloged)

From Becky Jordan, Reference Specialist

We received this along with other WOI materials when the television station moved out of the Communications Building.

This was a prop from Gravesend Manor—a television program that aired late on Saturday nights on WOI-TV.  They showed horror films with local staff doing introductions and intermissions.  Some of the characters were Malcom the Butler (Ed Weiss), the Duke of Desmodus (James Varnum), Claude (Ron Scott) and Esmerelda (John Voight).  My best recollections of the show are from slumber parties.  It was generally enjoyed with pop and pizza—made from a kit that came in a box—and a lot of giggling.

From Rachel: Check out an earlier blog post about Gravesend Manor.

Metal Shrapnel

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From Whitney Olthoff, Project Archivist

For the most thrilling artifact, I’ve picked metal shrapnel from World War I (2004-179.001 and .002). These pieces came from MS 666, the Fred O. Gordon Papers. Gordon fought in Europe in Battery F, 119th Field Artillery from 1918-1919 and was wounded in October 1918. The shrapnel pieces are thick, solid metal, and I can only imagine the sheer force of the explosion(s) that would’ve blown them apart. Not to mention the damage those pieces could have inflicted if they had hit someone. The act of seeing and holding authentic shrapnel from WWI makes the war and its horrors feel more real, and that’s definitely thrilling.

Tornado Souvenir

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From Rachel Seale, Outreach Archivist

My most thrilling artifact is a piece of wood, birch bark. It was found near Margaret Hall in the summer of 1924. Hand written lettering on the piece of birch bark: “Tornado Souvenir June 28, 1924[.] From Tree near Margaret Hall I.S.C. Ames, Iowa.”  I selected this item because I am new to the Midwest and have been a little fixated on weather, particularly weather conditions that may favor a tornado. I can’t imagine anything more thrilling and scarier than a tornado.

 

Margaret Stanton’s Death Mask

Death Mask of Margaret Stanton

Death Mask of Margaret Stanton (Artifact 2001-R130)

From Petrina Jackson, Head of SCUA

Hands down, Margaret Stanton’s death mask, for me, is our most macabre artifact. Popular through the nineteenth century, death masks were created as a commemoration or a way to create a portrait or sculpture of the dead. Death masks were usually made for people who were held in high esteem, which is a testimony of how beloved Margaret Stanton was to the Iowa State community. Although uncommon today, creating death masks, taking photographs of the dead lying in state, or weaving their hair into wreaths or jewelry were all ways that people honored the deceased in the past. With death far more removed from day-to-day, 21st-century American life, the death mask gets my vote as our creepiest, most macabre artifact.


70 Years On: Significance of the Army-Navy “E” Award

In late 1945, Iowa State College (University) was bestowed an honor for service in World War II that some today may not expect: the Army-Navy “E” Flag for Excellence in Production, an award usually given to industry for excellence in production of war materials during times of great need. With the 70th anniversary of Iowa State’s reception of this award coming up, and Special Collections’ recent discovery of photo-negatives from the event, it’s interesting to look back on the significance of receiving this award, and try to understand the context in which Iowa State participated in the war effort.

The once-secret Manhattan District (Project), commanded by Major General Leslie Groves throughout much of the war, was a collaborative research and developmental project between the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom to produce the first atomic bombs in WWII. It began in 1939 with the discovery of atomic fission, and with that, research, manufacturing, and testing sites began to be utilized in secret locations and laboratories across the three countries, with one of those sites being Iowa State and what would become the Ames Laboratory.

A view of the ceremony held for receiving the award. The event was put on in the Iowa State College (University) State Gym. (Negative #118174, University Photographs)

A view of the ceremony held for receiving the award. The event was put on in the Iowa State College (University) State Gym. (Negative #118174, University Photographs)

The connection to Iowa State began in 1941, when Frank H. Spedding, a Canadian chemist and Iowa State professor who specialized in rare earth metals, was asked to work on research regarding the fledging Manhattan Project for the purpose of producing high-purity uranium from uranium ore. Spedding accepted and ended up directing the Ames Project for the rest of the war. The greatest achievement under Spedding’s direction was associate project director in the metallurgy division Harley A. Wilhelm’s perfection of what is now known as the Ames Process. The Ames Process used a uranium purification method patented in 1895 by German chemist Hans Goldschmidt that had previously been extremely costly and inefficient, but Wilhelm discovered a way of tweaking it to produce large ingots of pure uranium from uranium ore with hugely reduced production costs. This allowed for Iowa State’s “Little Ankeny” plant to produce more than 1,000 tons of metallic uranium for the Manhattan Project over the course of two and a half years before industrial companies took over at the conclusion of the war.

Flag received at the ceremony. Figure holding the flag on the left is Maj. Gen. Leslie R. Groves. Each star represents six months worth of meeting assigned production of war materials. (negative #118186, University Photographs)

Flag received at the ceremony. Figure holding the flag on the left is Maj. Gen. Leslie R. Groves. Each star represents six months’ worth of meeting assigned production of war materials. (Negative #118186, University Photographs)

Although one of the smaller sites important to the Manhattan Project, Iowa State’s research and production of rare metals was paramount to success in the undertaking into nuclear technology. The Ames Process ended up being a key manufacturing process used to obtain high-purity uranium in a number of other outlets and research sites, and made it possible, after it’s perfection, to produce more for significantly lower cost. This greatly sped up the war effort on the atomic front and may have led to the United States truly being ready to utilize nuclear weapons when it did.

When Iowa State was presented with this award, it was rare for a university or college to receive it, as it was usually given instead to industrial companies that showed a great aptitude for manufacturing of war materials. But even under the guise of secrecy with no presumption of ever being recognized for their efforts, Iowa State’s scientists showed outstanding performance in production of materials vital to Allied success in WWII, thus granting us the Army-Navy “E” Award that now firmly stands to cement Iowa State into the history of one of mankind’s most dangerous yet bold achievements.


Harry J. Svec: Devoted Chemist and Cyclone

Forty-two years of involvement with Iowa State University is impressive in itself, but add in the fact that those years included work on the Manhattan Project, being a founding editor of a scientific journal, being the namesake of scientific reference material, extensive research and awards for that research, and an ever present bow tie, and those 42 years become even more remarkable. Dr. Henry J. Svec did just that, all while getting married and being father to nine children. He must have had excellent time management skills!

Harry J. Svec, 1975

Harry J. Svec, 1975. RS 13/6/53, box 19, folder 36

Svec was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1918. After graduating magna cum laude from John Carroll University, he went to graduate school at Iowa State College (University) in 1941, where he studied chemistry. During this time, he became the glassblower for the Chemistry Department, creating diffusion pumps and other items for research. Two of these diffusion pumps are included in the collection.

diffpump

Glass mercury diffusion pump made by Svec, 1941. Artifact 2003-203.002

Before long, the US entered World War II, and Svec was recruited to work on the Manhattan Project under Dr. Frank Spedding. Information on the Manhattan Project at Iowa State can be found in previous blog posts here and here. After that project, Svec was appointed to the Ames Laboratory/Institute for Atomic Research and earned his Ph.D. in 1950, at which point he gained faculty status. He served as Chemistry Department faculty until his retirement in 1983, when he was granted Professor Emeritus status.

Over the course of his career, Svec taught classes, conducted and published research, and was actively involved in professional organizations, such as the American Society for Mass Spectrometry. He was a Fellow of what is now the Royal Society of Chemistry, and was a founding editor of the International Journal of Mass Spectrometry and Ion Physics (now the International Journal of Mass Spectrometry). Mass spectrometry was his main area of study, and in fact Svec was an early contributor to the field of laser mass spectrometry. He even built the first mass spectrometers at Iowa State, components of which are included in the artifact collection. Mass spectrometer blueprints are also included in his collection in a map case folder.

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Left: main components of a mass spectrometer, undated; Right: a complete mass spectrometer, undated. RS 13/6/53, box 10, folder 17

After his retirement in 1983, Svec finished writing a history on Iowa State University’s Chemistry Department, which was published by that department in 2006. He also received the American Chemical Society’s Zimmerman Award for Environmental Science in 1984 for his work in developing the resin extraction and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) methods for removing organic pollutants in water. He certainly had a productive career, of which anyone would be proud.

All of this and much more information can be found in his collection, the Harry J. Svec Papers, RS 13/6/53. Be sure to check out the artifacts too, including an early twentieth century Christian Becker Chainomatic two-pan balance not unlike these (top of the page, with dials). Curious about the Ames Laboratory or the Chemistry Department in general? Come see our collections on them! We’ll be happy to help.


“Atomic Bomb Opens New Era in Scientific History”: Iowa State University’s contribution to the Manhattan Project

On August 6, 1945, Ames residents woke up to a surprise on the front page of their newspapers.

Front page of Ames Daily Tribune for August 7, 1945. Headline reads: Atomic Bomb Opens New Era in Scientific History

Front page of Ames Daily Tribune for August 7, 1945. Ames Laboratory Administrative Records, RS 17/1/3, Box 2, Folder 8, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library.

Since early 1942, scientists at what was then Iowa State College (ISC) had played a vital role in the project that developed the nuclear bomb that had just been dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. We now know that project as the Manhattan Project, yet even today the contribution of the Ames scientists is still not as widely know as other portions of the program. Just what top secret work was going in the lab in Ames?

Building known as "Little Ankeny," after the ordnance plant in Ankeny, Iowa, where work on the Manhattan Project was conducted.

Building known as “Little Ankeny,” after the ordnance plant in Ankeny, Iowa, where work on the Manhattan Project was conducted.

Frank H. Spedding, Professor of Chemistry at ISC, was appointed head of the Chemistry Division of the Manhattan Project’s Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago in early 1942. He appointed his Chemistry Department-colleague, Harley Wilhelm, as Associate Director of the project, hired a staff, and got to work, forming what was to become Ames Laboratory after the war.

The work of the Ames Project supported the goal of the scientists at the University of Chicago to initiate a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. Such a reaction needed large quantities of pure uranium, which were not available at the time. Therefore, the Ames Project was tasked with two main challenges: (1) to develop a method for the production of pure uranium metal in large quantities, and (2) to develop a procedure for large-scale casting of the metal.

Director, Associate Director and Section Chiefs of the chemical research and development program at Iowa State College (University), which assisted in the World War II Manhattan Project. Left to Right: Harley Wilhelm, Adrian Daane, Amos Newton, Adolf Voigt, Wayne Keller, C. F. Gray, Frank Spedding, Robert Rundle, James Warf.

Director, Associate Director and Section Chiefs of the chemical research and development program at Iowa State College (University), which assisted in the World War II Manhattan Project. Left to Right: Harley Wilhelm, Adrian Daane, Amos Newton, Adolf Voigt, Wayne Keller, C. F. Gray, Frank Spedding, Robert Rundle, James Warf.

By early August 1942, the Ames Project scientists had found a way to successfully produce pure uranium in large amounts. In September, Dr. Wilhelm personally delivered an 11 pound ingot of pure uranium to the Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory. Later that week, the Ames Project had a $30,000 contract to produce 100 pounds of uranium per week for Chicago. Between 1942 and 1946, the Ames Project produced more than 2 million pounds of uranium!

Here at Special Collections, we have recently processed the Ames Laboratory Administrative Records and the Ames Laboratory Research Notebooks and Reports, both of which document the exciting work of the Ames scientists for the Manhattan Project.

The Administrative Records contain correspondence, weekly staff reports, research reports, personnel files, memorandums, programs, and newspaper clippings.  The Research Notebooks and Reports include the laboratory notebooks of the scientists working on the project (such as the one shown below), as well as their research reports and patents directly related to the Ames Project.

Pages from lab notebook of Joseph Feibig.

Pages from lab notebook of Joseph Feibig. Ames Laboratory Research Notebooks and Reports, RS 17/1/4, Box 3, Folder 6, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library.

Interested in learning more? We have several Ames Laboratory collections here in Special Collections. Also, check out this excellent video on the history of the project produced by Ames Laboratory.


Ames Laboratory Oral History Project

Director, Associate Director and Section Chiefs in the chemical research and development program at Iowa State College (University) which assisted in the World War II Manhattan Project.  Left to Right: Harley Wilhelm, Adrian Daane, Amos Newton, Adolf Voigt, Wayne Keller, C. F. Gray, Frank Spedding, Robert Rundle, James Warf.

The Ames Laboratory began as a chemical research and development program at Iowa State College (University) to assist the World War II Manhattan Project. The program developed an entirely new technology for the conversion of uranium ore to high-purity uranium metal and then used that technology to produce more than 2 million pounds by the end of the war. In 1947, the United States Atomic Energy Commission officially established the Ames Laboratory as a National Laboratory. It is currently a United States Department of Energy research facility operated by Iowa State University. The Laboratory and University share facilities, functions, graduate students, and faculty/principle investigators. After World War II, the Ames Laboratory specialized in rare metals and methods of achieving chemical transformation without the production of toxic waste. The Laboratory has expanded its scope beyond materials research, including research in photosynthesis, hazardous waste analysis, computer programming, quasicrystals, and nontraditional materials.

Fifteen interviews have been completed by independent researcher Sue Futrell and are being transcribed. The finding aid for the Ames Lab Oral History Collection is available online.  Audio portions of the interviews are also available online.

“Little Ankeny” (pictured above) was named in contrast with the large-scale ordnance work located in Ankeny during World War II.  Little Ankeny was a temporary building left over from World War I and housed uranium production on the Iowa State campus from January 1943 until the end of the war. During that time, two million pounds (one thousand tons) of pure uranium metal was made there. Industry came here to learn how to produce the metal, and then the process was turned over to industry. The process was developed and patented by Dr. Frank Spedding and Dr. Harley Wilhelm.  Little Ankeny was located east of the Food Science Building, and a plaque now marks its location.

Dr. Harley Wilhelm developed an efficient way to produce uranium metal for the Manhattan project and was a co-founder of the Ames Lab. The Ames Lab Oral History Collection includes interviews of his family.