Season’s Greetings from the Elarths and Friends

If your blogger’s mailbox is an accurate barometer of popular culture, it seems the days of the holiday greeting card are steadily waning. With social media and email keeping us in constant contact with even the most distant acquaintances, many no longer feel the need to buy a card, write a brief note in it, and post it in the mail. To be sure, there are still those among us who send dozens of cards a year, but as a whole, we seem to be sending fewer cards. There was a time, though, in the not-so-distant past, when the holiday greeting card was an annual rite for many.

Unless they include lengthy personal messages, greeting cards are generally of little research value in a manuscript collection. The addresses on the envelopes can help in establishing a person’s whereabouts at a particular time or in simply confirming that two people were acquainted, but for the most part, greeting cards are of little interest to researchers. An exception is when a greeting card includes personal information on the sender’s activities or when the card is handcrafted. In the manuscript collections of Herschel and Wilhelmina Elarth (Ms1969-004 and Ms1984-182), a number of handcrafted cards from professional artists can be found. If, like me, you’re seeing a dearth of greeting cards in your mailbox, you may enjoy a look at a few of these unique cards.

But first, a bit of background on the couple in whose collections these cards are found:

Born in Rochester, New York, Wilhelmina van Ingen (1905-1969) was the daughter of Hendrik van Ingen, a well-known architect, and the granddaughter of Henry van Ingen, a painter of the Hudson River School (and perhaps the subject of a future blog post). After graduating from Vassar in 1926, Wilhelmina earned a master’s degree in art history and classical archaeology from Radcliffe College. She later earned her doctoral degree at Radcliffe and taught art history at Wheaton College.

In 1942, Wilhelmina married Herschel Elarth (1907-1988), a professor of architecture at the University of Oklahoma. The couple moved to Canada in 1947, and both taught at the University of Manitoba. In 1954, Herschel accepted a position at Virginia Tech, and the Elarths moved to Blacksburg. While Herschel taught, Wilhelmina remained active with the American Association of University Women, the Blacksburg Regional Art Association, and the Associated Endowment Fund of the American School of Classical Studies.

Elarth001 The Professors Elarth

With their backgrounds in art, it’s of little surprise that the Elarths would have created their own cards, rather than purchasing them at a store:


Even before they were married, Wilhelmina and Herschel sent personally crafted Christmas cards to friends and family. In the examples above, we can see Wilhelmina drawing on her background in classical studies for her 1932 card, while Herschel’s 1928 card displays his interest in architecture and statuary.

After their marriage, the Elarths continued to make and send their own cards:



The Elarths’ 1946 card (top) featured a woodblock print of an imposing gothic cathedral, while their 1954 card (bottom), a simple pen-and-ink sketch sent during their first Christmas in Blacksburg, reflected an appreciation for the natural beauty of their newfound home.

Their mutual interest in art led the Elarths to maintain a wide circle of friends in the art world, and they regularly traded holiday greetings with a number of their artistic friends.   Many of these cards reflect the style and development of the individual artist.




Among the Elarths’ longtime friends were Richard and Peggy Bowman, whom they likely met while Richard Bowman was teaching at the University of Manitoba. An abstract painter, Bowman is credited with being among the first artists to use fluorescent paint in fine art. Among the cards sent by the Bowmans are two woodblock prints and an original abstract painting.  As the Herschel Elarth collection contains other examples of Peggy Bowman’s poetry, we can assume that she provided the brief poems in the two cards above. The painting at bottom, meanwhile, illustrates Richard Bowman’s use of fluorescent paints.


Herschel Elarth likely met painter and muralist Eugene Kingman through the Joslyn Art Museum (Omaha, Nebraska), of which Kingman served as director and Elarth helped design. For many years, Kingman annually sent the Elarths a card bearing a woodblock print he’d made of a rural Nebraska scene, like this one from 1946.


Painter and printmaker William Ashby “Bill” McCloy (1913-2000) and his wife Patricia (“Patty”) also remembered the Elarths at the end of each year. The couple incorporated  Bill McCloy’s work into limited-print cards, including those above: an untitled, undated print; “The Greeting,” (#17 of 65 limited prints), 1961; and an untitled 1958 print (#48 of 100 printed). (“Pax vobiscum nunc” translates from the Latin as “peace to you, now.”)

Canadian painter Takao “Tak” Tanabe (1926- ) was also likely an acquaintance of the Elarths from their time in Manitoba, Tanabe having been a student at the Winnipeg School of Art from 1946 to 1949. Tanabe sent the Elarths a number of beautiful cards through the years. Though he later became known for his paintings of British Columbia landscapes, the work displayed in his cards from the 1950s is much more abstract.


Takao Tanabe’s 1951 card opens to reveal an abstract rendition of New York City skyscrapers. At the time, Tanabe was studying at the Brooklyn Museum School of Art.


An abstract Christmas tree is featured in this undated card from Tanabe.


This undated card from Tanabe included an original work entitled “Mother and Child” on a canvas panel.


One of the most unusual cards received by the Elarths is this selection from architect Caleb Hornbostel and family. In it, the architect plays with the card form by using it to provide recipients with instructions on building a model of a home he had designed.

Both Elarth collections contain much more than greeting cards. The Herschel Gustave Anderson Elarth Papers contain his artwork, materials relating to his teaching career, several of his more significant architectural projects, and his experiences in the 826th Engineer Aviation Battalion during World War II. You can view the collection’s finding aid here. The Wilhelmina van Ingen Elarth Papers, meanwhile, contain her extensive diaries (including those maintained while traveling in Europe), a substantial postcard collection, artwork of her father and grandfather, and a few pieces of ancient Aegean and pre-Columbian artifacts. More information may be found here, in the collection’s finding aid.


Native Voices: or, The History of Whitepeople

On September 16, 2016, Newman Library began hosting the Native Voices: Native Peoples’ Concepts of Health and Illness exhibit. The exhibit was developed and produced by the U.S. National Library of Medicine and came here as part of a tour put together by the American Library Association’s Public Programs Office. It will remain on display in the library’s 2nd floor commons until October 25 when it will leave us to continue its tour.

The Native Voices exhibit on display in Newman Library

This post isn’t really about the exhibit. If you want to know more about it, The National Library of Medicine has a website with tons of info. The reason I mention the exhibit is that it prompted me to look through our collections for items that would complement the exhibit and be appropriate to highlight during Native American Heritage Month (October 10 – November 15). I managed to find some interesting items in our collection of Michael Two Horses’s papers (Ms2006-001). They aren’t spot on with the focus of the exhibit but I think they are worth sharing – especially considering that Banned Books Week happened recently.

Michael Two Horses was a visiting professor at Virginia Tech from fall 2003 until his unexpected death in December 2003. He was affiliated with the Sicangu Lakota and the Wahpekute Dakota. During his time at Virginia Tech he taught as part of the American Indian Studies program, the Humanities Program, and served on the Commission on Equal Opportunity and Diversity. We acquired two boxes worth of his papers following his death including academic and personal writings, research for the classes he taught, the transcript of an oral history he gave, various writing samples, and some artwork.

When I was reviewing the materials in this collection looking for something to share, I came across a letter he wrote in response to an email while he was a professor at the University of Arizona. The initial email took umbrage at some of the texts Professor Two Horses was using in one of his classes. His response was eloquent and well presented. After reading it, I checked and we have copies of all three texts included in the collection! I want to share the letter and show you the texts that prompted the complaints.

This is the complaint that was submitted to the American Indian Studies program at the University of Arizona. There is a handwritten note from “Shelly” to see her about the email.

Professor Two Horses’s response was a little over two pages in length. As Professor Two Horses indicated in his response, the texts were used to illustrate how elementary texts incorporate stereotypes about Native Americans. These texts illustrate to students how those texts appear to Native American students.

Page 1 of Michael Two Horses’s response.
Page 2 of Michael Two Horses’s response.
Page 3 of Michael Two Horses’s response.



WARNING: Reading the first two texts can provide a bit of a jolt for Caucasian Americans because (a) they aren’t used to being identified with any sort of modifier (they’re normally just “Americans”), and (b) they aren’t used to reading about themselves in this type of tone. When reading, be sure to think about children’s books about Native Americans – these are spot on parodies of them.

First up: The Basic Skills Caucasian American Workbook

Book 2: 10 Little Whitepeople: A Counting Rhyme

Here’s the cover of the second book: “10 Little Whitepeople”. It is also embellished with dollar signs as illustration.

Book 3: The Truth About Columbus: A Subversively True Poster Book for a Dubiously Celebratory Occasion

Professor Two Horses’s comments about the third book just speak to the research that has been done into the history of Christopher Columbus and the fact that most American schools taught a limited scope on the subject.

I hope glimpsing these challenged titles was enjoyable for you and made you think a little about the Native American perspective. If you want to see everything they have to offer, we have all three among many other interesting papers from Michael Two Horses in the Michael Two Horses Collection (Ms2006-001). We would be happy to share them with you in our Reading Room.

The Life and Art of G. Preston Frazer

G. Preston Frazer in 1969
G. Preston Frazer, 1969 (Walter Gropius/G. Preston Frazer Papers, Ms1992-052)

In October, Special Collections put on the exhibit Sharing Our Voices: A Celebration of the Virginia Tech LGBTQ Oral History Project, highlighting the project and materials from our collections. One of the people whose works we displayed was G. Preston Frazer (1908-2003), an Associate Professor of Art at Virginia Tech from 1939 until 1974. Frazer graduated from Virginia Military Institute with a B.A. in Liberal Arts in 1929, before earning a B.S. in Engineering from the University of Hawaii in 1935. Two years later, Frazer received a masters degree in Architecture from Harvard University.

Cover of Frazer's Six Pencil Drawings of Honolulu, Hawaii, U.S.A.
Cover of Frazer’s Six Pencil Drawings of Honolulu, Hawaii, U.S.A.,1939 (G. Preston Frazer Collection, Ms2009-098)

Frazer began focusing his career on art, following work at the University of Chicago’ Oriental Institute and the Megiddo Expedition in Palestine. In 1939, he published Sixteen Pencil Impressions of Honolulu, Hawaii, U.S.A., inspired by his time in the then-territory. That year, he also began teaching in the architectural engineering department at Virginia Tech, but left to serve with the Second Armored Division of the U.S. Army during World War II, participating in the Normandy landings on D-Day. Upon leaving the military in 1946, Frazer had reached Major in the General Staff Corps and earned the Belgium Fourragere (twice), the French Medal of Liberty, and a Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster. He served in the Army Reserves until retiring at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in 1968.

Returning to Virginia Tech in 1946, Frazer taught art in today’s College of Architecture and Urban Studies until his retirement in 1974. The university established the G. Preston Frazer Prize, awarded annually to art graduates, and the College continues to award students for their work in the G. Preston Frazer Architecture Fund/Architecture 2nd Year Competition.

One of the paintings by Frazer that Special Collections displayed in the exhibit is Hercules Shooting the Stymphalian Birds (photograph from exhibit below). A letter in the G. Preston Frazer Collection (Ms2009-098) explains where the idea came from: “One of my favorite sculptures is an archer shooting a bow – The large life size one by Bourdelle is in the Metropolitan, NY. I went to see it every time I was in NY, and I named it ‘Hercules Shooting the Stymphalian Birds.'” (You can see this sculpture online on the museum’s website.) He continues, “I painted (oil on canvas) a figure (life size [-] Mike Sr, was the model) – of ‘Hercules Shooting the Stymphalian Birds’ (a canvas about 5 ft. by 8 ft.)”

Frazer worked on the painting from his studio overlooking Virginia Tech, where students would visit to see his projects. He recounts a funny incident during his painting, “One of the students who came in saw the buildings and said ‘Oh, that is Burress Hall, V.P.I. I hope Hercules shoots it & burns it down! (said jokingly of course.) It was in the Joan [sic] Fonda anti-establishment, anti-war period, etc. I explained that Hercules was shooting the Stymphalian Birds. Hercules’s labors were good deeds. Hence instead of just shooting the Bow, he was destroying Birds which were enemies of Humans!!”

In addition to Hercules and the aforementioned G. Preston Frazer Collection (Ms2009-098), Special Collections has a painting Frazer made of Icarus and the Walter Gropius/G. Preston Frazer Papers (Ms1992-052), with photographs and correspondence between Frazer and Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus School. The G. Preston Frazer Artwork (Ms1992-055) contains a beautiful sketchbook of scenes in Spain in 1953 and several artworks. For your viewing pleasure, I end this post with a few of those pieces, including scenes from Blacksburg and the Virginia Tech campus. More can be seen on online at ImageBase.


Climbing the Water Tower: How Women Went from Intruders to Leaders at Virginia Tech

In the early 1920s, the first female students at Virginia Tech were not quite welcome. They had special rules to follow, there were no dormitories for women, and male students would throw water on them as they passed by the dorms. But one day, Ruth Terrett, a civil engineering student, decided to show the men she could do just as well as them. She donned a cadet uniform and climbed the university’s water tower, a tradition the male cadets undertook to prove their strength and ability. That day, Ruth proved that women, when given the chance, could do what men could.

Women throughout Virginia Tech’s history have encountered many obstacles, and have consistently overcome them. Sam Winn and I (Laurel Rozema) recently searched through Special Collections’ holdings to document these women and their achievements in the university’s history. Our work culminated in an exhibit at the Alumni Association’s Women’s Weekend and a slideshow, entitled “Climbing the Water Tower: How Women Went from Intruders to Leaders at Virginia Tech.” Let me share with you a few of those milestones now, or you can view the PDF of our slideshow here.

Women join the student population

Many people know the story of the first female students: twelve women, including five full-time students, enrolled in 1921. Two years later, transfer student Mary Brumfield received a bachelor’s in applied biology, earning her master’s from VPI in 1925, the first woman to achieve either degree. But, did you know women began attending VPI several years earlier? They were allowed to sit in courses during the fall and spring for no credit and were admitted to summer classes, starting in 1916. 1921 was still a milestone year as it was the first all courses were open to women seeking a college degree, because there was “no good reason for not doing so” as the university bulletin states.

First female graduates: Mary Ella Carr Brumfield (‘23; ‘25); Ruth Louise Terrett (‘25); Lucy Lee Lancaster (‘25); Lousie Jacobs (‘25); Carrie Taylor Sibold (‘25)
First female graduates: Mary Ella Carr Brumfield (‘23; ‘25); Ruth Louise Terrett (‘25); Lucy Lee Lancaster (‘25); Lousie Jacobs (‘25); Carrie Taylor Sibold (‘25)

The first coeds, it must be admitted, were more than likely all white, given that segregation was legal due to Jim Crow laws and the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) upholding “separate but equal” racial segregation in the public sphere. It’s not clear when women of color were first admitted to the university, but international students from Mexico, China, Puerto Rico, and other places were already attending VPI by the 1920s. We believe the first woman from India to attend VPI was Kamini Mohan Patwary, who earned a master’s in statistics in 1955. However, it wasn’t until 1966 that the first six African American women matriculated, thirteen years after the first African American man and 55 years after the first women. In 1968, Linda Adams became the first African American woman to graduate from Virginia Tech. (Read more about her on our previously blog post.)

There wasn’t much for women to do athletically in the early years, so Ruth Terrett, mentioned above, started an informal women’s basketball team before graduating in 1925. Women joined the cheerleading team in 1941, but were not officially recognized as members until the 1955-1956 school year. The first intramural women’s sport was basketball in 1967. Three years later, swimming became the first intercollegiate sport for women, and women were allowed to compete on the gymnastics team.

Because the Corps of Cadets did not admit women, Patricia Ann Miller was denied permission to enroll in Corps classes. Despite this, in 1959, she became the first woman commissioned during graduation when she successfully applied for a commission from the Army Women’s Medical Specialist Corps. Finally, in 1973, the Corps formed the L Squadron, exclusively for female cadets. Deborah J. Noss became the first female squadron commander and Cheryl A. Butler the first female African American cadet (and squadron leader the next year). In 1975, women were admitted to join the cadet band, and four years later, the L Squadron was disbanded to order to integrate women into the formerly all-male companies. In 1987, Denise Shuster became the first female regimental commander and in 2005, Christina Royal the first African American female regimental commander.

Female students who were not athletes or cadets had other ways of “breaking the glass ceiling”. In 1953, Betty Delores Stough became the first woman to receive a doctorate, in parasitology. Jean Harshbarger was the first woman elected class president for the Class of 1974. In 1968, Jaqueline D. Dandridge was the first woman of color in the homecoming court, and Marva L. Felder became the first African American homecoming queen in 1983.

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Women join the workforce

What about the women working at VPI? Ella Agnew is often remembered as the first female home demonstration agent in the nation in 1910. When the university became headquarters for the Virginia Cooperative Extension, Agnew and the other agents became staff of the university. Agnew was also the first woman to receive VPI’s Certificate of Merit in 1926, and Agnew Hall was the first campus building named after a woman in 1949. However, few realize she was not the first woman to work at Tech. In 1902, Frances Brockenbrough became Superintendent of the Infirmary, and the next year Mary G. Lacy became the first female Librarian and Margaret Spencer the President’s Secretary.

Other female agents worked for the Extension during its early years at the university. In fact, although the African American division was headquartered at Hampton Institute, the agents were considered non-resident staff of VPI, first listed in the 1917 university catalog. One of these women was Lizzie Jenkins, who became the first African American female home demonstration agent in Virginia in 1913.

Women faculty members are first listed in the university catalog for 1921-1922. Mary Moore Davis ranked as a professor and worked as a state home demonstration agent in the Extension Division. She also established the home economics degree program at VPI. The first Dean of Women was Mildred Tate, who served from 1937 to 1947, and the first female academic dean was Laura Jean Harper, who in 1960 became the first Dean of the School of Home Economics. (Read more about her on our previously blog post.) Heidi Ford in 1970, Ella L. Bates in 1974, and Johnnie Miles in 1974 became the first female African American faculty members at Virginia Tech.

Women began achieving executive positions in the 1980s and 1990s. Sandra Sullivan was named Vice President for Student Affairs in 1982, and Peggy S. Meszaros served as the first (and currently only) female Provost from 1995 to 2000. Women started serving on the Board of Visitors in 1944, when VPI and Radford College merged. However in 2014, Deborah L. Petrine became the first female Rector in the university’s then 142-year history.

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Women by the numbers

Virginia Tech has gone through enormous changes since its founding in 1872, especially in the growth of opportunities for women. Women on the staff have grown from one female administrative officer in 1902 to five women faculty members (only 4.7% of the faculty) in 1921 to 1,525 or 39.5% of the faculty in 2014. The student population has grown from 12 women or 1.3% of the students in 1921 to 13,241 women or 42.4% of the student population in 2014.

According to the Digest of Education Statistics, in Fall 2013, women accounted for 54.6% of enrolled students, 48.8% of faculty, and 54.5% of total employees (including faculty) in degree-granting public institutions in the U.S. However, the Digest also shows that women received only 30.8% of the degrees conferred by STEM schools in 2012-2013. So, as far as women have come, there’s still more to do.


The Legacies of A. B. Massey

Arthur Ballard Massey arrived in Blacksburg in 1918, ready to assume his duties as associate professor of plant pathology and bacteriology at Virginia Tech and as a researcher with the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station. Just 29 years old, the Albemarle County native had already served as an instructor of botany at Clemson University for three years and as assistant botanist at the Alabama Agricultural Research Station for five. His tenure at Virginia Tech would span 40 years.

A. B. Massey, 1968
A. B. Massey, 1968

Educational requirements for careers in academia were not as stringent a century ago as they are today, and despite holding only a bachelor’s degree until 1928, Massey devoted most of his first decade at Virginia Tech to instruction. He taught all of the university’s bacteriology courses until 1924, and in that year was assigned to teaching full-time. In 1935, Massey became a botanist in the Virginia Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, a position he would hold until his 1959 retirement; Massey’s duties during these years became much more focused on research rather than instruction.

In a 1992 biographical sketch, Professor Curtis W. Roane wrote, “One might describe Massey as a complete botanist. He taught and conducted research in many phases of botany but he excelled in the taxonomy of Virginia flowering plants and will be most remembered for his collections and records of this flora.” Massey found the university’s herbarium to be a particularly useful teaching tool, and during his tenure, the herbarium steadily expanded. Massey is credited with adding 25,000 specimens to the collection, and in recognition of his contributions, the herbarium today bears his name.

While serving as chair of the Virginia Academy of Science’s Flora Committee, Massey cofounded the botanical journal Claytonia, a forerunner of today’s Virginia Journal of Science, and he worked with colleagues from the University of Virginia in establishing the Mountain Lake Biological Station. Perhaps most significantly among his accomplishments, Massey added greatly to the literature on the commonwealth’s flora, publishing such works as The Ferns and Fern Allies of Virginia (1944), Orchids in Virginia (1953), and Poisonous Plants in Virginia (1954).

In addition to several of these publications, Special Collections holds the Arthur B. Massey Papers (Ms1962-002). Among the papers are a number of essays and other works written by Massey and others on various botanical subjects. The collection also contains photographs and lists of trees on the Virginia Tech campus, valuable resources for studies of the campus’s arboreal history and landscape development.

Within Massey’s papers is this photo of an ivy-covered American chestnut in front of old McBryde Hall, ca. 1920. The tree would eventually be killed by the blight that decimated the chestnut population nationwide.
Within Massey’s papers is this photo of an ivy-covered American chestnut in front of old McBryde Hall, ca. 1920. The tree would eventually be killed by the nationwide blight that decimated the chestnut population.


Also among the papers is an undated essay by Massey titled “Wild Flower Conservation.” In it, the botanist warns that exploitation has endangered a number of native wildflower species:

We have inherited, to a large degree, the notion that the native plants growing in the fields, meadows, and woodlands, the great out-of-doors, are there for the first to come (first come, first served, never mind who follows). Thoughtful Americans are awakening to the realization that some of our most interesting native plants are becoming rare and well nigh on to extinction… By education and example we need to develop a wild flower consciousness and a true interest in their conservation.

Page one of Massey’s undated essay on wildflower conservation, probably intended for publication in Virginia Journal of Science.
Page one of Massey’s undated essay on wildflower conservation, probably intended for publication in Virginia Journal of Science.

Though the conservation of natural resources was no new concept at the time (the American conservation movement having its roots in the late 19th century), the paper was written years before conservation would enter the mainstream of American consciousness, and it shows a growing realization among naturalists that valuable species were being irrevocably lost to careless overharvesting. While Massey’s little essay is hardly a landmark in environmental thought, it expresses views that the professor undoubtedly shared with students through instruction and with peers and the public at large through his writings and outreach, influencing the viewpoints of those he taught.

Here in the New River Valley, we’re fortunate to live in a region of abundant biodiversity. Though the landscape has altered dramatically since the arrival of the first Euro-American settlers, it remains in large part a healthy ecosystem. The preservation of this ecosystem remains the living legacy of A. B. Massey and the many naturalists like him who have encouraged us to learn about, to engage with, and to value the living things that we see around us every day. That’s something to keep in mind as we venture outdoors and enjoy the colorful changes that spring brings to the surrounding fields and woods.

And if you’re unable to get outside, pay us a visit, and we’ll be happy to pull some of the many books we have on the subject of flora (local, national, and elsewhere), a small, colorful sampling from which you can see below:


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I. J. (Jack) Good: Virginia Tech’s Own Bletchley Park Connection

Enigma, Ultra, Alan Turing, Bletchley Park, the British efforts to break German codes in World War II. Maybe you’ve seen or are waiting to see the 2014 movie, The Imitation Game, which tells part of this story with Turing, quite rightly, as its central character. Perhaps you became aware of this highly classified historical episode when the secrecy surrounding it gave way to public sensation in the early 1970s, almost thirty years after the end of the war . . . or in the many books and movies that have followed. An interest in wartime history, cryptography, or the early development of computers provide only a few of the possible avenues into the story. But did you know that one of the primary characters in that story, a mathematician who earned a Ph.D from Cambridge in 1941 with a paper on topological dimension, was a professor of statistics at Virginia Tech from 1967 until his retirement in 1994, and lived in Blacksburg until his death just a few years ago at the age of 92? Maybe you did, but I didn’t. His name was I. J. Good, known as Jack.

He was born Isidore Jacob Gudak in London in 1916, the son of Polish and Russian Jewish immigrants. Later changing his name to Irving John Good, he was a mathematical prodigy and a chess player of note. In a interview published in the January 1979 issue of Omni, Good says of the claim that he rediscovered irrational numbers at age 9 and mathematical induction and integration at 13, “I cannot prove either of these statements, but they are true.”

In 1941, Good joined the code-breakers at Bletchley Park, specifically, to work on the German Naval Enigma code in Hut 8 under the direction of Alan Turing and Hugh Alexander, the mathematician and chess champion who had recruited him. This is the story that is told in The Imitation Game, in which Jack Good is played by actor James Northcote. Along with Turing’s story, it is the story of the development of the machines that would break the German Enigma codes. The Enigma machine was an electromechanical device that would allow the substitution of letters–and thus production of a coded message–through the use of three (later four) rotors that would accomplish the substitutions. If you knew which rotors were being used and their settings, (changed every day or every second day), one could decode a message sent from another Enigma. If you didn’t know the rotors and the settings, as James Barrat writes in Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era, “For an alphabet of twenty-six letters, 403,291,461,126,605,635,584,000,000 such substitutions were possible.”

This is the world Jack Good entered on 27 May 1941, that and the world of war and the urgent need to defeat the Axis. Turing had already built some of the first Bombes, electromechanical machines–among the earliest computers, really–and had achieved initial and significant success. Good belonged to a team that would make improvements to the process from an approach based in a Bayesian statistical method that Good described in 1998 speech as “invented mainly by Turing.” He also called it “the first example of sequential analysis, at least the first notable example.” For the duration of the war, Good would work to further the British code-breaking technologies, adding his knowledge and understanding of statistics to the development of machines known as the “Robinsons” and “Colossus.” The program was remarkably successful. In its early days, it is credited with helping in the effort to sink the German battleship Bismarck; then helping to win the Battle of the Atlantic, directing the disruption of German supply lines to North Africa, and having an impact on the invasion of Europe in June 1944. What came to be known as “Ultra,” the intelligence obtained by the work of the Bletchley Park code-breakers, is, generally, thought to have shortened the war by two to four years. Jack Good, who worked with Alan Turing both during and after the war, said, “I won’t say that what Turing did made us win the war, but I daresay we might have lost it without him.”

After the war, Good was asked by Max Newman, a mathematician and another Bletchley Park alum, to join him at Manchester University, where they, later joined by Turing, worked to create the first computer to run on an internally stored program. A few years later, he returned to Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) for another decade of classified work for the British government. A three-year stint teaching at Oxford led to a decision in 1967 to move to the United States, but not before he served as a consultant to Stanley Kubrick, who was then making 2001: A Space Odyssey. The HAL (Heuristically-programmed ALgorithmic computer) 9000–the computer with a mind of its own–presumably owed much to the mind of Jack Good.

The camera eye of the HAL 9000 from Stanley Kubrick's 2001 : A Space Odyssey
The camera eye of the HAL 9000 from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 : A Space Odyssey
Jack Good (right) at Hawk Films Ltd., 1966, as adviser on Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey
Jack Good (right) at Hawk Films Ltd., 1966, as adviser on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

At Virginia Tech, Good arrived as a professor of statistics. Always a fellow for numbers, he noted:

I arrived in Blacksburg in the seventh hour of the seventh day of the seventh month of year seven of the seventh decade, and I was put in apartment seven of block seven of Terrace View Apartments, all by chance.

Later, he would be University Distinguished Professor and, in 1994, Professor Emeritus. In 1998, he received the Computer Pioneer Award given by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Computer Society, one of a long list of honors. Good’s published work spanned statistics, computation, number theory, physics, mathematics and philosophy. A 1979 Omni article and interview reports that two years earlier a list of his published papers, articles, books, and reviews numbered over 1000. In June 2003, his list of “shorter publications” alone included 2278 items. He published influential books on probability and Bayesian method.

In that Omni interview, the conversation ranges over such topics as scientific speculation, precognition, human psychology, chess-playing computers, climate control, extraterrestrials, and more before settling in on the consequence of intelligent and ultraintelligent machines. On the latter topic, in 1965, Good wrote:

Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an “intelligence explosion,” and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.”

Special Collections at Virginia Tech has a collection of the papers of Irving J. Good that includes 36 volumes of bound articles, reviews, etc. along with a videotape of him and Donald Michie that commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of the work they both did at Bletchley Park. Among the rest of the material is some correspondence and a group of papers described as “PBIs,” which I now know to be “partly baked ideas,” some his own, many sent to him by others, but for which he appears to have had a fondness.

In the end, however, and as his 2009 obituaries suggest, it will be his code-breaking and other intelligence work, particularly from the days at Bletchley Park that I. J. Good will be most remembered. Even though he and all the participants were prevented from talking about that work for years, one guesses that Jack Good wanted to leave others with a sense of it, particularly once in Virginia, as he drove away, with his customized license plate:

Photograph of Jack Good's Virginia license plate (from Collegiate Times, 10 Feb. 1989)
Photograph of Jack Good’s Virginia license plate (from Collegiate Times, 10 Feb. 1989)

Leonard Currie and Six Moon Hill

The papers of architect and former Virginia Tech faculty member Leonard J. Currie (1913-1996) have become my great challenge. Not the papers themselves, per se. All things considered, they are in good condition. We have received Currie’s papers in four accessions over time, the last two arriving since I came to VT. There are more than 11 boxes of papers, photographs, negatives, and artifacts and it continues to be an on-going process making them available. There are a number of reasons for that, but it isn’t the point I’m making today. Determining what to process when is ever-changing in an archives. Leonard Currie’s papers weren’t necessarily on the top of that list and, if not for happenstance, I might never have decided (happily!) to make it my project. The truth is, it started with a reference question about Six Moon Hill. More specifically, about 16 Moon Hill Road.

16 Moon Hill Road
16 Moon Hill Road, Lexington, Massachusetts

Six Moon Hill was a community of houses built by architects in The Architects’ Collaborative (TAC) in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Currie, who received his Masters from Harvard in 1938, was among this group of young designers. 16 Moon Hill Road was his design and residence. In 2011, I caught a reference question about the house, around the time the last donation of papers arrived–someone was looking for plans and photographs.

We didn’t have more than two dozen images, but I had to go digging to find them. Along the way, I found hundreds of photographs and negatives from Currie’s travels (he spent a great deal of time working in Central and South America) and from his work in the Blacksburg/Southwest Virginia area. I was fascinated and decided it was time someone started processing. (That someone being me, of course.)

After Harvard, Currie worked with Marcel Breuer and Walter Gropius. From 1956-1962, he worked here at Virginia Tech, before going on to become the dean of College of Architecture and Art at the University of Illinois, Chicago. When he retired in 1981, he returned to Blacksburg to live and work. He designed homes, churches, schools, and other buildings throughout the region until his death in 1996. When he and his family lived here the first time around, he designed “Currie House I,” a home on the National Register of Historic Places. (We have plans from that house, but that might make a great future post.) On his return in the 1980s, he designed what he refers to throughout his collection as “Currie House II.” There are hundreds of photographs of the latter in his collection.

(On a side note, we also contain some papers from Currie’s wife, Virginia M. Herz Currie, among our IAWA materials. You can see the finding aid here:

Currie’s papers remain, at the moment, a work-in-progress. To date, the photographs and negatives are organized and the paper files (received in no particular order) are underway. We don’t have a finding aid online for the work done so far, but if you’d like to visit us and take a look, we can show you what we have.