Christopher C. Kraft 1924–2019: A Miscellaneous Retrospective and Tribute, Including His Virginia Tech Connection, His Papers, and . . . the Story of a Close Call

Christopher C. Kraft
In the couple of weeks since the passing of Christopher Kraft, there have been many well-deserved tributes to a life of historic and significant scientific and technical achievement. As many folks may know, he joined the NASA Space Task Group in November 1958 as NASA’s first flight director, created the concept of NASA’s Mission Control, served as Flight Director for all of the Mercury flights and several Gemini missions before becoming NASA’s Director of Flight Operations. In 1972, he became Director of the Manned Spaceflight Center, soon thereafter to be named the Johnson Space Center. Kraft served as its Director until his retirement in 1982, having gone on to play an essential role in the latter Apollo missions, Skylab, the Apollo Soyuz Project, and early space shuttle flights. He was an indispensable force and presence in this country’s space program.

Kraft, a sophomore, from the 1943 Bugle

For readers interested in Kraft’s Virginia Tech connections, they are many. He graduated at the age of 20 in December 1944 (officially, Class of 1945) with a degree in aeronautical engineering. He had also been elected president of the Corps of Cadets his senior year. In November 1965, he was honored with a Convocation at Burruss Hall, where he was presented with the highest award the university can bestow on any person or alumnus, the Distinguished Alumnus Citation.

At the same event, he received from Time Magazine the original portrait used on the cover of the 27 August 1965 issue in which Kraft was featured, and, also, from the university, a Steuben Glass Eagle “on behalf of the entire VPI family.” According to the Roanoke Times, a crowd of over 3,000 was in attendance, including students, faculty, university officials, NASA colleagues, members of Kraft’s graduating class, and locals. Following the program, Kraft was also honored by a review of the Corps of Cadets on the Drillfield.

Time Magazine 27 August 1965
Time Magazine 27 August 1965

From 1970 to 1978, Kraft served on this university’s Board of Visitors. Among the many times he spoke on this campus, he gave the Founder’s Day Address at Burruss in April 1974, titled, “The Frontiers of Space . . . America’s Space Program in the 1970s” and was the featured speaker at the 110th annual commencement in June 1982. Well before he achieved the national spotlight and while he was working for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, precursor to NASA) back in April 1954, he presented a technical paper, “Gust Alleviation,” to the Fifth Annual Engineering Conference on campus.

Opening of the Kraft Collection, 11 April 1986
Opening of the Kraft Collection, 11 April 1986

With regard to the University Libraries, 11 April 1986 was, likely, the most significant date in its relationship with Kraft as that was the day of the ceremony marking the opening of the Christopher C. Kraft, Jr. Papers and the establishment of the Archives of American Aerospace Exploration at Special Collections. On the program that day, in addition to Kraft himself, were Paul Gherman, Director of Libraries; David Roselle, Provost; and William Lavery, President of the University. Kraft had donated his papers, approximately 28 cubic feet of material when processed, that documented his 37-year professional career, and he would prove essential in helping Special Collections to acquire the papers of many of his NACA and NASA associates. In fact, collections from several individuals from NASA present at the 1965 Convocation went on to donate their papers to Special Collections, including Melvin Gough, Hartley Soule, John Duberg, and William Hewitt Phillips. Other collections in the group of over thirty include the papers of Robert Gilruth, Michael Collins, Blake Corson Jr., Marjorie Rhodes Townsend and James Avitabile.

Flight: My Life In Mission Control by Christopher Kraft
Flight: My Life In Mission Control by Christopher Kraft

As the details of Chris Kraft’s life can be found in numerous and just-published obituaries and tributes, as well as in his 2001 autobiography, Flight: My Life in Mission Control, I would rather offer a glimpse into certain early stages or moments in his career as represented in his Papers, and to choose a selection of items readers may find interesting, surprising, or, simply, less well-known. The collection includes more than 27 boxes and 5 large folders, so we’ll only be touching the surface. Check the finding aid for the collection to see a list of the collection’s contents. Lastly, I’ll end by retelling a story about Kraft involving a very close call that I discovered only in my preparation for this post.

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You may be surprised to find that there are a few items in the collection from Kraft’s days at Tech. There are seven lab reports from the summer and fall of 1944, all from class(es) taught by L.Z. Seltzer (and all graded, by the way . . . one “B” and all the rest “A” or “A-“) on topics such as: Turbulence Test on the V.P.I. Wind Tunnel, Yaw Characteristics of Pitot-Static Tubes, Wing Tunnel Test on Low Wing Monoplane, and Airplane Propellers Problem, among others.

After leaving Blacksburg, Kraft went to work for NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics), the US government’s agency for aeronautical research, at Langley Field, near Hampton, Va. (though not before a very funny brush with Chance Vought Corp. in Connecticut: see Flight, page 27). The war was still raging and Langley was doing important work. Kraft had been excluded from active military service because of a serious burn he sustained to his right hand as a child, and he clearly saw this work as his way to make a contribution. In those early days at Langley, Kraft did extensive work on the P-47D Thunderbolt and the P-51H, a late model Mustang, both piston-driven advanced fighters of their day. Kraft’s Papers include a good selection of this work, including various reports, calibrations, photographs, and memoranda.

You might notice that the photo farthest to the right in group above shows some of the instruments ready to be loaded aboard the Bell XS-1. Beginning in 1946, NACA began testing this aircraft and one other like it to explore flying conditions at transonic speeds. On 14 October 1947, Chuck Yeager flew faster than the speed of sound in the Bell XS-1, and Kraft’s Papers show his own involvement in this area of research. One of the documents, dated 23 June 1948 and titled, “A Free-Fall Test to Determine the Longitudinal Stability and Control Characteristics of a 1/4 Scale Model of the Bell XS-1 Airplane at Transonic Speeds” shows Kraft’s name at the top of the cover page and identifies him as Chairman, FRD [Flight Research Division] Stability and Control [Branch].

About this time, Kraft was handed another assignment to work on—gust alleviation—that is, creation of an automatic system that would smooth out the motion of an airplane when it encountered turbulent air. This is the same topic Kraft presented on at the 1954 Engineering conference at Virginia Tech mentioned above. As he was beginning this work, and as described in his autobiography:

I found a French aerodynamicist, René Hirsch, who’d designed and built a gust-alleviation airplane and was beginning to test it. We corresponded about our various plans and concerns and seemed to be in some agreement. Then he was injured when his airplane crashed. I never learned the cause of the accident. Gust alleviation was not only a mysterious quest, but now I knew it was dangerous as well. (page 41)

Draft and typed copy of letter from Kraft to Hirsch, July 1952
Draft and typed copy of letter from Kraft to Hirsch, July 1952
A reply from Hirsch to Kraft, March 1952
A reply from Hirsch to Kraft, March 1952

Well, of course this correspondence is available in Kraft’s Papers! In some cases, we have a draft version and a typed copy of Kraft’s letter as well as Hirsch’s reply. Through most of the first half of the 1950s, this problem took up much of Kraft’s time and there are many documents on the topic in the Papers. I’m no engineer, but I imagine this kind of exchange would be interesting to explore.

The collection of Kraft’s papers are arranged chronologically by year, and in the materials from 1959, following the creation of NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration, in case you wondered) in July 1958, documents that refer to Project Mercury begin to appear. During this time, Kraft stopped being a flight research engineer and became an engineering manager, and these documents include Mission Documents for the first Mercury-Atlas and Mercury-Redstone missions. In NASA lingo, each mission was typically (there are exceptions) named by the spacecraft, booster rocket, and number. Thus, MA-5, which took place on 29 November 1961 with Enos, a chimpanzee, aboard, was the fifth mission to fly a Mercury spacecraft atop an Atlas booster. MR-3, NASA’s first manned suborbital mission, with Alan Shepard aboard on 5 May 1961 (about three weeks after Yuri Gagarin’s “first man in space” mission), was the third Mercury mission with the Redstone rocket. Also among the documents for 1959 are notes and materials related to a talk Kraft presented to a symposium titled, The Pilot’s Role in Space Exploration (a controversial and dicey topic) offered by the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, 8–10 October 1959.

Test procedures and reports; project discussions; post-Launch reports; flight plans; post-flight debriefings of Shepard and then Gus Grissom, the second American to fly a suborbital mission: these are among the documents to be found in Kraft’s papers from these early years of the space program. The success of Shepard’s 15-minute flight was followed three weeks later by President Kennedy’s public proposal “that the US “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” We would do well to remember Kraft’s response, as recalled in his autobiography:

The moon . . . we’ve only put Shepard on a suborbital flight . . . an Atlas can’t reach the moon . . . we have mountains of work just to do the three-orbit flight . . . the moon . . . we’ll need real spacecraft, big ones and a lot better than Mercury . . . men on the moon, has he lost his mind? . . . Have I?

Well, the rest is history. And it can all be followed in Chris Kraft’s Papers: the technical aspects, the failures, the tragedies, and the successes, but mostly the development towards that success, as revealed through the documentation accumulated by Kraft over the course of a storied career.

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But wait. There is one more thing. I promised to describe a close call in Chris Kraft’s life before ending this post. It does not involve a rocket exploding on a launch pad or anything like the difficulties of Apollo 13. In fact, I did not know about this story. Never heard it before. If you’ve read Kraft’s book, Flight, you probably do, unless you were blinking for the couple of paragraphs at the bottom of page 238 and the top of 239. Here’s what I found as I was going through our biographical file of newspaper clippings on Kraft.

That’s right. Just a few days after Kraft left Virginia Tech following the Convocation in his honor, he was flying with several other NASA officials on a National Airlines flight from Houston to Miami with a scheduled stop in New Orleans. As they were climbing out of New Orleans, a young man whom Kraft describes as “sickly” and carrying “a small paper bag” was seated by the flight attendant in the seat across from him. As Kraft tells it, the attendant said, “He’s acting funny. Do you mind if I put him in that seat across from you?”(Flight, page 238). The young man—Thomas Robinson, age 16, from Brownsville, Texas—pulled a gun out of the bag and pointed it at Kraft. As quoted in the newspaper article, Paul Haney of NASA’s Public Affairs Office and also a passenger, said, “He pointed it at Chris . . . it was only six inches off his jaw. . . . There was a click which I thought was a cocking action . . . it did not fire. That’s why I thought it was a cocking action. The kid stood up and backed toward the cockpit door and fired three shots in the floor of the lounge.”

Robinson demanded the plane fly to Cuba. He actually had two guns and fired both into the floor of the cabin. Kraft writes, “He fired both into the floor of the lounge in front of me, then he was tossed sideways as the pilot put the plane in a high-g turning descent, heading back to New Orleans.”

At that point, another passenger, Edward Haake, described in the newspaper as an electronics executive and a decorated B-17 pilot (of course) got involved. Again, from the newspaper:

Haake was the only other person in the lounge, Haney said. The husky 6-footer talked to Robinson calmly, pretending to go along with the wild plans about going to Cuba, even though Robinson now had a revolver in the other hand. “He even fixed him a drink,” Haney said.

“Then the kid calmed down and Haake pulled out a plastic holder full of gold coins. He asked the boy if he would like to see them. The kid said he was a coin collector.

“At some point along the way, the kid lowered his hands. I think he was going to reload the gun. When he put his hands together Haake grabbed them.

“Chris and I immediately jumped. I was the first one there. Haake held his hands and I threw him against the seat.

“And while Haake held him, both Chris and I helped subdue him.”

According to Brendan I. Koerner, author of The Skies Belong to Us: Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking, Robinson pleaded guilty to attempting to intimidate a pilot, a less serious charge than air piracy. He served a brief sentence at an Arizona prison camp for youthful offenders.

As I said, quite the life!

For more on the life of Christopher Columbus Kraft, Jr. see an earlier blog post: Chris Kraft: Oral History of an Aerospace Pioneer.

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Commemorating Apollo XI

 

July 20 marks the 50th anniversary of humanity’s first moon landing, and Special Collections is commemorating the monumental achievement of the Apollo XI mission with an exhibit of materials from our collections.

Curated by Special Collections Public Services & Reference Archivist Marc Brodsky, the exhibit features items from the Christopher C. Kraft Papers (Ms1985-001), the Michael Collins Papers (Ms1989-029), and the Evert B. Clark Papers (Ms1989-022). The three collections comprise part of Special Collections’ Archives of American Aerospace Exploration (AAAE), which itself represents part of our larger collection focus area in science and technology. The papers of Christopher Kraft, who graduated from Virginia Tech in 1944 (BS, aeronautical engineering) provided a seed from which the AAAE grew. Kraft, a 1944 graduate of Virginia Tech (BS, aeronautical engineering), served as director of flight operations for the Apollo missions before being named deputy director of the Manned Spacecraft Center (now the Johnson Space Center) in 1970. The donation of his papers to Special Collections in 1985 encouraged others with ties to the space program to donate their papers to Virginia Tech. Among these were Michael Collins, command module pilot on Apollo XI. Providing a somewhat different perspective on the space program are the papers of Evert Clark, a journalist who worked as a science correspondent for the New York Times and Newsweek during the 1960s.

More about the materials featured in the exhibit may be found in an online story that appeared on VT News on July 3. The exhibit’s profile was heightened earlier this week with a story in the Roanoke Times and a WFXR live remote in which Project Archivist Sam Winn discussed the exhibit and the space program. A second news story featuring Sam and the exhibit appeared on Roanoke’s WSLS News yesterday. Thanks to the media attention, “Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Apollo 11” has proven to be one of the department’s most popular exhibits to date and has drawn a number of off-campus visitors. The popularity of the items in the display cases spurred staff to pull more materials from the collections and make them available for viewing in the reading room.

Somewhat downplayed in the nationwide commemoration of the Apollo XI accomplishment is the fact that it wasn’t a single, spontaneous event but was instead a milestone in a continuum of space exploration achievements initiated more than a decade earlier. Special Collections’ holdings document not only the moon landing itself but the years of work that went into reaching the goals and objectives that led to the mission’s successful accomplishment. The Marjorie Rhodes Townsend Papers (Ms1986-003), for example, chronicle her work as a project manager at NASA, overseeing three Small Astronomy Satellite launches. Reports in the Otis Jerome Parker Papers (Ms1987-065), meanwhile, detail an early effort to develop devices for astronaut  extravehicular activity propulsion. And the many manuals in the papers of James J. Avitabile  (Ms2001-057),  who served as an astronaut mission operations instructor at Cape Canaveral/Cape Kennedy, provide insights into the training of astronauts in a pre-digital age. Together, these and many other primary source materials (not to mention the related materials in our book collection) give us a broader understanding of the many elements that had to successfully work in tandem to reach the landmark achievement of July 20, 1969.

“Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Apollo 11” will run until August 16.

A Trip Up the Sweetwater River

Hidden History at Special Collections IV

The title of this occasional series may be something of a misnomer, as the materials discussed aren’t hidden at all but instead are readily located through existing online discovery tools.  Still, though adequately described for retrieval, these items may remain hidden to interested users who overlook them because they’re housed in such unlikely locations.

Any manuscript repository of significant size or age is bound to have its share of outliers, collections that simply don’t fit into any of the repository’s primary focus areas but somehow find their way into the repository, through one route or another. With our collection focuses here in Special Collections at Virginia Tech being well known, researchers recognize us as a go-to resource for primary and secondary sources in several subject areas, including university history , women in architecture, the history of food and drink, local and regional history, and the Civil War in Virginia. The casual user, however, may be surprised to learn that a number of our collections don’t relate to any of these things. Many of these are legacy collections, materials that were acquired before the department narrowed its scope to a few well-defined focus areas.

And that explanation brings me today to write about an item that we simply call the Wyoming Photograph Album (Ms2017-026), which had been housed within the department for a number of years before recently being made more widely accessible through the creation of an online finding aid.

Measuring 11 x 12 inches and containing 75 photos, the album documents the journey of a group of unidentified men—most likely a surveying team—through central Wyoming around the turn of the 20th century. A photo on the first page of the album, bearing the stenciled title “A Trip Up the Sweetwater River,” explains the event commemorated by the collection.

On the pages that follow, the album’s anonymous creator has pasted photos that chronicle a journey that was deemed of sufficient personal significance to be memorialized.

The album’s first few pages include photos of several public buildings and private residences in Cheyenne.  While Cheyenne isn’t on the Sweetwater River, the city was likely the departure point for the group’s journey. From Cheyenne, the group made its way north to Glendo, then westward to Casper, and eventually south to the Sweetwater, with a photographer documenting the landmarks of both the natural and built environments throughout the trip.

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Included among the photos are images of ranches, livestock, dams, rock formations, rivers, and mountains. Together with these sights, the scrapbook records the surveyors at work and hints at the hazards of early travel across the plains of Wyoming.

This photo of a broken wagon near a ditch (referred to elsewhere in several places as “Bothwell’s Ditch”) is captioned “Breakdown.”

Elsewhere, the scrapbook records the simple pleasures of camp life, as in the chow-time photo below, captioned “Camp Sweetwater.” The inclusion of a National Biscuit Company crate in this photo allows us to somewhat narrow the date of the photograph, as National Biscuit (today better known as Nabisco) was formed in 1898.

This detail from the camp photo, showing a young fellow enjoying a biscuit, allows us to place the album within a broad timeframe.

The team eventually made its way into Wyoming’s gold- and iron-mining region, and several photographs document the area’s mining enterprises and settlements.  The level of clarity in some of these images is remarkable, and the photos provide a glimpse into early development in the area.

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The scrapbook ends, as we may assume the journey also did, near the Wind River Mountains in western Wyoming. Unfortunately, the final photograph, captioned “A Remembrance of the Past” and which may have provided some clue as to the identity of the scrapbook’s creator, was removed.

At least one photograph in the album is attributed to C. C. Carlisle, and a little online digging led to information on a Charles C. Carlisle (born 1876). His biographical sketch in I. S. Bartlett’s History of Wyoming (1918) notes that Carlile, a civil engineer, worked in various capacities connected with waterworks and civil engineering during the first two decades of the 20th century. An article in the June 16, 1904 edition of the Wyoming Tribune mentions that a survey of the central part of the state being conducted by assistant state engineer Carlisle had measured the Sweetwater River at Devil’s Gate. It seems safe to conclude that this is the survey documented by the photo album. Further digging by an interested researcher might reveal whether Carlisle compiled the album.

Outlier collections sometimes contain outliers of their own. Tucked into the front of this album, consisting entirely of Wyoming scenes, is a photograph of a man on horseback at Gibson Park, Great Falls, Montana in 1899. The man is identified as Wallace Coburn.

Wallace Coburn, Gibson Park, Great Falls, 1899

Wallace David Coburn (1872-1954), a Great Falls rancher who gained national renown as a cowboy-poet through publication of his Rhymes from a Round-up Camp, later operated a movie theatre. The theatre serving as his springboard into the field of motion-picture entertainment, Coburn established his own film studio, Great West Film Company. Great West appears to have produced only one film “The Sunset Princess,” based on Coburn’s own poem, “Yellowstone Pete’s Only Daughter.” The would-be mogul later appeared in a few films produced by others, most notably the silent anti-German propaganda film, “The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin.” Why Coburn’s photo appears in this album devoted to a survey of the Sweetwater River will likely remain unknown.

The Wyoming Photograph Album would of course be of interest to anybody researching irrigation and development along the Sweetwater River, early Cheyenne architecture, and the region’s mining history. (Astute researchers could undoubtedly make some connections that I haven’t even considered.) So while this stand-alone collection may seem a misfit of sorts housed here among our collections, its potential value to interested researchers makes it worth a little extra promotion on our part. The album  can also serve as a reminder to researchers in other subject areas not to overlook far-flung resources when searching for relevant materials.

Osborne 1 Portable Microcomputer

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Osborne 1 Microcomputer in portable configuration
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Osborne 1 Microcomputer in operational configuration

We recently received an Osborne 1 Portable Microcomputer as a donation from Virginia Tech alumnus, Bob Sweeney. We asked him some questions about his background and this computer. Here are his answers:

Q: Tell us a little about your background as it relates to computing in the 1970s-1980s.

A: At the time, I was a technical writer for a software house that developed products for the HP-3000. We were a small company and I could not always get access to a terminal to access the LARC-3000 word processor I used (Los Altos Research Center – chosen because it spelled Larc, as in “Going out on a larc.”). I was an experienced TW, but this job was the first that allowed me to us a WP.  Well, allowed is the wrong word. My buddy – Steve White, VT Class of 1962 – was our head of sales. I mentioned to him that I was ready for my manuscript to go to the typing pool. He replied, “Bob, we’re a computer company.  You use the computer.” (I never wanted to do it any other way again.  I’d spent 2/3rd of my time proofreading!)

Q: What initially attracted you to the Osborne 1?

A: The Osborne 1 ads showed people carrying the machine in elevators, buses, through an airport. At $1600 with a printer and a bundle of software, this was an affordable machine. When I bought the O1, for instance, a business man was buying a comparable machine (same printer, same processor, same drive, same memory) and he paid twice as much for his IBM. By the by, you probably can find one of those ads online.

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Osborne 1 ad c.1981

Q: What was your experience with the computer? Did it work as advertised?

A: It was great! I used its WordStar WP to do my stuff at home and prepare files for the HP. (LARC-3000 was an embedded-command WP. For example, like HTML, <b>….</b> for bold, <p>…</p> for paragraphs.) I could encode the files for HP. With a simple application (included) I could conduct work as though the Osborne was a terminal to the HP. Best of all, I could save my files on a floppy, allowing me to work at home, offline!

I loved the Epson printer, too. In fact, I had trouble reloading the paper one day. I got out the manual and was surprised to find no loading instructions! In frustration, I tried again. The path was so simple, if you just stuck the paper in, it would load properly! I’d thought too hard about it!

Q: The computer was advertised as portable, did you transport it from place to place like one would with a modern laptop?

A: Yes, I carried it from home to work and back. But best of all, we were working on a proposal with a customer in Boston. We took the Osborne up with us on the plane and that night updated the propsal!

Q: What was your favorite thing about this computer?

A: That flexibility. WordStar was easy to use. There was also Basic and VisiCal, although I used neither much. We did do several proposals and business plans using the Visicalc and its links to WordStar (A mail merge function). (If I remember, VisiCalc was the first spreadsheet for microcomputers. We could probably dump it into LARC-3000, too.)

Q: What was your least favorite thing?

A: As you’ve seen, the screen is small! I got a magnifier for the screen, but my nephew – with good eyes – threw it away!

Q: Why did you decide to find a home for the computer rather than recycling it as many would do?

A: It has no value, so I just couldn’t send it off to some beach in India. It was my first and started me out on a career of the future. I still marvel at how any writer did it in the old days! You spent twice as much – possibly three times as much – of your days proofing than writing. (Of course, we also had to learn a new skill – usually from several hard experiences – backing up.

Q: Is there anything more you would like to share about the Osborne 1 Computer?

A: Not as famous as the Apple, but the Osborne 1 was an important step for businesses in the computer revolution. They would be better known if they’d developed an IBM clone. They did have a machine with a larger screen, but it was still CP/M.

Some Computer History

When looking at history, we often ascribe specific importance to that which is first. For example, in 1911 Roald Amundsen from Norway was the first person to reach the South Pole and in 1926 he was recognized as the first person to reach the North Pole. Regardless of the objective truth of these claims (whether indigenous people reached the North Pole before him) he is granted a certain cachet by being recognized as the first. You can find an entire list of similar firsts on Biography Online‘s site.

What does all of this have to do with the Osborne 1 portable microcomputer? Well, it is one of those special things that is special because of its status as first. The Osborne 1 was the first portable microcomputer. For those not familiar with computing history, this was the first (type of) computer (the woman, not the machine):

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Computer at her work with microscope and the Friden calculating machine. (NASA).

After human computers came large room-sized machines such as the Harvard Mark 1 in 1944.

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Harvard Mark 1 room sized computer. 1944. (computerhistory.org)

As the world of computer technology progressed through the later half of the 1940s and through the 1950s and 1960s, improvements to computer technology were developed and introduced. Punch card input gave way to keyboard input. Components got smaller, leading to “microcomputers” which are just computers that are small. The term generally refers to computers smaller than room sized. Screens were added. Networking via phone lines was added. New and exciting programming languages were created.

As the 1970s progressed, we saw the introduction of the first personal computers (meaning small machines that were within the grasp of an individual to own/operate) from companies such as IBM, with the IBM 5150 Personal Computer being released in 1981. The 5150 followed a great deal of work by IBM in developing a commercial personal computer. Their main competitor was Xerox who introduced the Xerox PARC Alto (a computer that we would recognize today – with a monitor, mouse, and keyboard) in 1974.

In 1976, Apple released the Apple I and then followed with the Apple II in 1977. That year, Tandy Radio Shack (TRS) released their TRS-80, Atari released their computer gaming console, and Commodore entered the market with the PET. Computers were entering the public consciousness and it wasn’t unheard of for people to have a computer at home. It was also becoming much more commonplace to have one at work. During this time, the subject of portable computers was a hot topic and there were entrants to the space as early as 1973 (HP-9830A). Still, an affordable, easily portable personal computer was something that remained mostly a dream until the Osborne 1 was announced in 1981.

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Osborne 1 ad: Afghani Mujahadeen posing with the Osborne 1. c.1981

The Osborne 1 was billed as revolutionary, hence the ad featuring the Mujahadeen. It was the first really portable computer. It weighed 24 pounds and came in a case designed to absorb the inevitable knocks it would receive being transported from place to place. It was the first product of the Osborne Computer Corporation, named for its founder Adam Osborne, and known for lending its name to the Osborne Effect – a company going out of business by announcing a new product too soon and killing sales of their current product. Despite its demise in 1985, the Osborne Computer Corporation succeeded in producing a viable portable computer

The corporation had effective marketing and certainly grabbed the attention of the computer-savvy business professional of the early 1980s.

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BYTE magazine, March 1982, page 33
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BYTE magazine, August 1981, page 35

And, Interface Age magazine whose tag line was “published for the home computerist” named it an “outstanding buy” in November of 1981.

Our Osborne 1 is the first of what we hope will be many classic computers housed in Special Collections and available for the public to interact with. If you want to see this piece of computing history, stop by Special Collections in Newman Library anytime Monday-Friday 8:00 AM-5:00 PM.

Merging Major Interests

Double Majors at Virginia Tech are becoming more common. Partially as a need to stand out among others, partially as a method of seeking more specific educational goals. I am a double major in English (Creative Writing and Professional Technical Writing) and Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISE). I am frequently asked how this could possibly be a good combination? Where will I ever apply both?

My answer is traditionally communication between engineers, management, and the public need to be clear and concise. Interning at Special Collections has helped me to broaden that statement by giving me the opportunity to archive Engineering Collections. I started with transcriptions and gradually worked my way up to understanding and organizing collections of multiple boxes. When I was experienced enough in archiving, I was allowed to choose the collections I wanted to archive. From this point on I witnessed firsthand example after example for the ways in which my degrees worked together. Most examples seemed to be reports and instruction manuals.

I continued to learn more about organization and private company improvement over time as I worked through collections. I was also able to work with interesting subject matter like NASA’s Wind Tunnels and the collection I am currently archiving, the Avery-Abex Metallurgical Collection. From each I learn something different. Throughout the Avery-Abex Collection, I have come to better understand manufacturing processes and plant systems by organizing the business’s internal and external papers. From this experience I was also able to develop a deeper understanding of the applications of professional writing as an engineer.

My favorite part about working on the Avery-Abex collection is that I had to develop a method of organization that would restore order to the case files. Most of the collection boxes are sporadically numbered. There will be files from 1946 -1948 in box 114, 152, and 75 for example. I had to find a way to pick and choose which boxes to chip away at and how to label them in such a way that the materials fit the company timeline. The solution was to organize by case number, one of the few details listed on each box. However, many of the files are metallurgical samples, negatives, lantern slides, and even reels of film. So I had to develop number codes for the different types of material to keep track of where materials were going and what materials had been processed. The whole experience really tested my ability to think through the given materials.

As I got further into my ISE major, I began to learn more about facilities, systems, and linear programing problems to organize everything and create a more efficient environment. I began to see this in my work at Special Collections as well. As a scholar, a student, there is a moment when you can see dots connecting. The feeling is incredible because you go from understanding theory to seeing it in application. I started to get a lot more out of the work I was doing because I was able to understand deeper connections between the systems engineering that I was studying and the workplace/warehouse type environment where the theory was applicable. The more I saw ties between my majors and my work, the more interesting each shift became. I wasn’t just dating papers, I was developing a system that will become a resource for students and researchers.

My time with Special Collections has never been dry. I will be returning in the fall to continue my work on the Avery-Abex collection. I look forward to what the future of this collection holds and everything that I will be able to learn from it.

By Kaitlyn Britt

R. Buckminster Fuller

R. Buckminster Fuller. This name is probably familiar to most people in the United States. It conjures images of futuristic domed cities of the type typical to a mid-20th century vision of the future.

Richard Buckminster Fuller, also called Bucky, was a celebrity. He was an engineer, an architect, a veteran, an environmentalist, a philosopher, and a poet. He was a celebrity because of these things rather than in spite of them. He was born July 12, 1895 in Milton, Massachusetts. He went to Harvard University for two years but did not finish. He later went to the United States Naval Academy (1917). He was an officer in the United States Navy during World War I.

For me, Fuller is a legendary figure. I grew up with cultural references to “bucky” balls, images of domed cities in speculative fiction, and knowing conceptually about the structure of fullerenes. So, when I was wandering through the archives looking for something to post about this week, I was excited to see a box labeled “R. Buckminster Fuller Collection 1949-1978” (Ms1975-007). Opening it up was like opening a present.

Our collection includes one folder of correspondence from and to Fuller, three folders containing copies of things Fuller wrote, six folders of things written about Fuller, and two oversized folders containing some rather large items within those categories. Looking through the materials, they aren’t like what most people expect to find in an archives. They aren’t handwritten. They aren’t really old. They aren’t deteriorating. They’re just extremely fascinating.

The letters are from November 1953 – December 1962. Most are from Fuller’s time working on his business Geodesics, Inc. They are typed. They are unsigned. Yet, for a fan of his work, they are exhilarating to read. The first one I laid eyes on was written while Fuller was with the Department of Architecture at the University of Minnesota. As if these being Fuller’s own words wasn’t enough, a connection to Minnesota biases me in favor of something from the start.

In the letter, Fuller is telling Tyler Rogers of Owens-Corning Fiberglas Co. about the challenges and modifications of his designs that have been necessary because of a lack of  the necessary facilities to safely employ fiberglas in their construction. The letter is a finely crafted plea for assistance from this fiberglas manufacturer, and, according to a note added at the end, the plea was successful leading Owens-Corning to supply all the fiberglas used in the project to construct Fuller’s dome.

Take a look. Maybe you’ll find it as fascinating as I do:

Fuller Letter 1Fuller Letter 2Fuller Letter 3

Digging further into the materials, even just glancing, I learned much more about this mythic figure from my childhood. Had he been alive today, I am confident Fuller would have been viewed as an activist. His engineering ideas were rooted in his conception of the need for humanity to work together to support itself. He felt that domes could solve world housing problems. He also felt that industrialization had led the world to war and that as long as income inequality was creating “energy slaves” we would inevitably progress into further wars. Dipping into our small collection yields evidence of these views quite quickly.

Fuller graphics 1.jpg
An illustration created by Fuller in 1927.

The above illustration hints at Fuller’s environmentalism and highlights his concern for housing the population of the Earth. It reads:

26% of Earth’s surface is dry land
85% of all Earth’s dry land is here shown
86% of all dry land shown is above equator
The whole of the human family could stand on Bermuda
All crowded into England they would have 750 sq feet each
“United we stand, divided we fall” is correct mentaly and spiritualy but falacious physicaly or materialy
2,000,000,000 new homes will be required in next 80 years

An example of his analysis of the world’s energy economy and its effect on the incidence of world conflict appears on the same folded sheet:

Fuller graphics 2.jpg

This graphic is from 1952 and is titled “The Twentieth Century.” His analysis reads:

World Industrialization: Its rate of attainment as an industrially objective advantage to individuals. i.e. When 100 inanimate energy slaves* are in continual active service per each and every family existing in governing economy and those energy slaves are primarily focused upon regeneratively advancing standards of living and in articulating amplifying degrees of intellectual and physical freedoms until critical point is reached majority of world men are “have nots” and are incitable to socialism by revolution against the seemingly ever more unduly privileged minority after 1972 majority are “haves”.
* One energy slave equals each unit of “one trillion foot pound equivalents per annum” consumed annually by respective economies from both import and domestic sources, computed at 100% of potential content

Overall, it’s an interesting plot. His analysis, while raising the specter of Communism as villain (typical of the early 1950s), shows global instability and a trend toward possible conflict through 1972. That tipping point is supposedly when most people in the world will go from being “have nots” to being “haves”. His predictions may or may not have been accurate (I’ll leave the correlative analysis up to you) but they certainly are interesting.

The last thing I’ll share is a portion of something I found somewhat interesting from among Fuller’s writings. Most of his writings in our collection are reprints of articles he had published. From a publishing standpoint, I find them interesting because of how they are printed. They are self-contained. In the case of the one I will share, an entire page describing articles in the publication is present but the only one that is printed with full clarity is the one by Fuller – the others have been “blurred” via the addition of slight pixilation of the ink in the printing process. I have yet to actually read this article, so I won’t go into depth. I also won’t share the entire thing here because I really don’t want to make the publication if came from mad at me. Also, just to be clear, I’m reading it for the article (I mean, really, that’s all that’s even here!).

This is just a hint of what’s in our R. Buckminster Fuller Collection (Ms1975-007). I plan to delve into it more myself to satisfy my curiosity about this fascinating man. Please stop by and do the same! And, if you want even more Buckminster Fuller content, Fuller donated his full archive to Standord University in 1999 where it is available as the R. Buckminster Fuller Collection.

 

 

Chris Kraft: Oral History of an Aerospace Pioneer

Virginia Tech is proud to be the alma mater to many pioneers in aerospace engineering, perhaps none as famous as Christopher Columbus Kraft, Jr. The VT Stories team recorded an oral history interview with Kraft in April 2017, and Special Collections now has the full interview and transcript available online. The VT Stories summary of the interview is available here.

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Chris Kraft being interviewed by VT Stories project director Ren Harman at his home in Houston

Chris Kraft graduated from Tech in 1944 with a degree in Aeronautical Engineering. The university was operating on a 12-month schedule because of WWII, therefore Kraft graduated after only three years. Despite only this truncated time at Virginia Tech, Kraft rose through the ranks to become president of the Corps of Cadets, which he counts as teaching him important leadership skills. Kraft also recounts his classes with Professor Rasche, contracting Scarlet Fever, and dance weekends from his memories at Virginia Tech in his interview.

After graduating at age 20, he joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the predecessor organization to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Kraft worked at Langley Research Center as a flight test engineer for 13 years, until the space race began.

Christopher_Kraft,_flight_director_during_Project_Mercury,_works_at_his_console_inside_the_Flight_Control_area_at_Mercury_Mission_Control
Kraft works at his console inside the Flight Control area of the Mercury Control Center, from Wikimedia Commons

In 1958, he became one of the original members of the NASA Space Task Group, which was established to manage Project Mercury, the nation’s first project to put a man in space. During Project Mercury, Kraft developed many of the basic mission and flight control techniques used in manned space flight, which culminated in the creation of the Mission Control Center at the Johnson Space Center (originally the Manned Spacecraft Center) in Houston, from which all of NASA’s manned space flights have been conducted. He also served as Flight Director for all the Mercury missions and many of the Gemini missions. Kraft was named deputy director of the Manned Spacecraft Center in 1970, and later director in 1972. He retired from NASA in 1982 and and subsequently served as a consultant for various corporations. In 2001, Kraft’s autobiography, Flight: My Life in Mission Control was published.

Special Collections also has Kraft’s papers, which he donated in 1986. The collection consists of approximately 28 cu. ft. of manuscripts, particularly NACA and NASA reports and documents, meeting notes and agendas, research materials, and the manuscript for 2001 Kraft’s autobiography. You can view the finding aid for this collection here.