Mining and the Pocahontas Coalfield

Recently, CONSOL Energy announced it would be open a new mining operation on the Itmann Mine in West Virginia, and I’ve subsequently been fielding reference requests for information about Itmann and other mines in West Virginia. I haven’t spoken much previously about our mine maps in the Pocahontas Mines Collection, Ms2004-002, and this seems like the perfect time. The collection documents the development of the Pocahontas Coal Seam in southwest Virginia an West Virginia by CONSOL Energy, Inc., and its predecessors in the area. I have been working with the collection since late 2014 and several SCUA staff had been involved with it since the collection first arrived in 2004. The collection is a behemoth with 7,000 maps, about 3,000 survey books and ledgers, numerous photographs, and much more. It totals over 600 cubic feet in almost 800 boxes (but it’s not the largest collection I’ve worked on here!) We also have over 3,600 digital files of mine maps and other documents that I’m still creating metadata for! 

Pocahontas Mines Collection at Library Storage Building
A student worker reviews a map from the Pocahontas Mines Collection at Library Storage Building.

When I was processing the collection a few years ago, I was very fortunate to have a student majoring in mining and minerals engineering here at Tech working on the project. Ryan Mair graduated in 2016, but before he left, he drafted a couple of blog posts about the collection, since he had extensive knowledge about it and the mining industry.

One of the blog posts by Ryan Mair, about the Itmann Mines, follows:

Consolidation Coal Company, Southern Appalachia Region Map of Itmann Coal Mines No. 1, 2, & 3. Pocahontas No. 3 Seam. 1983/03/04 Image: Con411.jpeg
Figure 1. Map of Itmann Coal Mines No. 1, 2, & 3, Pocahontas No. 3 Seam, Consolidation Coal Company, Southern Appalachia Region, 1983/03/04, CON411.jpg from the Pocahontas Mines Collection, Ms2004-002.

This map in Figure 1 is a production scheduling map of the Itmann No. 1, 2, & 3 Mines as operated by the Consolidation Coal Company. Maps of this type are used to depict the planned progression of mining operations with respect to a standard unit of time. This particular map progresses each future section of mining by year. The production schedule presented by this map was to start in 1983 and continue until the year 1992. The colored sections of the map represent what year coal production will occur in that area of the mine. the darker blue lines of the map depict the outline of the mine workings underground. Black lines are used to depict the property lease line and surface features, such as the buildings of the preparation plan. 

These mines extracted coal from the No. 3 seam of the famous Pocahontas Coalfield. Coal from the Pocahontas seams was highly sought after because of its rare quality. This coal contains low amounts of sulfur and hydrocarbons known as “volatile matter” and leaves behind less ash material than most other coals. Pocahontas coal was especially prized by the U.S. Navy because it produces high temperatures while emitting little to no visible smoke when burned. Using this type of “smokeless” coal makes it harder to spot coal burning ships on the open sea. During World War II, the majority of coal from the Pocahontas seams were used to fire coal boilers for the U.S. Navy. 

Diagram illustrating typical underground mining operation using room-and-pillar mining techniques from Arch Coal, Inc., SEC Form 10-K filed for fiscal year ended December 31, 2009.
Figure 2. Diagram illustrating typical underground mining operation using room-and-pillar mining techniques from Arch Coal, Inc., SEC Form 10-K filed for fiscal year ended December 31, 2009. https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/1037676/ 000095012310019343/c55409e10vk.htm

The mines depicted in the Itmann map (Figure 1) use two different methods to extract coal from the earth. Mines No. 1 and No. 2 use a conventional method called room and pillar mining, as seen in Figure 2. Room and pillar mining entails the extraction of coal while leaving large columns or “pillars” behind to support the rock overhead which is called the “back”, “roof”, or “top”. The open area left around the pillar is called the “room”. The shape of the pillars is typically that of a square or rectangle. Pillar dimensions vary with every mine design but are are reliant upon the mechanical properties of the coal and the geological stresses present in the mine.

The No. 1 & 2 mines have completed their normal room and pillar mining operations and are recovering coal via a process known as “retreat mining.” Retreat mining is the selective excavation of the pillars to allow a controlled collapse of the mine roof while working towards the mine entrance. Retreat mining is done at the end of the life of a mine when the coal deposit had been depleted through normal room and pillaring. Normal room and pillar coal mines typically recover 40-45% of the coal located within the property. Mining the pillars upon retreat from a room and pillar mine allows operators to increase coal recovery to around 60%. Retreat mining is not always done due to the danger associated with it the unpredictable nature of the roof collapse. By removing selected pillars the mine roof or back is allowed to collapse while additional stress is placed on the remaining pillars. In some cases too much stress can be placed on a pillar. When a pillar reaches its maximum stress and fails, it shatters, sending rock and coal fragments violently through the air followed by the caving of roof around the area where the pillar once stood. This event is known as a pillar “burst” or “bump.” Many miners have died as a result of being near a pillar bump.

Diagram illustrating typical underground mining operation using longwall mining techniques from Arch Coal, Inc., SEC Form 10-K filed for fiscal year ended December 31, 2009. https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/1037676/000095012310019343/c55409e10vk.htm
Figure 3. Diagram illustrating typical underground mining operation using longwall mining techniques from Arch Coal, Inc., SEC Form 10-K filed for fiscal year ended December 31, 2009. https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/1037676/000095012310019343/ c55409e10vk.htm

The No. 3 Mine in the northwestern part of the Itmann map (Figure 1) employs some room and pillar mining but its main design employs a method know as “longwall mining”. Longwall mining involves the complete extraction of coal from the working area using a “shearer” or “sled” that mines into a large wall or “face” of coal while moving parallel to that wall. A diagram of this method can be seen in Figure 3. As the machine cuts the coal free from the working face, an armored conveyor running parallel with the face transports the coal away. As the cutting and conveyor system move forward, it leaves the unsupported rock layers above to cave in a controlled manner in an area behind the machine. This caved area of roof rock is call the “gob” or “goaf”.

To protect the longwall mining system and the miners at the working face, numerous large hydraulic shields support the roof near the working face. These shields advance with each pass of the cutting head across the face. Longwall mines have considerably faster production capacities than traditional room and pillar mining but have more delays associated with the step and transportation of the equipment.

A working section of a longwall mine is known as a “panel” and are typically 800-1,500 ft. in width and 9,000-15,000 ft. long. Before mining the panel must be developed by what are called the “bleeder” entries. The bleeders serve to open up a path to the area while providing pathways for the ventilation of fresh air to the area. The bleeders are especially needed in the case of mining coal that contains high amounts of entrapped methane gas which is highly combustible. With the bleeder it is possible to degas or render the gas inert with enough fresh airflow. The pillars in bleeder entries are often called chain pillars and are left intact throughout the life of the mine to protect the ventilation and passageways.

In the northern section of the Itmann map (Figure 1), there are two geologic features that are identified. The two areas shaded in red denote areas where the coal on the property is less than 36 inches thick. Areas of deep underground coal that are less than 36 inches of coal are essentially too thick to mine profitably. Additionally, such areas make it difficult for both miner and machine to maneuver effectively. The second feature, shaded in light blue, is an area of coal with what is called a “parting,” a layer of non-coal rock that formed within the coalbed and parts the coal seam. Partings can be less than one inch to several feet in thickness. Thick partings are areas of coal to avoid when mining since the harder rock of the parting can excessively wear or damage cutting heads and requires more intense processing of the coal material at the surface plant.

Diagram of explosion area of Itmann No. 3 Mine, Itmann, WV, December 16, 1972, from the Historical Summary of Coal Mine Explosions in the United States, 1959-81, by J.K. Richmond, G.C. Price, M.J. Sapko, and E.M. Kawenski, Bureau of Mines Information Circular 8909, 1983. https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/mining/userfiles/works/pdfs/ic8909.pdf
Figure 4. Diagram of explosion area of Itmann No. 3 Mine, Itmann, WV, December 16, 1972, from the Historical Summary of Coal Mine Explosions in the United States, 1959-81, by J.K. Richmond, G.C. Price, M.J. Sapko, and E.M. Kawenski, Bureau of Mines Information Circular 8909, 1983. https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/mining/userfiles/works/pdfs/ic8909.pdf

The Itmann No. 3 mine shown in this map (Figure 1) was the scene of a mine disaster in December 1972. On December 16th, 1972, eight day shift miners had finished their shift and were exiting their working area of the Cabin Creek 4-Panel via an electrically powered rail car known as a portal bus (Figure 4). Unbeknownst to the miners, highly explosive methane gas had built up in the section. While in motion the portal bus trolley wire harp, which transfers electricity from the trolley wire to the portal bus, briefly disconnected from the wire. Such disconnections are common and are part of the design of the system but often result in an electrical sparking. Within the first 1,000 ft of the miners’ journey out of the mine just such an electrical spark occurred. This electrical sparking caused the ignition of the surrounding methane gas and propagated into a explosive wave. The blast wave and flames killed five miners instantly and seriously burned the other three. The blast force was also strong enough to blow out 14 permanent stoppings of cinderblock construction in the section.

Resources:

Avery-Abex Metallurgical Collection: All Plugged In

I began work on processing the Avery-Abex Metallurgical Collection at the beginning of November 2019, and boy has it been a rollercoaster so far. This collection, which spans 248 cubic feet, consists of case files, general company records and correspondence, photo negatives, glass plate negatives, photographic prints, and some 40,000 metal samples encased in resin plugs (more on these later). The collection has largely been languishing in Special Collections since it was acquired in the mid-1990’s. 

Over the years, several student employees have chipped away meaningfully at portions of the collection, but the majority of the boxes remained untouched. Because my time to process this collection is limited, I will need to strike a comfortable balance between getting all the work done on the remaining boxes before the end of July- a high priority- and processing the materials to the highest useful level- also a high priority. (Note that I did not say “to the highest possible level”. There is a point of diminishing returns to optimizing arrangement and description, and archival resources are scarce enough that frequently this equation must favor a more rough-and-ready processing style in order to reduce backlog and make more collections accessible faster.)

This balance is especially important to consider, given the large size of the collection. The boxes that much of the material arrived in are significantly bigger than the standard sized archival record carton, which necessitates a certain amount of space planning for both pre-and post-processed containers. The increased volume makes them very heavy and awkward to handle, and so much more prone to accidents when retrieving them from shelves.

I haven’t dropped any yet, but hauling them around really makes me appreciate the elegantly dainty standard sized boxes I’m moving the records into. This is infinitely more so the case with the boxes of glass plate negatives, which are substantially heavier than their paper-holding counterparts and have the additional challenge of being very fragile. Let no one tell you that the life of an archivist is boring or sedentary.

Another quirk of this particular collection is that the boxes were more or less put where they would fit in the offsite storage facility when they were first acquired about 25 years ago, without recording their shelf locations, which makes finding the boxes a bit of a scavenger hunt. Pictured is one of three aisles of shelves at the storage facility. Attempting to process the boxes in any particular order would be a waste of time as a result, and so I’ve had to change my approach to arranging this collection. 

Instead of refoldering and replacing the records into their final resting places, I am processing box by box, keeping careful track of what ends up where, so that I can rearrange things as needed once I finish and have a better idea of what order best suits the materials. This way is much faster on the frontend than doing the boxes in order, and the surprise of not knowing what’s going to be in the next box has proved a lovely diversion from the occasionally tedious tasks of pulling boxes, refoldering, relabelling, and filling in spreadsheets.

My favorite part of the collection so far has definitely been the metal samples. There are approximately 40,000 squat resin plugs, each with a small chunk of metal embedded in it with one surface exposed for testing, and a serial number etched on the outside. They are quite unique, in my experience, and are an instant point of interest for anyone who sees them. Their quantity, their different sizes and shapes, and the complete obscurity of their purpose to the uninitiated, makes them a valuable showpiece for the collection. However, these characteristics also make them a challenging processing project. Several have sprouted highly colorful oxidation growths over the years, which are fascinating and delicate. I have not yet decided whether they are more valuable remaining intact, or if I should attempt to clean off this reaction residue, knowing full well that it will likely grow back in time, as the fresh metal is exposed to air and humidity.

Another slight wrinkle in processing that I’ve encountered was the significant presence of mold on the cabinets housing the metal samples in the basement storage room used for some Special Collections and University Archives materials. The samples themselves were not in immediate danger, because resin and metals do not tend to support mold growth, but the mold would need to be killed and the plugs cleaned before they could be moved into appropriate archival boxes and placed near other, more vulnerable materials. I had planned to process the plugs first, but this had to be put on hold until the mold issue was dealt with. Luckily, we managed to employ a company specializing in mold remediation fairly quickly, and the problem was taken care of before it could spread to other collections being stored in this space. Now, the work of cleaning and boxing up the sample plugs can commence.

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.

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