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.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.


 

 

 

 

Flora Virginica and the Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands

An advertising graphic that reads: "Flora Virginica" within a border of dogwood blossoms. Below the graphic is the text "On display in the Special Collections Reading Room February 5 - March 16." In the lower right corner is the Virginia Tech University Libraries logo.Over the past few months, I’ve stepped outside my normal topical areas of social justice and the history of traditionally marginalized communities. This departure was related to an exhibit titled Flora Virginica that is on display in our reading room from February 5, through March 16. I enjoy putting together exhibits, so I was happy to take this on even though it was something I knew nothing about. This blog post will include a description of the exhibit, the reasons for its existence, and the interesting history I discovered while putting it together (only not in that order). Enjoy!

An Exhibit, In Partnership

In 2012, the Flora of Virginia Project published Flora of Virginia (QK191 .W43 2012), a 1,572 page comprehensive compendium of Virginia plants. It’s a thick botanical tome of little interest to most people outside the botanical sciences. We acquired multiple copies in the library when it was first published and it isn’t one of our particular collecting focuses. It wasn’t something we were particularly focused on highlighting.

Skip ahead to fall of 2017 and an email from the Massey Herbarium to the Director of Special Collections mentioning an exhibit about Flora of Virginia that the Massey was going to be hosting. Special Collections was being involved because there was an opportunity to display an original Flora Virginica in support of the Massey exhibit. This is where I entered the process.

Over the course of a couple of months, I worked with Jordan Metzgar at the Massey Herbarium and Bland Crowder, editor of the 2012 Flora of Virginia, from the Flora of Virginia Project to arrange a loan of an original 18th century Flora Virginica. During the process of arranging this part of the exhibit, it was suggested that I might also wish to exhibit some 18th century Mark Catesby prints alongside the book. Still not knowing much about the project or the books, I opened discussions with Lynn McCashin, the Executive Director of the Garden Club of Virginia, to arrange a loan of some of their Catesby prints. The next few months consisted of multiple emails negotiating the logistics of the loans. As the date for the exhibit approached, I began to research these items so that I could create some didactic labels for the exhibit (those short little descriptions that go next to items in museum-type displays).

In order to adequately describe the 1762 edition of Flora Virginica and the 1771 Catesby prints – and explain what they had to do with one another and Virginia history, I had to learn that history myself. Where did I start? A general web search, of course. Wikipedia offers great superficial overviews on just about any topic. That was enough to get me oriented before moving on to better sources including the Encyclopedia Virginia, JSTOR Global Plants, the Catesby Commemorative Trust, The Royal Society, and the University of North Carolina Libraries. During the course of this research, I learned some interesting details about the people who created these items and their places in botanical and zoological history.

Flora Virginica, 1762

A photograph of a copy of the 1762 Flora Virginica open to the section on Monandria and Diandria. On the left side is a fold-out map of the Virginia colonial region that is larger than the bound book.
Flora Virginica, 1762 printing

Flora Virginica (QK191 .G86 1739a) is a precursor to Flora of Virginia. They are actually named the same – just in different languages. The original Flora Virginica was published in two parts, the first in 1739 and the second in 1743. Then, a combined edition was published in 1762. All three editions were published in Latin by Lugduni Bavatorum publishers in Leiden, Zuid Holland, Nederland. They all list Johannes Fredericus Gronovius as the person who classified the specimens and wrote the book. They also list John Clayton as the observer and collector of the plants. This attribution has led to much debate over the correct citation of authorship. Many, using modern standards, have claimed that Gronovius plagiarized Clayton’s work. Scholarship as recent as 2004 has addressed the authorship issue directly and concluded that Clayton likely did not have much chance of being published without the help of someone like Gronovius and the actions of the latter would not have been deemed plagiarism using the standards of the 1700’s. Proper credit for authorship, then, is probably to list them both.

Amidst the issues of authorship, I discovered some interesting things about the men who created what was the only comprehensive listing of Virginia plants for over 200 years. John Clayton was born in England in 1694/5 and came to America sometime before 1720. His move to the Virginia Colony was likely due to his father’s position as Attorney General of Virginia. Clayton was an amateur botanist. He was a plantation owner, a slave owner, and Clerk of Gloucester County, VA for more than 50 years. He liked to travel around the state and collect specimens of flora and fauna.

Gronovius was a Dutch naturalist and friend of Carl Linnaeus. He built up a reputation in the Netherlands as a botanist and had his own herbarium. He was considered a professional and had standing within the scientific world to publish. As part of Clayton’s  amateur botanical work, he compiled for Gronovius a catalog of various plants using Linnaean classification. This catalog is what Gronovius eventually turned into Flora Virginica.

So what about Mark Catesby?

Mark Catesby was born in 1683 and was an English naturalist and a Fellow of the Royal Society of London. He first traveled to Virginia in 1712, accompanying his sister and her children. Over the next seven years (1712-1719), he collected and sent to England a variety of botanical specimens from Virginia and Jamaica before returning to England himself. During this time, at least one ornithological specimen and several plants were provided to Catesby by John Clayton. That one connection is why the Catesby prints are often displayed with Flora Virginica … that one connection and the fact that the Catesby prints include gorgeous illustrations of many of the plants mentioned in Flora Virginica.

After a few years in England, where he became a member of The Royal Society, Catesby returned to America to begin work on his grand project. He spent the next 20 years compiling specimens, teaching himself to illustrate them, and writing his Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands (QH41 .C28 1754).

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He wrote and illustrated the book(s) entirely himself, publishing them in eleven sections totaling more than 220 hand-colored etchings. In order to finance all this work, Catesby sold subscriptions, offering the book in sections of 20 plates every four months. The first section was published in 1729 and he presented Her Majesty Queen Caroline with her copy in person. Following Catesby’s death in 1749, his work was republished twice, in 1754 and 1771. Catesby’s work was done before Linnaean classification was developed but the 1771 reprint includes a catalog of the Linnaean names for the flora and fauna depicted in the book.

While Flora Virginica is recognized as the most comprehensive listing of Virginia plants from 1739 to 2012, Catesby’s History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands is known as the earliest published work illustrating and describing North American flora and Fauna. It was published almost 100 years before Audubon’s The Birds of America (QL674 .A9 1827a).

The Exhibit

Through the generous courtesy of the Flora of Virginia Project and the Garden Club of Virginia, we have an exhibit containing a 1762 original Flora Virginica, a 1946 reproduction Flora Virginica, and two Catesby prints from the 1771 reprinting: The Summer Red-Bird, The Western Plane Tree and The Red Start, The Black Walnut. This exhibit gives viewers a chance to appreciate the wonderful history of all of the items with an abbreviated version of the information presented here. If you’re in the area and want to see the exhibit in person, stop by Special Collections and take a look.

While you’re visiting, if you are interested in taking a look at a copy of Flora Virginica in person (reading Latin helps),  Special Collections has one copy of the 1946 reproduction on site and two in remote storage (QK191 .G86 1739a). If you want to see the amazing Catesby illustrations in person, Special Collections has a copy of the 1754 reprinting of Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands (QH41 .C28 1754). As for the 2012 Flora of Virginia, Newman Library has two copies and Special Collections has one (QK191 .W43 2012). And, if you’re curious about Audubon’s The Birds of America (QL674 .A9 1827a), Special Collections has a 1985 issue of the double elephant folio in our reading room – it’s our only item with its own piece of furniture.

A full listing of events related to the Massey Herbarium Flora of Virginia exhibit is available at masseyherbarium.org/fov.

Hero’s Welcome

A Souvenir Menu Recalls Earhart’s Triumphant Return to the U. S.

The recent reports about possible new evidence in the 80-year mystery of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance reminded me of a little item in our collections: a menu for a 1932 dinner honoring the pilot. Housed, perhaps incongruously, within our Aviation Pamphlets and Brochures Collection (Ms1994-015), this souvenir  commemorates a milestone in aviation and women’s history.

Cover of the Earhart Waldorf-Astoria dinner menu. Though Earhart did not take her husband’s name after marriage and is invariably identified today by her maiden name, the press and others most often referred to her as “Amelia Earhart Putnam” or “Mrs. Putnam” during the years of her married life.

Though Amelia Earhart’s name endures, it may be difficult for us to imagine today the level of fame she attained through her derring-do.  The word “icon” has perhaps been devalued through overuse in recent years, but Earhart’s solo crossing of the Atlantic made her a true icon and arguably the most famous woman of her time.

Even before Earhart undertook her solo transatlantic flight in 1932, she had gained fame through her feats: as the first woman to cross the Atlantic via airplane (1928), as the first woman to make a solo transcontinental roundtrip flight across the U. S. (1928), and as the record holder for the highest altitude attained in an autogyro (1931). Despite occasional criticisms leveled against her skills as a flyer, Earhart through her personality and her penchant for self-promotion put a face on women’s advances in fields  that previously had been reserved for men.

The menu includes a brief list of Earhart’s accomplishments to 1932.

Earhart departed Newfoundland on May 20, 1932 and landed in Ireland the following day, exactly five years after Charles Lindbergh’s historic solo flight across the Atlantic. While most know that Earhart was the first woman to make such a flight, few may remember that no pilot had successfully made a solo transatlantic flight in the five years after Lindbergh.

Within the menu is this photo of Earhart in Ireland. The caption celebrates her crossing of the Atlantic in 13 hours and 30 minutes, a new record for a transatlantic flight.

In the following weeks, Earhart toured Europe, receiving a number of honors and being feted by various dignitaries. After several weeks of enjoying her celebrity, Earhart  embarked for home. Despite her accomplishment, transatlantic flight remained a dangerous undertaking reserved for pioneering daredevils. (The transatlantic passenger service established by Germany’s Graf Zeppelin in 1928 averaged only about 20 flights per year for the next decade. Weather and distance would prevent the commercial viability of transatlantic passenger plane flights until the late 1930s.) The singularity of Earhart’s feat is underscored by the fact that she returned to the U. S. via cruise ship.

With the country in the throes of the Great Depression, Earhart had asked that her welcome home be an understated affair, but it was perhaps because of the desperate need for something to celebrate that the flyer’s request went unheeded. When the Ile de France arrived in New York on June 20, it was greeted by all the fanfare the city could muster, including a tickertape parade. Following a luncheon hosted by the Advertising Federation Convention and several rounds of interviews, the day’s activities concluded at the Waldorf-Astoria, where a full-course dinner was held in Earhart’s honor. Speakers included Charles Lawrence, president of the Aeronautical Chamber of Commerce of America; Don Brown, president of Pratt & Whitney Aircraft; W. Irving Glover, second assistant postmaster of the United States; and Earhart herself. The speeches were broadcast nationwide via radio.

The menu for Earhart’s dinner.

Unfortunately, as far as I was able to determine (in an admittedly cursory search), Earhart’s words that night seem to have gone unrecorded. She reportedly recounted the experiences of her flight. Perhaps she also repeated some of the responses she had given earlier that day to critics who derided her flight as a non-event. In interviews, Earhart said that she regarded her flight as a personal mission, a justification. After she had flown across the Atlantic in 1928 as a passenger, one commentator downplayed the feat, likening her usefulness on the flight to a sack of potatoes.

In The Sound of Wings, biographer Mary S. Lovell writes of Earhart’s solo flight, “[T]hough the flight in itself offered no particular breakthrough, the mere fact that there were pilots prepared to risk all to gain records encouraged manufacturers to further technological effort. … In the public eye, too, the flight was a triumphant success at a time when newspapers carried daily reports of fatal air crashes. So her success encouraged confidence in aviation as a principle.”

Despite her protestations to the contrary, Amelia Earhart had done much more than answer her critics, and the public responded in a big way, as evidenced in a little menu in our little collection.

In addition to the Earhart menu, the Aviation Pamphlets and Brochures Collection contains a number of interesting pieces relating to the first half century of aviation history. For a complete list, see the collection’s finding aid.

Less Than the Sum of Its Parts: the W. Dale Parker Papers

Behind virtually any collection of personal papers is an ego, a voice saying, “I was here. I mattered.” Such collections can be indispensable resources in chronicling the lives of the famous and infamous or in offering insights into a particular time or topic. While history may greatly benefit from these collections, however, it is often to egotism, not altruism, that their existence is owed. In the case of the W. Dale Parker Papers (Ms1989-093), we see that egotism taken to an extreme. In more than 20 years of arranging and describing personal papers, I’ve never run across a collection quite like it–one in which a person devoted so much time and effort to celebrating his life while leaving behind so little of real substance.

Dale Parker, management specialist with NASA’s Project Gemini, 1964-1969; self-described aerospace engineer, human relations expert, and presidential advisor. (NASA photo)

Born in Portsmouth, Virginia, Dale Parker (1925-2007) attended the College of William & Mary for a year before being dismissed for poor grades. (He would remain devoted to the school and invariably identified himself as an alumnus of the class of 1949.) During World War II, Parker served in the U. S. Coast Guard for 16 months before being discharged, apparently for medical reasons. Afterward, he took a handful of courses at various colleges, and, following 10 years of coursework, graduated from the industrial engineering program of International Correspondence Schools (ICS). (Though he would later claim to have earned a doctoral degree and thus frequently referred to himself as “Dr. W. Dale Parker,” Parker’s 1968 doctorate from a now-defunct Mexican university was strictly honorary, bestowed upon him for unknown reasons. Likewise, though he sometimes described himself as an aerospace engineer, there is no evidence within the collection that Parker held any educational credentials beyond the ICS industrial engineering degree.)

After working for five years as a draftsman at the Naval Proving Ground, Parker became a plant engineer at General Motors’ Wilmington, Delaware plant in 1951, later serving as an assistant director in charge of public relations and counseling. He worked as a management specialist for General Dynamics – Astronautics from 1961 until 1964, when he was hired by NASA as a management specialist for Project Gemini. (He often credited himself with bringing Gemini from nine months behind schedule to nine months ahead of schedule within nine months.) He retired from NASA in 1969, records suggesting that the retirement was on a disability claim.

Parker remained engaged in a number of other activities after retirement: working as a pro bono counselor; volunteering with civic organizations and charities; and maintaining memberships in a number of fraternal and masonic organizations. He also incorporated a small, nebulous business called Multiple Services; tried his hand at several short-lived business enterprises; and self-published several books.

One of several books self published by genius Dale Parker.

Parker’s papers were donated to Virginia Tech’s Special Collections in several installments beginning in the late 1980s, when the department was aggressively building its collections. Due to his work at NASA, Parker’s papers seemed a good fit for the department’s Archives of American Aerospace Exploration, where they would share shelf space with those of such figures as Apollo astronaut Michael Collins NASA flight director Chris Kraft.

Unfortunately, Parker’s papers have very little to do with the topic of space exploration and very much to do with the topic of Dale Parker. With the exception of bills and invoices, Parker seems to have retained anything that had his name on it. A large portion of the collection consists of such ephemera as membership cards, credit cards, and appointment calendars. Also included are such self-exploring items as personality quizzes, astrological readings, handwriting analyses—anything that could possibly be used to help future historians to understand and explain the unique and powerful mind of Dale Parker. In the collection’s many folders we learn of his short-lived 1977 Florida gubernatorial campaign; his ill-fated attempts to manufacture and market such inventions as the Amy Carter Peanut Doll and the Space Exploration and Technology Trivia Game; and his acquaintance with such celebrities as Bob Hope and Johnny Weissmuller. Prominent in the collection are the many scrapbooks that Parker compiled, including his scrapbook magnum opus: a pair of giant albums in the shape of the state of Delaware. Meanwhile, the records of his work at NASA comprise just a single folder (though, admittedly, the collection contains a handful of other folders about Project Gemini and NASA history).

Given that the focus of Dale Parker’s papers is largely on himself as an individual, providing few insights into Project Gemini, the most noteworthy period of his career, we might be forgiven for thinking the collection unworthy of any attention. Even here, however, are to be found materials of interest.

Parker took painstaking efforts in collecting materials relating to his youngest daughter, Jacquelyn Parker, the first female graduate of the U. S. Test Pilot School. Included are items detailing her personal, professional, and military life, of interest for their relevance to both aviation and women’s history. Also of possible interest are hundreds of letters from Dale Parker’s pen pals in Belarus and other former Soviet states. Written from 1993 to 2006, many of the letters discuss cultural, political, and economic changes following the Soviet collapse; the balance of newfound freedoms against economic hardships; international relations; and the Chernobyl disaster.

Of all the accolades that Parker awarded himself, perhaps none was more important to him than that of political insider. A prolific correspondent, he frequently wrote to politicians to offer advice and ask favors. Seemingly guided not so much by ideology or personal loyalty than an attraction to power and a compulsive need to be heard, Parker donated to both major political parties and indiscriminately offered his advice. Though he did not wield the political power that he claimed (often billing himself as a “presidential advisor” and “White House veteran”), Parker was in fact personally acquainted with a number of prominent politicians and had a knack—largely through his monetary donations—of getting their attention. (In 1977, Parker mounted his own short-lived, independent Florida gubernatorial campaign and gained some attention in the press for his unconventional method of recruiting a running mate through newspaper advertisements.) The collection’s political series provides something of an overview of American political issues and personalities of the late 20th century. Included among the printed material are letters personally addressed to Parker. In addition to office-holders, the collection contains personal notes from presidential family and staff members.

A 1979 letter from George H. W. Bush, apparently responding to a request from Parker to withdraw from the 1980 Republican primary campaign for the benefit of a united Republican Party.

 

Apparently responding to a problem that Parker had expressed about Medicare, then-Senator Joe Biden wrote this 1990 letter, briefly expressing his views on oversight of bureaucratic agencies.

 

One of several letters received by Parker from Rose Mary Wood, Richard Nixon’s personal secretary. In this brief note, Wood thanks Parker and his wife for their continued support of the recently resigned Nixon.

The collection also contains a number of individual items that, while having no great research value, are of interest for their association with a specific time, activity, or person. A “WIN” (“Whip Inflation Now”) button from the Ford era; an autographed photo of astronaut Alan Bean; a letter from Carl Sagan regarding the prospect of faster-than-light space travel: these are among the collection’s many disparate items with a little tale to tell.

So, while we cannot claim that the W. Dale Parker Papers are an invaluable resource for the  scholar of aerospace exploration, they do contain, here and there, items of lasting interest, some that have legitimate research value and some that could perhaps be used as exhibit pieces or instructional materials in a classroom setting.

If nothing else, however, the Dale Parker Papers would be of interest to anybody writing a biography of Dale Parker, and perhaps that was all he ever wanted.

(You can learn more about Dale Parker and his papers by seeing the collection’s finding aid here.)