Carnegie Institution wins grant to preserve historic photos

December 19, 2008

Washington, D.C.--The Carnegie Institution has been awarded a $9,400 grant from the Center for History of Physics, American Institute of Physics, to preserve and enhance access to a collection of historic photographs of scientific instruments and apparatus in the archives of the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism (DTM). The collection spans five decades from 1904 to the 1950s and includes thousands of images important to the history of geophysics, atomic physics, and astronomy.

"The collection of photographs and the related textual documentation in our archives provide an exceptional resource for the study of 20th Century science," says Shaun Hardy, librarian at Carnegie's DTM-Geophysical Laboratory Library in Washington, DC. Hardy will lead the project.

During the first two decades of the 20th century, DTM played a world-leading role in developing geomagnetic survey instrumentation, including specialized instruments for geomagnetic observations at sea. In a second burst of innovation in the 1920s and 1930s, DTM's scientists built a path-breaking atomic physics program based on particle accelerators. A series of high-voltage apparatus beginning with Tesla coils and progressing to increasingly powerful Van de Graaff generators culminated in a 3-million volt pressure-tank machine that was used in 1939 for the confirmation of the fission of uranium. During this time, DTM was also home to key investigations of radio propagation and the ionosphere, auroras, and atmospheric physics. In the post-War era, these studies shifted to seismology, isotope geochemistry, and radio and optical astronomy.

"Virtually every significant type of instrument built by, or used at, DTM during this period is documented in a collection of more than 12,000 photographs," says Hardy. "They constitute a visual chronicle of innovation in instrumentation in the early 20th Century and have been used to illustrate physics textbooks, encyclopedias, and scholarly works on the history of science. But this valuable collection has been at risk from both physical and chemical deterioration."

The grant will be used to pay salary expenses of a professional archivist, who will re-house the original prints and negatives in acid-free enclosures, catalog them in an online database, and create an archival finding aid. There are also plans to build a website with outstanding examples from the collection as a means of outreach and fostering research.
The Carnegie Institution ( has been a pioneering force in basic scientific research since 1902. It is a private, nonprofit organization with six research departments throughout the U.S. Carnegie scientists are leaders in plant biology, developmental biology, astronomy, materials science, global ecology, and Earth and planetary science.

The American Institute of Physics Center for History of Physics ( works to preserve and make known the historical record of modern physics and allied sciences. Through documentation, archival collections and educational initiatives, the Center ensures that the heritage of modern physics is safeguarded and its story accurately told.

Carnegie Institution for Science

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