AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXIX, No. 2, Fall 1997


Records and Manuscripts of Physics and Allied Sciences and the Electronic Records Program at the Smithsonian Institution Archives

by Fynnette Eaton and Paul Theerman

Although the most common perception of the Smithsonian Institution is of a cluster of museums, from its founding the Institution has been devoted to research in many scientific disciplines, including physics and allied sciences. Three of the Smithsonian's ten Secretaries have been physicists or astronomers and have mounted research programs in the Institution. The Smithsonian Institution Archives, holding the records of the Institution and of many scientific organizations, and personal papers of significant individuals, provides ample scholarly resources for the history of physics.

Electricity and magnetism, the scholarly focus of the founding secretary, Joseph Henry, is heavily reflected among his personal papers; those of Joseph Saxton, an early nineteenth-century instrument maker; and of Alfred Vail, S. F. B. Morse's assistant.

The heaviest concentration of physics-related materials lies in the fields of astrophysics and earth and planetary sciences. Henry pursued studies in meteorology and terrestrial magnetism prior to coming to the Smithsonian and mounted research programs in these subjects at the Institution while secretary. He also engaged in some of the earliest American astrophysics research_measuring the heat of sunspots by thermoelectric means. Astrophysics was the focus of the third Secretary, Samuel Langley (click here to see a photo of Samuel Langley), and the fifth Secretary, Charles G. Abbot, both of whose papers are at the Archives. The Astrophysical Observatory, founded in 1890 in Washington, moved to Cambridge, Mass., in 1955, where it allied with the Harvard College Observatory. It supports astrophysics research and especially solar physics research, with observing stations around the world. In addition to the records of the observatory, notable scientists' papers include those of Fred Whipple and Irwin Shapiro, oral history interviews with Abbot, Whipple, and staff member George V. Barton, and a video history of the Multiple-Mirror Telescope.

Earth and planetary sciences are found in the National Museum of Natural History, which supports research in meteoritics, vulcanology, and oceanography, and the National Air and Space Museum, which supports the Center for Earth and Planetary Sciences. In addition to institutional records, the Archives holds the personal papers of vulcanologist William Foshag and meteorite specialist Edward P. Henderson, as well as oral history interviews with Henderson.

In addition to disciplinary areas, the Archives has holdings in science administration, science education (including exhibition records), science instrumentation, and science publication, as well as film and video production. Records relating to science and society include the exposition records of the Smithsonian; records of the Smithsonian International Exchange Service; and records of and about scientific societies, including the National Institute, Metropolitan Mechanics' Institute, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and National Academy of Science.

Electronic Records Program

In the 1990s, the Office of the Smithsonian Institution Archives (OSIA, the umbrella office that includes the Archives proper) recognized the need to establish an electronic records program to ensure documentation for actions, decisions, policies, and procedures for the Smithsonian Institution, regardless of the medium used to conduct business. In 1995 the Director of OSIA began an electronic records program by establishing an Electronic Records Advisory Committee, and, with this committee's support, started the process of educating both Archives and Smithsonian staff and developing an information base of significant electronic databases. Program activities include a survey of selected Smithsonian databases, the preparation of an e-mail policy, the capture of the Smithsonian's first website, and the hiring of an archivist with extensive experience in electronic records to direct an ongoing program for OSIA. Besides issues of e-mail, the electronic records program will be focussing on large and complex databases drawn from the administrative, collections management, and research areas of the Institution, as well as methods to capture and retain large volumes of text files.

For further information about our collections and our electronic records program and to use the Archives' collections, contact the Office of Smithsonian Institution Archives at the Arts and Industries Building (Ninth Street and Jefferson Drive, SW) room 2135; phone 202-357-1420; fax 202-357-2395; e-mail OSIAREF@OSIA.SI.EDU; website; collections database website; and mailing address MRC 414, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC 20560. The Archives is open to researchers from 9:00 AM to 5:00 ON on Federal workdays. We advise giving us advance notice of a visit, as not all collections are housed on-site.

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AIP History Center Center for History of Physics
Phone: 301-209-3165
American Institute of Physics 2003 American Institute of Physics, One Physics Ellipse, College Park, MD 20740-3843. Email: Phone: 301-209-3100; Fax: 301-209-0843