AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXX, No. 1, Spring 1998


Major Smithsonian Institution Oral History Collections Cataloged

The Smithsonian Institution has published two guides to oral history collections in science and technology which were created by Smithsonian scholars. The guides provide access to a total of over 1,000 hours of interviews, and both are available for free. The interviews themselves are generally open for use, although access and use conditions vary according to the terms and conditions specified by interview subjects.

Oral History of Space, Science and Technology: A Catalog of the Collection of the Department of Space History, National Air and Space Museum (1993) describes a series of studies conducted by the Department's Oral History Project between 1981 and 1990:

  • The "Space Astronomy Oral History Project" (1981-1986; 225 hours of interviews with 56 individuals) examines the origins and development of the use of rockets and satellites to conduct astronomical investigations from 1946 through the early 1960s. The central thread of this collection is how the availability of new technologies for research, first the rocket and later satellites, helped to create a new social matrix for research.
  • The "Space Telescope History Project" (1983-1990; 235 hours of interviews with 80 individuals) examines the space sciences, predominantly astronomy, from the 1970s through the mid-1980s, viewed through the lens of a particular undertaking, the Hubble Space Telescope. The principal problem of the participants was configuring new political relations among the space sciences and sponsors. In part, this shift was a consequence of the more complex social matrix within which the space sciences were situated after the 1960s.
  • The "Glennan-Webb-Seamans Project for Research in Space History" (1985-1990; 193 hours of interviews with 22 individuals) covers NASA management practice during the Apollo program, and its interaction with the broad policy and political goals of the President and Congress.
  • The "Rand History Project" (1985-1990; 104 hours of interview with 29 individuals) is a dual institutional study of the Rand Corporation and its military sponsor, the Air Force, from 1945 through the early 1960s. The principal question which this interview set addresses is what motivated and sustained the Air Force, industry, and academic interest in organizing this range of expertise through the creation of a new organizational entity supported by service funds.
  • The "Peenemunde Project" (1987-1990; 39 hours of interviews with 13 individuals) examines the development of the German Peenemunde complex from the early 1930s through World War II. The interviews focus on issues of technical and management practice at Peenemunde and provide insights into the relations among science, technology, and the Nazi state, thus offering an opportunity for cross-national comparison.

In total, this catalog provides abstracts and tables of contents for over 850 hours of oral history with more than 200 interviewees. By mid-1994 the catalog will also be made available over the Internet. To get the catalog, contact Jo Ann Bailey, Department of Space History, MRC 311, National Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC 20560.

The Guide to the Collections of the Smithsonian Videohistory Program (1992) provides access to 22 projects which were produced by 18 Smithsonian historians between 1986 and 1991 with funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and guidance from the Smithsonian Videohistory Program. The 22 projects consist of over 200 hours of videotape and cover a wide range of topics in American science and technology, primarily since 1940, including topics ranging from medical technology to paleontology. Ten of the projects are of special interest for the history of physics and allied sciences:

  • "Classical Observation Techniques" (1988-1991, 5 videotapes and 3 transcripts) contains interviews with five U.S. Naval Observatory astronomers (Thomas E. Corbin, Geoffrey Douglass, F. Stephen Gauss, Dennis Dean McCarthy, and Charles Worley) about classical visual techniques for star observation and the growth of automation in astronomy.
  • "Margaret J. Geller" (1989-1990; 4 videotapes and 2 transcripts) consists of interviews with Geller, professor of astrophysics at Harvard and highly regarded for work on the large-scale structure of the universe, on her life and career.
  • "International Ultraviolet Explorer" (1990; 4 videotapes and 2 transcripts) examines the creation , design, manufacture and use of IUE, which was the only astronomical telescope working in orbit from 1978 until the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990. Key participants were Carol Ambruster, Albert Boggess, Yoji Kondo, and George Sonneborn.
  • "The Manhattan Project" (1987-1990; 32 videotapes and 18 transcripts) contains oral history interviews with 55 participants who explain the steps of designing, building, testing and detonating an atomic bomb and also provide a social history of the project. Many of the videos were recorded on-site at Hanford, Washington; Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Alamogordo and Los Alamos, New Mexico, and other project locales.
  • "Medical Imaging" (1978-1989, [bulk 1989]; 7 videotapes and 4 transcripts) contains interviews with Robert S. Ledley and others covering the history of Computer Assisted Tomography (CAT) scanning in general, the development and operation of the Automatic Computerized Transverse Axial (ACTA) scanner in particular, and Ledley's more recent work in biotechnology instrumentation. Also interviewed were Homer Twigg, Robert Zeman, David Greigo, and Seong Ki Mun.
  • "Multiple Mirror Telescope" (1989; 7 videotapes and 6 transcripts) examines the design and construction of the MMT, its operation and use, and the dynamics of the multi-institutional cooperation which the telescope required. Interviewed were Nathaniel Carleton, Frederic H. Chaffee, Craig Foltz, Carol Heller, Keith Hege, Thomas Hoffman, Aden Meinel, Michael Reed, Robert Shannon, Ray Weymann, Joseph T. Williams, and Fred L. Whipple.
  • "Naval Research Laboratory Space Science" (1986-1987; 8 videotapes and 5 transcripts) reviews NRL research in aeronomy and X-ray astronomy from 1945 forward, as seen by pioneers Herbert Friedman, Edward T. Byram, Talbot A. Chubb, and Robert Kreplin. The sessions include ample visual documentation of artifacts and working equipment.
  • "The Rand Corporation" (1987-1990; 15 videotapes and 8 transcripts) studies the RAND (Research and Development) Corporation of Santa Monica, California. Eight interview sessions were conducted with three RAND moderators and twenty-two participants. Subjects discussed at length included the aerial reconnaissance technology RAND developed for the Air Force; the changing intellectual culture of the Corporation as it related to strategic policy development; and pioneer computer development at RAND between 1945 and the late 1960s.
  • "Soviet Space Medicine" (1989; 7 videotapes and 6 transcripts) contains interviews with staff members Oleg Gazenko, Evgenii Shepelev, and Abraham Genin of the Institute for Biomedical Problems (Institut mediko-biologicheskikh problem) in Moscow about their research and participation in the Soviet aviation and space medicine programs prior to 1964, as well as their work at the Institute.
  • "Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of the Mariner 2" (1987; 2 videotapes and 1 transcript) brought together a group of engineers, scientists, and administrators associated with Mariner to discuss the construction, launch, and operation of the country's first successful planetary probe. The session sought to document how the group operated as a team. Participants were Jack Albert, Albert R. Hibbs, Lewis D. Kaplan, Jack N. James, and Oran W. Nicks

The Guide to the Smithsonian Videohistory Program collections is free; the tapes, transcripts, and finding aids are available for research, and copies are available for a fee. For information contact Pamela Henson, the Smithsonian Institution Archives, MRC 414, 2135 Arts and Industries Building, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC 20560; phone 202-357-1420.

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