May Photos of the Month

May Photos of the Month

Bread and Roses Edition
The Anarchist Riot in Chicago - A Dynamite Bomb exploding among the police [McCormick Strike, Haymarket Square]

The Anarchist Riot in Chicago - A Dynamite Bomb exploding among the police [McCormick Strike, Haymarket Square], 1886

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 

Happy International Workers’ Day! Oddly, May 1 was dedicated as International Workers’ Day in honor of the 1886 American Haymarket affair (also known as the Haymarket incident, Haymarket riot, and Haymarket massacre, really evocative naming there). 

In many other parts of the world, May 1 is known as Labour Day. Out of curiosity, I did a little digging about the date discrepancy between American Labor Day (the first Monday in September) and International Labour Day (May 1). It appears that May 1 was seen as too politically charged because of its connection to Haymarket, and the September holiday was seen as less radical. But I say, why not celebrate both? 

Scientists are not generally thought of as “laborers” but scientists have been part of the labor movement and there are several current unions representing scientists today, like MOSES, CAPS, and the IFPTE (does anyone love an abbreviation or acronym more than a union?) . Additionally, more and more universities are facing pressure from graduate student unionization movements, so as we recognize the work of long under-recognized groups of both the past and the present, it is important to remember that science is work, and depends on the dedicated labor of people from all walks of life to make its great discoveries. So in celebration of workers everywhere (traditional and nontraditional, paid and unpaid), let’s take a look at some photos!

Living in the beautiful swamp of the Mid-Atlantic, I’m incredibly thankful to the labor of people designing, building, and fixing air conditioners. In this era of erratic climate-change weather and increased weather extremes, they can literally save lives. I love the look of concerned concentration on this unidentified worker’s face, such a beautifully composed photo.

Description: As compressors (the key component of air conditioners) come off the assembly lines at General Electric's room air conditioner plant in Louisville, Ky., they have to pass a stringent "physical exam" administered by an electronic "physician." The automated inspection system - invented at the GE Research and Development Center in Schenectady, N.Y. and fine-tuned for the factory floor with the assistance of the plant's engineers - consists of a super-sensitive "stethoscope" connected to a powerful minicomputer. Just as a doctor listens to a patient's heartbeat, the acoustic sensor picks up the otherwise inaudible whirrs, squeals, and clicks made by the compressor as its shaft is up briefly. The minicomputer, located elsewhere in the factory, quickly compares these sounds with the acoustic "fingerprint" of a "good" compressor stored in its memory and decides if they match. If they don't, a display lights up to tell an operator that the unit should be lifted off the line. The complete "physical", which involves millions of mathematical calculations, takes just six seconds. The man in the photo is unidentified.

I enjoy reading about the history of the first telescopes as much as the next nerd, but I think we often equate the inventor of a certain technology with the builder of that technology. And while maybe that’s true with some scientists, like Galileo and William Herschel, they’re actually the exceptions to that rule. As we learned in The Unexpected Hero of Light, the Initial Conditions: A Physics History Podcast episode all about John Brashear, science also depends on the work of other qualified people to produce the amazing technologies scientists depend on, so I appreciate this photo of the workers at a telescope factory, and one of them is even identified! C.A. Robert Lundin (the man on the far left) worked in optics all his career, possibly a family calling as his father also helped build telescopes. The Smithsonian has a great photo and little biography about Lundin.

Description: Evidently the only known surviving photograph showing the interior of the Alvan Clark and Sons telescope factory. Three men standing alongside the 2-element, 40-inch objective lens in its heavy cell; C.A. Robert Lundin is the man on the left. This is a copy of an original small photograph presented to the Observatory by Ruth Douglass, the daughter of C.A. Robert Lundin.

I’m not sure where the description for this photo comes from, but the note that no one in the factory knew what they were doing for the war effort is absolutely fascinating. The Calutron operators were contributing to the eventual production of an atomic bomb so it makes sense that their work was done in secret, but it’s hard to fathom today what that must have been like. According to Wikipedia:

“Testimonies said women who talked about what they were doing disappeared. One young woman who disappeared was said to have "died from drinking some poison moonshine". If they were too nosy about what they were working on, they were replaced.”

But I wonder if there were some super smart operators who could make some educated guesses about what they were doing?  I’m intrigued enough that I want to check out The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan now! Voices of the Manhattan Project also has a number of oral histories with workers at the Y-12 Plant, including Calutron Girls, which were the basis for much of Kiernan’s writing. Can’t wait to dig in! 

Description: Calutron operators at an electromagnetic isotope separation plant in Oak Ridge during World War II. Calutrons were overgrown mass spectrographs used to separate isotopes. The name is an acronym for 'California university cyclotron.' Note the supervisor standing near the end of the row; neither he nor anyone else in the picture had any idea of the purpose of their labor, save that it was 'vital to the war effort.' Many women graduates from East Tennessee high schools tended the Y-12 control panels. Each operator monitored two control panels.

I’m just going to encourage you to read Corinne Mona’s March POTM about Women in Physics. Women have always been workers, in STEM and everywhere else.

“Unidentified grad student”!? Talk about the backbone of academia and science! Though student is literally in their title, graduate students are often used by universities as employees, often with crushing workloads and little compensation. Sound familiar? I think we can safely honor them on International Workers’ Day.

Description: An unidentified graduate student adjusting the counter on a solenoidal beta ray spectrometer, used to study nuclear beta rays.

I wish we had more information about these unidentified students/workers, but I just love the vibe of this photo.

More graduate students, but this time they’re eating pizza, a graduate school pastime that many of us can relate to! I love them all and wish we knew more about them.

Ronald Mickens at Everybody's Pizza near Emory University with three of the graduate students taking his Math Methods course.

Catalog ID: Mickens Ronald D1

Date: November 16, 2011
Description: Ronald Mickens at Everybody's Pizza near Emory University with three of the graduate students taking his Math Methods course.

What’s a photo of Andrew Gemant and his wife Susi Gemant doing in an International Workers’ Day tribute!? Well…I think it’s about time that we discussed unpaid labor. But first, onto the next photo.

Wives and mothers may not have always been in the professional workforce, or even doing scientific work, but their labor is and always has been absolutely essential to getting science done. Some wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters actually helped their male relatives with scientific work, but many more did not. However, that does not disqualify their labor, merely because it was indirectly related to the science itself. Humans need to stay fed and clothed and womens’ (housework and care work were traditionally done by women, but this isn’t always the case of course) labor to take care of the household and their families is what enables anyone and everyone to leave the home to do professional science.

In The Atlantic, Angela Garbes writes about how the global economy is actually driven by both paid and unpaid care work. “When most of us imagine economies, domestic or international, we picture workers toiling in factories or offices, money being wire transferred, stocks and bonds traded: all activities that play out in public, highly visible. But the global economy is also driven by domestic labor—happening in laundry rooms and nurseries, performed on hands and knees, sponge or toilet brush in hand.”

This infographic from  Women at Work, Trends 2016, shows the discrepancy in both paid and unpaid labor between men and women in the developed and developing world. 

Lastly, I leave you my personal favorite rendition of the song Bread and Roses (which has its own fascinating history) from the movie Pride.

Bread and Roses from the movie, Pride


About the Author

Allison Rein

Allison Rein

Allison Rein is the Associate Director of the Niels Bohr Library & Archives. She has a B.A. in history from UMBC and an MLS from the University of Maryland. She spent nearly 10 years working in libraries and archives before coming to AIP. She manages the book collection at the Niels Bohr Library & Archives and if she had to pick a favorite book in the entire collection it would be Radium Girls by Kate Moore. Her favorite thing about working at the Library (and any institution she’s ever worked) is how much she’s constantly learning. 

Caption: Maria Goeppert Mayer posing in a bat costume

See all articles by Allison Rein

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