In 2015, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum Archives acquired the personal papers of famed science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke from his trust and estate in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Over the past year, I completed the task of scanning and digitally ingesting the correspondence series from this collection and now these materials are available to researchers via the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives. With every box and folder that I have gone through, I have found surprising connections between Clarke and a variety of people and institutions that he became acquainted with throughout his long life. In a previous blog post, I explored his relationship with the major movers and shakers in the realms of literature, entertainment, and science. For this entry, I want to pull back the curtain and show that before his death in 2008, Clarke had contact with the Smithsonian Institution, both directly and indirectly, throughout the years.
In the late 1950s, Clarke moved to Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) to indulge in his passion for scuba diving. He set up a diving business there with his associate Mike Wilson to support his hobby. Both Clarke and Wilson would explore the sea around Sri Lanka. In 1961, the pair discovered the remnants of a shipwreck in the Great Basses Reef, around the southern coast of Sri Lanka. The wreck contained silver rupees, cannons, and other artifacts. Clarke and Wilson carefully documented their discovery, and in 1964, Clarke used this discovery as the basis for his non-fiction book The Treasure of the Great Reef. However, Clarke and his associate didn’t just limit the word of their shipwreck discovery to the pages of a book. During 1961, both Clarke and Wilson corresponded with the Smithsonian Institution, specifically to Mendel L. Peterson, the Smithsonian’s Head Curator for the Department of Armed Forces History at the National Museum of History and Technology (now the National Museum of American History), in helping to identify their findings from the Great Basses Reef shipwreck.
After their initial talks with the Smithsonian in identifying the items found in the shipwreck, Arthur C. Clarke and Mike Wilson wrote back to see if they could donate some of the silver rupees they had found in the wreck to the Institution.
Clarke didn’t just contact the Smithsonian for discoveries he made while diving off Sri Lanka’s coast. Sometimes he would get letters from the Institution regarding his writings. In the early 1960s, he exchanged correspondence with Fred L. Whipple of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory about his story, “Into the Comet,” and how it mentioned Whipple’s idea of the icy comet model.
Decades later, Clarke would correspond with future staff members of the Institution, while they were employed by other organizations. One example is former National Air and Space Museum Director and current Smithsonian Under Secretary for Science and Research, Ellen Stofan. In 1994, Stofan, then at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), corresponded with Clarke on the status of the Spaceborne Imaging Radar-C/X-band Synthetic Aperture Radar (SIR-C/X-SAR) observations of the Karisoke Research Center in relation to the mission of SIR-C/X-SAR in studying the different types of geological activity on Earth. Clarke’s response letter to Stofan was filled with enthusiastic praise of success for the operation, and how it would greatly enhance the reputation of both JPL and NASA.
In the early 2000s, Clarke had a regular correspondence with Mark Kahn, an archivist for the National Air and Space Museum. While reviewing and processing the archival collection of German rocket scientist and science fiction author Willy Ley, Kahn wrote to Clarke to share that he had found letters from Ley to Clarke in the collection.
The letters highlighted here are only a small fraction of correspondence that Arthur C. Clarke had with the Smithsonian Institution. What these letters show was that Clarke was fully engaged with the Smithsonian’s mission: the increase and diffusion of knowledge.