Packing up Our Secret Decoder Ring

Posted on Sun, October 16, 2011

Blogs across the Smithsonian will give an inside look at the Institution’s archival collections and practices during a month long blogathon in celebration of October’s American Archives Month. See additional posts from our other participating blogs, as well as related events and resources, on the Smithsonian’s Archives Month website.”

Contents of Box

Flat box containing "Aircraft Recognition Training Materials" collection, Accession XXXX-0158.


  You know when you're packing up for a move to a new house boxes everywhere frantic activity to get everything stored away before the movers arrive,  and you still have to clean out the fridge.  Suddenly you come across an old family treasure a photo album, your old baseball cards, or maybe your raygun collection and everything stops while you rummage nostalgically for a few minutes. That's what's been going on from time to time in the Museum's Archives Division offices, as we prepared for our move to the Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center this month. We would pause from time to time to appreciate some of our favorite things our chief photo archivist Melissa Keiser tells the story of one such artifact:

One day I was in the Archives storage box at the Paul E. Garber Restoration and Storage Facility in Silver Hill, Maryland looking for something in the Basil Lee Rowe Collection (NASM Accession XXXX-0019). The large 20 x 24 inch flat box I needed to check was under another big box; when I moved the top box, something inside the flat box slid heavily and went “Clunk!” Fearing some damage might have occurred to the contents, I opened the box to check.   The box, labeled Aircraft Recognition Training Materials, NASM Accession XXXX-0158, seemed to be full of a variety of manila envelopes, but on top of everything was this great big colorful circular thing with a World War II vintage P-39 screaming through the clouds — wow!

  (It’s a wheel chart, also known as a volvelle, a device with a rich history, still used for pilots’ flight computers like the famous E6B “Whiz Wheel”.)

I’ve seen lots of aircraft recognition training aids in our collections, but they’re usually black and white silhouettes, or sober halftone photographs. This thing was more like a giant cereal box prize or a secret decoder ring! Obviously intended to appeal to a more general audience, I could picture Dad coming home from work one day with this spiffy doodad to share with the kids. Now we can ALL have fun watching the skies for enemy aircraft!

reverse shot of \"Know Your Airplanes\" wheel chart

Reverse of Aircraft Identification Wheel Chart, NASM 9A-07662.

  And on the back, there's a selection of colorful US Army Air Forces squadron insignias. Melissa passed it around, and we all admired it for a minute or two, and then we got packing once again. Because the moving van is already at the door.