The Untold Story of Getting from Here to There

Posted on Wed, March 14 2012

I work behind the scenes as part of a team of museum specialists supporting the upcoming exhibit Time and Navigation: The Untold Story of Getting from Here to There opening in March, 2013. I am the person who shepherds the objects themselves through the process. I photograph them, take their measurements, build specialized containers for them, bring them to their appointments and generally hover over them like a nanny to her charges.  Yes, indeed, they have appointments — with the exhibit designer, the conservator, and mount maker — all of whom play a big role in getting them ready for their big day when the exhibit opens.   Spending as much time with them as I do, I have learned a few of their secrets and I would like to share some of them with you.


Hemispherical Resonator

Hemispherical Resonator. Photo by Ben Sullivan and Charles Gosse.


The tiniest object in the exhibit – not much bigger than a dime – is this part of a Hemispherical Resonator shown above in a series of three snapshots.  Plato said that “all science begins with astonishment;” so it is for the child who gazes upon a ringing wine glass resting on a dinner table.  Haven’t we all run a wet finger along the rim of a wine glass to make it sing?  I know I have.  You may never have thought about this, but every material has a frequency at which it vibrates or “resonates.” The Hemispherical Resonator sings in much the same way as a wine glass. Onboard a space vehicle, a Hemispherical Resonator assists with extremely fine positioning.  And of course, in space no one tells the Resonator to cut it out.  While its form is meant to be purely functional, when we photographed it our studio lights passed through it and revealed an elegance as compelling as any object of art.

This LORAN-C or long-range navigation unit for general aviation aircraft, was the first of its kind in 1980.  What we didn’t realize until we looked closer was that the engineers, scientists, and technicians who designed it actually signed their work.  How cool is that?



Long Range Navigation (LORAN) Unit. Photo by Charles Gosse and Ben Sullivan.


This is the compass which was onboard Winnie Mae when Wiley Post flew solo around the world.  The damage to the glass (a separate piece from the main unit, itself) is from a crash on takeoff on August 15, 1935 near Point Barrow, Alaska.  We needed to know what the fluid was inside the compass but we could not open the sealed unit.  After some careful research, I discovered that the company which made the compass was still in business and got in touch with them and gave them its serial number.  They looked it up in their old company registers (extract below), found its manufacture date, and told us that the fluid was either alcohol or mineral spirits as well as the date it was made and for whom.



Aperiodic Compass


R.S. Ritchie Company log records

R.S. Ritchie Company log records. Photo courtesy of Steve Sprole


This model of a Dornier Super Wal flying boat is made of nickel over brass.  Beautiful at a distance, we discovered just how beautiful it is up close, as well, where the detail is extraordinary, both externally as well as inside where gangways, seats, and tables are lovingly reproduced.  A tiny metal plate was attached to the co-pilot’s seat at some point with the name of the craftsman who had made needed repairs to the model.


Model of a Dornier Super Wal Flying Boat

Model of a Dornier Super Wal Flying Boat. Photo by Charles Gosse


These are just some of the stories behind these beautiful and important objects, which will appear in the upcoming Time and Navigation exhibit opening in March, 2013.

Charles Gosse is a part of the team behind Time and Navigation: The Untold Story of Getting from Here to There coming March, 2013 to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC



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