philco dial_SW

Unstable Plastics: Preservation Challenges in Museum Collections

Plastics are so much a part of our lives that we don’t even think about them except when we check for the recyclable symbol. Plastics in museums (Figure 1), however, deserve much more attention as they present significant and constant collecting and preservation challenges.

Figure 1. The Temperature Control (TC) room in one of the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation storage facilities provides constant and cool storage conditions for many small objects made of early plastics.

Figure 1. The Temperature Control (TC) room in one of the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation storage facilities provides constant and cool storage conditions for many small objects made of early plastics.

The first synthetic plastic was patented in 1865, meaning that plastics are 150 years old this year. We collect plastic artifacts not as examples of the plastics themselves, but as part of a collection of technological and social history objects significant to Canadians (Figure 2). One of the earliest plastics was rubber, and it is not hard to imagine the amount of rubber in a collection of technological history….. tires, tubes, gaskets, seals, floor mats, fabrics, wires, elastics….everywhere.

Figure 1. (A) Embrittlement caused by degraded cellulose acetate is clearly visible in this car knob from a 1948 Chrysler Town and Country car. (B) The degraded cellulose nitrate is visible on the mouthpiece of this tobacco pipe. (C) Degraded ebonite on a 19th century stethoscope. (D) Signs of degradation due to exposure to oxygen and light, on the rubber of this WW1 gas mask.

Figure 2. (A) Embrittlement caused by degraded cellulose acetate is clearly visible in this car knob from a 1948 Chrysler Town and Country car. (B) The degraded cellulose nitrate is visible on the mouthpiece of this tobacco pipe. (C) Degraded ebonite on a 19th century stethoscope. (D) Signs of degradation due to exposure to oxygen and light, on the rubber of this WW1 gas mask.

 

The preservation of plastics is a growing concern in the field of Conservation due to the instability of some types. There is much study being done in Europe, mostly related to plastic in works of art and decorative objects. PoPArt, the Preservation Of Plastic ARTefacts in museum collections is a good example. There is far less being done for plastics in collections of technology, which is worrying for us. The Canadian Association for Conservation of Cultural Property sponsored a workshop in 2010, that brought together some of Canada’s leading experts including Scott Williams and Julia Fenn. This workshop focused on plastics in the collection of the Canada Science and Technology Museum Corporation.

 

“The preservation of plastics is a growing concern in the field of Conservation due to the instability of some types”.

Why do we worry about plastics in our collection? Because we find them everywhere. They were arguably the material that most affected the electrification of the world: allowing for the production of cables (transatlantic cable 1854 to 1858, and again 1865-66), insulating materials, and moulded shapes for consumer products such as telephone receivers (Figure 3). In our transportation collection, we have plenty of rubber tires, and we also find plastic steering wheels, knobs, safety glass (which has a plastic layer sandwiched between glass), moulded dash and interior panels and fittings, and vinyl upholstery.   Aircraft contain a similar range of plastics materials; it being one of the great technological advancements between World War I and II that allowed for the huge innovations in aircraft construction between the Wars. From a design perspective, plastics, and the ability to mould complex shapes; permitted the creation of iconic decorative objects from the 20th Century, including radios, lamps, telephones, furniture and fashion accessories.

 

Figure 2. (A) The moulded shapes and colour effects of urea formaldehyde plastic are clearly visible on this Philco rotary dial. (B) A sample of an early marine telegraph cable, made of gutta percha, which is actually remarkably stable.

Figure 3. (A) The moulded shapes and colour effects of urea formaldehyde plastic are clearly visible on this Philco rotary dial. (B) A sample of an early marine telegraph cable, made of gutta percha, which is actually remarkably stable.

 

“Plastics are a fascinating class of material; and we owe a great deal to the early pioneers of chemistry,  whose achievements have allowed for the ubiquitous presence of this material in our lives today”.

 

There are some plastics that we know won’t last, such as rubber and PVC; but we do have strategies for prolonging their life expectancy. Some need to be stored in the dark, some in cold temperatures, and some in an oxygen-free environment. Some need all three. Private collectors should be aware of the type of plastic they have, so that they can care for it properly. Bakelite is one of the most stable plastics, and fortunately the majority of decorative items to be found at Antiques sales, are of this material.   Cellulose nitrate, on the other hand, also used to make decorative items; is inherently unstable.   Collectors should know this and take special care of it.

 

Figure 4.

Figure 4. Embrittlement

 

 

What does plastic deterioration look like? It can take the form of embrittlement (Figure 4), surface changes, stickiness, or a change of colour. Some (like cellulose nitrate) release an invisible gas which in the presence of moisture, can form acid on adjacent surfaces. This will cause organics to disintegrate, and metals to corrode. Cellulose nitrate buttons on an old gown, for instance, will eventually result in holes in the fabric, and corrosion of any metal decoration or button shanks. They should therefore be removed and stored separately, even if it breaks your heart to do so.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Conservation and Collection Services Division is responsible for the long-term care, preservation, and housing of the National Collection for the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation.

 

 

 

 

Alyssum 1

Nickel in a Haystack: The Adventures of an Oral Historian

When asked where metals such as nickel comes from, most people would tell you that it is found in the ground. Evidently it is a metal you mine. But what if I told you nickel can actually be grown? What if instead of mining the nickel ore, you were able to farm and harvest it every year? I was a little skeptical too, until I had a chance to sit down and chat with Dr. Bruce Conard, the man behind an unconventional initiative to clean up the surface soils of an Ontario community.

 

Born in St-Louis, Missouri, Dr. Conard joined Inco (International Nickel Company) shortly after having received his Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Iowa State University. He began working in the Mississauga labs where he gained years of varied experience in pyrometallurgy, electrochemistry and hydrometallurgy, which eventually earned him the position of director of process research. His most remarkable work came afterwards when he became Vice President of Environmental & Health Sciences within the company. Thanks to his extensive experience in metallurgy, Dr. Conard’s primary task was to study the effects or impacts of metals on the environment, which consisted of ecosystems, animals, people and the company’s own workers. Although much of his work consisted of making the workplace a healthier and safer environment, he often found himself assessing the risks of metals in hopes to better educate outside organizations and the general public on the matter. One of the marking events of his career came in 2001, when the citizens of Port Colborne filed a class action lawsuit against Inco after it had become evident that the local refinery’s early activities had polluted the soil surface of the area with high levels of nickel, copper and cobalt.

Alyssum, Port Colborne. Photo courtesy of Bruce Conrad.

Alyssum, Port Colborne. Photo courtesy of Bruce Conrad.

 

At the end of the war in 1918, the Canadian government and the Allies had pressured Inco to build its refinery in Port Colborne. Its location on Lake Erie, would facilitate transportation of nickel to the US and Western Europe. “There was no nickel in Port Colborne. It had to be shipped from Copper Cliff (Sudbury). And during the years, the unloading of the nickel we did ship, and the way in which we refined the nickel, caused quite a bit of dust,” shared Conard. “And the dust went up the stack and floated with prevailing winds and then came down on land. A lot of residential land and a lot of farm land in Port Colborne.”

 

After several years of risk assessments conducted by both Inco and the Ontario Ministry of the Environment (MOE), Dr. Conard had publically stated that Inco’s early operations had been the cause. The people of Port Colborne decided to file the class action lawsuit as a result but the assessment also determined that the metals in the soil did not pose considerable risk to the environment, and most importantly, to the local population. The lawsuit continued on grounds that the high nickel concentrations decreased the area’s real estate value. A long court battle ensued and the judge determined that Inco was to pay $36 million to the land owners. Nonetheless, Inco appealed and the Ontario Court of Appeal reversed the lower court decision on the basis that there was no proof of property devaluation. In addition, Inco’s refinery had complied with all the environmental and government regulatory laws applicable for the time, which unfortunately had been much different before the 1960s.

 

“They developed certain genotypes of these plants that we tested in the Port Colborne soils,” said Conard. “We even tested one tonne of ash accumulated from incinerating the harvested biomass by putting it into the converters to recover the nickel. And it works!” he said. “Instead of corn, you’re farming nickel!”

∼ Dr. Bruce Conard

 

 

“The legacy of the metals in the soil still confronts us today” stated Conard, having worked on the case for nearly a decade, trying to eliminate as much of the nickel presence as possible. “I had the dream […] to have Inco soak the nickel out of the ground […] and put it into the converters to recover the nickel.” But what exactly did he mean by soaking the nickel out of the ground? “I wanted to use hyper-accumulating plants,” he explained to me, “plants (called Alyssum) that love to accumulate nickel into their biomass.”

 

He worked with some researchers from the US department of agriculture who selectively bread different types of hyperaccumulating plants to maximize their uptake of nickel both in quantity and speed. “They developed certain genotypes of these plants that we tested in the Port Colborne soils,” said Conard. “We even tested one tonne of ash accumulated from incinerating the harvested biomass by putting it into the converters to recover the nickel. And it works!” he said. “Instead of corn, you’re farming nickel!”

 

 

Testing Alyssum plants in a Port Colborne field. Photo courtesy of Bruce Conrad.

Testing Alyssum plants in a Port Colborne field. Photo courtesy of Bruce Conard.

 

This technique of acquiring nickel could be used in soils where the nickel concentration is too low to be economically viable to mine. It would also be a much less intrusive technique of collecting metals. Furthermore, it could be a way of regreening an exhausted mine site while still extracting small amounts of nickel. Conard envisioned bringing this technique of phytoremediation to warmer countries such as Indonesia. “You may get three seasons in one year [there] because of the climate. […] It would also be a social boon as subsistent farmers could make more money farming nickel than farming anything else,” stated Conard. His team got to the stage of testing Alyssum in Indonesia, making sure the plant would not be invasive in a foreign country. “That’s about the time I retired and it, unfortunately, hasn’t gone any further,” said Conard.

 

To date, a few other countries such as the US and France have studied and experimented with Alyssum but none seem to have moved past the experimental phase of harvesting the metals. From the available research, we could conclude that there may still be much to learn about the plant, its optimal harvesting phase and its invasiveness in certain regions. “I still have a pipe dream of it,” confessed Conard, “but these things need a champion.” Perhaps the dream simply needs a new Dr. Bruce Conard.

 

 

Dr. Bruce R. Conard, Vice-President, Environmental & Health Sciences, Inco Limited. Photo courtesy of Bruce Conard.

Dr. Bruce R. Conard, Vice-President, Environmental & Health Sciences, Inco Limited. Photo courtesy of Bruce Conard.

 

Acknowledgement:

Thank you Bruce for taking the time to meet with me. The passion and pride that you have for your work resonated in person which made for quite a captivating interview.

 

Sources:

Conard, Bruce. Interview with Bruce Conard, Mining and Metallurgy Legacy Project, August 23, 2015. Toronto, Ontario, in person (William McRae)

Werniuk, Jane. “Cleaning Up a Community.” Canadian Mining Journal. June 6, 2004. http://www.canadianminingjournal.com/news/cleaning-up-a-community/1000156424/

Bowal, Peter and Sean Keown. “Nickel Shower: An Environmental Class Action.” Law Now. February 28, 2013. http://www.lawnow.org/environmental-class-action/

 

 

 

 

 

Photo:  Located at 4000 Rue St. Ambroise in Montreal, Coleco Canada was one of the few companies to have ever manufactured a video game console in Canada. Art. no. 1987.0457, CSTMC.

Going digital: crossing the physical divide?

Over a year ago, I was asked to research “Canadian” video games and suggest how we might be able to develop an artifact based exhibition opening in 2016. There was just one small problem, the Museum did not have an extensive video game collection.  Would this mean that I could start from scratch and shape a new collection?  The Museum did have a few intriguing video game related artifacts that I could use as a starting point.  My initial exploration of these objects and their history would shape the way I think about physical objects, digital objects, and the often blurred line between the two.

Photo:  Developed by Flim Flam and distributed by G.A.M.E. Ltd. in Canada.  The cabinet featured four playable games: Flim Flam Tennis and Flim Flam Hockey, Knockout and Knockout Doubles (all of which were Pong clones). Art. no. 1985.0580 CSTMC.

Photo:  Developed by Flim Flam and distributed by G.A.M.E. Ltd. in Canada.  The cabinet featured four playable games: Flim Flam Tennis and Flim Flam Hockey, Knockout and Knockout Doubles (all of which were Pong clones). Artifact no. 1985.0580 CSTMC.

The first true video game collected by the Museum was a cocktail table arcade game (1985.0580).  The first video game system in the national collection was quickly followed by the acquisition, in 1987, of the TELSTAR home system (1987.0457) manufactured by Coleco Canada.  Although, both of these artifacts are examples of video game hardware, the software, or games, are integral to the artifact.  Unlike a computer, where games can be played or not, the hardware and software in the first two video game artifacts cannot be separated.  In both cases the software, or games, is a Pong clone.

Photo:  A video of DeLuSioNaL Arcade’s restored Flim Flam cabinet gives a sense of how the games were played (English only https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AVKOjKl3dPU).

Photo:  A video of DeLuSioNaL Arcade’s restored Flim Flam cabinet gives a sense of how the games were played (English only https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AVKOjKl3dPU).

Many manufacturers, created versions of the smash hit Pong to capitalise on the success of Atari’s Pong.  The original Pong is regarded as the first commercially successful arcade cabinet and is also responsible for creating the home console market (whether the Magnavox Odyssey or the Atari Home Pong console). Both artifacts are important, in their own right, in the development of a video game industry and culture in Canada.  Although they were collected separately, I can’t help but think that both video games systems were always meant to be seen as a pair in the collection. When paired, they illustrate the rise and popularity of video games in Canada during the mid-1970s.  The arcade cabinet and the home console highlight the proliferation of locations where we, as consumers, were expected to play and how the gaming industry was formed by building copies of popular software rather than innovation.  The first video game artifacts act as an excellent starting point for discussions about technological uptake and the cultural/social value of video games.

Photo:  Located at 4000 Rue St. Ambroise in Montreal, Coleco Canada was one of the few companies to have ever manufactured a video game console in Canada. Art. no. 1987.0457, CSTMC.

Photo:  Located at 4000 Rue St. Ambroise in Montreal, Coleco Canada was one of the few companies to have ever manufactured a video game console in Canada. Artifact no. 1987.0457, CSTMC.

The quick analysis of these two artifacts suggested something more than the material nature of the object.  Until I started digging into the holdings of the collection I had been treating the hardware and the software of video games as discreet entities, as something to be examined on their own.  What these early video game artifacts show is that the physicality of the object is interwoven with its digital component and only by examining them together can deeper meaning be drawn.

 

Talking with Mr. Urgel Palin and volunteers renovating the Grange-écurie des Prêtres-Chaumont historical barn in Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines. CAFM Photo.

Harvesting History: My Visit to Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines

Despite having an extensive background in history and agriculture, the art of collecting is new to me. Before joining the collection and research team in March as curatorial research assistant, I had never really considered the mechanics of collection development and management or rationalization. As a historian, I had never been in the position to decide what should or should not make up a collection. That is, until I had the opportunity to research and write my first acquisition proposal for a Dion thresher, which the CSTMC Acquisition Committee approved this past July. It was a rewarding end to an extensive process that involved countless hours of research and discussion, as well as a road trip to Saint-Anne-des-Plaines, Québec.

 

Examining the Dion threshing machine. CAFM Photo.

Examining the Dion threshing machine. CAFM Photo.

 

This all began when Guy Charbonneau, mayor of Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines, approached the museum on behalf of the machine`s owner, Mr. Urgel Palin. Mr. Palin was looking for a new home for his 1920s Dion thresher following the sale of his tractor parts business. Mr. Palin had purchased the thresher from the family of the original owner, who used it on his farm in La Plaine, Quebec. The machine had been stored for over 35 years and remained in original condition – a rarity for such an old piece of equipment.

 

Threshing machines were the ancestors of today`s combine harvesters. They were developed in Europe in the late 18th century to separate and clean grain from straw and chaff. Threshers mechanized the separation of grain, which had previously been done by hand with flails and winnowing trays. Over the course of the 19th century, threshers became more elaborate and mobile as manufacturers added wheels to stationary machines. Canadian manufacturers, such as Waterloo and Macdonald and MacPherson, started producing threshing machines during the second half of the 19th century.

 

As I looked deeper into this potential acquisition, I discovered that little information was available regarding Dion’s history. This was surprising considering the company is still active today. Fortunately, with the help of Luc Choinière, of Dion-Ag Inc., I was able to piece together a basic history of the company which dates to the early 20th century. Brothers Amédée and Bruno Dion, both deeply interested in farm mechanization, enjoyed experimenting with various machines on their farm near Sainte-Thérèse de Blainville. By 1918, the brothers had designed and built their own thresher, specially adapted to their needs. The Dions were inspired by Western Canadian technology in their machine’s cylinder design, an innovative feature in eastern Canadian threshers. The brothers secured various patents and by 1920, la Société Dion & Frères Limitée was manufacturing threshers in a small factory operating on their farm. Dion threshers were known for quality and performance. Key features and improvements included feeders and band cutters designed to prevent cylinder clogging, and beaters and straw racks that facilitated grain separation and cleaning.

 

La Sociétée Dion & Frères Limitée manufacturer’s imprint. CAFM Photo.

La Société Dion & Frères Limitée manufacturer’s imprint. CAFM Photo.

 

Working with curator Will Knight, we were unsure whether to recommend this machine for acquisition. We were dealing with a machine that was technologically innovative, in amazing condition, and with detailed provenance. However, it was a pretty large object that would take up lots of space in the warehouse – space that was already at a premium. What’s more, the museum already has a significant threshing machine collection.

 

In the end, it was Mr. Charbonneau and Mr. Palin who convinced us. Since the thresher was manufactured in nearby Boisbriand, both men saw this machine as an important part of their region’s heritage and were adamant that it should be preserved in the museum`s collection. Through my conversations with them, I came to realize that, to them, this thresher was more than a simple machine. It was a symbol of their region`s agriculture and industrial history, as well as the people’s resourcefulness, dedication and hard work. This thresher was also a testament to the ingenuity of two enterprising brothers who hoped to lessen the burden of farm work through mechanization. The business they started from scratch almost 100 years has survived to this day as Dion-Ag Inc. a Canadian-owned, independent farm equipment manufacturer. This is a remarkable accomplishment in this age of multinational giants.

 

Talking with Mr. Urgel Palin and volunteers renovating the Grange-écurie des Prêtres-Chaumont historical barn in Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines. CAFM Photo.

Talking with Mr. Urgel Palin and volunteers renovating the Grange-écurie des Prêtres-Chaumont historical barn in Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines. CAFM Photo.

 

This first experience at collection development has been truly memorable. I met great people who are passionate about their agricultural heritage, including a group of volunteers restoring a historic barn in downtown Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines. I had the opportunity to help preserve an impressive machine for future generations. But most importantly, the process humanized the collection. Not only do its artefacts document the evolution of agriculture and food science and technology in Canada, they also tell the story of the people who designed, manufactured and used these machines and of the communities they formed.

 

Web links:

Flails:

http://techno-science.ca/en/collection-research/collection-item.php?id=1966.0606.001

 

Winnowing tray:

http://techno-science.ca/en/collection-research/collection-item.php?id=1969.1133.001

 

Macdonald and MacPherson threshing machine:

http://cafmuseum.techno-science.ca/en/collection-research/artifact-macdonald-and-macpherson-standard-thresher.php

 

Waterloo threshing machine:

http://cafmuseum.techno-science.ca/en/collection-research/artifact-waterloo-champion-thresher.php

 

Canadian Patent:

http://brevets-patents.ic.gc.ca/opic-cipo/cpd/eng/patent/217574/summary.html

 

Acknowledgements:

Thank you to Mr. Urgel Palin for his contribution to the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum’s collection. One can only admire your passion for agricultural machinery and your determination to its preservation.

 

Thank you to Mr. Guy Charbonneau, mayor of Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines, who played a key role in this artefact acquisition. Your devotion towards the preservation of your community’s agriculture heritage is truly appreciated.

 

Thank you to Mr. Luc Choinière, of Dion-Ag Inc., for his help in retracing the manufacturer’s history. His contributions were vital to the success of this acquisition.

 

References:

 

Robert N. Pripps, Threshers, History of the Separator, Threshing Machine, Reaper and Harvester, Osceola, Motorbooks International, 1992. 128 p.

 

 

 

 

Our examinations and discussions took place in a fairly active public space. There were several visitors from the nearby (and quite large) Kasturba hospital complex.

Summer School in India

From July 20-24, I had the privilege of being faculty at a challenging and inspiring Summer School at the Manipal Center for Philosophy and Humanities (MCPH) in India (co-organized by Cosmopolitanism and the Local in Science and Nature). Graduate students from across India came together for a week centered on the topic “Scientific Objects and Digital Cosmopolitanism.” As a break from the seminar format, Varun Bhatta (MCPH), Roland Wittje (IIT Chennai) and I organized an outing to the Museum of Anatomy and Pathology at the Kasturba Medical College of Manipal University. The museum, one of the largest of its kind in Asia, is used primarily for medical teaching, but has a growing role in the region for education and outreach.

Participants examining a specimen in the section devoted to the Nervous System.

Participants examining a specimen in the section devoted to the Nervous System.

We broke off into six groups to examine objects and critique the displays. Each group carried out examinations based on specific themes or questions, for example to “analyse biases in the displays,” “record personal responses,” “analyse local and cosmopolitan elements of a specimen or display,” “propose alternative exhibition themes” and “analyse the processes – technical and cultural – that go into making the final specimen.”

I was nervous about a session with human specimens, having more experience teaching with conspicuously designed and manufactured artifacts of metal, wood, glass and plastic. Would the students be able to “culturally dissect” the specimens within a seemingly airtight scientific setting?

Preparation, choices, tools and technique - Heart specimen as a cultural artifact.

Preparation, choices, tools and technique – Heart specimen as a cultural artifact.

The students presented punchy, brilliant critiques (all within 30 minutes!) that took us far beyond the traditional medical categories of the museum. They raised a number of issues related to translation (between English and Kannada) for words like monster in “Anencephalic Monster”; ethical concerns of the specimen sources; implications of specimens arranged and displayed as art pieces; cultural questions behind the choice and presentation of certain display themes and objects; the absence of information about the tools, processes and techniques used in specimen preparation; questions about labels, language and audience (the larger panels were all English); questions behind choices – technical and cultural – that go into making a seemingly non-problematic museum encounter; notions of objectivity in medical education and practice; and, strong gender themes throughout the displays.

Our examinations and discussions took place in a fairly active public space. There were several visitors from the nearby (and quite large) Kasturba hospital complex.

Our examinations and discussions took place in a fairly active public space. There were several visitors from the nearby (and quite large) Kasturba hospital complex.

Remarkably, in a very short time, we analysed the specimens and displays using careful observation, questions and multiple perspectives. India has vast, underexplored collections of scientific instruments, specimens, and archival materials. These collections have enormous potential for this kind of open-ended group exploration that inspires new approaches to teaching, research and exhibit development.

Locally made c. 1950s? There were several of these plaster and wooden anatomical models on display. They were all identical, but each featuring different anatomical systems.

Locally made c. 1950s? There were several of these plaster and wooden anatomical models on display. They were all identical, but each featuring different anatomical systems.

A student at Tribhuvan University administers ether by way of a Schimmelbush Mask. Photo Credit: Dr. Roger Maltby.

Calgary, Kathmandu and the Ether between them

Dr. Jan Davies, Professor of Anesthesia and Adjunct Professor of Psychology at the University of Calgary, contacted me last summer because she wanted to donate historic anesthesia instruments to the Museum on behalf of the Foothills Medical Centre. Dr. Davies selected items that filled gaps in the Museum’s anesthesia collection from a technical point of view, and also reflected the cultural side of medical work and research.

A collection of Tudor Williams Airways used in the operating rooms at Foothills Medical Centre, Calgary Alberta. Photo Credit: Dr. Jan Davies.

A collection of Tudor Williams Airways used in the operating rooms at Foothills Medical Centre, Calgary Alberta. Photo Credit: Dr. Jan Davies.

Her list contained a few intriguing items from Dr. Roger Maltby, a former staff anesthesiologist at Foothills Medical Centre and Professor Emeritus of Anesthesia at the University of Calgary. These pieces, a Schimmelbush Mask and an Epstein-Macintosh-Oxford inhaler complete with travelling case, were used during his time teaching medicine in Nepal in the 1980s.

 This EMO vaporiser was designed to deliver ether/air and is portable and robust. This object comes complete with an instruction booklet and travel case (note the old Canadian Airlines luggage tag). Photo Credit: Dr. Roger Maltby

This EMO vaporiser was designed to deliver ether/air and is portable and robust. This object comes complete with an instruction booklet and travel case (note the old Canadian Airlines luggage tag). Photo Credit: Dr. Roger Maltby

In the early 1980s, the World Health Organization projected that a minimum of 27 anaesthetists should be providing services in the country within that decade. While the need for these trained practitioners was there, the systems were not in place to train that many anesthetists in that short amount of time. By the mid-1980s, there were only seven anaesthetists for the whole of Nepal and they worked in hospitals in Kathmandu, leaving no anaesthetists for the rest of the country.

The Schimmelbush Mask has a shallow trough around the circumference of the mask. This element is designed to catch straying drops of liquid ether. Photo Credit: Dr. Roger Maltby.

The Schimmelbush Mask has a shallow trough around the circumference of the mask. This element is designed to catch straying drops of liquid ether. Photo Credit: Dr. Roger Maltby.

In the spring of 1984 the University of Calgary was approached to assist in establishing a Diploma in Anaesthesia Program at the Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu. Dr. Maltby agreed to be the Canadian co-ordinator, without any previous experience in facilitating programs appropriate for the conditions in a developing country. During our phone conversation this past winter, Dr. Maltby justified his decision to participate in the development of this diploma program by stating that, “they wouldn’t have asked me to do it if they didn’t think I could do it.”

His comment seems to minimize the enormity of the commitment he made to the program. And by commitment, I mean both the months at a time that Dr. Maltby spent in Nepal and the years that he dedicated to planning, evaluating, and reviewing various elements of the program.  While Dr. Maltby felt that it was “always their program”, he was instrumental in its success and realisation.

A student at Tribhuvan University administers ether by way of a Schimmelbush Mask. Photo Credit: Dr. Roger Maltby.

bob lee

“I prefer not to talk about it”

The Adventures of an Oral Historian: “I prefer not to talk about it”

In April, I made my way, for the first time, to Wild Rose Country. My trip had two purposes: the first was to promote our museum among Klingons, Catwomans and Cosplayers at the rapidly growing Calgary Expo; the second was to begin my yearlong Mining and Metallurgy Legacy Project. The latter requires me to interview approximately 70 people who have played a significant role in the world of mining, metallurgy and petroleum. As I was already headed to Calgary for Comiccon, I decided to begin interviewing some of the veterans of the natural resources world. Being in Alberta, talent in that department was not lacking. The first man I interviewed was Bob Lee, a renowned figure in the metallurgy world.

Dr. Robert Lee was born and raised in the city of Montreal. He began his career with Canadian Liquid Air Ltd as research assistant in metallurgy. Throughout his time at the company, Lee proved himself a prolific innovator, improving many facets of metallurgy. He eventually became the Manager of Metallurgy which led to Manager of the Research Department and then Director of Research and Technology for Liquid Air. By the end of his career with the company, Bob Lee owned well over 200 patents which had earned him multiple prestigious awards such as the Order of Canada and the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal.

For our interview, he was wearing the tie of his alma mater, which paired well with the first series of questions I asked him concerning his education at McGill:

“In the old times, they called it the metallurgical engineering department, but now they call it materials engineering. And some of the work that I did while I was at university, I prefer not to talk about it.”

 

Bob Lee during our interview in Calgary.

Bob Lee during our interview in Calgary.

 

 

“In the old times, they called it the metallurgical engineering department, but now they call it materials engineering.

And some of the work that I did while I was at university, I prefer not to talk about it.”

∼ Bob Lee

 

 

 

 

In fact, after a gentle inquiry on my part, he was quite forthcoming about his student years and various not-so-calculated experiments involving grape juice, alcohol and even mercury. His stories related to his subsequent career were equally as colourful. I learned that one of his most important accomplishments, the idea of the porous plug, which allows gas to rise from the bottom of the ladle [a vessel used to transport and pour molten metals] and stir the molten steel, came to him while he was in the bathtub:

“…that was the time I was sitting in the bathtub and released some flatus they call it, a fart. And I went oh! That’s the idea, that’s how it came about. And that’s how I got the highest award of the AIME [American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical and Petroleum Engineers].” A story he had presented when receiving the aforementioned award in 2010.

It was evident to Bob and myself however, that flatulence was a very simplified version of the story. In fact, creating his famous porous plug took much more time and effort than it did to take a bath. In order to provide homogeneous temperatures and chemical composition to the molten metal, he needed a way to inject gas from the bottom of the ladle. For that, he needed to get his hands on some porous bricks, which conveniently, did not exist at the time. He was shown the door by some refractory companies who insisted on making solid, dense bricks to increase their service lives, not bricks with holes in them. Finally, a Canadian government ceramics lab helped him develop the porous brick which, after much experimentation, led to the porous plug. This technology and process changed steelmaking and is now used around the world. Because of it, steelmaking has increased in safety and quality. Mr. Lee told me that to this day, it has been the biggest challenge and proudest accomplishment of his career.

 

Bob Lee and Guy Savard patent for treating molten steel with oxygen.

Bob Lee and Guy Savard patent for treating molten steel with oxygen.

 

Dr. Lee is also considered an expert in the fields of gases, energy, combustion, pulp and paper, environment, entomology and cryobiology. Furthermore, he has worked with Hydrogenics to help them finance and develop the hydrogen fuel cell back in its start-up phase. He even helped Seagram’s develop a way to age alcohol (with the help of his porous plug!) by feeding oxygen into the alcohol. This technique, which dramatically sped up the aging process of alcohol, is still used to fortify wines such as port.

At 91 years young, Bob Lee shows no signs of slowing down. Although “retired”, he still acts as an independent technical advisor for Canadian Liquid Air and still has plenty of potential inventions up his sleeve. They might just be a soak away!

 

Steel Irony, July 2012, courtesy Association for Iron and Steel Technology.

Steel Irony, July 2012, courtesy Association for Iron and Steel Technology.

 

Acknowledgements:

Thank you to Dr. Bob Lee for making this a very enjoyable first interview. Your combination of experience, expertise and humour is a virtue that should inspire all. Your support for the Mining and Metallurgy Project is greatly appreciated.

Sources:

The American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical, and Petroleum Engineers, AIME Honorary Membership 2010, updated 2015.

http://www.aimehq.org/programs/award/bio/robert-gh-lee

ASRL Quarterly Bulletin No.163 Vol. XLIX No.3, October – December 2012, pp.124-125.

Lee, Robert. Interview with Robert Lee, Mining and Metallurgy Legacy Project April 16, 2015. Calgary, Alberta, in person (William McRae)

Air Liquide, Method and Apparatus for Treating Molten Metal with Oxygen, 1958.

http://www.google.com/patents/US2855293

Bottles

Dangerous Donations

One of my more favourite things we bring into the collection are chemical sets. We’ve had chemist’s laboratory containers, microscope slide preparation kits with dozens of vials and most recently, an 1890’s Robert Best Ede home chemistry set.

RB Ede’s Portable Laboratory before processing (2014.0029)

Robert Best Ede’s Portable Laboratory before processing (2014.0029)

 

It is remarkable to me that the materials and products in this kit were available to the average enthusiast, with no apparent warning as to their dangers and toxicity. Our kit includes samples of copper nitrates, potassium dichromate, calcium hypochlorite and of course, our frequent friend, mercury. As you can see, these chemicals are in their original round cardstock boxes, some of which are damaged or completely broken open. It is more worrying to me to see an empty box of barium nitrate and a nearby pile of powder, than it is for me to come across a beautifully intact box of arsenic. Without chemical analysis, I can only hypothesize that my pile of powder is the missing barium nitrate.

 

As the above photo of the kit shows, this kit was packed up by a generous donor. There are bits of Kleenex and other papers wrapped around some of the glassware. The donor did a good job and it appears that no new damage occurred during delivery. Other donors of chemical sets take great pride in donating their items to the museum and we are grateful. However, considering what we know about current Health & Safety practices, I sometimes worry whether the owners of sets like this understand precisely what they have in their possession. Do they know that labels cannot be trusted? The box labelled Cinnabar might give an impression of aromatic deliciousness, but in fact is toxic mercury sulphide. Do they know what to do if they spill their cobalt chloride on their hand, or inhale borax particles? My guess is that owners and collectors might not consult Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), nor re-package every bottle and box in a leak-proof, chemically resistant container, with appropriate WHMIS pictograms and labels. Fortunately for me, studying and making these chemical artifacts as safe as possible is one of my favourite conservation tasks.

 

Some RB Ede’s chemicals after packaging and labelling.

Some RB Ede’s chemicals after packaging and labeling.

 

One of the two prototypes of the Avro VZ-9V Avrocar – CASM negative no 15276

From the Puffalo to the Bisontennial, a brief take on the de Havilland Canada DHC-5 Buffalo

Ever since its creation, in 1967, the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation (CSTMC) has collected a great many items connected with this country’s aerospace heritage. On more than one occasion, it has done so with the help of National Research Council of Canada (NRC). A recent example of this cooperation was the acquisition of a truly remarkable engine, the sole surviving Rolls-Royce Spey Mk 801SF in the world.

 

A Rolls-Royce Spey Mk 801SF, quite possibly the one acquired by the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation. The engine acquired by the corporation does not have the rotating nozzles visible in the photo – Flight International, 18 May 1972, p. 734

A Rolls-Royce Spey Mk 801SF, quite possibly the one acquired by the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation. The engine acquired by the corporation does not have the rotating nozzles visible in the photo – Flight International, 18 May 1972, p. 734

To understand the story behind this turbofan engine, one has to go way back in time, to the mid 1960s. Back then, de Havilland Aircraft of Canada Limited (DHC), a company known today as Bombardier Aerospace Toronto, was a world leader in short take off and landing (STOL) technology. One of the research projects DHC was working on was the so-called Augmentor Wing. To make a long story short, the Augmentor Wing was an integrated propulsion and lift system that combined specially designed jet engines and wings to produce far more lift than a conventional wing. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was sufficiently intrigued to join a United States-Canada research program launched in 1965. Wind tunnel tests with models showed such promise that both countries agreed to fund trials with a suitably modified de Havilland Canada DHC-5 Buffalo twin engined STOL transport plane loaned to NASA. First flown in April 1964, the Buffalo was a more powerful and heavier derivative of the DHC-4 Caribou, an airplane produced to fulfill the military needs of several countries, especially the United States.

 

A de Havilland Canada Buffalo of the U.S. Army near Niagara Falls – de Havilland Aircraft of Canada brochure

A de Havilland Canada Buffalo of the U.S. Army near Niagara Falls – de Havilland Aircraft of Canada brochure

One of the two prototypes of the Avro VZ-9V Avrocar – CASM negative no 15276

One of the two prototypes of the Avro VZ-9V Avrocar – CASM negative no 15276

The DHC engineer in charge of the Augmentor Wing project was Donald Charles Whittley. Back in the late 1950s, this aerodynamicist at Malton, Ontario-based A.V. Roe (Avro) Aircraft Limited, a subsidiary of A.V. Roe (Avro) Canada Limited, itself a subsidiary of British aviation giant Hawker Siddeley Group Limited, was working on the VZ-9V Avrocar, a circular vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft funded by the American military. Whittley moved to DHC around July 1962, when Hawker Siddeley sold the Avro Aircraft factory to its second Ontario subsidiary, DHC. Although highly innovative, Canada’s flying saucer, as the Avrocar was sometimes called, did not prove successful, but back to our story.

DHC designed a new wing and new engine nacelles for the Buffalo test plane. In the United Kingdom, Rolls-Royce Limited designed an engine especially for it, using a version of the very successful Spey turbofan engine as a starting point. Rolls-Royce (Canada) Limited of Lachine, Québec, converted two engines for use on the modified Buffalo. The first Spey Mk 801SF (SF for split flow) ran on a test bench in April 1971. The saga of the Spey had begun in July 1959 when Rolls-Royce started to work on an engine to power a new British short range airliner, the de Havilland / Hawker Siddeley Trident. The Spey ran on a test bench in December 1960. It first flew in October 1961, on a modified bomber. The first Trident entered service in March 1964. The Spey was produced in numerous versions that powered both civilian (business jets and short to medium range airliners) and military (attack airplanes, maritime patrol airplanes and supersonic jet fighters) airplanes designed in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. It is one of the most successful medium sized turbofan engines of the 20th century[1].

 

The Augmentor Wing Buffalo – http://ails/arc.nasa.gov/Images/newimages/JPEGs/highres/AC73-2101.jpg

The Augmentor Wing Buffalo – http://ails/arc.nasa.gov/Images/newimages/JPEGs/highres/AC73-2101.jpg

Once DHC and Rolls Royce (Canada) completed their work, Boeing Airplane Company of Seattle, Washington, thoroughly rebuilt the Augmentor Wing Buffalo, as the test plane was called. The world’s first jet-powered STOL transport plane flew on May 1st, 1972. Trials began soon after, in California. The Augmentor Wing Buffalo airplane met or bettered all expectations. It was, however, one very noisy airplane – a serious flaw as far as civilian developments of the concept were concerned.

Months and years went by as testing continued. Back in Ontario, in the 1970s and 80s, DHC prepared the plans of military transport planes and airliners fitted with an Augmentor Wing. None of these was built. The Augmentor Wing Buffalo itself was nicknamed the Bisontennial in 1976, in recognition of the bicentennial of the declaration of independence of the thirteen colonies that formed the core element of the United States. In early 1980, the National Aeronautical Establishment (NAE), an independent division of the NRC, took over control of the Augmentor Wing Buffalo’s operations. The airplane returned to Canada in 1981, not too long after the end of the Canada-U.S. contracts. That same year, the Canadian government gave money to the NAE to continue the trials. The Augmentor Wing Buffalo apparently left the NAE around August 1982. DHC / Boeing of Canada Limited (de Havilland Division), a name adopted in early 1986, kept it until 1989.

Back then, Boeing Company wanted its Ontario subsidiary to concentrate its efforts on the Dash 8 turboprop regional airliner and abandon its work on STOL technology. The certificate of registration of the Augmentor Wing Buffalo was cancelled in September 1989. The airplane itself was scrapped soon after. The outer section of its left wing (1966.0943) went to the National Aviation Museum, today’s Canada Aviation and Space Museum, one of the three components of CSTMC. Oddly enough, the corporation does not seem to have much information on when or how this acquisition was made.

 

QSRA

The Quiet Short-Haul Research Aircraft – http://commons.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:N715NA_(16100297599).jpg

Mind you, the Augmentor Wing Buffalo was not the only airplane of its type involved in research projects. If truth be told, two other Buffalos were converted during the 1970s. The story of one of these began in late 1974 when NASA issued a request for proposal for a Quiet Short-haul Research Aircraft (QSRA). Boeing Commercial Airplane Company of Seattle, Washington, won this competition. It thoroughly modified the Buffalo chosen for the trials, fitting it with a new wing and four jet engines. The QSRA first flew in early July 1978. By and large, the testing proceeded without a hitch. NASA retired the QSRA in March 1994. This historic airplane can be seen in the airpark of the Moffett Field Historical Society Museum, in California.

 

The other research project involving a Buffalo resulted from research initiated by Bell Aerosystems Company, a subsidiary of Bell Aerospace Corporation, in late 1963. The American company’s internally-funded investigation centered upon the use of an air cushion landing gear on airplanes of various sizes. One of the co-inventors of the concept was Thomas Desmond Earl, an aerodynamicist who had left A.V. Roe Aircraft not too long before. Just like Whittley, he had worked on the Avrocar. The air cushion landing gear was tested in August 1967, on a Lake LA-4 four seat amphibian. The concept seemed very promising[2].

The Canadian Armed Forces Buffalo fitted with an Air Cushion Landing System – The Canadian Aircraft Operator, vol. 11, no 8 (May 1st, 1976) : 1

The Canadian Armed Forces Buffalo fitted with an Air Cushion Landing System – The Canadian Aircraft Operator, vol. 11, no 8 (May 1st, 1976) : 1

In late 1970, the U.S. Air Force, Canada’s Department of Industry, Trade and Commerce and the Bell Aerospace Division of Textron Incorporated, a new name adopted around that time, agreed to fund testing of the Air Cushion Landing System (ACLS), as the revolutionary device had become known. As a result, the Canadian Armed Forces provided one of their Buffalos. The modified machine flew around August 1973, with the largest ACLS made thus far – a rectangular doughnut 9.75 m long and 4.25 m wide. Taxi trials with a fully inflated system began in April 1974, with the first take off taking place in March 1975.

The Puffalo or Bell-bottomed Buffalo, as the airplane was nicknamed, proved able to negotiate all sorts of terrain, from water to ice, including areas filled with craters 1.75 m deep. Although fully successful, the trials showed that a great deal of research would have to take place to increase the service life of the rubber and nylon skirt that contained the air cushion of the landing system. The ACLS program ended in March 1977. The Buffalo went back to the Canadian Armed Forces in May. DHC soon returned it to its original condition. This Buffalo still existed as of March 2015. Given the (strong?) possibility that the Department of National Defence will offer a Buffalo to CSTMC at some point in the future, I would like to suggest that the Buffalo formerly equipped with an ACLS be chosen, if it stills exists when the offer is made.

References

[1] In the 1980s, Rolls-Royce (1971) Limited, as the company was then called, began to produce marine gas turbine engines derived from the Spey for use on forty or so warships of the British, Dutch and Japanese navies. The company also produced land based versions of its engine to produce electricity at peak time and push natural gas through pipelines. All of these turbines proved very successful indeed. The most unusual application of the Spey was undoubtedly the ThrustSSC, or Thrust Supersonic Car. Designed by a small British team, this twin engined vehicle reached a speed of 1 223.66 km/h and 1 227.99 km/h in October 1997, over distances of one kilometre and one mile. For the first time ever, a land based vehicle had exceeded the speed of sound.

[2] Interestingly enough, the Lake LA-4 used to test the air cushion landing gear still existed as of early 2015. Better yet, it belonged to a gentleman from Ontario.

Photo 5. Container with mission stamps and shipping stickers.

Field Notes: Science in Micro-Gravity

What is the nature of science as practiced in micro-gravity? The instrumentation is simple, well-designed and robust; digging below the surface, we discover that this experimental elegance derives from years of preparation, design, equipment construction, and testing. How do we find (and collect!) science within this prodigious enterprise?

Photo 1

Photo 1. Historian of space Jordan Bimm (York STS) sifts through an instrument container at the CSA Warehouse.

In the last two years, Michel Labrecque and I have made several trips to the warehouse of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) in Saint-Hubert, Quebec. We are collecting scientific instruments that span the Shuttle era, 1981-2011 as well as Canadian experiments on the International Space Station (ISS). We have sifted through numerous containers of surviving equipment, supplies, documents and instruments. Throughout this process and collaboration, we have gained a deeper appreciation for the practice of science in space, and scientific processes in general.

Photo 2: Dozens of Zebra fish containers and aquaria built for the Aquatic Research Facility (ARF) 1996.

Photo 2: Dozens of Zebra fish containers and aquaria built for the Aquatic Research Facility (ARF) 1996.

Photo 3: Log books for ARF

Photo 3: Log books for ARF

The instruments acquired by the museum represent several disciplines from botany to material science to physiology, but they all relate to each other through one key variable – they were designed to operate in microgravity conditions. Taking advantage of this unusual experimental resource requires years of testing and design, precision construction, duplication of equipment, large amounts of conformance and verification, good funding and… a spacecraft.

Photo 4. H-Reflex Experiment

Photo 4. H-Reflex Experiment

Amidst all these preparations, one finds basic scientific research. When I asked McGill Scientist Doug Watt about his work in space, he emphasized the need to “keep it [the experiment] as simple as humanly possible. Do an awful lot of testing in all kinds of circumstances.” Watt, a lead scientist for many successful Canadian experiments in space, was aware that not everyone could get time and space on the Shuttle or ISS. Whereas many scientific teams suffered failure of equipment, Watt succeeded in getting data from each of his experiments. In space, he said, “no matter what you get, it will be new.” But, one must ensure that the equipment works, which is not easy. One of his more successful experiments related to H-Reflex (Hoffman Reflex) that studied spinal cord excitability related to human adaption from earth to space and back.

 Photo 5. Container with mission stamps and shipping stickers.

Photo 5. Container with mission stamps and shipping stickers.

When I contacted Walter Kucharski, the maker of many of the instruments for Watt’s program at McGill, he remarked immediately that he appreciated Watt’s ability to ‘’keep experiments simple” and ask “simple questions.” The resulting instruments reflected this principle. It took years to plan, test and produce one set of instruments. Surprisingly, for space instruments, many of the instruments have a rather non-cutting-edge look. Kucharski preferred older generation technologies that were often “one step back,” but with proven performance. For Kucharski, a large part of the success of the Watt team came from working closely with the astronauts to train them, and listening carefully to their feedback.

The instruments and well-worn containers display mission stamps, transportation logistics and inscriptions, extensive safety procedures, material and parts audits, supply chains, mission numbers, and calibration and quality control labels. The materials are space age circa 1970 to 2010 with foils, Velcro and plastics. The boxes and instruments have the smell of overly packaged instrumentation and supplies.

 Photo 6. Buried deep in a box of parts, Luc Lefebvre finds a bag with a small, but important piece from Doug Watt’s Space Adaptation Syndrome Experiment (SASE) from 1992.

Photo 6. Buried deep in a box of parts, Luc Lefebvre finds a bag with a small, but important piece from Doug Watt’s Space Adaptation Syndrome Experiment (SASE) from 1992.

One of my guides in the CSA warehouse was Luc Lefebvre, a veteran project engineer at the Canadian Space Agency who was part of the Watt team on their experiments prior to taking a position at St-Hubert. We talked about how equipment design reflected unique conditions of science in space. One must “plan for science to be performed while you or your grad student are not there,” Lefebvre stated. It is science in an “expeditionary mode.” The instruments and their whole operation have to be incredibly resilient. “You may not get a second kick at the can.”

The designers of the experiments and instruments are not just shaping equipment; they are masters of time, safety, and space management. For Lefebvre “crew time was a precious commodity.” They had to design equipment that minimized complications and took into consideration launch delays and other time problems. This is especially important for life sciences experiments such as the Aquatic Research Facility (ARF) experiments that relied on dozens of micro-aquaria with developing organisms.

Photo 7: H-Reflex equipment tray (2001) designed for efficient interaction and execution by astronauts

Photo 7: H-Reflex equipment tray (2001) designed for efficient interaction and execution by astronauts

Some of the equipment trays have an Ikea meets Apple packaging look and feel. Simple, design equated to flawless execution. Lefebvre comments: “You have to use imagination to try to visualize how crew would interact with the equipment.” Even operations such as opening or sliding a lock could be complicated in micro-gravity. Latches, for example, may have to be designed to operate with one hand using a pinching motion. Relying on a typical push/pull application of force would require that the crewmember hold on with the other hand on supporting structure.

Acknowledgements:

Many thanks for the people who hosted myself and Michel Labrecque during several research and preparatory visits to the CSA warehouse. Thank you to Luc Lefebvre for being our primary guide in researching this collection. Thank you to Patrice Alary, Jean-Denis Bisson and Réjean Lemieux for their time and help at the CSA warehouse. Thank you to Jordan Bimm of the York STS program for joining me for on a warehouse visit, and providing invaluable historical guidance. Thank you to Doug Watt and Walter Kucharski for sharing their memories and insights on the instruments and equipment.