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Bites of History May 14, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.

One thing that I think is not appreciated enough is how much history is generally available for easy consumption.  Working at the American Institute of Physics over the past few years, something that’s become increasingly clear to me is that the vast bulk of history of physics is produced by physicists.  Generally it is well-written, and the interests and subject matter tend to be much more eclectic than in writing by professional historians.  Pieces do not really communicate with each other, and so the historiography is hardly synthetic, but if new syntheses of 20th-century physics were ever to be constructed, they would do well to draw heavily on these scattered bites of history.

Letter from George Washington to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences

Increasingly, professional organizations are making these bites more systematically available.  This week I was contacted by the communications officer from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, who informed me that the Academy is now presenting a weekly “From the Academy Archives” feature on its home page, highlighting items from its archival collection, which dates back to the 18th century.  An archive of these posts will soon be available.  The official press release is below the jump.

The Center for History of Physics, where I work, is the history arm of the American Institute of Physics, but “member societies”, which include the American Physical Society, sometimes also undertake their own historical work, such as through the APS Forum for the History of Physics.  The APS has a similar feature to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, “This Month in Physics History”, which has an archive going back to 2000.  The APS is also making the audio and slides of history presentations at APS meetings available on their website, which is another resource from which professional historians might be able to gain if they actively try and integrate this material into what they already know.

Historians need not feel that this sort of work totally fulfills their nutritional historiographical requirements in order to gain from it.  Now that this work is coming out in small, regular portions, there is no reason for historians not to take advantage of its ready availability to help round out their personal knowledge of history.

May 2010

CAMBRIDGE, MA – Over the past 230 years, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences has accumulated a large collection of documents, records, and objects that help tell the story of the nation’s intellectual development since the latter part of the 18th century. Now the public is being offered a glimpse into that history through a new web-based feature, From the Academy Archives.

To commemorate its founding on May 4, 1780, the Academy announced the new online resource, located on its web site at http://www.amacad.org/.

The site will highlight one or more significant events from the Academy’s history that occurred during a given month.  For example, during the month of May:

In 1780, the Academy’s charter was approved by the Massachusetts legislature. Among the sixty-two incorporating members were leaders in the movement for American independence, including Samuel Adams, John Adams, James Bowdoin, John Hancock, and Robert Treat Paine. The charter also named prominent ministers, educators, judges, lawyers, physicians, and businessmen.

In 1852, medical doctor and Fellow Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., spoke at an Academy meeting on “The Use of Direct Light in Microscopic Researches.”

In 1876, the Academy’s Recording Secretary presented a paper by Alexander Graham Bell “On Telegraphing Musical Sounds,” later published in the Academy’s Proceedings as “Researches in Telephony.” In the paper, Bell described past work in the field and explained his recent experiments in transmitting both pure musical tones and human speech.

In 1927, Herbert E. Ives spoke at the Academy on “Television” with lantern slide illustrations. A researcher at AT&T, Ives had given the first public demonstration of television transmission a month earlier.  [ed., my link]

In 1952, the Academy sponsored a two-day “Symposium on Climatic Change,” chaired by astronomer and past president Harlow Shapley. Speakers from the fields of astronomy, geology, geography, meteorology, paleontology, paleoanthropology, geophysics and geochemistry examined both the scientific basis for climatology and the role climate change has played in the development of life and human culture.

And in 1956, the Academy held a two-day conference on “Science and the Modern World View — Toward a Common Understanding of the Sciences and the Humanities.”

Members of the public can sign up to receive email alerts when new items are posted. A library of past items will also be available on the site.

“This initiative to link the past work of the Academy with our vital activities of today is made possible by our ongoing efforts to catalog and conserve the Academy’s rich archive,” said Chief Executive Officer Leslie Berlowitz.

Founded in 1780, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences is an independent policy research center that conducts multidisciplinary studies of complex and emerging problems. Current Academy research focuses on science and technology policy; global security; social policy; the humanities and culture; and education. With headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Academy’s work is advanced by its 4,600 elected members, who are leaders in the academic disciplines, the arts, business and public affairs from around the world.



1. Blogs - May 26, 2010

The Weekly Smörgåsbord #11…

&This week’s links fall into a few groups. Happily, people seem to be finding the time again to write (excluding me), making for some interesting reading. A couple posts by the ever-talented The Renaissance Mathematicus: Circumnavigating …

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