A ‘Portable Hole in the Sea’

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Captain Charles Williamson’s “Apparatus for Submarine Work.” Patented December 1, 1903.

Hampton Roads is a pretty amazing place. Besides being one of the most important ports on the East Coast, it’s also been a cradle for innovation.  Some of the “firsts” that occurred in Hampton Roads were Eugene Ely’s first flight of an airplane off the deck of a ship (USS Birmingham) and Robert Gilruth’s (of NASA fame) designing, building and sailing of the world’s first hydrofoiling sailboat. This year I learned about another first, Hampton Roads is considered to be the birthplace of underwater photography* and it led to the first successful underwater motion pictures.

It all started when Captain Charles Williamson, a merchant mariner who was also a bit of an inventor, moved his family from England to Vermont to Norfolk.  Among Williamson’s many inventions were a folding baby carriage and a signalling system for ships. In 1903 he patented an “apparatus for submarine work” which was essentially a waterproof tube that enabled underwater repair, salvage work, commercial harvesting of items on the seafloor or even underwater tourism (in 1911 he patented a “submarine pleasure apparatus” based on the same idea).   Read more

The Show Must Go On

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Conservation Treatment Toys Ahoy! 2019
The Myriopticon before treatment. The left edge of the cardboard housing is completely split, which made handling the object difficult.

We are a little over a month out from the opening of a new exhibition entitled, “Toys Ahoy! A Maritime Childhood.” The exhibit will put a playful spin on the typical maritime history exhibit with plenty of toys, games, and books to excite both the young and the young at heart.

Here in the paper conservation lab, I helped prepare for the exhibit by completing treatments on paper-based collection materials being brought out for display. While the treatments all involved paper in some shape or fashion, it’s safe to say that the types of objects coming across my bench were a bit outside the (two-dimensional) range of what I typically work on here at the museum. Instead of the normal prints, drawings, documents, and photos I have been treating, this exhibit brought me board games, puzzles, toy ships decorated with paper, and even a pop-up book!   Read more

Baptism at the ‘Waist of the World’

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The 1690 Atlante Veneto : nel quale si contiene la descrittione geografica, storica, sacra, profana, e politica, degl’ universo by Vincenzo Coronelli contains the earliest illustration of a the line crossing ceremony. (Call#: G1015 .C82 Rare OO)

When planning this year’s Gallery Crawl I decided to include a station focusing on a well-known seafaring tradition: the line crossing ceremony.  If you’re asking yourself “what the hell is a line crossing ceremony?” and are planning to attend the Crawl let me just say you are in for a real treat!  While surveying the collection for items to display I was surprised to discover that I had to look at some of the oldest books in the library; which, of course, made me supremely curious about the ceremony’s origins and how it developed into the crazy ritual it is today. 

The tradition developed sometime after 1418 which is when expeditions coordinated by Prince Henry the Navigator began tentatively working their way down the Atlantic coast of Africa. By 1473, Portuguese explorer Lopo Gonçalves had reached and crossed the equator. Interestingly, no one on these early voyages mentions celebrating passing the equator, or anything else for that matter other than arriving back home alive! Presumably, these sorts of events wouldn’t develop until voyages became so frequent they were considered “normal.”   Read more