Day 8: Mar. 4, 2004
A Smithsonian Day



I got off of the subway at Smithsonian Station a little before 10:00 which is when most of the museums open. That gave me a reason to stop by the castle which opens at 9:00. Hard to believe that this building once housed the whole of the institution currently occupying sixteen separate museums and soon to fill a seventeenth. Today, the castle is filled with administrative offices, a visitor's information center, and the sarcophagus of James Smithson.

My personal Smithsonian targets were the Museum of American History and the Air and Space Museum. I headed first for American History and reached there just a few minutes after it opened and an unknown amount of time after several full school buses had unloaded. The line at the door and some congestion inside merely made more noticeable the lack of any serious congestion elsewhere. Early March seems a very good time to visit DC. The recently opened America on the Move exhibit was at the top of my list and apparently at the top of every visiting school group's list, too. I knew the crowds would thin eventually so headed off for some other great exhibits. It's really kind of nice to see teenagers getting and using a chance to see displays like this.

So I headed to the nearby Engines of Change. This is a display of many of the innovations that made the nineteenth century different from all previous ones. An 1850's machine shop holds a rather amazing collection of metal working tools including lathes, planers, and milling machines. The automated gunstock machine is a great example of the sort of ingenuity apparent throughout the display.

The Information Age section contains some twentieth century "engines of change". The many keyed "adding machine" is identified as a Frieden calculator; I remember it as a "comptometer". The panel with row upon row of rotary switches is the input device for the 1946 ENIAC and that next picture shows the highly successful Remington UNIVAC. The "big blue" box is the machine that I cut (and gnashed) my teeth on - the IBM 360 - and that's the groundbreaking Xerox Alto in the last picture.

By now, the students had thinned out a bit and I headed into America on the Move. This display is a true celebration of transportation and mobility in America. In addition to the impressive physical exhibit, the Smithsonian has built a remarkable web presence for America on the Move. Both are highly recommended.

My own favorites include the Ohio built Winton that H. Nelson Jackson & Sewall Crocker drove across the country in 1903 and a forty foot section of Route 66 pavement from near Bridgeport, OK. I don't know for certain if I've actually driven over this section but I prefer to think I did. In any case, I can at least be certain that I've walked on it and I even have a slightly fuzzy picture to prove it. That huge locomotive is another personal favorite. For one thing, it's big; 90 feet & 280 tons. For another, it's "alive". You can stand beside the cab and listen to a conversation between the engineer & fireman but what really struck me were the sounds on the lower level. Standing next to the big font wheels, you can hear the hisses and clanks that come from steam engines preparing to roll out over some rails. Of course, not everything is as big as a locomotive or a slice of two-lane and it's the postcards, advertisements, hood ornaments, and individual stories that make this exhibit a real winner.

Before leaving the Museum of American History, I visited the area where the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key is the subject of a major preservation effort - no pictures allowed - and was fascinated by an exhibit called Within These Walls. Within These Walls is based on a house with 200 plus years of history. The house itself is there. Carefully reconstructed with some details strategically exposed to show construction techniques and such. Around the house, information on five of the many families who have lived here is presented along with supporting items.

At last I pulled myself away and headed across the mall to the Air and Space Museum. With the Dayton connection and a centennial year just ended, the original 1903 Wright flyer topped my list of "must sees".

Lots of other milestone vehicles are displayed here, too. The plane that Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic in 1927, the Spirit of St. Louis, hangs from the ceiling. Friendship 7 and Gemini IV are also there. Friendship 7 is the Mercury capsule in which John Glenn orbited the earth three times in 1962. In 1965, James McDivitt piloted Gemini IV while Edward White made the world's first space walk. That last big cone is the Apollo 11 Command Module which carried Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, & Michael Collins to and from the moon in 1969.

I knew that some brave/crazy folks have mounted V8 engines in motorcycle frames and at last years Detroit auto show, Dodge displayed its semi-serious V10 powered Tomahawk two-wheeler but now I know that this sort of thinking goes back at least to 1906. That's when aeronautic pioneer Glenn Curtiss put this 40 horsepower V8 bike together to test what was really an airplane engine. Then, in a move that makes today's V8 riders seem almost sane, he set a 137 MPH speed record with it. Take another look. Two white-rubber tires on spoke wheels; Leather Helmet; 1907; 137 MPH!

With the opening of the Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles airport there are now actually two Air and Space Museums. Free shuttle service is available from the mall museum but I didn't get to try it so I missed out on things like the Enola Gay and the Space Shuttle Enterprise. But, right outside the museum's Sea-Air exhibit, I did see this Enterprise. This happens to be a 1:100 scale model of the big carrier. Having just spent a couple of days on the real thing, I searched for any discrepancies in the model. Looks good to me.

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