Abracadabra!

One of the pleasures of working at the National Museum of American History is discovering the connections between the collections and research. A good example is my recent experience with Ajeeb, the famous chess-checker playing automaton. I learned about this amazing automaton while processing the William L. Bird Holidays on Display Collection. I was immediately smitten with Ajeeb, a ten-foot high, wax and papier-mâché mechanical wonder that won most every game of chess and checkers it played.

Ajeeb, also known as “The Egyptian,” was conceived of by Charles Edward Hooper of England in 1867. First displayed at the Crystal Palace in London, Ajeeb was brought to the United States in 1886 and featured at the Eden Museé, a New York City amusement place which opened in March 1884. Ajeeb is a descendant of earlier chess-checker playing automatons. In 1769, Wolfgang von Kempelen of Austria introduced the Mechanical Turk, which served as the inspiration for Ajeeb. Other automatons with similar abilities and names like Mephisto, Hajeb, and As-Rah also appeared. While the Ajeeb enjoyed a long stint at the Eden Museé (almost forty years), he was not the only Ajeeb on the circuit. Martinka & Company of New York, America’s oldest magic shop sold a chess-playing automaton in its 1898 and 1906 catalogs. Although we don’t know the price or sales figures, the idea that individual consumers could purchase their own Ajeeb is delightful.

The Ajeeb’s chess and checker playing prowess was greatly doubted and debated. Many believed Ajeeb was operated from an adjacent room; others thought that he had a magic brain. Indeed, inside the Ajeeb’s base, cleverly concealed by panels displaying complex machinery, were hidden operators maneuvering the arms, and carefully choreographing every move. The greatest wonder ever invented was an elaborate hoax—a great illusion that entertained crowds all over the world.

Lithographed trade card from Eden Museé, 1896. (AC0060-0000003-01)

Lithographed trade card from Eden Museé, 1896. (AC0060-0000003-01)

Months after discovering the Ajeeb in the collections I was talking with a colleague who was researching the early history of mathematical games played on computers. I mentioned my discovery and she shared my enthusiasm for this mysterious automaton. Several months later I found Ajeeb elsewhere in our collections. While examining a box about vending machines in the Warshaw Collection of Business Americana I found the Ajeeb on a trade card from the Eden Museé. To learn more about our collections, visit the Archives Center website.

Sources

“Eden Museé Faces Bankruptcy,” New York Times, p. 17, June 8, 1915.

Ensmenger, Nathan. Is chess the drosophila of artificial intelligence? A social history of an algorithm.  Social Studies of Science, 42 (1), pp. 5-30, 2012.

Kobler, John. “Where Are they Now? The Pride of the Eden Musee,” New Yorker, November 20, 1943.

[Trade catalogs from Martinka & Co.], January 27, 1898.

Extraordinary Attractions! Be Amazed! Must See!

Hidden Motors Give Life to Prehistoric Monsters. Robot Cow Moos and Gives Milk. Mechanical Monster Eats Girl on Movie Stage. These spectacles and more were created by Messmore & Damon, a New York firm that specialized in window displays and parade floats. Founded in 1916, the dynamic and creative duo of George H. Messmore and Joseph Damon designed and constructed parade floats, dioramas for museums, exhibits for expositions, displays for department stores, scenery, exhibits for corporate clients, and for film, theater, and television. Most of their parade and department store work featured animated mechanical devices.

1.Hidden Motors Give Life to Prehistoric Monsters, Popular Science Monthly, June 1933. (AC0846-0000002.tif)

Hidden Motors Give Life to Prehistoric Monsters, Popular Science Monthly, June 1933. (AC0846-0000002.tif)

Mechanical Monster “Eats” Girl on Movie Stage, Popular Science Monthly, October 1931.

Mechanical Monster “Eats” Girl on Movie Stage, Popular Science Monthly, October 1931. (AC0846-0000003.tif)

Messmore & Damon brought to life huge dinosaurs, tigers, mastodons, dragons, other monsters, and even cows. One of their creations was a life-sized (48 foot long, 9 foot high, 4,000 pound) mechanized reproduction of a dinosaur, Amphibious Dinosaur Brontosaurus (aka “Dolores” or “Dino”). It could laugh, breathe, roll its eyes, shake its head, and move its jaws. It was a must see. Created for the Century of Progress International Exhibition (1933-1934), “The World a Million Years Ago,” Dino was made of layers of chicken wire, canvas, rattan, papier-mâché and paint. A human ran a complicated series of motors, chains, ball bearings, gears, cranks, counterweights, and universal joints that worked in concert to create a spectacular experience. The dinosaur was capable of moving its head in all directions and it had a moveable jaw. George Messmore’s 1933 patent (US Patent 1,898,587) stated “the jaw was intended to hold a dancer so that the dancer may be lifted up by the animal for entertaining purposes.”  Dino hit the entertainment circuit after the Fair entertaining thousands at department stores and other venues. He even inspired an essay contest for youngsters who were asked, “What Would Happen if Dino Lived Today?”

Drawing for US Patent 1,898,587, February 21, 1933.

Drawing for US Patent 1,898,587, February 21, 1933. (AC0846-0000006.tif)

Drawing for US Patent 1,898,587, February 21, 1933.

Drawing for US Patent 1,898,587, February 21, 1933. (AC0846-0000007.tif)

For more information about Messmore & Damon, Inc., Records, visit the Archives Center and Holidays on Display, an online exhibition featuring Messmore & Damon.

5.Postcard, Amphibious Dinosaur Brontosaurus, 1933. (AC0846-0000009.tif)

Postcard, Amphibious Dinosaur Brontosaurus, 1933. (AC0846-0000009.tif)

Keep It Secret. Keep US Safe.

During our Inventing the Surveillance Society symposium on Oct. 25, we will be featuring World War II posters from the Archives Center in an “objects out of storage” program in the Museum’s 1East corridor.

Posters were one of the largest mediums for advertising during World War II.  Advertisers invented new art styles, designs, and propaganda campaigns. One campaign related to promoting privacy.

During the U.S.’s involvement in WWII (1941-1945) posters were a medium produced largely for people on the home front. They provided guidance on ways that people could feel that they were helping the war effort—one of which was maintaining secrecy.

Espionage and sabotage were serious concerns for U.S. citizens during the war. The American film industry contributed to the paranoia by producing numerous films about spies. Also, government censorship meant that credible information was hard to find, and therefore people relied more heavily on rumors as information regardless of their truth.

WWII poster advocating for secrecy

From the Princeton University Poster Collection, NMAH Archives Center, AC0433-0000037.

These factors encouraged the production of government posters stressing the importance of national security and deterring information leaks and sabotage. They made people feel that secrecy and protecting their privacy was a patriotic duty. One series of posters was the “careless talk” campaign. “The beauty of the ‘careless talk’ campaign was that people could feel involved in the war, playing a part and combating the enemy, merely by doing nothing and keeping their mouths shut,” historian O.W. Riegel concluded.

Caricatures and stereotypes were typically used in posters at this time. Often the leader of the country symbolized the country itself—i.e. Hitler came to symbolize Nazi Germany. These caricatures sometimes took a monstrous form.

An unforeseen consequence of these types of posters was that they increased paranoia about spies by making it seem like there was a spy around every corner. It also made people wary of being suspected of espionage.

WWII Poster advocating for secrecy

From the Princeton University Poster Collection, NMAH Archives Center, AC0433-0000046.

In thinking about how this advertising might relate to our contemporary society I have observed that current advertising and propaganda about U.S. citizens being spied on comes from the private sector, rather than the government. But I think that you can ask the same question of WWII posters that you can of contemporary advertising: Is encouraging people’s fear of spying in order to convince them to increase their privacy a good strategy? Do the ends justify the means? Join us for our symposium, Inventing the Suveillance Society, to explore these kinds of questions.

Safekeeping

For more than a decade, every morning I opened the doors to the Archives Center’s vault. The doors, made by the Mosler Safe Company of Hamilton, Ohio, have protected portions of the national collections since 1964 when the National Museum of American History (then known as the National Museum of History of Technology) opened. Behind these heavy, solid, gray doors are hundreds of collections documenting the history of American technology, invention, consumer culture, music, and popular culture. Among these collections are manuscripts, posters, sound recordings, visual ephemera, motion picture film, historical photographs, and oral histories.

20130404_08004620130404_080104The Mosler Safe Company was created by Gustave Mosler (1816-1874), an Austrian immigrant who came to the United States in 1849.  Mosler joined the safe manufacturing firm Diebold, Bahmann and Company in 1859 and began to see other possibilities for safe manufacturing. In 1869, Mosler formed Mosler, Bahmann and Company in Cincinnati, Ohio. The company, which was run primarily by four of Mosler’s sons (Moses, William, Max, and Julius) was renamed Mosler Safe Company in 1876. In 1891, the company moved its operations from Cincinnati to Hamilton, Ohio, where it has been ever since. Numerous patents were issued to the Mosler Safe Company, beginning in 1880 with Moses Mosler’s US Patent 229,905 for a safe. Mosler appeared to have a good share of the “safe” market and was a trusted brand among banks, not to mention our museum. After all, the name Mosler meant safety.

moslerfactory_SMALL

Mosler Safe Company factory, Hamilton, Ohio, 1932. “Mosler Safe Company Catalog,” 1932. Smithsonian Institution Libraries Trade Literature Collection.

Mosler insulated flat sill vault doors, Mosler Safe Company Catalog, 1932. Smithsonian Institution Libraries Trade Literature Collection.

Mosler insulated flat sill vault doors, Mosler Safe Company Catalog, 1932. Smithsonian Institution Libraries Trade Literature Collection.

Mosler-Corliss patent fire-proof bank vault doors, The Mosler-Corliss System of Security against Burglary, Mobs and Fire, 1897. Smithsonian Institution Libraries Trade Literature Collection.

Mosler-Corliss patent fire-proof bank vault doors, The Mosler-Corliss System of Security against Burglary, Mobs and Fire, 1897. Smithsonian Institution Libraries Trade Literature Collection.

Trade card for Mosler Safe Company, undated.  Safes and Vaults, Warshaw Collection of Business Americana.

Trade card for Mosler Safe Company, undated. Safes and Vaults, Warshaw Collection of Business Americana.

I’m waxing sentimental over these vault doors because they were recently replaced by a new door that uses modern access control card reader technology. There was something wonderful about spinning the combination lock, hitting all the numbers just right, and then hearing the familiar sound of “click” that signaled success. For anyone who struggled with a combination lock, you can appreciate my joy. Once open, the vault began another day of service to the numerous archivists who crossed its threshold, seeking collections for eager researchers. The new door and technology was inevitable, but I already miss those Mosler doors. To learn more about our remarkable collections visit the Archives Center.
door_before_cropped_SMALLdoor_after_SMALL

Sources

Boyer, Mike. “Mosler slams door on 300 workers,” The Cincinnati Enquirer http://enquirer.com/editions/2001/08/04/loc_1mosler_slams_door_on.html (last accessed April 8, 2013)

Encyclopedia of Biography, “William Mosler, Manufacturer, Man of Enterprise,” pages 568-171.  American Historical Society, 1920.

Spencer, Jean E. “Queen City History, Willie Sutton’s Nemesis,” Cincinnati Magazine, October 1973.