Discovered: Harvard Biology Labs

A photograph taken by my grandfather in the 1930s. Where is this unusual entryway?

In recent weeks I have been reviewing old family photos in preparation for a covid-delayed memorial. Among the too many pictures of unidentified people and places are some intriguing treasures. The relatives who could tell me more about them are now gone. I can’t ask them, which is one of the more frequent and sad experiences I have these days.

But sometimes it is possible to follow clues in the photos to find the answers. In this case it is a photo that my grandfather took, possibly back in the 1930s. It shows a beautiful composition of light and shadow of a building entrance/lobby. I liked the lighting, but I really enjoyed discovering the detail on the door panels that were casting the shadows: insects and plants. What building would host such artwork?

Google search is an amazing technology. A response to “door panels insects plants” did not yield anything useful, but by adding “Harvard” to the terms (knowing my grandfather had studied biology there) and looking for image results, I found a unique building: the Harvard Biology Laboratory.

The building was built in 1931 and obviously impressed my grandfather, where he likely spent considerable time in it pursuing his doctorate. It continues to impress, as recent posts attest. As I look at the pictures of the outside of the building, who wouldn’t find it intriguing?

It turns out that there are three doors to the entry; my grandfather’s shot depicted two. But there is a hint of another– a bicycle is parked there, and sure enough the current pictures show a third door, adorned by sea creatures. All of them, and the sculptures outside, created by Katherine Lane Weems.

All of this makes me want to visit. I now have a memento from the past that would be fun to re-create!

Stonehenge and Solitaire

My visit to Stonehenge in 1994

When Management Graphics adapted their film recording technology to support motion picture film formats, it was quickly adopted by movie studios to bring special effects from their computer memory images on to film.  There were some problems however, and one of the most serious was the difficulty in obtaining the full brightness range found in typical scenes, especially when they included lights—candle light, desk lamps, car headlights, streetlights.  Any light source, even a glimpse through a window to the bright outdoors, would cause a large flare in the final film frames, washing out detail in the scene.  Our customers complained, and we started down a path to research and solve the problem.

We understood what the fundamental issue was: halation, an effect caused by the glass faceplate of the cathode ray tube used for creating the image.  The bright spot on the phosphor screen was internally reflected at the glass surface which then illuminated the phosphor coating.  If phosphor were black, this would not be a problem, but phosphor coatings are white, as are most materials made of fine powder, and it resulted in this internal reflected light overexposing the film.  In the absence of a black phosphor, there were few other ways to mitigate the halation effect.

An example of halation on a photographic film plate.  The circular haloes and flare are apparent around the street lights in this 1910 image.

One of our customers was incorporating our film recorder into a full workstation system.  Quantel, a company in Newberry, England, had become successful in the early years of digital video and was looking for a way to expand its editing tool offerings into the motion picture market.  Quantel’s engineers understood the halation problem as well, but they didn’t want to rely on our figuring out a solution: they had an aggressive development schedule. 

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An Oscar for Solitaire

I’m occasionally asked about the Academy Award that my colleagues at Management Graphics received. It was during the early days of computer-generated special effects in motion pictures. A product I contributed to, the Solitaire Image Recorder, was selected as a technology advance worthy of the Academy’s Technical Achievement Award.  These awards are delivered in a parallel ceremony to the one we are all familiar with.  It features celebrities of a different kind: nerds.

This is the story of how my friend Rick Keeney ended up on that award stage. It has been adapted from his personal account and is a bit technical, but don’t let those details detract from the overall story line.

Rick Keeney, with the Academy Award for Technical Achievement, 1992.

Invention and Innovation

In the formative days of digital photographic imaging, output back to film was produced using specialized, often hand-built, image recorders that were difficult to align, calibrate, and keep running consistently.  As one of the early companies in the business of building and selling graphics workstations, Management Graphics (MGI) recognized that the drawbacks of the available film recorders were limiting its workstation sales.  MGI kicked off a development effort to build a film recorder that would be a robust and easy-to-use product. 

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Science or Sentiment, Generalized

Career “trophies”, coffee mugs, one of which was created by dye printing technology (depicting our development team), the other a memento commemorating the issue of an arcane patent.

There is a more general problem related to the “what to do with old lab notebooks” that some of us face.  It is what to do with our shoeboxes of photos (virtual digital shoeboxes and real ones).  And written correspondence.  Love letters.  Birthday cards and holiday cards that caught our attention enough that we saved them.  The trophies, actual physical trophies, or the certificates of commendation for a job well done.  Birth and death announcements.  Souvenirs of our travels, the mementos of the high points of our lives. 

All of them carry great meaning to us, invoking a romantic haze of fond memories from those times and places, for those people and events.  Yet those memories are internal to us; they are not shared, even with the persons we may have shared the moment with—at least not exactly. Each of them has his or her own version of those scenes.  And they are not shared in the same way with our children, and certainly not their children.  Our lives are an abstraction to them.  They weren’t even around when the main story was unfolding.

I have come to realize this in the last few years as I have processed the items left behind by my parents after their deaths.  I have a high regard for my father’s technical acumen and his many projects.  Some of them were to gather and archive family history, others documented his personal interests.  He was always an early adopter of technology and embraced digital photography well before I did.  He acquired a large collection of both film and digital pictures, organized in shoeboxes and digital folders.  He worked to digitally scan historic family photos that dated back to the 19th century. 

There is a treasure trove of history here, some even recent enough to overlap with my own, yet I do not find myself compelled to explore it.  And therein lies the problem.  If I am not inspired to carry forward the artifacts of prior generations, why would I expect subsequent generations to propagate mine?

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Science or Sentiment

The title page of my grandfather’s PhD thesis, a thick volume of scientific discovery, each page typewritten in carbon-paper triplicate by my grandmother during their time at Harvard. Interestingly, it was submitted on his (54th) birthday.

“Long before the term ecology became a part of the vocabulary of the scientist, primitive man, looking out over the expanse of blue-green water which characterized his favorite fishing haunt, was probably aware of the fact that notable alterations in the color and clarity of this body of water would occur as the seasons changed.”

The introductory sentence of Theodore Olson’s PhD thesis on algae blooms.

I was witness to my grandparents’ transition to an assisted living apartment from the home they had kept for more than half a century.  Though modest, it was the center of a busy family’s activities, and had accumulated the corresponding mementos through the decades.  It had also collected the technical artifacts of my grandfather’s scientific career, specimens of insects and fish and algae from his ecological and entomologist specialties.  He kept copies of his and his peers’ published works, along with those of his doctoral students, who carried on these disciplines, with the scientific rigor and methods that he taught them over their years in his tutelage.

I was there on the day when he had to empty the ‘wall of books‘ in his home library, which included the dissertations of his students.  There was no space for everything at the new apartment.   A few important reference volumes could be retained, but the others?  What to do with them?  Here were the compiled and distilled understandings of pioneers in biology, acquired through years of painstaking research, building upon the pyramid of human knowledge.  These breakthroughs of their time have now been incorporated into our general understanding of modern biology. 

What should happen to the first-ever photomicrographs of blue-green algae blooming to produce cyanobacterial toxins?  What should become of the tabulated counts of seasonal species of mosquitos that were the vectors of mosquito-borne diseases?  What should be the fate of that first chart correlating taconite processing and asbestos-like fibers in Lake Superior?  All of these new discoveries had been first reported in his research and in the dissertations of his PhD students. 

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Checking the Mail

John checks for mail at Rural Route 2, Box 619, later to become 292 Heather Lane.

In 1965 we moved into a newly-built house on the outskirts of the town of Long Lake Minnesota.  Today considered an “exurb” of Minneapolis, at that time it was a rural community at the very edge of urban influence.  I turned twelve on the day we moved in and was starting to explore the possibilities presented to a teenager in those years. 

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The Silent Key

The Vibroplex Deluxe Original telegraph key, first manufactured in 1939.

I was moved recently by an unexpected item encountered while clearing out my parents’ home.  They both passed away in recent years leaving, as we all will, a lifetime of accumulated possessions.  Perhaps it is a rite of passage that we all mark our parents’ passing with tributes and shared memories, and then respectfully distribute their earthly possessions.

Those possessions usually include home furnishings of a previous era, and clothing that might fit but doesn’t match anyone’s current style or fashion.  Many kitchen utensils will find their way to donation centers.  Easy items to dispatch are those for which there are few memories.  The more difficult are those with sentimental attachments.  

My dad was an amateur radio operator, a “ham”, which is a term for the enthusiasts across the world that participate in this form of communication, ever since Marconi sent his first wireless message.  There is a broad and varied number of these practitioners of a discipline that requires technical expertise and skill, and a desire to share their experiences “over the air”.  

I grew up in this culture, listening to the chirps and squawks of my dad’s radio receiver late into the nights.  One of the essential ham skills was to tap out Morse code messages with a telegraph key — the first level of an amateur radio license (“Novice Class”) required proficiency at five words a minute.  My dad was extremely skilled at this and could signal at much higher rates.  As one improved in this skill, the limitations moved from brain-hand coordination to the mechanical key itself.

This limitation was recognized early on, and various ingenious adaptations of the simple momentary contact key were invented.  Some worked better than others.  Over the course of my dad’s ham career he acquired various makes and models of telegraph keys with which he competed in amateur radio contests, to see who could make contact with the most other hams in a weekend.

His amateur radio station equipment will find homes with other ham operators, but his set of telegraph keys were distributed to his children, all of whom have those memories of dot-dash Morse code beeps in the night.  This is the item I received:  on a beautiful chrome-plated base, the key itself is a delicate collection of mechanical components, carefully balanced and customized to the hand of the operator.  I am told that operators have a distinct “signature” that can be recognized when listening to the delivery of Morse code, each hand having its own rhythm and style.

This identifies the manufacturer, Vibroplex, and proudly displays its serial number and patented status.  The logo is a lightning bug, carefully anodized or painted red on the brass plate, a feature maintained even on current models.  This may be a collector’s item as there are many similar to be found at http://www.vibroplexcollector.net.

The ham community has an endearing term of respect for their fellow amateurs who have since passed away: Silent Key.  It is a reference to the early days of telegraphy where the letters SK were sent to designate the end of a transmission, and then the station would become silent.  

There is a national silent key registry,  the cumulative obituaries of the ham community, where you can look up life accounts of past amateurs, including my dad, K0TO.

His station is silent now, but my memories of it will remain until I too become silent.

Of Nikons and Nikomats

Showing a few bruises from years of heavy use in my home, at school, during protest marches and on backpacking trips, this is my first single lens reflex camera, the Nikomat brought back from Japan by my dad’s business contact.

A half-century ago I was a teenager in high school, fascinated with cameras and photography.  I had progressed from my first Kodak Instamatic to a (used) Kodak Retina-II 35mm; both are considered “rangefinder” cameras:  you looked through a viewfinder that simulates what the lens sees.  

But what I really wanted was a single lens reflex camera, a Nikomat, a camera one step down from the famous flagship product of the Japanese camera maker, Nikon.  A “single lens reflex” (SLR) is a high-performance camera, where the view through the eyepiece comes through a complex arrangement of mirrors and prisms from the very lens that will be recording the picture.  The key to this magic is a mirror on a spring-loaded hinge that provides the periscope-like view through the lens while aiming and composing the shot.  When the shutter release button is pressed, the mirror swings out of the way just in time for the shutter to open and expose the film.

I acquired my first SLR by saving the earnings from my summer job flipping hamburgers at the local drive-in.  Except it wasn’t enough.  My dad helped out, not by a contribution, but by asking an associate who occasionally made business trips to Japan to make a camera purchase on my behalf, since the local cost was significantly lower than the imported retail price in the U.S. and, crucially, within my savings.  At that time such long-distance business trips were rare, and I had to wait several more months for my camera to arrive.  

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Csuri Exhibit Poster

“Gossip”, by Charles A Csuri, 1990.

When we consider the impact of computer graphics we usually think of Hollywood motion picture special-effects, or beautifully crafted images and commercials from high-end marketing firms, which both seem like products of the east and west coasts.  We don’t think of midwestern artists or public university departments as being part of that world.  Yet this is exactly where much of the pioneering work in computer graphics was done and its commercialization was born.

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