One hundred years ago, on May 14, 1909, Alexander Graham Bell wrote to Charles D. Walcott, then Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, detailing his plans to donate C. H. Claudy’s photographs of the Wright brothers’ 1908 Army Trials at Fort Myer, Virginia.
In this short letter, Bell provides historians a virtual treasure trove of key words, “Aerial Experiment Association”, “Lt. Thomas Selfridge” (for whom Selfridge Field in suburban Detroit is named), “C. H. Claudy”, “Eastman”, “Winfield Cline”, as well as “Orville Wright”, “Charles D. Walcott”, and “Alexander Graham Bell”. Bell also notes that he is shortly taking an extended tour of Europe (of interest to biographers), and thoughtfully provides us his forwarding address while there.
Also of note are the markings on this letter. They give us a detailed `biography’ as it were, of the letter itself. We see that the letter was stamped `Received’ by the Smithsonian on May 17, stamped again by `R.R.’ on the 19th, answered on the 20th of May, and then turned over to the Registrar’s Office, where it has since resided throughout a very tumultuous century.
This letter is now stored in a set of bomb-proof and fireproof safes, along with other papers and accession files which document the legal title, the provenance and the significance of the roughly 57,000 objects in the Museum’s collections.
Gregory K. H. Bryant is Museum Registrar in the Office of the Registrar at the Smithsonian, National Air and Space Museum.