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The Untold Story of Getting from Here to There

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I work behind the scenes as part of a team of museum specialists supporting the upcoming exhibit Time and Navigation: The Untold Story of Getting from Here to There opening in March, 2013. I am the person who shepherds the objects themselves through the process. I photograph them, take their measurements, build specialized containers for them, bring them to their appointments and generally hover over them like a nanny to her charges.  Yes, indeed, they have appointments — with the exhibit designer, the conservator, and mount maker — all of whom play a big role in getting them ready for their big day when the exhibit opens.   Spending as much time with them as I do, I have learned a few of their secrets and I would like to share some of them with you.


Hemispherical Resonator

Hemispherical Resonator. Photo by Ben Sullivan and Charles Gosse.


The tiniest object in the exhibit – not much bigger than a dime – is this part of a Hemispherical Resonator shown above in a series of three snapshots.  Plato said that “all science begins with astonishment;” so it is for the child who gazes upon a ringing wine glass resting on a dinner table.  Haven’t we all run a wet finger along the rim of a wine glass to make it sing?  I know I have.  You may never have thought about this, but every material has a frequency at which it vibrates or “resonates.” The Hemispherical Resonator sings in much the same way as a wine glass. Onboard a space vehicle, a Hemispherical Resonator assists with extremely fine positioning.  And of course, in space no one tells the Resonator to cut it out.  While its form is meant to be purely functional, when we photographed it our studio lights passed through it and revealed an elegance as compelling as any object of art.

This LORAN-C or long-range navigation unit for general aviation aircraft, was the first of its kind in 1980.  What we didn’t realize until we looked closer was that the engineers, scientists, and technicians who designed it actually signed their work.  How cool is that?



Long Range Navigation (LORAN) Unit. Photo by Charles Gosse and Ben Sullivan.


This is the compass which was onboard Winnie Mae when Wiley Post flew solo around the world.  The damage to the glass (a separate piece from the main unit, itself) is from a crash on takeoff on August 15, 1935 near Point Barrow, Alaska.  We needed to know what the fluid was inside the compass but we could not open the sealed unit.  After some careful research, I discovered that the company which made the compass was still in business and got in touch with them and gave them its serial number.  They looked it up in their old company registers (extract below), found its manufacture date, and told us that the fluid was either alcohol or mineral spirits as well as the date it was made and for whom.



Aperiodic Compass


R.S. Ritchie Company log records

R.S. Ritchie Company log records. Photo courtesy of Steve Sprole


This model of a Dornier Super Wal flying boat is made of nickel over brass.  Beautiful at a distance, we discovered just how beautiful it is up close, as well, where the detail is extraordinary, both externally as well as inside where gangways, seats, and tables are lovingly reproduced.  A tiny metal plate was attached to the co-pilot’s seat at some point with the name of the craftsman who had made needed repairs to the model.


Model of a Dornier Super Wal Flying Boat

Model of a Dornier Super Wal Flying Boat. Photo by Charles Gosse


These are just some of the stories behind these beautiful and important objects, which will appear in the upcoming Time and Navigation exhibit opening in March, 2013.

Charles Gosse is a part of the team behind Time and Navigation: The Untold Story of Getting from Here to There coming March, 2013 to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC



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6 thoughts on “The Untold Story of Getting from Here to There

  1. I wonder, will it have a mention to the first crossing of the South Atlantic by portuguese Sacadura Cabral e Gago Coutinho? After all it was the modified sextant by Gago Coutinho that allowed the pin-point crossing, showing that accurate aerial navigation was possible. This type of sextant was then bought by Plath and it was used on the around-the-worl voyage of the Graf Zeppelin.

  2. Thank you, Mr. Gosse, I think you have one of the coolest jobs in the entire world, and as far as I’m concerned you can post here any old time & twice on Sundays.

    I once heard a story, I wonder if it’s true, about the restoration out at Suitland of one of the WWI fighters, I forget which one. The story goes that during the dismantling of the aircraft for restoration, a Hershey bar wrapper was found down under the floorboards, roughly of the same vintage as the aircraft. Also according to the story, there was some controversy about what to do with the wrapper, it being of some cultural significance, and potentially worthy of a place in a number of Smithsonian collections. Ultimately, so the story goes, the restorers decided to put it back where they’d found it, and there it supposedly is today.

    It’s too good a story to be completely true, but is any part of it true?

  3. @Ricardo Reis

    We’d love to be able to display an example of a Coutinho sextant in the Time and Navigation gallery, but sadly, we do not have one. It was certainly a significant development, though I should note that it was hardly the first bubble sextant designed for airborne celestial navigation (with various experimental models appearing at the start of the twentieth century). While Coutinho used the sextant in his remarkable 1922 transatlantic flight, the bubble feature was problematic (as were his competitors’) and he took his celestial sightings at low altitude. After it emerged later in the 1920s in a more technologically mature, and reliable form, it competed against other commercially available bubble sextants. While we aren’t showing an actual Coutinho sextant in the Time and Navigation gallery, there will be a photo of Max Pruss using one on the Graf Zeppelin in 1929.

    Roger Connor
    Curator, Air Navigation

  4. @Doug Ramsdell

    You are correct that there is a hint of truth. I have heard variations on this story, but the most consistent urban myth is that the Hershey wrapper was found on the B-26 “Flak Bait” from WWII. Items of this type are found on an occasional basis in the restoration process and if the items date from the time of use, they are generally cataloged and stored separately for preservation.

    Roger Connor
    Curator, Air Navigation

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