Working in the state archives

Sheila Fitzpatrick has a good piece in the latest LRB on working in the Soviet state archives in the 1960s. She describes how difficult it was–working without catalogs, having to ask for exactly the right file category, and suspected being a spy all the time:

All this affected my formation as a historian: I became addicted to the thrill of the chase, the excitement of the game of matching your wits and will against that of Soviet officialdom. How boring it must be, I thought, to work on British history, where you just went to the PRO, and polite, helpful people gave you catalogues and then brought you the documents you wanted. What would be the fun of it? Knowledge, I decided, had to be fought for, achieved by ingenuity and persistence, even – like pleasure, in Marvell’s words – snatched ‘through the iron gates of life’.

Still, she describes “ecstatic moments of serendipitous discovery” when something turns up and you look at it knowing that it might shape the very course of your research. I’ve had one or two of those–not often–in the archives I’ve visited.

A very minor but satisfying one happened earlier this year in my work on the WWII American intelligence agency, the OSS. Their records are in the US National Archives, which contains all declassified state archives. When the OSS was disbanded in 1945 it was decided to write a secret report on its activities. This was written by Kermit Roosevelt (grandson of Teddy Roosevelt) who later became central to the CIA’s restoration of the Shah Pahlavi to the Peacock Throne in Iran in 1953.

The Report, which was classified Top Secret, sat on CIA shelves until 1976 when a redacted but fairly complete version was finally published. Largely missing were any names of the people involved. (The OSS personnel files were only released 2 years ago!)

At one point however, the Report discusses the Map Division, which was run by the cartographer Arthur Robinson (later Chair of the influential Wisconsin department of geography). In discussing their work, the Report mentions the strange “Atcorob device” which I’d not heard of before or seen in the archival materials I’d read through. Nor does it seem to have been mentioned again (Google yields no hits). However, a footnote does reveal that it was named after the last names of the three people who invented it.

With this clue we can, I think, identify the people with some certainty.

“At”: Wallace Atwood, OSS personnel and President of Clark University (1920-1946). Atwood was a physical geographer with interests in physiographic models, and the device appears to be some sort of topographic model making equipment. Atwood rather forcibly created a Graduate School of Geography at Clark and was apparently a very poor administrator. He was involved in a controversy in the 1920s when he shut down a socialist speaker on campus. He did hire several well-known geographers of the day, including the Kentucky geographer Ellen Churchill Semple, who however later left Clark.

“Co”: Hereward Lester Cooke, a Princeton artist and inventor (not OSS personnel). Cooke was brought in by Robinson to consult on model making machines and filed a number of patents along these lines. His innovations involved taking stereoscopic imagery and projecting it onto a surface which could then be carved out to represent terrain. Later he was Curator of Painting Gallery at the National Gallery of Art, in DC. When looking him up I found a book in our library that he co-authored with Antony Blunt, the British art historian, and of course, double-agent!

“Rob”: no prizes here; Arthur Robinson.

So now you know about the Atcorob Device of the OSS. And this is now officially the first web page to mention it.

2 responses to “Working in the state archives

  1. Terrain Models Made
    With Two New Devices
    CONSTRUCTION of three-dimensional
    terrain models, long known to
    map makers, but too costly and inaccurate
    for popular production, has been
    revolutionized into a science, with the
    invention of two devices, the Atcorob
    and the Orthojector. Designed and constructed
    during the war to prepare
    models for operational planning, these
    inventions permit production of accurate
    and detailed models of any area
    on the globe.
    The Atcorob is an ingenious device
    that accomplishes in two operations
    what formerly required eight different
    procedures. Contour lines from a topographic
    map can be quickly and accurately
    indicated on a block of solid plaster
    and reproduced by carving down to
    the surface of the image. Contours appear
    on the model exactly as on the map
    except that they are three-dimensional.
    “No other device or method of construction
    has approached the Atcorob
    in ability to reproduce terrain features,”
    said Maj. Wallace W. Atwood, Jr., Chief
    of the Staff Service Model Section of the
    War Department.
    The Atcorob was conceived ‘by Maj.
    Atwood, Prof. H. L. Cooke of Princeton
    University and Capt. A. H. Robinson,
    Chief of the Map Division of the Office
    of Strategic Services. It takes its name
    from the first two initials of the inventor’s
    names. The equipment was designed
    by Prof. Cooke and Dr. R.
    Prickett, and constructed by them at the
    Palmer Laboratories in Princeton, N. J.
    The Orthojector, devised by the same
    group, is helpmate to the Atcorob and
    makes possible a projection of map or
    photo transparencies onto the surface
    of any type relief model. Information
    may be transferred onto a flat or irregular
    surface without the distortion obtained
    in the previous single-lens projectors.
    The information projected onto the
    surface is in its correct position. Roads
    go through correct passes, rivers through
    their valleys. The Orthojector is the only
    instrument thus far produced which
    assures accurate projection such as this on
    a relief surface.
    Science News Letter, January 12, 1946

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