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Rediscovered treasures in the IET Archives

16 July 2013
Letter to Oliver Heaviside

Letter from Alfred Heinrich Bucherer to Oliver Heaviside dated 16 January 1905.

Letter from Lt Collins Lee Macrae

Western Union Telegraph Expedition member Lt Collins Lee Macrae writes to his mother, March 1867.

Letter connected to Russian-American Telegraph

One of two letters connected to the Russian-American Telegraph from Lt Collins Lee Macrae to his mother, March 1867.

Jonathan Cable describes some of the unexpected benefits of moving the IET Archives…

This summer, with the temporary closure of Savoy Place, the IET Archives will be on the move. They will not be following in the footsteps of the Library, which will be temporarily relocated to One Birdcage Walk, the home of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, for the period of the Savoy Place refurbishment. Instead, the Archives will be spending a few months offsite before the core collections are moved into a new archive centre on the lower ground floor of Savoy Hill House, next to Savoy Place, in the autumn of 2013.

The prospect of moving the whole Archives usually fills an archivist with both joy and trepidation. There is the anticipation of the new facility; a better storage environment for the collections; new racking for the material; and improved facilities for visitors and researchers. This is combined with a large intake of breath given the amount of additional work involved to manage the move while trying to maintain the archive service. In addition procedures will be revised to cope with the less frequently used collections being held offsite (still in archival quality conditions) as opposed to having them all onsite, and revised ways of working with library staff and the library collections, which will no longer be alongside one another.

Stock check

All these things can be anticipated and, with good project planning, can be accommodated. What is often overlooked, however, are the less obvious benefits of a well planned move. These benefits include the cataloguing of older collections prior to being moved offsite, the repackaging of collections into more suitable archival quality packaging, necessitated by a physical move, and the location of misplaced items – this is, in many respects, one very large stock check!

On top of these benefits can be added the rediscovery of things that you knew you had but had not had a chance to examine, and the discovery of new items hidden among your collection.

Two such ‘discoveries’, found in the past few months, are mentioned below and help to highlight the quality of material held within the IET Archive collections.

The IET’s rare books collection includes a series of Oliver Heaviside’s books. Heaviside (1850-1925) was a noted electrical engineer, mathematician and physicist who, among other things, adapted complex numbers to the study of electrical circuits and co-formulated vector analysis. An interesting letter was recently discovered in one of the books in this collection. The volume in which the letter was found was a volume by Oliver Heaviside titled ‘Electrical papers by Oliver Heaviside vol.1’, published by Macmillan & Co in 1892. Heaviside has written a page of notes and equations on the back of the letter and in the letter itself Alfred Bucherer asks Heaviside to look over his calculations for correctness which a friend had doubted.

Alfred Bucherer (1863-1927), a German physicist noted for his experiments with relativistic mass, is an interesting historical figure who was the first person to coin the phrase “theory of relativity” for Einstein’s theory of special relativity. Bucherer developed his own theory about electrons in 1904 (the year before this letter date) and the Bucherer-Langevin model for electrons (later disproved) was an alternative to the electron model of Einstein and others at this time. Indeed, electron theory is touched upon in this letter in the context of a publication.

Telegraph history

The letter pictured above is one of two acquired in 1989 together with the book, ‘Reindeers, Dogs and Snow-Shoes’ by Richard J. Bush, published in New York by Harper & Bros, 1871. The book is a first edition, inscribed by the author to his wife, and describes the Russian-American Telegraph project, also known as the Western Union Telegraph Expedition and the Collins Overland Telegraph, in which Bush took part.

The letter isn’t written by Bush, but another expedition member Lt Collins Lee Macrae and has been written over the period 20 March to 25 March 1867, just prior to the abandonment of the expedition. The book and letters were only recently ‘rediscovered’ in the Archives and have now been added to the Archive catalogue.

One letter has been written from ‘Tel. Bluff Station on the Myan River’ in Russian America. The first four pages are written on stationery with the words ‘Collins Overland Telegraph: via Behring Strait, Western Union Extension’. The second eight pages are written on stationery with the words, ‘Western Union Telegraph Company, Russian Extension’, above. The letter written to Macrae’s mother describes his travels and experiences on the expedition. This is a fascinating and important piece of both telegraph history and travel/ expedition history and highlights a different political and geographic world.

The Russian-American Telegraph was an undertaking by the Western Union Telegraph Company in 1865-1867, to lay an electric telegraph line from San Francisco, California, to Moscow, Russia via British Columbia, Russian America (what is now Alaska plus some Californian settlements), under the ‘Behring Strait’, through Siberia to Moscow. The project was abandoned in 1867 just after these letters were written following the successful completion of the laying of the transatlantic cable in July 1866.

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