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American History

Started: 2021-12-29 11:25:41

Submitted: 2021-12-29 17:21:31

Visibility: World-readable

Spending all day at the National Museum of American History, with a brief excursion to the Worldcon closing ceremonies

On the last day of Worldcon in Washington DC I skipped the morning programming and headed to the National Museum of American History to start the day. On my way to the museum I took the opportunity to photograph the amazing Brutalist barrel vaults that make up just about every underground Metro station. I am impressed by the consistency in design in the Metro stations — the subsurface stations had plenty of room to build large airy stations underground, and even the deep-level bored stations (like Woodley Park, where I spent much of my time on the Metro going to and from Worldcon) excavated large station boxes deep underground and fitted them out with the same aesthetic.

7000-series Metro train inside McPherson Square Station
7000-series Metro train inside McPherson Square Station

I arrived at the National Mall a few minutes before the museum opened at 10:00. It was overcast and colder than it was the day before. I walked past the Washington Monument then arrived at the museum a few minutes after it opened.

I remember visiting the National Museum of American History on my first visit to Washington DC as a kid in 1990. At the time I remember standing in the atrium waiting for the flag that flew over Fort McHenry to be revealed from behind a curtain that protected it from the light most of the time, allowing it to be seen briefly on specific intervals. The flag, which inspired the Star-Spangled Banner, is now restored and preserved in a dimly-lit climate-controlled chamber. I walked past the flag and marveled not only at its connection to American history and nationalism (a potent national symbol used to redefine American identity after 1812 and into the twentieth century), and also my own connection to seeing the artifact thirty years ago.

I headed down a floor and looked around the innovation gallery, past an Apple I circuit board mounted in a display case, including an independent toy inventor's home lab, moved wholesale to the museum, including his lab equipment (looking back I think I must have seen soldering irons and oscilloscopes, but I'm not absolutely sure), and old electronic component catalogs and chip spec books on the shelves.

Apple was well represented in the displays; there were a couple of 1980s monolithic plastic Macs sitting on desks.

Around the corner was a gallery with a bunch of consumer goods and equipment, sorted by time. (I'm sure there was a theme of some sort, but it wasn't obvious what it was.) One of the displays talked about the introduction of department stores, including cash registers and pneumatic tubes for the basement offices to make purchases and issue change and receipts.

In the last row they showed artifacts from my lifetime, including deal toys from stock offerings and Hank Paulson's Razr phone, in its own tiny display case next to a photo of the Treasury Secretary talking on on the phone trying to save the global economy from the financial crisis in 2008. Google contributed an early, hand-built rack of servers, resting haphazardly on cardboard with Ethernet cables connecting each server to the top-of-rack router (looking very much like the similar rack I've seen in the Computer History Museum). Qualcomm had a couple phones on display, wrapping up my last three big tech company employers.

Going Mobile display
Going Mobile display

Then I saw a display case on the back wall showing the convergence of individual devices (music players, phones, cameras, GPS receivers) into recognizable smartphones. In the middle was a Nexus One, an early Android smartphone. This phone is based on a Qualcomm QSD8250 smartphone SoC; this chip was in development when I started working at Qualcomm in 2008 and I think I have some code in the baseband processor (specifically in the shared memory driver, responsible for the communication between the baseband processor, the applications processor, and the DSP). This means I have an artifact in the Smithsonian — something that I (along with thousands of other people) played a small role in developing. (The footnote told me it had belonged to Vint Cerf, who had donated it to the Smithsonian.)

Nexus One, iPhone 3GS, and Blackberry at the Smithsonian
Nexus One, iPhone 3GS, and Blackberry at the Smithsonian

I headed across the first floor to the transportation exhibit. I did not expect to see, as the first thing in the gallery, an exhibit from Santa Cruz: the engine "Jupiter", from the first rail line linking Santa Cruz to Watsonville. (If this is the same rail alignment along the coast that still exists, the track is still in place and the rail line is still capable of serving trains, but it no longer serves any kind of regular service, and is currently the subject of a political debate in Santa Cruz County between the proponents of turning the rail corridor into a trail versus those who want to revive it and serve commuters between (I guess, this seems kind of random) Santa Cruz and Watsonville.)

Santa Cruz Railroad Co engine
Santa Cruz Railroad Co engine "Jupiter"

Watsonville was also represented, with a diorama of apple farmers seeking out better routes to market. The exhibit included an interactive display asking the visitor to choose where to sell one's apples: San Francisco (easy to get to, but the market is saturated so prices are low); the East Coast (more expensive but better results), or on a ship to Europe (higher risk, higher reward).

Watsonville fruit diaorama
Watsonville fruit diaorama

I got sidetracked in the maritime gallery (with a bunch of interesting models of ships, mostly from the 20th century) and then found the exhibit I was looking for: a Dodge Caravan stuck in traffic in Los Angeles in the 1990s, which I found especially interesting because my family had a Dodge Caravan in the 1990s (though we did not spend a lot of time in traffic in Los Angeles in our minivan).

Dodge Caravan stuck in traffic at the Smithsonian
Dodge Caravan stuck in traffic at the Smithsonian

I nipped back to the Metro to ride back to the Omni Shoreham Hotel to attend the closing ceremonies at Worldcon. The ceremony included a number of talking heads involved with the convention, including convention chair Mary Robinette Kowal, who accepted an award for running the con, and talked about the challenges of rescuing the con when she took over as chair earlier this year. Much of the program was a series of performances by Ras Geeks, a dance group dressed up as characters from SF literature, including a Tardis, Wonder Woman, and Mario.

The closing ceremonies included a preview of Chicago for next year's Worldcon (inconveniently to be held after my kids start school in the fall), and the transfer of the World Science Fiction gavel; and then the closing ceremonies wrapped up and Worldcon was over.

I took one last look at the hotel lobby, decorated for Christmas; and I bid Worldcon farewell and headed out into the city to resume my sight-seeing.

Lobby at the Omni Shoreham Hotel
Lobby at the Omni Shoreham Hotel

First, though, I needed to eat lunch. I grabbed a pita with falafel for a late lunch in Dupont Circle, then headed back to the National Museum of American History to see more.

Back at the museum I walked around the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz. I saw the gunboat Philadelphia, sunk during the Revolutionary War then recovered in the early 20th century and installed in the museum through the unfinished walls while the museum was being built. I looked through the American Presidents gallery, which included a display case talking about impeachment which included a hastily-assembled poster headlined "Case under redesign (history happens)" referencing both of the previous president's impeachments.

Case under redesign (history happens)
Case under redesign (history happens)

Next I walked through the exhibit on American democracy, which talked about the history of democratic elections in the United States, including the women's suffrage movement and the struggle for full representation in voting as a civil rights issue. At the entry to the exhibit there was another hastily-assembled sign saying "recent crises have cast new light on the objects in our museum" and soliciting comments on what the museum might present. I wondered if the museum has collected materials from the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol: are the Capitol Building's broken windows saved for posterity? What about the barricades set up around the capitol, used as weapons against police? Will I see the Q Shaman's headdress in a museum someday? What about Zip Tie Guy's zip ties? I'd love to see a mannequin dressed up in Zip Tie Guy's outfit, with his eponymous zip ties strapped to his belt, next to a mannequin wearing his mother's outfit at the insurrection.

Think With Us about recent events
Think With Us about recent events

I wrapped up my time in museum in the small first-floor gallery filled with machines and equipment covering water power and steam power. I had a bit of trouble following the train of thought through the gallery but it was interesting to see the progression of water power (shown mostly through scale models of different types of water wheels) and steam power (shown mostly in larger-scale models and some smaller full-sized steam engines). I was especially interested in the cut-away turbines, clearly showing the arrangement of fixed vanes on the housing and variable vanes on the turbine shaft, opened for inspection.

Steam turbine generator
Steam turbine generator

The front of the gallery was occupied by a bunch of early electrical equipment, including generators and motors, and a bunch of terrifying-looking high-voltage patch panels. There was a weird display on the development of higher-efficiency lights in the twentieth century that ended with compact fluorescent lights in about 1995 and completely failed to acknowledge any developments in LED lights in the last 15 years.

Generators and motors
Generators and motors

By the time I finished the electrical and mechanical engineering gallery the museum was closing at 17:30. I stepped out onto the National Mall as the museum closed and saw the sun had set behind the Washington Monument. The sun had set on my time in Washington, DC. This was real, and also a metaphor.

Sun sets behind the Washington Monument
Sun sets behind the Washington Monument

I ate supper at Pi Pizzeria, a pleasant walk from my hotel in Penn Quarter (I ate a casserole-thick deep-dish pizza with a corn meal crust, which didn't quite look like what I was expecting but was surprisingly good) then returned to my hotel to pack before leaving early the next morning.

I *am* going to be rejected several times tomorrow.
- Centurion, 09 November 1999