Tag Archives: Aerospace History Project

As we begin 2018, we asked several Huntington Library curators to share specific collections relevant to the West that have been newly acquired, catalogued and are now accessible for research. As many know, the Huntington Library has extensive materials related to the American West. In fact, the subject constitutes nearly 40% of the Library’s holdings. Historians interested in these new archives can learn more about researching at the Huntington Library on its website:

Peter Blodgett, H. Russell Smith Foundation Curator of Western American History
The Barrows and Weyse Families Papers contain hundreds of letters and photographs from two families who became linked by marriage in 1860s Los Angeles.


Parcel of Henry D. Barrows (circa 1888) in downtown Los Angeles, courtesy of the Huntington Library.

Julius Weyse was a political refugee from Germany to England in 1836 and then a gold seeker to the United States in 1850 while Henry D. Barrows had relocated to California from the eastern United States. The contents include German-language Gold Rush narratives and later correspondence with details about family life in California while the Barrows materials include similar documents. With the presence of a US Marshal’s letter book for Southern California between 1857 and 1864, various land papers, and 62 pocket diaries from Henry Barrows, the collection includes numerous details about life in Southern California in the second half of the nineteenth century; the presence of significant content from German immigrants offers the possibility of investigating a potential transnational Los Angeles.

When incorporated with copies of Barrows publications here and other family collections at the Huntington such as the Wolfskill papers (Henry D. Barrows’ first wife was Juanita Wolfskill), the Barrows and Weyse Families Papers might shed some additional light upon the multiplicity of peoples and perspectives in Los Angeles. Also, depending upon the degree of depth in the papers, researchers might find possibilities for inquiring into the history of the Historical Society of Southern California.

Collection description in the Online Archive of California:


Dan Lewis, Dibner Senior Curator, History of Science & Technology
The Huntington’s history of aerospace collections have essential California connections — including the recent acquisition of the papers of William Arata, an aerospace engineer whose work spanned corporate life at Lockheed, Northrup Grumman, and other corporations.

Delta Northrop plane

Building a new Delta Northrop plane (circa 1933), courtesy of the Huntington Library.

His materials provide an excellent pan-corporate view of aviation and aerospace in Southern California between the 1930s and the 1980s, and are notable for his work across institutions. Arata also worked with Willis Hawkins at Lockheed, whose papers are at the Huntington, and with many others in positions of power and responsibility. The papers contain a great deal of material on transport designs, and are more broadly reflective of Arata’s thinking, responses and reactions to industry change and innovation. This transport work is an excellent counterpoint to the military focus of other aerospace holdings at the Huntington.

The Papers of J. Michael Scott, a pioneering Federal wildlife biologist who worked in Hawaii just after enactment of the Endangered Species Act, will be ready this Spring for research use. Scott was one of four such biologists working in the islands to survey the wildlife, but especially the bird life, in order to help set Federal conservation priorities. These papers have strong utility for environmental history research, as well as the particulars of wildlife biologists’ fieldwork in conjunction with The Nature Conservancy, the Federal government, and other stakeholders.


Clay Stalls, Curator of California and Hispanic Collections
The Huntington has recently opened two valuable collections for research in Hispanic history in California.


Map of Mexico, Texas, Old and New California, and Yucatan (circa 1851), courtesy of the Huntington Library.

The Chávez Esparza Family Letters document extensively the immigration of members of this family from the state of Aguascalientes, Mexico, to California in the 1960s and 1970s. The letters provide particularly valuable first-person accounts of the family members’ experiences at work, especially types of employment and relations with employers and fellow employees; transnational family relations; and strategies for moving to and living in the United States. Collection description in the Online Archive of California:

The Pedro Villaseñor Political Papers offer rare documentation of the transnational character of Mexico’s troubled church-state relations in the 1930s. Born in the Mexican state of Michoacán, Pedro Villaseñor (1907-1996) was an ardent Mexican nationalist aligned with the political resistance against the federal government’s suppression of Roman Catholic religious liberties in the Mexico of the 1920s and 1930s. After his move to Los Angeles, he supported this cause, which still strongly resonated among the large Mexican population of Los Angeles, by organizing political groups and activities and publishing newsletters that would have a nation-wide circulation. Collection description in the Online Archive of California:


Li Wei Yang, Curator of Pacific Rim Collections
Last week I acquired the papers of Kenneth Y. Fung, immigration attorney based in San Francisco. Fung was president of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance (1947-1949) and he testified before Congress in 1945 about the unequal treatment of Chinese American spouses under the American immigration system. Fung was also a good friend of Y.C. Hong.


Kenneth Y. Fung (back row, far right) stands with the Chinese American Citizens Alliance (circa 1928). Photo courtesy of the Huntington Library.




Northrop Aircraft 1947US responses to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor remade the Southern California landscape — from the incarceration of Japanese and Japanese American families living on Terminal Island to the rapid expansion of defense efforts by local aerospace companies. The photo above features a Northrop jet bomber prototype aircraft (available on the Huntington Digital Library). The company was already in operation in Southern California prior to Pearl Harbor but sped up production after the attack.

ICW’s offering for this Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day is an invitation to the archives of local memory to better understand parts of the US domestic response. Interviews of aerospace workers from ICW’s Aerospace History Project that include their memories of Pearl Harbor Day are available on the Huntington Digital Library.

One riveter-turned-engineer, Jerry Huben, joined Northrop only three weeks before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. An excerpt from his oral history:


Frank Bullock was a long-time control systems engineer at Lockheed and recounted this memory in his oral history:

Frank_Bullock_Oral_History_on_Pearl_HarborPearl Harbor Day calls for a solemn remembrance of those who lost their lives as well as a reckoning of the domestic responses and their present-day ramifications.


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Photo courtesy of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as part of the “Then and Now” series.

By Matthew H. Hersch

The motley assortment of graduate students and amateur rocket enthusiasts looked like it came straight out of central casting: Texas-born mechanical engineer and socialist Frank Malina, imaginative Chinese émigré Hsue-Shen Tsien, enterprising undergraduate Apollo Smith, self-taught chemist and occult enthusiast Jack Parsons, along with his childhood friend and protector Edward Forman, among others.  Their obsession was space travel, and particularly the liquid-fuel rocket, which Robert Goddard had invented only ten years earlier.

After the first members of the group were chased out of the laboratories of the California Institute of Technology when their rocket experiments became too explosive, they found slightly more success, and even more explosions, in a remote patch of the San Gabriel Mountains, where they tested a small rocket motor on Halloween, 1936.  The men called themselves the “Suicide Club,” but Malina’s faculty advisor, leading aerodynamicist Theodore von Kármán, suggested they find a different name.  Eighty-one years ago, the institution now known as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory formed out of the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at Caltech.  Incorporated into NASA in 1958, JPL continues to do pioneering work in space exploration, which wouldn’t have surprised Frank Malina at all.

Matthew H. Hersch is an Assistant Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University.

Pacific Electric Railway map of Mt. Lowe

Pacific Electric Railway map of Mt. Lowe is courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.

By Peter Westwick

125 years ago, on September 24, 1892, Thaddeus Lowe led a party of local residents on horseback up Oak Mountain, about four miles west of Mount Wilson.  When they reached the summit the party decided to celebrate by renaming the peak in honor of their guide.  Lowe went on to build an inclined railway up his eponymous mountain, ending at a resort near the top; for four decades it was one of the most popular tourist attractions in Southern California, with over three million people riding the railway until fire and floods wiped it out in the 1930s.

Having a whole mountain named after you seems a pretty good way to get people to remember your name.  But Lowe might have left a more substantial if less familiar legacy in Southern California’s aviation and aerospace industry.   A New Hampshire Yankee, self-taught polymath, and a pioneering balloonist, Lowe built several balloons during the Civil War to spy on the Confederate Army, winning him official appointment by President Lincoln as Chief Aeronaut of the Union Army and the unofficial title of the most shot-at man in the Civil War.  In 1890 Lowe retired to Pasadena, where he built a giant mansion on Millionaire’s Row and started a bank, a gas works, and an ice supplier—and planted the seed of flight.   His friend and protégé, Roy Knabenshue, popularized balloon and dirigible flights in the area and also helped organize the 1910 L.A. Air Meet, a key catalyst for Southern California aviation.

Thanks to his service in the Union Army Lowe was sometimes called the grandfather of the U.S. Air Force.  He was also the grandfather of Florence Lowe, whom he took to the 1910 air meet when she was nine years old.  The spectacle of flight entranced the young girl, and she went on to acquire fame as “Pancho” Barnes, a pioneer barnstormer, Hollywood stunt pilot, industry test pilot, and later owner of the Happy Bottom Riding Club, the celebrated watering hole at what became Edwards Air Force Base in the “Right Stuff” era.  Lowe didn’t live to see it, having passed away in 1913, but he might have taken pleasure in knowing that many of the remarkable achievements of aviation and aerospace in the century to follow were conceived and built within sight of Mount Lowe.


Peter Westwick is director of ICW’s Aerospace History Project and adjunct professor of History, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Science. He has published several books on the history of the Space Age, Southern California’s aerospace industry and surfing.

AEROSPACE_POSTER2On August 3-4, 2007, fifty years after the Sputnik satellite launched the space race, ICW organized a conference on “Rocket Science and Region: The Rise, Fall, and Rise of the Aerospace Industry in Southern California,” bringing together scholars, writers, archivists, visual artists, corporate executives, and Air Force generals for two days of insightful and provocative discussions at the Huntington Library.

The conference posed a couple basic questions: how and why did southern California become a focal point for aerospace?  And what were the effects of this concentration, on the industry, the region, and the world? Speakers took various historical approaches—economic, political, social, environmental, cultural—to address these questions, in the process examining aerospace intersections with Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and the Antelope Valley; women, the Asian-American community, and local Chumash tribes; labor unions and the environment. The conference attracted great public interest, with an audience numbering well over a hundred people each day and coverage in the Los Angeles Times and other outlets. [Audio clips from the conference are available on iTunes.]

A resultant volume of essays, Blue Sky Metropolis: The Aerospace Century in Southern California, edited by Peter Westwick (Huntington Library Press/University of California Press), was named to L.A. Public Library’s list of Best Non-Fiction of 2012.  Above all, the conference provided an initial reconnaissance of the scholarly and archival territory subsequently explored by the Aerospace History Project, ICW’s effort to document the history of aerospace in Southern California.

ICW is currently relaunching the Aerospace History Project (what we are calling “Aerospace 2.0”).  The revived project will continue to build the archival collections and oral histories and foster new research, but we will now put more emphasis on teaching and outreach.  We will also extend our efforts to examine connections between aerospace and other aspects of science and technology in California, from electronics, telecommunications, and infrastructure to entertainment, clean tech, and recreation.  Finally, we also hope to involve other local universities in research and teaching collaborations, creating a community of scholars and students interested in questions about high technology, literally and otherwise, in Southern California.

Peter Westwick is director of ICW’s Aerospace History Project and adjunct professor of History, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Science. He has published several books on the history of the Space Age, Southern California’s aerospace industry and surfing.

The Aerospace History Project, under the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, is an effort to document the history of the aerospace industry in Southern California and the economic, cultural, and physical effects on the region and beyond. The project collects the papers and oral histories of key individuals and institutions across the aerospace industry, creating a permanent, central resource.

The Director of the Aerospace History Project, Peter J. Westwick, is Assistant Research Professor in the History Department at the University of Southern California. He received his BA in physics and PhD in history from UC Berkeley, and has taught at Yale and Caltech. His research focuses on the history of science and technology in the twentieth century U.S. He is the author of several books including Into the Black: JPL and the American Space Program, 1976-2004, and The National Labs: Science in an American System, 1947-1974. He is also editor of Blue Sky Metropolis: The Aerospace Century in Southern California.

In the following interview, Peter reveals how he became involved with aerospace history, some of the most interesting things he came across while working with the Aerospace History Project, and current projects.


ICW: Tell us a bit about your background and how you came by your interest in science and technology.

Peter Westwick: When I was a kid I got my hands on some popular books on astronomy and astrophysics and was transfixed by the images and descriptions of the universe.  So when I went off to college at Berkeley I decided to study physics.  But I also always really enjoyed reading history, and I also liked writing.  After my undergraduate degree I was working as a physicist in industry, and I discovered that there was actually a field, the history of science, that combined my interests – and that Berkeley had a strong program in it, with one of the leading historians of physics.  I decided to give history of science a try in grad school, and I was hooked.


French aviator Louis Paulhan makes record-breaking flight to 4,600 feet in 1910. The balloon in the background advertised the Los Angeles Examiner, which helped sponsor the 1910 LA Air Meet. (photCL Pierce 6298, C.C. Pierce Collection of Photographs, The Huntington Library)


Describe the Aerospace History Project: what is it, how did it come about, and what is your role?  

Westwick: The project started when Bill Deverell and I were both at Caltech.  I was working on a history of JPL and wanted to situate it in the context of Southern California, so I went and talked to Bill.  We both realized the importance of SoCal aerospace to our respective fields – me, history of science and technology; Bill, California history – and also that few archival sources existed to support scholarly research.  We also both recognized that a window of opportunity was closing: because of recent mergers and relocations a lot of corporate files were being shredded or tossed; and many individual pioneers were fading from the scene, so we were losing the chance to record their memories and save their papers.  Then Bill got the offer to come to USC and ICW, and we recognized another opportunity: the Huntington Library, with its strengths in history of science, California, and business history, was a natural home for the archive.  That brought Dan Lewis on board as the third member of our little triumvirate. Dan knows the archival landscape and also the practical issues of acquiring collections.  My instinct as a historian is to save everything, and Dan often has to remind me that we have finite space and resources, so that we have to make decisions.  Bill knows everyone in the L.A. area and is constantly coming up with new connections to people or collections.  Bill has also been instrumental in finding funding, and also in finding creative avenues for outreach, for instance through a series of great programs for high-school teachers. He reminds me that it’s not enough just to save stuff; we also then need to help push that history out to the scholarly community and the general public.

My role is to provide the intellectual connection to aerospace history and understand the needs and opportunities of researchers.  I help evaluate potential collections and also handle the oral histories; it helps here that I can speak the language, at least a little, since I have some technical background.  I’ve also mentored the two postdocs we had under an NSF grant (I’m happy to say that they have since landed jobs at Harvard and the National Air and Space Museum).  One of these postdocs, Matt Hersch, worked with me on an exhibit at the Huntington in fall 2011, mostly using materials from our collections, that attracted about 25,000 visitors.  We had so many people come up to us in the exhibit and say that they had friends or family who had worked in aerospace – or that they themselves had worked in it – and thank us for recognizing the importance of this history.  That’s a rare and very gratifying sort of feedback for historians.

Tell us some things about the book you edited on the aerospace industry in Southern California.  

Westwick: When Bill, Dan, and I first started planning the project we had the idea to start off with a conference, as a way to survey the landscape, to figure out what we already knew and where research was neeBlue_Sky_Metropolisded.  We held the conference at the Huntington in 2007, and we got such a great response – not only from the over a hundred people who showed up, but also from people who heard about it through the media coverage – that we decided to bring the material to a wider audience through an edited
volume of papers.  The book wasn’t just a
collection of conference papers, though, since we brought in several more contributors. Bill also had the great idea to include a photoessay, and I had a lot of fun sifting through the Huntington’s photo collections for a few gems to illustrate themes of early aviation.

We really tried to highlight the diversity of topics and historical approaches, so the papers look at aerospace intersections with Hollywood, architecture, labor, women, the environment, and so on.  It’s really an eclectic but, we think, eye-opening perspective on the many ways aerospace shaped Southern California, and vice versa.


Are there particularly important collections that you have helped bring in to the Huntington archives, and what collections are still “out there” that you may know about and are interested in drawing into the archive?

Westwick: Thanks to generous advice from Sherm Mullin, a former head of the Skunk Works, we’re particularly strong on Lockheed: we have the personal papers of Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, the Skunk Works’ founder, and Ben Rich, Johnson’s successor, and so have a wealth of material on the U-2, SR-71, the F-117A, and other celebrated planes.  We also have several thousand photos on pre-World War II Lockheed from Harvey Christen, one of Lockheed’s first employees, and a systematic collection from Willis Hawkins, a key designer and manager.  We also have a very substantial collection of historical files from Northrop Grumman, and the papers of Tom Jones, who was head of Northrop for three decades.  We have the papers of Bud Wheelon, a major figure at Hughes and in the national-security and space program in general.  We also just received the papers of the Planetary Society, which was formed here in Pasadena in 1980 and has been probably the most important public-interest group for space exploration ever since.

But however we much we collect, we are always driven by the knowledge that so much more remains out there to preserve, and that a lot of it will be lost if we don’t act.


What are some of the most interesting things you’ve found in the archive?

Westwick: One of the more interesting collections is the Al Hibbs papers.  Hibbs got his PhD under Richard Feynman at Caltech and like Feynman had insatiable curiosity and diverse interests: he did underwater photography and kinetic sculpture, flew sailplanes, acted in local theater, made an electronic trombone, applied to the astronaut program, contributed to the Biosphere project — all in addition to being an architect of JPL’s early satellite program, and later the “voice of JPL” for radio and TV broadcasts and an important science popularizer.  He was just a fascinating character, and his papers are full of interesting twists.

The most unexpected thing was probably an item I ran across while I was cataloging the Ben Rich papers.  It was a photo of two bearded gentleman in a barn circa 1907, standing next to a contraption resembling an airplane but of dubious flightworthiness.

The first question was, who were these guys?  They turned out to be Charles and Lyman Gilmore, a couple brothers up in Grass Valley, California.  The airplane was a remarkably ambitious design for the time, just a few years after the Wright brothers: an enclosed cabin in a metal fuselage, big enough for eight passengers, instead of an open wooden framework; a single wing instead of a biplane; and the propeller in front instead of the pusher type used by the Wrights.  In fact it was too ambitious – the steam engine wasn’t nearly strong enough to get the heavy plane off the ground.  Worse yet, they built the plane bigger than the barn door, so they would have had to take off the wings to get it out to fly.

Lyman Gilmore

Lyman Gilmore Jr. and his brother Charles in their barn in Grass Valley, Calif., ca. 1907. Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

The second question was, what were these guys doing in Ben Rich’s papers?  Of the two brothers Lyman Gilmore was the moving spirit, but he was also an eccentric fellow.  He was obsessed with secrecy, and then at one point he stopped cutting his hair and beard and, worse, gave up bathing – not for a few days or weeks, but for years and eventually decades. Rich was fascinated by Gilmore, so much so that the Skunk Works director, a very busy man, took the time to track down all the information he could on him.  Now, Rich loved a good story, and he was no doubt drawn to Gilmore as a colorful addition to his collection of anecdotes.  But Rich may have also recognized a connection.  Granted, there is no path from Gilmore’s barn to the Skunk Works, no technological lineage from his steam-powered plane to Stealth aircraft.  But Gilmore still tells us something about aviation and California.  It was no coincidence that Gilmore was a gold miner living in the heart of the Mother Lode, or that some of his early investors came from the nearby town of You Bet.  Like the original Gold Rush, aviation attracted romantic spirits, people willing to risk failure in the pursuit of their dreams.  And Rich was one of them.  The first Stealth plane was aeronautically unstable on all three axes, and when Kelly Johnson saw an early model he told Rich, “that goddam thing will never get off the ground.”  Both Rich and Gilmore ignored the doubters and pursued their dreams of flight.


Tell us about the oral histories – how can someone use them, and what’s next on that front?

Westwick: We’ve conducted conducted oral histories with a wide range of aerospace figures:  men and women, design engineers and shop floor machinists, test pilots and CEOs, from huge firms and small machine shops.   These are guided oral histories, conducted either by myself or fellow historians.  We’ve done about fifty oral histories and thirty of them are available on-line through the Huntington Digital Library, here.

The rest of the interviews will be posted once they’re through the transcribing and editing pipeline.  As with the archival collections, we have far more oral history candidates than we have managed to get to, but we sense the urgency to record as much of this history as we can.  There are some fascinating stories in these interviews: personal histories, character sketches, funny episodes, and also illuminating windows on particular issues: African-Americans in aerospace, or secrecy and classification and civil liberties, or antitrust law.


What are you working on these days?

Westwick: My main research project at the moment is a history of the National Academy of Sciences, which is the major honorary society in the U.S. and a major source of science advice to the federal government.  The Academy was created in 1863, during the Civil War, and when it reached its 150th anniversary people there approached a few of us historians (Dan Kevles, Ruth Cowan, and myself) about writing a history.  I’ve also been working for several years now on a history of the Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars, the 1980s plan for missile defense.  I’ve finished most of the research and just need to find time to write it.