Continuing Up the Hill: the Pittsburgh Building

From 1893 to 1912 Rensselaer’s administrative offices were located in the Alumni Building on Troy’s Second Street. The building also housed the Institute’s library and teaching collections for geology and mineralogy. Located a half-mile from the main campus, the building was inconvenient for both students and administrators.

In 1909, at the mid-winter alumni dinner in Pittsburgh, the Alumni Association of Pittsburgh pledged $125,000 to build a new administration building closer to campus on the former site of the Ranken House. The building, made of Harvard brick and Indiana limestone, was designed by W.G. Wilkins, a Pittsburgh alumnus, who donated his services. The structure was formally presented and dedicated on Alumni Day, June 13, 1911, though it was not completed until February 1912.

The main entrance is on the third floor, since the building is situated on a hillside. The two lower floors contain a book stack room, rooms for sending out catalogues, for exhibitions of drawings, for storage and janitors’ quarters. The main floor contains a book stack room, the reading room, the meeting room for the Trustees and Faculty, and the offices of the President, Treasurer and Registrar. The fourth floor is devoted to the Department of Geology, containing a large museum of geological and mineralogical specimens, and the lecture room and office of the Professor of Geology. One large hall, 100 feet by 64 feet in size, on the fifth floor is used for general meetings and social purposes.
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Bulletin. vol. 11, no. 3, September 1912, p.11.

The Pittsburgh Building continued to be used as the main administration building until it underwent a $7.5 million renovation in 1998 to become the home of the Lally School of Management and Technology. The renovation, made possible by a $15 million gift from Thelma P. and Kenneth T. Lally and by additional support from Rensselaer alumni, transformed one of Rensselaer’s oldest buildings into a technology-intensive center for teaching and research. The project was completed by Lee Harris Pomeroy (Class of 1954) Associates.

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Augmenting the Archives: Accessing 19th Century Documents through the Lens of 21st Century Technology

Speakers, John Ansley (Marist College), Andrew Boreman (The Strong Museum of Play), Jenifer Monger (Rensselaer), Rebecca Rouse (Rensselaer), and Tom Sommer (West Las Vegas Library)
Photograph by Craig Huey

At this year’s national Society of American Archivists (SAA) conference in Austin, Texas, I had the honor of presenting to a crowd of over 100 archivists for a session titled Unboxing the Archives: Transforming Collections with Augmented Reality and Collaborative Design. This session included five speakers from academic, museum, archives, and public library settings. Each speaker gave presentations about their own interdisciplinary collaborations using augmented reality (AR) and/or virtual reality (VR) to share collections with researchers, students, and the public. My presentation, “Augmenting the Archives: Accessing 19th Century Documents through the Lens of 21st Century Technology,” focused on a remarkable collaborative endeavor that took place at Rensselaer Libraries in 2017. Though two years have passed since this project took place, it continues to thrive via conversation and throughout the relationships that were forged. This project was a great model for success and made an impact on everyone involved. It fostered deep collaboration, innovation, and storytelling. We paved the way for Rensselaer Libraries and the Institute Archives to engage our communities in unprecedented ways.

Video augmentation of author Erica Wagner, over drawing in notebook by Washington Roebling. Video capture, 2017; notebook circa 1865. Photograph, courtesy of Erica Wagner, 2017.

Project Scope: Within the course of about eight months in 2017, Library Director Andrew White, Archivist Jenifer Monger, Professor Rebecca Rouse, author Erica Wagner, and junior Noah Zucker (GSAS, Class of 2020), completed “Finding Roebling” a multimodal AR exhibit experience. The project coincided with the release of a new biography, Chief Engineer: Washington Roebling, The Man Who Built The Brooklyn Bridge by Erica Wagner (Bloomsbury).

The author conducted the bulk of her research at Rensselaer’s Institute Archives with material from our extensive Roebling family and Brooklyn Bridge collection. What culminated was an exhibit which showcased manuscripts and artifacts that were augmented with additional imagery, animations, 3D models, and text. One part of the exhibit entitled “Erica’s Desk” simulated Dr. Wagner’s research journey using a mobile app. The user accessed AR content tied to each physical object that illustrated Erica’s personal research journey. Another part of the exhibit showcased a student’s creative development of an exhibit experience using the Microsoft HoloLens which provided mixed reality using smart glasses.

” I first walked across the Brooklyn Bridge probably when I was about 16 years old: although I’d grown up in New York City, I hadn’t done it until then. I was so struck by the bridge- of course that’s not unusual. But I was kind of surprised that I didn’t know anything about it. How it had come to be there, who made it, when it was made? So I started to read about it, and when I did, I encountered the voice of Washington Roebling. It is really true to say that as soon as I started to read anything that he had written, I heard him speaking to me. That’s the only way I can put it. It’s that which led to this fascination, this obsession…” Erica Wagner

Chief Engineer: Washington Roebling, The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge by Erica Wagner. Bloomsbury Press, 2017

Author, Erica Wagner: Between about 2009 and 2017, author Erica Wagner conducted research in the Rensselaer Institute Archives, using the Roebling Collection to write the first biography of Washington Roebling. She was so invested in telling the story of Washington Roebling and so compelled by her research experience at the Archives she became very excited and eager to go beyond the published book. Erica and I had many long conversations about her research and interest (as well as intrigue) with some key items in the collection. We wanted to create “something,” do “something” to honor this magnificent endeavor of hers and I was eager and excited to somehow showcase this collection in a new way. We began brainstorming!

The Roebling Collection: First, I would like our readers to know about one of the Institute Archives’ crown jewels: the Roebling collection. This includes the personal and professional papers from members of the Roebling family, the designers and builders of the Brooklyn Bridge which crosses the East River from Brooklyn to Manhattan. Much of the collection documents specifically the design and construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. The collection also reveals who the family was: John A. Roebling, a genius engineer, known for his innovations in suspension bridge construction during the first half of the 19th century; his son Washington Roebling, a Rensselaer graduate from 1857 who became Chief Engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge construction project after his father died of tetanus two weeks before construction began; and Emily Warren Roebling, Washington’s wife, best known for carrying out her husband’s construction plans when he was stricken with decompression sickness (the bends) and bed-ridden for much of the construction project. This collection was donated to Rensselaer by Washington’s daughter in law, Helen Pierce Roebling in the 1950’s.

The family and story of the bridge’s construction has been a beacon call for a plethora of global researchers. David McCullough, author of The Great Bridge (1972), was the first researcher to use this collection extensively. The collection also laid the foundation for Ken Burns’ documentary film Brooklyn Bridge (1981), and the BBC’s docudrama series for Seven Wonders of the Industrial World (2003).

Finding Roebling Exhibit, Folsom Library 1st floor
Photograph by Noah Zucker (Class of 2019)

The Collaboration: Early in 2017, months before Erica Wagner’s biography was released, ideas for an event began to percolate. Rensselaer Professor Rebecca Rouse and I were introduced to one another by Rensselaer’s Library Director who saw the potential to unite us, and we began brainstorming. Rebecca and I dovetailed our expertise; her research focuses on theoretical, critical, and design production work with storytelling for new technologies. She is an expert in the design and development of mixed reality projects. As archivist and curator, my expertise lies in promoting a meaningful exchange between visitors and content, highlighting collections in ways that promote dialogue, new perspectives, and a transformative experience. More importantly, we forged a dynamic relationship with the researcher, Erica Wagner, who was excited to share her research journey and wanted to collaborate with us and bring to life how she came into direct contact with Washington Roebling’s presence by using the Roebling collection in the Institute Archives. Rebecca suggested we hire one of her top students in Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences to add some flair and help us create an exhibit experience that incorporated augmented reality. This was brilliant – since AR allows you to gain real-estate in an exhibit with added design features that overlay digital components onto the physical world. We had a vision, administrative support for our endeavor, we formed a team, and the creativity flowed forth!

“Let the engineers explain the bridge, I want to tell the story of Washington Roebling.” Erica Wagner

Video augmentation of author Erica Wagner, over exhibit item. Photograph by Rebecca Rouse
Finding Roebling, 2017 – exhibit cases on main floor of Folsom Library. Content from the Roebling Collection, Institute Archives and Special Collections. Photograph, courtesy of Erica Wagner

Concept Design: We based the design and curatorial decisions on Erica’s research, the way she wrote the biography and the story behind her research interests. I began the curatorial process by honing in on content in the Roebling collection that conveyed the life story of Washington Roebling in keeping with how Erica organized her biography. Spread throughout four exhibit cases, content was chosen to tell the story of the student, the son, the chief engineer, and the sick man. Another key component to the exhibit was “Erica’s Desk” where users could handle reproduced objects that were significant to Erica’s research journey in the archives. These objects were enhanced with audio – excerpts from Roebling’s memoir and recorded Skype videos of Erica discussing various aspects of her research in conjunction with documents from the collection.

Exhibit visitor at “Finding Roebling,” using the Microsoft HoloLens.
Photograph by Noah Zucker (Class of 2019)

19th Century Documents through the Lens of 21st Century Technology: Noah, our student in Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences got curious once Rebecca and I started providing him content from the Roebling Collection. He wanted to see how creative he could be by using the Microsoft HoloLens device to show another aspect of the exhibit with augmented reality. Noah was interested in the HoloLens because it represents a newer generation of head mounted displays for AR. The attraction is a hands-free AR experience for the user, with the possibility for a wider field of view (as opposed to looking through the frame of your phone.) The HoloLens uses a video projection and mirror refraction system to create the illusion that the AR overlays exist in the plane of space in front of you, outside the headset. Noah was able to choreograph the user to stand back, at a distance from the AR media overlay, so the narrow field of view was not noticed. This had the trade-off of keeping the user away from the cases, as you see in the photograph above. Noah’s work was ingenious in developing a method to keep users unaware of the HoloLens field of view. The head mounted display based AR, however, is still pretty emergent and more experimental — not to mention more expensive. Nevertheless, the exhibit did a great job of straddling both a mobile AR technology as well as the cutting-edge emergent head mounted display based platform!

Our students are encouraged to pursue creativity and discovery. Noah did just that, and used the library space as a laboratory and pushed the boundaries of our interdisciplinary teamwork! You can read more about Noah’s work here, where he explains his process and highlights the Microsoft HoloLens project in great detail.


Still image from Microsoft HoloLens showing media augmentation above “Finding Roebling” exhibit cases at Folsom Library. Video courtesy of Noah Zucker (Class of 2019). Still image captured by Jenifer Monger

The Finding Roebling Exhibit Today: The exhibit was featured in Folsom Library on the main floor for approximately 10 months (2017-2018). As of today, the reproductions of items in the Roebling collection along with the AR markers used to retrieve the augmentation still exists. The HoloLens portion of the exhibit created by Noah can’t be shown again currently as the software is now outdated. The experience is only available in video capture. This is the reality of a technology heavy exhibit experience. For starters, AR is not yet a “self-sufficient” technology, culturally or technologically, and it’s extremely difficult to preserve AR because the platforms change so rapidly. This is precisely the case for the “Finding Roebling” exhibit. This is why we call it an “exhibit experience,” something to have been experienced at that time! What remains are numerous photographs that now exist as documentary evidence of this wonderful collaborative project for which I am very thankful to have played a key role in.

Rest assured though, all is not lost! We are considering revamping some portions of the exhibit in the year to come. We will certainly keep the community well informed on our plans.

You Should Know: Commensurate with the opening of the Finding Roebling Exhibit, on September 11, 2017 at the Auditorium, in the Center for Biotechnology & Interdisciplinary Studies, the Third Carl A. Westerdahl Forum featured a dialogue between Jenifer Monger and Erica Wagner, moderated by Andrew White. This video captures the event and will give our readers a sense of the collection’s impact, and the relationships that were created in the Archives!

As always, a special thanks!

The Finding Roebling exhibit was made possible by the generosity of the
following: Rensselaer Alumni Association, Friends of Folsom Library, Rensselaer County Historical Society, Husdon Mohawk Gateway, and the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences.

Our Core Collaborative Team: Andrew White: Director of Rensselaer Libraries (Exhibit Producer); Jenifer Monger: Assistant Institute Archivist (Exhibit Designer); Erica Wagner: Author, Chief Engineer: Washington Roebling, The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge; Rebecca Rouse: Assistant Professor of Arts (Experience Designer); Noah Zucker: GSAS ’19 (Lead Developer and Interface Designer); Marc Destefano: Senior Lecturer of Cognitive Science (Voice Actor)

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One Giant Leap: Celebrating the 50 Year Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing

The Jetsons, model rockets, words like “liftoff” and “launch,” Star Trek, the Houston Astros…they all have something in common: after 1961, they helped mold pop culture. America had entered the space age, and entertainment, language, fashion, and architecture would never be the same. Nothing, however, ignited America’s fascination with space more than the summer afternoon of July 20th, 1969. On that day, 53 million Americans watched as two men, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, became the first humans to walk on the moon.

“Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” – Neil Armstrong, 4:18 p.m.

Perhaps you remember growing up and learning about this important event in school. Perhaps you remember watching it live on TV. Are you aware, however, that one of the men who was instrumental in the Apollo missions is none other than George M. Low, ’48, Rensselaer’s president from 1976 to 1984?

Born in Vienna in 1926, Low emigrated to the United States with his family in 1940. After serving in the army during WWII he attended Rensselaer, where he received Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in aeronautical engineering. After graduating, he joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) as a Research Scientist at the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory in Ohio, where he specialized in experimental and theoretical research in heat transfer, boundary layer flows, and internal aerodynamics. In addition, he also worked on space technology problems, such as orbit calculations, reentry paths, and space rendezvous techniques.

After NASA was formed in October of 1958, Low transferred to the agency’s headquarters in Washington, DC. He served as Chief of Manned Space Flight, and was closely involved in the planning of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo projects. Low assembled the Manned Lunar Landing Task Group in 1960, which researched the technical and planning requirements behind a manned lunar landing, and in 1961, he helped prepare the memorandum for President Kennedy which stated that America had the capability to put astronauts on the moon.

Low quickly moved through the ranks at NASA, being named Assistant Director of Manned Space Flight in June of 1961. Two years later, he was named the Deputy Director of the Office of Manned Space Flight, where he worked on spacecraft development, launch vehicles, and space medicine programs. Low then transferred to NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, TX, in 1964. In this role, he was given overall responsibility of the Gemini and Apollo space programs, as well as future program planning and development.

After the disastrous Apollo 1 fire that killed three astronauts in 1967, Low was appointed the Manager of the Apollo Spacecraft Program. He oversaw the complete redesign and retesting of Apollo, where he added more rigorous quality control to strengthen safety operations and procedures. Low immersed himself in the work, making sure that even minor flaws were improved upon. George Abbey, Low’s technical assistant, once said of Low, “he was at work long before most people in the morning, and long after they left at night.”

Aside from revamping Apollo, Low also testified before Congress on budget requests and schedules. During the summer of 1968, Low realized that they were behind schedule on a moon landing, which was a realization the competitive Low didn’t take lightly. In response, Low proposed the idea of a moon orbit instead, which would later be called “a stroke of genius.” Sending Apollo 8 up to circumnavigate the moon gave America the time it needed to figure out how to safely land a man on the moon, and all but squashed Russia’s moon landing efforts.

Finally, in 1969, NASA was ready to send astronauts to the moon. A two hour, thirty six minute moonwalk was televised to millions of Americans from a camera that was attached to the Apollo 11 lander, marking it as one of the biggest national events in American history. Though Low received many honors and credits for the Apollo project, he was little known to the public. He once remarked, “My job was never as exciting as what the astronauts ate for breakfast.”

Rensselaer fondly remembers George Low. During his eight years as president, he developed the Rensselaer 2000 planning guide, broadened new areas for technology research, and undertook many fundraising activities. One of his signature gestures, however, was serving donuts to students in the hockey line, an act which he enjoyed greatly.

After his death in 1984, his family donated Low’s NASA artifacts and memorabilia to Rensselaer, which were installed in the Low exhibit gallery on the fourth floor of the George M. Low Center for Industrial Innovation (CII).

This year, take a stroll through the gallery to commemorate the history behind the 50 year anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing!

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Continuing Up the Hill: Russell Sage Laboratory

Russel Sage Laboratory, view from Southeast c. 1912

In 1907, Mrs. Russell Sage gave Rensselaer $1,000,000 as a memorial to her husband, Russell Sage, a New York financier, who, for ten years prior to his death, was a trustee of the Institute. Of this amount, $300,000 was contributed toward erecting and equipping a laboratory for the use of newly established courses in mechanical and electrical engineering. The balance was laid aside as an endowment for the two new departments. The Sage gift more than doubled the value of the Institute. (With a total enrollment of 485 students, Rensselaer’s annual budget in 1906 was $100,000.)  The first bachelor’s degrees in mechanical and electrical engineering were awarded in June 1911 (3 ME and 9 EE).

Main switch board. Generator sets. Motor generators and frequency changers

The Russell Sage Laboratory, built and equipped at a final cost of $405,000, was designed by Lawlor & Haase and constructed of Harvard brick with limestone trimmings. There were three principal sections of the building: the west wing devoted to Mechanical Engineering, the east wing for Electrical Engineering and the central section used by both departments. The central portion contained a lecture room seating 400 persons, a large drawing room and a laboratory with machines for materials testing. The building was opened for use in 1909.

Steam laboratory with valve setting engine in gallery

Department of Mechanical Engineering facilities in the upper stories of building’s west wing included classrooms, drafting rooms, and faculty offices. The sub-basement floor contained three laboratories: a steam laboratory, hydraulic laboratory, and internal combustion engine and refrigeration laboratory.

Electrical Engineering laboratory

Department of Electrical Engineering facilities in the east wing included classrooms, faculty offices and in the basement a generator plant, dynamo laboratory, storage battery and transformer rooms, an electro chemical laboratory, rooms for blueprinting and photographic work and an instrument shop.

Growing student enrollment necessitated an addition to the Sage Laboratory which was built to the north and east of the existing building. The four story addition was finished in 1923 at a cost of $235,000.

Russell Sage Laboratory was completely renovated in 1985 and currently houses the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences.

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A Changed World: Ode to 1919

I’ve had many wonderful opportunities as an archivist to work with exceptional students here at RPI. One such student, Noah Zucker, is graduating with the Class of 2019 this year with a degree in Computer Science. Noah recently told me that as of July, he’ll be working for Facebook as a Designer for Social Virtual Reality. I couldn’t be happier for him, and I’m so thankful to have worked with him on a large augmented reality project for the Archives, during the summer of 2017.

As an archivist I think about the classes that come and go, year after year, decade after decade. Being surrounded by 195 years of student history on a daily basis has that affect on an archivist! I’m always pondering how our students have shaped the memory of the Institute, as well as the world they’re about to enter when they leave dear old R.P.I. This year, as we approach the Two Hundred and Thirteenth commencement, I think about the students of the Class of 1919. They had a much different experience, one which was worlds apart from contemporary life today.

Class of 1919 group photograph on The Approach
Class of 1919 group photograph on The Approach

The class of 1919, entered the Institute in September 1915 with 180 students. Student life was marked by the usual “stuff” of college life, games and events, rushes and elections, and lectures and exams. However, college life was experienced with the backdrop of World War I an ocean away, evolving and shaping the future to come. By April 1917, the class of 1919, in their sophomore year, saw a tidal wave of change, when most of the class members that entered went in the direction of immediate military service. Adding to this abrupt change, “Seniors became privates; freshman non-coms…Drill was added to the curriculum; forty-five square feet of barracks…and a uniform of indefinite fit augmented each man’s possessions. With commencement now in plain sight, to get by and be recommended for an officer’s camp became [their] chief end in life.” Thankfully, they awoke one morning to find the war over, but of the 180 students that entered the class, only 58 graduated in 1919.

To the Class of 2019, we wish you the best of luck, and we can’t wait to witness how you change the world! Certainly there are good things to come in your future!

Panoramic photograph of the 760 members of the 1919 Rensselaer student body taken in front of Russell Sage Laboratory. The students would have been posed in a horseshoe curve facing a camera mounted on a swivel tripod. The photograph was taken by Charles Pieper of Troy.
Panoramic photograph of the 760 members of the 1919 Rensselaer student body taken in front of Russell Sage Laboratory. The students would have been posed in a horseshoe curve facing a camera mounted on a swivel tripod. The photograph was taken by Charles Pieper of Troy.

For more on Rensselaer and the Great War, read this post

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