Saturday, March 31, 2012

Great expectations and agreements in principal

Tuesday, May 04, 2010 08:55AM John Van de Graaff replies with a brief e-mail but promising more information after his presentation on the 10th. The first half of August would “work well in principal for a visit, fortunately” and indicates it is a busy summer in part due to moving house in September. John gives an indication of what materials are on hand and what I may due with them: “There are not a lot of materials--mainly personal files, and probably not much more than a couple of file drawers. I would be reluctant for anything to leave here--best probably would be to plan to photograph what you need, and that should go fairly quickly” - which is what I had in mind anyway. 

Although it would be better and handier to take the materials home and record them at a more leisurely pace, it is perfectly understandable to not give them to a stranger – even a well-meaning scholar like me. Given that John was to move soon, he says “[...] it will behoove me [...] to get everything ready for you [...] No one else has looked at the materials. A former associate of my father did some work on him several years ago; he wrote a few pages which I can show you [...], and then he faded from view.” This is interesting and I would have to come back to this later and see what developed from that, if anything. 
John continues, “I'd be delighted to talk with you (on tape if you wish), but I'm not expert on his work. My brother Bill (3 years younger) would be a better source, probably [...] I'm delighted that you're interested and look forward to working with you. To be continued! John”
John's delighted. I'm ecstatic! We are off to a good start. 
His e-mail signature block contains links to his bird photography website and photoblog: and
Have a look. He takes wonderful photographs and is very happy to talk about them.

From one first born son to another

Monday, May 03, 2010 2:12PM I send John Van de Graaff an e-mail the day after Kenton's note because John was going away somewhere (as I would come to know later, John does a lot of travelling – often in support of his bird photography hobby – but this time was for a presentation of some kind). I wrote “I wanted to start the conversation to get the ball rolling and to give all parties some time to cogitate on matters.” 

Introducing myself as a master's student in the Science and Technology Studies Master's Program, I also explain that I'm a mature student, and that “My background has been mostly in the area of technical publications. I've had lifelong interest in electricity - particularly early electrical pioneers and Nikola Tesla in particular interest. The opportunity to do some kind of work with your father's papers is outstanding and would be of great interest. I have the first two weeks of August scheduled as vacation. I could spend some time in a visit in person to go over materials (presuming we get that far -- I also, need to update my passport, anyway to go to the USA).” 

“Not sure where to start so I'll pass the ball over to you for the next steps. I guess basic questions come to mind such as: What kinds of materials are at hand? How many? What needs / would you like to be done with them? Has anyone looked at them before? Can they come to Canada temporarily? Those kinds of things.” I include my website for John to peruse: and close by wishing him luck with his presentation.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

I gotta hand it to you...and you

Sunday, May 02, 2010 6:23AM Kenton, up early, responds to John's e-mail by introducing me as an incoming Master's student in the STS program and that I am very enthusiastic about the project (which I was – and still am). Kenton gracefully notes that he cannot act as my supervisor. (Physics history is not Kenton's area of expertise. His expertise includes: history of medicine, history of sleep research, history of epidemic disease, and history of immunology). He then hands the ball over to John and me by indicating to John that I will be in touch with him soon once I take care of some matters here at York University that will, formally, set things in motion. The adventure has begun!

Kenton, we have agreement

Monday, April 26, 2010 6:27PM John Van de Graaff replies to an e-mail from Kenton who is acting as my envoy and likely indicating my interest in studying Robert's papers. John has a provisional OK from his brother Bill for me to look at materials he has from their father and also suggests Bill should be interviewed because he likely had “specific” memories of interest. (I would later find out that Bill's undergraduate degree was in Physics whereas John's expertise was in German language and literature.) John invites further exploration. Everyone appears to agree to take it to the next step: direct contact.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

In the beginning...there was Lightman

Thursday, April 08, 2010 09:35AM is the timestamp from an email I received from Dr. Kenton Kroker with the subject: “Van de Graaff...”

At the time, Kenton was the incoming Graduate Program Director for the Science and Technology Studies (STS) program at York University - taking over on July 1 from Dr. Bernard (Bernie) Lightman, the inaugural director, and who is now the Director of the Institute for Science and Technology Studies (ISTS) here at YorkU. Bernie is a professor I knew fairly well from the undergraduate program in Science & Society, my minor focus versus my major in Professional Writing, but I had not yet met Kenton (not that I can recall) so his email was both a mystery and a bit of a surprise.

Bernie knew of my interest in late 19th and early 20th century electrical inventors like Nikola Tesla and we chatted briefly about it and about Van de Graaff and if I had an interest in researching the latter because an interesting opportunity had surfaced and he thought I would be interested and the right person to make an investigation of the man and his machine. Van de Graaff was a familiar name but I did not know a great deal about him. His name was Dutch so that was cool (my heritage is Dutch). Like Tesla, he was famous and make big, noisy, sparky machines that fired off bolts of man-made lightning, so that was cool, too. Very cool. Van de Graaff was a physicist and atom smasher which was also cool. So, not knowing much more than that I said that I would be very much interested in hearing more about it. I am not sure how much time had passed but it could not be more than a couple of weeks when Kenton emailed me.

Kenton was back from sabbatical in Paris, France where he was doing some research (he is a historian of science and medicine). In the same apartment building lived an older man with whom he befriended and came to the understanding that the man was John Van de Graaff, the elder son of the late American physicist Robert J. Van de Graaff. John was retired and spending the winter with his wife in Paris seeing the sights, enjoying the culture, and indulging in his passion for photography. One thing led to another and John mentioned to Kenton that he had lots of his father's papers and wondered if they would be of interest to somebody in the STS program. Kenton said it sounded interesting and before emailing Bernie and, presumably, some other STS professors about it did a quick bit of online footwork. Strangely, there was not a whole lot out there on Robert J. Van de Graaff. Bits and pieces in popular media, obituaries, a mention here and there, a fond at MIT, but not a lot of scholarly stuff which surprised him.

Long story short, my name came up at least twice, so I have been told, once from Bernie - that I was the grad student for the job and that this was a fabulous opportunity – and once from someone else, I know not whom. Thus, Kenton sent me an email which is paraphrased above. He also told me a bit about researching personal archives and that John had to confirm his interest in having someone looking over his collection of materials of his father before we could go further. I was to understand that I was not under any commitment to take on this research project but Kenton did need to know if I was agreeable to it.

Since one does not look a gift horse in the mouth, I responded that I was most agreeable and immediately started my own online investigation to see whom exactly it was I had agreed to research and pick up on Kenton's trail. 

It was April. My first course in STS was not to start until September – still five months away – and already I had a subject to study for my Major Research Paper (MRP) and, very likely, a book after that.

This was a fantastic opportunity for me. I could hardly believe my luck!