Smithsonian Donates Pieces of History to Penn College

Published 04.11.1999


At a time when many are captivated by the glitz of information technology and the coming of the new century (and millennium), it is refreshing to see others fascinated by old books published at the turn of this century.

Students and faculty in Pennsylvania College of Technology's heating, ventilationand air conditioning technology major are pouring over historical books recently donated by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The publications, dating back as far as 1891, document the field of ice and refrigeration at the turn of the 20th century.

"I really appreciate these old books; they're fascinating," enthused Ben Snyder, an HVAC student from Williamsport. "I can't believe (the Smithsonian) sent these up here. I could sit here and look at these for hours and hours."

When the Smithsonian's shipment of about 130 volumes arrived, Snyder was one of the first to help unpack the eight large boxes. "I spent about 21/2 hours that first day going through the books," he said.

Marc Bridgens, interim assistant dean for the School of Construction and Design Technologies/associate professor of HVAC, fielded the unexpected call from the Smithsonian's library, asking if the College would like to receive the books. He eagerly accepted and the Smithsonian paid the shipping costs. Each large and heavy publication features a U.S. Patent Office stamp.

"Some of the information in these books is just priceless. We've already used information out of them," Bridgens stated. "Someone might think, 'They're just old books,' but, when you see them for yourself, the information is astounding. You hear stories about the olden days, but until you read and see for yourself, you really don't fully understand what it was like."

He notes that, while the HVAC field has certainly evolved with technology, many processes have not changed a great deal and the same principles often apply. Viewing that consistency is of interest to students, as is the documentation on outmoded methods such as ammonia, which may be used again in the future.

"Due to increasing regulations related to CFCs (chloroflourocarbons) and HCFCs (hydro-chloraflourocarbons) and their effects on ozone depletion, there is a lot of talk in the field about going back to ammonia as one of the alternative refrigerants. These books have so much information on ammonia that if we get into that position, we'll know a lot about ammonia," Bridgens cited.

Snyder was struck by the sizeable amount of safety information in the publications. "I didn't think they were safety conscious at the turn-of-the-century, but they were," he said.

Also captured in the pages are interesting glimpses into history not only in the refrigeration field, but history in general.

"The books detail the history of how we became so reliant on the household icebox that turned into the refrigerator," Bridgens said. As well, in a 1917 volume, there is an article on freezing chickens for the food supply of World War I soldiers and information about conserving ammonia and coal usage at the time.

"All aspects of history are combined into what (the ice and refrigeration industry was) doing at the time," Bridgens pointed out.

Among historical photos are an ice harvest on the Hudson River, a worker ascending a ladder with a 305-pound block of ice on his back, and cooler coils measuring eight feet in diameter and 10-feet high.

"I can't believe the size of the equipment they used at the time," said Mike Swiderski, an HVAC student from Numidia.

The books also feature layouts of ice plants and advertisements for products. "It's amazing to see how many Pennsylvania-based products there were at the time," Bridgens noted.

The professor has been unable to discover how the Smithsonian decided on making the donation to Penn College, but he suspects the institution may have heard of the College because of past visits by HVAC students. Members of the Penn College student chapter of the American Society of Heating, Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Engineers have twice toured the Smithsonian's physical plant to view the special cooling conditions for the various exhibits.

In addition to the historical refrigeration volumes, the Smithsonian donated six boxes of periodicals, dating from the '20s, '30s and '40s, which address diesel and oil engine power and chemical engineering and mining. Among these are periodicals titled "World Power: A Monthly Journal of Power and Engineering Process" which will be used by students enrolled in a history course entitled "Technology and Society." Within the course, Dr. Dan Doyle, professor of history, requires his students to examine certain publications to see how they promoted aspects of technological and social change within a given year and how the material perpetuated dominant ideologies such as rationalism and capitalism.

Doyle believes students of today's technologies benefit greatly from access to historical data such as the items donated by the Smithsonian.

"By examining the publications, students observe firsthand the historical framework of analyzing evidence from a different perspective," he commented. "Hopefully, this historical awareness of the past will enable them to look at the present from an historical context one based on linking past with present and one that thinks of the present as judged by the future."