Utility Patent Drawings

One fascinating way to look at our history is by studying the tools we have invented and used throughout the years. There is no better way to do this than by looking at the patent drawings we hold in the Cartographic Branch at the National Archives.

The majority of the patent drawings we have are found in Record Group 241: Utility Patent Drawings. There are about one million drawings in this series, ranging from the 1837 to 1911. These drawings give us a snapshot into what inventors were prioritizing and what cutting edge technology was like at the time.

While we look at what was invented or improved upon during this time period, it’s interesting to see early concepts for items that we now might take for granted. For example, when using a paper bag, you’re not likely to think about its history and various designs, but we can see these earlier ideas in patent drawings.


RG 241, Utility Patent Drawings, 242499

It’s also interesting to compare older object designs with their modern counterparts to see how they’ve evolved over time. An example of this is a baseball catcher’s equipment. Looking at a patent from 1904, it’s clear how much this design has changed:


RG 241, Utility Patent Drawings, 755209, Sheet 1

Because the patents cover such a wide range of objects and devices, you are likely come across something unique while looking through the records, like the following patent:


RG 241, Utility Patent Drawings, 118435

Or this patent for a mustache guard:


RG 241, Utility Patent Drawings, 435748

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Barbecue, Bar-B-Q, BBQ!!

This Blog Post was Co-written By Matthew Heichelbech

Temperatures around the country are rising, which means two things: It’s nearly summer and it’s time to Barbecue!! In honor of our national penchant for outdoor cooking, we’ve collected some pictures of Americans from all over the country Bar-B-Qing all over the world. Enjoy!

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Bluegrass Shot OneOne thing that does not come immediately to mind when I think of the National Park Service (NPS) is the performing arts.  I have been attending concerts at the Wolf Trap Center for the Performing Arts for decades.  It is my favorite outdoor concert venue in the Washington, DC area.  However, I am always a little confused when I see all these people in National-Park-Service uniforms.  Then I remember that I am actually in one of our National Parks.  It never occurred to me that there may be other National Parks whose purpose is the preservation and celebration of our culture through performance.  That is, until I came across the moving images from the Harpers Ferry Center Collection relating to the Blue Ridge Music Center.

The records of the Harpers Ferry Center (HFC) are a relatively new addition to the moving image holdings of the National Archives.  These records came to the National Archives from the Harpers Ferry Center located in West Virginia.  HFC opened its doors for business on March 2, 1970 and its primary function is providing interpretive assistance tools for NPS field interpreters to fulfill the mission of the National Park Service to “preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.”  These tools include, but are not limited to audiovisual programs, historic furnishings, museum exhibits, and publications.  As well as these tools, HFC also provides a variety of services including graphic research, interpretive planning, and assistance with media development strategies.

I have the privilege of making these moving images from HFC available to the public.  When I think about the natural resources of our national parks places like Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Yosemite come to mind.  On the other hand, when I think about the cultural resources of our national parks I think of places like the Civil War battlefield in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania or the Frederick Douglass House in Anacostia, a neighborhood located in South East Washington DC.  While the Harpers Ferry Collection includes films from these iconic parks, it has also opened my eyes to some unexpected gems.

The Blue Ridge Music Center was established in the mid-1980s.  The Center is located near Galax Virginia: milepost 213 on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Shortly after its establishment there were plans to create a film on the music of the region to be included as part of the park’s exhibits.  Sadly, the film was never finished.  However, about ten original camera rolls remain and are now part of the permanent holdings here at the National Archives.

Bluegrass Shot Two

I am passionate about the records from these sites because I love both being in nature, and learning about the history of my country.  Much like the NPS’s mission, the National Archives’ mission is to preserve and “provide public access to Federal Government records.”  Therefore, while these records appeal to me personally, I am also proud to contribute to their preservation so others will benefit in the future.  Moreover, while Civil War battlefields, homes of civil rights leaders, and picturesque landscapes are important parts of our natural and cultural history, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the cultural scope of our national parks also includes the performing arts.  I am looking forward to visiting the Blue Ridge Music Center sometime soon.  For now however, I will need to be content to experience these Blue Ridge musicians’ performances from the 1980’s, preserved at the National Archives.

Many of our films come to the Archives with production files that have detailed notes.  While this film does have a production file its notes are limited.  If you are able to identify any of the musicians here please leave a comment so that we can give them due credit.

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Brady’s Lens: The Civil War and the Mathew Brady Collection in the National Archives

On 9 April 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse.  Over the course of April and into early May, more and more Confederate commanders surrendered their armies, and on 10 May 1865, Union troops captured Confederate President Jefferson Davis.  Three days later, at Palmito Ranch, Texas the war’s final battle ended with a superfluous Confederate victory.  By the end of June 1865, the last Confederate field commanders surrendered, and the war that cost the nation an estimated 700,000 lives came to an end.[1]  In the 150 years hence, the American Civil War became one of the most studied and scrutinized periods of American history.

When the Civil War began, wartime photography was in its infancy.  The Crimean War of 1854-55 provided the first real “opportunity” for photographic documentation of a conflict, but images from that war only focused on soldier portraits and battlefields.  Early photographers avoided capturing photographs of the death and misery that made up the reality of the conflict.  In 1861 though, well-known photographer Mathew Brady saw an opportunity to use the camera to document war in a way that was impossible only a generation earlier.  Brady and his associates–notably Alexander Gardner, George Barnard, and Timothy O’Sullivan–set out to record the progress of the war.

Brady’s first photographs of the Battle of Bull Run (July 1861) helped to replace the romantic tradition associated with battlefield art, and illustrated newspapers mass-produced engravings based on Brady’s photographs.  The American public’s appetite for candid images of the conflict grew, and photographers sold pictures and stereo cards by the thousands.[2]  While Brady’s photographs changed the way people viewed war from afar, technological limitations still plagued his endeavors.  Long exposure times, heavy cameras, and the wet-plate process meant that Brady and other photographers could not capture the spontaneity of combat, but depended rather, on posed portraits and carefully-planned battlefield shots.

Despite his limitations, Brady and his team managed to capture some of the most powerful images of the war’s cruel realities.

Throughout the war, Brady and his team captured at least 12,000 photographs of battlefields, towns, and people touched by the war.  Additionally, Brady (or one of his associates) photographed many prominent politicians and military personalities who stopped by his studio in Washington D.C.  Whether these photographs showed wounded soldiers or well-dressed women, the Brady collection helps expand the cultural and social understanding of the war.  Of course, Brady never missed an opportunity to capture a truly defining moment.  Only days after Lee surrendered, he posed for Brady in front of his Richmond home in what became the final photograph of Lee in his Confederate uniform.  Many of Brady’s other photographs still serve as some of the most recognizable of many prominent figures and events associated with the Civil War.

Unfortunately, Brady’s success declined after the war.  When he declared bankruptcy, many of his negatives went on public auction, and in 1874 Secretary of War William Belknap purchased part of Brady’s collection for $2,500.[3]  A year later, the War Department purchased 3,735 plates directly from Brady, and held them in their library until 1921 when the Office of the Chief Signal Officer secured custody of the Brady negatives in order to make copies and provide them to the public.  In 1940, the National Archives accessioned the Brady collection, and in 1943 the Library of Congress purchased another significant portion of the Brady negatives from the Phelps Publishing Company of Springfield, Massachusetts.

Today, NARA’s collection of Mathew Brady photographs is available online in the National Archives catalog.  See also the Civil War Select Audiovisual Records at the National Archives.

Note: All photo captions are the captions listed in the online catalog.  Also, the photographs are unedited and appear as they do in the catalog.







[1] Harold Holzer, “War by the Numbers,” http://www.historynet.com/civil-war-casualties.  While traditional estimates of Civil War deaths hover around 620,000, new evidence suggests higher numbers.

[2] Jonathan Heller, ed., War and Conflict: Selected Images form the National Archives, 1765-1970 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1990), 4.

[3] Heller, War and Conflict, 5.


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Aliens at the Archives

On December 30, 1947, the United States Air Force (USAF) began the process of collecting and evaluating all facts related to flying saucers and other types of unidentified flying objects (UFOs). Between 1947 and 1969, 12,618 sightings were reported to the USAF program titled Project Blue Book, headquartered at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.


(Local Identifier:341-PBB-400) “Keesler AFB, Mississippi Film, 3/7/1954”

Scientists and investigators from federal agencies and universities assisted the Air Force with the subsequent investigations. Project Blue Book grouped these sightings into three categories: identified, insufficient data, and unidentified. According to the findings, the majority of the identified sightings usually relate to military and private aircraft, weather balloons, and satellites. A large number of birds, reflections, spotlights, and hoaxes also became common solutions for the identifiable cases.


(Local Identifier: 341-PBB-473) “Alamogordo, New Mexico Film, 10/16/1957”

The report lists unidentifiable occurrences as the least frequent result of a UFO investigation given that the classification means there is no logical explanation for the UFO sighting. Many of the reported sightings are, according the Air Force, explicable by some sort of scientific means.


(Local Identifier: 341-PBB-482) “Montville, Ohio Film, 11/6/1957”

According to Dr. J. Allen Hynek, a scientific advisor to the Air Force and a professor of Astronomy at Northwestern University, the insufficient data category contained the most problematic sightings. Often a number of these sightings contained all of the required evidence involving location, time, and weather, among others, but the data was so poor that it proved impossible for investigators to conclude any possible logical explanation.


(Local Identifier: 341-PBB-523) “Coburn, Virginia Film February – April, 1959”

When submitting reports to the USAF, individuals often included supplemental photographic prints and negatives that, from their perspective, proved the accuracy of these sightings. The Air Force made copies of the prints and negatives before returning the originals back to the observers, and these copies provided additional information used in the investigative process. These photographs now make up the series 341-PBB “Project “BLUE BOOK””.


(Local Identifier: 341-PBB-620) “Naha, Okinawa Film October 6-7, 1962”

While several of these photographs do provide clear images of the sky and objects, many of the images used as evidence resemble those seen below in the Australia Life Photos from March 1966.


(Local Identifier: 341-PBB-715) “Australia Life Photos, 3/1/1966”

At the conclusion of the report, the USAF determined that no UFO reported posed a threat to national security after evaluation. Additionally, the Air Force determined that none of the unidentified sightings highlighted any technological developments that are not possible with present scientific knowledge and these sightings did not include substantial proof of extraterrestrial vehicles visiting Earth. Even though they did not discover any extraterrestrial elements in the reported sightings, the USAF did not deny the possibility of life on other planets and the Project Blue Book Information Office encourages individuals with a knowledge of extraterrestrial life to submit their claims and evidence for review.

For more information about Project Blue Book holdings across NARA, visit the Project BLUE BOOK – Unidentified Flying Objects formation page.

Interested in more Project Blue Book Special Media offerings? Check out these previous posts about motion picture records related to the project.

Project Blue Book: Home Movies in UFO Reports

Project Blue Book: Spotting UFOs in the Film Record

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Commemorating the Doolittle Raid

Today, April 18, marks the 75th Anniversary of the Doolittle Raid. The mission, named for its organizer and leader James “Jimmy” Doolittle, caused minor damage to its targets, but accomplished a great deal by boosting the morale of Americans still affected by the attack at Pearl Harbor and early Japanese victories.


Still taken from United News newsreel of the Doolittle Raiders before their mission.

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Film Preservation 101: Scratch Hazards and Fixes

For those working with archival films, encountering film scratches is just part of the job.

At the National Archives we care for films that range from pristine camera negatives with not a scratch to be seen, all the way to beat-up projection prints that look like they were rubbed with sandpaper. Scratches can be black or white, depending on whether they are on the base (the plastic carrier) or emulsion side of the film, and whether the film is an original or copy. Color film sometimes contains colored scratches.

Most often a film is scratched when it is handled or projected. A dirty projector gate can permanently gouge a film during a single playback.

And then there’s this:

This still from item 342-USAF-42644 has a prominent emulsion scratch caused by the camera used to shoot the film. You can see a pile of emulsion shavings in the upper left corner of the screen.

This still from item 342-USAF-42644 has a prominent emulsion scratch caused by the camera used to shoot the film. You can see a pile of emulsion shavings in the upper left corner of the screen.

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Spotlight: “Our Wings of Victory,” the Manufacture of Military Aeroplanes During WWI

 “To fill the skies of France with fighting aircraft–that was America’s tremendous task. What we did and what we have accomplished of that task is here fully revealed for the first time” reads an intertitle slate from the film Our Wings of Victory which highlights the production of American-made aircraft during World War I.

World War I was the first major conflict to involve aircraft on a large scale. Images of Germany’s reconnaissance Zeppelins, tethered observation balloons, and biplanes being flown by the likes of Manfred von Richthofen – the Red Baron are iconic images of WWI aircraft.

Films like Manufacture of Military Aeroplanes, 1917-1918, also titled, Our Wings of Victory, created by the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, highlight the airplane production process, from raw lumber to final product.

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Accessing World War I Photos in the Digital Age

April 6 marks the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entry into World War I, as well as the culmination of a massive digitization project from the National Archives. Through a generous donation made by an anonymous donor, the National Archives was able to digitize over 110,000 photographs and nearly 300 reels of film related to the “Great War.”

Original Caption: That wonderful sight to so many American soldiers, The Statue of Liberty, as it greeted the 2nd Division as it arrived at New York. August 8, 1919. Local Identifier: 165-WW-139A-1

The vast majority of photographs selected for digitization came from two series: the American Unofficial Collection of World War I Photographs (165-WW) and the Photographs of American Military Activities (111-SC).* Both series of photographs document American activity on the home front and on the battlefield during the war years.

The “American Unofficial Collection of World War I Photographs” (165-WW) was originally maintained by the Committee on Public Information (CPI).  During WWI, the CPI collected photographs from private photographers and federal agencies in order to sway public opinion in favor of the war.  Following the war, the CPI disbanded and the War Department’s Historical Branch obtained custody of the photographs.  The War Department later transferred these photos, among others, to the National Archives in the early 1940s. Prior to this digitization project, these images were only available to researchers via microfiche in the Still Photos research room.

The “Photographs of American Military Activities” (111-SC) were primarily taken or collected by the Army Signal Corps.  Although this digitization project has focused on images related to World War I, the Army Signal Corps series includes nearly 1 million images covering everything from the French and Indian War through Vietnam.   Photographs from this series have long been some of the most often requested and widely disseminated images in our holdings.

By digitizing these records, citizens all over the world can now access films and photos related to WWI without traveling to the National Archives research room.  Additionally, we hope that enhanced metadata will allow researchers to search for records in innovative ways, and make new connections that were not possible in the traditional analog-world.  Scanning these records will also limit the amount that the original photographs are handled, ensuring their preservation for years to come.**

In addition to the images in this blog, the Unwritten Record has highlighted many of these re-discovered gems over the past year. Staff has continually stumbled upon weirdinspiring, and somber images of American life a century ago.  The National Archives has gathered these photographs, as well as many other records, educational programs, and articles in a recently created, World War I Portal.


*In addition to the two series described above, this digitization project also included two smaller series related to WWI.  They are: German Military Activities and Personnel, 1917-1918 (165-GB), and British Photographs of WWI, 1914-1918 (165-BO), which are now available in the National Archives Catalog.

**Access to the originals may still be granted in special circumstances.

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How to Research: Photographs Relating to World War II Army Units

This post was co-authored with Kaitlyn Crain Enriquez.

In this four part series, the Still Picture Branch will be introducing various methods that can be used while researching photographs of military units during World War II. The first part will focus specifically on Army photographs, but we will also cover Air Force, Navy, and Marine research in subsequent blog posts. We hope that researchers find this information helpful in the course of their own work.

Researchers who are looking for images relating to a single United States Army unit will find that a multi-faceted search returns the best results. The more a researcher knows about a unit, the more success he or she will have in searching NARA’s holdings. For effective research using Army photographs maintained by NARA’s Still Picture Branch, the most pertinent information to have includes:

  • Unit lineage
  • Campaign locations
  • Major battles in which the unit received decorations and honors
  • Names of historically significant personalities that were connected to the unit

Knowing where a unit was during a particular point in the war, or under what division(s) it was attached can widen the search and return those photographic gems that might be missed in a more narrow search. The Department of the Army Lineage and Honors  publications can be a useful first step in acquiring helpful information about an army unit. If a researcher is having trouble locating a copy of the army unit lineage, the Still Picture Branch holds a comprehensive collection that can be used for researcher reference.

To illustrate the search process, we have chosen to use the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment as an example. We first reviewed photographs that were indexed under the 505th Infantry Regiment and we were able to locate a variety of images. However, in order to enhance and broaden our research, we reviewed the army unit lineage (pictured below):

505th Lineage

505th Decorations

We can see that as of 1943, the Regiment was added as an organic element of the 82nd Airborne Division. We also find the locations that the 505th campaigned during the war, as well as what decorations the unit received. These various pieces of information are all valuable clues that guide well-rounded research using the photographic records here at NARA.

With this information on hand, it is now possible to widen our search in a number of ways. For example, knowing that the 505th Infantry Regiment was part of the 82nd means that we should search through images the were indexed under the 82nd Airborne Division, in addition to the images that were indexed under the 505th Infantry Regiment. After searching for photographs of the 82nd Airborne, we were able to locate additional photographs of the 505th Infantry.

In addition, the lineage states that the 505th Inf. Reg. campaigned in Sicily, Naples, Normandy, Rhineland, and Ardennes. With that information, we then searched for photographs indexed under the listed locations, which led us to additional photographs of the 505th.


Series used to research and retrieve World War II unit photographs:



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