Johns Hopkins Gazette | February 2, 2009
Gazette masthead
   About The Gazette Search Back Issues Contact Us    
The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University February 2, 2009 | Vol. 38 No. 20
Among New Releases, A Peek at Some Johns Hopkins History

This screen shot shows a close-up of female technicians on the self-designated "wench bench," the APL assembly area for experimental test lots of VT radio proximity projectile fuzes.

By Michael Buckley
Applied Physics Laboratory

Add a chapter of Johns Hopkins history to your "must-see" movie list for 2009.

With an $8,500 grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation, the Applied Physics Laboratory and Sheridan Libraries have teamed up to restore the 1945 APL-produced film VT Radio Proximity Fuze. The hourlong silent color movie shows the development and deployment of the fuze — APL's founding invention, which was judged to be one of the three most valuable technology developments of World War II (along with the atomic bomb and radar). The fuze is a small device inside an explosive that initiates detonation. The VT (for "variable time"), or proximity, fuze was designed to detonate a shell automatically when a target came within a set distance or passed through a given plane.

The newly restored film, available online at: is a glimpse at a collection that could put some video stores to shame. John O'Brien, assistant supervisor of APL's Technical Communications Group, says that the Lab has about 1,500 films dating back to the 1940s, hundreds of audio files going back to the '50s and about 10,000 videotapes dating back to the '60s, as well as more than 200,000 photos and negatives taken over the past six decades.

"We've migrated old tapes to new formats and scanned old photos as we've used them," says O'Brien, who previously headed the Lab's audio/visual section. "We'd love to transfer all these assets into a resource people could actually use. But the cost and time required to preserve this much electronic media is extensive."

For this project, he knew where to look for funding: the JHU Recorded Image and Sound Preservation Committee, created in 2004 by Winston Tabb, Sheridan Dean of University Libraries and Museums. Tabb asked the group to identify moving-picture film and magnetic video and sound media collections throughout the university and assist in educating the research community about them, along with recommending short- and long-term preservation strategies.

"Our ability to preserve and protect the hundreds of film, video and sound collections across the university adds immeasurably to the research collections available to the JHU community and to the public," Tabb says.

The committee had previously secured grants from the National Film Preservation Foundation to restore a 1932 film on The Johns Hopkins Hospital and an early 1940s-era documentary on wartime medical units. The 2007 grant paid for a contract company to ultrasonically clean the original VT fuze film, which O'Brien says was just starting to deteriorate. The company then made a new 16 mm color print film as well as a digital tape.

The film is one of eight in the VT Fuze Collection, which includes both color and black-and-white newsreels, public information films, and testing and training films. O'Brien says that the committee will apply for another grant this year to restore the remaining parts of the collection. "The film itself is an example of APL being a cutting-edge organization from the start," he says. "The fuze was a significant scientific and engineering achievement, and that we're able to preserve that part of the record so people always know that was done here is very important."

The JHU Recorded Image and Sound Preservation Committee, led initially by Sophia Jordan- Mowery, the Joseph Ruzicka and Marie Ruzicka Feldmann Director of Library Preservation at the Sheridan Libraries, uncovered countless treasures in its initial survey of university collections.

"We were thrilled to find such a rich collection of primary source material," Mowery says. "However, many of the materials are in formats that are extremely compromised, not only because they were recorded on now-obsolete technology but because the media are ephemeral and deteriorate much more quickly than books and paper. Preserving these collections requires that we both treat the original format and migrate the information."

In addition to approaching the National Film Preservation Foundation, the committee seeks funding opportunities with organizations whose mission is to preserve historical records, regardless of format, according to Robert Klingenberger, preservation coordinator at the Sheridan Libraries and the current committee chair. The committee welcomes inquiries about preserving nonprint media collections from anyone in the JHU community.

For more information about the JHU Recorded Image and Sound Preservation Committee, go to: RISPcommittee.


The Gazette | The Johns Hopkins University | Suite 540 | 901 S. Bond St. | Baltimore, MD 21231 | 443-287-9900 |