CLOSE
The Henry Ford 
The Henry Ford 

Artifacts from the Atari Tomb

The Henry Ford 
The Henry Ford 

Show & Tell is a new mental_floss feature spotlighting notable and revealing items from museums and archives around the world. Look for new items each week.

In 1982, Atari 2600 game consoles sold very well, and the company’s corporate parent, Warner Communications, was pleased with its earnings. But for a variety of reasons internal and external, Atari's bubble burst in late 1982, and 1983 was financially disastrous. To make matters worse, Atari overpaid for the rights to make a licensed E.T.: The Extraterrestrial game, and then rushed the game into production; the quality of the game suffered, and the total failure of the hyped-up release was embarrassing.

Residents of Alamogordo, New Mexico, began reporting in September 1983 that truckloads of Atari goods had been dumped in a landfill outside of town. In their history of Atari, Curt Vendel and Marty Goldberg write that this hardware, from a company plant in El Paso, Texas, ended up in Alamogordo because the company wanted to dump with discretion, and “New Mexico had a state law forbidding scavenging of landfills.” But locals began to pick up cartridges and consoles from the dump anyway, and eventually the word got out.

By the end of the month, the national press was on the case. The New York Times ran an item on the dump, pointing to it as another strategy deployed by a company stuck in a “video game business gone sour” and desperate to divest itself of inventory. Too late, the company ordered that concrete be poured over the burial site, deterring souvenir-hunters. That concrete sealed the deal: The desert Atari dump became a legend of nostalgic nerd culture, with the story circulating that there were millions of E.T. cartridges in the ground in New Mexico.

In 2013, Fuel Entertainment received permission to excavate the site and tape the excavation for a documentary. What they found in April 2014 was not a solid mass of E.T. games (though there were a few hundred examples on hand). The haul was more mixed: console and computer parts, manuals and warranties, as well as many types of game cartridges. (Vendel and Goldberg write that a bigger burial of cartridges took place in Sunnyvale, California, but that dump somehow escaped notice.)

The City of Alamogordo donated items from the unearthing to museums, including The Henry Ford and the Smithsonian, and sold some of the objects on eBay. Announcing the acquisition in July 2015, The Henry Ford's Digital Collections & Content Manager Ellice Engdahl admitted that the items that came from the unburying were “unpleasant to handle,” adding: “We can now vouch that material recovered from a landfill continues to smell like a landfill for quite some time.” The Henry Ford now holds a variety of items from the Alamogordo dig: catalogs, manuals, controllers, cartridges, even a soil sample, shrouded in a double Ziploc baggie.

Artifacts recovered from the Atari dig. Image courtesy the collections of The Henry Ford.

Soil recovered from the Atari dig. Image courtesy the collections of The Henry Ford.

Why expend resources on recovering, cataloging, and preserving electronic junk, much less the dirt that entombed it? The objects are, after all, not precious in a monetary sense. (Similar cartridges and consoles are available on eBay for not very much money.) A group of five archaeologists who attended the dig explained their interest in the site in The Atlantic after the excavation was complete, arguing that it was important for these artifacts to be unearthed according to a set of standards common to the discipline of archaeology. They wrote that they were interested in “revers[ing] expectations of a culture that values the past only if it is old and unique.”

The failed hardware pulled from the Alamogordo landfill speaks volumes about the industry's booms and busts, the struggle between corporate parents and the creative workers at videogame companies, and the disposability of consumer culture. These dynamics, just coming into focus in the early 1980s, would continue to define the videogame industry for decades to come; we can look upon this “trash,” and think of this.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
National Museum of the United States Navy
arrow
Show and Tell
The Craft That First Took Humans to the Deepest Part of the Ocean
National Museum of the United States Navy
National Museum of the United States Navy

What do you do when you want to go to the lowest point on the surface of the Earth—a place so deep beneath the ocean it could crush you with its intense pressure? If you’re Swiss scientist Auguste Piccard, you build a bathyscaphe, of course.

The object above is Trieste, the first-ever craft to make it all the way to the Challenger Deep, the lowest place in the Mariana Trench (and thus the entire ocean), in 1960. The craft was designed by Piccard, an adventurous physicist, inventor, and explorer who had previously been known for his daring expeditions into the sky. In 1931, he had ascended almost 10 miles into the atmosphere in an airtight aluminum ball tucked into a hot air balloon, demolishing aircraft altitude records and making valuable observations about the behavior of cosmic rays.

But Piccard didn’t just want to go upward. He was also obsessed with going in the other direction: down into the oceans. To make such a feat possible, he invented the bathyscaphe, a kind of inverse of his hot air balloon ball. The concept—a self-propelled, submersible diving vessel—was an improvement on the bathysphere, a kind of deep-sea bubble lowered to the ocean with a cable, which had been invented by Americans William Beebe and Otis Barton in the late 1920s.

The pressure at the bottom of the ocean is so great it can crush submarines, not to mention lesser craft. To resist that pressure, the Trieste relied on a heavy steel crew cabin, as well as separate tanks filled with gasoline and air. The gasoline—which is lighter than water and does not compress under pressure like some other substances—helped the crew to maneuver and navigate. The air tanks, which would slowly fill with water while descending, helped the vessel to descend, and worked in concert with a system of cone-shaped containers filled with iron ballast. To ascend back up to the surface, magnets would release the iron ballast.

Piccard built his first bathyscaphes in the 1940s and 1950s, but the Trieste was the most ambitious of them all. The inventor supervised its building for the French Navy, which used it for several years. In 1958 the U.S. Office of Naval Research bought it for its riskiest trip yet—a descent to the world’s deepest place, the Mariana Trench.

Piccard, however, was in his seventies, and did not go along for the trip. He sent his son Jacques instead, along with an American Navy lieutenant named Don Walsh. Before completing Project Nekton, as it was called, the group did multiple test dives in Guam. Then the fateful day came: January 23, 1960. The hydronauts equipped themselves with chocolate bars and sonar hydrophones and headed down … and down … and down.

So what was there to see so far down in the ocean? Some pretty weird stuff, it turns out: sediment the hydronauts described as “diatomaceous ooze,” and bioluminescent creatures gleaming against the darkness. It took five hours to get the seven miles down and another three to get back up, but by the time Piccard and Walsh emerged, exhausted, they were heroes.

For years, nobody ever returned to the Challenger Deep, not until James Cameron managed a much-hyped solo dive there in 2012. But Piccard and Walsh were the first—and these days, the craft that took them to that mysterious place lives in the National Museum of the United States Navy in Washington, D.C. True to its famous form, it’s the museum’s most photographed artifact, and a reminder that sometimes the race to the bottom can be a good thing.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Ransom Center
arrow
Show and Tell
A Rose That Held a Princess's Secret
Ransom Center
Ransom Center

Princess Marthe Bibesco had it all—beauty, brains, and a long line of men dying to be her paramour. But what to get the aristocrat who has everything? For one of her lovers, the answer was not diamonds or priceless art, but rose petals.

The artifact you see above was discovered in Bibesco’s papers at the University of Texas at Austin’s Harry Ransom Center. There, you can learn much about both Bibesco, a Romanian princess who was a celebrated literary light in the early 20th century, and the aristocratic circles in which she traveled.

By all accounts, Bibesco was a ravishing beauty. But her appeal went deeper than that: She knew how to exercise influence through her enormous social circle, and embraced her role as socialite and power broker. “I am the needle through which pass the filaments and the strands of our disjointed Europe to be threaded together in a necklace,” she wrote, and indeed her alliances brought together royals and relatives from both sides of the Balkans.

Though she found a niche as an author and a huge social circle, Bibesco didn’t find happiness with her husband, a wealthy prince—and her cousin—whom she married when she was 17. But her married status didn’t keep her from assembling quite the collection of high-profile lovers.

Prince and Princess Bibesco wedding. Image credit: Ransom Center

One of them, French Prince Charles-Louis de Beauvau-Craön, was serious about his love. But Bibesco was religious, and didn’t want to get a divorce. This left the prince heartbroken, but no less determined to express himself to his lover. He wrote her reams of love letters and, at one point in June 1911, even inscribed his amorous emotions on rose petals.

Bibesco pressed the flowers and saved them for the rest of her life. Many years later, conservators discovered them among her papers at the Ransom Center, where they’d landed after being purchased from antiquarian book dealers in the 1960s and 1970s. But unfurling century-old flowers presented a real challenge to the conservators tasked with documenting Bibesco’s life. During a conservation project in 2016, digital archivist Genevieve Pierce joined forces with a paper conservator, Jane Boyd, to figure out how to get the petals open. Instead of starting with the century-old flowers, they wrote in ink on other types of flowers, then pressed them and tried to open them to see if there was a way to do so without the petals disintegrating.

Eventually, they hit on a method: They put the two flowers in a humidification chamber, using a damp brush to humidify them even more. Finally, they coaxed the flowers open and looked at the messages hidden inside. They found something sweet: the names of the princess and her lover.

Princess Marthe Bibesco in 1929. Image credit: Getty Images

Today, the flower petals have been digitized for easier viewing and tucked into carefully created boxes designed to preserve them for another century. It’s easy to imagine the celebrated beauty opening her love letter, inhaling the flowers and their fervent message, then tucking them together in her belongings to return to during a private moment.

Did the relationship last? Alas, no. After a decade, she moved on. But not from affairs: She had many other relationships, some with famous men like Ramsay MacDonald, England’s first Labor Party prime minister. Flowers may withstand the test of time, but not every relationship does.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios