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Tony Cliff

5 Facts About Civil War Spy Mary Bowser

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Tony Cliff

Mary Bowser is one of the most fascinating figures of the Civil War. A free black woman (though her freedom might not have been recognized in Virginia), she took a job as a servant for Jefferson Davis to serve as a spy in the Confederate White House, working with the famous spymaster Elizabeth van Lew. Mary pretended to be illiterate when, in fact, she could not only read but may have had a photographic memory. (Some scholars, however, believe that she might not have had a photographic memory but was just good at remembering things.) Whatever the case, for years, everything she saw and read in the Confederate White House was fed to Union generals. Below are five facts you may not know about the remarkable Mary Bowser, adapted from Spy on History: Mary Bowser and the Civil War Spy Ring.


Mary was born into slavery sometime in 1839 or 1841. John van Lew, a Virginia businessman, was her owner; after he died in 1843, his daughter, Elizabeth—who had become an abolitionist after receiving a Quaker education—helped free Mary. Later, van Lew would recruit Bowser for her spy ring.


Around the time she was freed, Elizabeth sent a young Mary north to be educated. It was a crime to teach blacks to read in the state of Virginia, punishable by prison sentence or fine. Years later, Mary made a deliberate choice to pretend to be a servant again to help end slavery for others. Given her background, it was an act of incredible bravery.


Some time after Mary was educated, she moved to Liberia to teach and to do missionary work. At the time, free slaves were settling Liberia, so it wasn't uncommon for someone like Mary to go—but Mary did it before she was even 20 years old! The timeline of Mary’s life is unclear, but she worked in Africa for approximately five years.


Mary and Wilson Bowser tied the knot just a few days after the Civil War started. The young couple only got to spend a short time together before Mary took her place as a spy in the Confederate White House. Elizabeth van Lew, who was the head of an extensive spy ring, learned the Davis household needed another servant. Elizabeth recruited Mary and helped her get the job.


Confederate leaders could tell there was a mole in the highest reaches of the Confederacy, but nobody ever figured out it was Mary. In his letters, Jefferson Davis complains that his mental state is collapsing under the strain of not being able to find the spy. At one point, he wrote to Confederate General GJ Rains that “no printed paper could be kept secret.”

After the war, Mary taught ex-slaves to read, but beyond that, much of her history is lost to us. Some of this is because the Union and van Lew herself destroyed many of the records of spies in the South, knowing that after the war, Southern officers would have access to the files, and so the spies could suffer reprisal.

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IA Collaborative
Lovely Vintage Manuals Show How to Design for the Human Body
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IA Collaborative

If you're designing something for people to hold and use, you probably want to make sure that it will fit a normal human. You don't want to make a cell phone that people can't hold in their hands (mostly) or a vacuum that will have you throwing out your back every time you clean the house. Ergonomics isn't just for your office desk setup; it's for every product you physically touch.

In the mid-1970s, the office of legendary industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss created a series of manuals for designers working on products that involved the human body. And now, the rare Humanscale manuals from Henry Dreyfuss Associates are about to come back into print with the help of a Kickstarter campaign from a contemporary design firm. Using the work of original Henry Dreyfuss Associates designers Niels Diffrient and Alvin R. Tilley, the guides are getting another life with the help of the Chicago-based design consultancy IA Collaborative.

A Humanscale page illustrates human strength statistics.

The three Humanscale Manuals, published between 1974 and 1981 but long out-of-print, covered 18 different types of human-centric design categories, like typical body measurements, how people stand in public spaces, how hand and foot controls should work, and how to design for wheelchair users within legal requirements. In the mid-20th century, the ergonomics expertise of Dreyfuss and his partners was used in the development of landmark products like the modern telephones made by Bell Labs, the Polaroid camera, Honeywell's round thermostat, and the Hoover vacuum.

IA Collaborative is looking to reissue all three Humanscale manuals which you can currently only find in their printed form as historic documents in places like the Cooper Hewitt design museum in New York. IA Collaborative's Luke Westra and Nathan Ritter worked with some of the original designers to make the guides widely available again. Their goal was to reprint them at a reasonable price for designers. They're not exactly cheap, but the guides are more than just pretty decor for the office. The 60,000-data-point guides, IA Collaborative points out, "include metrics for every facet of human existence."

The manuals come in the form of booklets with wheels inside the page that you spin to reveal standards for different categories of people (strong, tall, short, able-bodied, men, women, children, etc.). There are three booklets, each with three double-sided pages, one for each category. For instance, Humanscale 1/2/3 covers body measurements, link measurements, seating guide, seat/table guide, wheelchair users, and the handicapped and elderly.

A product image of the pages from Humanscale Manual 1/2/3 stacked in a row.

"All products––from office chairs to medical devices—require designs that 'fit' the end user," according to Luke Westra, IA Collective's engineering director. "Finding the human factors data one needs to achieve these ‘fits' can be extremely challenging as it is often scattered across countless sources," he explains in a press release, "unless you've been lucky enough to get your hands on the Humanscale manuals."

Even setting aside the importance of the information they convey, the manuals are beautiful. Before infographics were all over the web, Henry Dreyfuss Associates were creating a huge compendium of visual data by hand. Whether you ever plan to design a desk chair or not, the manuals are worthy collectors' items.

The Kickstarter campaign runs from July 25 to August 24. The three booklets can be purchased individually ($79) or as a full set ($199).

All images courtesy IA Collaborative

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Bruce Weaver / Stringer / Getty Images
NASA Is Posting Hundreds of Retro Flight Research Videos on YouTube
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Bruce Weaver / Stringer / Getty Images

If you’re interested in taking a tour through NASA history, head over to the YouTube page of the Armstrong Flight Research Center, located at Edwards Air Force Base, in southern California. According to Motherboard, the agency is in the middle of posting hundreds of rare aircraft videos dating back to the 1940s.

In an effort to open more of its archives to the public, NASA plans to upload 500 historic films to YouTube over the next few months. More than 300 videos have been published so far, and they range from footage of a D-558 Skystreak jet being assembled in 1947 to a clip of the first test flight of an inflatable-winged plane in 2001. Other highlights include the Space Shuttle Endeavour's final flight over Los Angeles and a controlled crash of a Boeing 720 jet.

The research footage was available to the public prior to the mass upload, but viewers had to go through the Dryden Aircraft Movie Collection on the research center’s website to see them. The current catalogue on YouTube is much easier to browse through, with clear playlist categories like supersonic aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles. You can get a taste of what to expect from the page in the sample videos below.

[h/t Motherboard]


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