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Science: Old Craftsman

3 minute read

Benjamin Harrison was in the White House; in Paris, Professor Louis Pasteur was working out his theories on bacteria; and in Würzburg, Wilhelm Konrad Röntgen was on the threshold of discovering the X ray, with scarcely a glimmering of the wonderful and terrible world of radioactivity that lay beyond. At Washington’s Smithsonian Institution, itself only 46 years old, a 23-year-old instrument maker named Andrew Kramer applied for a job. Secretary Samuel P. Langley hired him on trial, that October day in 1892, to equip his astrophysical observatory. Last week, the 30-day trial having strung out to 61 years, Andrew Kramer, 84, resigned his post. He had served the U.S. Government longer than any employee in history.

Andrew Kramer’s first instrument shop was set up in the Smithsonian’s stable, which he shared with a taxidermist and Dr. Langley’s horse and buggy. There he set up his footpower lathe, forge, anvil and other primitive equipment; there he made metal parts for Langley’s much-derided airplane (which almost but not quite flew, before the Wrights’); and there he built fine instruments as no one else could.

Delicate Skill. An instrument shop in those days had no automatic machine tools, no electronic measuring devices, almost no electricity. Such lacks did not bother Kramer, who made many of his own tools with his forge, lathe and grindstone. Slowly, by sheer craftsmanship, he turned out delicate devices (bolometers, pyrheliometers, etc.) to keep track of the sun’s radiation, and he made them so perfectly that they are still in use all over the world.

The world around him changed with dizzying speed. Science grew prodigiously, and its instruments—oscilloscopes, electronic computers, cyclotrons—enlisted superhuman precision and almost supernatural forces. But although Kramer’s shop moved out of the stable after 27 years, it changed hardly at all. (The Smithsonian itself never budged from its first location, on The Mall in Washington.) Kramer’s old lathe and grindstone still hummed their gentle songs, and his work went on. Almost no one came to visit him except the scientists who ordered his instruments. “I enjoyed my work,” says Kramer. “It was very quiet.” For amusement he played roque, a croquet-like game that has been almost forgotten. When he could no longer find roque players, he learned to bowl.

No Neutrons. When Kramer was 65, in 1934, Government regulations required him to retire, but the Smithsonian would not hear of it. No one else had his ancient skills. He agreed to stay on “for a while” and be paid out of the Smithsonian’s non-Government funds. While gamma rays and neutrons invaded the other instruments shops, his work continued as before. Once a day he telephoned his wife (when he first went to work for the Smithsonian, the telephone was still a novelty).

Last week, as Kramer finally retired, the old Smithsonian gave him an old-fashioned farewell party with cakes and punch. It also gave him a valued present: the key to his workshop. The old belts and pulleys still whisper overhead. The old lathe can still turn out beautifully finished parts, and the old forge stands ready to give a fine temper to steel. These tools will die with Kramer, so the Smithsonian says he may enjoy their friendship as long as he is able.

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