Indiana Williams and the Temple of Lost Shellac Research


Many years ago I contacted the archivist of the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institution to glean their holdings of a renowned body of research conducted there before and during WW II under the auspices of the famed coatings chemist William Howlett Gardner.  In the precedent to that war much of the shellac research internationally was moved to Brooklyn to continue in safety.  (Imagine a time when shellac was considered such a vital strategic material that research into it needed to be protected!)

The archivist, a gracious and knowledgeable woman nearing the end of her long and distinguished career of shepherding the scholarship records of the university, told me a fascinating and heartbreaking story.

At some point in the not-too-distant past a new university official of some sort had determined that the study of natural materials was a waste of time and that 100% of the future research would be about synthetic materials.  As a result, there would be no need to keep records from past research into naturally derived materials by the chemists and chemical engineers.  So, he ordered the library and archives to purge their holdings of all the records pertaining to some of the most insightful historic shellac research.

Thus my phone conversations with the archivist were bittersweet as it turned out I possessed more of their original research than they did.  At her request I sent her a box of photocopies of the university’s own research.  And with that, our interactions were completed.

Or so I thought.

A year or so later I got a phone call from the excited archivist with a great discovery.  In reconstructing the events of the past, she had this tale to tell.

When the order was given to purge the library/archives holdings of the shellac research, the task was probably given to some of the university’s students working during the summer or some such arrangement.  Apparently, at least one of that cohort figured that hand-carrying all that material up the basement stairs and navigating the warren of the archives was too much bother, so he/she simply moved them from one place in the basement to another place where it would not be noticed.  Completely by caprice while searching for something unrelated, the archivist stumbled across a small pile of the original research from three generations ago.

Immediately I scheduled a trip to Gotham to peruse the findings, after first arranging for a friend’s sister (coincidentally also an archivist) to escort me through the terrifying (to me) jungle of humanity and subways that is New York City.

Sure enough, the archivist presented me with a small stack of original theses and research reports by the students of the sainted Professor Gardner.  Part of the exercise was disorienting in a way as I could hardly imagine an institution of higher learning actually having dozens of students engaged in original or confirmational research on shellac.  The archivist arranged for me to browse and photograph all the documents she had, and I have re-discovered these digital images in my own compewder as a result of migrating them from the old laptop to the new one.

Once I get these files edited and formatted they will become part of the Shellac Archive, whose presence should begin growing again now that I have the older, actually working template for WordPress on this laptop.

Stay tuned.