Rockefeller Archive Center

Rockefeller Archive Center Research Reports are created by recipients of research travel stipends and by many others who have conducted research at the RAC. The reports demonstrate the breadth of the RAC's archival holdings, particularly in the study of philanthropy and its effects. Read more about the history of philanthropy at Also, see the RAC Bibliography of Scholarship, a comprehensive online database of publications citing RAC archival collections.
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“If Human Ears Were Tuned to Bat Frequencies": Inaudible Sound and the Sciences of Bat Echolocation

October 27, 2022

This report provides draft excerpts from my PhD dissertation titled "The Inaudible Sounds of Science and Medicine: Animals and Media from the Galton Whistle to Bat Echolocation," a chapter of which explores the laboratory work of Donald R. Griffin – and especially the emergence of the concept of bat echolocation – as it contributed to a sonic history of "ultrasound" and other typologies of liminal sound vibrations. Such "inaudible sounds" repeatedly defied amplification (efforts to make them louder); their frequencies were too high or too low to vibrate the human eardrum. But humans have long suspected that insects, bats, dogs, and other animals could hear them and communicate through them. The following research on bat echolocation in the Griffin laboratory is one aspect of a much more comprehensive historical project, which platforms nonhuman listeners in 19th- and 20th-century experimental contexts as they repeatedly pushed the limitations of human hearing. Broadly speaking, the dissertation suggests that animal figures are useful vectors for exploring an expanded history of sounds, including high-pitched frequencies, in science and medicine. My objective is to better understand how scientists designed media and choreographed animal listeners in order to make meaning from the sounds they could not hear on their own. I am most invested in understanding how humans exploited, collaborated with, and coexisted with animals to make sense of the insensible – or, to understand the unheard bestial worlds of communication.  In this report, I draw on material from the Donald R. Griffin Papers, held at the Rockefeller Archive Center, which includes a vast array of Griffin's laboratory notebooks, correspondences, sound films, newspaper clippings, and publications. The analysis spans the years between Donald Griffin's first experiment on bat navigation in the dark (1938) – conducted during his early graduate training years – and his postwar research on the physical principles of bat pulses into the 1960s.  More specifically, I characterize the ways in which various forms of media were deployed in experimental settings to study bats and the inaudible sounds emitted by them for orienting their bodies in flight. Scientists and collaborators of the Griffin lab relied on an array of mixed media, from the sound transposing devices of Harvard physicist George W. Pierce, to mechanical-visual apparatuses such as cathode-ray oscillograms and sound spectrographs, through to hand-written laboratory notes and printed correspondences and – ultimately – the bats themselves, to answer their questions. Furthermore, I explore the epistemic techniques of listening for sound and silence in the Griffin laboratory, in which the ears and eyes of scientists interfaced with special acoustic media to produce certain knowledges about bats and their patterns of flight. This project also engages with the highly militarized scientific contexts that constituted Griffin's work on bat echolocation.

Biology and Medical Research; Donald R. Griffin Papers; Rockefeller University; Technology; World War II

The Midwest Program on Airborne Television Instruction and the Ford Foundation

November 6, 2020

The Midwest Program on Airborne Television Instruction (MPATI) was a major investment by the Ford Foundation and other philanthropies in the 1950s and 1960s.  Project administrators used broadcast antennae on airplanes to provide educational programs to schools across a six-state region, with the goal of closing the gap between wealthy, higher-performing schools in the region, and poorer school systems in cities and rural areas.  Furthermore, MPATI was envisioned as a potential model for other disadvantaged regions, such as Appalachia, as well as for other nations.  This report draws primarily from correspondence between Ford Foundation officials and MPATI administrators.

Education; Ford Foundation; Technology; Television

Cross-Cultural Communication Theory: Basic English and Machine Translation at the Rockefeller Foundation

December 19, 2019

My goal in conducting research at the Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC) was to identify the ways in which both the Rockefeller (RF) and Ford Foundations (FF) conceived of the relationship between literature and computing in their programs at mid-century. This research is central to my book project, Machine Talk: Literature, Computers and Conversation. In what follows, I lay out the background of this project and a research context that has often highlighted the intertwined emergence of computing and communication theory—and ignored the contributions made by the humanities to the development of this concept. I turn specifically to the RF Humanities Division, outlining its role in supporting early research into theories of communication—particularly cross-cultural communication—which would prove vital to the post-World War Two development of communication theory in the sciences.

Computers and Information Technology; David H. Stevens Papers; Humanities; John Marshall Papers; Mass Communications; Rockefeller Foundation; Technology; Warren Weaver Papers

Making PATH: The Ford Foundation and Appropriate Technology for International Health

April 10, 2018

In 1977, Dr. Gordon Perkin, a Canadian obstetrician-gynecologist, and his colleague Dr. Richard Mahoney, an expert in contraceptive development, left their jobs at the Ford Foundation. Together with reproductive health expert Dr. Gordon Duncan, a consultant to the Foundation, the three researchers formed their own non-profit organization, the Program for the Introduction and Adaptation of Contraceptive Technology (PIACT). The trio left Ford on very good terms. Their former boss, Chief Program Officer Dr. Oscar Harkavy—known to friends and close colleagues as "Bud"—helped to ensure that the Ford Foundation became PIACT's first funder and one of its most consistent early boosters. With a pledge of $92,000 in seed money from the Foundation and donated office space in Seattle, the three co-founders set to work designing novel contraceptive programs for the developing world.

Agrarian and Rural; Ford Foundation; Medicine and Healthcare; Technology

Project A and Beyond: The Role of the Rockefeller Foundation in the Rise of Microfilm

February 6, 2018

In 1927, the Library of Congress (LOC) started a comprehensive project of copying manuscripts related to the history of the United States and the Americas, stored in the libraries, archives and museums of several European countries. Internally referred to as "Project A", research assistants ventured out in order to select and superintend the systematic photographing of masses of documents preserved in institutional and private collections throughout Europe. Project A was financed through a substantial grant from the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) for an initial period of seven years and resulted in over three million still images. The LOC made ample use of microphotography, a photographic technique that was not new, but subject to major improvements starting in the 1920s. These improvements concerned the camera and projector technology as well as the development of fire-resistant celluloid acetate film as a purportedly stable image carrier. Compared to manual copying and earlier forms of reproduction photography, such as Photostat duplication, the storage of visual data on light-weight and flexible 16mm, 35mm and 70mm film rolls enabled the reproduction of entire books, journals, newspapers, individual documents or bits of information.

Archives and Libraries; Humanities; Rockefeller Foundation; Technology

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