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Artists Carve Digital Rushmore

Getting up close and personal with Mount Rushmore may soon be a virtual reality. A team of preservationists and artists recently spent two weeks capturing laser scans and high-resolution photos of the giant presidential heads. Their work, a 3-D pixilated version of the monument, could allow digital tourists to poke up Washington’s nose, sit under Lincoln’s beard and perch on Roosevelt’s pince-nez.

Aided by a rope team from the National Park Service, the workers measured the exact distance from various laser scanning locations to every itty bit of Rushmore. The assembled multitude of locational points—about 5 billion of them—will be merged by computer software into a three-dimensional “point cloud.” Photos will then be fitted to the virtual shape like cladding.

The project is part of a joint effort by Historic Scotland and the Glasgow School of Art to showcase their country’s technological expertise through re-creations of 10 world sites. “Being close up to Roosevelt, we could see the craftsmanship of the sculptors, how they used different stone to give the eyes the reflective sparkle that brings them so much to life,” says team member Chris McGregor. Some 60 years after construction on the monument stopped, a new dimension to the appreciation of Mount Rushmore is on the way.

New Light Shed on Kent State Shooting

Thanks to modern technology, a 40-year-old audio recording of the 1970 Kent State shooting, in which four died and nine were wounded, has yielded a new clue about how National Guardsmen came to fire their weapons. An audio analysis commissioned by the Cleveland Plain Dealer revealed a command never detected before: “Guard!…All right, prepare to fire!…Guard!…” Forensic audio expert Stuart Allen of International Media Services used powerful computer software not available for investigators in the 1970s. “The recording came in by Fedex, and I was on the phone by 9 o’clock that night saying we got a eureka moment,” he says. One question remains unanswered: Who issued the command?

Walt Whitman’s Meteoric Muse Unmasked

For nearly 150 years, scholars have tossed out their favorite ideas—all wrong—for what inspired Walt Whitman to write these lines in “Year of Meteors,” a poem that would eventually become part of Leaves of Grass. But now an interdisciplinary team at Texas State University has nailed the atmospheric fireball. What Whitman saw in the sky on July 20, 1860, was a rare Earth-grazing meteor, which hit the atmosphere tangentially, bursting into flames for a short time before continuing its interstellar joy ride.

Lead researcher Don Olson had an epiphany 10 years ago when he looked at the back page of an art catalog on Frederic Church, a Hudson River School landscape artist. There was Church’s The Meteor of 1860, a painting that shows a streak of fireballs in a night sky. “I thought that’s a meteor procession just like the one Whitman describes,” Olson says. Olson and his team subsequently dug up hundreds of eyewitness accounts to confirm his hunch and recently published their findings in Sky & Telescope magazine.

Earth has been grazed by only four documented meteors since 1783, and the fact that the celestial event of 1860 was recorded by two of America’s greatest artists makes it even more extraordinary. “Whitman and Church saw the same thing,” says Olson. “One created a poem, one created a painting.”

Grant Wood’s Homage to Veterans Restored

It took nearly a year to fix up Grant Wood’s only stained-glass window, but the 24-foot-tall, 20-foot-wide 1929 tribute to American servicemen recently returned to its home in the Veterans Memorial Building in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Extensive flooding in 2008 led to sagging and cracking, so each of the 58 panels was taken down and re-leaded, about 150 cracks in the glass were fixed and all 8,000 to 9,000 pieces were cleaned. “It was like a giant jigsaw puzzle,” says John Watts, whose company, Glass Heritage, did the work. “What we first saw, with breaks and years of dirt and grime, was depressing. What went back is vibrant and alive.”

Mark Twain Speaks Plainly From the Grave

“None but the dead are permitted to speak the truth,” wrote Mark Twain in one of his many “Maxims in the Rough.” The author applied the principle to his autobiography, freeing himself to say whatever he wanted about whomever he wanted by forbidding the complete and unexpurgated publication of his life story until 100 years after his death. This November the University of California Press will mark that centennial by issuing the first of three volumes of Autobiography of Mark Twain—in book form and free on the Internet—and it hasn’t been easy to gather his thoughts. A team of editors, led by Harriet Elinor Smith, went through a mountain of manuscripts and handwritten notes to suss out what Twain wanted to include and how he wanted it to be structured. The three volumes will run to about 500,000 words of incomparable storytelling, most of it dictated with very few corrections. “He was a great advocate of plain speech,” says Robert Hirst, curator of the Mark Twain Papers at UC Berkeley, “and not only a great advocate, but a great practicer of it. And, of course, he can’t speak for five minutes without being funny.”

Gangsters Galore

Two museums on organized crime are coming to Las Vegas. The Las Vegas Mob Experience, scheduled to open by the end of the year in the Tropicana casino, will feature memorabilia from family members of such famed gangsters as Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky. The Las Vegas Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement (a k a The Mob Museum), set to open next year in the former federal courthouse, will have nearly 17,000 square feet of exhibits, including an FBI recording of an actual mob induction ceremony.


Originally published in the October 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here