At a new exhibition at the Huntington Library, there is a surfboard, a rocket engine and a 1950s desk, complete with slide rule. The thread that ties everything together? Aerospace.
The exhibition, entitled “Blue Sky Metropolis: The Aerospace Century in Southern California,” brings together approximately 50 manuscripts, documents, and photographs drawn from The Huntington's growing collection of aerospace related materials and other private and public collections. “SoCal as we know it really wouldn't exist without aerospace,” said Peter Westwick, the exhibition's co-curator and a professor of history at USC. “It was the driver of growth during last century. If you look back to 1900, this area was rural and semi-agrarian; now it's a high-tech metropolis. How did it make that transformation? Aerospace.”
In the Huntington exhibit, aerospace manages to wiggle into several quintessentially Southern California areas. The first surprise is a restored Robert Simmons surfboard. Simmons was an avid surfer who worked at Douglas Aircraft and came up with the idea of putting fiberglass and resin — materials from the aircrafts he was working on — over a balsa wood core to create a better way to ride waves.
“All these technologies made surfing more popular and surfboards easier to use, which attracted thousands of southern Californians into surfing. This area turned into epicenter of global surf culture, and that wouldn't have happened without aerospace,” said Westwick. Guys working in the aerospace industry also created boogie boarding and windsurfing.
Another surprise was the deep connection to Hollywood — the industry that comes to mind when most people think of Los Angeles. The exhibit lays out the deep roots, including a picture of a young Norma Jean Dougherty — soon to become Marilyn Monroe — who was one of the two million workers building aircraft during World War II. The algorithms for CGI animation were created at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the 1970s, and soon Disney execs were visiting the labs to ask for demonstrations. “It was the places like JPL that had the computing power to run programs and engineers to write programs. That didn't come to Hollywood until much later,” says Westwick.
So next time people mention that Los Angeles is an industry town, it might be wise to ask which industry.
The exhibit runs through Jan. 9, 2012.