National Air and Space Museum Archives

William J. Hammer Collection

Collection ID:
Hammer, William J. (William Joseph), 1858-1934 (electrical engineer)
bulk 1905-1915
Physical Description:
5.66 Cubic feet
13 boxes
The collection is the result of Major Hammer's passion for amassing material related to aeronautics and technology, and it is arranged into eleven series: articles, clippings, correspondence, drawings and blueprints, leaflets, legislation, minutes, miscellaneous, photographs, programs and publications. Housed in 23 folders, the correspondence is the most comprehensive series, reflecting the original order which grouped the letters into series by topic. Much of the correspondence concerns the planning of the Hudson-Fulton Celebration of 1909, and the involvement of Wilbur Wright and Glenn Curtiss. There is also a scrapbook of black and white photographs providing front and side views of specified airplanes. Each page has 3 photos showing different views of the same plane accompanied by a label with additional information. (See written copy for details. Also, please see information written on 8x11 notebook paper.)

Scope and Contents
Scope and Contents
The William J. Hammer Collection reflects Hammer's great interest in aeronautics --a passion he cultivated for several decades by accumulating a veritable storehouse of materials. Hammer's important contributions to the early development of aviation are also evident in this collection.
The collection of materials listed in the finding aid is arranged into two series. The first series includes correspondence, reports, handbooks, drawings, brochures, programs, leaflets, magazines, articles, newspaper clippings and miscellaneous materials. The second series is comprised of photographs of various sizes, scrapbooks, scrapbook pages and miscellaneous materials (the front pages of newspapers, certificates, posters, etc.).
Hammer's papers are arranged both chronologically and alphabetically. Correspondence, drawings, brochures, programs, leaflets, miscellaneous materials, scrapbook pages, articles and newspaper clippings are organized by the former method. Reports, handbooks, magazines and booklets are grouped alphabetically by either title of publication or author. Photographs are arranged either by subject or chronologically.
The reader should note that at some point, Hammer produced a series of large format photographs. These mounted photographs are duplicates. Due to the very fragile condition of these particular images, the photographs and are not available to researchers.
Additional photographic material regarding Hammer Collection photographs can be found in the NASM Archives Images database. An Archives staff member will assist you with research using this database.
Box 13 of the William J. Hammer Collection has not been scanned.
Note: The digital images in this finding aid were repurposed from scans made by an outside contractor for a commercial product and may show irregular cropping and orientation in addition to color variations resulting from damage to and deterioration of the original objects.

The William J. Hammer Collection is arranged by content type.

Biographical/Historical note
Biographical/Historical note
William J. Hammer was born in Cressona, Pennsylvania, on February 26, 1858, was an associate of Thomas Edison and an early aviation supporter and enthusiast. He began his career as an assistant to Edward Weston of the Weston Malleable Nickel Company. In 1879, he moved on to a new position as laboratory assistant to Thomas Edison at Menlo Park, New Jersey. His duties ranged from aiding in conducting experiments on such devices as the phonograph, telephone and ore separator to acting as Edison's key person in further developing the incandescent electric lamp. By 1880, he was made chief engineer of the Edison Lamp Works. A year later, Edison dispatched Hammer to London to be chief engineer of the English Electric Light Company. In this position, he helped construct the Holborn Viaduct Central Electric Light Station in London. This was the first central station ever built for incandescent electric lighting. In 1883, Hammer became chief engineer for the German Edison Company. This task included planning and supervising the construction of all Edison plants in Germany. He returned to the United States late in the following year and acted as chief inspector of central stations of the parent Edison Electric Light Company. In 1886-87, Hammer was general manager and chief engineer of the Boston Edison Electric Illuminating Company. In 1888, he worked as an independent engineer and supervised the completion of the then-largest isolated electric lighting plant, located at the Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine, Florida. During that year, Hammer also was chosen as consulting electrical engineer to the Cincinnati Centennial Exposition. Subsequently, Edison selected him as his personal representative to the Paris Exposition of 1889. This assignment rounded out Hammer's eleven years with Edison. During his time as one of Edison's most trusted and important employees, Hammer devised a number of innovations to the incandescent electric lamp. He designed and built the first electric sign, which spelled out the name "Edison". While in Germany, he invented the automatic motor-driven flashing electric lamp sign. This particular sign flashed the word "Edison" letter by letter and then all at once. At the International Electrical Exhibition, held in Philadelphia in 1884, Hammer also constructed the first flashing column of electric lights.
Upon his return to the U.S. in 1890, Hammer worked as an independent consulting electrical engineer by assisting in a variety of electrical projects, carrying out tests, giving lectures and providing expert testimony in patent disputes. He based this modest enterprise in an office in New York City and continued in this occupation until 1925. His career as an electrical engineering consultant was interrupted by World War I. In June 1918, he was commissioned a major in the U.S. Army. He was assigned to the Inventions Section of the War Plans Division of the General Staff in charge of Aeronautical and Electrical Inventions at the Army War College, Washington, D.C.. By December of that year, he was attached to the Operations Division General Staff at the War Department (Inventions Section). During the war and on into 1919, Hammer also worked for the U.S. Patent Office by identifying any aviation-related patents likely to convey too much information to potential enemies. In conjunction with his War Department duties, he acted as a member of the Advisory Board of Experts affiliated with the Alien Property Commission.
Busy as he was with his private consulting work, Hammer also immersed himself in other scientific activities. He took a particular interest in radium after visiting Pierre and Marie Curie in Paris in 1902. The two discoverers of radium gave him some samples of this substance. Soon after returning to the United States, Hammer experimented with radium. His research yielded numerous useful applications for this material such as radium-luminous powders and paints that were used to coat everything from watch and clock dials to aeronautical instruments, switches and toys. Hammer also advocated the use of radium for cancer and tumor treatment. Beyond his interest in this material, he invented selenium light-sensitive cells and recommended many practical uses for them. He also conducted a great deal of laboratory work on X-rays, ultraviolet and cathode rays, phosphorescence and wireless communications. Accordingly, he lectured and published extensively on many of these fields of research and study.
Hand in hand with his overall interest in science and technology, Hammer had a particular passion for aeronautics. Beyond paying careful attention to the rapid progress made in this field at the turn of the twentieth century, he also played an active role as participant and supporter. He made his first balloon flight over France during the Paris Exposition of 1889. His last lighter-than-air journey took place in 1931 aboard the U.S. Navy dirigible Los Angeles. Moreover, he attended and officiated over many balloon, airship and airplane exhibitions and races. Hammer was a member of the Aero Club of America and a director of the Aeronautical Society. This latter group made the first ever purchase of an airplane in January 1909. He served as expert and secretary of the Aeronautics Committee on the Hudson-Fulton Celebration Commission of 1909 and wrote the contracts for Wilbur Wright and Glenn Curtiss to fly their airplanes for this event. This occasion in New York was important as it marked the first time a large gathering of people in the U.S. witnessed heavier-than-air powered flight. As a friend of the Wright brothers, Hammer testified as an expert witness on their behalf during various patent litigation suits. His contact with aviation pioneers went beyond the Wrights and Curtiss. He also knew and interacted with, among others, Samuel Langley, Alberto Santos-Dumont, Henri Farman and Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin. Even his work with radium had applications for aviation. Hammer developed radium-based luminous compounds and used them on aircraft instruments so pilots could more easily view their cockpits' dials and gauges.
Hammer's last years were filled with serving as Historian General of the Military Order of the World War, as well as participating in many scientific, engineering and aeronautical committees and societies. During this time, he was the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including the Elliott Cresson Gold Medal, John Scott Medal from the Franklin Institute and the Cross of the Legion of Honor from France. Up until his death on March 24, 1934, he also labored in his efforts to organize a vast personal collection of rare and valuable scientific artifacts, photographs and other materials accumulated since his days with Edison. Following Hammer's death, this important collection was left in the care of his daughter Mabel (his wife of twelve years, Alice, having died in 1906). Some years later, International Business Machines (IBM) acquired it. In 1962, IBM donated the William J. Hammer Scientific Collection to the Smithsonian Institution. The bulk of the collection resides with the National Museum of American History's Archives Center. In the mid 1980s, the aeronautical portion of this collection was transferred to the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) Archives.

Mark Kahn, 2003; additional information added by Melissa A. N. Keiser, 2021
Processing Information
Finding aid prepared by Mark Kahn, 2003.
Finding aid encoded by Elizabeth Bauerle, 2011.
Information on Very Large Format Materials added by Melissa A. N. Keiser, 2021.
Immediate Source of Acquisition note
IBM (Mr. William J. Hammer Collection), gift, 1961, XXXX-0074, not NASM

Using the Collection
Conditions Governing Access note
No restrictions on access
Conditions Governing Use
Material is subject to Smithsonian Terms of Use. Should you wish to use NASM material in any medium, please submit an Application for Permission to Reproduce NASM Material, available at Permissions Requests.
Preferred Citation
William J. Hammer Collection, Acc. NASM.XXXX.0074, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

Keywords table of terms and types.
Keyword Terms Keyword Types
Aeronautics -- Exhibitions Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Aeronautics -- 1903-1916 Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Drawings Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Scrapbooks Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Periodicals Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Publications Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Manuscripts Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Correspondence Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Photographs Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Aeronautics Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Curtiss, Glenn Hammond, 1878-1930 Personal Name Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Hammer, William J. (William Joseph), 1858-1934 (electrical engineer) Personal Name Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Hudson-Fulton Celebration (1909) Corporate Name Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Wright, Wilbur, 1867-1912 Personal Name Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid

Repository Contact
National Air and Space Museum Archives
14390 Air & Space Museum Parkway
Chantilly, VA 20151