John H. White, Jr., (1933- ), historian and museum curator, was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. He graduated with a B.A. in history from Miami University, Ohio, in 1958. Shortly after receiving his degree, White joined the staff of the Smithsonian Institution as Assistant Curator of the Division of Transportation, Department of Science and Technology, National Museum of History and Technology (NMHT). White became Associate Curator of the Division, 1961-1966, Curator, 1967-1985, and Senior Historian, 1986-1989. White specialized in land transportation, particularly the history of railroads. He retired in 1990. His papers, the John H. White, Jr., Papers, circa 1959-1989 are at the Smithsonian Institution Archives.
This collection of railroad materials was begun many years ago by employees of the Smithsonian Institution, and maintained later by curators and museum specialists working in the Division of Transportation, NMHT, later named the National Museum of American History (NMAH).
Some of the clippings date back to the time of J. Elfreth Watkins in the 1880-1890s. In 1885 Watkins was appointed Curator of the Section of Steam Transportation, which was successively known as Transportation and Engineering, and Technological Collections. Other portions of White's collection were clearly from Carl Mitman, author of several hundred entries on inventors and engineers in the Dictionary of American Biography and a Smithsonian employee who served as Curator of Mechanical Technology in 1919. In 1921 Mitman took the title of Curator of the Divisions of Mineral and Mechanical Technology, serving in this capacity until 1931. In 1931 the Division of Engineering was established. Mitman served as Curator of the Division and in charge of Mineral Technology, 1931-1938, Head Curator of the Department of Arts and Industries, 1932-1938, and Head Curator of the Department of Engineering and Industries, 1938-1948.
Some portions of this collection were acquired under the time of Frank A. Taylor (Mitman's protégé) who was Assistant Curator, 1928-1931, Assistant Curator for Mechanical Technology, 1932, Curator of the Division and in charge of Mechanical Technology, 1932-1948, Head Curator of the Division of Engineering and Industry, 1948-1957. In 1955 Taylor was appointed Assistant Director, United States National Museum (USNM), with special responsibility for planning the new NMHT, and in 1958 was appointed the first Director of the new museum. In 1962 Taylor became Director of the USNM with responsibility for both the National Museum of Natural History and NMHT.
Smith Hempstone Oliver of the Division of Transportation also kept up the files to a degree, though his main interest was in automobiles.
When White started employment at the Museum in June, 1958, there were, perhaps, two file cabinets on railroads. As Mr. White mentions in a letter to the archivist in March of 2002, "It was and is a great mix of odds and ends -- photos, news clippings, small prints, manufacturing catalogs, post cards, etc. Some junk and some treasure."
White found the material very useful for research and greatly expanded the collection. It more than doubled in size during his years in the Division, 1958-1990. The collection was White's working file and was set up to meet his needs. According to White, the collections greatest lack was cross referencing -- which was mostly in his head. He could usually find things but the organization might be confusing to other users. It was not intended for public use.
White is the author of many books on railroads, including:
American Locomotives: An Engineering History, 1830-1880. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1968; 1997.
Early American Locomotives, with 147 engraving. New York: Dover Publications, 1972.
American Single Locomotives and the "Pioneer". Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1973.
The Pioneer, Chicago's First Locomotive. Chicago: Chicago Historical Society, 1976.
The American Railroad Passenger Car. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.
The John Bull, 150 Years a Locomotive. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981.
A Short History of American Locomotive Builders in the Steam Era. Washington, D.C.: Bass, 1982.
Great Yellow Fleet: A History of American Railroad Refrigerator Cars. Golden West Books, 1986
The American Railroad Freight Car: From the Wood-Car Era to the Coming of Steel. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.