Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Oh, dear Marsh pick,

SVP logo, feat. Marsh pick
How happily I smash rocks with thee....

Today, a member of the preplist asked for photos with scale for use in recreating that ubiquitous paleontology icon, the Marsh pick. In the VPL prep lab archives I've come across a letter from Wann Langston to someone at the AMNH (or maybe it was a response, anyway, correspondence of some sort from somebody to somebody) from the 60s or 70s discussing the multitude of pick heads boxed in the basement with a price of $7 plus postage for anyone wanting one. Damn that those days are behind us! As soon as I find that letter again I'll post it here.

What is a Marsh pick, some might ask? Well, youngster, before the rise of the Estwing Rock Hammer, the Marsh pick was "the universal field tools of vertebrate paleontologists," as described by Ned Colbert in "A Fossil Hunter's Notebook"(1980, p. 131). His wife, artist Margaret Colbert, incorporated it into the design for the cover art of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology News Bulletin, and it was later adopted by the SVP as the organization's official logo, which can now be found on all sorts of nifty SVP swag (proceeds of which go to support the Society.) I've compiled what information I have at hand here in this post, and would be highly interested in hearing from anyone who can add to the fact or lore associated with this instrument.  

The first printed reference I have seen relating to our story comes thanks to blogger Michael Ryan, who contributed the following bit of paleo history to the internet in 2006 (there were blogs way back in 2006? Holy crow!) Beyond this, I do not know much about the genesis of the famous whacking tool.
Popular Science August, 1932, From Palaeoblog
I have been told that this is not the earliest example of such a tool, and that it was devised by O.C. Marsh himself, and it is certainly possible that Brown modified the design in such a way as to improve it. Additions like the U-shaped spring clip might be what led him to claim inventor status, and that Brown's dinosaur pick only later became synonymous with Marsh's. But, like I said, I don't know. It is exceedingly difficult to tell from historical photos whether pictured picks are the ones we are discussing or standard large railroad picks. There is a photo in Dingus and Norell (2010, Fig. 23) of Brown in the Red Deer River in 1912 that looks Marsh picky. Chime in if you can prove the case one way or the other.

The next Marsh pick sighting of which I am aware is courtesy Charles Camp, in Methods in Paleontology (1937). After discussing how it should only cost $10 a day to hire a team of horses and a "Fresno" scraper (a plow) to clear overburden, Charlie gets into the nitty-gritty of pick selection. His unapologetic opinion follows as such:
Tools for excavating include: shovels, large railroad picks, small "drift" picks, paleontological or "Marsh" picks (fig. 4c), which, by the way, are more expensive and scarcely better than a good, light "drift" pick (fig. 4a). A crowbar is sometimes handy.
Ouch. But something changed the minds of a generation of paleontologists in the 43 years between Camp's thoughts and Colbert's observation. Although, I don't use one in the field very often either, my long-handled Estwing rock hammer has served me well for >10 years. [A brief aside: I can't stand those Estwing Geo/Paleo Picks. I just find them to be sized all wrong. Too short to be useful as a two-handed earth mover, too long (only slightly, though, if you're 6' plus) to be used accurately as a one-handed rock hammer. Also, the weight is all wrong. It fills a middle niche that doesn't really exist, in my opinion. To move serious rock, you need mass X acceleration, a strong point, and the leverage of a long handle for both a decent swing and prying power once the tool tip is embedded in your target. Target, I said, not the fossil. I suspect that if you think the Paleo Pick is for you, a few lessons on the proper mechanics of a good 3lb pickax might change your mind. Oh! And the padded handle! You cannot slide your hand along the length of haft as you swing, which results in even more and less efficient labor! And the stupid handle is round! You've got to squeeze it tighter to keep it from rotating, which leads to even more fatigue! Somebody's gonna hurt themselves with one of these.] Ok, that wasn't brief, and we haven't even addressed the original request, pictures and measurements of the tool! From here on out, I'll let the pictures do the talking, with details in the photo captions. Like I said, I want to hear more if you've got sources!

[You can click on the pictures here for full size images]

Two examples of Marsh picks, with my Estwing 22oz long handled rock hammer for reference. The stainless steel pick on the left was recreated as part of a commemorative run for the 2007 Austin SVP meeting. This design was replicated from Ned Colbert's personal Marsh pick (the very same SVP logo model) now owned by his grandson, Matt Colbert. A commemorative coin was incorporated into the side with the Austin meeting logo embossed on it, and picks were made in both stainless and tool steel. This version is most similar to the Barnum Brown designed model, complete with U-shaped spring clip to hold the head in place without damage to the ash handle. The pick on the right was described to me by Tim Rowe as being a representative of the "Carnegie strike" of a slightly different pattern. This is distinguished most easily by the inclusion of the somewhat sharp shoulders where the spikes meet the eye. This tool is covered in paint and rust, and has been battered and reground, but I suspect it was cast rather than forged, and those shoulders are there to add strength to the transition between spike and eye. This may be why overall dimensions are a bit greater. The Colbert pick was made with both 22" and 36" handles, and the "Carnegie" pick has a 21.5" handle.
"Carnegie" Pick: 15.25" OAL, 1.625" max height          Colbert pick: 13.25" OAL, 1.625"max height

"Carnegie" pick: 1.25" at widest part of eye, .4375" most of length of spike before both point and blade.  Colbert pick: 1.25" at eye, .3125" width of spike

Monday, July 11, 2011

Let's go tubing!

Watch interviews with Petrified Forest National Park preparators Matt Smith and Kenneth Bader on YouTube (or right here on this very page) to learn more about the life of a fossil once it has been collected.

Cat Scratch Fever!

Taking advantage of the summer A/C maintenance related closure of the Texas Memorial Museum, we've taken the opportunity to pull some specimens from exhibit for study, conservation, and, in the case of the subject of this post, mold making. One of the stars of the TMM exhibits, a 1 and 1/4 size Homotherium serum  bronze sculpture adorns the front steps of the Museum. Pretty wicked, eh? A large number of specimens of this animal were collected 60 years ago from Friesenhan cave by TMM paleontologists, you can read more about the finds at the Museum's webpage.  Our collections hold what I understand to be the only complete skulls and skeletons of these lion-sized animals, including a couple of kittens!
Homotherium serum at the TMM, image courtesy Wikimedia Commons Skb8721

We've begun re-preparation and conservation of some of the holotype material, including the forelimbs from this mount, as well as molding and casting the specimens. We anticipate having a complete composite skeleton available in a few months time.
Sterling Nesbitt examining casts in progress

Left manus before conservation. Covered in chicken wire and dental cement.

Same hand after removing the accumulated crud, consolidating and repairing the bone, and correcting the articulation of the phalanges.

Elements laid up in clay for molding. RAWR.
Head and neck, sans atlas. What's that you ask? Oh, that! Yes, that skull is actually bronze. No, it really doesn't really get much more awesome than that. We made these bronze skulls for the Mammoths and Mastodons traveling exhibit developed by the Field Museum of Natural History. 

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Ridin' dirty

Now, witness the waterpower of this fully plumbed and operational polishing station. All right, all right, so maybe it's actually much closer to White and Nerdy. But, Sterling and I did get our hands very dirty getting this set up. Part one of Operation: Histology Lab was plumbing in a sink and Buehler Ecomet 3 Grinder/Polisher. The sink came from surplus, the grinder from my genius lab equipment supplier. Even though this room used to be a bathroom, there was no drain easily accessible. Fortunately, the sink in the prep lab is adjacent to the doorway to this space, and the hot water heater and plumbing are mounted inside this room. So, it was relatively straightforward to tie into both by punching a small hole in the wall and linking to the drainpipe for the prep lab sink. This also allowed us to clean 20 or 30 years worth of crap that had fallen behind the sink, including several complete stacks of paper towels that made for some awesome ant-farm-like rodent nests.
Yeah, this is more like what the mess in that closet looked like when we started, but this is after I already removed the flammable cabinet, a big bookshelf full of junk n' stuff, another smaller bookshelf full of the same, and another of the 48"w metal cabinets. Did I mention this room is 8'x13'?

Sterling cleans up the nastiness that remained after he cut out the back panel of the sink in the prep lab.

We took turns chiseling a hole through the wall for the drain to pass through, and I removed those faucets and tied into the hot and cold water to supply the sink and Ecomet.

Above the blue tape is where I cut the existing sink drain and tied in the new drain from the left, with the tee.

Trimming the existing drain pipe.

The Ecomet is plumbed on the supply side from the former eyewash mount with a ball valve here. There is also a valve under the sink, where we transition from the half inch pipe to 3/8 copper flex line and a compression fitting. I could probably do away with all of this for a cleaner behind the wall solution, but this looks kinda cool. Some day I'll make up my mind. On the return, the Ecomet bowl drains through a 1" ID vinyl hose into a tee I installed just above the P-trap under the histo lab sink. A pretty elegant solution, if I do say so myself.

Now I have to pee.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Plans for a histology lab

Ok, let's pretend I wrote this post a few months ago, when I actually started working on this project; you'll see an amazing and rapid progression over the next couple of days as I post the steps of the process that have been ongoing for a while now.

The goal of this project is to turn this cluttered (really, it was about 1500% worse than this photo at one point) storage closet and former VPL unisex bathroom into most of a histo lab. Over the past few months I've been accumulating equipment and cleaning all the junk out of this 13'x8' room with the intention of cutting a doorway in the far wall where that flammable cabinet sits in the photo. My goal was to connect this room to the office on the other side of the wall, creating a 26'x8' space, effectively a "clean room" on one side and a "filthy room" on the other. This is the design evident in the 3D rendering that I created in Google's SketchUp program. Which is an amazing program, and needs its very own post expounding upon that amazingness. I'll get to it one of these days.
So, several of our graduate students have been involving histological analysis in their research, and had been doing some of that work in the thin-section lab on the main campus in the Geology Department. Due to circumstances that I'm not aware of, our access to that space was revoked, and I was asked to find a place for the materials that we had already bought, which at that point was mostly the Buehler Isomet 1000 trim saw, some resin, and a minifridge. Since I'm a firm believer in one stop shopping (convinced that I can do almost everything cheaper and more accurately myself),  coupled with the goal of having our students exposed to the widest array of tools and techniques possible, I drafted an initial design for the lab. Future posts will detail the process of getting from the above photo to the below image. It has been lotsa fun so far!

The whole proposed lab, we aren't cutting a doorway in the wall now, though
Detail of histo lab

Molding class: Day 2

Molding class day 2 happened and it was also a great success. Most of the original group returned and some new people who couldn't make the first one attended also. Felt like I couldn't just leave that hanging.