Q: Who was the first first lady to adopt a cause? When did it become customary for her to do so?
— Janice Lee | Marshall, Virginia
Well, Martha Washington could be considered the first: She was a committed advocate for soldiers’ welfare. Destitute Revolutionary War veterans found her quite approachable and went to her for help, says Lisa Kathleen Graddy, curator of the “First Ladies” exhibit at the National Museum of American History. Over the next two centuries, first ladies supported charities and lent their stature to organizations. We generally think of Eleanor Roosevelt as the first one to publicly champion social and political reforms, but Lady Bird Johnson was the first to formally announce an agenda—and set the custom as it exists today. After the 1964 election, she announced her intention to promote the Great Society’s war on poverty and to beautify America’s public spaces. Since then the public has expected advocacy of the first lady.
Q: Many countries recycle the waste from nuclear reactors into more nuclear fuel. Why doesn’t the United States?
— John Chimenti | Houston, Texas
In the 1960s, the United States had a few facilities with the capacity to recycle uranium, says Roger Sherman, associate curator of the modern physics collection at the National Museum of American History. But in 1977, President Jimmy Carter banned all nuclear reprocessing, citing the fear of nuclear proliferation among governments or terrorists. President Ronald Reagan lifted the ban four years later, but by then it was too expensive to reopen the closed plants, and those economic considerations have prevailed ever since.
Q: I recently read that the planet’s magnetic poles may be starting to reverse. Will it affect my GPS?
— Shirley Runco | Fort Worth, Texas
In the 4.5 billion or so years since the planet formed, Earth’s magnetic poles have reversed many, many times, says Paul Ceruzzi, a curator in the history department at the National Air and Space Museum. These reversals have come at irregular intervals and have typically taken thousands of years to complete—though the last full reversal, some 780,000 years ago, may have taken only about a century. Some researchers believe another reversal may be at hand. If so, whenever it is complete, you would notice that the “north” arrow on a magnetic compass points south. GPS signals would be affected, but there would be ample time for those who operate the system to make adjustments.
Q: How did the Smithsonian Institution acquire the old U.S. Patent Office Building, which is now home to the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American
— Emmett Patrick | Bethesda, Maryland
It was something of a rescue mission. The Greek Revival structure, which dates to the 1830s and struck Walt Whitman as “the noblest of Washington buildings,” almost fell to the wrecker’s ball in the 1950s, says Pam Henson, institutional historian in the Smithsonian Institution Archives. But the emerging historic-preservation movement galvanized opposition, and in 1958, the federal government transferred the property to the Smithsonian. After a ten-year renovation, the building reopened to the public.