Monday, March 13, 2006

 

Indelible images rise to the surface

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The Advocate
By Julie Fishman-Lapin
March 08, 2006


An important part of American history sits on the bottom of the ocean, just off North Carolina's Outer Banks.

For more than a century, the USS Monitor, the ironclad warship built by the Union Navy during the Civil War, remained untouched after sinking in 1862. The ship's remains were found in 1973. Today, archaeologists and conservators are racing against time to retrieve and preserve the famous ship's artifacts.

A Stamford company, best known for its medical technology, is playing a crucial role in making that happen.

FujiFilm Medical Systems USA and its Non-Destructive Testing business unit has donated a computed radiography system to The Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Va., where the preservation effort is taking place.

Computed radiography, known as CR, replaces conventional X-ray with a digital imaging system that enhances image quality and diagnostic capability.

The system enables conservators working on the project to take X-rays digitally, without the use of film, and to look at artifacts brought up from the wreck that are covered with concretions -- layers of sediment and marine life, said Doug Hackradt, national sales manager for Fuji NDT Systems, the Stamford-based Fuji Medical Systems unit that develops CR systems for the industrial marketplace.

"The X-ray images let us know where to dig and chisel so we don't harm the object," said the project's lead conservator Eric Schindelholz. "Sometimes the artifacts within the concretion -- especially those made of iron -- have corroded away. The concretions create a perfect cast or mold of the artifact, and the digital image allows us to see what was underneath before the significant corrosion took place."

"It's like a ghost and when we open it, it is hollow," he said.

For example, CR technology enabled researchers to look at a clock that was found attached to the ship's engine. The clock, encrusted with concretions, was unrecognizable. One of the clock's hands is missing. But the "ghost" of the clock hands indicate that the clock stopped sometime after 1 o'clock -- giving researchers a clue to the exact time the ship sunk.

Until this recent donation, Schindelholz and his team have been relying on a Fuji CR system located at neighboring Northrop Grumman to unravel the mysteries of the USS Monitor. Now, researchers will have on-site access to their own system.

"We will use it everyday," Schindelholz said. "Technology plays a huge role in this conservation project. This is the largest project of its type in the world. It's relatively recent that the conservation project went into full scale."

Over the years, archaeologists surveyed the ship underwater and in the 1980s researchers noticed that components of the ship were rapidly deteriorating.

In 1998, the propeller was recovered, followed by the engine in 2001 and the turret in 2001. More than 1,200 artifacts have been collected and preserved. Each one presents its own challenge, after 144 years submerged in salt water, Schindelholz said.

Without FujiFilm's technology, the researchers would have to process each image using conventional film, a time-consuming manual process, he said. It also is costly because if the picture is not correct, more images need to be taken and processed.

Fuji's technology allows conservators to take multiple shots which are processed in a minute, he said.

Further, Schindelholz said that with CR he has quick and easy access to thousands of images in a computer network, without having to look through hard copy files for X-ray films.

The images can be stored in the computer or on a DVD or CD. "It is much more of a stable format," Hackradt said.

CR also enables the researchers to tweak the contrast to better see an image, he said.

"It expands the interpreters ability to get all the information out of an image," Hackradt said.

The company's digital imaging system was initially developed for the medical field to look inside humans. Now that technology is used by aerospace, automotive, shipbuilding, electronics and composites industries, Hackradt said.

For example, companies will use CR to look for defects in machinery and pipelines. "Our patients are things rather than people," Hackradt said.

This is the third restoration project involving the FujiFilm NDT division. FujiFilm donated similar technology for the excavation and conservation of the LaBelle, the 1686 shipwreck of French explorer LaSalle that was discovered off the coast of Texas.

Another CR system was donated to excavate the H.L. Hunley, the first Civil War submarine to have sunk an enemy warship, Hackradt said.

It's exciting that the company's technology plays such a critical role in the preservation of American history, he said.


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