Skip to main content
clickable transparency Dartmouth College Library
Home >  About the Libraries >   Friends of the Library >   Dartmouth College Library Bulletin > April 1993 >
 

Dartmouth College Library Bulletin

Notes from the Special Collectior's

THE AUSTIN ANT HOUSE

KENNETH C. CRAMER

OVER New Year's weekend 1992-1993 Professor Millett Morgan inquired if the Archives would be interested in investigating a collection of material on Professor Frank Austin's ant houses, industrial inventions, and children's toys, as the house where the items were stored was being vacated. We proceeded to the home of Mrs. M. Belle Colt on South Park Street and Austin Avenue to inspect the resources. Ant houses, cricket houses, miniature furniture, model boat hulls, electrical experiments, machine tools, photographs, patents, research articles, and correspondence had all been assembled in a downstairs room, having been brought up from the cellar. These were the items "inherited" by the Colt family when they moved into theAustinhome in 1953. Not everything brought back to the Archives from the Colt house was kept, but a few examples of ant houses, a couple of electrical experiments, photographs of the workshop in action, patents, numerous published and unpublished articles, and letters were selected for the archival collection.

Frank Eugene Austin was a Dartmouth alumnus, Class of 1895, and a teacher of electrical engineering at Dartmouth's Thayer School of Engineering from 1902 to 1921. He, with Doctor Gilman D. Frost and Professor Edwin B. Frost, assisted in taking the first X-ray of the human body in the United States, at Hanover in 1896. This was the broken hand of a young boy who had taken a spill while ice skating. Professor Austin retired early in life, but the 1929 stock market crash and ensuing depression wiped out most of his assets. With considerable time on his hands, he formed a boys' club. Behind his house was a large workshop where not only did Frank Austin carry on his inventions but he encouraged children to work with tools to build such things as model boats and doll furniture. One boy became interested in ants and expressed a desire to know how ants lived. Poking about in the ground the boy found was not too successful, as the ants tunneled too deep. While mulling this over Professor Austin hit upon the idea of placing some soil and ants between two pieces of glass. After a few hours he discovered that the ants went about their work in a natural manner, unconcerned by their uprooting. And, as they say, "the rest is history."

Professor Austin is perhaps best known as the inventor of the "Ant House." 16 June 1931 is the date of the Ant House patent. The number of persons who today recall having had or seen one of these formicaries is extraordinary. At the peak of their production in the mid-1930s as many as 400 ant houses were said to have been shipped out of Hanover in one day. Each house contained approximately 150 ants. The house consisted of two pieces of glass about 8 1/2 x 10 l/2 inches set into a wooden frame about 1 1/4 inches deep, filled with soil from half to three quarters the height of the glass. The more elaborate nests had villages or gardens painted on the glass or wooden palaces above the soil with passageways and turrets for the ants to crawl about. Below "ground level" the tunneling was exposed to view. In 1937 Professor Austin paid $4.00 a quart for ants to boys who brought them in alive. Carpenter ants were his preference as they were the largest and most interesting.

For those who wished to set up their own "Austin Ant House," directions were sent out. I quote from it a few of the directions:

9. Never put into an ant house ants from different outdoor colonies. They will probably kill one another and spoil the success of the ant home making.

13. Do not put much food in the ant house. Ants eat very little; even after working hard all night.

17. Any kind of ant may be put into an Austin Ant House at any time in the year. If they are put in during March or April, together with sand from their outdoor home there may be some eggs in the sand that will grow into larvae. You will then be able to watch the "nurse" ants feed and care for the larvae.

If ants are put into an ant house during the fall season, and kept at a temperature of about 65 degrees Fahrenheit, the ants will keep busy working about their home all winter.

It will be interesting indeed to watch the nurse ants take the eggs away as the queen lays them and place them by themselves in a room that has been made for them, where they are carefully taken care of.

The observation of ants during the winter months in northern sections of the country is a fascinating nature study that has been made possible by the new type of ant house.

18. Never set an Austin Ant House containing ants in direct sunshine. In direct sunlight the temperature inside a house gets very high in a few seconds. Ants will stand a temperature of zoo or more below zero but will not live long in a temperature above 112 deg. Fahrenheit.

19. You will find more interesting information about ants and their habits in a new book by Professor F. E. Austin entitled Ants as Pets. Price $1.5O at your book dealer's.

In addition to his Dartmouth degree Frank Austin received a degree in electrical engineering from Norwich University in 1915. He had varied interests, such as world starvation, construction of airplane factories and air raid shelters in the center of mountains, military weapons, and perfecting electrical machinery, many ideas ending in inventions including a track hurdle used in the 1936 Olympics at Berlin. He wrote a large number of articles, books, and textbooks. Austin died in Florida where he had continued his study of ants and bees. Austin Avenue was named for him.

Those who live in Hanover may wish to note that to the east of where the workshop stood is the largest crackwillow (Salixfragilis) tree in New Hampshire. The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests has placed a plaque before it. The tree trunk measures 233 inches in circumference, is 98 feet tall, and has a crown spread of 7I feet.