Picatinny (Arsenal) details the researching, developing, and engineering of the United States Army weapons and munitions facility programs located in New Jersey that have prepared American troops for over a century. With the recent publishing of the FREE eBook edition of Picatinny: The First Century, Government Book Talk interviews its historian-author, Patrick J. Owens, for a firsthand account of the history of the Picatinny Arsenal.

GBT: What inspired your organization to write the book?

Agency: Inspiration is too grandiloquent a word for the motivations which led to this book.  The organization supported publication of the book to make the outside world aware of the varied and significant contributions Picatinny Arsenal has made to national defense, especially in the area of munitions production and development.

The historian shared in this motivation.  Moreover, he was facing the fact of his own aging and wished to leave an ordered record of what he knew about Picatinny history before too many brain cells decayed.

A third reason was the overwhelming desire of old men to tell stories, and many of his most interesting involve Picatinny.

GBT: How did you come up with the title?

Owens: The title followed from the period covered, from the installation’s founding in 1880 to its centennial.  The choice of terminal date was due, first of all, to the fact a book needs to end sometime.  Second, by 1980, Picatinny had assumed its present duties, research, development, and engineering of all Army armaments and munitions.  Telling how it came to assume these duties gave the narrative a sense of direction.

GBT: What is the overall message you want readers to grasp?

Owens: Hopefully, readers will realize building the installation and performing its multiple tasks was not easy.

GBT: What is the single “don’t miss” chapter, page, chart, or fact in you publication and why?

Owens: The chapter most readers will probably single out covers the explosion in 1926 which leveled Picatinny, Lake Denmark Naval Ammunition Depot, and surrounding communities.  This is certainly the chapter highest on drama.

The photos of the damage are the items most likely to catch the notice of a browser thumbing the book and move him or her to actually peruse the text.

This is the only blast to rate an entire chapter but not the only blast in the book.  When you work with explosives, explosion is always a risk.  Each chapter discusses at least one occasion when risk became reality.

GBT: What was the hardest part of writing the book?  What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

Agency: The hardest challenge in any writing is for the author is to force the seat of his pants into the seat of a chair and begin filling white space with black characters.

Otherwise, the author of this work was very fortunate in having ample and various research materials close at hand.  Many workers and residents through the years were very good about recording their work, and many of the installation’s newspapers and other publications survive to allow putting names and, often, faces with deeds.  These cover not only big accomplishments, but daily life on the arsenal.

The author could not have brought the events surrounding the 1926 explosion, assuming he gave them life, if a local historian had not compiled a scrapbook of newspaper clippings from the days immediately following the event.  Many of the newspapers no longer and exist, and few of those remaining are scrupulous archive keepers.

The author was very fortunate in the services he received from local libraries and historical societies.

Previous historical studies of Picatinny were very useful, especially the architectural surveys that allowed him to sound knowledgeable when discussing pediments and cornices.

GBT: Do you have anything particular that you want to say to you readers in parting, a memorable quote.

Owens: No.  If there is nothing memorable in over 300 pages, it is too late to redeem the situation now.

Patrick J. Owens

Historian (retired)

Picatinny Arsenal

About the Agency/Organization

GBT: What are the next upcoming unclassified projects for your organization?

Agency: Picatinny continues to accomplish much in the way of armament and munitions research and development, so there should be ample material for Picatinny: The Second Century.  However, despite science’s efforts to extend the human life span, it is doubtful the present writer will be up to literary composition in the 2080s.

Picatinny has a historical section on its website, and the Picatinny archaeologist maintains another website on the history of installation buildings.  The latter is part of Picatinny’s historic preservation work.

GBT: What steps is your agency taking to promote this book?

Agency: It is distributing promotional copies to local colleges, libraries, and historical societies.  It is especially hopeful about the historical societies as generators of book orders.

GBT: What other steps in addition to this book to get the word out about this topic?

Agency: The present Picatinny historian continues writing and speaking to local groups on the subject.  He may, even, sneak in references to this book.

GBT: Did you personally learn anything from this book and what was it?

Agency: This book was part of learning experience which began when its writer became historian for a science and engineering organization.  His education had stressed the humanities, but, though he remained Picatinny’s token technophobe, he became more comfortable with technical topics.  Much credit is due the countless technical people who showed patience with the historian’s ignorance.


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