Verbolten at Busch Gardens
Verbolten at Busch Gardens
Historic Jamestowne dig site
Historic Jamestowne
A tasting at Virginia Beer Company
Virginia Beer Company

Visit High-Tech Williamsburg

Read on to see how Williamsburg, Virginia's historic attractions and thrilling theme parks stay on the cutting edge of technology.

Talking about high-tech Greater Williamsburg may seem like a head-scratcher. But think about it: Colonial Williamsburg was a high-tech place in its day, from the blacksmith shop and Public Armoury to the tinsmith shop and colonists’ experimentation with new plants. 

So it's hardly surprising that technology filters throughout the Williamsburg area today, from the examination of artifacts uncovered in archaeological digs at Jamestown to powering the most gravity-defying roller coasters at Busch Gardens to brewing the newest offering from a craft brewery.

Opening the Past with the Tools of Today

Discovering a broken tooth in the skull of a young colonist. Reconstructing his cranium using 3D printing. Scanning the contents of a 400-year-old reliquary. It’s all in a day’s work at Historic Jamestowne, thanks to cutting-edge technology.

Consider the Rediscovery Center not far from the Historic Jamestowne Visitor Center. The secure artifacts vault there contains a small silver box, or reliquary, inscribed with the letter "M" on its lid. It was buried atop a coffin containing the remains of Capt. Gabriel Archer. Corrosion accumulated over 400 years makes it impossible to open without enormous skill.   

But now archaeologists know what's inside thanks to high-tech tools. After diggers found the box at a church site in 2013, Dave Givens, a senior staff archaeologist for Jamestown Rediscovery, enlisted the help of GE’s Inspection Technologies to create a 3D image of the contents. Inside were seven tiny pieces of bone and two pieces of a lead ampulla, used for carrying holy water, oil or blood. The scans were so detailed that a 3D printer was able to recreate the artifacts. 

The mystery of the reliquary is not the only high-tech sleuthing at Jamestown. 

While mapping nails found in the same dig in 3D virtual space on his computer, Givens realized they made the outlines of a perfect coffin. "That's highly unusual," he says. "We don't usually see coffins that early. To see something like that was phenomenal."

One of the latest high-tech projects at Jamestown involves reconstructing the head of a young colonist, possibly James Brumfield, killed by Virginia Indians in the first year of the colony. Researchers quickly realized he had a broken tooth resulting in a sizeable abscess. Through micro CT scanning the tooth, they determined he was 8 when he suffered the loss back in England. Within the tooth, the team found microscopic food remains, a startling discovery that sheds light on the general health and diet of the earliest English colonists in the New World.

After Brumfield's skull was excavated and conserved, it was 3D scanned and printed, making a remarkable facial reconstruction.

Thanks to a partnership with Virginia Commonwealth University, visitors can now hold and interact with such 3D printed replicas of artifacts found during digs over the years at the newly created Ed Shed, an education space located adjacent to the dig site.

The Big Magnetic Thrill: Powering the Coasters at Busch Gardens

When your pleasant ride through the Bavarian countryside drops and dives 88 feet into a heart-pounding thrill on Busch Gardens' coaster Verbolten, which reaches 53 mph, X-Men's Magneto is smiling.

When Tempesto, the park's newest coaster, rocks forward and backward and forward again, then twists and rises to 150 feet before inverting, he probably breaks into an evil chuckle. 

Why?  The two coasters run using electromagnetic technology to launch the train from one point to another and ultimately bring it to a stop. Their high-tech linear synchronous motors are bolted to the track. Rare earth super magnets are mounted on the train. Then it's just a matter of the forces of attraction and repulsion going to work, a sort of high-tech, electro version of Tinder.  

"What's kind of neat is those magnets have their own independent magnetic field that is constantly under the train," says Jonathan Smith, project manager in the design and engineering department at Busch Gardens. "When we power up the linear synchronous motors as that train rams through there, we create a separate magnetic field. We synchronize those two magnetic fields and that causes that launch effect."

The motors on the track never touch the cars so they glide, creating a smooth ride. In the past, coasters relied on friction brakes. Now, the park’s magnetic brakes use eddy currents underneath the train to slow it down for a smooth transition. 

"It's different than traditional roller-coaster attractions," Smith notes, "but it works very well. And it saves us energy, which is kind of cool."

Fly with an Eagle

Tracking eagles has risen to new heights at the Center for Conservation Biology in Williamsburg.

Since 2007, it has maintained one of the largest eagle-tracking projects in the world using GPS transmitters to record the birds' movements. The tracking reveals patterns of movements throughout eastern North America, as well as more than 200 communal roosts within the Chesapeake Bay area. Via the center’s blog, you can follow the aerial adventures of a vagabond raptor named Grace, who soars over the coast from the Chesapeake Bay down to North Carolina's Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. 

The center, which originated at William & Mary in a joint venture with Virginia Commonwealth University, also hosts Osprey Watch, a citizen-reporting project that maps nests worldwide.

The Carefully Crafted Big Chill

Call it the Big Chill. At the newly opened Virginia Beer Company, a custom-designed pump system helps brewmaster Jonathan Newman create the perfect ale by carefully controlling the liquid flowing into the tanks — and, most importantly, its temperature. All the tanks have jackets around them filled with propylene glycol. A pump controls flow to the jackets, regulating the tanks’ temperature to within a tenth of a degree. 

"Fermentation temperature is probably the most important thing to beer flavor," Newman says. "So being able to control it to that degree is very important."

If he sets the temperature at 65 degrees and it gets to 65.2, a series of valves will open and cool the tanks until they get to 65 again. During fermentation, the perfect temperature for brewing ales is 64 to 67 degrees, and up to 77 degrees for saisons.

When fermentation is complete, the system allows Newman to crash the tanks, plunging the temperatures to 30 degrees. That clarifies the beer and drops out the yeast solids, which he harvests to use again. 

A Chilly Light Show

One high-tech instrument is helping Colonial Williamsburg analyze its valuable historical objects. It’s the Fourier-Transform Infrared Microspectrometer at the Materials Analysis Laboratory at Bruton Heights School, home to the conservation facilities of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Yes, it’s a mouthful, says Kirsten Travers Moffitt, conservation materials analyst, but a great friend in her profession.

In the laboratory, Moffitt pours liquid nitrogen into the instrument, the detector of which has to be very, very cold to operate. Then she analyzes the sample, which may be as small as 10 micrometers, one-tenth the width of a human hair. Molecules in the sample absorb infrared energy from the instrument at different frequencies, resulting in a spectrum showing peaks and valleys. On this spectrum, the locations, patterns and intensities of peaks are used to identify the materials in objects. They may be waxes, shellacs, varnishes, paints and other historical media, or simply the residue of past restoration efforts such as adhesives, plasters and epoxies. The analysis can be used to date items and facilitate their restoration. 

"This eliminates a lot of guesswork otherwise performed by the conservator at the bench using chemical or solvent testing and allows them to develop a more targeted approach specifically designed for that particular material," Moffitt says.

Moffitt's labs inside Bruton Heights are open for occasional behind-the-scenes tours. They offer a rare chance to talk with experts about their work recreating the colonial city and preserving its collections.