Watchismo is a collector and online dealer of vintage watches, especially digital watches, from the mid-20th century. He describes himself as “devoted to the highly unusual, obscurely rare and advanced modern designs of the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s” and focused on the “rarest styles of the space-age.” There are some interesting galleries on the main website, but more interesting is Watchismo’s recently launched blog, where items from the collection are considered in greater detail and placed in narrative context, for example in this week’s “History of LED Calculator Watches”.
Late Update (11/15/06): Watchismo has done it again with a timeline of Bond gadget watches. That’s “Bond” as in “James Bond.”
One more amateur history of technology site and then we move on to other things. DigiCamHistory.com provides an enormous—if poorly organized and badly designed—wealth of annotated photos and links relating to the development of digital camera technology. Like the evolt.org Browser Archive, DigiCamHistory solicits user contributions, and although it is hard to say how much of its content is user-generated, the organizers’ stated interest in collaborative collecting once again suggests that amateurs may be our best bet for extending the practice of online collecting.
Together with colleagues at CHNM, I have been working for several years now on ways to elaborate and extend the practice of online collecting, especially in the areas of history of science, technology, and industry. Some of the results of that work can be found at CHNM’s Echo: Exploring and Collecting History Online website, where our own efforts and many others are catalogued in the Collecting Center. There are lots of great projects listed in the Collecting Center, but most (if not all) of them are institutional or professional efforts of one kind or another. Two sites I recently stumbled upon make me think that we need to do a better job of including amateur efforts as well.
The first is Pastelero, which isn’t really a collecting site at all, but rather the personal blog of a Brazilian student, who in one post has put together a great collection of 25 years of television commercials for personal computers. Because it’s not soliciting submissions from the public, Pastelero doesn’t really qualify as a collecting site under the definition we’re using for Echo. But it’s close, and I think if we could encourage casual collectors like Pasterlero to open their sites up to include public submissions, we might have more success in achieving our aim of extending the practice of online collecting.
The second is the evolt.org Browser Archive, which more clearly qualifies under Echo’s criteria as an online collecting site. The Browser Archive is a truly amazing collection, which catalogues and provides free downloads of literally hundreds of more or less obsolete web browsers. (Take a look. No matter how geeky you think you are, I’m sure there are some you haven’t even heard of, much less used.) According to its founder, web developer Adrian Roselli, the Browser Archive started simply as an internal resource for his company’s usability testing work. Along the way, however, it “took on a life of its own” and was released as a public archive. It now encourages browser contributions from the general public, and from what I saw in the “Recent Changes” section, the public is responding.
The Browser Archive may not have started as a historical effort, but it now stands to become a real resource for computer historians. In that respect it shares a development trajectory with some of our greatest museum collections, many of which started without anything like history in mind. This amateur and unintentional aspect to historic preservation is a fact that we at Echo would do well to remember as we work to support online collecting in the history of science, technology, and industry.
Late update (10/18/06): It looks like PC World has tried to steal some of Pastelero’s fire with it’s own compendium of old computer ads.
Like many enthusiast communities, the legion of Mac users seems particularly interested in its history and in the history of its cause: the Apple computer. This takes the form of both casual interest by ordinary users (e.g. “Early Apple sound designer Jim Reekes corrects Sosumi myth” and “Steve and Steve in 1976”) and also more dedicated research and collecting (e.g. This Day in Apple History, apple-history.com, The Apple Computer History Weblog, and especially The Mothership).
Obviously historical impulses aren’t limited to Mac users. Indeed, we’ve seen lots of non-Apple computer history right here at Found History, most recently Eric Lenevez’s fantastic timelines. But Mac users seem much more historically engaged than their PC-bound brethren. Admittedly it’s an imperfect experiment, but all of the top ten links in a Google search for “Apple history” are enthusiast websites, compared to only three for “Windows history” (five if you count the two Wikipedia articles that turn up). I can imagine several explanations for this. Perhaps Mac users are more creative and energetic. Perhaps they feel beleaguered and are desperate for attention. Perhaps it’s just a function of Apple’s relatively smaller marketing budget. Whatever the case, the wealth of amateur Apple history online certainly makes for good browsing.
P.S. If anyone knows of other examples of Apple enthusiast histories, I’d love to hear about them.
Late Update: I’m embarrased to admit that I neglected to mention probably the most successful amateur Apple history site of them all: Folklore.org. Thanks to Steve and Jeremy for pointing out the oversight.
Late Late Update (10/30/06): Here’s another: Low End Mac.
We have seen before how timelines are a particularly attractive mode of historical production among non-professionals, perhaps especially among those interested in computer history. Here’s another example. French programmer Eric Levenez has assembled an impressive collection of incredibly detailed techie timelines and sets of annotated links. The most recent is his Unix History. The most widely known is his Computer Languages History, which has been reprinted commercially by O’Reilly. Elsewhere Lenevez tackles Windows and NeXT.
Spend five minutes with one of Lenevez’s timelines, and you’ll see these are histories only a geek could love. They are certainly very different from anything a university-trained historian would produce. Yet they are undoubtedly very formidable and important works of historical research. Lenevez’s work won’t be published in Technology and Culture or even the Annals of the History of Computing anytime soon, but it’s hard to imagine how anyone, professional or otherwise, could write a decent history of Unix or Windows or computer programming languages without first having done the kind of backbreaking work Lenevez has already done for us.
Buried deep within the small business section of Hewlett-Packard’s website, this short history of the @ sign has been making waves among techies. A quick search of Technorati yielded more 400 references and direct links, and the article has garnered more than one thousand diggs at digg.com.
Following on my earlier post, here are two additional examples of practitioner web histories, both concerning Amazon.com. The first is an idiosyncratic, twenty-part insider’s account of Amazon in the late-1990s. The second, a more targeted piece by a designer unconnected to Amazon, documents what is probably the company’s most important contribution to the look and feel of today’s web, the tab navigation. (Thanks once again to Jeremy for the tip on the latter link.)
While professional historians are just gearing up to write the history of the web, developers and other web industry people are already busy at work. These people seem especially aware of their history and are eager to write it down. Jeremy over at ClioWeb turned me on to Roberto Scano’s amateur history of web accessibility standards this morning. And we’ve found a bunch of similar things in research connected with CHNM’s forthcoming Mozilla Digital Memory Bank, for example, Firefox lead engineer Ben Goodger’s Where Did Firefox Come From?
I can think of a couple explanations for this phenomenon. The first is the fact that most of these people maintain blogs, and it seems a relatively short leap from reflective and retrospective journaling to intentional historical authorship. Another is that these people seem to share a keen sense of change over time, even if the period they’re talking about spans only a few years. The speed at which the web has grown and the dramatic ups and downs it has experienced in little more than a decade seems to have reinforced this sense in them. Reading their work sometimes can make a traditional historian feel like he’s entered a sort of time warp, in which 1999 or 2000 represents the distant past. Mozilla community members, for example, tend to think of people who started working on the project during the Netscape days (i.e. 1998) as old timers. (One of the first things we’ll do when we launch Mozilla Digital Memory Bank is publish the oral histories Olivia Ryan and I have been collecting from Mozilla community members, and you’ll be able to hear some of this for yourself.) Scano even quotes Genesis in the introduction to his account, writing: “In the beginning… Let us take a wayback machine to travel back in time to the last century….”
This is fascinating to me, especially the ways people conceptualize and mark out time based on their own experiences of change, and I’d love to see other examples of histories written by web practitioners as people come across them.