History on the Corner

To commemorate 30 years of Star Wars, the United States Postal Service has started painting its blue corner mailboxes to look like R2-D2, the lovable droid who first appeared in 1977.


I was three years old when A New Hope premiered, and standing in line for tickets with my parents outside Showcase Cinemas in Worcester, Mass. is one of my earliest memories. I’m not sure I need the post office to remind me how old I am, but as I child of Star Wars I appreciate the gesture nevertheless.

Upadate (3/30/07): So it turns out that the mailboxes have been installed to promote a series of Star Wars commemorative stamps. No surprise there, I suppose.


If you haven’t subscribed already, Episode 2 of Digital Campus (“The Old and the YouTube”) is now available for your listening pleasure. Dan, Mills, and I chat about YouTube, Wikipedia, the Byzantine Empire, Cambodian wi-fi, and other hot topics in the world of digital humanities. Also ready for download from CHNM is Episode 4 of the Mozilla Digital Memory Bank Podcast, featuring excerpts from an interview with Mike Beltzner. Enjoy!

Place Names / Time

Yesterday software engineer Matthew Gray from Inside Google Book Search posted a mashup/geo-visualization demonstrating how place name frequency changed over the course of 19th century publishing history. Gray’s four maps—one each from the 1800s, 1830s, 1860s, and 1890s—clearly point to a growing publishing industry and broader shifts in center of gravity from Europe to North America and from East Coast to West Coast.

While Gray’s results are convincing and the whole project a good example of how digital tools are creating new avenues for amateur historical inquiry, we should also admit that it reinforces Dan Cohen’s recent point that “too many visualizations … merely use computational methods to reveal the obvious in fancy ways.” The question Dan wants us to ask is whether these visualizations teach us anything new. It’s a good question. Are we surprised that Denver is mentioned more frequently in print in 1890 than in 1830? Probably not. But another question we should ask is whether these visualizations can teach our students and publics anything new. I wonder if the obvious truths told by these maps, charts, and diagrams aren’t so obvious to people who don’t identify themselves as historians. I’m struck by the fact that both this example and the one Dan points to were both produced by and for non-professionals. I suspect the answer to Dan’s concern is that the best place for these things is not in research, but in teaching and public understanding.

Finding History at Home 2

Today in Digital History Hacks, Bill Turkel imagines a not-so-distant future of “history appliances”:

Imagine wandering into your living room after a day of work. You sit down in your chair and turn a dial to 1973. The stereo adjusts automatically, streaming Bob Marley, Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Jim Croce. LCD panels hanging on the wall switch to display Roberto Matta’s Jazz Bande and Elizabeth Murray’s Wave Painting. If you check your TV listings, you’ll find Mean Streets, Paper Moon, American Graffiti, The Sting, Last Tango in Paris … even Are You Being Served? In your newspaper you find stories about the cease-fire in Vietnam, about Watergate, about Skylab, about worldwide recession and OPEC and hostilities in the Middle East. If you want to read a novel instead, you might try Gravity’s Rainbow or Breakfast of Champions.

Turkel goes on to suggest a kludge of current and near-horizon technologies that could fulfill this vision. Though plausible, I suspect we’re still some way off from a history appliance that the average consumer could install and operate. But the idea is very compelling. I agree wholeheartedly with Bill that such a device would present fantastic opportunities for public historians, and it seems to me that even if we have to wait a while for the home version, museums could start working on this now for their galleries.

First and foremost, “history appliances” would allow public historians to provide audiences with the kind of deep historical immersion that’s currently only available through years of long study. Sometime in the depths of their researches, I think all professional historians have experienced fleeting moments of time travel. “Turkel’s Time Machine,” if it ever comes to pass, could offer something similar to lay publics at the turn of a dial.

Digital Campus

dctv.jpg This is also somewhat off topic, but I’m very pleased to announce the launch of Digital Campus, a new biweekly podcast that explores how digital media and technology are affecting learning, teaching, and scholarship at colleges, universities, libraries, and museums. Come listen to Dan Cohen, Mills Kelly, and I talk about the launch of Windows Vista, the rise of Google Docs, and recent stories about Blackboard in our first episode. At the end of the show, we share links to the best free wiki software and sites on digital maps and books.

Subscribe to Digital Campus via iTunes or another subscription service at http://digitalcampus.tv


Because it’s neither unintentional nor unconventional nor amateur, this may not belong here on Found History. But the new movie 300 is definitely historical, and it has managed to capture the fancy of widespread segments of the public, including movie critics, gamers, and many of my History 100 students. Very loosely based on Herodotus, 300 tells the story of the Battle of Thermopylae and the three hundred Spartans who stood against the invading Persian armies of Xerxes. Its combination of ancient history, video game visuals, and ultra violence appears to be extremely appealing: in slightly different proportions, HBO’s popular series Rome shares the same three traits.

It seems to me that digital historians are well poised to capitalize on these new trends. Well, maybe not the violence, but we should be able to figure out something to do with the ancient history and gamer graphics.

Have a look for yourself

Late Update (3/20/07): Neal Stephenson, author of Snowcrash and the incomparable Baroque Cycle, has a great op-ed about 300 and the politics of sci-fi and historical fiction in this Sunday’s New York Times. Thanks to Roy for the tip.