History in Screenshots

One of the things I keep stumbling upon are amateur software histories told through series of screenshots. Here are a couple examples. The first is a slideshow from ZDNet—which strictly speaking isn’t an amateur publication at all, although as far as history is concerned I think it’s close enough—that provides a look back at Windows boot screens from 1.01 to Vista. The second is more clearly an amateur effort, which bills itself “A Visual Browser History, from Netscape 4 to Mozilla Firefox”. Presented by Andrew Turnbull, a student at West Virginia University, this second entry is undoubtedly the more ambitious of the two, providing extended commentary on more than fifty screenshots and rare looks at such forgotten Mozilla milestones as the release of Phoenix 0.1, the original Firefox.

End of an Era

In 2012 the lights will go out in Toronto. Well, at least the incandescent lights. According to a new provincial directive, Ontario will ban Edison’s invention within five years, replacing more than 87 million incandescent blubs with compact flourescents, LEDs, and other, more energy efficient electric lights. Ontario follows Nunavut and Australia in banning the venerable bulb. Church historians can rest easy that there are no similar plans for the Venerable Bede! (Bad, I know.)

Via CrunchGear

Best and Worst

It has been a while since I posted something in the Tops of All Time series, but I noticed two recent articles in PC World that fit the bill. The first is a wistful look back at the 10 Worst PCs of All Time. The second lists the 50 Best Tech Products of All Time, “those amazing products that changed technology—and our lives—forever.” So what, according to PC World, is “The Beatles,” the “Citizen Cane”, the “Muhammad Ali” of tech products?

(Drum roll, please…)

Netscape 1.0, the browser that launched the dot.com era.

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.

Oldest Domain Names

Jottings.com has posted a list of the 100 oldest still-registered .com domains. First on the list: Symbolics.com, which first launched in March 1985. Other early birds include tech giants ATT.com, HP.com, IBM.com and Sun.com and big defense contractors SRI.com, Northrop.com, and Lockheed.com.

Tags Over Time

There’s a new trend in online amateur history that digital history scholars would do well to notice. A few months ago I pointed to Yahoo’s Taglines, a Flash visualization of the changing use of Flickr tags over a 16 month period from June 2004 to September 2005. More recently Chirag Mehta, an IT manager living in Florida, developed an open source application to do the same thing with any body of machine readable text. According to Mehta’s website, Tagline Generator is “a simple PHP codebase that lets you generate chronological tag clouds from simple text data sources without manually tagging the data entries.” Mehta’s demonstration piece, the US Presidential Speeches Tag Cloud, got a lot of traction on Digg a few weeks ago. Now Todd Bishop, author of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s Microsoft Blog, has applied Metha’s code to a body of speeches, articles, and emails written by Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer, and other key figures at Microsoft over the past 30 years.

Obviously this technology could be extended to other bodies of digital historical text. For example, I can imagine mapping the frequency of terms such as “victim” “terrorist” “Osama” “sad” and “angry” in personal narratives contributed to CHNM’s September 11 Digital Archive between, say, September 2001 and September 2003 as memories faded and events such as the wars in Afganistan and Iraq intervened. Maybe Dan will find time to give it a go as he did with his awesome map of what American’s did on 9/11.