History is a Real Business on the Web


Ms. Aber is an HNN intern.

History is now at our fingertips.  Literally.  Electronic databases, e-books, and online collections provide instant access to archival and scholarly sources.  The collaborative initiative http://historypin.com enables users to browse and post photos to a communal archive by “pinning” pictures to a Google-powered world map.  Even the iPhone is becoming a historian’s weapon, able to retrieve local antique maps and photos using GPS technology.

The movement to democratize and digitize history has not been led exclusively by giants like Apple and Google.  A number of small companies are innovating how we access the past.  Specifically, this article examines three small companies devoted to history and technology:  Historicus, Inc., Historic Map Works, and Time Travel Explorer.

Historicus, Inc: Digital Solutions

Ten years ago, Charles Forcey founded Historicus, Inc. in Durham, New Hampshire. According to the company website, Historicus aims to address the question “How can new media tools enhance and extend the best teaching, research, and public exhibitions in the arts and humanities?”  With just three full-time employees and a handful of part-time consultants, Historicus has provided innovative technological solutions to clients ranging from publishers to museums to professors.

Forcey recalls that he began “combining computers and history in graduate school” because he was intrigued by “the potential of technology to turn archival research and close study of original documents from an elite pursuit by graduate students and professors into a much more democratic and widespread experience.”  Inspiration struck when he observed a professor handing out $4 copies of colonial tax documents to his class and then endeavoring to re-collect them.  Suspecting there was a simpler way to provide these kinds of sources, Forcey “focused on a series of CD-ROMs and later websites that could bring full resolution primary sources (multi-page documents, large maps, audio, video, and images) into the classroom cheaply and easily.”

Today, one of Historicus’ most widely used products is the Primary Source Investigator, a web tool designed to supplement history textbooks published by McGraw-Hill.  The site provides free access to primary documents, maps, mini-documentaries, and other sources, and is searchable by subject, chapter, source type, location, and period.  Other innovative projects have included interactive three-dimensional maps that link to archival collections for New York City’s Skyscraper Museum and a virtual gallery and interactive tour of artist Thomas Cole’s work for the Thomas Cole National Site (http://www.skyscraper.org/, http://www.explorethomascole.org/).

Historic Map Works, LLC: Mapping the Past

Historic Map Works, according to its website, aims “to be the single best online destination for map enthusiasts and researchers alike.”  Launched by Charles Carpenter, the company is based in Portland, Maine and has six full-time employees.  Its digitized collection of North American antiquarian maps and images is “ten times the size of all other collections in the world combined,” according to Carpenter.  The team also wrote Historic Earth, a display engine that retrieves multiple geocoded maps, which paying users can overlay and fade onto one another (http://www.historicmapworks.com/).  Other resources include nautical charts, portraits, and historic images.

Inspiration for the company derived from Carpenter’s personal interest.  According to a Maine Today article, Carpenter had long been a collector of rare books related to the history of science when, in 1992, he bought a nineteenth-century map that showed the names of property owners in Scarborough, Maine.  A decade later he found an atlas of old maps at a bookstore and was struck by the idea that there could be a business in providing such sources to a larger audience.  In 2005, that dream became a reality.

Historic Maps Works launched the Historic Earth iPhone app in 2009.  It currently provides maps for twenty-five states and, according to Carpenter, has sold several thousand copies.  He is in the process of adding more American maps and building a collection from abroad.

Time Travel Explorer: The Future of Site Seeing?

The company Time Travel Explorer, launched by Londoner Bill Visick in 2010, is devoted to historic apps for Apple products (www.timetravelexplorer.com).  In a similar fashion to Historic Earth, the Time Travel Explorer London app, according to its website, allows Londoners to “explore precisely how the street pattern of London has changed over the centuries by overlaying maps from different eras and fading between them.”  The app features several historic maps, commentary from an expert tour guide, seven hundred fifty points of interest, and two thousand photographs.  Though Time Travel Explorer currently serves only London, Visick plans to submit New York and San Francisco versions to Apple in the next four to six weeks.

Inspiration for the apps came from Visick’s hundred-fifty-year-old house in the Kensington district of London.  “From an old map I bought years ago” he recalls, “I realized that before the house was built this area was fruit farms.”  While walking around London he discovered that his mobile phone could show him that old map, which also demonstrated “how the streets followed old field boundaries.”  These revelations led to Time Travel Explorer.

Visick runs the company himself, with the help of developers and subject matter experts.  He is promoting his product as an alternative to guidebooks, which he says cannot “provide the volume of data or the convenience of zooming in and out on detail, nor track where you are in space.”  He also notes that Time Travel Explorer can bring to light “fascinating juxtapositions such as Jimi Hendrix and Frederic Handel living next door to each other in Brook Street, albeit centuries apart.”

Will these and other technologies revolutionize the future of the past?  The answer remains to be seen.  Forcey predicts that “great story tellers… and well written prose will probably continue to carry the primary burden of educating future generations” about history.  It is also important to remember that increased access does not always mean free access.  Carpenter, whose company has invested over $5 million in its product, explains that information on the Internet comes with “all the intellectual property rights and costs that a published book incurs.”  Moreover, in a digitally divided world, ownership of computers and iPhones remains a minority privilege.  Nevertheless, products like the Primary Source Investigator, Historic Earth, and Time Travel Explorer London are undeniably making history faster, cheaper, and more convenient to access.

Historian David McCullough once remarked, No harm's done to historyby making it something someone would want to read.”  Today we might argue that no harm’s done to history by making it something someone would want to download.

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