John Clevesy had just gotten married. Mr. Clevesy, a graphic design student at Northeastern University in Boston, and his new husband, Damien, were visiting the latter’s family in the United Kingdom when they received some disturbing news – Damien would not be allowed back into the country because the federal government does not recognize gay marriages. Thunderstruck, Mr. Clevesy shelved his plans for his senior project at college and came up with something new: the only web application for the iPhone dedicated to gay history, the Gay History Project.
There are literally tens of thousands of web apps available for the iPhone and the iPod Touch, running the gamut from games to word processors. Not surprisingly, there are a number of history-related applications, usually coming from small developers. Some are in the business for strictly commerical reasons, some developers create for fun. Still others, like Mr. Clevesy, have a larger agenda. Most applications are very affordably priced, usually no more than a few dollars.
The most popular history programs for iPhone, judging by their position on the Apple iStore, are the ubiquitous “This Day in History” programs, which are produced and/or sponsored by several companies, including the makers of the World Book Encyclopedia. These programs function much like calendars, alerting the user to interesting events that occurred on a particular day in history. World Book – This Day In History is only 99 cents.
Other programs are more specialized. For the wordsmith, there is History Hangman, a free hangman game in which all of the answers are history themed. Another unique series of apps are found from a developer called Seungbin, who publishes compendiums of historical maps spanning the entire globe throughout the march of the ages.
There are even several foreign-language apps dealing with history beyond the Anglosphere – one French developer has had one of their programs translated into English and is entitled "French History threw [sic] Kings, Emperors and Presidents," which, like most apps, sells for 99 cents.
Some iPhone history apps are not even actual apps – many books and encyclopedias are available in their entirety via the web, including The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and the Oxford Dictionary of World Mythology, and a host of other biographies. It is unlikely that the iPod, the iPhone, or even the Kindle will ever replace the printed, bound book as the primary method of scholarly discourse, but it is incredibly convienent to have an entire encyclopedia or biography at one’s fingertips.
These iPhone books can be much more expensive than other apps. Franklin’s autobiography, presumably in the public domain, is only 99 cents, but Walter Isaacson’s biography of Frankin, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, which also retails for the iPhone, is $18.99, and the Oxford Dictionary is $14.99, but these prices are not significantly different than the purchase price of the print edition of any of these books.
The Gay History Project, Mr. Clevesy’s program, is one of only a handful of history apps that are more socially focused, as opposed to the prominent figures that occupy the space of many of the This Day in History programs. The application, which retails at $2.99, functions in the form of a timeline, divided by millenia, centuries, and finally decades, with important moments and figures in gay history highlighted, primarily from western Europe and the United States.
Some entries are brief and matter-of-fact, but others go into a great deal of detail – the biography of Edward II of England, for example, succinctly summarizes the scholarship surrounding his sexuality. Mr. Clevesy estimates that if all of the entries on the app were printed, it would run to 400 pages of text.
The Gay History Project is one of a subset of iPhone history apps that are tied, even unofficially, to a university – another popular contender is the University of Nottingham’s Brief History of Genetics, which profiles prominent geneticists and discoveries in genetics research. Nottingham’s application, however, was professionally published, whereas the Gay History Project was researched and developed almost single-handedly by Mr. Clevesy.
Although writing an iPhone program can be problematic – Mr. Clevesy reports that “programming for the iPhone was somewhat of a nightmare” – the Gay History Project, at least, is designed to be open-ended, meaning that other users can upload their own content into the database. As such, it offers an experience similar to a wiki, where a group of knowledgeable and committed contributors, working collaboratively, can create new content that further enrich an application.
The popularity of the iPhone’s apps is undeniable – “This Day in History,” of whatever stripe, is undoubtedly the most popular, but other applications have considerable niche appeal. Map creator Seungbin’s website, for one, is full of positive comments from his customers.
Mr. Clevesy, for his part, has “already broken even” monetarily (after only two weeks), and the app has been very well-received. “I have had many young people telling me they loved my project.... I even had the Academy Award nominated producer Marc Smolowitz tell me he found the app and the story behind it very interesting.” There have been favorable reviews on several GLBT blogs. The university community has also been very supportive, with teachers congratulating Mr. Clevesy on his work. Part of the project was on display at Northeastern’s Gallery 360.
Mr. Clevesy plans to publish a book based on the research he has done for the application. “Personally, when it comes to reading something, I would much rather read off of paper than from a screen,” he says -- a sentiment commonly held in the historical community. But an app user “can actually interact” with the information on screen. Perhaps applications like the Gay History Project and its siblings represent the future of popular history – portable, interactive, informative, and personal. As of this writing, Mr. Clevesy’s husband has yet to receive his green card.