Introduction - What is History?
There are many boring, dusty graybeards who've tried to explain the importance of history. The ancient Greek philosopher Thucydides, for example, once said, "History is Philosophy teaching by examples."
Yeek! That's a little dry. I guess I'm just one more old guy quoting an ancient Greek. And that's kind of sad, because history is a lot more than ancient Greeks or the birth of kings. Let's try again. Ambrose Bierce, always good for some black humor, called history, "An account, mostly false, of events, mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers, mostly knaves, and soldiers, mostly fools."
Definitely funny, but maybe a little too cynical. And dead wrong, for a variety of reasons - still, there's a ring of truth to the whole thing. History goes much further and much deeper than the simplistic textbooks laid before you in school, however hard the authors work to show diverse viewpoints. Furthermore, Bierce, for all his cynicism and black humor, is still one of those boring dead guys they make you study in school.
Please excuse your author while he unleashes a disappointed sigh.
On the other hand, there's Malcolm X, who said, "History is a people's memory, and without memory man is demoted to the lower animals." That's pretty cool, and even politically correct, but it still sounds like a boring, centuries-dead, English dude in a frock coat. It's amazing, in it's own depressing way, how Malcolm X himself, the very well-educated, Black Muslim radical, when faced with the whole of history, sounds very much like some forgotten professor at Oxford.
The thought brings me very close to tears, because history is so much cooler than that. There's romance and violence and more drama that any soap opera, all arranged around a boatload of brilliant, eccentric, and just plain crazy people bulldozing their way through the worst, most complicated problems an entire planet can throw at them. History is very much like a whole herd of bulls rampaging through the world's biggest china shop, all chanting political slogans while knocking teacups off the shelves.
Unfortunately, this subject, which by definition includes everything that ever happened, in any subject that interests you, from sports to cooking, from popular songs to movies, from the first written word until the present, this subject turns even the most radical dudes who ever lived into boring old men. That's amazingly sad. Worst of all, it doesn't have to be this way. History isn't just kings and wars and battles. It's the clothes people wore, the songs they sang, and the art they argued about. There's a history of science. A history of motorcycles. A history that's specific to any place you've ever been.
(Speaking of motorcycles, that particular history goes back more than two thousand years. It starts with the ancient geniuses who invented simple machines like the screw and the lever - still used in today's engines - and ends with the latest black-and-chrome Harley. And it's fascinating, every single bit of it, including the guy who ran naked through the streets screaming, "Eureka!")
So I'll give it my own best shot. History is everything that ever happened, in writing, or on some kind of multimedia, and documented as well as possible. This definition leaves lots of room for fun. If you're into the history of Harley Davidson motorcycles, my definition leaves plenty of room to talk about exactly why the engine makes that lovely "vrooom" sound and shakes the seat just right - complete with sound samples and quotes from your favorite Hell's Angel. If you're into cooking, you can geek out about how British Cuisine got beaten to a flavorless pulp by dishes from every place Jolly Old England ever conquered - complete with interviews, video, and representative recipes.
The story of your family is History, complete with the capital "H." My ancestors, for example, immigrated in the early 1900s. One great-grandmother came through Ellis Island, and one great-grandfather entered the US, possibly illegally, through Canada. Everything they encountered, everything they did, is of interest to historians. One generation later, my grandfather provides us with wonderful examples of an ordinary guy encountering a changing world. As a young man my grandfather used one of the first mechanical calculators ever built. That's the history of science. Later, he worked in an aircraft factory during World War II. That's the history of war. At about the same time, he coached a Little League team that won the Los Angeles city championship. That's the history of sports. Years after that, he lost his clothing business when the mini-skirt craze died. That's the history of fashion.
Whatever you're interested in, be it baseball, ceramics, architecture, or old Fords, has a history, and we want your expertise.
What This Site Does
The purpose of The History Engine is to collect all of history and turn it into something that's interesting and accessible. We plan to do this by collecting two types of data. The first kind of data we collect is the index card. An index card is a publicly available footnote which can be used for research by anyone posting at Chronicle. index cards contain primary sources in the form of letters, diaries, photographs, and other relevant material, and they are available to anyone who wants to use them. index cards are listed by date and contain longitude and latitude data. They're tagged with relevant information so they can be searched and indexed.
A single index card might contain one day's journal entry by an explorer mapping the Colorado Rockies, or even a single incident from that day's entry. Each day's journal entry would form a separate index card. Ideally the index card would contain a picture of the day's journal entry, and also that same entry typed out in ordinary text. The entry would be tagged with all the data needed to make it searchable, including people, places, themes, locations, and other information.
The second type of information we collect is longer narratives. Each longer narrative tells a story, and uses multiple index cards in the same manner as ordinary narratives use footnotes. One narrative might talk about the history of Colorado Springs and refer to the index card above. Another narrative, by a different author, might discuss early trade with the American Indians, and refer to the same index card.
We don't prefer a single point of view or theory of history. Regardless of whether you're a liberal or a conservative, or whether you prefer the "Great Man" theory of history or a economically-driven, materially-based viewpoint, we welcome your narrative.
Having collected these two types of data, and made them available on the web for everyone, we plan to build an engine which will turn them into a single, virtual world. Obviously, this won't happen for a long time - we need to collect enormous amounts of data and build some special software - but when the project is complete, you'll be able to enter ancient France and watch the Romans fight the Gauls.
How will the software work? Obviously the details are a little hazy from here, but in the case of a battle between Romans and Gauls, the software will fetch the relevant index cards, figure out how the Gauls were dressed, figure out how the Romans were dressed, and create the relevant 3d images. The software will use index cards to find out how many soldiers participated in the battle, what kind of troops they used - archers, cavalry, etc.; go to Google Earth to learn about terrain details, and then create the scene as accurately as possible. Officers will, if possible, be tagged by name, and the scene will be very realistic.
But that's for the future. Right now we need you to tell us everything you know about the true history of anything at all.
Please help. Start by reading the Instructions.