Greetings & Salutations.
In my first blog, I spoke of how I started my post-secondary education as a computer scientist rather than a historian. Despite my in hindsight appalling skills at math and an inability to solve for any kind of limit I really enjoyed programming. On the one hand, it was about solving problems and getting things to work. As anybody who has ever baked a loaf of bread or made anything with their hands can attest the act of creating something, and being able to show people something that you made is a delightful feeling. What I really enjoyed about software design was taking a thing, an idea, or a brief and creating the framework for the computer program to do the task. I loved making computer games with my friends not necessarily because of the programming involved, but but for the creations of the rules for the game. After two full years of the Bachelors in Computing program, it was apparent to me that the mathematics side of the course content held no interest for me, and frankly I didn’t have the calculus or statistics background. I would never fully understand red/black trees, work my way through a series of probability questions or perform a complex set of statistical analyses.The making things work part was fun, but I didn’t care about all the coding that went into the back end. Despite these problems, I have spent some time actually working as a commercial programmer, and it is these experiences that are one half of the equation that has driven me to decide to start to explore the potential of mixing my remaining skills as a software developer with my skills and passion as a historian.
The second factor is a much more recent event. A few weeks ago I went to the first in a series of “history in the pub” seminars which on this occasion featured a talk by Dr Harvey Quamen, the English Lit professor, digital humanist and home-brewer extraordinaire of the University of Alberta. He spoke of his interest in the history of beer and breweries and in particular of his project which will track the history of breweries in London via a website where viewers will be able to see the locations of breweries in London over time via a map. I rather enjoyed speaking to Dr Quamen following his talk, and I have been convinced that Digital Humanities provides a fascinating way for historical data and the connections to be displayed online freely, so that historians or even those who are just interested in history can take advantage of the project.
These factors came together with my current research to inspire me to dip my toe into the pool of Digital Humanities. At the moment, quite a bit of my research has to do with the names of Royal Navy warships, including Charles II’s Thirty Ships program mentioned in Dr Peter LeFevre’s wonderful article. The historical basis for this very basic project is simple; to create a website that would interact with a database containing information about those thirty ships. It would have their names, the dates of their launch, three or four significant events as well as their fates. These dates would also be tied to coordinates, which would allow me to display in a very limited and basic way the careers of those thirty ships on a map. The idea is that users will be able to select a single ship, multiple ships or even all thirty and be able to visually compare their careers. Of course, there is nothing incredibly groundbreaking about this kind of analysis, and for those who study the ships or operational history of the 17th Century Royal Navy it wouldn’t be presenting any new information. However, I thought it would be the perfect starter project, something that I could use to reteach myself how to program and create a website, and also do some analysis and research that could help my doctoral thesis.
Then I came across something which took the wind out of my sails, and certainly forced me to question my ability to actually do Digital Humanities in any kind of advanced and useful way even in the distant future. For those who aren’t familiar with Jorge Cham, PhD comics or “Piled Higher and Deeper” is a webcomic series about the trials and tribulations of graduate student life. Recently, the website held a contest where PhD students from around the world spoke about their doctoral research for two minutes. I’m proud to say that one entry to the contest, came from a fellow PhD student at King’s College London, Adam Crymble of the Department of Digital Humanities. I was stunned by the level of complexity present in his doctoral project. Not only did it make my project idea seem almost childlike in comparison, but it is also a very convincing demonstration of the possibilities History and Digital Humanities hold for future analysis and research.
And now we’ve come full circle. As much as I would love to be involved in Digital Humanities, it is clear that when it comes to creating or considering projects the necessary background and approach tend much more towards the Digital side, rather than the Humanities side. I simply do not have the math, statistics or information theory knowledge to independently create a project that would have any kind of actual academic merit. On the other hand, I am now more convinced that there is incredible potential for the study of naval history in digital humanities, especially for those who do have the information theory background to be able to create the right kind of project. Of course, such a project would have to be a collaboration between the Mathematicians who conceptualize the project, the Historians who do the research and find the information, and the Code Monkeys who actually get it to work and I would love to be part of such a triumvirate.
Of course, I’m still going to be working on my Thirty Ships Project since figuring out how to build a website from scratch is no mean feat for somebody who has been out of the game for as many years as I have. I think that my project as it stands could be an interesting research tool for historians, especially those who study operations. Even if the database only contained the locations and dates for the launch and fate of Royal Navy warships over an extended period, I think that an analysis of the geographic locations and their change could provide an interesting visual guide to the development of the Royal Navy’s operational scope of practice and development as a global force. But that is a significant project, and something to consider more fully once I have completed by PhD. This past weekend, I had the fortune to go to the London Open House event at the Master Shipwright’s House in Deptford where I had to fortune to finally meet Richard Endsor. Richard is one of the driving forces behind the Build The Lenox project, which seeks to build a replica of the Lenox, the first of the Thirty ships to be built in the very same location in Deptford where the original was constructed approximately 325 years ago. It’s a great cause which if successful will provide an incredibly physical tool for the study of 17th Century naval history, and the Royal Navy in particular. It will also provide an opportunity to promote the study and knowledge of a period of English history and naval history which receives less attention than it should. The project is still in its infancy, and its something that I hope to be much more involved in as it progresses.
In the meantime, the goal is to complete my starter website project as envisioned. I am building the website on my laptop using a very classic LAMP stack, that is to say Linux Apache MySQL and PHP. Given the manifold issues with the latter two aspects, my intention is to migrate over to another scripting language and database server once I have the website functioning but that’s currently a lower priority.
For those who are further interested in Digital Humanities, Dr Quamen’s website is available here. Also congratulations to Adam Crymble who is actually one of the winners of the Two Minute Thesis competition. Huzzah and Mazel Tov.
This was not intended to be a weekly blog, and so from this point shall begin a biweekly schedule. There may be the occasional supplemental post in between as well. My next post will be the first discussion of my actual research and will be a discussion of what I mean by, and how I look for expressions of Royal Navy institutional identity.