[Humanist] 28.313 a lesson in what history is not

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Fri Sep 5 10:37:28 CEST 2014

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 28, No. 313.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Thu, 04 Sep 2014 06:58:15 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: a lesson in what history is not

Some here may be aware of the recent historiographical storm over the
question of who invented e-mail (or rather "email"). I forward here from the
most worthy SIGCIS (http://www.sigcis.org/) a note with links that will lead
you to the storm, should you care to be exposed. I'd suppose that anyone who
has attempted to sort out a history of very recent things, with participants
in that history still living, would likely have encountered such silliness
as has erupted over this question. But the animus, with accompanying
over-the-top claims, is useful in illustrating precisely what history is
not, or as Mike Mahoney used to say, how hype hides history. Even in
relatively clear instances of beginnings, such as Fr Busa's initiation of
that which we now call digital humanities, establishing a beginning is an
historiographical act, often with serious consequences as to the history
which results. Did Alexander Graham Bell invent the telephone? Well, that
depends on what you mean by "telephone", for one thing. And so on and so

As we slowly awaken to the need to write histories (note the plural) of
digital humanities, I'd think we should look to the very best histories
around as to how to proceed. Historians such as David Mindell's book Between
Human and Machine: Feedback, Control, and Computing before Cybernetics
(2002) is one of the finest examples I know of a technological history. Or,
straying further afield, Christopher Clark's The Sleepwalkers: How Europe
Went to War in 1914 (2012). As I've no doubt suggested many times before,
Mahoney's writings in Histories of Computing (2011), edited by the fellow
whose note follows, illumines us in this regard.

Other suggestions welcome!


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