A place where I can talk about my research and other interests -- history, magic, ham radio, technology, and making things.

Monday, September 14, 2009

READING ARTIFACTS: Summer Institute in the Material Culture of Science

I participated in the READING ARTIFACTS workshop at the Canada Science and Technology Museum from August 17 - 21, 2009. There were presentations from a number of scholars who have worked extensively with science artifacts, and we were given the opportunity to apply what we learned over the course of the week using portions of the museum's extensive holdings. The emphasis was on exploring what we can learn from objects themselves, and identifying strategies as a toolkit for that exploration.

From the start, we were confronted with objects removed from their context, yet we quickly discovered ways to learn a lot about those things. Around the room were a variety of artifacts from the museum's collections. We were asked to browse amongst them, and eventually settle upon one that attracted our interest. For the remainder of the week, we were given time to work exclusively upon the artifact -- to learn about it and from it -- so we could present our findings to the rest of the group at the end of the week.

The artifact that stood out most to me was a flimsy, transparent (but yellowed) plastic box that had a simple radio circuit on one side. There was a clockwork mechanism that appeared to perform a variety of unknown functions. The radio drew me to it, and then I kept wondering what all the other parts were doing with the radio -- was it sending something triggered by the mechanical portion? Did it receive a signal to activate the mechanical movements? What sorts of signals could it have been using? If it transmitted, what sort of a signals did it send? If it was a beacon of some kind, where and why was it used?

It turned out that the artifact was likely a radiosonde -- a meteorological measurement device that transmitted the temperature, air pressure, and humidity. It was developed in Russia and is called a Moltchanoff device, named for the inventor. The one we were looking at was likely used in Coppermine, N.W.T., by R. C. Jacobsen, in 1932 for the Second International Polar Year. Arriving at that information turned out to be somewhat complicated, but the process illustrates how useful the material culture perspective can be.

While working with the radiosonde, we examined it for as much detail and information as we could. We developed theories about what it could do and how it functioned. We identified a number of parts to it, and roughly figured out how they worked together. From just examining the object, we were pretty sure it measured temperature, air pressure and humidity, and sent out signals about that information with the radio circuit.

We quickly came to question all of that as we read records about the artifact from the museum. We were looking forward to the records -- we're historians, and we're used to learning about things by reading about it. There was a delay in getting records for our artifact, and when we found some, they turned out to be for a different item in the collection (one that was on display in an exhibit). The two items looked nearly identical, so they were likely the same types of objects. Some of the information about the one on display would probably apply to the one we were looking at, or at least tell us what it did.

According to the records, the one on display was a flashing light meteorograph. That is also a meteorological measurement device, but it flashes a light to be seen on the ground in order to identify the wind direction, speed and height of the device. The exhibit had a photograph of a person flying a kite, and further identified the inventor as John Patterson, head of the Meteorological Service of Canada during the Second International Polar Year. No mention of a radio or Moltchanoff.

This seemed odd. There was no light with either device. Sure, the light might have been damaged or removed, but there was no socket, and the circuit looked like a radio, not something to turn a light on and off. I began to question if the vacuum tube in the radio part maybe was really a light of some sort; or, maybe what I thought was the radio component was some type of oscillating circuit to make a light flash on and off. There was an empty space in the middle of the device -- maybe a light went in there. I began to try to create more and more complicated scenarios in an attempt to make what I was looking match the descriptions I was reading. But the simple explanation was that it was a radio circuit -- to me, it looked like a radio, and a light just didn't make sense.

Further research turned up a third similar device in the museum's collections. It was listed as a 1932 Moltchanoff device, but was just the clockwork part with no case or other circuitry. We went to see it, and found a pristine device, with manufactured parts (like a small circuit board for one of the switches), and red wire with plastic insulation. It was etched with, "1957," which might be a serial number, but based upon the condition and materials of the device, could instead be the year -- it looked more post-WWII than the recorded earlier date of ca. 1932.

We asked around throughout the week, and others thought the circuit looked more like a radio, too, but we found it difficult to say that it was a radio when confronted with all of the written evidence that said it was a flashing light meteorograph. There we were, having spent only a handful of hours with the device, with our interpretation conflicting with reports about what it actually was. The "official" documents all called it a flashing light meteorograph, but the object itself suggested radio.

This was the biggest lesson I experienced through the workshop -- that there is value and authority embodied within the objects themselves, and we can use that for knowledge. At an institution like the Canada Science and Technology Museum, we were confronted with a number of layers of authority regarding the object in question -- it's a museum; a national institution; with years of curatorial oversight and record keeping; and there was a public exhibit displaying elements of that information. Yet the object itself was the main primary source, and it suggested knowledge that was different from the written accounts.

Near the end of the week, we came across an article published by the Smithsonian that credited a drawing of a very similar-looking device to the original Russian article by Moltchanoff. The drawing very accurately depicted the device we had been looking at all week, along with the hookup that the device had to a balloon. It showed that a battery went into the empty space we observed in the device, and made clear that this was a Moltchanoff radiosonde. Finding that credited image finally seemed to confirm what the object itself had been saying all along, but we had been unaccustomed to ascribing that much credit to an object over the authority of texts.

While learning from an object can be problematic -- the object might be removed from its original context; it might have been altered; or, it might have been used in ways not originally intended -- the object itself does hold knowledge that we can learn from. Working with objects should not be neglected by the humanities scholar as they can provide unique insight that might not otherwise be discovered through documentation. An object can tell us much about its past, uses and functions, and through that process, it can also help us learn more about our own research practices and assumptions.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Waiting for an iPhone Time Machine App

Just read this brief article on the Popular Science website about a project in Europe that uses augmented reality to overlay information on actual places. You can read it and see a video here.

Mobile platforms combined with these sorts of technologies offer tremendous potential for relaying information about the past. Here's what I think would make a neat historical iPhone App. I don't know if it's technologically possible, but given that I can play Myst on my iPod Touch, something similar should be possible with an iPhone.

Reconstruct a virtual place, say a downtown street of a city from a specific time in the past. Photographs could provide information of what the buildings looked like. Old city plans and fire records can provide dimensions and locations on the street. The digitally rendered place should be done to scale.

From what I know of virtual landscapes, a virtual camera is positioned within that digital place to provide a viewpoint. It's location and orientation is used to calculate the view provided.

Correlate that virtual place with the real street. Use GPS data and the digital compass to provide orientation. That data is used to position the virtual camera within the digital landscape.

As one moves down the street and points their mobile device, the GPS and digital compass information changes, altering the view of the virtual world displayed on the screen.

As one moves through their actual location, they can then approximate movement through a historical space by using the view on their device as a portal to that location in the past. This would hopefully have a dramatic effect on one's experience of place and history.

If it were a city street, the user would get an approximation of the proximity of storefronts or houses, along with their look and design. If more information was available about a particular location, perhaps other controls could be added to virtually enter that location and look around. A game could be constructed to provide a narrative goal and directions for moving through the real and virtual space. I think there's a lot of potential here for tourism and historic places.

If any iPhone App developers need a historian for a project like this, my email is on the screen.

Friday, June 19, 2009

History Kits

I recently read an article by Rich Mitchell from the November 2007 issue of QST, the magazine of the American Radio Relay League (ARRL). Titled Building Kits to Learn, Mitchell explains the modular construction of a small radio transceiver kit known as the Pixie 2. He uses this as an example of the knowledge one can learn from assembling kits. It's not just a matter of putting pieces together -- you can use a kit as a platform to better understand a topic.

I've assembled a few simple electronics kits, and Mitchell's article has inspired me to attempt to construct the Pixie 2 in the manner he describes. He makes a strong case for each of the four stages as providing one with a better understanding of the building blocks of radio fundamentals. In particular, he mentions that this approach is similar to an old radio servicing approach used in testing the stages of radios.

Constructing a kit in this manner includes an attitude about the elments that comprise a radio device, and the components necessary for its proper functioning. I wonder if a similar approach could be used in learning about historic topics. In technological histories, building a device might inform one with a perspective of assembly and the elements of its functioning that a review of the literature on the subject might not address. Using the device, in addition to a sense of satisfaction, might reveal experiential contingencies that weren't apparent in a schematic or theory.

With radio, as in this case, a builder gains experience and understanding of how each stage of the tranceiver functions, and gets the reward of hearing and sending signals from the proper construction and alignment of those elements.

Could a History Kit be put together to help teach a particular topic? What would it include? Could it be made dynamic yet modular so as to incorporate elements of complexity that historians like to analyze; or, would such an approach only apply to seemingly linear topics?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Hacking as a Way of Knowing

In May, I participated in the Hacking as a Way of Knowing workshop hosted by Bill Turkel and Edward Jones-Imhotep. It was a great weekend of hands-on collaborative work that resulted in some really interesting projects.

I spent most of my time there making a scanner camera similar to one I had read about in Make magazine. The results can be seen in the Projects section of the website that has been posted at NiCHE. There's a picture of the camera and a number of photos taken with it at the workshop, as well as a small video about it.

The website has lots of information about the workshop, including reflections by some of the participants (including myself) on their experiences. I'm looking forward to applying things I learned from the workshop to my research work. For instance, my research on stage magic has shown that simply understanding the method or secret to an illusion does not convey everything about it. Experiencing a performance of magic involves an embodiment of intrinsic knowledge particular to the magician, the assistants, and the audience members that might be lost in translation if it is only read about. I have some ideas on how to experiment with this, and will post the projects here on the blog.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Tangible Interfaces

The video of our initial efforts with the Trackmate system was posted on the NiCHE website. If you didn't see it, you can check it out here.

I was drawn to this system because tangible interfaces seem to be a more organic way of dealing with information than typing on keyboard or moving and clicking a mouse. Users interact with different things, move them around, and things happen. They have control over what goes where, and in what orders they want to try things. It seems to offer more power to the user.

This isn't entirely true, though. The system is designed to operate in particular ways and under certain conditions. The program and interface is also ultimately determined by the one who makes it, and it can only do what it is programmed to do.

Still, creative applications of such systems can hide that. Affordances may be worked into the interface that guide the user through the interaction in a subtle and non-obtrusive manner. The aesthetics of the device could be masked so it all seems more natural or commonplace to a user. From my research on magic, there seems to be a potential to make such devices and their use seem almost magical.

This would be great for museums and schools, particularly where resources are limited, as it could encourage playful interaction with a topic. The activities would assist in learning and communicating, and the user could gain knowledge and insight via the total experience.

The video from the Trackmate page shows some useful and interesting applications of their system. Prior to that, I had read about the Augmented Reality Toolkit (ARToolkit), which also attempts to offer an accessible way to comingle digital information with the physical world. A unique demonstration of the toolkit was provided by Julian Oliver's levelHead spatial memory game. A series of blocks are set before a webcam, and the image rendered on the screen is not of the designs on the blocks, but instead depict small rooms. One of the rooms contains a person, and you rotate and reorient the cubes to move the avatar through a maze-like system of rooms that appear within the blocks.

The equipment to do these things includes a computer, suitable webcam, the software, and the physical objects. Lighting may need to be controlled, and calibration of the system prior to use is important. Additionally, one will need to spend some time to learn and practice with the system in order to design with it. This technology, popularly applied, is still not widely in use, but it is becoming more accessible and straightforward to work with, as evidenced by a comparison of the ARToolkit and Trackmate.

These tools seem to be at a point where they are there for interested individuals to experiment with. Even small museums, with limited resources, might have a volunteer or staff member interested in these sorts of things who could learn to work with the technology and apply it to their institution's situation. An educator could attempt to create an interactive system for their classroom.

The impressive processing capabilities of digital technology can be subtly integrated with the physical world, so one can enjoy the benefits of both.

Saturday, June 6, 2009


As part of Global Hackday, Adam Crymble and I have been working on a tangible interface using the Trackmate system. Using Trackmate, you can make a system whereby physical objects can be tagged. As they are placed and moved on a surface, those objects can then cause different things to happen.

Our idea was to use this as an interface to information about members of the NiCHE knowledge cluster. Objects would represent a variety of categories and areas of expertise for the NiCHE members. You select the topics you're interested in, place those objects surface for the interface, and the best matches are displayed on the screen. You can instantly see who best to collaborate with on a given set of topics, or see who is working on those fields.

Check out the NiCHE website for more info. We were working on a video about it -- I'll post that when it's ready.

Blogging Redux

I started this blog during my MA in Public History. I'm restarting it in order to have a place to talk about some of the things I'm working on and other bits that I find interesting.

I'm working on a PhD in History, and my dissertation project is about magic tricks and magicians from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I'm planning on posting some items related to my research.

One of my interests in history are in attempts to incorporate more than just solely textual work. My own beliefs at the moment are that there are human experiences which aren't necessarily translated that well into text, and I'd like to explore what a historian could learn by incorporating other, more experimental elements into their work. Look for some of that to be incorporated here as well.