Guest post by our blog competition winner, Helen Mair Rawsthorne.
Tide prediction machines, prosopography and digital humanities are the three main axes upon which my Master’s degree research project is constructed. I’m a student of the “Cultural History of Science and Technology, Digital Humanities and Mediation” course at the University of Western Brittany’s Centre François Viète research laboratory in Brest. In this blogpost I’m going to explain what these three most important components of my project are, how they link together and how you could integrate certain elements into your own work, with a focus on digital humanities tools.
Tide Prediction Machines
Tide prediction machines are analogue computers that were used to predict the times of high and low tides worldwide from the end of the 1800s up to the digital age. The first tide prediction machine was designed by William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) and built in London in 1873. It was developed as a response to increasing pressure from commercial shipping lines towards the middle of the 19th century who wanted a greater number of more accurate tidal predictions more quickly than could be calculated by hand. As well as helping shipping lines and navies to safely navigate the seas and the shores, tide prediction machines became crucial to the building of ports and effective flood defences. A total of 25 of the 33 tide prediction machines ever built were constructed in the UK but were then shipped to other countries who wanted to do their own calculations. Although analogue tide prediction machines are no longer in use, nearly all still exist today as museum pieces across the world. The photo below shows the Bidston Kelvin tide prediction machine, which was built by Kelvin Bottomley and Baird Ltd. in Glasgow (Scotland) between 1924 and 1925. It was first used in Bidston (England) by Liverpool Observatory and Tidal Institute before being shipped to Paris for use by the French navy’s hydrographic service (today the SHOM) and then to their site in Brest (France), where it can still be found today.
Prosopography is a research method usually used by historians to study the lives of groups of people. It involves the creation of a collective biography or the gathering of data relating to the common aspects of the lives of individuals who are part of a particular population. It can take the form of a database of all of the people within the chosen population along with information about the biographical phenomena that transcend their individual lives. Prosopography overcomes the problem of the scarcity of historical data by collecting together all available fragments, which can then be compared, synthesised and analysed, thus compensating for any gaps in the data. Instead of looking at the exceptional and unique, prosopography focuses on the general and average. It is in this way that prosopography makes visible the particular characteristics representative of the chosen population.
Digital humanities is an interdisciplinary area of study that lies in the intersection between the humanities and digital technology. Research in digital humanities goes in two directions: it uses digital technologies to ask questions about and to create new knowledge in the humanities, and uses the humanities to ask questions of and to reflect upon digital technology. The digital technologies in digital humanities come in the form of tools, applications and software (purpose-built for digital humanities or not) that can be used for the effective production and dissemination of research in the humanities.
That’s great, but… how do they all feature in one project?
Tide prediction machines
Tide prediction machines have been studied very little, despite having been used to perform life-saving calculations and making a crucial contribution to maritime history. I want to find and analyse the common features in the lives of tide prediction machines, to give an appreciation of their importance, the extent of their use and usefulness, and an impression of the shape of their lives. I therefore decided to study the “life cycle” of analogue tide prediction machines: the methods used to predict tides before the construction of the first machine, the motivation for creating this machine, the manufacturers, users and uses of the machines, maintenance and repair of the machines, the decommissioning of the machines, subsequent methods of predicting tides and finally the state of the machines today in terms of conservation and scientific mediation.
My project supervisor Sylvain Laubé (also of the Centre François Viète research laboratory at the University of Western Brittany) then introduced me to the practice of prosopography, but as you might have realised above it is a research method used almost exclusively to study groups of people. The 33 tide prediction machines that I’m studying form a coherent group in which each artefact can be described by a time evolution cycle. Given the analogies with human groups, my methodological research hypothesis is that it is possible to apply prosopographic methods to successfully analyse the life cycle of tide prediction machines.
Every member of the “population” of tide prediction machines must be subjected to the same questionnaire. I do not expect to find an answer to each question for each machine but that will not pose a problem in this prosopographical study; the aim is to find the common features in the lives of analogue tide prediction machines.
Given the data-centric nature of prosopography, I see the use of digital humanities tools as essential to my project. Much of my data is temporal and geospatial: dates of “life events” such as construction, displacement, renovation and decommissioning, and locations of construction, use and conservation. Each machine has its own unique life and has its own story to tell, but there are nevertheless many features that group them together and events that they have in common. I’m using diverse digital humanities tools to associate, visualise and interpret this data, thereby distinguishing particular characteristics representative of tide prediction machines.
Which digital humanities tools?
I’m now going to introduce you to some of my favourite digital humanities tools and I’ll explain how I’m using them in my current work, how they’ve helped me and how they could be useful to you.
Designed and built by Stanford University’s Humanities + Design Lab, Palladio is a digital humanities tool for the visualisation of complex historical data. This web-based open source application focuses on data-driven historical research. Palladio is ideal for those who want to visualise networks, temporal data or geospatial data all from the same database using an intuitive graphical interface. From a single database, researchers can create various visual elements that can be customised according to the data available. I have used Palladio to create a few visuals of my data, all of which have helped me by highlighting patterns in the data and making me ask new questions of it. I will now show you examples of how I’ve used three different features in Palladio to visualise my data.
Graphs in Palladio
The graph function offered by Palladio can be used to visualise a network or networks and the relationships within and between them. The points can be filtered and sized according to other parameters in the database, which is why the initial database needs to be well thought out and constructed with Palladio in mind. The graph below shows the relationship between the city of construction (dark grey) and the current location (light grey) of tide prediction machines; the points are sized according to the number of machines in each case.
Maps in Palladio
To make use of the map function, Palladio requires data in the “latitude, longitude” format. These points can be plotted on a map of the world and can be coloured, sized, linked and filtered. The base map can also be changed to show different geographical features, or a custom map can be uploaded. I created the map below to show the number of tide prediction machines used in any given place (red), and how many can be found in each different place today (green).
The points displayed on a maps or in a graph can be filtered by time, if the database contains data in a date format.
Timespans and timelines in Palladio
Any date data can also be visualised with a timespan, which can have various different layouts, or with a timeline, which takes the form of a bar graph. The timespan below shows the lifetime of tide prediction machines, and the timeline shows the number of machines that were built each year.
Palladio is an excellent example of a digital humanities tool that can be used by historians to visualise data. Data visualisations can help researchers to make the most of the available data at any point during the research process. They also give meaning to data and facilitate its comprehension by the audience.
Time.Graphics is a web-based tool for the creation of timelines. It offers only this one function, but it does it well. Single events or timespans can be added to the timeline with a title, description and colour. I made the timeline below to show all the significant dates of tide prediction machines built in the UK: date of manufacture, displacements, renovations, prizes awarded and decommissioning. I assigned each individual machine with a different colour to help identify them on the timeline. Interpreting and comparing data from a colourful and visual representation can be much easier than reading a database, for me and for those not familiar with my research.
As part of the OpenEdition infrastructure, Hypotheses is a platform for blogs in humanities and social sciences research. My classmates and I have a joint class blog hosted by Hypotheses for our Master’s course, and we regularly write about our classes, texts we’re reading and how our research is advancing. Blogging is new to me but I’m finding it to be an excellent way of organising my thoughts by forcing me to write about what I’m doing in a way that’s easily understood by others. It’s also proving to be an excellent way for us to learn more about how our classmates are conducting their research and what they’re discovering.
Where would I be without Twitter? Not writing this blogpost, that’s for sure. I started using Twitter when I discovered that researchers and academics use it a lot, and I wanted to be part of it! Without Twitter I wouldn’t have found out about this competition, nor about a conference I’ll be talking at later this month, nor about many other events, interesting people or research. There’s a real sense of community amongst us #twitterstorians, who I’ve found to be encouraging, supportive and sympathetic (because things don’t always go well!).
There are a few other digital humanities tools that I like to use such as CmapTools for making concept maps with which I can keep track of my thoughts in a visual way, Zotero for creating a bibliography and storing information about what I’m reading, and Overleaf: the best LaTeX editor ever (in my opinion).
It may seem that the use of digital humanities tools is labour-intensive, but the right ones for your project used in the right way can be immensely useful for your audience and, more importantly, for yourself and your work. They can help you to see your research in a new light, give you alternative ways of doing things, provide you with more opportunities for sharing your work and collaborating with others.
Why should you care about …?
Tide prediction machines
The accuracy of the calculations made by tide prediction machines were of global importance, as the lives of people at sea and the efficient running of worldwide maritime transport depended upon it. These marvellous machines deserve to be better known; I’m trying to better understand their lives so that their stories can be told and shared.
The prosopographical method can be very useful for researchers whose data is incomplete; it avoids generalising from select examples and favours studying collectively all available cases, regardless of completeness, thereby ensuring the data is correctly represented.
Prosopography is a well-established research method in history that can be used for a wide range of studies in various historical periods. These studies have, until now, all been based upon populations of people, but what I’m doing by using prosopography to study artefacts is relatively new. By studying historical data in this way we can analyse relationships across time and space and attempt to better understand the past.
Digital humanities tools can be useful in the three main stages of a project: they can help you to advance in your research, to disseminate your results more effectively, and they can help your audience to understand what you’re trying telling them.
Different tools can facilitate the advancement of your research by giving you an environment in which your data and research can be stored, managed and analysed. Data visualisation tools can highlight relationships within and between networks, help you to spot patterns, uncover and draw your attention to trends previously hidden in the data, encourage you to view information in other ways and cause you to make new enquiries. Many digital humanities tools also offer a collaboration function, meaning that you can work together with your colleagues on the same file.
As for diffusing your findings, digital humanities can offer you a wide range of platforms for presenting and sharing your data, in many different ways.
Data presented in innovative formats will make your research more accessible and understandable by different types of learners. Visual representations could be better for younger audiences or those unfamiliar with your area of study because reading and interpreting visualisations of data can be easier and quicker than databases or text. Data in visual forms are also more attractive and more likely to be remembered, thereby facilitating their retelling.
I’ve already gathered a lot of data for my prosopography of tide prediction machines, but I’m still searching for answers to certain questions. I need to continue analysing the data using various digital humanities tools and then I will be able to write up my results about the life cycles of tide prediction machines and evaluate the success of this prosopographical study of artefacts.
You can read more about the story of tide prediction machines, prosopography, Digital Humanities and other interesting topics on Helen’s blog.