Cloudy with a Chance of History

Digital History (Part Deux)

At the end of 2011, our Digital History Class discussed the creation of calm or ubiquitous technologies;  that is, creating an environment in which computers, embedded into everyday objects from alarm clocks to coffee makers, begin to assume a peripheral role in our day to day existence.  With a new year well under way, the second half of our Digital History Course is where theory becomes reality, and what this means for Digital Historians, according to Bill Turkel, is that they “…will have to take into account the wide range of new settings where we can design experiences and shape historical consciousness. The technology of tangible computing provides a link between pervasive devices, social interaction, and the material environment. (Dourish 2004).”  The first task to kick start the year is a thought experiment:  Imagine an everyday object, digitally transformed to reflect a specific historical experience and connect people to the flow of history.

Interacting with Weather Patterns from the Past

After discarding (brilliant?) ideas for “self-cleaning” refrigerators and “smart” bathroom appliances because I could not find meaningful historical connections, I considered the research I gathered on weather and climate for NiCHE last fall.  My research assistantship at NiCHE involves locating historic information on climate change found in naturalist diaries from the 19th century, ships logs from the early 20th century, and military meteorology reports from the Royal Canadian Air Force.  What interests me is how these documents each record weather in unique ways and for very different purposes.  The naturalist, sitting under a tree with his journal waxes poetic about the effects of rainfall on the local wildlife or the livelihood of his neighbour’s vineyard.  The military meteorologist, on the other hand, quantifies and tracks pressure systems in order to calculate ideal flight conditions for bombing raids over Europe, or rescue missions out of Dunkirk.

Growing up on a farm, weather often took a central place in conversation.  Farmers inquired, reminisced and speculated about the rainfall, snow fall, or early thaw, and the impact each system had on their operations and livelihoods, both past and present.  Additionally, there was no weather system faced by my generation that was not faced tenfold by my parents or grandparents.  Without experiencing the “Blizzard of 1932” there was little argument to be made against shovelling the driveway in 5 foot drifts and sub-zero temperatures.

Anyway, as I moved off the farm and into the world of educational institutions the weather became peripheral, both in conversation and in its impact on my work.  I can certainly read and write in the rain.  In fact, rainfall only bothers me from my door to my car, and from my car to my office or classroom.  Our ability to control climate in our homes, vehicles and work places seems to have pushed the impact of weather to the periphery of our consciousness.

The Weather Frame

But what if while we worked in our climate-controlled work spaces, we did not take the weather for granted?  In order to recreate this historic experience I imagine constructing a “Weather Frame,” to place on your wall.  Taking a four-paned window frame (symbolic of the lens through which we typically observe weather), there are four different screens embedded into each pane.

The first pane presents the weather conditions outside.  This is no different than the weather channel.

The second pane presents a scrolling and visual history of the weather conditions on that day and in that place over time. 

Possible Scenario:  You finally verify whether or not that snow storm of 1932 was really as vicious as your ancestors claim by seeing forecasts as well as pictures.

The third pane links you to the past but is detached from place.  This allows you to track the conditions in various places on that day.  

Possible Scenario:  Struggling to get your furnace going in the winter, you might receive a picture of a surfer in South Africa at Jeffery’s Bay on this day in history, encouraging you to go on vacation.  Or you could get a snapshot of a pioneer home in Wisconsin and realize your furnace problems are relatively minor in historic perspective.

The fourth pane is perhaps the most unique.  It takes the current conditions outside, searches a database, and locates similar conditions in the past that are tied to a famous event or artifact.

Possible Scenario:  On a balmy day in July, the window reads an excerpt from a naturalist diary in November describing similar conditions nearby.  Possible Scenario 2:  While you sit at your desk, looking at the grey sky and light drizzle and contemplating an irritating walk to your bus stop, the fourth pane indicates that these exact conditions set the stage for the occupation of Normandy.

The Weather Frame is a thought experiment in taking a household object and turning it into an interactive exhibit that will spark an awareness of weather in the past in order to note its increasingly peripheral role in the present.  


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