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Opinion: History on the tiny screen

By Ron Andersen

I ran across a short article with big implications in the latest issue (spring 2010) of American Heritage magazine about historians and cell phone technology. Historical parks and museums have been using cell phones for guided tours for a while now, but it looks like we are on the verge of a great leap forward. The combination of internet, video, and GPS can bring full-scale productions and education to lesser known historical sites. The idea is already branching out in several ways.

Ron Coleman, a computer science professor at Marist College in New York, has developed an open source program for the Staatsburgh State Historical Site that features a GPS triggered prompt that starts a video “mobi-sode” (mobile episode). The idea is to expand the system throughout the Hudson River valley. You can find out more about the open source project at geoplicity

Documentary film-maker and author of the article, Eric Stange, teamed with Michael Epstein of MIT to produce a “terra-tive” (a narrative about a place) about the 1849 Parkman-Webster murder case in Boston. There are several sites relating to the murder still visible, and combined with old photographs, maps and so forth, a visitor can take a kind of “walking cinema” tour, learning about the case while standing at the spot where things happened.

It’s not hard to imagine this being applied to Nevada. Quite a lot of our history is still here. From mining towns to emigrant trails, pony express stations and train routes, mansions and courthouses, the list is endless. Places like Tonopah/Goldfield and Austin could benefit. In Virginia City alone, a visitor could spend a week and still not see everything.

One website mentioned in the article is historic map works. You can overlay old maps onto current maps to see how things have changed. There are several old maps of Reno there, one dating to 1885. Also of interest is the 1906 map, the year of the original California refugee following the San Francisco earthquake and fire. There is also a demonstration video to show how it works.

This would not only help bring back the tourists, with something other than comps at the casino, but also help with historic preservation efforts. It is also the kind of thing that eventually leads to small business start-ups. In the right hands, this could be the next big idea.