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Documents that Changed the World

Joe JanesDTCW is an ongoing podcast series by UW Information School Professor Joe Janes that explores the compelling stories of various "documents" from throughout history. Each of the documents is a product of its time and prevailing technology, as well as an artifact of human activity, emerging from its social context to have a significant impact.

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The Podcasts 

Series Introduction

"We live in an age suffused with information. The power and importance of information and information objects only continues to grow and diversity. Telling the stories of these information objects, their genesis, contexts, impacts, and fates also tells the story of human society and its never ending evolution." Joe Janes.

Listen to the podcast. (3 minutes)
Read the transcript.


Obama Birth Certificate, 1961

Obama's birth certificateThe authenticity of President Obama's birth certificate was called into question and has remained a topic of debate. There's an even more basic question here: What is a birth certificate? It's one of the most personal documents we have. Find out more...

Listen to the podcast. (8 minutes)
Read the transcript.


John Snow's Cholera Map, 1854

Cholera MapThe 1854 cholera epidemic in London's SOHO district killed thousands. Whole families were decimated by the disease in a matter of days. Experts thought it was caused by breathing noxious air, but John Snow proved otherwise. His map not only showed the source of the cholera, but was arguably the beginning of modern epidemiology.

Listen to John Snow’s map. (12 minutes)
Read the transcript.


The Nineteenth Amendment, 1920

stamp of 19th amendmentThe process for creating and ratifying an amendment to the U.S. Constitution is daunting. After many attempts, the Nineteenth Amendment, giving women the right to vote, was finally passed in 1920. These 39 words changed the lives of half of the population in the U.S. Was it written by a woman? And where is the document?

Listen to the Nineteenth Amendment. (8 minutes)
Read the transcript.


Mao's Little Red Book, 1964

Mao's Little Red Book illustrationIn the most populous country on earth and for a generation of people, this was the book that mattered. One billion were published with a total of 427 quotations in 33 chapters. Mao didn't actually write the book; it is a compilation of sayings from his speeches and writings. Would Mao have a twitter feed today?

Listen to Mao's Little Red Book. (8 minutes)
Read the transcript.


The Internet Protocol, 1981

Elegant and simple, most of this 45-page document contains the equivalent of typewriter art diagrams specifying how the guts of the Internet work. The web, and all kinds of applications, ride on top of TCP/IP. This physical document actually liberated information from being contained in physical documents, which is revolutionary in and of itself. Today, only thirty years later, we can't imagine how we every lived without the web and email.

Listen to the Internet Protocol, 1981. (7 minutes)
Read the transcript.


The AIDS Memorial Quilt, 1986

Is a quilt a document? Joe Janes thinks so, as the AIDS quilt, which now comprises more than 48,000 panes representing more then 94,000 names, certainly documents a tragedy and the many stories associated with the AIDS epidemic. Each quilt panel is 3 by 6 feet, or “roughly the size of a grave." Janes notes that the quilt many never be finished and it “almost certainly will never be assembled again.”

Listen to the AIDS Memorial Quilt, 1986. (7 minutes)
Read the transcript.


The 18 1/2 Minute Gap in the Nixon Tapes, 1972

"What did the President know and when did he know it?" That question was at the heart of the Watergate hearings that eventually led to President Richard Nixon's resignation. Evidence included secret tape recordings of conversations held in the Oval Office, among them a conversation between Chief of Staff H.R. Halderman and President Nixon that took place 3-days after the break-in occurred. There was an 18 1/2 minute gap in the tape, which despite forensic investigation, has never been recovered. This very public hearing, including the infamous "Gap" and the subsequent resignation, caused increased public distrust in government which is even more pronounced today.

Listen to the 18 1/2 Minute Gap, 1972 (7 minutes)
Read the transcript.


Gutenberg Indulgence, 1454

Though Gutenberg is known for his invention of moveable type and bringing printing, and printed Bibles, to Europe, he made money in his side business, printing up “indulgences,” or documents used to seek the forgiveness of sins - a sort of "Get out of Jail Free" card. “Indulgences had been around for centuries, an opportunity for the faithful to atone and have their sins remitted by, say, good works, fasting, going on Crusade or a pious donation,” Janes notes. Several decades later, complaints about abuses in the indulgence process led to the creation of “broadsides,” a format that led to the development of newspapers. 

Listen to Gutenberg Indulgence, 1454 (7 minutes)
Read the transcript.


Robert's Rules of Order, 1876

"Point of Order!" Many have heard this exclamation in a meeting when all else fails. Practices and procedures for meetings came to the American colonies from Britain Henry Martyn Robert, who was an army engineer and general, took it upon himself to write and then self-publish the first volume of his rule book in 1876. Why? Because he suffered through a 14-hour meeting and didn't know what to do. He researched practices and found state disparities, so took it upon himself to tidy things up. He couldn't get the first volume published, but his self-published first run of 4,000 copies quickly sold out; 136 years later the book, now 700 pages, is in its 11th printing and still selling.

Listen to Roberts Rules of Order, 1876. (7 minutes)
Read the transcript.


Protocols of the Elders of Zion, c1900

Not all documents that change the world are good — some are despicable, and leave hatred and bigotry in their wake. The protocols, says Janes, "purports to be transcripts of 24 lectures, or protocols, delivered in secret meetings of the Elders of Zion, a Jewish cabal bent on global domination. What it really is, is a fraud, and a plagiarized fraud at that, meant to deceive. It was exposed as a forgery in 1921 by the Times of London and ruled a forgery by a Swiss Court in 1935, which of course had no effect whatsoever on its acceptance as legitimate.”

Listen to Procols of the Elders of Zion, c1900 (7 minutes)
Read the transcript.


Benedict XVI Resignation, 2013

The news of Pope Benedict XVI's resignation rocked the Catholic world but there were other hints of prior resignations or at least kicks to the proverbial Papal door. Benedict IX somehow managed to become pope three times, might have sold the papacy to his godfather and resigned once or twice in the 1040’s. "It’s hard to ease out the boss, especially if he’s got more titles than you have fingers, supreme dominion over the earthly and eternal church, not to mention God as a direct report," says Janes, who explores other resignations and methods of communication in this latest installment in the series.

Listen to Benedict XVI Resignation, 2013 (8 minutes)
Read the transcript.


'Casablanca' Letters of Transit, 1942

Joe Janes chose a completely fictional document that nevertheless became well known: The famous “letters of transit” from the 1942 movie “Casablanca” starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. Contrivance of the film’s (multiple) writers, the imaginary letters of transit allowed the bearer to travel through Nazi-occupied countries and set up action and motivation in the film story. “I’m a major film nut," Janes said. “I’ve known for years that there were no such things as letters of transit, but in researching this I learned just how compelling that idea would have been in 1943 given the context of travel at that time.”

Listen to 'Casablanca' Letters of Transit, 1942. (9 minutes)
Read the transcript. 


‘What is the Third Estate?’ 1789

Why is a pamphlet written and published in Paris in 1789 by Abbé Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, a “little-known and less-regarded provincial French priest” so important? Its title was “Qu’est-ce que le Tiers-État?” — or in English, “What is the Third Estate?” The argument posed in the pamphlet was that sovereignty should come from those who produce the services and goods rather than from the elite, who benefited financially. Janes said, “I came across this pamphlet (all 180 pages of it), which didn’t provoke the revolution so much as crystallize the political situation and help to lay out the structures that emerged from it.”

Listen to 'What is the Third Estate?', 1789 (9 minutes)
Read the transcript.


Alfred Binet’s IQ test, 1905

Janes tells the story of lawyer-turned-psychologist Alfred Binet and the 30-question intelligence test, “gauged to what would be ‘normally’ expected at certain ages,” he created with collaborator Theodore Simon that led to the Binet-Simon Scale for measuring intelligence. 

“The standardized test has become such an integral part of many aspects of our society, especially now in education with a greater focus on assessment and accountability, but also in employment, certification, even the military,” Janes said. “And while lots of people know about the criticisms about bias and fairness of the test, not many know its roots.”

Listen to Alfred Binet's IQ test, 1905 (9 minutes)
Read the transcript. 


Einstein's Letter to FDR, 1939

Physicists persuaded Einstein to send Roosevelt a letter outlining the German nuclear threat and suggesting that the president make “permanent contact” with American physicists working toward a similar atomic capacity.

“The letter itself seemed very much to be the catalyst for the American effort to make some sort of weapon from newly-discovered atomic energy,” Joe Janes said, discussing the podcast. “It’s possible that it would otherwise have arisen, but Einstein’s name and reputation certainly helped.

“And of course, Einstein’s deeply felt pacifism adds an extra, somewhat poignant dimension as well.”

Listen to Einstein's Letter to Roosevelt, 1939 (9 minutes)
Read the transcript. 


The Riot Act, 1714 

When does a gathering of people become a riot?

In the United Kingdom it’s when local authorities say so, according to the 1714 Riot Act. The Riot Act, Joe Janes said, allowed local officials to decide that any gathering of more than 12 people was “unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously assembled together,” and thus a “riot.”

Linguists call such things “speech acts,” Janes notes — “things we say that cause something to happen, or to change, or to be,” as with a judge pronouncing officially that a couple has become married. However many people gather, and however riotously they act, they aren’t a riot until the sheriff says they are — out loud and within earshot of the gathering.

Listen to The Riot Act, 1714. (8 minutes)
Read the transcript. 


The Rosetta Stone, 196 BCE

About 9 feet long, weighing about 1,700 pounds, the 2,200-year-old  black granite Rosetta Stone bears ancient inscriptions written in four languages that later led to solving the riddle of Egyptian hieroglyphics. Its message is a decree passed by a council of priests establishing the divinity of new Egyptian King Ptolemy V a year after his coronation.

If you want a message to last, Joe Janes says in his podcast, stone really does the job. “A message for the ages deserves a medium for the ages, though sometimes the medium can outlast the message.”

He notes along the way that the stone has survived all the years “more by accident than design,” to end up with its original intent superseded by its role as a key to unlocking “long-forgotten Egyptian writing, language and culture.” Still, he says in the podcast, “It’s one of the great document stories of all time.”

Listen to The Rosetta Stone, 196 BCE. 
Read the transcript. 

The Zapruder Film, 1963

The 26.6 seconds of color film that Abraham Zapruder shot in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, became arguably the most widely known, discussed and analyzed bit of film in history — showing as it did the assassination of a president. 

“If it’s not the most scrutinized motion picture ever, it must have the greatest ratio of eyeballs to frames of all time,” Janes says in the podcast.

“We all know the film, at least hazily, but as is so often the case, the small details are less widely known — all the coincidences and chance happenings that led him to get the film at all, the angle he got, the view he got,” Janes said. “The saga of that day in getting the film developed and copied, and then the subsequent developments through publication, investigations, government seizure — and tons of controversy."

Listen to The Zapruder Film, 1963.
Read the transcript. 

The Book of Mormon, 1830

It has been printed 150 million times in many languages, fought over, filmed a couple of times and even served as the inspiration for a popular, if wildly irreverent Broadway musical.

Yes, the Book of Mormon has seen a lot since its release in 1830 with the subtitle “An Account Written by the Hand of Mormon upon Plates Taken from the Plates of Nephi” — so it can probably handle being included by UW Information School professor Joe Janes in his ongoing podcast series, “Documents that Changed the World.”

Listen to The book of Mormon (10 minutes)
Read the transcript.

Mental Disorder Diagnostic Manual, 1952

Three little words fittingly kick off the latest installment of Joe Janes’ Documents that Changed the World podcast series: “Are you crazy?”

That’s because his topic is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, informally known as the DSM. Published in 1952 by the American Psychiatric Association, the manual sets classification and diagnosis standards used by clinicians, researchers, regulation agencies and health insurers worldwide.

Janes dates the history of such mental health cataloging to the 1840 U.S. Census, the first to try to determine the number of people who were “insane” or “idiotic.” The actual manual, he says, “started with a thin little spiral-bound volume, very technical and very dry” and has since “changed and grown several times, and which completely changed the way we think about, and talk about, our minds and selves.”

Listen to Mental Diagnostic Manual  
Read the transcript.

Airplane Black Box / Flight Data Recorder, 1958

Recent headlines sadly explain why Joe Janes chose the latest installment in his Documents that Changed the World podcast series — he’s writing about airline flight data recorders, or “black boxes.”

As we know, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 went missing on March 8, carrying 227 passengers and a crew of 12. Two months later, no evidence has been found.

The mystery got Janes wondering why and how flight data recorders were invented. The resulting podcast is something of a departure from previous installments in the series.

“It’s not a specific document, though when used after a crash, it becomes a document in itself,” Janes said. “I was also struck by the notion of a document that nobody ever wants to be needed, but always wants to be there, just in case.”

Listen to Airline Black Box / Flight Data Recorder 
Read the transcript.

Rules of Association Football (soccer), 1863

Though games involving balls date back thousands of years, Joe Janes traces actual football — sorry, soccer — back to 19th century English public schools. He says they served “as incubators and crucible for football, each developing their own slightly different in-house version of the game, leading to inevitable confusion when they played each other.”

Though compromise rules were compiled in 1846, it was not until 1863, Janes says, that meetings were held in “taverns across London” (of course) to decide rules on which all could agree.

“Not an easy task,” Janes says in the podcast. “They got stuck on whether the game should involve catching or not, and whether ‘hacking,’ which we would call ‘kicking in the shins,’ should be allowed.”

Listen to Rules of Association Football (soccer)
Read the transcript.

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