Documents that Changed the World
DTCW 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.
- Series Intro
- Obama Birth Certificate, 1961
- John Snow's Cholera Map, 1854
- The Nineteenth Amendment, 1920
- Mao's Little Red Book, 1964
- The Internet Protocol, 1981
- The AIDS Memorial Quilt, 1986
- The 18 1/2 Minute Gap in the Nixon Tapes, 1972
- Gutenberg Indulgence, 1454
- Robert's Rules of Order, 1876
- Protocols of the Elders of Zion, c1900
- Benedict XVI Resignation, 2013
- 'Casablanca' Letters of Transit, 1942
- ‘What is the Third Estate?’ 1789
- Alfred Binet’s IQ test, 1905
- Einstein's Letter to FDR, 1939
- The Riot Act, 1714
- The Rosetta Stone, 196 BCE
The Zapruder Film, 1963
"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.
The 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...
The 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.
The 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?
In 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?
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.
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.”
"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.
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.
"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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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."