Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Abraham Lincoln and his Steampunk Facebook

The thing I love about the aethernet is the way really obscure things hide away in the shadows, that occasionally see the light of day, enabling really obscure information to be shared across time and space.

I have never heard of Nate St Pierre, but I am heartened by his insatiable curiosity, and gladdened by his willingness to share.  I have no idea how much of what he regales with on his blog is true, but if this story is true, it demosntrates perfectly that there really is nothing new under the sun, and all we're doing is revolving the same ideas through different technologies.

Mr St Pierre narrates the passing of a day of travel, without the benefit of a mobile phone, in an attempt to take a complete break from the pressures of 24 hour days and constant accessibility.  He ends up n "the little town of Delavan, Wisconsin, just wandering about. I passed by an old cemetery with some colorful graves – something I had never seen before. So I stopped to take a walk around, and realized that I had stumbled upon the circus graveyard, where a lot of P.T. Barnum’s circus folk were buried!"  One of these graves, in which one Morty Smith is busily spending his eternity, was captioned with a list of Mr Smiths accomplishments, including “Bluffed P.T. and Honest Abe with a pair of deuces.” Mr St Pierre " to think of who else this guy could have been referring to, but I don’t know anyone else in history called Honest Abe. I had never heard of a connection between Lincoln and Barnum, but they were around here in the early-to-mid 1800s, with Barnum up in Delavan, WI and Lincoln just down the road a bit in Springfield, IL."

Ah, how the world turns on sudden inspirational curiosity!  Mr St Pierre jumped into his automobile, and thundered down the road to the Lincoln Museum, where his animation enabled his access to the hidden back rooms of the Museum.  On searching the archives for possible connections between Lincoln and Barnum, "Matt (the researcher) looked it up in the system and came back with one result: something that Lincoln wrote in the Springfield Gazette. Matt looked confused, and when I asked him why, he said that Springfield didn’t have a publication named that at the time".

For those of us who have experienced the trials and tribulations of researching through press publications of the American West of the nineteenth century, it would come as no surprise to learn that either the Gazette did not exist or had doene for a short time. Almost every settlement above a certain size had a "newspaper" - often little more than a sheet of paper detailing incidents or upcoming celebrations - or, more often, a myriad of short-lived newsheets.

The Springfield Gazette turned out to be a visual appendix to a patent application from 1845 - a mock up of a new type of publication, rather than a newspaper in its conventional form.  Lincoln had dissolved his law partnership with Stephen Logan in 1844, and was elected to Congress in 1846. During the year in between, 1845, typical of an educated man finding his way in the mid nineteenth century, he tried out different things, including law, writing, and a few patent applications. The Springfield Gazette was one of these, but all of his patent applications were denied.

The discovery is Mr St Pierre's, so he should continue.

"The whole Springfield Gazette was one sheet of paper, and it was all about Lincoln. Only him. Other people only came into the document in conjunction with how he experienced life at that moment. If you look at the Gazette picture above, you can see his portrait in the upper left-hand corner. See how the column of text under him is cut off on the left side? Stupid scanned picture, I know, ugh. But just to the left of his picture, and above that column of text, is a little box. And in that box you see three things: his name, his address, and his profession (attorney).

The first column underneath his picture contains a bunch of short blurbs about what’s going on in his life at the moment – work he recently did, some books the family bought, and the new games his boys made up. In the next three columns he shares a quote he likes, two poems, and a short story about the Pilgrim Fathers. I don’t know where he got them, but they’re obviously copied from somewhere. In the last three columns he tells the story of his day at the circus and tiny little story about his current life on the prairie.

Put all that together on one page and tell me what it looks like to you. Profile picture. Personal information. Status updates. Copied and shared material. A few longer posts. Looks like something we see every day, doesn’t it?

Lincoln was requesting a patent for “The Gazette,” a system to “keep People aware of Others in the Town.” He laid out a plan where every town would have its own Gazette, named after the town itself. Lincoln was proposing that each town build a centrally located collection of documents where “every Man may have his own page, where he might discuss his Family, his Work, and his Various Endeavors.”  Lincoln stated that these documents could be updated “at any time deemed Fit or Necessary,” so that anyone in town could know what was going on in their friends’ lives “without being Present in Body.”

So, Mr St Pierre and Matt, Researcher at the Lincoln Museum, have discovered "a patent request for Facebook, filed by Abraham Lincoln in 1845."

Just how epic is that?  Discoveries like this are few and far between, and only happen due to dedicated insatiable curiosity and pure chance.

Nip over to Mr St Pierre's blog to read the story in full to get the whole picture.