Back to the Future in Family History

In the New Scientist Magazine of the 28 June Jennifer Ouellette discusses the mixing of science and history to reveal the ideas of the past in an article entitled Back to the Future.

With the number of records now being digitised and tagged historians have been given a wide range of information previously unavailable except in specialist archives and libraries. This digitisation allows computer programs to “connect the dots between different records”. As the article states

vast libraries that were once for human eyes only can now be read by computers and that changes everything – history is becoming a science”

“The sheer scale of many written archives means that historians typically have no choice but to be selective in what they read.

Jennifer Ouellette, New Science Magazine
June, 2014

The records of the Old Bailey London are used as an example of such records. These digitised records were used to reveal gradual changes in the way crimes were spoken about by looking at the actual words that were used in the courtroom. Similar work is about to be done on records from the French Revolution and the US Congressional Debates.

The Old Bailey, London
The Old Bailey, London

“This isn’t about to spell the end for historians though. Machines can reveal patterns, but these need to be interpreted in the context of an existing historical narrative. But we can learn a great deal about the turbulence of ideas and how discussion and debates channel, merge, and fragment over time.”

One interesting comment made on the Old Bailey records which start in 1674, is that “before 1760 many of the trial accounts read like true-crime tabloids, heavily edited to make the accused appear as guilty as possible.

Screen Shot 2014-07-08 at 12.44.34 pm
According to the transcript of the trial at the Old Bailey in 1784 my Great, great, great, great, grandfather was a profligate person at the age of 14. He is in a sense lucky that his trial wasn’t reported in the pre-1760 tabloid style.
Screen Shot 2014-07-08 at 12.33.26 pm
And the Guilty verdict that placed Matthew on the First Fleet. Just part of the real depth of information that we now have at our fingertips.

By the mid 18th century the transcripts become a fair representation of trials, recorded by stenographers hired for the purpose.” Something to keep in mind if you are researching a case that occurred in the earlier period.

To see if one of your ancestors ever ‘appeared’ at the Old Bailey click here.

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