Talk by Cameron Blevins launches MIT Digital History Series on computation for research/teaching

Ghost Shipping Paths: computational analysis of the growth of the American whaling industry; courtesy of Benjamin Schmidt, NU Lab

“This seminar series is part of our ongoing exploration of computational methods and digital media for research and teaching in the history field. Writ large, this new series is a space for us to reflect on our engagement with the new MIT Schwarzman College of Computing."

— Jeffrey Ravel, Professor of History, and head of MIT History


Digital History at MIT  — Introducing the Digital Humanities series, Jeffrey Ravel, Head of MIT History, explained that the series is part of the History faculty's ongoing exploration of computational methods for research and teaching — a growing practice that is referred to as "digital history." Over the past 15 years MIT historians have led several substantial projects in digital history ranging from the Comédie-Française Registers Project, an analysis of French theater in the 18th century, to Visualizing Japan and Visualizing Imperialism and the Philippines, 1898-1913, two MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) developed by the department. The current seminars on innovative digital history projects are especially timely given the recent founding of the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing, which will equip MIT faculty and students in any discipline to use computing and AI tools and also, equally, will enable faculty from all MIT disciplines to inform and guide the development of new technological tools. "Writ large," Ravel said, "this seminar series is a space for us to reflect on our forthcoming engagement with the new college."


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In the first presentation of the new series, Cameron Blevins, an historian of the American West at Northeastern University, discussed the use of computation and digital media in his own research on the US Postal Service as well as applications of digital mapping and spatial analysis tools to study two other historical questions: on the growth of the American whaling industry; and how neighborhoods in Washington, DC became more racially segregated in the mid 20th century.

Analyzing Western expansion

For the past five years, Blevins has used mapping and digital methods like GIS to analyze the Anglo-American expansion into the western United States in the late 19th century. He did so by charting the spread of the US Postal Service into the area. Key to the work: Blevins’ development of a database involving the locations, openings, and closings of some 100,000 19th-century post offices.

Among his findings: the US Postal System at the time was not only big — it was several factors larger than any other national postal system in the world — it was also essentially everywhere. “With some notable exceptions, there was pretty much a post office in every town in the United States,” Blevins said.

Using computational research, Blevins was able to move from anecdotal descriptions of the 19th-century postal system to a more empirical analysis of the actual size and reach of the network. The new picture that emerged from mapping and visualizing the network forced him to reconsider basic assumptions about how the U.S. government operated during this era.

A new insight about state power

Blevins found that the system wasn’t just expansive, it was able to expand very quickly. It was also very unstable. “Roughly 40 percent of post offices from Kansas westward shut down, changed names, or changed locations less than ten years after they were opened,” he said.

Among his conclusions:although coercion and warfare were very important to the Anglo-American spread across the West, the US Postal Service also played a significant role. “Its ability to expand very rapidly into places [resulted in these] quiet channels of communication that helped people occupy [the area].”

“I think that reframes the way we think of state power,” Blevins said. In addition to blunt-force conquest, the US Postal System was also key to the Anglo-American settlement of the West.

The future of history

Blevins also looked into the future of digital history, foreseeing more projects in which historians use virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) tools to recreate a vivid sense of place — allowing students, researchers, and the general public to experience something more of what it was like to be in an earlier historical period.

Reflecting on previous and current digital history research and teaching projects at MIT, Professor Ravel said, "These explorations are fruitful. They have taught us what we have to gain from engagement with these new techniques. At the same time, they have reminded us of the rich methodological inheritance of our discipline. In MIT History, we are aiming for a creative balance: an approach in which useful new digital methods supplement the longstanding, powerful methods of our field — including work in physical archives, face-to-face debates over the interpretation of historical data, and the accumulation of insight and reflection that marks historical scholarship."

VR tools for exploring history
Blevins sees the potential for more projects in which historians use virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) tools to recreate a vivid sense of place for earlier historical times. One current example is the above project created in a collaboration between Smarthistory and Rome Reborn.


Suggested links

MIT History

Jeff Ravel, Head, MIT History

Cameron Blevins, Assistant Professor of History, Northeastern University

Digital History Seminar Series

Seminar 1: Cameron Blevins: Computation and digital media in history research

Seminar 2: Juliette Levy: Digital zombies and virtual reality - digital history in the classroom

Seminar 3: William J. Turkel: Computation and the practice of 21st-century history

MIT Digital Humanities Program

Online Courses and Resources from MIT History

Visualizing Cultures

Visualizing Imperialism and the Philippines, 1898-1913, an MITx, edX MOOC

Visualizing Japan, an MITx, edX MOOC


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