J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, November 09, 2015

Digging through Harvard’s Digital Papers

I rather like my segue yesterday from the Stamp Act confrontation unfolding 250 years ago to Harvard’s new Colonial North American Project.

As the university announced, its archivists are digitizing all the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century documents in several different collections. With 2,400 objects documents available for viewing, the project is still in an early stage.

For example, here’s a notebook of Prof. John Winthrop’s meteorological observations for the mid-1740s. The professor kept those up to his death in 1779, meaning we have detailed weather records from just outside Boston for all the important days of the pre-Revolutionary turmoil and the siege of Boston. But the later notebooks don’t appear to be digitized yet.

Winthrop’s astronomical studies probably explain why the papers of him and his wife Hannah, who were firm establishment Whigs, include almanacs from the Loyalist printers John Mein and John Fleeming. But maybe they were just intrigued by the scientific reports on the covers of those publications, about giants in South America and a furious wild beast in France.

There’s a lot of other visual material in the online collection, more easily reproduced that way than in print. Harvard students learned how to take surveys and sketch buildings as part of their mathematics courses, so more than one left a plan of Cambridge common,

William Tudor, Jr.’s mathematics notebook shows him using “Genl. Warren’s monument on Bunker Hill” to calculate heights in 1795, illustrated above. A couple of decades later, Tudor helped to organize the initial drive to create today’s Bunker Hill Monument on the same hilltop.

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