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  • The Internet and Civil War Studies
  • Earl J. Hess

Even though it may seem as if the internet has always been a feature of our lives, it actually is no more than a quarter century old. That is enough time for it to have had an important impact on the field of Civil War studies, and yet no one has pondered that impact, assessed its importance on how we currently work, or predicted where this information superhighway could take us in the next quarter century.

This essay is a first step toward assessing the internet's effect on Civil War studies. I see six broad categories associated with the World Wide Web that are relevant to Civil War scholarship. What follows is a brief summary of findings and conclusions within each category, with more information on these later.

First, the web has made an enormous amount of out-of-print, published primary material available to historians. Second, staff members of archival institutions have encountered many limitations in their efforts to scan and place large amounts of unpublished manuscript material on the internet. Third, there is no evidence that the internet has enhanced scholars' abilities to market and sell their books; in fact, it might have lessened their opportunities to do so. Fourth, the internet has not fostered increased collaboration among Civil War historians. Fifth, the most striking finding of this essay, the surveys indicate that most Civil War historians do not trust, like, or participate in social media. Sixth, there are so many informational websites concerning Civil War topics that the electronic world can be likened to a swamp through which concerned scholars must pick their way carefully. [End Page 207]

Background and History

The story of the internet's creation of is an intriguing one. It started with Sputnik in 1957. The first artificial satellite to orbit the earth was a Russian invention, and it sparked fear and dread in the United States, not to mention several government initiatives to catch up with the Soviets in the overheated atmosphere of the Cold War. President Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized the creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) within the Department of Defense to help get America's first satellite into orbit by 1959. After that, ARPA turned its attention to computers and worked on the creation of a way to link researchers, contractors, and military commanders into an electronic network for faster collaboration. The project had tried to promote research, development, and national defense. Ten years later, the ARPANET was created, linking the University of California at Los Angeles, Stanford University, the University of California at Santa Barbara, and the University of Utah in December 1969.1

ARPANET was only the first crude step toward what we know as the internet. The Advanced Research Projects Agency was replaced by another governmental body, the Defense Advanced Project Agency. DAPA began to work on the Inter-netting Project, an effort to create a "uniform communications language" that could be applied to many of the developing computer networks in order to create "a single mega network." If successful, it could provide the venue for an expansion of small networks into a common network. Many other, nongovernmental, organizations also became involved in the process of developing the information superhighway. These commercial ventures were beginning to provide access to the mega network for private subscribers.2

But a key element in the development of the internet as we know it lay in the creation of a common computer language, or hypertext, which could not only link the user to anything on the internet but handle graphics as well as text. Tim Berners-Lee of the European Laboratory for Particle Physics provided the start of this hypertext during the 1970s and 1980s. Another key element in the development of the internet lay in the creation of a web browser, software designed to interact with the internet. This final, major piece of the puzzle appeared in 1991 with Mosaic, developed by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois, Urbana. Netscape Navigator, created by the Netscape [End Page 208] Communications Corporation, followed in 1994, and Microsoft introduced Internet Explorer in 1995.3



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pp. 207-234
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