[SIGCIS-Members] Flagging mistakes and citing memories

Thomas Haigh thaigh at computer.org
Thu Oct 9 09:57:09 PDT 2014

Hello Jeremy,

That is a good question, and something that history students tend to pick up
on a craft basis. Here are some of my personal practices. I don't claim that
they are authoritative, but they are within the mainstream.

When presenting quote from an oral history or memoir I always introduce it
in the text as "X later recalled that," "Towards the end of her life, Y
claimed that," or "Decades later, Z told me that." I try to do that every
single time I take a quote, fact, date, or detail from an oral history
unless I have been able to independently verify it from original documents.
That may seem clunky, but oral histories are very much less reliable on
factual detail than primary sources and I believe the reader deserves to
know the difference without having to dig in a footnote. Particularly if the
footnote lumps together multiple sources so the reader can't be sure which
information is from a later memory.

That's one of the things popular histories don't do. For example, Isaacson
has a passage where he says that during the 1945 preparation of the "First
Draft of a Report on the EDVAC" Eckert and Mauchly asked "why von Neumann
seemed to be preparing a paper based on ideas that others had helped to
develop," to which Goldstine replied that the First Draft was JvN "just
trying to get these things clear in his own mind."   If I was writing the
passage I would make sure that reader knew if this allegation and the
reassurance were quoted from letters written at the time or from a memory
recorded many years later after a hugely divisive decades legal struggle
with Eckert and Mauchly lost. I'd also make it clear whose memory it was. If
Goldstine reported this then I'd view it very differently from if Mauchly
said it. This is not something I'd flag as an error, just a difference in
craft between scholars and journalists, but I think it's illustrative of why
readers (and historical subjects) deserve some flagging of where quotes and
claims come from.

How to deal with errors? That depends on how prevalent and important they
are. For example, I mentioned in passing in an earlier message that Isaacson
says the ENIAC ran its first calculations for Los Alamos in October 1945. He
probably got that date from Jean Bartik's memoir, which makes the same error
but is basically in the same category as an oral history. She's remembering
things years later, but not doing any archival research to check the
details. Sources like that are good for personalities and color but terrible
for dates. When we make final revisions to our ENIAC book I don't think we
need to mention either error as the correct date is still more commonly
given. Also as we reference the ENIAC service log book and Isaacson and
Bartik don't reference anything it should be clear to readers which is the
more reliable claim. We don't want to come up as pedants cluttering our text
with attacks on everyone who ever got anything wrong about ENIAC. (I still
wish Isaacson had bothered to check though, as a lot of people will read his

Here's an example of an error we did need to deal with in the text. In his
classic book _The Computer from Pascal to von Neumann_, Herman Goldstine
gave September 16, 1948 as the date when ENIAC first ran a program in its
new EDVAC-like programming mode. Goldstine checked a lot of dates and
details in his book, and his wife Adele Goldstine was one of the people who
planned the conversion. The actual date was 30 March 1948 for a test program
(or 17 April for a useful one). People who love arguing about "firsts" care
about the difference between September and March  because the Manchester
Baby ran its first program in June 1948. We care about it because if
Goldstine was right then hundreds of details in our book wouldn't make
sense. So we mention that error in the text, as it's a consequential one for
our own story and Goldstine's mistake has been widely repeated. For example,
as of now, it is still wrong on the Wikipedia page for ENIAC. The error also
played a part in how the history of ENIAC has been understood over the
decades. To his credit, Isaacson got that date right, though he immediately
spoiled things by crediting ENIAC with an imaginary delay line memory.

There are other errors which deserve to be flagged in a footnote but not to
clutter the text. One example of that: the back cover and online description
of Bartik's memoir claimed that "In 1946, Bartik headed up a team that
modified the ENIAC into the first stored-program electronic computer." I had
some doubts about the usefulness of the "first stored program computer
claim" and our own account demonstrates that "headed up" is an exaggeration.
We did not bother to dispute those in our book -- people have their own
opinions and our readers can judge. On the other hand 1946 is clearly the
wrong year, even with reference to the book's own text. People might
reasonably expect Bartik to be an authority on her own career, so we
acknowledge the discrepancy in a footnote and I also mentioned it in an
interesting exchange with Tim Bartik, her son, who believes that his
mother's memory was infallible. I notice that the press has updated the
online description to say 1947 rather than 1946, so this exchange actually
did some good.

Finally there are differences in interpretation with other scholars. These
may deserve to be made explicitly, and help to explain why your new history
changes our understanding of history and makes us see things quite
differently from the work of professors A, B, and C. The different
interpretations may rest on what you believe are errors or omissions in
their readings of sources, but differences in interpretation are often more
important and less clear cut than factual mistakes.

Best wishes,


-----Original Message-----
From: members-bounces at sigcis.org [mailto:members-bounces at sigcis.org] On
Behalf Of Jeremy C. Reed
Sent: Thursday, October 09, 2014 10:19 AM
To: members at sigcis.org
Subject: [SIGCIS-Members] how to document history mistakes? (was Re:
Issason, Acknowledgements, and Crowdsourcing)

On Wed, 8 Oct 2014, Mike Willegal wrote:

> Though we are lucky enough to be able to talk to many people that 
> experienced the events, first hand, I have found that interviews done 
> 30, 40 or 50 years after the fact is fraught with the difficulty of 
> people remembering exactly what happened.  Many people ?remember? what 
> has been most frequently reported over the past decade or so.
> Researchers in Civil War history have found the same thing and are 
> more and more relying upon contemporary evidence such as journals, 
> newspapers and letters.

For the book I am authoring, I started keeping track of mistakes, such as
wrong dates and misspelled names, in my sources, including from previous
"history" articles and books and my own interviews. I have found only around
20 mistakes. In some cases, I have found that my interviewees have misstated
facts and dates (in most cases from the events they personally participated
in the 1970s and 1980s).  I have gone back to the interview subjects with my
other cited facts and they have agreed with me, but they state that they
don't remember.

Some of the mistakes are in the contemporary documents (such as misspelled
surnames in court documents) or history papers having wrong dates or
misarranged chronologies (such as saying some software was invented after it
was shipped) even when only a couple years removed from the events.

Do you have any advice on how to document history mistakes, so later
researchers don't hit the same issues -- or so later historians don't follow
the wrong path? Some ideas I have considered are to add footnotes or
comments to my bibliography that explain that the cited source or even
sources misspelled some name or stated a wrong date and then explain briefly
where the correct or assumed correct details came from.

I don't think I want to explain about the mistakes in the content itself as
it will be distracting.

A different type of mistake is where someone acknowledges someone more
significantly than they deserve or maybe more than the recipient believes.
In other words, taking more credit and giving more credit than is due. For
example, for over 30 years, for a software technology, various "stories",
corresponding release notes, and histories said a developer had invented the
work. When I interviewed him, he told me he didn't know why the developer
who really did the good work gave him the credit but he wanted me to be
clear in my work that the other person was the proponent and key inventor
behind the technology.  I wasn't able to interview the other person, but
since my contact did fully partipate in this software technology, I plan to
use his version of the story. 
Explaining about the different versions of the story may be distracting in
my book. (But also thinking about it from another view -- maybe both of them
wanted to credit the other.)

For what it is worth, the person who documented the credit is well known for
acknowledging many others in his detailed software release notes,
interviews, and documentation.  It has been very useful for me to find
others to interview -- but in many cases, they told me their work was
insignificant. I guess some people like to give credit to many others for
their own work, which may cause mistakes in history.

How do you document history mistakes?

  Jeremy C. Reed

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