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Business computing and the excitement of history

Ubiquity, Volume 2001 Issue March, March 1 - March 31, 2001 | BY Michael C. Potter 


Full citation in the ACM Digital Library

A personal account of how one man's vocation and avocation intersect when computer technology meets historical exploration.

When I was very young World War II was long over but to me it seemed like a recent event. My parents' and other relatives' collective experiences spanned several countries, every theater and many capacities, including a victim of Nazi concentration camps. For a year we lived in England, where war damage was under repair. Our home's garden there still featured a bomb shelter. We crossed the Atlantic by ship, a fascinating experience for me. By the age of nine I was reading my dad's books about ships and battles, cover to cover. I felt connected to history and never lost my interest.

After university I worked principally with computers in the U.S. Navy and in business. Today I am a project manager supporting my company's sales of data storage for telecommunications service providers. Off duty I am an historian with one book and several articles to my name. Every work of mine represents a historical puzzle that no one else has solved before. I have kept up my interest in historical research in parallel with business and with other usual life activities like raising a family. "Parallel" is not precisely accurate because my vocation and avocation frequently intersect. In satisfying and interesting ways, there is synergy. Techniques I develop for one activity often prove useful in the other. My company's management cites my activities as an example of community involvement.

To understand modern naval history one needs knowledge of technology, finance, strategy, operations and personnel. Students of only military events may miss important elements and lack insights that an author needs. My business experience gives me a broader knowledge that I need for writing good history. At work I develop knowledge of engineering that is essential for comprehending the technological threads of history. While commuting and traveling I listen to books on tape, improving both my general knowledge and my familiarity with literary style. I use business trips as opportunities for research and to meet fellow historians elsewhere.

In 1989 I recognized that I knew enough of a particular subject, the development of the U.S. Navy's Spruance class of destroyers, that I could write a book about it. This story was significant and dramatic and had never been written. I knew enough of the general historical events to place the subject in perspective. Personal experience, including my business experience, gave me technical competence. Motivated by interest, I had the energy to pursue the complete story and to write the book. On a business trip I walked off the street into a maritime-oriented academic publisher's office and proposed my idea. The publisher liked it and I began work. Eventually I was under contract and in 1995 my book came out, Electronic Greyhounds: The Spruance Class Destroyers. The entire printing quickly sold out.

For a current history project I am developing data tables to show how particular designs of ships evolved. At work I used the same graphical methods to depict the alarms and status indicators of an electronic product, a diagram that now appears in the product user's manuals. In both cases the trick was to use 2-dimensional arrangements of data to create awareness, a fresh and illuminating approach. An advantage is rigor, making sure that I cover all alarm conditions and all ship configurations. With the computer I can try different combinations of data and alternative graphics techniques to find the most compelling presentation.

I use familiarity with PowerPoint to create diagrams of electrical schematics. By similarly diagramming combat maneuvers for an article, I showed that all previous accounts were impossible. Another tool is the Internet with its availability of correspondents and of source material. Within the Internet I found and translated Argentine accounts of the 1982 Falklands war that few other English-language researchers used.

The advent of electronic books offers exciting possibilities. A unique value of e-books should be animated graphics. In a history e-book an animated map could depict a military operation vividly and more informatively than a series of static maps on paper. For a technical manual the potential is similar. The necessary capability for authors already exists. The excitement of history comes from discovering new data and from deducing new connections. It has been my good fortune in my business career to learn computer technology that I can use separately in historical explorations.

Michael C. Potter is a project manager with Dot Hill Systems Corp. in Carlsbad, CA.


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