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A Brief History of Oops

By Daniel Hubbard | May 23, 2010

I just had a little run in with a new kind of error while checking something for a client. The error came from an index and because of the way in which it probably appeared, that error has gotten me thinking about how the technology we use affects the errors we make and, therefore, the errors we encounter.

4000 BC—The Chicken Scratch Was Already on the Wall

Long ago, the only source of error in “records” was our own brains. There was no way to preserve information except to remember it. People might forget a thing outright, scramble the memory or forget what it was that the vine they had tied around a finger was supposed to remind them about. Then things began to change.

Whoever it was, back in the mists of time, who first used the motions of his hand to make marks that could be recognized as carrying the content of a train of thoughts, probably took not only the last step to true writing but also invented bad penmanship. The second person to write probably complained continuously about the cramped scribbles of the first. Developing good handwriting was not needed when no one else could read anyway.

A few thousand years later and there were county clerks and census enumerators happily writing in ways such that today it often takes serious scholarship to know if Lemuel Hankins and Samuel Hawkins were one or two people.

Alfabets Alphebats Alphabets

The first writing systems used a large number of symbols in which each symbol might represent a whole word or concept. The invention of the alphabet also led to the discovery that spelling could be inconsistent. Why just form the letters in mysterious ways, when the order and even choice of letters could be decided upon in mysterious ways? Why settle upon the spelling “Evans” when “Evins,” “Evens,” “Efins,” etc. go unused?

QWERTY and Her Good Friend ETAOIN SHRDLU

The invention of the the typewriter broadened the sources of mistakes. No longer were bad handwriting, with its unrecognizable letter shapes, and inconsistent spelling, where letter sounds were the cause of mix ups, the only sources of trouble. Now with typewriters and linotype machines, totally inappropriate letters were only a slight finger shift away—letters that bore literally no relation to each other before the dawn of QWERTY and ETAOIN SHRDLU.

Mistake Modernism

What I ran into in that index is, I think, another type of error that is only available because of the technology we now have. I was looking at a marriage in Nevada. Nothing odd about it except that the couple involved were recorded as residents of Hawaii. People from elsewhere get married in Nevada all the time but why travel from Hawaii to northern Nevada and not Las Vegas to be married? Actually, I already knew that these people were from Idaho and at first I thought this might have been their idea of a harmless but amusing prank. I don’t really think so. This index was probably prepared using that modern convenience of computer interfaces, the drop down menu. Hawaii comes right before Idaho in an alphabetized list of states and almost every drop down menu is alphabetized. Now a totally inappropriate item from a limited set such as a list of states can be instantly entered—without any handwriting, with proper spelling, without even a typo. Nevertheless, what is entered so perfectly may be very wrong by being only almost right in a sense that didn’t even exist before.

I hope you found this brief history somewhat amusing. Perhaps we should even take a moment to feel some sympathy for the people who only fall victim to these pitfalls because they have produced the records and documents that we use. I suppose that the moral of the story for the genealogist is that knowing the technologies used along the line to create, recopy, abstract and index records can tell you what might be wrong with them.

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Topics: Genealogy, Records | 3 Comments »

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3 Responses to “A Brief History of Oops”

  1. Nancy Says:
    May 25th, 2010 at 6:17 pm

    I enjoyed this post and found it very interesting. Thanks for pointing out to me one more thing to notice and think about when I’m searching for my ancestors online. That particular problem hasn’t happened to me yet, but it’s good to include it in my novice bag of genealogical skills.

  2. Lisa Says:
    May 28th, 2010 at 7:05 am

    Wow! This is something I never thought of before! Of course, I guess I haven’t had REASON to think of it but now that I have read this post I’ll know what to do if I ever run into something that makes me suspicious of such an error. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Shasta Says:
    December 6th, 2010 at 6:43 pm

    Still here. I have noticed that in fast fields as well, when arbritrating indexing records for FHL Several North Dakota showed up when the record clearly was from Nevada.

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