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Sunday, 20 February 2011

Rootstech - Laundry on a line becomes laundry online


I might have overlooked this session on the Rootstech schedule, with 9 other excellent competing attractions to choose from in the same time slot. Fortunately, I had been at dinner a few nights before with a group that included Patricia Van Skaik from the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, and someone asked her about the presentation she would be giving on Saturday morning. I knew nothing about the Fontayne and Porter Daguerreotype before, and I have no particular interest in Cincinnati, but it sounded fascinating, so I decided there and then that this was a session I must not miss.

The room was packed, almost standing-room only, with a very appreciative audience. Patricia told her tale with great enthusiasm and an evident deep knowledge of her subject. The story of the  Cincinnati Panorama, as it is also known, is interesting enough in itself; it turns out to be the oldest photographic representation of urban America, and consists of eight 6.5" by 8.5" plates showing the Cincinnati waterfront in 1848, from Newport, Ky, on the opposite bank of the Ohio river. But the detective work involved in dating the picture, and the advanced technology used in restoring it are even more absorbing. It was featured in Wired magazine, where you can see some of the details. And what details! Although they could not be seen with the naked eye, or even a magnifying glass, a microscope scanner used by conservators at George Eastman House revealed details as fine as the time on a clock face that was only a millimetre wide on the Daguerreotype.

Astonishing as these details are, it is what can be done with them that is really exciting. Although none of the buildings in the picture still exists, this picture can be used to recreate the Cincinnati of 1848. Using directories, census, maps and a host of other records, it has been possible to identify buildings and their occupants. One of the close-up shots we saw featured some laundry hanging out to dry - little did its owners suspect that more than a century and a half later, the result of this unremarkable activity would be on display for all to see. Not only is the panorama on display in the Cincinnati Public Library, it is going to be the subject of a brand new website, hopefully later this year. Hence the cheesy title for this post - sorry, couldn't resist it. Got your attention though, didn't it?

As befits a technology event, Rootstech had an online facility where attendees could vote for the best presenters of each day, and I was delighted to see that Patricia won that prize for Saturday. she certainly deserved it.

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