THE POWER OF THE INTERNET.

Another victim sinks into the tomb,
Struck by Consumption,s dire
unering dart again fond friends
are call,d to bewail the doom of
one whom love had link,d to
many a hart.

This was the epitaph on the tombstone of a young man who died in 1830 at the age of nineteen. Our friend Father Pitt found it in the old Bethel Cemetery, and it immediately struck him that it was probably not an original composition. It looks like a semiliterate transcription of a published poem. But where was the poem published? asked old Pa Pitt. It took exactly twenty seconds to type the first line into Google and come up with the answer:

It is from The Casket, a popular American magazine of the day; click on the image above to be taken to the full volume in Google Books.

Twenty seconds, and we have the answer. Think about that for a moment. How long would it have taken a mere quarter-century ago? Dr. Boli suspects that it literally could not have been done. The poem was, as far as he knows, never reprinted after its initial appearance; it can be found only in the June, 1830, issue of The Casket. Probably half a dozen libraries in the world, at the very most, have  copies of that magazine in dusty bound volumes somewhere. The odds are pretty well stacked against stumbling across one of them by accident. It might occur to one in a brilliant flash of insight that the poem had come from a current magazine; but even then, to search through all the extant magazines published in 1830 in all the libraries in North America would have been such a daunting project that one would almost certainly not have begun it.

Every once in a while, when we wonder whether the Internet is good for anything but YouTube comments and quack cancer cures, we can remind ourselves that it makes whole species of knowledge possible that were not possible before.

Comments

  1. Wikipedia and Google and smartphones have combined to render it possible to actually settle many an argument over half-remembered facts between friends and family members. Personally, I find it the only real use for the internet capabilities of a smartphone. Regular browsing and other internet activities are annoying or difficult on such a small screen, and anything requiring substantial typing or other keyboard/mouse controls is also problematic on such tiny and awkward keyboards. But nigh-instantly looking up a date or other statistic to settle an argument over history, sports, or particle physics? Such fact-checking is invaluable in my family and personal circle of friends.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I would like there to be a dedicated place on the website where Dr. Boli’s readers can suggest queries for “Ask Dr. Boli.” Someone tried at least once in the past, by posting “Dear Dr. Boli, how can I maximize my federal tax return?” in the comments on an unrelated article. I would also be happy to know how to maximize my federal return. Although perhaps Dr. Boli has no need to be stingy and so hasn’t devoted effort to the topic?

    • Dr. Boli earned all his income from inventing the letter M before the introduction of the Federal Income Tax, although by the time the IRS needed to use his letter to spell “Income”, the patent had already expired. The good doctor has never had to actually pay much income tax, his celebrated publishing empire operating on a break-even basis at best, and the Boli Institute being a non-profit institution of higher learning.

      Personally, I’ve found the best way to maximize my Income Tax Return was to make sure they withheld earnings at the maximum rate in the first place, ensuring they took enough to have some left over to give back to me at the end of the year.

  3. Texan99 says:

    Those interested in preserving obscure old works on the internet, and who enjoy any part of the process of proofreading, formatting, or html-producing ebooks, might check out http://www.pgdp.net, a distributed-proofreading feeder site for Project Gutenberg. There’s always something interesting to work on.

    My old habit of dropping a half-remembered reference to something in print has almost died off: there’s no excuse now not to look it up if I’m not sure.

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