Keeping history relevant, 150 years after Gettysburg

One hundred and fifty years ago, the Battle of Gettysburg — often known as the Civil War’s turning point — raged on in southern Pennsylvania.

Today, it might be hard to imagine what a Civil War battlefield looked like. But one local company is trying to make it easier, reducing the distance virtually between the average smartphone user and the memories of those Civil War soldiers.

History Associates — a 60-person firm headquartered in Rockville, with a West Coast office in Brea, Calif. — has created a series of free virtual battlefield tour apps helping smartphone users identify strategic points on the battlefield using GPS. Digital apps such as these are one of many ways History Associates hopes to keep its historical research services relevant, despite rapidly changing technology.

If you’re near, say, Devil’s Den — a rocky outcrop on the Gettysburg battlefield — the Gettysburg Battle App might tell you that Union Gen. J.H. Hobart Ward’s brigade and Union Capt. James E. Smith’s 4th New York Independent Battery occupied Houck’s Ridge, the surrounding area, on July 2, or that the Confederates finally captured Devil’s Den. The Gettysburg app — as well as one for Fredericksburg — were made in collaboration with the nonprofit Civil War Trust and GPS-software developer NeoTreks, with History Associates leading the historical content production.

If you’re a prospective student touring Gettysburg College, you might download the Gettysburg College app, also built by History Associates for the school, which tells you where on campus major Civil War events took place. Even if you aren’t physically there, you might get just a virtual tour of major landmarks on your iPhone or Android.

History Associates President Brian Martin is an alumnus of Gettysburg College, and was drawn the school partly because of its proximity to the battlefield. His company — comprised of historians, archivists and museum professionals — began its own history in 1981 when its four founders were tapped by the government to work on a written account of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, and the Energy Department’s response to the disaster. For the past few decades, a large chunk of the small firm’s revenue has come from publishing history books, often for corporate clients’ anniversary celebrations.

Today, Martin has been steering the company into the multimedia age — far from the bound written histories its founding generation used to crank out.

“The biggest things we’ve done over the last five or so years are to refine the focus of what we are, what services we offer,” he said. “We’ve been dealing with particularly the changes driven by digital ways of presenting history.”

Battlefield apps, which History Associates does for clients on a for-hire basis, are just one example of Martin’s attempt to update historical material. The team also produces documentary films, such as “Arizona’s Great Economic Transformation” for the Greater Phoenix Economic Council. Depending on depth of the project, revenue can range from a few thousand dollars to hundreds of thousands.

But Martin is noticing another shift in the demand for historical research — from the public to the private sector. Because of federal budget cuts, “cultural resources are squeezed,” and fewer federal clients are requesting historical research services.

Increasingly, the company’s projects have had less to do with retelling history and more to do with historical techniques, such as organizing and troubleshooting electronic records for the National Park Service. History Associates also does historical litigation — the company’s research techniques can help settle contractual disputes, intellectual property cases and treaties, Martin said.

“The common thread really is history — if you think about it, we help people discover the past, which is really research and understanding, find those things that are significant and useful to telling people stories, discover the past, help them preserve that,” Martin said.

Mohana Ravindranath covers IT and small business for the Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication.
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