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It Happened When?
Kirt's Cogitations™ #219

RF Cafe University"Factoids," "Kirt's Cogitations," and "Tech Topics Smorgasbord" are all manifestations of my ranting on various subjects relevant (usually) to the overall RF Cafe theme. All may be accessed on these pages:

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It Happened When?

"Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery" is a quotation often used out of the context intended by English cleric Charles Caleb Colton to jokingly justify or remark upon the copying of someone else's work. In the case of patents and copyrights, the courts usually have the last laugh as plaintiffs are awarded monetary damages and defendants are awarded jail time. Ostracization of the guilty party typically accompanies the court's punishment, and the hapless sap becomes a pariah amongst his/her peers. The vast majority of such trespasses are committed with malicious intent, some out of desperation, but none are deserving of pity.

Another source of “imitation” is extremely prevalent on the Internet, and that is the wanton wholesale copying of other people's web pages or large portions of a page's content – usually without even giving credit to the progenitor. I have written in the past about having discovered multiple websites that have copied one or more entire pages from RF Cafe. Often times the thief is not even smart enough to remove the keywords embedded in the HTML code that provide a positive identification. Occasionally, font types and table borders and cell colors are changed, but it is obvious that the content belongs to RF Cafe. I will usually send an e-mail to the culprit and say that they are welcome to keep the page up if they just give credit where credit is due. Most never reply, but the page(s) mysteriously disappear.

Similarly, there are literally hundreds – if not thousands – of websites that include some sort of Day in History feature; these are a source of some of the most prolific copying. Many are specific in selecting their topics, like RF Cafe's science and technology history theme (with a few exceptions), and others that hit every available date. It is clear that the vast majority of sites mine each other's data because the texts are exact copies. If you take an item from a particular website and paste it into a search engine and enclose it in quotes (so that the entire string must occur in sequence), you will receive many pages of hits. Locate another version of the same item and perform the same type of search and you will get yet another set of pages of returns. Some authors do at least attempt to re-word the event description a little so as to not be so audacious, but there are only a limited number of ways to briefly describe a given event. While technically a form of plagiarism (if it is even possible to identify the original text), the information is in the public domain and is no more protected by copyright than is a formula showing the conversion from degrees Fahrenheit to degrees Celsius.

The real offense of the aforementioned historical item collections is the perpetuation of bad information. I have to admit that until recently, I also scanned the historical events websites in search of useful items for RF Cafe, and included them in the daily list on the homepage without putting forth any effort to validate the dates. On rare occasion, I would recognize a wrong date and fix it, but not many people – including me - are familiar enough with most of the events to have memorized their proper dates.

Since around June of 2006, I have begun validating every date for every event placed in the list at the top of the RF Cafe homepage. I have been shocked at the prevalence of faulty information that resides all across the Internet. It usually takes me at least an hour each night to do the fact checking, but there have been nights that have required two hours or more for a single day's events. On a bad night, I will have to delete or relocate half the items I have for the day. If I can determine the correct date for an erroneously listed event, I will relocate it to the correct date page. If I cannot find any authoritative source, I remove it entirely. In the latter case the event and date may well be correct, but I cannot prove it, so I delete it rather than risk inaccuracy. After all, RF Cafe has purposed since its inception to provide the most useful and accurate information available. In fact, if someone contacts me with a claim of bad data and I determine that it is in fact bad, I post a notice on the page containing the corrected data and post a notice in the Recent Additions columns on the RF Cafe homepage. I would rather have to admit a mistake openly than be accused of hiding mistakes.

When possible, I try to obtain confirmation of events from a website directly related to the event or the person associated with the event. Examples can be found in the many events listed on today's homepage, so I will not list them here. Wikipedia is often used because it is usually an assimilation of information authored by more than one person, so any errors tend to be corrected over time. It cannot be considered as the gospel truth for everything, but for the hundreds of items I have checked it against, there have been very few discrepancies. My preference is to find confirmation on company websites, government entity websites, newspaper and magazine archives, and in scholarly papers. But, not even those are infallible.

I would prefer to not explicitly mention websites where I have found bad data, but it is necessary to do so to illustrate what can happen. There is no intent to malign the ones used as examples. I will begin with the venerable NASA's website just to show that even the people who put a man on the moon and threaded a spacecraft through Saturn's rings can make a mistake. To wit, one of today's (September 25, 2006) day in history items recounts the end of the Skylab III (3) mission. This NASA page has the Skylab II (2) crew returning to earth on September 25, 1973, while this NASA page and virtually all other sources have Skylab III (3) as the actual mission. It is not hard to find websites that agree with the Skylab II (2) assertion, though; try it in a search. Skylab III (3) is definitely the right answer.

Here is another example. According to some websites, Cornell University began offering the first curriculum in engineering either on September 18 or September 21 of 1883. This copy of an original document on the Cornell website say the real date was the 18th, so I picked that one for RF Cafe. Just this one item took about an hour of searching to locate. Sometimes I will spend that much time or more and never locate validation for a date and end up deleting the event from my list.

There is an instance where finding more than one date for the same event is justified, and that is when differences in time in various parts of the world cause two dates to be shifted by one day. That happens frequently when I find a source from, say, a U.K. newspaper story and also one from the U.S. Usually such an occurrence only happens with fairly contemporary events where a real awareness of time zones are applicable. The date of Isaac Newton's birth would not suffer from the phenomenon because at the time he was born, everyone was on the same time reckoning system (if on any at all). An example is the laying of the first successful transatlantic telephone cable. U.K. sources list the date as September 25, 1956, while some U.S. sources use September 24. It depends on when and where the story was printed.

I really should have been keeping a record of all the problems that I have found in the last few months in order to provide a range of bad dates for you, but I never thought in the beginning that so many would be wrong. Besides, in the span of just a few days there are enough rogue events and dates to illustrate the magnitude of the matter. The problem is almost entirely one of laziness, of which, as I mentioned, I have been guilty of in the past – but no more. Just for pure entertainment sake, here is yet another example of the egregiousness of the errors found. This science history website has astronaut John Young onboard Apollo 13, when in fact he had to stay behind due to a suspected medical problem. Most websites will list September 23, 1930 as the date on which Johannes Ostermeier was issued a patent for inventing flash bulbs. In fact, a copy of the actual patent found on the U.K. Patent Office website shows an issue date of January 30, 1930 – it is difficult to find a more authoritative source!

One more, and then I will close. Henry Ford was a leader in creating exceptionally good work conditions for his employees. He paid twice the rate of his competitors and instituted an 8-hour workday, 5-day workweek long before it became the norm. Most websites perpetuate the incorrect date of January 5, 1914, as being when the policy was declared. That is the date of the $5 per hour salary increase and is an instance where even Wikipedia got it wrong, because it combined the two events into one date. The real date of the 40-hour workweek taking effect, according to Ford Motor Company itself, is May 1, 1926.

My extensive searches on the Web have never turned up a single site that provides hyperlinks to authoritative sources for every event listed. Most provide none at all. RF Cafe has broken new ground once again. So, if over time you begin to see other websites with collections of historical events that have links to sources, they will almost assuredly have originated – possibly through many iterations of copying – from right here.
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