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Decoding the Lost Diary of David Livingstone

SMITHSONIAN, Washington, D.C., November 24, 2014
Rachel Nuwer

But until very recently, the diary was completely illegible. Having run out of paper and ink, Livingstone used the juice from a local berry to write on an 1869 edition of The Standard newspaper that a friend had sent him (he didn’t receive it until 1871). In 1873, Livingstone died in a small village in Zambia, having succumbed to malaria and dysentery. His diary was shipped back to England along with Livingstone’s body, but as early as 1874, the juice had faded to the point of near-invisibility, and the newspaper’s dark type further obscured efforts to decipher it. So for nearly150 years, Livingstone’s secrets remained firmly locked away on those faded sheets.

Adrian Wisnicki, an English professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a faculty fellow in the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, first heard about the diary in 2000. Wisnicki trained in the humanities, but his quest to find and decode the diary eventually led him to his true calling, a relatively new field called digital humanities.

Easton then handed off nine different PCA images to Keith Knox, an imaging consultant in Hawaii. With those images in hand, Knox was able to crack the legibility puzzle by adding a false color to the pages—light blue, the color that turned out to best mute the printed newspaper text—so that the darker written text stood out. Wisnicki opened up his email one morning to find those pages, an experience that he describes as extraordinary. “It was like history was being made on the screen while I’m sitting there in my pajamas,” he says.

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Further information on the Lost Diary of David Livingstone:

00 - November, 2014

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