CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Born of his own desire to “connect curiosity with expertise,” Marshall University history professor David Trowbridge, 38, developed a free history application for smartphones that alerts users to historic locations while they are out and about — much like Yelp.com gives users information on local restaurants by utilizing global positioning.
“I got the idea when I was at a history conference a few years ago,” he began. “You know how it is when you travel. You might only have two or three hours free to see the town.”
He walked around looking for a historical marker or two, knowing that even if he found one, the information available would be very limited.
“Those markers have passive sentences to describe an event. They have to be concise. Like Twitter, there are only about 140 characters carved into metal or stone. It usually leaves me wanting to know more.
“If you Google something, you really don’t even know what you are looking for, so you can’t get good results.”
Frustrated, Trowbridge was out of time and needed to grab a bite to eat.
“At dinnertime, I opened up Yelp and got all this information on nearby restaurants — menus, reviews, photos. I thought, ‘Where is Yelp for history?’”
Trowbridge wondered what it would take to make one and even contacted Yelp.com to see if they’d take on the project. Since they weren’t interested, he spent the next six months trying to forget about making a history app.
“I’m not a programmer. I’m a history professor. I write books,” he reasoned.
But in 2013, Trowbridge “sort of created a rough prototype and used it with his students.”
“I told them if they created entries, I’d give them extra credit.”
When the first “cheesy version” crashed not long afterward, he thought it was a lost cause. Students thought otherwise.
“You’ve gotta build this back,” they told him.
This time, Trowbridge wanted it done right. He invested a “large amount of money” — royalties from his book “A History of the United States” — into the project.
“It was a leap of faith that others would see the value of the app and create entries too,” he said.
“Some people thought I was insane for throwing away money on an app that won’t make any money, but I wanted to build something that would be free forever.”
The app is named Clio, after the Greek muse of history, and was built by Strictly Business Computer Systems in Huntington. Since its introduction, Clio has grown to include more than 6,800 entries (as of Thursday evening) from all over the country — nine from Wisconsin on Monday alone.
“It’s incredible!” Trowbridge said. “Once a historical society discovers Clio, they create content of their own.
“It’s like I have a third daughter,” he laughed. “Clio was an infant for a while and I’d think, ‘Is it going to be OK?’ Now she’s more of a toddler, making all kinds of demands on me.”
Teaming up with West Virginia State University last semester, Clio will also be utilized by West Virginia University this fall.
Billy Joe Peyton, a WVSU history professor, said his historic preservation class compiled 150 entries for Clio this spring. He believes one of the most useful may be the data entered regarding Droop Mountain Battlefield, near Hillsboro in Pocahontas County, that resulted from a student touring the park with Superintendent Mike Smith.
“Using Clio, a park visitor can learn about specific actions and the troops engaged during the important battle that took place on Nov. 6, 1863,” he said. “For the average visitor who may not have detailed knowledge of the battle, Clio can fill in valuable details for a more thorough understanding of events.
“Clio is like having your own personal guide. It offers tremendous potential to learn about history in West Virginia and across the U.S.”
To see how it works, watch “Clio — Your Guild to History and Culture” (youtube.com/watch?t=71&v=3ydzv9nY-Oo).
Trowbridge said professors use it as an interactive learning tool for students to research, add entries — which may include basic information, photos, links to articles, books, videos and more — and have them vetted by their professors before being published.
“Professionals like librarians, teachers and historical societies vet everything before it’s published,” he said. “With crowd-sourcing, it’s important to be right. I have nightmares …”
Trowbridge hopes people enjoy using Clio by sharing what they know with those who want to learn more. “There is a rare and fleeting moment when people care about history,” he said. “With Clio, we can catch them at that moment — when they are standing in the place a historical event took place — and they want to learn more.”