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Hold Chicago History in Your Hand

A new mobile app and exhibit offer amazing new ways to explore Chicago’s past

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October 6, 2011 | by Wendy Leopold
Chicago Fire app
CHICAGO, Ill. --- It seems there’s an app for everything. On Saturday, Oct. 8 -- just in time for the 140th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire -- a new mobile app will make it possible to walk Chicago streets and travel through time, holding Chicago history and an iPhone in the palm of your hand.

The “Chicago Fire” iPhone application -- available for 99 cents at the Apple Online Store -- is part of a complete revision and major expansion of “The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory,” launching also as a website at www.greatchicagofire.org on Oct. 8.

A collaboration of Northwestern University and the Chicago History Museum (CHM), the original online exhibition was launched in 1996 to rave reviews on the 125th anniversary of the fire that captured the American imagination and forever changed Chicago.

“The app and updated online exhibition take full advantage of 2011 technologies to achieve a historic immediacy previously unimaginable,” says Carl Smith, Northwestern’s Franklyn Bliss Snyder Professor of English and American Studies in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and the award-winning cultural historian who curated and authored “The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory.” 

Fifteen years ago, the online exhibition broke through the space limitations of museum walls, and gave anyone anywhere access to what arguably was and remains the most extensive online treatment of a single historical event. Now an iPhone app will guide you through some of the actual places where Chicago history was made and, in texts and images, show how the city developed.

“No story illuminates Chicago’s past more powerfully than the fire,” says Gary Johnson, CHM president. “Developing this amazing mobile app with Northwestern is another step towards making our collection and the compelling stories from Chicago history more accessible.”

Few, if any, mobile cultural heritage tour apps or online history exhibitions can match the intellectual depth and the richness that Smith’s scholarship and the CHM’s unparalleled collections make possible. The content is equivalent to a 400-page book with more than 350 illustrations.

The mobile app offers tours of 10 distinct Chicago areas and 54 fire-related landmarks, from the famed Water Tower that miraculously survived the fire to City Hall that did not. Other landmarks include Holy Name Cathedral, Field & Leiter (the department store that later became Marshall Field and Co.), the Michigan Avenue lakefront and the former city cemetery in Lincoln Park where Chicagoans escaping the fire took refuge.

Stand at the site where Mrs. O’Leary’s clumsy cow is said to have started the fire and you can read a page of the handwritten transcript of O’Leary’s testimony. Visit the Water Tower and view it before the fire, immediately after and in the years that followed when it went from being one of the city’s tallest buildings to one dwarfed by skyscrapers.

With funding from the Guild of the Chicago History Museum, the hundreds of images and artifacts were scanned in ultra-high resolution, allowing users to zoom in and view them in extraordinary detail. “In 1996, there simply wasn’t the capacity, network speed or data to see things at the granular level that we offer today,” says Harlan Wallach, media architect at Northwestern University Information Technology (NUIT), the department that designed the website and mobile app.  

“The high-resolution and zooming capacity bring the past visually back to life in ways that are always arresting and often deeply moving,” says Northwestern historian Smith. Seen in full, for example, a photograph of an enormous map from 1857 provides an overview of pre-fire Chicago. Zoom in and you can see every individual building, house, tree, person and animal in the magnificent lithograph based on a drawing by I.T. Palmatary.

“It’s magic to zoom in on a photo of the post-fire remains of City Hall and be able to read a flyer telling displaced residents where to go for aid,” adds Smith. “Simply looking at the original photo, you’d never notice that broadside, much less be able to read it.”

Other features will allow you to compare panoramic views of Chicago photographed from the top of City Hall in 1858 and 2011, and will include recordings of popular fire songs by soprano Patrice Michaels, a time-line profile of cultural life in 1871 culled from newspapers of the time and stereographic photographs viewable in 3-D.

More than 20 personal memoirs by people who experienced the fire firsthand are part of the “Web of Memory” portion of the site devoted to the varied ways in which the legendary fire has entered cultural memory. “The Great Chicago Fire” portion provides a history of the disaster and the city’s response and discovery.

“The project creates an extraordinary educational tool that will allow students, teachers and anyone curious about Chicago to discover overlooked aspects of its history,” says CHM executive vice president and chief historian Russell Lewis.

The development of the Great Fire mobile app is part of a long history of engagement by NUIT Academic and Research Technologies with Northwestern scholars on cultural projects originating in Chicago and around the world. Increasingly these partnerships take advantage of desktop and laptop computers, tablets and smartphones to bring scholarship to a broader audience in a way that is at once appealing, accessible and deep.