Digital Economy USRG

Why Study Web Science? Lessons from History

Avatar photoNovember 22, 2010
by Lisa Harris

William Dampier explored and mapped the coast of Western Australia fully 80 years before James Cook encountered Botany Bay. Largely forgotten today, Dampier landed in Shark Bay, Western Australia in 1699. He was a true pioneer with lasting influence upon such diverse fields as evolution, exploration, meteorology, navigation, commerce and travel writing. He was also a pirate who could have faced the same grisly fate as his contemporary Captain Kidd. But what does Dampier’s story have to do with Web Science in the 21stCentury? Please bear with me while I outline his achievements…

Dampier was the first man to sail three times around the world, and his best-selling accounts of his adventures inspired Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. The description of his travels and the potential he identified for trade with unknown lands helped to stimulate the South Sea Bubble.

Dampier’s maps of trade winds and ocean currents were relied upon by James Cook and even later by Horatio Nelson. Indeed, Dampier’s ‘Discourse’ of navigational detail was still in use by the British Navy well into the 20th Century. As the first naturalist to encounter all five continents, Dampier was able to compare and contrast animals and plants across the globe, introducing the world to theories of migration and likely relationships between species. The famous red notebook in which Darwin developed his theory of natural selection quotes extensively from Dampier’s observations of 150 years earlier.

Dampier is responsible for more than 1000 entries in the Oxford English Dictionary, giving the language such words as avocado, barbeque and chopsticks. His comparison of the flat ocean to a “millpond” is an expression that would have conjured up a rich image to contemporary readers who might themselves have never seen the sea, and it is still in popular use today.

These achievements in the early days of exploration and scientific discovery provide many parallels with the position of Web Science today. Under the umbrella of the newly created Royal Society, developments in such diverse subjects as chemistry, astronomy and mechanics were debated by the best minds of the day, and Dampier was invited to address the Fellows on several occasions. The full extent of his influence is apparent when a view is taken across disciplines – from the practical to the intellectual, and from the literary to the scientific. Dampier could see the big picture and think laterally to make comparisons and connections – a skill that was very opportune at a time when the boundaries of the physical world were being rolled back in so many directions. He was dismissive of traditional hierarchies of expertise and was not afraid to operate outside the “establishment” of his day.

William Dampier died (in debt) in 1715, and his final resting place is unknown. Today, he is largely forgotten in England. A small town has been named after him on the north west coast of Australia, but there is no mention of his exploits in Fremantle’s Maritime Museum. Thanks to the research of Diana and Michael Preston, detailed in their compelling book “A Pirate of Exquisite Mind”, Dampier’s legacy can continue to inspire a new generation of explorers and writers in the diverse fields of Web Science.

Originally published on www.lisaharrismarketing