Magazine article USA TODAY

Going Viral 120 Years Ago

Magazine article USA TODAY

Going Viral 120 Years Ago

Article excerpt

Populist presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan electrified the 1896 Democratic National Convention with a speech in which he called for a new currency standard based on silver rather than gold. Over the next few years, his "Cross of Gold" ideas spread across the country, with thousands upon thousands of newspaper mentions, but it took 120 years and a collaboration between University of Georgia historians and Georgia Tech data scientists to see what the spread of that idea had actually looked like. Starting in Chicago, site of the convention, "Cross of Gold" moved to the populous East Coast, then jumped to the West Coast, before filling in the less populated areas.

"Going viral" may have taken longer in the 19th century, but the principle was much the same. Cross of Gold's spread was tracked using U.S. News Map, a database of more than 10,000,000 newspaper pages published in nearly 2,000 U.S. newspapers between 1836 and 1924. The newspapers represent what was happening in nearly 800 U.S. cities. More pages are being added all the time.

"Every historical development has a spatial component to it, and often one that is central to explaining the 'how' and the 'why,'" notes Claudio Saunt, chair of the Department of History at the University of Georgia, Athens. …

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