DON'S FREEWARE CORNER - NOV 2016
USING WOLFRAM ALPHA IN FAMILY HISTORY

2016 Donald R. Snow -- This page was last updated 2016-11-13.
These Freeware Corner notes are published in TAGGology, our Utah Valley Technology and Genealogy Group (UVTAGG) monthly newsletter.  They are also posted on my Freeware Corner Notes page on  http://uvtagg.org/classes/dons/dons-classes.html  where the links are active and there may be corrections, updates, and additional information about the topic in other class notes.

SEARCH ENGINES AND QUERY WEBSITES

The Internet is a wonderful resource for information for family history and related subjects.  One of the main tools to find information is a search engine, e.g. Google.  A good Wikipedia article about the history of search engines is  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Web_search_engine .  Their list of search engines  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_search_engines  shows them in various categories for different uses, including genealogy, but that category has only one entry  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mocavo , now owned by FindMyPast  http://www.findmypast.com/mocavo-info .  Most of us use Google on a regular basis, but there are many other good search engines, e.g. http://www.bing.com/  and  https://duckduckgo.com/ .  Search engines that search several other search engines at the same time are called metasearch engines and  http://www.dogpile.com/  is one of these.  Metasearch engines are helpful since no single search engine finds everything, so different ones find additional websites.  Another type of search engines is Question Answering or Computational Knowledge Search engines  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Question_answering  and the website Wolfram Alpha is one of these.  These answer questions or short queries written in natural language such as English.  Using Wolfram Alpha for family history is the subject of this Freeware Corner article.  It has a Pro (commercial) version, but we will only discuss the free version in this article.

WOLFRAM ALPHA

The Wolfram Alpha URL is  https://www.wolframalpha.com/ .  It is designed to answer questions or short queries and is what is called a Computational Knowledge Engine.  It was developed by Stephen Wolfram primarily for mathematics and scientific information, but can be used in many other subjects including genealogy and family history involving many disciplines such as history, sociology, economics, geography, medicine, and finance, to name a few.  An explanation of how the computational concept of searching for knowledge works is described in  https://www.wolframalpha.com/about.html .  A tutorial of Wolfram Alpha is at  https://www.wolframalpha.com/tour/what-is-wolframalpha.html  and a YouTube Video tutorial is at  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BuTLtkkyl2c .  Helpful examples of queries in many categories are shown at  https://www.wolframalpha.com/  and at  https://www.wolframalpha.com/examples/?src=input .  Below are a few examples of using it in family history.

HEALTH AND MEDICINE

Ague was a common disease in the world, but what was it in today's terms ?  "What is ague?" in Wolfram Alpha yields several definitions including a fit of shivering and shaking and successive stages of chills and fever that is a symptom of malaria. "What is glandular fever?" yields infectious mononucleosis. These answers also include the number of cases in the US, the fraction of the population who have it, and other data about it.  This information is helpful to fill out the story of our ancestors, rather than just their names and dates.

PLACES AND GEOGRAPHY

"Ellis Island" typed into Wolfram Alpha shows maps and satellite views of New York Harbor showing Ellis Island and gives the history of it, the number of immigrants coming through there, and a link to a Wikipedia article about it.
"Massachusetts" yields a map, satellite view, current population and population growth, birth and death rates, racial percentages, education, land area, households, people per household, income, and more.
"Sandbach, England" shows that it is in Cheshire county, its location in England, a detailed expandable map, satellite views, population, how far neighboring towns and cities are, elevation, local nearby tourist features, even the current weather, and more.
"rivers in utah" gives information on only the "notable rivers" in the state, so the Provo River isn't listed.  Google would probably be better to find information on that.
"population england" shows a graph of the population growth of England for the last century and compares it to other countries and even U.S. states, e.g. the population of England is 1.4 times the current population of California
"mormon church growth" shows graphs of LDS Church growth and compares its size to other churches with maps and tables of countries where most members live
"utah counties" gives a list of all the counties in Utah with each title a link to further information about that county including maps, current population, population growth, county seat, towns and cities, economic factors, education, etc.
"utah sweden denmark" compares the information for these three

TIME AND NUMBERS

"calendar mar 1931" brings up a calendar of the month in which I was born.
"21 mar 1958 to 10 oct 2012" shows that when my wife Diane died we had been married 54 years, 6 months, and 19 days, or 2648 weeks and 5 days, or 19,927 days, or 54.56 years.
"10 May 1841 - 12 Jul 1841" shows that the ship Harmony took 2 months and 2 days or 9 weeks to sail from Bristol, England to Quebec, Canada with its load of Mormon immigrants.
Wolfram Alpha can be used to convert dates between various kinds of calendars.
Typing in a number such as 1830 gives you properties of the number and an option to interpret it as a year, which then gives you a calendar of 1830, how long ago that was, and a few notable events that occurred in 1830. 
"12 stones in pounds" yields 168 pounds
"3 teaspoons in grams" gives 14.79 grams

MONEY AND FINANCIAL

In the Journal History of the LDS Church, a scrapbook of historical information now online at  https://history.lds.org/article/journal_history_guide?lang=eng , there is a quote from Lucius Scovill's journal.  In 1849 he was called to be the LDS Church Immigration Agent in New Orleans to help the immigrating Mormons arriving at that port get on steamships to go up the Mississippi River to St. Louis or other ports on their way west to Utah.  The quote from his journal in the Journal History in 1849 tells of his inspiration to go to a particular store and buy a lottery ticket with a particular number and he would win money to help with the Mormon immigration.  The lottery ticket cost him $2.50 in 1849 and he won nearly 100 to 1, $231.25, with it.  Wolfram Alpha computes those values in 2016 US dollars as $83.00 and $7677.22, respectively.  Interesting inspiration to get money for Mormon immigration.

Another money application of Wolfram Alpha is when my wife and I were LDS missionaries in the England London Mission to serve in the Hyde Park Family History Center in London in 2006 and 2007.  Our one-bedroom flat (apartment) there cost us about 1200 British pounds per month and "1200 British pounds in 2006 in US dollars" in Wolfram Alpha translates to about $2211 per month rent.  Our food and other living expenses cost us about that much again, so we were paying over $4000 per month.  In those days that mission was the most expensive in the world, but it was worth every penny that it cost us.

You can see how Wolfram Alpha could be used for values of estates in any country and time or wages people earned or the price of a ticket to immigrate.

SURNAMES

For the entry "surname snow" it told me that according to the 2000 US Census Snow is the 687th most common surname in the U.S., that 1 out of every 5903 people, or 45,689 people in the U.S., have that surname.  It also gave me their racial distribution and some important people named Snow (not me, of course).  If you just type in "snow", it gives you several options to select from such as weather, a surname, a color, books, movies, and other possibilities.

HANDWRITING AND WORDS

When transcribing handwriting and you can only read part of a handwritten word, Wolfram Alpha allows you to type in "words ending in ..." or "words containing..." to find all English words of that type.  I don't know whether it does this in other languages, too, but I imagine it does.   This can be a help in transcribing handwritten wills, letters, documents, and maybe even in Indexing.  "= anagram listen" yields 4 words using those letters, including "silent" which is a good part of listening; the other anagram words are "enlist", "inlets", and "tinsel".
"l?sten" yields "listen" and several words containing "listen".
"l?st?n" adds the surname "Liston".

PEOPLE AND HISTORIES

"year 1830" gives notable events of that year
"year 1801" shows that on 17 Feb of that year the US House of Representatives broke an electoral vote tie and elected Thomas Jefferson president of the United States over Aaron Burr
"January 1, 1900 to December 31, 1900" gives notable events of that time period.  It seems that the free version of Wolfram Alpha can only handle one or two year time periods since it takes too much time to gather the information.
"light bulb" shows that it was invented by Joseph Swan in 1835, but perfected by Thomas Edison and others later
"history of woburn massachusetts" yields population, history, economic data, and notables born there
"what is a binder?" says it's a machine that cuts and binds crops and gives more information including words of a more broad category, anagrams, rhyming words, synonyms, and translations into several other languages
"mayflower ship" brings up information on the Pilgrims, their date, the people involved, and information on Plymouth, Massachusetts.

LAND AND LENGTH MEASUREMENTS

"13 hectares" yields 32.12 acres and other equivalents
"9 furlongs in yards" yields 1980 yards or 1.125 miles and other equivalents
"1 square mile to acres" yields 640 acres or 259 hectares and other equivalents

RESULTS

Each result has a button to click to see where the data came from, so you can go to that source and perhaps find more information.  A query like "united states" brings up lots of information about the entire country, economic, political, geographical, educational, etc.  To get a list of all the states with links to go there I found that "US states" works.  There is a Pro Version of Wolfram Alpha, but I haven't subscribed to it, so don't know how it works nor how much more information it gives.  I did notice that the Pro version has the ability to upload a photo and have it find related pictures.  That might be very helpful in family history.   Several things I clicked on required the Pro Version.  I have not been able to find out how to find things like the distribution in England of the surname Snow, like it showed for the United States.  I imagine there is a way to do that and it would be helpful to know.  

CONCLUSIONS

Wolfram Alpha has many uses in mathematics and science, but is also helpful in family history.  I first used it in family history to compute the value in current U.S. dollars of money from many years ago, but then found that it had many other uses.  The example pages show how to query it for hundreds of topics and would be a good place to start learning how to use it.  Good luck.
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