Becoming a Footnote in History

By Mark Bowles posted 10-19-2013 01:11:20 AM

When I first considered going to graduate school in 1991 I set a seemingly small goal for myself—to be footnoted just once. I shared this odd idea with my father, and while it seemed insignificant, I explained it to him like this. To be footnoted I would have to: enjoy moderate success in grad school, conduct work in an archives, compose a scholarly article or book based on that research, find a publisher to accept my work, pass a peer review process by experts in my field, hold one of my published works in my hand, convince (or force) other people to read my article or book, and impress (or infuriate) people enough to actually cite my work in their own publication. 

Therefore a single footnote of my work, from my vantage point of just entering graduate school, seemed like a monumental achievement and a way to secure my legacy of literally becoming a footnote in history.

I was fortunate to pass my way though grad school and earn a Ph.D. in history in 1999 from Case Western Reserve University. It was in that year that my first footnote appeared in a book (pictured below).

Zachary, Gregg Pascal. Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999.

The author cited me twice and even reproduced a drawing that I made of an early computing device. Here are the two footnotes...the first of my career. 

The footnotes (numbers 26 and 28 above) were to an article I published three years earlier, in 1996, in the Annals of the History of Computing entitled “The Age of the Analog Brain.” 

Since Zachary asked my permission to use my drawing, I knew that I was going to appear in his book and anticipated the release of his book more than I did my first published article.  I remember anxiously going to Border’s Book Store (back in the day when one actually went to a store to buy a book), pulling it from the shelves, and scanning the book not for scholarly content, but for my name. Indeed, it was purely an exercise in vanity, but it meant a great deal. 

Since that time I have managed to publish a number of books, and I have also enjoyed serendipitously running across footnotes to that scholarship. It is one of the many pleasures of my career. Each time I do, I think about that promise to my father long ago, who passed away in 2001. 

So my message to aspiring graduate students is “Dream big…become a footnote.”

Every historian has a story like this. What is yours?

Here are the covers of my top ten favorite books that I appear in, not in an overtly significant way, but as a footnote to history. 


Black, Alistair, Dave Muddiman, and Helen Plant. The Early Information Society Information Management in Britain Before the Computer. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2007.

Boden, Margaret A. Mind as Machine: A History of Cognitive Science. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006.

Creager, Angela N. H. Life Atomic: A History of Radioisotopes in Science and Medicine. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Dick, Steven J., and Roger D. Launius. Societal Impact of Spaceflight. Washington, DC: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 2007.

Downey, Gregory John. Closed Captioning Subtitling, Stenography, and the Digital Convergence of Text with Television. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.

Evans, Ben. Tragedy and Triumph in Orbit: The Eighties and Early Nineties. New York, NY: Springer, 2012.

Hersch, Matthew H. Inventing the American Astronaut. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Mirowski, Philip. Machine Dreams: Economic Becomes a Cyborg Science. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2002.

Neufeld, Michael J. Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War. New York: Vintage Books, 2008.

Swade, Doron. The Difference Engine: Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First Computer. New York: Viking, 2001.