Comparing Apples with Oranges

This Friday we will officially launch Trading Consequences this Friday (21st March), with publication of our White Paper and the launch of our visualization and search tools. Ahead of the launch we wanted to give you some idea of what you will be able to access, what you might want to view and what you might want to compare with these new historical research tools. Professor Colin Coates has been exploring the possibilities… 

The “Trading Consequences� website literally allows us to compare apples and oranges.  Both fruits became the objects of substantial international trade in the nineteenth century, as in the right conditions they can remain edible despite being shipped great distances.

Screen shot of a visualisation of Apple Trades

They are complementary fruits in many ways, as apples are grown in temperate climates whilst oranges prefer warmer conditions.  They may overlap geographically, but typically we associate different parts of the world with each fruit.  In the context of the British world, apples grew in the United Kingdom, of course, but they also came from Canada, New Zealand and the United States, among other locations.  Oranges from places like Spain, Florida or Latin America entered the United Kingdom in the nineteenth century.  The two maps which result from entering “apple� and “orange� into the database show, at a glance, how oranges appeared more often in reference to warmer zones than apples.

Screen shot of a visualisation of Orange Trades

The chronological distribution of commodity mentions was roughly similar in both cases.  Increased attention from 1880 to 1900 reflects in part the expansion of the documentation in that period, but it likely also reflected growth in trade and consumption.  Historian James Murton has pointed out that regular trade in apples developed from Canada to Great Britain in the 1880s, focused primarily in Nova Scotia.  On average, one million bushels of apples reached British markets (Murton, 2012).

In contrast, both apples and oranges show sudden spikes in the 1830s, for entirely different reasons.  The spike for apples points the researcher to a useful “Report from the Selection Committee on the Fresh Fruit Trade� in 1839.  But the mid-1830s spike in oranges points instead to the activities of Orange Lodges in Ireland.  The other visualisation shows this anomaly even more clearly, as IRELAND takes on a prominence in related geographical terms in the 1830s that it did not occupy afterwards.

Screenshot of Visualisation looking at trades in the 1830s

This project entailed teaching computers to read as an historian might, and there are distinct advantages to being able to deal with such a wide range of documentation.  However, all historians must be critical of the sources we use. The visualisations in “Trading Consequences� point towards useful sources for further study, and to suggest that historian may wish to consider some regions in their analysis.  The importance of the United States in the discussions about apples is noteworthy, for instance.  Australia has a large number of mentions of oranges, though it is important to note that a small city boasts the same name and could account for part of the number.  (Interestingly enough, Orange, New South Wales, did not grow many oranges according to the Australian Atlas 2006! But it does have apples.)

"Fruit" by Flickr user Garry Knight / garryknight

“Fruit” by Flickr user Garry Knight / garryknight

The increase in mentions of both apples and oranges from the 1880s on may reflect improving living standards in Britain in that period.  Britain’s decision to adopt free trade had led to an increase in a wide variety of imported foodstuffs (Darwin, 2009).  As the heightened attention to both apples and oranges probably shows, these fruits were part of that movement.

The “Trading Consequences� visualisations show some instructive comparisons, some that may point to different ways to conceive of trade in these resources, and others which illustrate the care with which researchers should approach results.


  • John Darwin, The Empire Project: The Rise and Fall of the British World-System, 1830-1970 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009)
  •  James Murton, “John Bull and Sons: The Empire Marketing Board and the Creation of a British Imperial Food Systemâ€� in Franca Iacovetta et al., eds., Edible Histories, Cultural Politics: Towards a Canadian Food History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012), 234-35.
  • New South Wales Government, Agriculture – Fruit and Vegetables in the Atlas of New South Wales, Available from:

Legacy of the Genetic Codebreakers

The Wellcome Library has launched a major new digital resource which tells the story of genetics. ‘Codebreakers: Making of Modern Genetics’  contains the digitised archives of the most prominent individuals in this field, together with lots of supporting material.

To celebrate the launch of ‘Codebreakers’ we would like to show you a special selection of MediaHub resources which help illustrate the huge impact the work of these geneticists has had on society and how it has already changed our lives.

It is sixty years since’ Nature’ published  Watson and Crick’s  paper on the structure of DNA. This breakthrough is considered to be one of the greatest achievements of the 20th Century. Since that time enormous progress has been made in the field of genetics and molecular biology.

Francis Crick : Nobel Prize-Winning Scientist
Getty (still images) : 23-04-1993

Legendary Geneticist : James Dewey Watson
Getty (still images) 23-04-1993

Genetic Fingerprinting

Alec Jeffreys discovered the technique of DNA fingerprinting by chance while carrying out research at the University of Leicester in 1984. It revolutionised the field of forensic science and police were now able to use DNA evidence to link  a suspect to the scene of a crime. A few years later the technique had been developed sufficiently to make it commercially available. Click on the following ITV news clip to hear how DNA fingerprinting is carried out and the impact it was to have on criminal investigation procedures.

Genetic Fingerprint Techniques
ITV News 13-11-1987

Jeffreys went on to refine the process further and developed DNA profiling, a technique which made it possible for DNA databases to be established. This has led to ethical questions about whose DNA should be stored and for how long.

However, the use of DNA evidence in court is not without its issues. In 2007 attempts to convict an individual for the Omagh bombings failed due to problems with ‘Low Copy’ DNA that ‘did not stand up to scrutiny’. Watch the ITN news clip below to find out more about the implications this has had for the Crown Prosecution Service.

DNA evidence to be reviewed after Omagh bomb trial verdict
ITN 21-12-2007

Sequencing and Mapping of the Human Genome

The Human Genome Project, established in 1989,  allowed geneticists to work collaboratively on sequencing  the entire human genome. This involved identifying every chemical  base pair within every gene of each human chromosome (around 3 billion base pairs).

Base pairs which make up the structure of a DNA double helix
Book of Life : Wellcome Film 2001

The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, based in Cambridge, carried out nearly a third of the work; the rest was sequenced by institutions  in the USA .  The ‘Book of Life‘ was made by the Wellcome Trust and is a fascinating account of how the sequencing work was done and the immense potential this has released to understand how genes contribute to human disease. We now have the information to discover the genetic basis of  cancer, diabetes and heart disease, as well as many other illnesses such as Alzheimer’s. Find out more about how the work was done by clicking on the image below:

Publication of the entire human genome
Book of Life : Wellcome Film 2001

This immense task was completed to a high degree of accuracy by 2003;  timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the discovery of  the DNA double helix.

Frederick Sanger, the researcher after whom the Sanger Institute was named,  pioneered methods of  sequencing  DNA which would form the basis of the high-speed technologies in use today. In the interview below you can hear this modest man discuss his work and how the life of a research scientist is usually strewn with failures from which occasional breakthroughs are made.

Frederick Sanger
Sanger. Sequences [Dr F. Sanger Interviewed by Mr H. Judson, 13 November 1987] Biochemical Society

The process of DNA sequencing is constantly advancing and becoming cheaper. In 2007 it cost $10 million to sequence a human genome whereas in 2012 it could be done in one day for around $1,000. This is having a revolutionary effect on  scientists’ abilities  to defeat diseases which mutate quickly, such as HIV and malaria, as well as for a multitude of other applications.

Many more genomes of other species are now being unravelled, expanding our knowledge of genetics further. Accompanying these advances will be a host of new ethical issues surrounding the use to which this information is being put and whether it is being used for commercial gain.

Greenpeace activists protest against genetically modified maize crops grown by US company, Monsanto.
Getty (images) 03-05-2005

Giant biotechnology companies such as Monsanto have been accused of introducing genetically modified organisms to the detriment of indigenous species and the environmental health of the planet.

The Genome of Neanderthal Man

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology are trying to sequence the Neanderthal genome following the discovery of ancient DNA within well preserved Neanderthal bones . It will allow scientists to compare human and Neanderthal genomes and identify the changes which are unique to modern man. It is hoped this will give clues to how man evolved and why Neanderthals disappeared.  Watch this Channel 4 Newsclip below to find out why scientists think this work could also contribute to our understanding of human speech disorders.

Neanderthal Skull
Technology: Scientists close to mapping genetic code for Neanderthal man: Channel 4 News 15-11-2006

We now stand on the threshold of a new age in which biomedical technologies will be used diagnose and treat disease, design new drugs and provide us with solutions to help make vital resources more plentiful. This promises to improve all our lives but, as with the advent of all new technologies, we will have to confront previously unknown ethical dilemmas along the way.

Further Links:

The Boundaries of Commodities

Together with Jim Clifford and Uta Hinrichs, I was lucky enough to be able to attend the first Networking Workshop for the AHRC Commodity Histories project on 6–7 September. This was organised by Sandip Hazareesingh, Jean Stubbs and Jon Curry-Machado, who are also jointly responsible for the Commodities of Empire project. The main stated goal of the meeting was to design a collaborative research web space for the community of digital historians interested in tracing the origins and growth of the global trade in commodities. This aspect of the meeting was deftly coordinated by Mia Ridge, and also took inspiration from William Turkel‘s analysis of designing and running a web portal for the NiCHE community of environmental historians in Canada.

Complementing the design and planning activity was an engaging programme of short talks, both by participants of Commodities of Empire and by people working on related initiatives. I won’t try to summarise the talks here; there are others who are much better qualified than me to do that. Instead, I want to mention a small idea about commodities that emerged from a discussion during the breaks.

A number of the workshop participants problematized the notion of ‘commodity’, and pointed out that it isn’t always possible or realistic to set sharp boundaries on what counts as a commodity. It’s certainly the case that we have tended to accept a simple reification of commodities within Trading Consequences. Tim Hitchcock argued that commodities are convenient fictions that abstract away from a complex chain of causes and effects. He gave guano as an example of such a commodity: it results from a collection of processes, during which fish are consumed by seabirds, digested and excreted, and the resulting accumulation of excrement is then harvested for subsequent trading. Of course, we can also think about the processes that guano undergoes after being transported, most obviously for use as a crop fertiliser that enters into further relations of production and trade. Here’s a picture that tries to capture this notion of a commodity being a transient spatio-temporal phase in a longer chain of processes, each of which takes place in a specific social/natural/technological environment.
Diagram of commodity as phase in a chain of processes
Although we have little access within the framework of Trading Consequences to these wider aspects of context, one idea that might be worth pursuing would be to annotate the plant-based commodities in our data with information about their preferred growing conditions. For example, it might be useful to know whether a given plant is limited to, say, tropical climate zones, and whether it grows in forested or open environments. Some of this data can probably be recovered from Wikipedia, but it would be nice if we could find a Linked Data set which could be more directly linked to from our current commodity vocabulary. One benefit of recording such information might be an additional sanity check that we have correctly geo-referenced locations that are associated with plants. Another line of investigation would be whether a particular plant is being cultivated on the margins of its environmental tolerance by colonists. Finally, data about climatic zone could play well with map-based visualisations of trading routes.