A History of eHistory

by eHistory founder Scott Laidig

The origins of eHistory date to 1995.  Scott Laidig was pursuing a Masters Degree in Military History and was visiting the Museum of the Confederacy (MOC) in Richmond, Virginia to do research on one of General Robert E. Lee’s lieutenants, Major General John Pegram.  The MOC was a wonderful place to do research, and the staff very cooperative.  They would provide the original letters of General Lee to Scott three letters at a time.  Each was carefully enclosed in paper and a folder, but it was the original letter that Scott was able to touch, handle, read and study.  In the course of this research, Scott noticed how General Lee’s handwriting had deteriorated as the dates of the letters went forward.  At the beginning of the war, Lee’s hand was steady and his penmanship firm and decisive.  By the end of the war, the Pegram-related letters were written in February 1865, the writing had weakened and reflected a very unsteady hand.  While Scott surely had not read everything about General Lee, he did not recall Lee’s biographers make this specific point to reinforce their general claims of the stress and anxiety that increasingly affected Lee as the war progressed.

At the time of this research, Scott was working as a co-founder and Senior Vice-President of a small, high tech computer firm, VisiCom Laboratories, Inc.  At VisiCom, part of his staff included Preston Chesser, a graphics designer, amateur historian and Internet technology expert, and Daniel Butler, a software engineer.  Scott mentioned to Preston how unfair it was that he, given the resources and opportunity, had the chance to visit Richmond and actually handle many of General Lee’s letters, while other would-be historians, students and people interested in the Civil War would likely not have that experience.  And given the insights Scott had after only one viewing, he thought of how others, given time and the opportunity to look at the precious documents again and again, might glean additional information about Lee and his correspondence.  Between Laidig and Chesser, the discussion formed the idea that indeed technology made it possible for everyone to “see” and “handle” the letters as often as they would like, yet the actual letters could be preserved and not subjected to the physical degradation that inevitably resulted from multiple people looking at the originals multiple times.  And not only transcripts of the letters could be made available to public, but images of the actual letter, so the public could see the letter itself, often in a form more legible (due to enhanced image processing) than the faded originals.

About this time, Scott’s mother-in-law, Mrs. Richard J. Novotny of Omaha Nebraska, presented him with a set of forty-odd letters thought to date to the Civil War.  Blanche had collected the letters at an estate sale in Omaha and had kept them for many years.  Scott found these to be a treasure-trove of information and resources for his Civil War studies, and named the “Follett Collection,” after the primary author John Follett.  This collection is currently available here on eHistory.  Scott and Preston started a small Civil War web site in order to try their ideas.  They were able to do with the Follett Collection the things they envisioned doing with Robert E. Lee’s letters.  The Internet permitted the user to not only see the actual letter (some of the originals were virtually illegible because the ink had faded, but image processing permitted them to be read online) but also “search” for key information using transcripts of the letters.  The letters had been online only a few months when Mrs. Helen Greene of Ashland, Nebraska contacted Scott.  Her grandson, a junior high student in New York, had found the letters after searching for information about his great-great grandfather, John Follett.  Indeed, it was the same John Follett who had written the letters.  From this humble beginning, the idea of eHistory.com took shape.

About this time, 1997, VisiCom Laboratories, Inc. had been sold to a larger business, and Scott decided to retire and pursue his love of history and technology to see if a multimedia history site could be established.  There were at the time several historical sites, and some had extensive Civil War information, but none could be characterized as ‘research” sites.  Scott decided to fund the site and hired Preston Chesser as the Managing Partner.  Preston became a full-time partner and quickly added much more information to the site.  However, Scott knew that the real basis for most Civil War history were the “Official Records of the War of the Rebellion,” (the “OR”, available here) a massive set of more than 140 volumes of materials each up to 1000 pages long.  Searching the OR was a laborious process and required the researcher to purchase his own set (an expensive proposition) or have access to a library that had the entire set.  Scott decided that making the OR searchable online would set their site apart from other Civil War sites.  Preston had maintained contact with Daniel Butler, who had moved to another company.  Daniel undertook the development of the software needed to make the OR searchable.  About the same time, Scott and Preston brought Thomas Long into their small group.  Thomas developed a way of converting the many tables and charts within the OR and adding them to the searchable online version.  By 1998, the OR was online and searchable, and it added significant traffic volume to the site.

Scott and Preston were proud of what they had accomplished with limited resources, and decided to try and make their small site into a self-sustaining, profitable Internet business.  A series of investors were identified and enough money raised to try and expand the site and generate income.  The group realized they needed a better name for the site.  Larry Gormley owned the rights to the name ehistory.com.  Scott and Larry negotiated an agreement that permitted use of name while making Larry part of the eHistory.com LLC.  While the site continued to add attractive content, the only real possibility to generate revenue was to sell advertising, which required that traffic to the site be expanded exponentially.  But shortly after the site was successful enough to finally begin earning significant advertising revenues, the “Internet bubble” burst and advertising rates plunged.  The original business plan became untenable; the LLC reduced expenses while trying to establish a new business model.  The events of 9-11-01 added to the depressed state of all Internet businesses, as traffic volume not only to eHistory.com, but also most other “content-oriented” sites diminished.  Thus, while many recognized eHistory as an intellectual and content success, the revenues needed to sustain the site were never realized.

In 2003, Scott approached The Ohio State University to ascertain if the Department of History might have an interest in maintaining and hopefully expanding the content of eHistory.com.  Dr. Michael Hogan, then Dean of the College of Arts and former Chair of the Department of History, Professor Ken Andrien, then Chair of the Department of History, and John Day Tully, then head of the Goldberg Project were instrumental in working with the University to accept ownership of eHistory.  Mary Ann Esber Iveson of the Development Office worked closely with John Day Tully and Scott to execute the agreement that turned over the site and all its content to the University.

Now, in 2014, eHistory has been fully integrated into the Department of History at OSU while it continues to grow and support the thousands of people who make up the online community of history researchers, students and aficionados.