History: Today in History, Dinosaurs, Iapetus and More

| Free on iTunes

When I was in grade school, I hated history. Back then history books (yes, books were invented back then) were about as interesting as day old pea soup. Teachers did little to make the subject more easily digested. They fed you dates, and events and you regurgitated them at test time. I barely got by.

I didn’t fair much better in junior or senior high school, either. More dates and events meant more sad grades. The stuff I wanted to know about, The Black Plague, The Crusades, Greek and Roman culture were glossed over. Even the things that were covered in some detail, like World Wars 1 and 2, were presented in an uninspired, and decidedly lopsided points of view, history being written by the victors and all.

Back when I was a kid, we were so sure of ourselves. We had nuclear power, lofted machines, monkeys, dogs, rats, and even a man into space, and could make a phone call to nearly anywhere on the globe. Our science was built on facts and if it appeared in a textbook then it had to be true.

Today the only thing we’re sure about is that we don’t know everything, and I guess that’s a good thing. In fact, it’s scary how little we know of our world and its past. It seems like not a week goes by that someone somewhere discovers something that throws what we’ve assumed to be facts, or at least strong theories, into question.

For instance, Lucy, the three million year old female protohuman was long believed to be the ‘link’ between modern man and our simian relatives. That is, until Ardi came along with her erect stance and ape -- like hands and feet and turned out to be Lucy’s senior by at least a million years.

How about the vast colonies of life thriving in the deepest, darkest, and hottest places on Earth; deep ocean geothermal vents? Around these hellish openings in the ocean floor an ecosystem built on heat and chemical reaction, not light as it is with us surface dwellers, fuel a menagerie of creatures that would have given Dante nightmares.

Even the way we look at dinosaurs has changed since I was in school. There are those who now believe that some of those ancient lizards were warm blooded, that they weren’t micro-brained brutes, but reasonably intelligent creatures, and that they were around a bit longer than it was first thought.

Anyway, I had to wait until I was in college before finding history interesting. Learning by rote was replaced with discussions on the ideologies and cultures of past civilizations, examining and proposing theories on the causes and affects major historical events, and reviewing accomplishments of historical thinkers and artists.

History became one of my favorite subjects in college, if didn’t matter what type of history as long as the subject matter was examined thoughtfully and without bias. Heck, I even watch the History Channel now, something I would have sworn I wouldn’t be caught dead doing in my preteen years.

Ah well, we live and learn. At least that’s what we should do. And if you’re like me then learning new stuff is always a good thing.

A great way to learn new history related facts is the grab and run Today in History Lite, a free iPhone/iPod touch apps available on the iTunes Store. It’s a pretty simple application, run it and it shows you some historical happenings that occurred on this date sometime in the recorded history.

I like that you can check different dates, search for keys words, and events, find out what famous person was born or died on a particular date. The feature I like most is the Holiday feature which, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, shows you all the holidays for any given date, but just for this country, ALL countries. You can also share your historical facts with family and friends via email, Twitter, or Facebook.

As you might suspect, the lite version is ad supported, the ads are not obnoxious or big. There’s also a paid version that does not have ads, which is always a nice option.

Even if you still hate history as I did I think you’ll be a fan of Today in History Lite.

If you like your historical subject matter a bit older, say from the Jurassic Period then you may want to take a look at Dinosaurs, an app from the American Museum of Natural History.

The Dinosaurs app interface is a bit of uniqueness; the home screen is mosaic of a T-Rex’s skull made up of hundreds of photos relating to all kinds of dinosaur topics. As you double tap the screen the area where you tapped gets large until the picture is revealed, giving you lots to explore. Each picture has a brief description associated with it, and you can comment on a public forum about it or email the shot to a friend. (Makes fun e-cards!)

You can pinch your way back to the mosaic or, for you couch potatoes, you can simply tap the bottom of the screen to bring up a 3-button menu that will let you go back to the mosaic, review the included stories, or learn about the app and its maker.

The Stories focus on several reptiles, offering vital stats, some background on location and discovery history, and more.

Dinosaurs is a must have for any archeology buff who likes learning about the ancient beasts in the buff. Or not.

Finally, Iapetus is another fun history app with a geographical orientation and a unique interface. Open it and you get a globe of the Earth as is was during one of the many ages from 600 million years ago to present, and it’ll even show what Earth will look like a hundred million years from now.

By tapping the buttons in the upper corners of the screen you can advance or digress the landmass and ocean formations by 50 million year increments and watch as whole continent blossom, break apart, and merge.

This is an amazing app that is just plain cool to have.

For those who were wondering, Iapetus is the father of Atlas in Greek mythology. You know who Atlas was, right? The guy who was condemned to hold up the heavens for eternity by Zeus? (Read a book!)

Anyway, get Iapetus and hold the world in your hands.

That’s a wrap for this week. Join me next week for more Free on iTunes.

More freebies below with direct iTunes Store links. Go for it. They’re free!

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I have SO gotta get something to run these Apps on. I love especially the continental drift and ocean coverage maps. It’ll make it much easier for me to educate (bore) my family


Thanx Vern;  Great finds!!


Apparently, your other studies suffered as well.

It is ‘fare’, not ‘fair’ in the second paragraph.

Lucy is still a representative of our early ancestors. So is Ardi, just earlier.

I am sorry that your experience learning history was so poor. Your teachers may have been uninspiring, but there were books. The Story of Civilization was very good reading and accessible to Junior high students and later.

Vern Seward

It is ?fare?, not ?fair? in the second paragraph.

Lucy is still a representative of our early ancestors. So is Ardi, just earlier.

My studies were just find.

Thanks for the “fair” catch.

As to Lucy, I never said she stopped being a representative of our evolutionary lineage, I said she was displace as the possible link between man and ape by virtue of Ardi’s age and physique.

I don’t believe I was the only one who found history boring back then and while there may have been good books available if you’re not interested in the subject why would you bother looking for them?

That’s not a problem today, we have the Internet and better teaching methods. I suspect that if I were to go through grade school today I’d find that history would at least be tolerable.

Vern Seward


The history app that you present is nothing but names and dates. How is this an improvement? I am sure that if you looked at June 28, there would be a note that Archduke Franz Ferdinand died on that day in 1914, but without context, it is just an isolated datum. It might be good for playing Jeopardy, but for understanding history, almost useless.

Yes, today we have wikipedia, but why would anyone look for history (or anything else) there if you were not interested in the first place. To really understand history, it takes books—not 5000 word wiki articles or even history channel programs. (Some of these are almost content-free.)

If you were interested in the Black Death when you were younger, you could have read Barbara Tuchman’s book, A Distant Mirror. It was published in 1978. (The date should be about right for you.)

Not speaking of you specifically, but I question whether teaching methods today are better when most people under 50 don’t know the dates of the Civil War, and a sizable fraction don’t know who made up the Axis in World War II.

I’m not saying that it was great in my day. The 1950s and early 1960s (when I was in grade school through high school) were not intellectual high points in the history of the US. For large swaths of the country, the bias of anti-intellectualism effectively keeps the schools boring, and brainwashes students into not learning on their own. “Bread and circuses” is a well used, proven strategy for governing the masses.

Fortunately, where I grew up, we had a good library system. I also had time to read, and the curiosity to pick out books at random. How a child can be bored when they have books to read is beyond me.

When it becomes easy to borrow a 720 page book and read it on my iPad, Kindle or computer, I might think that the internet could compete with books.

The apps you present are fine. I got the one on plate tectonics, since it makes it easy to visualize the positions of continents at different times. However, they are superficial. They cannot be a substitute for real learning.

I think we are in some agreement here. Towards the end of your blog, you say:

Read a book!

I would say: read lots of books.

Vern Seward

geo3rge you’re missing several points.

Back when I was going through grade school and hating history the last thing I wanted to do was read a history book. I’d suspect that’s a normal reaction for most kids. Also, I’m a lot closer to your age than you might think.

What I read back then was science fiction and books about dinosaurs, space flight, and fringe science, along with a healthy helping of comics. The fun stuff. The Black Plague was more interesting in hindsight.

Also, I’m not pointing to the apps in my article as prime examples of learning via the Web, the apps are there because they are free and decent enough to warrant attention. Still, they are only superficial if all you do is show them off to your friends. For instance, I read in Today in History that UTC, a time standard use by computers, passed (r will pass) 1,234,567,890 seconds on Feb. 13, 2010 at 23:31:30(UTC) For the longest time I only knew that UTC was a time standard, but never gave it more thought than that. Because of the tidbit of information Today in History showed, my curiosity was piqued and I found more information about UTC on the Internet.

The point being that what IS available on the Internet is far more accessible and the viewpoints far more varied than anything we had back in the day, even with a good library at your doorstep.

Do a search on The Black Plague and you get tons of information, much of it the same, but enough of it is different enough to give you a broader perspective.

In fact, the ability to search and find information with relative ease is what makes the Internet worth having around.

A great example was a recent incident where I mentioned to my younger sister, who lives in Baltimore, that I recall a major snowfall in B-more long before she was born that rivaled what she was seeing. I couldn’t remember the date, but I estimated my age at about 5 years old. A casual search yielded some dates on Nor-Easters that dumped a lot of snow, but none of those dates coincided with what I belived my age was at the time.

A bit more digging and I came across a site that linked into a national database that contained not just snowfall records for Baltimore, but for every major U.S. city from the looks of it (I ran a check for several random cities and found data). Further, the site gave me rainfall and temperature histories as well and included graphs that showed a steady increase of average temperatures of many major cities across the U.S. since the 1940’s. (searched individually)

I’m sure that data is in a book somewhere, but I’d likely would never have found the data if it were not for the Internet.

The point here being that it isn’t just books that need to be read, and book aren’t the only source of learning.

Also, from what you’ve written here I’d guess you have an interest in history, or at least wasn’t turned off by it enough to go and find other source material. Not everyone would go find a better book on a subject.

I would say: read whatever.

Vern Seward


Please allow me to submit a personal digression::

As a kid I liked science and science fiction. History was a meh subject for me, except for WWII because I loved airplanes. Then in high school I ran into Mr. McKinney. Anyone that went to Willamette High School in the 1970’s knew about Mr. McKinney. He taught American history and was immensely popular. Jocks, ditzy girls, nerds, everyone tried to get into the classes.

The reason for this was that Mr. McKinney should not have been a teacher. He should have been an actor. Years before he had written out everything he was going to say in each class about Indian Wars, or The Civil War, or the History of the West. They weren’t notes, they were scripts. These weren’t lectures, they were monologues. They were good enough to do these on stage. He did characters, voices, jokes, snide comments, little side digressions. When he did 45 minutes on the Battle of Bull Run or The Little Big Horn, or the fate of Jesse James or Geronimo,  nobody talked, no notes were passed, the room was silent except for Mr. McKinney’s voice. All attention was on Mr. McKinney from the first bell to the last. He was a fantastic teacher.

That’s how these ‘dry’ or ‘boring’ subjects should be taught: by those that know how to weave a spell with their words. All the high tech tools are just teaching aids. You need someone with the ability to make the subject come alive.


Vern Seward

Geoduck, well said! I wish that every kid finds at least one “Mr. McKinney” sometime during his or her school years. It makes a difference.

To your words I would add that kids don’t know what they want, that’s why there are adults, to teach them. If you get a kid interested enough then he’ll read, write, and do whatever to satisfy his curiosity.


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