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Ben Schmidt's Downton Crabbey

Assistant history professor Ben Schmidt has garnered a hefty amount of publicity in the last few months—from The Atlantic, The New Yorker, PBS—with a quirky invention he has dubbed the Anachronism Machine.

The “machine” is a computer program that harnesses the power of Big Data to find time-period gaffes in movie and television scripts. So when Mary Lincoln complains about a rival’s “prosecutorial” attitude in the Academy Award-winning movie Lincoln, the machine flags it as a major gaffe. 

The word “prosecutorial,” you see, wasn’t popularized until 110 years later, during the Watergate hearings.

How does the Anachronism Machine know this? 

Because Schmidt has loaded his program with millions of books, magazines, and newspaper articles that date back centuries; these primary sources have been digitized over the past decade. When Schmidt feeds the machine a script, it flags any words or phrases that don’t, or rarely, appear during the time period in question. But if the machine flags many false positives, Schmidt then conducts a little old-fashioned research of his own. Working together, man and machine can attain a level of historical accuracy that would have been impossible just five years ago.

So far, the duo—Schmidt and his computer—have worked as consultants for the CBS series Vegas, and the Showtime series The Masters of Sex. Schmidt also maintains a blog, where he identifies the historical inaccuracies pumped out by Hollywood. 

For example, in the TV drama Mad Men, a character refers to “the military industrial complex” in 1960, even though the phrase wasn’t coined until 1961 by President Eisenhower in his farewell address. A character in the World War II drama Foyle’s War, says the war has “escalated,” even though usage of that verb didn’t “escalate” until the Vietnam era. 

Schmidt admits he was a bit perplexed when the machine flagged a soldier named Kevin in the script of the movie Lincoln. So he did a little research of his own and found that, according to draft records from 1863 to 1865, there was only one soldier named Kevin in the entire Union army. Apparently, the Irish name had not yet become popular in America. 

Who would have thought to check?

-By Bill Ibelle

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