Tech, Now + Beyond

These famous historical writers have as much drama as the Kardashians

The lives of writers from nearly 200 years ago may sound boring. But they make for an action-packed app.

Ever heard of The Year Without Summer? If you haven’t that’s okay, I’ll fill you in. The Year Without Summer was the summer of 1816, when a chain of volcanic eruptions caused a volcanic winter that spread as far as Europe. The cold, dark, rain and crop failures got so bad that it prompted one Italian astronomer to predict that the world would literally end in July (spoiler alert: it didn’t).

There was one positive to this dismal summer, though. It inspired Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron and a lesser-known writer, John Polidari, to some of their greatest works. And now, it has also inspired an app: Summer of Darkness.

The iOS app follows the events of that summer on a day-by-day basis, as closely as they can be recreated by the letters, diaries and manuscripts that each of these writers left. You can preview upcoming events before they happen, but the information associated with each event can only be viewed on or after the day happened.  To give a sense of the world around the writers, the designers (husband and wife Andrew and Anindita Basu Sempere) incorporated maps of the area on Lac Léman where the writers stayed together, and recreated the daily weather using actual data from 1816. Fun fact — that data is apparently in the public domain. Who knew?

The terrible weather made one astronomer predict the world would end in 1816. (It didn’t.) Click To Tweet

To the uninitiated, the lives of writers from nearly 200 years ago may sound boring. But they were really anything but!  As Annalee Newitz at Ars Technica puts it, Percy Shelley and Lord Byron were something like the rockstars of their days, and lead lives to match. When Lord Byron was the first to leave England, it was because he was fleeing from debt and a scandalous affair. Claire Clairmont, his extramarital love interest and Mary Shelley’s stepsister, convinced the two Shelleys to come with her as she followed Byron to try to reclaim him. The Shelleys were also dealing with demanding creditors, and though Mary called herself “Mrs. Shelley,” Percy was married to another woman at the time. These people led lives that are just as colorful as the lives of the Kardashians, but  congratulations, your daily dose of gossip now comes with a veneer of historicity.

The lives of writers from nearly 200 years ago may sound boring. But they were anything but. Click To Tweet

But the app isn’t all gossip either. It was that summer that Lord Byron challenged his friends to a competition to see who could write the best ghost story. Polidari penned a vampire tale, appropriately called Vampyr, and Mary Shelley was inspired by both the challenge and a nightmare she had to write Frankenstein. According to Ars Technica, both works sparked entirely new genres of storytelling, and permanently redefined themes for pop culture. As for Percy Shelley and Byron himself, they also experienced many moments of inspiration in that strange, dramatic summer.

'Vampyr' and 'Frankenstein' influence storytelling and pop culture even today. Click To Tweet

Although the app began in May and most of the summer is already over,  if you start now you’ll be able to view all of the information that has already been unlocked in one fell swoop, and continue to receive the concluding updates as they come out. After all of the information is released, the creators say that users will have the option to reset it, and receive the updates again over a four month time period.

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Summer of Darkness can be purchased on the iTunes store for only $0.99, and works on iPhones or iPads.

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Grace Ballenger

Grace Ballenger

Grace Ballenger is currently pursuing a BA at Wellesley College where she studies English and Spanish. One of her (too many) goals this summer is to make the list of musicals she wants to listen to shorter.

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