Skip to main content

Cd-rom Roundup

March 2024
3min read


In the last year or so CD-ROMs have begun to deluge bookstores and computer stores. Quite a few of them, especially at the beginning, have been hastily assembled arrangements of pre-existing material, throwing together sound, pictures, movies, and text in a format slower and harder to use than any book ever published. But lately CD-ROMs have been created with greater and greater thought and sophistication, and several recent titles stand out as of interest to the readers of American Heritage .

The closest thing to a general American history yet on CD-ROM is Smithsonian’s America (Creative Multimedia, for Windows), an “Interactive Exhibition of American History and Culture” taken from a show the Smithsonian Institution mounted in Japan in 1994. It’s very much a museum show rather than a detailed history, but it is one that covers the
American past in the broadest way with surprising effectiveness. It breaks down into eight main sections: “American Ideals and Images,” “The Peopling of America,” “Entertaining Americans,” “Politics and Protest” (which includes the Revolution and the Civil War), “The Western Frontiers,” “Conquering Time and Space,” “Americans at Home,” and “Looking American.” Under “The Peopling of America,” you might select “Coming to America” from among several choices and then, under that, “Native Americans.” You will then hear a good basic introduction to the subject while being shown engrossing archival photographs of Eskimos building an igloo, an 1879 Zuni village, and more. Then you’ll be offered eight artifacts to see or hear, including a Sioux shirt, an Edison film of a Pueblo dance, and a recording of a Zuni harvest dance. This handsome, intelligently conceived, and entertaining CD might be just the thing to draw children into a greater curiosity about the nation’s past.

Family Tree Maker Deluxe Edition (Banner Blue Software, for Windows) makes it easy to delve into your own family’s past. It starts with an attractive and simple-to-use database for recording complete family information,
making the basic work of recording genealogy clear and uncomplicated. It automatically presents the information in trees of any person’s ancestors and descendants, in lists of relations, and in other ways. It offers scrapbook pages indexed to any relative or event that can include images and sound as well as text. Best of all, it has a guide to finding genealogical information, listing dozens of important sources, many of which—state birth and marriage records and more—are available themselves on CD-ROM from the same company.

One use in which CD-ROM technology can offer definite advantages is in exploring and enjoying music. Antonin Dvorak: Symphony No. 9 (Voyager, for Macintosh) includes not only a full recording of the New World Symphony but also a reduced score that scrolls by as the music plays, written musical commentary and analysis that also unfolds with the performance, demonstrations and illustrations of every instrument and musical term used, and full historical background to the composition, including a wealth of information and illustration on Dvorák’s travels in America. A whole new way to enter the world of a symphony.

Or the world of a movie. Voyager’s Salt of the Earth (for Macintosh) includes the full film of that title (albeit in modest-resolution near-stop-action), an underappreciated Hollywood saga of striking New Mexico miners made in 1953 by a group of blacklisted filmmakers. It also gives the full screenplay, which you can follow along with, and, to back that up, there’s a wealth of information on the movie and the moviemakers—biographies, reviews, historical and critical essays, and more—and hundreds of photographs both from the film’s production and from the actual 1950 strike it was based on.

For movies just as historical but far lighter, you can do no better than Ephemeral Films (Voyager, for Macintosh and Windows), a window to an America that no longer exists and probably never did. From a 1956 Hollywood-style musical extravaganza that promises the American housewife G.M. cars and futuristic glamour to a comforting lesson in conformity for troubled teens ( Shy Guy , 1947), this collection of promotional and educational shorts provides a road map to 1930s to early 1960s culture the way corporations and government wanted you to see it. Who can argue with the value of having dinner with your family every night—even as the narrator lauds the fact that “these boys greet their dad as though they were genuinely glad to see him” and later suggests that “pleasant, unemotional conversation helps digestion.” The selection of films has previously been offered on videotape; the CD version adds a sly and informative on-screen text.

Warplanes: Modern Fighting Aircraft (Maris Multimedia, for Macintosh or Windows), yields a multimedia database of information on more than five hundred warplanes—practically every one built since 1976—plus thirteen hundred fullscreen photographs, seventy minutes of live-action video, interactive models of some two dozen aircraft, and three flight simulators. The simulators permit you to pilot an A-10 Thunderbolt in the Gulf War, an Israeli C-130 resupplying an army unit behind enemy lines, and a Soviet SU-27 in a practice dogfight against MiG-21 drones. The disk is the first in a series of six that its makers promise will add up to “the most comprehensive survey of military aircraft published in any media.”

Down on the water and two hundred years earlier, Stowaway! (Dorling Kindersley Multimedia, for Windows), an adaptation of Stephen Biesty’s book of the same title, offers an interactive tour of an eighteenth-century warship, painted in great, playful detail. You can move fore and aft and up and down through the ship and zero in on crewmen and their activities and various pieces of equipment. Meeting the surgeon, you’ll visit his sick bay, emergency ward, and operating theater and learn about the diseases he confronted, the tools he used, and his terrible job during battle. The level of information and its presentation are directed at children and young adults; they should also enjoy the game that’s thrown in, which invites them to track down a stowaway.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this 72-year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.

Donate