Wolfram|Alpha is a powerful tool for finding information about the universe at large, but sometimes we are interested in a much smaller universe: our families. Genealogical research is an increasingly popular hobby, and one which Wolfram|Alpha can make easier using features across several of its subject areas.

We blogged last year about how Wolfram|Alpha can map family relations, which can certainly be more helpful the further your genealogical research takes you from the trunk of your family tree. Recently, another researcher (and previously unknown relative) contacted me. This new connection sent me straight to Wolfram|Alpha to determine our relationship. Her great grandfather was my great grandfather’s brother and, thanks to Wolfram|Alpha, I learned that she is my third cousin.

Great granddaughter of my great great uncle

When initially assembling a family history, an obituary or another record of death is often among the first records you find for an ancestor. Should the obituary fail to provide an exact birth date, just use Wolfram|Alpha to find that approximate year of birth.

74 years before February 2, 1901

Pinpointing exact dates can be especially tricky if you only have a news article like an obituary or wedding announcement to go by. When an article refers to the event without an explicit date, such as “married last Sunday”, simply plug that information into Wolfram|Alpha, along with the date of the article, in order to easily determine the correct date of the event.

Sunday before July 13, 1869

Wolfram|Alpha also takes the messy calculations out of Old and New Style dates. Should you trace your roots back before the use of the Gregorian calendar in a particular region, you can use Wolfram|Alpha to convert Old into New Style dates. You might find that your great grandfather, who weathered the Russian Revolution in Moscow, was born on a day when Western Europe was celebrating Christmas.

December 13, 1897 Julian calendar

Trying to read old handwritten documents can strain the eyes and the brain. Using Wolfram|Alpha’s word puzzle capabilities can help you narrow your options if a word is misspelled or only some letters are legible. For example, my grandfather had a habit of making his f, t, b, and h letters all appear about the same and, when reading his letters from World War II, interpreting his script can be a challenge. Telling Wolfram|Alpha what I know about a word—what it starts with or even which letters I’m unsure of—makes it easier to determine what he meant.

Grandfather's note

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words starting with mount

Go back just a couple of generations, and on just a single family group sheet, you may find some gloriously dated names in your tree, like Grandma Johanna and her sisters Wilhelmina, Ottillie, and Hortense. Wolfram|Alpha’s name database currently contains US name data dating back to 1880. Curious which of these family forenames might be returning to style? Try plugging the more archaic ones into Wolfram|Alpha in order to learn about their popularity trends. You will find that your Great Aunt Hortense wasn’t as unique as you thought, and Grandma Johanna’s name is coming back in fashion.

Ottillie, Wilhelmina, Hortense, Johanna

So, the next time you struggle to calculate an ancestor’s birth date or wonder how your poor grandfather coped with a name like “Abner”, head to Wolfram|Alpha to clarify and expand your understanding of your own universal microcosm: your family.

4 Comments

Very nice, thanks!

Posted by santi April 27, 2011 at 12:26 pm Reply

The family relations example is especially helpful to me – my family was always confused by what it means to be an x cousin, y removed. Wolfram|Alpha cleared our confusion with a neat diagram. http://goo.gl/zHNsq

Posted by Paul K April 27, 2011 at 12:51 pm Reply

Is there anything Wolfram Alpha can’t do? This is very cool; thank you for blogging about your experience discovering your family!

Posted by Joanna April 27, 2011 at 2:38 pm Reply

Impressive!!

Posted by Cheryl B April 28, 2011 at 10:21 pm Reply
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