Who Knew Whom

ORIGINS: author’s note

If Who Knew Whom had a single point of origin, it was the day, halfway around the world, that I stumbled against a book I’d had no idea existed, Lorenzo da Ponte’s Memoirs. Da Ponte (I knew) had collaborated with Mozart, and been Casanova’s friend. His account of his life turned out to be notable for its lack of perspective, but what startled me was the frontispiece in this edition: it showed da Ponte’s portrait, painted by Samuel F. B. Morse, of electric telegraph and Morse Code fame. I’d known of Morse’s artistic career, but what took my breath away was to realise that this early pioneer of the digital age had crossed paths with the man who wrote the words for The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosí Fan Tutte: I’d have thought of them as belonging to two entirely different times, places and cultural milieux.

There’s more to Who Knew Whom’s gestation than that, of course. For a start, I had been intrigued since the 1960’s by what I’d heard about Stanley Milgram’s intrepid research into social networks, and more recently had started to think that it would be interesting to use the Web as a vehicle to map out, bit by bit, the way that the lives of culturally-significant individuals had so often been intertwined. I love browsing knowledge, had been looking for a project to get my teeth into, and this territory of existing-but-disconnected information seemed something that could charted in a unifying way, but hadn’t been.


What we mean by ‘culture’ can be hard to define. The term itself is complex, as is what it conventionally describes. Raymond Williams, in a very thorough discussion of the term in his book Keywords, mentions “the senses of art and learning, or of a general process of human development”, and it is this particular sense that Who Knew Whom espouses. This site takes culture, Western or otherwise, as something continually evolving, and reliant not just on those whose achievements are considered most noteworthy, but on numberless others who kept the fires stoked. Who Knew Whom is particularly interested in those who provided a freshness of input, whose imaginative thought and action caused a difference to be made (however small) in the way we perceive, comprehend and engage with the world. And Who Knew Whom takes an inclusive view, that the shape of the territory is defined by inventors as much as by artists, by mathematicians as by musicians, by philosophers as by chemists, by engineers as by social reformers, and by all of those intriguing individuals whose field of practice evades easy classification.


Who Knew Whom is primarily interested in the simple fact of two individuals meaningfully crossing paths, to some extent regardless of the length and strength of any subsequent connection. Some met only briefly, others were lifelong companions. Despite Who Knew Whom’s best intentions, some valid connections will inevitably have been missed in the mapping. Other connections will have been set aside, either because too many doubts were raised about a particular individual’s significance, or because despite good evidence of an acquaintanceship existing, it could not be proven to our satisfaction.

Aside from that, the inclusion or otherwise of this or that individual does not reflect personal taste, but nonetheless has resulted from the kind of decision-making that depends partly at least on subjective judgement. The essential test has been: how much of a difference does it appear that this person made, to the culture of their time, to a longer-term view of the territory, or (when their individual achievements may seem relatively modest, but for example they were significant teachers or cultural ‘connectors’) to the tending of those cultural fires?

Although it is hoped that Who Knew Whom will shine a light on the nature and significance of cultural networks, the project as a whole should not be confused for a scientific examination of the territory. While Who Knew Whom strives to be factually rigorous, it is well aware of the potential for unintended slips, of arguments about inclusion or exclusion that could have been resolved differently, and not least, of its own character as a permanently incomplete project, with all the loose ends that that implies. For all these reasons, Who Knew Whom will always welcome corrective input from outside.


Who Knew Whom’s policy has been to conduct its research into acquaintanceships as far as possible on the web: not because information there is any more reliable than in other conventional sources (it isn’t: the need for evaluation is all the greater), but to make the project more manageable for what is essentially a one-person team, to enable good sources to be shared with users, and as an act of faith in the medium’s future.

In order to present a unified whole, rather than separate ‘islands’ of connectivity, all of the mapping of links between individuals has proceeded outwards from just two initial starting-points. Two acquaintanceships were chosen (somewhat arbitrarily), and everything has grown from there (the four individuals in question spanning two continents and over two centuries.) What had to be balanced was the desire for a historical, geographical and cultural spread, with the need for data on acquaintanceships to be relatively easily gained and substantiated.

The decision to grow outwards from these two ‘seeds’ was made on grounds of practicability, and not at all because of any wish to see ‘culture’ continue to be presented as an essentially western phenomenon, concentrated in historically recent times. The hope is that enough boundaries will prove transparent, and that good enough information will come to light with a broad geographical and historical reach, for a more fully comprehensive picture to emerge over time.

Who Knew Whom is anti-canonical, in that it has no desire to promote the notion of ‘approved’ views of culture. And it hopes to stay light on its feet, partly by offering users just enough information on individuals to get by with. Wherever possible, further links are given, so the picture can be fleshed out more. Links have been chosen for reliability and quality of information. Where good English-language sources could not be found, alternatives are offered (albeit only in a few other European tongues, reflecting the practical limitations of Who Knew Whom’s authorship.)


Anyone visiting the site is invited to contribute suggestions: whether to point out individuals who may have been missed but whose acquaintanceship with featured people can be demonstrated, to correct inaccuracies, to suggest better links for further information, or to tell us of broken links. If you like Who Knew Whom enough, please add a link from your own site: the more Who Knew Whom is connected to like-minded places, the more people are likely to find it, and the more we’ll feel we’re doing something worthwhile.