Virtual Time Machine

Researchers at NC State combine technology and scholarship to re-create St. Paul's Cathedral in 17th century London as well as a famous speech that was delivered there.

RALEIGH – It’s pretty common to hear a researcher who is studying an event in history say, “I wish I had a time machine to go back there and see what actually happened!”

It turns out researchers at North Carolina State University may have the next best thing in the Teaching and Visualization Lab in the Hunt Library. Walk in, and you can go back in time to wherever your imagination and research needs take you.

“It’s a room in which you’re filled with the ability to do 270 degree visualizations around the room,” says David Hiscoe, Director of Communications Strategies, North Carolina State University Libraries. “And in addition to the giant screens that surround most of the room, there is also a great sound system where you can create sonic environments for that 270 degree visualization. So this allows you to create visualizations and recreations of a historic moment.”

The lab isn’t limited to research into history. Classes in architecture, engineering and forestry are also using the lab. It’s an effective tool for researchers to gain a new perspective because it is able to place them in the middle of the subject being studied.

But for this project, with a few clicks of a computer, we’re going back in time to 17th century London. It’s the next best thing to being there.

The 3-D images are stunning. The program places you in the middle of square in the center of London. There are English Tudor, two-story houses and shops ringing one side of the room. St. Paul’s Cathedral rises on the other side. A small, stone building with large windows all around and a cross sitting atop a rounded roof sits off to the right of the courtyard. There is a person standing inside the small building who appears to be speaking.

Shadowy images of people cluster around the building and fill the courtyard. I hear the speaker along with the sounds of birds and horses all around me.

“Oh Lord, open our minds and hearts,” the speaker is saying.

“This is the courtyard of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London,” says Dr. John Wall, Professor of English at North Carolina State University and the leader of the Virtual St. Paul’s Cross Project. “This is the place where the general population of England comes in contact with the government and the official state church.”

The courtyard is the crossroads of the city and so it has become the focal point of social, political and religious life. The small building in the courtyard is called St. Paul’s Cross. It’s a freestanding outdoor pulpit, where large crowds gather to hear sermons on Sundays and special religious days. The speeches are two hours long and focus not only on saving souls but also on explaining royal policies. After the Reformation, religion and politics were closely linked in England.

“These speeches are very important in terms of understanding how the government and the church and the ordinary religious life of Londoners all came together,” adds Dr. Wall. "One of the basic questions we had when we started this had to do with acoustics and how many people can hear an unamplified human voice in the outdoors in this space.”

That question is especially important on the date that is recreated by this research project. It is November 5, 1622.

King James is trying to hold the British Empire together during an unstable time. The King asked John Donne to preach a sermon reassuring citizens about the King’s religious alliances and reasserting the King’s power in religious and political affairs. Donne is a prominent lawyer, poet, Anglican priest and Dean of the Cathedral. 

The speech was so significant, it was captured in paintings. Scholars wanted to know how such an important event actually happened.

With no time machine available, NC State researchers used historic documents as well as those paintings and drawings from the time to virtually recreate the courtyard and St. Paul’s Cross. The actual Cathedral burned to the ground in the Great Fire of London in 1666, 44 years after Donne delivered his sermon.

“We started by measuring the foundation for the original cathedral, which is still in the ground, and then turned to drawings made by a well known architect,” explains David Hill, Professor or Architecture at North Carolina State University. “Materially, we know the church was built with stone and the material for the surrounding buildings we know from drawings at the time.”

Once the virtual setting was completed, an actor was hired to deliver the speech. The recording combined with the virtual recreation of the courtyard answered the project’s primary question. It turns out Reverend Donne could so effectively reach his audience because the courtyard created a stadium effect.

“We know the church being made of stone had a pretty high reflective property so the sounds bounced off it,” says Hill. “But we wanted to understand once the sound was projected, how long would it take to reverb.”

Sound engineers in Boston assigned material properties to all of the structures created in the digital model as well as the ground and the people in the square. Once engineers determined how much sound everything could absorb, they projected the recording into the digital space. Researchers could really understand what happened on that November day almost 400 years ago. It didn’t take long to realize how many people could hear the speech and how far away people could stand to understand what was being said. The courtyard was a very effective platform for getting information to the people. Several thousand people could hear the same sermon, and from the Kings standpoint, the same message, at one time.

Researchers also discovered that Reverend Donne needed to tailor his preaching style to the courtyard. Speakers had to project and preach at a very deliberate pace, pronouncing each word slowly and distinctly so each word didn’t get lost in the echo of the word that went before it.

“Combine the physical properties of the space with the deliberate speaking style that also included dramatic pauses to allow for the ringing of the church bells, and you realize how effective this space was for very large crowds,” adds Dr. Wall. “There really was no better place for the state and the church and the congregation to come together. And that’s how the St. Paul’s Cross sermon made its mark in English culture in this period.”


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