Wisnicki found Livingstone's 1871 diary, and with a team of experts used high-tech imaging technology to make the manuscript almost entirely legible for the first time since it was written.
"We have succeeded in transcribing and recovering more than 99 percent," Wisnicki said.
Livingstone's fatal illnesses affected his penmanship, made all the worse with smears, wear, and tear.
The diary faded quickly in the harsh heat and rain of Africa. It was returned to England with Livingstone's body in 1873 when he died in Africa from malaria and dysentery. Only 15 percent of the diary was legible when it reached his English publishers. The only parts they could read were text in margins where there was no newsprint.
Editors in the 19th century revised, edited, and even censored unflattering details to bolster Livingstone's reputation. What existed before Wisnicki's project was a third revision of a small portion of the diary that had been shuffled about and lost in the Livingstone archive for 30 years.
Wisnicki decided to find it.
Early on, he searched a Livingstone catalog for the diary, first by consulting an archive catalog that said it had been in an archive in London before it was transferred to the National Library of Scotland. Unable to find it at either place, Wisnicki visited the David Livingstone Centre in the explorer's birthplace near Glasgow, Scotland. There he and a volunteer archivist undertook an exhaustive search that produced several leaves from the diary.
It proved the diary likely existed in the vast archives, and, in time, the full 60 pages of one of Livingstone's final diaries had been recovered. The announcement in November that the diary had been rediscovered drew worldwide attention.
Wisnicki then faced the challenge of doing what scholars had been unable to do: Read the illegible manuscript in its entirety.
He assembled a team of 17 scholars, librarians, and imaging scientists to use computerized spectral-imaging technology, which can detect wavelengths of reflections, infrared to ultraviolet, when light is shined on the page. In a simple explanation of a complicated process, scientists flashed different colors of light on ink to cancel out newsprint interference and highlight Livingstone's badly faded handwriting.
One of the experts on the diary project was Roger L. Easton Jr., who also was involved in a project to transcribe the "Archimedes Palimpsest," a parchment text of the 10th-century mathematician/physicist that had been overwritten with religious text. Palimpsest is a manuscript with one text atop another, common practice in ancient times when parchment was rare and expensive.
Spectral-imaging technology can highlight illegible text and focus light at angles to analyze page topography to reveal folds, wrinkles, tears, and damage not apparent to the eye. Such information is important in determining the manuscript's history.
Besides providing scholars with new information about Livingstone's adventures, reactions, and comments about African culture, the project also advertises the potential of spectral imaging to transcribe illegible manuscripts written on paper, parchment, animal skins, or other surfaces.