The Rise of the Machines


Meredith Hindley in Humanities:

In the years following World War II, the sciences—physical, biological, and social—embraced computers to work on complex calculations, but it took the humanities a little longer to see the value of computing. One of the biggest challenges for humanists was the question of how to turn language, the core operating system of the humanities, into numbers in order to be compiled and calculated. At this point in the history of computing, all data had to be in numerical form. It’s not sur-prising, then, that some of the first humanities projects were indexes and concordances, since the location of a word could be given a numerical value.

The first concordance was made for the Vulgate Bible, under the direction of Hugo of St-Cher, a Dominican scholar of theology and member of the faculty at the University of Paris. When completed in 1230, theConcordantiae Sacrorum Bibliorum enabled the Dominicans to locate every mention of “lamb” or “sacrifice” or “adultery.” According to legend, five hundred monks toiled to complete the concordance. Herein lay the challenge of making concordances and indexes: You either had to command a team of multitudes or be willing to devote yourself to the project for years. John Bartlett, he of the Familiar Quotations, spent two decades working with his wife on the first full Shakespeare concordance. The volume, given the unwieldy name of New and Complete Concordance or Verbal Index to Words, Phrases and Passages in the Dramatic Works of Shakespeare, with a supplementing concordance to his poems (1894), ran to 1,910 pages.

The story of digital humanities often begins with another theologian on a quest to make a concordance. In the mid 1940s, Father Roberto Busa, an Italian Jesuit priest, latched onto the idea of making a master index of works by Saint Thomas Aquinas and related authors. Busa had written his dissertation on “the metaphysics ofpresence” in Aquinas. Looking for the answer, he created 10,000 hand-written index cards. His work demonstrated the importance of how an author uses a particular word, especially prepositions. But making an index for all of Aquinas’s works required wrangling ten million words of Medieval Latin. It seemed an impossible task.

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