The Priest and the Punched Cards

The Priest and the Punched Cards

Chief Operator Betsy Stewart at the control console of the IBM SSEC, IBM World Headquarters, 590 Madison Avenue, New York, 1948. [IBM Archives]

Founding co-director of Loyola’s Center for Textual Studies and Digital Humanities Steve Jones recently published Roberto Busa, S.J., and the Emergence of Humanities Computing: The Priest and the Punched Cards (Routledge, 2016). In this groundbreaking book, Jones re-evaluates the origins of humanities computing, specifically the role Father Busa played in establishing computing based textual analysis. Researching in archives on two continents, Jones uncovers a fascinating story at the intersection of religion, technology, and human endeavor. DH scholars have heralded the book, calling it “a work of scholarship that is as lively and atmospheric (and compelling) as a novel." CTSDH Summer Fellow and Loyola PhD student Sebastian Wuepper recently caught up with Jones to talk to him about the book ...

Your previous book, The Emergence of the Digital Humanities, examined a profound shift in our collective understanding of the digital network over the past decade. Why did you chose to follow it with this book on Roberto Busa, S.J.?

The 2014 book was about the contexts for the new digital humanities that emerged about 2004–2008. It looked at the connections between changes in technology (and cultural perceptions of technology) and the rise of this new interdisciplinary formation—complete with programs, funding, venues for publication, and new research methods and forms of pedagogy. DH, as it has been called, didn’t emerge in a vacuum, but in the context of specific technologies, platforms, and cultural developments. I thought the same would hold for what was repeatedly cited as the origin story or founding myth of humanities computing, the collaboration between Father Roberto Busa, an Italian Jesuit, and IBM, a project aimed at using the company’s punched-card data-processing machines to produce a massive concordance to the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, starting in 1949. In other words, I applied the same approach I had taken in the previous book, but to the earlier era, that mid-century moment of data processing. I say in the book that it’s not a biography of Father Busa, but it is a kind of biography of his research project in its first decade, 1949–1959. I set out to complicate that founding myth with some history. I started by exploring the technology platforms involved, to begin with, punched-card machinery, which was technically not yet computing but was a form of data processing. Busa was among the first to apply these kinds of machines to the study of natural language.

Is it surprising to you that a Jesuit scholar served as a founding father of humanities computing?

As I say, this was taken for granted by many scholars working in digital humanities—and “founding father” is of course the right term, in more than one sense. But in recent years, people have pointed out that there are other possible origin stories for DH, alternative genealogies—starting in media and film studies, for example, or in speculative and experimental work in writing and theory, and often running though what would later be called “alt-ac” or alternative academic work, in labs and libraries, workshops and media centers. Some of these alternative genealogies challenge the centrality of Father Busa and IBM, and rightly so. I wanted to complicate that story and restore its human dimensions in part in order to situate it as one among various alternative histories of humanities computing and digital humanities. But to get back to your question: it’s not at all surprising that Busa’s Jesuit training and calling would have prepared him to undertake such an international, interdisciplinary, heavily networked project at the boundary of science and technology and the humanities. As I understand it. that’s in keeping with Jesuit history and culture, going back centuries.

What were the most significant challenges in working on this project?

One issue is how recent and yet elusive this history is. Father Busa died in 2011, and some of his papers and archives continue to be accessioned and processed at his home institution at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan. Thanks to Dr. Marco Passarotti, the correspondence and other documents (and, by the way, about 1000 fascinating professional-quality photographs, some of which I have on view at the book’s website) have been made available to scholars in recent years. But much remains unprocessed. When I was working there last year, a Jesuit showed up at the Center one morning to donate a bundle of Busa’s papers—literally wrapped in brown paper and tied with string—containing some new letters and other documents! There’s clearly a lot more out there. Also, 1949 is, on the one hand, recent history, but on the other hand, it’s just long ago enough that many of the people involved—including Father Busa himself—are no longer with us. And not just people. Last year I was able to visit the building outside Milan in which Busa started the first humanities computing center, what he called the Center for Literary Data Processing. Since then, alas, it has been demolished.

What was the biggest surprise?

One realization (not exactly a surprise, given the culture of early computing) was how dependent Busa’s research center was on scores of young women who were trained as skilled operators of the punched-card machinery. Some of these women are still around and colleagues in London have been identifying and interviewing them about their experiences for eventual publication. I was fortunate enough to benefit from those transcripts in progress as I wrote the book.

There were many specific historical and biographical surprises. For example, I learned from the letters that Father Busa suffered what he called a “nervous breakdown” in 1959 as a result of his intense schedule and work on the newly discovered Dead Sea Scrolls. In fact, like most people, I suspect, I had been unaware of that second major project—applying the techniques of literary data processing to the study of the scrolls—in part because it was halted in the 1960s and never resulted in publication. The punched cards and magnetic tapes and facsimiles of some of the scrolls are still there in metal file cabinets in Milan and I was able to examine them. At around the same time, at the height of the Cold War, Father Busa himself brokered a deal between an IBM-sponsored linguistics lab at Georgetown University and the new European Atomic Energy Community at Ispra, Italy, where they were working on machine translation of Russian texts. So, the first humanities computing center received some funding directly from this Cold War project. In general, humanities computing was more than an academic practice. It emerged in the contexts of the postwar period and the Cold War, as well as the material contexts of those punched-card machines and early room-sized computers. The detailed history is much messier—and much more interesting—than the founding myth.

A copy of the introduction to the book is available for reading here. To see rare images of Busa and the technology he employed, visit Jones’ Tumblr for the book.