The Priest and the CEO: Towards A Prehistory of Humanities Computing

Professor Jones shared his ongoing research project on early humanities compuuting. It’s the canonical founding myth of the digital humanities: In November 1949, the Italian Jesuit scholar, Father Roberto Busa, came to IBM headquarters in New York to meet with the founder and head of the company, Thomas J. Watson, Sr., seeking support for the project of mechanizing the building of a concordance to the collected works of St. Thomas Aquinas. Drawing on Father Busa’s papers, recently accessioned in Milan, as well as IBM archives and other sources, Professor Jones aims to complicate the myth with history. Based on a book in progress, this presentation looked at a few details of that 1949 meeting, using the metaphor of the exploded-view diagram used by engineers, descended from examples in the notebooks of Leonardo, for example, suspending and zooming in on a few constituent details in order to understand the story as part of a larger history of computing in the 1940s and 1950s, and as part of the prehistory of the digital humanities.