Roberto Busa dies aged 97

There are perhaps not many fields in the humanities that can trace their roots to certain individuals, collaborations, and innovative new approaches. But within the application of computing to humanities problems one name looms large.  Roberto Busa, one of the pioneers of humanities computing, died in Italy on Tuesday (November 13. 1913 – August 9, 2011).

Roberto Busa is considered by many to be the founder of the scholarly application of computing in the humanities and is most well-known for his collaborations with Thomas Watson, the founder IBM. This resulted in the Index Thomisticus, a complete lemmatization of the works of Saint Thomas Aquinas, the immensely influential 13th Century philosopher and theologian. The Index Thomisticus is a tool for doing sophisticated searches within the large corpus that eventually allowed the printed publication of the 56 Volumes of the Index in the 1970s; work that took almost 30 years until fruition.  An online version was released in 2005.

In 1956, Time Magazine wrote this about his collaboration with IBM.

But in seven years IBM technicians in the U.S. and in Italy, working with Busa, devised a way to do the job. The complete works of Aquinas will be typed onto punch cards; the machines will then work through the words and produce a systematic index of every word St. Thomas used, together with the number of times it appears, where it appears, and the six words immediately preceding and following each appearance (to give the context). This will take the machines 8,125 hours; the same job would be likely to take one man a lifetime…

Read more at Time Magazine.

The major prize in Digital Humanities field, the Roberto Busa award, is awarded every two years; the first was awarded to Roberto Busa himself in 1998; the next was awarded to the Australian, John Burrows for his groundbreaking work on stylometrics.

The next Roberto Busa prize, the highest honour in Digital Humanities, will be awarded at the Digital Humanities Conference in Hamburg, Germany in June 2012.

— Craig Bellamy


By Kathleen Fitzpatrick

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