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Main | Resources | 2012 Roundtable | Contact | Contact Members

Digital Humanities Caucus

Digital Origin Stories

This entry is part of the American Studies and Digital Humanities 2012 Roundtable.

It's true of superheroes. It's also true of scholarly fields. Each one has its origin story. So in this post, I'll present two such tales: one about the origin of the digital, and the other about the origin of the digital humanities. Then, in our session at the ASA, I'll suggest a few ways in which we might, through the lens of American Studies, refract both stories into something more complex-- and consequently, more meaningful-- for understanding today's digital world.

The first origin story begins in June, 1945, at the height of the war in the Pacific. Allied forces in Germany had only just assumed control of the recently defeated nation, and in the United States, citizens continued to mourn the loss of FDR, their wartime commander in chief. In this midst of this global tumult, six women were summoned to the U.S. Army's Ballistics Research Laboratory in Aberdeen, Maryland, where they were assigned to the top-secret “Project X.” As the women would soon discover, Project X was the code name for the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) project, an enterprise that would culminate in the world's first electronic, digital, and programmable computer. Upon its completion, in 1946, the ENIAC machine was immediately deployed to calculate the firing tables required for targeting the Army's long-range ballistic weapons. However, the “ENIAC girls,” as the women who operated the machine were known, would be acknowledged for their pioneering role in the history of computing-- for they were the world's first computer programmers-- only fifty years after the fact.

The origins of the digital humanities are most often traced to three years after ENIAC, in 1949, when an Italian Jesuit priest, Father Roberto Busa, approached IBM with an idea to employ a computer to compile an index verborum of the complete works of Thomas Aquinas-- nearly eleven million words of medieval Latin. This story, replete with anecdotes about punch-cards trucked through narrow, sixteenth-century streets, and a meeting between Busa and the CEO of IBM himself, establishes intellectual ambition, technological resourcefulness, and a not insignificant amount of whimsy as the foundational values in the field. Taken together, these stories reveal a complex prehistory of the digital, one that is shot through with contradiction. And what I'll suggest during our session at the ASA is that there remains an uncharted space in American Studies for scholarship-- significantly, of a variety of forms-- that can engage the history illuminated by the women of ENIAC, Father Busa, and digital culture more generally conceived.

By Lauren Klein, Tue, November 13, 2012 - 5:05 pm


  1. //  Cant you desist from cheap crap you filth. if you want to have such an elmpaxe why dont you fantasise it with your mother’s or your wife’s booby.//That was an analogy, if you can’t read it and make sense of it you please desist from making statements.Comming to your arguments://What really irritates me is the “halo” ness painted by some people here on Isreal. //What kind of haloness has been painted ? would be kind enough to explain ?If its democracy, please show one democratic nation in the arab world surrounding israel, I will eat my words.Even your Haaretz is published from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and not Jeddah!//I am also a strong supporter of capitalist but that does not mean we have to support everything and anything Isreal has done or we have to praise everything and anything right wing countries and people do.It is highly ridiculous to think your capitalistic credentials will get defiled if we speak against isreal.//Here there is no question of Capitalism.For your information, Israel has one of the powerful labor unions called And many policies that provides health care to the poor and unemployed. They have an elaborate social security as well. Your perception that Zionism is complete right wing opression ideology is totally wrong. The histradut is part of which is a powerful left wing zionist movement.//Just because the jews own some 1967 war that too with sophisticated weaponary against bunch of crude warriors like Egypt and jordan does not necessciate a great admiration for that country.The recent history has shown that they could not even stand againsta unorganised band of hezabollah. That sense of admiration is as ridiculous as saying just because hezabollahs pumped up crude rockets against isreal we have to admire hezabollah.//None of your points seems to stand to test with even a cursory knowledge of reality.The 1967 war or Israel had only 264,000 ground troops including reserved forces, The combined ground troop of Syria, Jordan, and Iraq numbered 280,000 without their reserved forces.Israel had only 197 combat aircrafts, where as the arab armies had 812 of sophesticated russian air crafts.They really deserve an admiration.Although i do not agree with Israel’s modus operandi on wars with terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, their fight is for their survival. If they are seen week, the arabs will bay for more blood. The 2006 lebanon war indeed was a turning point for my views on israel’s policy and the message it passed to its neighbors is worth learning particularly for India which is infact is one nation that has the longest history of islamic terrorism.//No western nation has recognized palestine as a country so the notion of two nation theory so far has not been given sanctimonious blessing by the elite countries then how can you expect Iran or other Islamic countries to do the same with Isreal.//Please ask why Iran and other arab/non arab islamic nations that oppose Israel’s right to exist are opposed to the birth of an independant palestinian state ?//Any problem in the world could be solved but not this one unless and until the whole security council is revamped with more saner voices with veto power.// The securiy council does not need lunatic lefties, if thats what you consider saner voices.

    Comment by Auroragadiezt on Fri, November 08, 2013 at 5:17 pm


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