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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
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