Holy Hypertext

Fr. Busa presenting.

In 1946, Fr. Busa started work on his magnus opus―the Index Thomisticus―as a literary and research tool to search all of St. Thomas Aquinas’ written works. This would be providential more for us than him but, sometimes that’s how Providence works.

The Index Thomisticus is considered the beginning of the field of computational linguistics. The total work contained approximately 11 million words, each morphologically tagged and lemmatized by hand.

The project comprised of over 500,000 lines. He started his task by using 10,000 index cards.

In 1949, Fr. Busa met Thomas J. Watson, the founder of IBM, and convinced him to sponsor the Index Thomisticus Project.

The two met in IBM’s New York City office. Fr. Busa asked Watson to team up on a project that would make word searches on a computer possible. Mr. Watson shook his head and said, “It’s impossible for machines to do what you are suggesting. You are claiming to be more American than us.”

The difficult, we do it immediately. The impossible takes a little longer.

The Jesuit did not give up and slid a punched card bearing the multinational company’s motto, promulgated by Watson himself, towards the CEO. It read: “The difficult, we do it immediately. The impossible takes a little longer.”

Fr. Busa turned to leave in a bid to challenge him. And, as one doesn’t turn down Jesuits easily, Watson rose to the challenge saying: “All right, Father. We will try. But on one condition: you must promise that you will not change IBM’s acronym for International Business Machines, into International Busa Machines.”

And, upon that fateful day, at that fateful moment, in a handshake between colleagues and geniuses, the computer became a great deal more “user friendly.” The result of this meeting was “hypertext”—the overall structure of pieces of information displayed on a computer display, or other electronic devices, with references (hyperlinks) to other text which the reader can immediately access, linked to each other by dynamic connections that may be consulted on a computer at the click of a mouse.

National Catholic Register; h/t to Fr. Z.