The priest who developed hypertext

There is a fascinating article at the National Catholic Register (not to be confused with the National Schismatic Reporter aka Fishwrap) about the Jesuit priest who developed “hypertext”, which made it possible for use to use keyboards to enter data into our computers, etc.

Fr. Roberto Busa, SJ, was an amazing guy. Here is a sample:


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 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.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. juergensen says:

    Would that all Jesuits spent more time on computer science. :P

    [Do I hear an “Amen!”?]

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  2. iamlucky13 says:

    This is very cool.

    Keep in mind that the first electronic, general purpose computer, ENIAC, was completed in 1946. Only 3 years later and Father Busa had already conceptualized a way to semantically index text (as I understand the gist of his work). At the time he approached IBM, I think the number of computers equivalent to or better than ENIAC in the entire world could still be counted on both hands, almost all used for military cryptography or weapons development.

    More startling to me, this was 14 years before the modern ASCII text character encoding was created. He was thinking about how to organize and search text with computers over a decade before the computing world even got around to standardizing how to encode text in binary. That also probably meant he had to repeat no small amount of his work over time as the computing world evolved.

  3. Ben Kenobi says:

    Great comment, sir. I can’t comprehend trying to search characters without ASCII. No wonder IBM was baffled.

  4. JonPatrick says:

    Actually, encoding characters as binary goes back to the invention of the punched card in the 1920’s. Out of this came the binary coded decimal interchange code (BCDIC) based on a 6 bit code which corresponded to the holes punched on an IBM card. This was later extended to 8 bits (EBCDIC) and became the standard for IBM machines starting with the System/360 and is still in use today in the mainframe world.

    However until the ASCII standard was adopted there was no universal standard for interchanging data among different brands of computers as each company had their own BCD code. Back in the day it was IBM and the “7 dwarfs” – companies such as General Electric, Burroughs, RCA, etc. each of which had their own mainframe system. My first programming experience was on a GE 225 with a whopping 16K of main memory, probably less memory than the RFI chip in my credit card has.

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