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Digital Humanities: From 1851?

May 17th, 2013 · No Comments

Starting about 1990, I began doing something that is now called digital humanities.  In a blog post from October 2012, I traced the history of digital humanities from the present back to the late 1940s, locating its origin in Father Roberto Busa, who worked with IBM on a punch-card concordance of the works of Thomas Aquinas, which you can now find online, in searchable database form.

In this blog post, however, I am going to suggest that we might want to push that point of origin for digital humanities back further—almost a hundred years, to 1851.

Recently, I gave a talk about the history of digital humanities at the University of Maryland at College Park. Preparing for that talk, I was looking for parallels or points of connection between the history of computation in life sciences and in the humanities.  There are some, and that’ll be the subject of a future blog post.  But as part of my research for that event, I re-read Susan Hockey’s excellent chapter on the history of digital humanities, in the Blackwell Companion to Digital Humanities.

Here I was surprised to see something I’d missed before, namely evidence that digital humanities might go back at least to 1901, when The Popular Science Monthly (60: 97–105) published “A Mechanical Solution of a Literary Problem” by T.C. Mendenhall. In this essay, Mendenhall describes an experiment in which “two ladies computed the number of words of two letters, three, and so on in Shakespeare, Marlowe, Bacon, and many other authors in an attempt to determine who wrote Shakespeare.”  Tracking down the article and reading it revealed that the counting was carried out by “Mrs. Richard Mitchell and Miss Amy C. Whitman, of Worcester, Massachusetts,” with a particular focus on the number of times the author used words of different lengths:

After some preliminary work the counting of Shakespeare was seriously begun, and the result from the start with the first group of a thousand words was a decided surprise.  Two things appeared from the beginning: Shakespeare’s vocabulary consisted of words whose average length was a trifle below four letters, less than that of any writer of English before studied; and his word of greatest frequency was the four-letter word, a thing never met with before.
(Popular Science)

Actually, Mendenhall began this line of work with a publication in Science, fourteen years earlier, called “The Characteristic Curves of Composition”  (11 March 1887: Vol. ns-9 no. 214S pp. 237-246 DOI:10.1126/science.ns-9.214S.237).

As far as I can tell, though, the inspiration for this line of research goes back another thirty years, to the work of Augustus de Morgan, a mathematician who seems first to have described the basic insight in 1851, in a letter to a friend (Rev. W. Heald) reproduced in his wife’s Memoir of Augustus de Morgan, 215-216:


Others evincing an interest in such matters, in the intervening 50 years (e.g. Conrad Mascol, aka William B. Smith, 1888; C. Mascol, “Curves of Pauline and Pseudo-Pauline Style I,” Unitarian Review 30 (November 1888): 452–60; Mascol, “Curves of Pauline and Pseudo-Pauline Style II,” Unitarian Review 30 (December 1888): 539–46) seem to have been exploring de Morgan’s insight in a religious, rather than a secular context (c.f., Stylometric Analyses of the Book of Mormon: A Short History G. Bruce SchaaljeMatthew Roper, and Paul J. Fields, Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture: Volume – 21Issue – 1, Pages: 28–45, Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute, 2012).

Now, nobody called any of this “digital humanities” in 1851, or in 1901.  When they named it, they called it stylometry:


…and we still do it, and the literary and linguistic contingent now considers it to be a sort of foundational sub-discipline of digital humanities.  Typically, Ted Underwood was here before me, tweeting recently about L. A. Sherman, Analytics of Literature, 1893. Said Ted: “He spends a lot of time measuring sentence length, proportion of subordination/coordination, and so on.”

I wouldn’t want to leave this topic without visiting a couple of sidelights, the first being that TC Mendenhall was a really interesting guy — a self-made physicist, a founding faculty member at Ohio State, a president of the AAAS, has a glacier named after him, won a prestigious medal in Geography, and served as president of WPI until 1901, when he wrote an article about the sort of experiment that essentially founded digital humanities.  We could have a symposium about the professionalization of intellectual work based on contrasting that man’s biography with the current constitution of the academic’s identity.

And here’s the other sidelight:


This is a picture from my childhood: it shows my father, in the middle, with his hands on the shoulder of a Smith student who is holding a flag, at a protest against the draft, in Northampton, in 1970.  To his left is Tom Mendenhall, then President of Smith, who is insisting on the first amendment rights of the young man on my father’s right who appears to be reading the newspaper.  At the time, I was 12 years old.  Tom (Thomas Corwin) Mendenhall is the grandson of the TC Mendenhall who wrote the 1901 article that Susan Hockey cited that I didn’t originally notice in the book that I co-edited.  Happily, a second edition is in the works.

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