Tuesday 15 October 2013

For Ada Lovelace Day – Father Busa’s Female Punch Card Operatives

15th October 2013 is Ada Lovelace Day – the annual celebration of women in science, technology, engineering and maths, named after Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer.  Working with Charles Babbage in 1840, Lovelace understood the significance of his Analytical Engine (a machine that can conduct a number of different functions, such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division) and its implications for computational method. She saw that via the punched card input device the Analytical Engine opened up a whole new opportunity for designing machines that could manipulate symbols rather than just numbers. Lovelace attempted to draw together romanticism and rationality to create a ‘poetical science’ that allowed mathematics and computing to explore the world around us, recognizing the potential for a move away from pure calculation to computation, and possessing a vision that foretold how computing could be used in creative areas such as music and literature.

It seems apposite on Ada Lovelace day to look at some female punchcard operators from the very first days of available electronic computation, working on one of the first "poetical science" projects in "Humanities Computing". From 1949, an Italian Jesuit priest called Father Roberto Busa (November 13, 1913 – August 9, 2011) pioneered the use of computing for linguistic and literary analysis, teaming up with IBM to produce an index of the works of St Thomas Aquinas. Thomas Aquinas wrote some 9 million words of medieval Latin, and so Busa’s project to index his works via computational methods took over 30 years, being one of the earliest and most ambitious projects in the field which is now called Digital Humanities

To produce an index, the works of St Thomas Aquinas had to be encoded onto punchcards, and Marco Passarotti, from the CIRCSE Research Centre, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milan, Italy (where the Index Thomisticus Treebank project is hosted), explains how this happened:
Once, I was told by father Busa that he was used to choose young women for punching cards on purpose, because they were more careful than men. Further, he chose women who did not know Latin, because the quality of their work was higher than that of those who knew it (the latter felt more secure while typing the texts of Thomas Aquinas and, so, less careful). These women were working on the Index Thomisticus, punching the texts on cards provided by IBM. Busa had created a kind of "school for punching cards" in Gallarate. That work experience gave these women a professionally transferable and documented skill attested to by Father Busa himself.
Update! (23/1013): We now know the name of the woman top left: Livia Canestraro. She also appears in many of the pictures below.

Livia Canestraro
Livia Canestraro, above and below.
Update! (23/1013): We now know the name of the woman back left: Rosetta Rossi Bertolli. Livia Canestraro is bottom right, and below.

Update! (23/1013): We now know the name of the woman second from the left: Gisa Crosta.

These previously unpublished images come from the archive of Father Busa and date from the late 1950s and early 1960s. Taken in Gallarate, Italy, they show the ranks of women involved in encoding and checking the punchcard content of Thomas Aquinas’ works. The women can also be seen demonstrating the technologies to visiting dignitaries, and overseeing the loading of the punchcards into the mainframe.

We don’t know the names of these women: further research and enquiries are ongoing to try to establish their identities, and their role in the project. However, it shouldn’t be that surprising to us that women were so important in Father Busa’s pioneering computing project: in the early 1960s computer programmers were commonly women.   It’s pleasing to show on Ada Lovelace Day how important women were to one of the first projects in my academic field - look at the scale of the operation! - although further research is needed to uncover the role and responsibilities of women in this project: the majority of them seen here are doing data entry, albeit in a skilled and new format. The project certainly could not have happened without their input.

The images shown here are kindly made available under a Creative Commons CC-BY-NC license by permission of  CIRCSE Research Centre, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milan, Italy. For further information, or to request permission for reuse, please contact Marco Passarotti, on marco.passarotti AT unicatt.it, or by post: Largo Gemelli 1, 20123 Milan, Italy. This year is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Father Busa, which will be celebrated with a workshop in Sofia on the Annotation of Corpora for Research in the Humanities.


Emile de Bruijn said...

Wonderful images. It feels like steam punk, a parallel world: a factory hall, women in white coats, chunky electronic machines connected via cables dangling down from the ceiling - and yet this was the reality of creating a database in the 1960s.

Samartha said...

The women in white, surrounded (overlooked, but not overshadowed) by the dark-suited men, typing a medieval work into a maching.....these are really powerful images. It must have been a surreal experience, being one of those women - any first-hand accounts left?

maurizio lana said...

wrote to a friend of mine who was in touch with gallarate and father busa: many of those women should be already alive and should be possible to give a name to at least some of them.
more news in the next days, i hope
maurizio l.