In 1946, when computers were few enormous machines, oddly slow by today's standards, and the Internet wasn't even an idea, a young Italian Jesuit priest planned to use machines and language elaboration for a titanic enterprise: organising the immense work of St Thomas Aquinas.
Thanks to Thomas Watson, the founder of IBM, in 1949, when he published his degree thesis in Philosophy at the Gregorian University of Rome, entitled The Thomistic Terminology of Interiority, Fr Roberto Busa could start his work.
Index Thomisticus was completed just 30 years later, now considered an outstanding milestone in Informatics and computing in humanities.
Born in 1913 in Asiago Plateau of Vicenza, Fr Busa died on August 9. In facing Aquinas' work, the real challenge for him was lemmatisation (grouping together the different inflected forms of a word so they can be analysed as a single item), something it requires in using computer an algorithmic process of determining the lemma for a given word.
Wikipedia summarises the fruits of his work, started using punch cards, then magnetic tapes: in 1980 the 56 printed volumes of the Index Thomisticus, in 1989 a CD-ROM version followed, and a DVD version is underway. In 2005 a web-based version made its debut, while in 2006 the Index Thomisticus Treebank project (directed by Marco Passarotti) started the syntactic annotation of the entire corpus.
Dr Ernesto Priego, scholar of the Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory and co-founder and editor of The Comics Grid, explains why Fr Busa was an outstanding pioneer, who deeply influenced him: "Most people would first think of Ted Nelson and Tim Berners-Lee as the 'founding fathers' of hypertext and the internet.
But it is true that Fr Busa, an Italian Jesuit priest and theology scholar, anticipated them in connecting the dots between informatics and the written word", he says.
FULL OBITUARY: Father Busa, pioneer of computing in humanities with Index Thomisticus, dies at 98 (Forbes)
Corpus Thomisticum Index Thomisticus
Index Thomisticus Treebank