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The computer was originally invented to do just that: compute. Numerical calculations were its sole intended purpose, and words were never in the realm of consideration as something to be used by computers. If not for Thomas Aquinas and a Jesuit priest, you might not have been able to read this article.

Father Roberto Busa was a Jesuit priest who pioneered the usage of computers for linguistic and literary analysis. Busa was born on November 28, 1913, in Vicenza, Italy and died in August of 2011. In 1928, he entered seminary and five years later in 1933 he entered the Society of Jesus, finally ordained to the priesthood in 1940.

His life’s work was the Index Thomisticus, a complete literary index of all of Aquinas’ Summa that would allow one to perform textual searches within the Angelic Doctor’s massive corpus of work.

Aquinas’ work totals one and a half million lines with over nine million words. In authoring his Index Thomisticus, he had compiled 10,000 index cards on the preposition “in” alone. He had looked unsuccessfully for a tool to connect fragments of Aquinas’ thought to others to compare them across his works.

In 1949, Father Busa went on a trip to the United States, and met with IBM founder Thomas Watson. In the magnate’s New York office, Watson listened to the Jesuit’s request to add the use of words to the recently-invented computer in order to complete his magnum opus. Watson replied at the seemingly-incredulous request: “it is impossible for the machines to do what you are suggesting – you are claiming to be more American than us.”

Busa expressed his disappointment,  sliding across the table a punched card bearing the IBM slogan coined by Watson himself: “the difficult, we do it immediately, the impossible takes a little longer.”

Watson was inspired, and said “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.”

Busa challenging IBM resulted in the invention of hypertext, textual references to pieces of information on a computer. 57 printed volumes of the Index Thomisticus and a CD-ROM were eventually released.

Stefano Lorenzetto from the L’Osservatore Roman summarized the massive significance of Busa’s work:

“If you browse the internet, you owe it to him; if you go from one site to another by clicking the links marked in blue, you owe it to him. If you use your PC to write emails and text documents, you owe it to him.”

A web version the Index Thomisticus by Father Roberta Busa is available for anyone to use here.

Read below the account of Busa’s meeting with IBM founder Thomas Watson by himself:

“I knew, the day I was to meet Thomas J. Watson, Sr., that he had on his desk a report which said that IBM machines could never do what I wanted. I had seen in the waiting room a small poster imprinted with the words, “the difficult we do right away; the impossible takes a little longer,” (IBM always loved slogans). I took it with me into Mr. Watson’s office. Sitting in front of him and sensing the tremendous power of his mind, I was inspired to say: “It is not right to say ‘no’ before you have tried.” I took out the poster and showed him his own slogan. He agreed that IBM would cooperate with my project until it was completed “provided that you do not change IBM into International Busa Machines.” I had already informed him that, because my superiors had given me time, encouragement, their blessings and much holy water, but unfortunately no money, I could recompense IBM in any way except financially. That was providential!”

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