Fr. Roberto Busa, Jesuit who invented computer language dead at 97

When Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin, died in 1955, a Milan newspaper headlined, “Stop the reader! Fleming has died; maybe you, too, owe your life to him.” A similar phrase could be used today for all those who at this moment are in front of their computers. If a technological holiness exists, I believe I have had the privilege of meeting it: it had the face of Fr. Busa. So kneel down you too, reader, in front of the mortal remains of this old priest, linguist, philosopher and computer expert. If you surf the Internet, it is thanks to him. If you jump from one site to another, clicking on links highlighted in blue, it is thanks to him. If you use a pc to write emails and documents, it is thanks to him. If you can read this article, it is thanks to him.

The computer was born originally only for the purpose of making calculations – to compute, hence its name: computer.  But Fr. Busa instilled it with the gift of words. It was 1949. The Jesuit had it in mind to analyze the complete works of St. Thomas: one and a half million lines, nine million words (compared to just 100,000 of the Divine Comedy). He had already compiled 10,000 index cards by hand, just for the inventory of the preposition “in” which he considered important from a philosophical point of view. He was looking for a way to connect single fragments of Aquinas’ thought with other sources.

On a trip to the United States, Fr. Busa asked to meet Thomas Watson, founder of IBM. The magnate received him in his office in New York. Listening to the Italian priest’s request, Watson shook his head, “It’s not possible to make a machine do what you are asking. You are more American than we are!” Fr. Busa then took a business card out of his pocket, which he had found on a desk with the motto of IBM, coined by the boss, “Think.” And the phrase, “The difficult we can do immediately, the impossible takes a little longer.” He gave it back to Watson, disappointed. [more]


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