Originally published 07/30/2013
Meredith Hindley is senior writer of HUMANITIES magazine.Stephen Mitchell suffered from allergies. “When the trees come out, I can’t see. People stand around saying, ‘Isn’t it lovely,’ but I weep,” he told the New York Times in 1965. A thirty-five-year-old professor at Syracuse University, he found sanctuary in the temperature-controlled environment of the school’s computer center, where he surprised many people by showing how computers could be used to advance work in the humanities.Each year, the Modern Language Association compiled a bibliography of every book, article, and review published during the year prior. Assembling the bibliography from more than 1,150 periodicals and making the accompanying index was an enormous undertaking, and it was all done by hand. Mitchell thought he could automate the process, and MLA agreed to let him try. He spent weeks translating the names of editors, translators, and authors into punch cards and writing the program to interpret the data. Then it was all over in twenty-three minutes. That’s how long it took the computer to compile and print the index, which ran to 18,001 entries.