Computing Profession

There Are No Digital Humanities

Herbert Bruderer

Digitization and the digital revolution are quite confusing. Probably most people believe that digital is something new. Many think that the opposite of digital is analog or mechanical. However, the forerunners of electronic or digital journals and books are printed works. I would not call them analog. Historians sometimes speak of a pre-digital era. Even museum experts are surprised when historical mechanical calculating machines are described as digital. For them, digital and electronic are synonymous. A new field of the humanities is named digital humanities.

However, the equation digital = new, analog = old does not work. Digital is not an achievement of the 21st century. Even the antique Salamis counting board (4th century BC) was digital. The abacus is regarded as the oldest digital calculating aid. The Romans also used digital bead frames. Similar devices are still offered today at flea markets. Digital calculating machines already appeared in the 17th century (inventions by Wilhelm Schickard, Blaise Pascal, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz). In 1614, the Scotsman John Napier invented the digital Napier rods, which were used for a long time for multiplication and division. Since the middle of the 19th century mechanical calculating machines have been mass-produced in France (Thomas Arithmometer, patent 1820). Charles Babbage's (unfinished) analytical engine (1834) and a similar machine of the Spanish engineer Leonardo Torres Quevedo (1920) were also digital, as were the widely used punch card machines (Herman Hollerith, 1890).

Digitalization is therefore nothing new. The first mathematical instrument was not an analog but a digital device, the abacus. Significant phases of digitization began in the 1940s and 1950s with the advent of relay and vacuum tube computers. The shift from mechanics to electronics, which began mainly in the 1970s, replaced analog slide rules and digital mechanical calculators with digital electronic computers. For many years, analog and digital electronic computers competed against each other.

In my opinion, the humanities are neither analog nor digital. They are increasingly using digital resources. It would be better to speak of computer-aided or computer-assisted humanities. The pre-digital era must have been before the Greek abacus…


Herbert Bruderer is a retired lecturer in didactics of computer science at ETH Zürich. More recently, he has been an historian of technology.,

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