An extract from “What Have the Digital Humanities Done For Us?” aka My First Essay.

“Computers now began to be used not just for the production of concordances but also for the analysis of text to determine authorship. In 1962 Alvar Ellegård used the computer for a disputed authorship study into the Junius Letters, a series of political letters written in the 1770s by an unknown author lambasting figures in the government of the time. Whilst the bulk of Ellegård’s work was done by hand count, a computer was used to supply calculations that assisted in creating an overall picture of the vocabulary [Hockey, 2004, p.5]

In 1964 the statisticians Mosteller and Wallace utilised computers for their work on the Federalist Papers, a series of essays written between 1787 and 1788 to persuade the citizens of New York State to ratify the Constitution. Whilst the writers (Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison) published these essays anonymously under the pseudonym ‘Publius’, there is agreement as to the authorship of almost all of the essays, save but for twelve [Fienberg, 1971] and it was with these twelve that Mosteller and Wallace concerned themselves. 

Their work was groundbreaking, not merely from the point of view of establishing authorship of the letters themselves, but also in the field of statistics and, of course, in the burgeoning field of digital humanities. [Hockey, 2004, p.5]

However, the work could be cumbersome and not without error and controversy, as Andrew Morton would probably testify. The New York Times reported in November 1963 that Morton had determined, through linguistic analysis of the Pauline epistles, that Paul the Apostle had only written four of the letters attributed to him. Morton had arrived at this conclusion thanks to the utilisation of a computer to study sentence length and Greek function words, using Paul’s letter to the Galatians as his base text to which the others would be compared. It is now generally believed Morton’s analysis was flawed primarily because of certain assumptions made as to the sentence structure and punctuation of the ancient Greek [Fraser, 1996; Hockey, 2004]. The response to Morton’s analysis can probably be best summed up by the letter he received from Chicago after the research was publicised: “It simply read, ‘Dear Sir, you are a dirty pig. Yours in Christ, Anon.’” [Fraser, 1996]

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