Computation and the Humanities

Part of the series Springer Series on Cultural Computing pp 55-73

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The University Was Still Taking Account of universitas scientiarum: Wilhelm Ott and Julianne Nyhan

  • Julianne NyhanAffiliated withDepartment of Information Studies, University College London (UCL)
  • , Andrew FlinnAffiliated withDepartment of Information Studies, University College London (UCL)


This oral history interview between Wilhelm Ott and Julianne Nyhan was carried out on 14 July 2015, shortly after 10am, in the offices of pagina in Tübingen, Germany. Ott was provided with the core questions in advance of the interview. He recalls that his earliest contact with computing was in 1966 when he took an introductory programming course in the Deutsches Rechenzentrum (German Computing Center) in Darmstadt. Having become slightly bored with the exercises that attendees of the course were asked to complete he began working on programmes to aid his metrical analysis of Latin hexameters, a project he would continue to work on for the next 19 years. After completing the course in Darmstadt he approached, among others such as IBM, the Classics Department at Tübingen University to gauge their interest in his emerging expertise. Though there was no tradition in the Department of applying computing to philological problems they quickly grasped the significance and potential of such approaches. Fortunately, this happened just when the computing center, up to then part of the Institute for Mathematics, was transformed into a central service unit for the university. Drawing on initial funding from the Physics department a position was created for Ott in the Tübingen Computing Center. His role was to pursue his Latin hexameters project and, above all, to provide specialised support for computer applications in the Humanities. In this interview Ott recalls a number of the early projects that he supported such as the concordance to the Vulgate that was undertaken by Bonifatius Fischer, along with the assistance they received from Roberto Busa when it came to lemmatisation. He also talks at length about the context in which his TUSTEP programme came about and its subsequent development. The interview strikes a slightly wistful tone as he recalls the University of Tübingen’s embrace of the notion of universitas scientiarum in the 1960s and contrasts this with the rather more precarious position of the Humanities in many countries today.