ada lovelace day: susan hockey

On the first Ada Lovelace Day, I celebrated the women who taught me hands-on letterpress printing and how to think about open source. Last year, I honored a woman whose work inspired me to explore the craftsy side of physical computing — wearable, personal, interactive, high-touch high-tech.

This year, let’s start with a lecture delivered by R.F. Churchhouse at University College, Cardiff in 1972, on the subject of “Computer Applications in the Arts and Sciences.”

Before I left the Atlas Laboratory I was fortunate enough to recruit as a programmer a young woman with a 1st class honours degree at Oxford in Akkadian. The Laboratory had recently acquired a device called an SC4020 which allowed us to produce cine-films, microfilms and hard copy of any graphs or pictures that we could draw. The way in which we can use the computer to produce pictures etc., is that the computer produces a set of instructions indicating that certain points on a kind of television screen are to be joined together by lines. By joining a sufficient number of selected points together, highly complex pictures can be drawn and filmed. In particular one can generate the letters of any alphabet one wishes.

Susan Hockey Font Defining on the VT15 31.10.72
Susan Hockey Font Defining on the VT15 31.10.72. Rutherford Appleton Laboratory & the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC)

The young woman (Susan Hockey) quickly mastered programming and has gone on to become expert in providing this form of output, thus making it possible for linguists to receive their output in its correct alphabetic form, complete with all diacriticials…By combining her output procedures with a concordance program the way is open for literary output of the very highest quality. For the Arts people present I point out that Mrs. Hockey had no scientific training beyond O-level thus providing a counter-example to the idea that computers are only for scientists.

Susan M. Hockey went on to set much more than a curious counter-example. She spent a full career serving for many of us as one of the most positive role models imaginable, of a woman in important technical, teaching, and leadership positions in the growing field of literary, linguistic, and humanities computing — a community of practice we now call the digital humanities.

After developing software for the display of non-Western characters at the Atlas Lab in Chilton (Churchhouse reports that, at the time, only capital Roman letterforms were available for printing and display) and, in 1973, serving as a founding member of the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing (ALLC), Hockey joined the Oxford University Computing Services, where she directed the Oxford Concordance Project and served in several leadership roles. In this period, she published a Clarendon Press volume on SNOBOL programming for the humanities and a Johns Hopkins press Guide to Computer Applications in the Humanities. In 1991, Hockey became the director of CETH, the Rutgers and Princeton Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities, before joining the University of Alberta to direct the Canadian Institute for Research Computing in the Arts and serve as co-investigator on the Orlando Project, an online cultural history of women’s writing in the British Isles. In 2000, she published Electronic Texts in the Humanities: Principles and Practice and joined the School of Library, Archive, and Information Studies (SLAIS) at University College London, becoming its director the following year. When she retired from that position in 2004 to become Emeritus Professor of Library and Information Studies at UCL, the digital humanities community honored her as the third receipent of its highest award, named for Fr. Roberto Busa. Hockey’s Busa Award speech, “Living with Google: Perspectives on Humanities Computing and Digital Libraries” was published in LLC, a field-making journal she had helped to establish in 1986. By ’86, Susan Hockey was two years into her 13-year tenure as chair of the ALLC.

This capsule summary does no justice to the full range of her work. It is worth remarking that the 55-year “History of Humanities Computing” that Hockey offers in the 2004 Blackwell’s Companion to the Digital Humanities includes three and a half decades in which she herself was a highly productive and transformative figure.

I was delighted, on this Ada Lovelace Day, to find a picture of Susan (the fourth in this series, taken the year before I was born), intently drawing letterforms on a screen at the Atlas Lab. And I’m glad to have the opportunity to thank and honor her for sketching out new paths for women in DH.