UnivacIIDid you know that the Revised Standard Bible’s concordance was generated by computer…in 1955? Mashable explains how it was done. In what must surely be one of the first examples of computerized indexing of a book, Rev. John W. Ellison proposed to the Remington Rand company, owners of the Univac computer, that the computer could be used to shave literally decades of work off the process of creating a concordance of the Bible. The King James Bible’s concordance, composed in the second half of the 19th century, took 30 years to finish.

The process of programming Univac to index the Bible took a great deal of time. The Bible had to be transcribed to magnetic tape, twice, at five months each. After Univac compared the two to weed out typing mistakes, it then took 13 weeks to program the computer to generate the concordance, which was compiled into a 2,000-page book.

Of course, it would take considerably less time to do now, but the remarkable thing is that they were able to do it at all. You could say that they had to turn the Bible into an e-book in order to index it, though that would be stretching a point more than a little—the electronic version of the Bible wouldn’t have been human-readable. Nor was the final indexed product human-readable, until they went to the effort of translating it back out of binary. It would be quite some time before they managed to come up with human-readable digital media.

Still, it seems appropriate that the Bible, one of the earliest-written literary works to still be in common use today, should be one of the first to be indexed electronically.


  1. The article has some great pictures of those Univacs. They were state of the art at the time, perhaps too state of the art for the company’s sales.

    The backstory is that Univac tried to leap ahead to the latest technology, including those tape drives. IBM took a more careful approach. Businesses were already using their business machines, which were very mechanical and often used punched cards for data input and storage. IBM created a path that allowed businesses to evolved, one step at a time.

    IBM won in the marketplace. Business, then typically banks and insurance companies, preferred to expand by adding a computer to their other equipment rather than make the leap to all digital.

    I wonder if that RSV text was retained, used for other purposes, and is still with us today. There was certainly no reason to retype it again (or twice for accuracy).


    I loved this quote in that story from an early computer guru, Dr. Grace Hopper, of the U.S. Navy. Of computers, she said:

    “It is an extremely fast moron. It will, at the speed of light, do exactly what it is told to do — no more, no less.”

    That’s often forgotten today, when all the telling it what to do makes computers seem to have a human-like understanding. They don’t.


    Perhaps the best illustration is this Youtube documentary about an Qantas Airbus 380 that got into serious trouble. The plane has the most sophisticated computerized flight control system in existence and yet it had no idea how to handle a problem that took out almost all the hydraulics to the left wing. All that computer could do was spit out error message after error message.

    It took the pilots human understanding to bring the plane in on the longest runway in the region, keeping it flying on the landing approach in a tiny two-knot speed window between stalling and overrunning the runway after touch-down.

    After a marvelous bit of flying, the plane came to a stop only about 150 yards from the end of the runway. Those pilots did what no machine can do. They understood their problem in its totality and found a solution.

    I’ll take a pilot over a computer any day.

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