Nelson’s Complete Concordance of the Revised Standard Version, 1957.

John W. Ellison with reels of metal tape and punch cards used to produce Nelson’s Complete Concordance of the Revised Standard Version, 1957.

Reprint of a photograph by Robert Morse for Life Magazine, February 18, 1957.

In 1952, only six years after the first large-scale computer made its debut at the University of Pennsylvania, the Reverend John W. Ellison edited the first biblical concordance created by computer, the Complete Concordance of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. A pioneer in applying computers to biblical research, Ellison reportedly undertook the task because he “deplored the idea that scholars with two or three doctoral degrees apiece should sit around sorting words.” He used the Remington Rand Company’s Univac, one of the first computers to accept alphabetic input.

By the standards of the time, the task was huge. The RSV contained approximately eight hundred thousand words. Two teams transcribed the full text, one to metal tape and one to punch cards, resulting in four hundred eighty pounds of cards and eighty miles of tape. The computer compared the two transcriptions to identify errors. The entire process of transcription and correction took nine months, and the results were printed out in about one thousand hours. Although the computer’s work was completed in 1955, typesetting the results took almost two years. Just as Johann Gutenberg and other vanguard printers used manuscripts as models for printed books, so those who created early digital texts looked to establish traditions, disseminating their work in the form of a book. The concordance appeared in 1957, accompanied by much ballyhoo in the popular press, including this dramatic photograph in Life magazine on February 18.

The photograph and its description were provided by Duane Harbin for the 1998 Bridwell Library exhibition Formatting the Word of God: The Charles Caldwell Ryrie Collection, curated by Duane Harbin, Valerie Hotchkiss, David Price, Charles Ryrie, Decherd Turner, and Eric White.

Lower Basement
Nelson’s Complete Concordance of the Revised Standard Version, 1957.