Teena Rochfort Smith: the Ada Lovelace of the digital humanities

Teena Rochfort Smith portrait

Teena Rochfort Smith, as pictured in F.J. Furnivall, Teena Rochfort Smith: A Memoir (1883). Available on Google Books.

In 1883 a young woman named Teena Rochfort Smith created a prototype of an experimental edition of Hamlet which, to this day, remains the most visually complex presentation of the play ever attempted.[1] Even present-day digital interfaces such as the Enfolded Hamlet are less ambitious than what Rochfort Smith envisioned, which pushed Victorian typography and printing technology to its limits. Given Hamlet‘s unique complexity within the Shakespeare canon, and Shakespeare’s textual complexity within the larger canon of English literature, Rochfort Smith’s prototype should rank among other great experiments in humanities interface design, including Origen’s Hexapla, the Complutensian Polyglot Bible, Robert Estienne’s 1550 edition of the Greek New Testament, the New Variorum Shakespeare begun by Horace Howard Furness in the 1870s, the BBC Domesday Book project (an experiment, if not a great success), and more recent digital humanities projects such as the Versioning Machine, which visualizes the relationships among variant texts of the same literary work. Although Rochfort Smith’s story is a tragic one—she died very young, and has been remembered mainly as Frederick Furnivall’s mistress—she was nonetheless a proto-digital pioneer in an area that’s booming in the digital humanities today. She accomplished all this as a Victorian woman in a male-dominated field, and she did so by the age of twenty-one.

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