Honest Abe: Duquesne Computer Scientist to Authenticate Lincoln Writings

Posted on May 9, 2012

Will the real Abraham Lincoln please stand up? Or at least have his early writings verified?

The Office of Digital Humanities in the National Endowment for the Humanities has provided a $50,000 grant to the Papers of Abraham Lincoln, who will work with Dr. Patrick Juola, professor of computer science, to use his stylometric computer programs to authenticate early Lincoln writings.

For the project, Is That You, Mr. Lincoln?: Applying Authorship Attribution to the Early Political Writings of Abraham Lincoln, Juola and The Papers of Abraham Lincoln, a project of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill., will work together on the years Lincoln served in the Illinois legislature (1834-1842). Juola and his research team will use software he developed to examine newspaper articles that might be Lincoln’s.

“This project could greatly expand our knowledge of a previously little-known part of Lincoln’s life— the letters and editorials he wrote for the newspaper either anonymously or under a pseudonym,” said Daniel W. Stowell, director and editor of The Papers of Abraham Lincoln.

Using a computer program to authenticate the works of a key historical figure is a huge leap into a new interdisciplinary world for traditional historians, according to Juola. “A traditional historian is much more at home in an archive full of paper than in a lab of Java code,” he said. “This represents a change in scholarship of a computerized program as an acceptable method of authentication.”

The groundbreaking work of Juola and his team in the Evaluating Variations in Language (EVL) lab, which examines word usage and speech patterns, is supported by a $1.6 million, three-year grant from the National Science Foundation. The goal is for his software program to determine authorship across a range of fields—from the forensic study of a suicide note to Indiana Jones-type questions of biblical authorship and teachers’ questions of possible student plagiarism.

Juola explains the project and his software in a video on www.youtube.com/duquesneuniversity.

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