50 years of HYPERTEXT concept's EVOLUTION
The Foundation of WWW Science
1945: Vannevar Bush
(Science Advisor to president Roosevelt during WW2) proposes Memex
-- a conceptual machine that can store vast amounts of information, in which users
have the ability to create information trails, links of related
texts and illustrations, which can be stored and used for future reference.
"As We May Think "
This article was originally published in the July 1945 issue of The Atlantic
Like Emerson's famous address of 1837 on ``The American Scholar,'' this
paper by Vannevar Bush calls for a new relationship between thinking man and the
sum of our knowledge.
The Vannevar Bush's hyperlink
ineptitude in getting at the record is largely caused by the artificiality of
systems of indexing.
When data of any sort are placed in storage, they are filed alphabetically or numerically,
and information is found (when it is) by tracing it down from subclass to subclass. It can
be in only one place, unless duplicates are used; one has to have rules as to which path
will locate it, and the rules are cumbersome.
Having found one item, moreover, one has to emerge from the system and re-enter
on a new path.
The human mind does not work that way.
It operates by association.
With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association
of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web
of trails carried by the cells of the brain.
It has other characteristics, of course; trails that are not frequently followed are prone
to fade, items are not fully permanent, memory is transitory. Yet the speed of action, the
intricacy of trails, the detail of mental pictures, is
awe-inspiring beyond all else in nature.
Man cannot hope fully to duplicate this mental process artificially, but he certainly
ought to be able to learn from it. In minor ways he may even improve, for his records have
The first idea, however, to be drawn from the analogy concerns selection. Selection
by association, rather than by indexing, may yet be mechanized. One cannot hope
thus to equal the speed and flexibility with which the mind follows an associative trail,
but it should be possible to beat the mind decisively in regard to the permanence and
clarity of the items resurrected from storage.
Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file
It needs a name, and to coin one at random, ``memex'' will do.
A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and
communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed
It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.
It consists of a desk, and while it can presumably be operated from a distance, it is
primarily the piece of furniture at which he works. On the top are slanting translucent
screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There is a keyboard,
and sets of buttons and levers. Otherwise it looks like an ordinary desk...
On the top of the memex is a transparent platen. On this are placed longhand notes,
photographs, memoranda, all sort of things. When one is in place, the depression of a
lever causes it to be photographed onto the next blank space in a section of the memex
film, dry photography being employed.
There is, of course, provision for consultation of the record by the usual scheme of
indexing. If the user wishes to consult a certain book, he taps its code on the
keyboard, and the title page of the book promptly appears before him, projected onto one
of his viewing positions.
Frequently-used codes are mnemonic, so that he seldom consults his code book; but
when he does, a single tap of a key projects it for his use. Moreover, he has supplemental
levers. On deflecting one of these levers to the right he runs through the book before
him, each page in turn being projected at a speed which just allows a recognizing glance
at each. If he deflects it further to the right, he steps through the book 10 pages at a
time; still further at 100 pages at a time. Deflection to the left gives him the same
A special button transfers him immediately to the first page of the index. Any given book
of his library can thus be called up and consulted with far greater facility than if it
were taken from a shelf. As he has several projection positions, he can leave one item in
position while he calls up another. He can add marginal notes and comments, taking
advantage of one possible type of dry photography, and it could even be arranged so that
he can do this by a stylus scheme, such as is now employed in the telautograph seen in
railroad waiting rooms, just as though he had the physical page before him...
Nelson coins the word Hypertext
mean nonsequential writing - text that branches and allows choice to the reader, best read
at an interactive screen.
Ted Nelson, Literary
1967: Andy van Dam and others build the
Hypertext Editing System ...
The first working hypertext system was developed at
Brown University, by a team led by Andries van Dam.
The Hypertext Editing System ran in 128K memory on an IBM/360 mainframe and was funded by
IBM, who later sold it to the Houston Manned Spacecraft Center, where it was used to
produce documentation for the Apollo space program.
1981: Ted Nelson conceptualizes "Xanadu",
a central, pay-per-document hypertext database encompassing all written
The words "hypertext" and "hypermedia" were coined by
my friend Ted Nelson in a paper to the ACM 20th national conference in 1965,
before I (Andrew Pam) was even
born! Although I had come across occasional articles Ted had written for Creative
Computing magazine, my first exposure to his legendary Xanadu project did not
occur until 1987 when I purchased the Microsoft Press second edition of his classic book Computer
Lib / Dream Machines... , which outlined his idea of a "docuverse" or
universal library of multimedia documents.
As an avid science fiction reader, my imagination had already been captured by this idea
of a universally accessible computer storage and retrieval system as presented in
the 1975 novel Imperial Earth by Arthur C. Clarke... But here was someone
actually involved in trying to create such a system. I immediately sent off a US$100
donation to Project Xanadu to reserve a Xanadu account name, and also purchased the 1988
edition of Ted's self-published book Literary Machines... and the Technical
Overview video describing the Xanadu project in detail...
All the children of Nelson's
imagination do not have equal stature. Each is derived from the one, great, unfinished project for which
he has finally achieved the fame he has pursued since his boyhood.
During one of our (Gary Wolf) many conversations, Nelson explained that he never succeeded
as a filmmaker or businessman because "the first step to anything I ever wanted to
do was Xanadu."
Xanadu, a global hypertext publishing system, is the longest-running
vaporware story in the history of the computer industry.
It has been in development for more than 30 years.
This long gestation period may not put it in the same category as the Great Wall
of China, which was under construction for most of the 16th
century and still failed to foil invaders, but, given the relative
youth of commercial computing, Xanadu has set a record of futility that will be difficult
for other companies to surpass.
The fact that Nelson has had only since about 1960 to build his reputation as the
king of unsuccessful software development makes Xanadu interesting
for another reason: the project's failure (or, viewed more optimistically, its
long-delayed success) coincides almost exactly with the birth of hacker culture.
Xanadu's manic and highly publicized swerves from triumph
to bankruptcy show a side of hackerdom that is as important, perhaps, as tales
of billion-dollar companies born in garages.
Among people who consider themselves insiders, Nelson's Xanadu is sometimes treated as a
joke, but this is superficial. Nelson's
writing and presentations inspired some of the most
visionary computer programmers, managers, and
executives - including Autodesk Inc. founder John Walker
- to pour millions of dollars and years of
effort into the project.
Xanadu was meant to be a universal library, a worldwide hypertext publishing tool, a system to resolve copyright
disputes, and a meritocratic forum for discussion and debate.
By putting all information within reach of all people, Xanadu was meant to eliminate
scientific ignorance and cure political misunderstandings.
And, on the very hackerish assumption that global
catastrophes are caused by ignorance, stupidity, and communication failures, Xanadu
was supposed to save the world.
In the poem "Kubla Khan", by Samuel Taylor
Coleridge, a "magic place of literary
memory" appears and is called Xanadu.
The Xanadu vision of Ted Nelson was to create a unified literary environment
on a global scale, a repository for everything
that anybody has ever written.