(2014-05-22) Secret History Of Hypertext

Alex Wright on "The Secret History of HyperText". Historians of technology often cite Vannevar Bush’s essay as the conceptual forerunner of the Web. And hypertext pioneers like Douglas Engelbart, Ted Nelson, and Tim Berners Lee have all acknowledged their debt to Bush’s vision. But for all his lasting influence, Bush was not the first person to imagine something like the Web.

Chief among them was Paul Otlet, a Belgian bibliographer and entrepreneur who, in 1934, laid out a plan for a global network of “electric telescopes” that would allow anyone in the world to access to a vast library of books, articles, photographs, audio recordings, and films... That vision (had) evolved over the course of nearly half a century of experimentation. In 1895, Otlet and his partner Henri La Fontaine — a Belgian senator and future Nobel Peace Prize Winner—launched a project called the Universal Bibliography, or Répertoire Bibliographique Universel, an ambitious plan to catalog of all the world’s published information. (see Encyclopedia Of World Problems And Human Potential)

Together they launched a series of interconnected ventures, including an international network of associations, a global newspaper archive, and a sprawling 150-room museum called the Palais Mondial with exhibits on topics ranging from aeronautics to paleontology to the history of Spain.

By the 1930s, Otlet started to imagine all these endeavors converging into a global knowledge network that he dubbed the Mundaneum.

For all of Otlet’s remarkable prescience, he was scarcely alone in exploring new ways of organizing and distributing the world’s information. In 1883, the French novelist Albert Robida described a fictional machine called the téléphonoscope, capable of projecting words and images across great distances... Robida helped plan the Paris Worlds Fair of 1900, where many attendees caught their first glimpse of moving pictures, escalators, Campbell’s Soup cans, and Otlet’s Universal Bibliography.

In 1927, a Russian-born Jew named Emanuel Goldberg patented a device called the Statistical Machine, which allowed a user to search and retrieve large volumes of data stored on MicroFilm by using a so-called search card.

At the 1937 conference, Otlet and Goldberg had the chance to meet another important intellectual ally: the novelist H G Wells... With war clouds gathering, Wells urged the crowd to focus their attention on the potential of networked information to bring about a transformation of the human condition. “The world has to pull its mind together,” he said, “This synthesis of knowledge upon which you are working is the necessary beginning of a new world.” The next year, Wells published a collection of essays on this theme under the title World Brain. (cf Global Brain)

Otlet envisioned the Mundaneum as a tightly controlled environment, with a group of expert “bibliologists” working to catalog every piece of data by applying the exacting rules of the Universal Decimal Classification. Wells proposed something similar, with a special class of technical “samurai” administering the contents of the global brain. Bush, by contrast, envisioned a flat system with no classification scheme. Indeed, the Web’s openness and lack of hierarchy—for better and worse (Worse Is Better) — has strong conceptual roots in Bush’s bottom-up document structure.

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