An Alternative History Of The Web's Origins

Vannevar Bush's 1945 essay on a Memex device anticipated the Web. Or so they say. Enter Paul Otlet, who explored "electric telescopes" in 1934.

Historians have generally credited Vannevar Bush for conceptually paving the way for the creation of the World Wide Web. In his 1945 essay, As We May Think, Bush laid the groundwork for hypertext, the Web's most basic building block.

But, "in the conventional, Anglo-American history of computing," says Alex Wright in the Atlantic, European thinkers have been overlooked.

Bush’s essay described a hypothetical machine called the Memex, a device that stored information on microfilm and which let users search documents through “associative trails,” much like the hyperlinks of today. But, Wright argues, Bush may not have been the "it" guy after all.

Partial illustration from Paul Otlet’s Encyclopedia Universalis Mundaneum (Mundaneum)

Perhaps, instead, it was Paul Otlet, the Belgian bibliographer who in 1934 conceived of “electric telescopes." His network would connect people to a library of books, articles, photographs, audio recordings, and films. (Remarkably, he wrote about "social network-like features that would allow individuals to 'participate, applaud, give ovations, sing in the chorus.'") And about, um, wireless networks. This all came from decades of research, starting in 1895, over a global bibliography project that Otlet outlined with his Belgian partner Henri La Fontaine (who later won the Nobel Peace Prize). Over the next few decades, collaborators included Le Corbusier and a panoply of sociologists, sculptors, philosophers, and others.

By the time the 1930s rolled around, Otlet had a name for his vision: the Mundaneum. In his 1935 book Monde, he put his dream down on paper:

"From a distance, everyone will be able to read text, enlarged and limited to the desired subject, projected on an individual screen. In this way, everyone from his armchair will be able to contemplate the whole of creation, in whole or in certain parts."

This is no less than an attempt to catalogue the history of the world. It is where we are today, to some degree. Otlet died less than 10 years after the publication of his book and his name has largely faded from our collective memory. Since there is no evidence connecting Otlet to Bush, no one can be certain whether they influenced one other.

1941 drawing of Paul Otlet’s Mondotheque. (Mundaneum, Mons, Belgium)

But Bush’s Memex and Otlet’s Mundaneum shared many similarities. "Both machines relied on microfilm for storing documents, and both provided a mechanism for collecting, annotating, and sharing documents," Wright explains. Bush thought his Memex could be used for text and numerical data, but Otlet had an idea for bigger, broader kinds of archives. As with Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, it's a well-documented fact that multiple independent discoveries tend to happen simultaneously. (After all, people in the same era work with essentially the same information, and inventions emerge slowly, in pieces and in time, rather than in some so-called lightbulb moment.)

And, of course, there were others that Wright identifies as contributors to progressive technological thought, too. There was Emanuel Goldberg and his Statistical Machine, patented, in 1927, and the science fiction writer-futurist H.G. Wells, who "imagined the eventual emergence of a 'super-human memory' fanning out across the globe in a 'world-wide network' that would foster cooperation among the world’s universities, research institutions, and other centers of intellectual life." (Science fiction has a history of dabbling in the research of the time.)

In the end, Bush is no less a pioneer for the others who came before him. "Alternative history is a fool's game," Wright observes, and points out what most scientists already know: that scientific discovery, like history, doesn't run in a straight line. It is "littered with false starts and dead ends," a concept that should be familiar to anyone doing work on anything.

[H/T: the Atlantic]

[Image: Internet via Shutterstock]

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