June 22, 2024

Origins of the Web


This section looks at the four men, whose works act as "precursors of the Web".

  1. Vannevar Bush
  2. Douglas Englebart
  3. Ted Nelson
  4. Bill Atkinson

Vannevar Bush

MIT scientist and eventually Roosevelt's chief scientific advisor during WWII. He proposed the development of the "Memex" machine in his paper "As We May Think".

Bush (1890-1974) was an electrical engineer who eventually joined MIT and developed the first analogue computer in the 1930s. He was particularly interested in microfilm, which led him to consider the problem of data storage and retrieval. Bush developed the idea of an electromechanical machine to store and view information.

After WWII, during which he had overall responibility for the Manhatten Project, Bush published his paper in the Atlantic Monthly. He accurately predicted the explosive growth of information as a natural by-product of scientific exploration. There was, he argued, a fundamental need to move away from paper-based indexing systems for retrieving data. Machines would be needed for the task of information management.

His proposed machine would photograph, or scan, material (books, papers etc) by placing it on a transparent desk top. Then by means of levers, buttons and a keyboard, the pages could be viewed at speed. Furthermore, the user could link pages at will. This linkage of documents would, he claimed, reflect the human thought processes of association. These connections could be coded, stored and later retrieved. "Trails", as he called them, bear a remarkable likeness to hypertext links. Read more »

Douglas Englebart and the NLS system

In 1945 Englebart then a US Navy radar technician, read Bush's article, which had been reprinted in Life magazine. He set out to use computers to augment human capabilities. This was a "crusade" (his word). Eventually went to SRI at Stanford in 1957 (the second node on ARPANET), and with a grant from the US Air Force, he created "the Augmentation Research Center".

Englebart had an insight that Bush's vision could be realised using digital computers. Although he is most famous for inventing the mouse, Englebart's lab also developed "bit-mapped screens, graphics-based interfaces, multiple windows, software for creating documents structured as outlines, "groupware" required for computer-mediated co-operative working, chorded keyboards and a host of other inventions.

NLS or "oN Line System" was developed to link documents. The system enabled research papers and reports to be stored, shared and cross-referenced. He gave a demonstration of this capabilty in 1968.

Englebart, despite holding over twenty patents, has never made any great wealth from his work. At the time of writing, he works for the Bootstrap Institute at Stanford. He has been enormously influential in the computer industry.

Ted Nelson

Nelson coined the term hypertext in 1965. Five years earlier he had developed the idea of "nonsequential writing", text as a non-linear entity. Nelson has pursued his Xanadu project for 30 years. This is an attempt to construct a global hypertext publishing system. Essentially anti-authoritarian, Nelson is guided by 4 maxims from childhood:

"most people are fools, most authority is malignant, God does not exist, and everything is wrong".

Nelson read Bush's "As We May Think" and, like Englebart, believed that digital computers could realise Bush's vision. Nelson believes that humanities salvation, indeed its existence, lies with the preservation of all knowledge. Failure to achieve this will condemn humanity to repeat its mistakes. In 1981, Nelson took previous hypertext developments and instigated the Xanadu project, "a central, pay-per-document hypertext database".

Nelson wants Xanadu to hold every document ever written. This "docuverse" (document universe) where "everything should be available to everyone. Any user should be able to follow origins and links of material across boundaries of documents, servers, networks, and individual implementations. There should be a unified environment available to everyone providing access to this whole space".

The project is far from completion. Will its goal ever be attained?

Here is a quote from Nelson:

"World Wide Web, the phenomenally successful Internet program for distributed hypertext, is eplicitly based on Nelson's work. Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the world Wide Web, originally designed it as a simplified version of Xanadu after reading Nelson's book Literary Machines."

Read more »

Bill Atkinson

The idea of hypertext is an old one and is not restricted to computer text, footnotes etc. Hypermedia uses the computer to link other media e.g. video, sound, graphics animation etc. It is a connection between verbal and non verbal data.

Atkinson, self described software artist, is the author of MacPaint, which was bundled with early versions of the Mac. He believed in the use of computers to improve humanity. He wanted to develop Magic Slate, a portable device with handwriting technology. This failed to get backing from Apple, but eventually he took these ideas into the development of Hypercard. This employed a card metaphor with user-installed hotspots, which when clicked, would jump to another card. These linked cards or "stacks" had a key card named the "Home" card. A programming language named Hypertalk was developed to provide the user with the means to construct programs to run in this environment. Apple agreed to bundle Hypercard with the Mac.

Hypercard never took off as it required the user to spend months learning the toolkit and all the features of the software. It used the human trait off association of thought, but it was restricted to the data stored on the hard drive of the Mac and not the connection to a much larger facility, e.g. the Web.


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