This Belgian genius may have conceived the Internet over a century ago

Though we’re pretty sure that time travelers don’t exist, people were working on hypertext — used by web browsers to retrieve connected information – long before computers. It even predates the ideas of a certain Vannevar Bush, the man generally acknowledged as having laid the groundwork for hypertext by microfiche in a seminal 1945 article. Nope, according to the Atlantic, some people were pondering ways of storing and retrieving information prior even to the 20th century. A Belgian genius called Paul Otlet posited an idea in 1895 about “universal libraries” to give anyone access to a vast number of books. 

When Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think” first appeared in The Atlantic’s pages in July 1945, it set off an intellectual chain reaction that resulted, more than four decades later, in the creation of the World Wide Web. In that landmark essay, Bush described a hypothetical machine called the Memex: a hypertext-like device capable of allowing its users to comb through a large set of documents stored on microfilm, connected via a network of “links” and “associative trails” that anticipated the hyperlinked structure of today’s Web. Historians of technology often cite 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.

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Written by Michio Hasai

Michio Hasai is a social strategist and car guy. Find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

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