From the very first time I used hypertext (over 30 years ago) I fell in love with it. I declared to everyone I knew that this was The Future of writing and reading.
I have been studying the history of writing from the invention of the printing press and the incunabula, through the point&click functionality of word processing programs on the PC.
I remember being amazed by Encarta the hypertext encyclopedia and thinking Bill Gate’s book, “The Road Ahead”, with it accompanying CD that included, among other things, the book in searchable hypermedia, was in fact the road ahead to the future.
If this video is a precursor of things to come, then Gates might very well have been right …
Read on for more …
Deep Dive Background
People who write, who place those squiggles and dots on everything from clay to parchment to paper made from silk, have always looked for ways to organize writing in a non-linear fashion.Without knowing it, they were looking for hypertext and then hypermedia.
Early experiments with written dictionaries and encyclopedias developed a precursor to hypertext. The typesetting of certain words in small capital letters, indicating that an entry existed for that term within the same reference work. You couldn’t point&click over to it, so it was somewhat slower than ‘hyper’. Sometimes the term would be preceded by an index, like this ☞, or an arrow➧.
Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Garden of Forking Paths” has often been considered a precursor to the hypertext novel and aesthetic. The concept Borges described in ‘The Garden of Forking Paths‘–is that of a novel that can be read in multiple ways, a hypertext novel. Borges described this in 1941, well before most people even imagined a personal computer on their desk (let alone in their hand!)
My favorite scheme was even before Borges’ book. In the 1930s, H.G. Wells proposed the creation of a World Brain. In 1937 by he wrote that the encyclopedias of the past “… had suited only the needs of an elite minority. They were written for gentleman by gentleman.” In his essay titled, “The World Brain: The Idea of a Permanent World Encyclopedia,” Wells explains how the encyclopedias of that time failed to adapt to both the growing increase in recorded knowledge, and the expansion of people requiring information that was accurate and readily accessible.
He asserted that these 19th century encyclopedias continued to follow the 18th century pattern, organization and scale. “Our contemporary encyclopedias are still in the coach-and-horse phase of development,” he argued, “rather than in the phase of the automobile and the aeroplane.” Wells felt that technological advances of his day, such as microfilm, could be used towards this end so that “any student, in any part of the world, will be able to sit with his projector in his own study at his or her convenience to examine any book, any document, in an exact replica.”
And that was way BPC.
In the early 1950’s, still BPC and even before the term “information overload” was part of the general conversation, scientists and scholars, believed we were drowning in information. They felt they had to do something. TMI was causing us to make dumb decisions and duplicate efforts, especially among scientists. So they developed analog-hypertext systems (is that an oxymoron?) predating the PC, based on 3X5 cards and microfilm.
All serious histories of what we now call hypertext start in 1945, when Vannevar Bush wrote an article in The Atlantic Monthly called “As We May Think”. It focused upon a futuristic tool he called a Memex.
He described the device as an electromechanical desk linked to an extensive archive of microfilms, able to display books, writings, or any document from a library. The Memex would also be able to create ‘trails’ of linked and branching sets of pages, combining pages from the published microfilm library with personal annotations or additions captured on a microfilm recorder.
Why is that important? Because the real story of hypertext starts with the Memex. “As We May Think” directly influenced and inspired the two American inventors credited with the invention of hypertext, Ted Nelson and Douglas Engelbart.
Ted Nelson coined the words “hypertext” and “hypermedia” in 1965. In December of 1968, Engelbart demonstrated a hypertext interface to the public for the first time.
The first hypermedia application was the Aspen Movie Map in 1977. In 1980, Tim Berners-Lee created ENQUIRE, an early hypertext database system somewhat like a wiki. The early 1980s also saw a number of experimental hypertext and hypermedia programs, many of whose features and terminology were later integrated into the Web.
In August 1987, Apple Computer (of course) released HyperCard for the Macintosh line at the MacWorld convention. I was working with a Think Tank called Information Mapping and help the CEO Bob Horn write a book called “Hypercard for Information Mapping”.
It was initiation into the world that has finally arrived … and the rest is just history and proof that good things come to those who wait.