Post 3a: Web technologies – Forerunners and Past


Paul Otlet (born 1868; died 1944) is considered to be one of the ‘fathers’ of Information Science. Prompted by the belief that books were an inefficient mode of information storage, Otlet developed his idea for ‘the creation of a kind of artificial brain by means of cards containing actual information or simply notes or references’ (Otlet, 1990 [1891], p. 17). The ‘Monographic Principle’ involved breaking texts down into their constituent facts, which could be stored individually on cards, enabling detailed searching and reconfiguration. In 1895 Otlet founded the “Repertoire Bibliographique Universel” as a repository of card-based facts, which people could request information from for a fee – in a sense, this was the first search engine!

H.G. Wells (born 1866; died 1946), was very famous for his science fiction novels. Less well known, and the reason for his inclusion here, was his concept of the ‘World Brain‘, a vision of a universal encyclopedia which would democratise access to information to people worldwide. This is a startling prophecy of the internet and Wikipedia; Wells’ first proposed his idea for a world encyclopedia in a lecture at the Royal Society in 1936!

Vannevar Bush (born 1890; died 1974) was an American engineer, well-known for his work on analog computing, the Manhattan Project (which developed the atomic bomb), founding Raytheon (an American defence contractor), and devising the concept of the ‘Memex’ (which is our focus here). The Memex was described as an adjustable microfilm viewer, similar to the structure of the World Wide Web, which would act as a storage of information: in his own words, Bush described it as a “device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.” (Bush, 1945). This was described in an essay entitled ‘As we may think’, published in the Atlantic Monthly, July 1945. Bushs’ work went on to influence Ted Nelson and Douglas Engelbart (see below).

J.C.R. Licklider (born 1915; died 1990) was an American computer scientist. In 1963, whilst working at the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), he set out his idea for an ‘intergalactic computer network’; before the decade was out, the concept was developed by Bob Taylor and the initial ARPANET deployed by the same department, although Licklider himself had left by this point. His vision for computer-based communication was described in his 1968 paper in Science and Technology, co-authored with Bob Taylor.

Douglas Engelbart (born 1925) is a pioneer in the field of human-computer interaction. In the 1960s, he led the design and development of the “oNLine System” (NLS), supporting hypertext browsing, editing, and email. The NLS team pioneered computer-interface elements such as bit-mapped screens, hypertext, collaborative tools, precursors to the graphical user interface, and inventing the mouse. He went on to play a key role in the early while working at the Stanford Research Institute’s Augmentation Research Center, one of the four original nodes. Browse the Doug Engelbart archive to find out more about his career.

Ted Nelson (born 1937) founded Project Xanadu in 1960; this was the first hypertext project, seeking to create a computer network with a simple user interface. He coined the terms “hypertext” and “hypermedia” in 1965 at the ACM conference; see his paper entitled Complex Information Processing.

Internet and World Wide Web history

It’s important at this point to distinguish between ‘the internet’ and ‘the world wide web’. Although it is very common these days for people to use the term internet when they mean the web, when considering the history of the web, it’s very important to make the distinction. The internet is the infrastructure network, and the web is one type of traffic that moves via that network. To use John Naughton‘s railway analogy, the internet is the tracks, and the web is (one of various types of) trains. Email would be a different type of traffic, for example.

Click here or on the snapshot below to launch the interactive timeline of the history of the internet and the web (opens in a new window or tab). When browsing, think about which items relate to the internet, and which relate to the web.

Next: Web technologies – present

Reading list

Berners-Lee, T. (2000) Weaving the Web: the past, present and future of the World Wide Web by its inventor. Orion Business Books.

Bush, V. (1945) As we may think. Atlantic Magazine, July 1945.

Cailliau, R. (~1995) A Little History of the World Wide Web. W3C.

Gillies, J. and Cailliau, R. (2000) How the Web was born: the story of the World Wide Web. Oxford University Press.

Hall, W. (2008) Towards Web Science: the Past, Present and Future of the Web. Resources from 2008 Oxford Internet Institute doctoral summer school on Web Science.

Edward Vanhoutte on Otlet and Bush

Lanxon, N. (2008) The 50 most significant moments of Internet history. Online at:

Naughton, J. (2000) A Brief History of the Future. Phoenix publishers.

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