June 12, 2009
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Foundation and Memex

The conventional start of hypertext history is [Bush 45], “As We May Think.” It’s a nice piece of speculation by the Director of the Office of Scientific R&D, pointing out that the scientific literature was growing too fast for anyone to keep up, and proposing a Memex machine to link knowledge together.

What’s now largely forgotten is that Bush, in the 1970’s and 1980’s, was an important counterweight to Ted Nelson’s ambitious vision of what turned out to be the Web. Nelson was exciting, but Nelson was lefty; the book was called Computer Lib, and that didn’t always play well in the board room. As the memory of Vietnam became ever more fraught, conservative businessmen and academics found Lib less palatable; Bush brought impeccable Old Republican manners and military-industrial credentials to the table.

I used to spend time casting around for even earlier anticipations of hypertext, trying to unseat Bush. But I completely missed H.G. Wells The World Brain, and I think everyone missed Emanuel Goldberg, the Russian Jew who ran Zeiss-Ikon in the 1930’s and who actually built the machine that Bush imagined a decade later.

I’d once tried to make a case for Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy as an anticipation, with Seldon’s grand volume of psychohistorical equations, the Prime Radiant, projected in a planetarium-like dome for instant recall and cautious revision. (What was the thing called?) I have up when I checked the publication date (1951), but I abandoned the idea too soon; I just stumbled across the fact that the book was assembled from short stories that appeared between 1942 and 1944. (Thanks to physicist Achileas Lazarides for identifying the Prime Radiant)