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.
In the years leading up to World War II, a number of European thinkers were exploring markedly similar ideas about information storage and retrieval, and even imagining the possibility of a global network—a feature notably absent from the Memex. Yet their contributions have remained largely overlooked in the conventional, Anglo-American history of computing.
Chief among them was Paul Otlet, a Belgian bibliographer and entrepreneur who, in 1934, laid out a plan for a global network of “electric telescopes” that would allow anyone in the world to access to a vast library of books, articles, photographs, audio recordings, and films.
Like Bush, Otlet explored the possibilities of storing data on microfilm and making it searchable, with a web of documents connected via a sophisticated linking system. Otlet also wrote about wireless networks, speech recognition, and social network-like features that would allow individuals to “participate, applaud, give ovations, sing in the chorus.” He even described a mechanism for transmitting taste and smell.
That vision evolved over the course of nearly half a century of experimentation. In 1895, Otlet and his partner Henri La Fontaine—a Belgian senator and future Nobel Peace Prize Winner—launched a project called the Universal Bibliography, or Répertoire Bibliographique Universel, an ambitious plan to catalog of all the world’s published information.
By the 1930s, Otlet started to imagine all these endeavors converging into a global knowledge network that he dubbed the Mundaneum. In his 1935 book Monde, Otlet elaborated further on his vision of a utopian network:
Everything in the universe, and everything of man, would be registered at a distance as it was produced. In this way a moving image of the world will be established, a true mirror of his memory. From a distance, everyone will be able to read text, enlarged and limited to the desired subject, projected on an individual screen. In this way, everyone from his armchair will be able to contemplate the whole of creation, in whole or in certain parts.