History of hypertext

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Engineer Vannevar Bush wrote As We May Think in 1945 describing his conception of the Memex, a machine that could implement what we now call hypertext. His aim was to help humanity achieve a collective memory with such a machine and avoid the use of scientific discoveries for destruction and war
Douglas Engelbart in 2008, at the 40th anniversary celebrations of "The Mother of All Demos" in San Francisco, a 90-minute 1968 presentation of the NLS computer system which was a combination of hardware and software that demonstrated many hypertext ideas

Hypertext is text displayed on a computer or other electronic device with references (hyperlinks) to other text that the reader can immediately access, usually by a mouse click or keypress sequence.


Recorders of information have long looked for ways to categorize and compile it. There are various methods of arranging layers of references/annotations within a document. Other reference works (for example dictionaries, encyclopedias) also developed a precursor to hypertext: the setting of certain words in small capital letters, indicating that an entry existed for that term within the same reference work. Sometimes the term would be preceded by an index, ☞like this, or an arrow, ➧like this. Janet Murray has referenced Jorge Luis Borges' "The Garden of Forking Paths" as a precursor to the hypertext novel and aesthetic:[1]

"The concept Borges described in 'The Garden of Forking Paths'—in several layers of the story, but most directly in the combination book and maze of Ts'ui Pen—is that of a novel that can be read in multiple ways, a hypertext novel. Borges described this in 1941, prior to the invention (or at least the public disclosure) of the electromagnetic digital computer. Borges also mentions how hypertext has similarities to a labyrinth in which each link brings the navigator to a set of new links, in an ever expanding maze. Not only did he invent the hypertext novel—Borges went on to describe a theory of the universe based upon the structure of such a novel." —Wardrip-Fruin and Montfort[2]

Umberto Eco has also referenced Finnegans Wake in the same way.[citation needed]

Later, several scholars entered the scene who believed that humanity was drowning in information, causing foolish decisions and duplicating efforts among scientists. These scholars proposed or developed proto-hypertext systems predating electronic computer technology. For example, in the early 20th century, two visionaries attacked the cross-referencing problem through proposals based on labor-intensive, brute force methods. Paul Otlet proposed a proto-hypertext concept based on his monographic principle, in which all documents would be decomposed down to unique phrases stored on index cards. In the 1930s, H.G. Wells proposed the creation of a World Brain.

Michael Buckland summarized the very advanced pre-World War II development of microfilm based on rapid retrieval devices, specifically the microfilm based workstation proposed by Leonard Townsend in 1938 and the microfilm and photoelectronic based selector, patented by Emanuel Goldberg in 1931.[3] Buckland concluded: "The pre-war information retrieval specialists of continental Europe, the 'documentalists,' largely disregarded by post-war information retrieval specialists, had ideas that were considerably more advanced than is now generally realized." But, like the manual index card model, these microfilm devices provided rapid retrieval based on pre-coded indices and classification schemes published as part of the microfilm record without including the link model which distinguishes the modern concept of hypertext from content or category based information retrieval.

The Memex[edit]

All major 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", about a futuristic device 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. Bush's vision was based on extensions of 1945 technology—microfilm recording and retrieval in this case. However, the modern story of hypertext starts with the Memex because "As We May Think" directly influenced and inspired the two American men generally credited with the invention of hypertext, Ted Nelson and Douglas Engelbart.

The invention of hypertext[edit]

Ted Nelson gives a presentation on Project Xanadu, a theoretical hypertext model conceived in the 1960s, whose first and incomplete implementation was first published in 1998[4]

Starting in 1963, Ted Nelson developed a model for creating and using linked content he called "hypertext" and "hypermedia" (first published reference 1965).[5] Ted Nelson said in the 1960s that he began implementation of a hypertext system he theorized which was named Project Xanadu, but his first and incomplete public release was finished much later, in 1998.[4] He later worked with Andries van Dam to develop the Hypertext Editing System (HES) in 1967 at Brown University. HES was the first hypertext system available on commercial equipment that novices could use, and it didn't have arbitrary limits on text lengths.[6]

Douglas Engelbart independently began working on his NLS system in 1962 at Stanford Research Institute, although delays in obtaining funding, personnel, and equipment meant that its key features were not completed until 1968. In December of that year, Engelbart demonstrated a hypertext interface to the public for the first time, in what has come to be known as "The Mother of All Demos". Funding for NLS slowed after 1974.

Later in 1968, van Dam's

team incorporated ideas from NLS into a successor to HES: the File Retrieval and Editing System (FRESS), which was the first hypertext system to run on readily-available commercial hardware and OS[7]. The user interface was simpler than NLS.

By 1976 FRESS received NEH funding and was used in a poetry class in which students could browse and annotate a hyperlinked set of poems and discussion by experts, faculty and other students, in what was arguably the first online scholarly community,[6] which van Dam says "foreshadowed wikis, blogs and communal documents of all kinds".[8]

Influential work in the following decade included NoteCards at Xerox PARC and ZOG at Carnegie Mellon. ZOG started in 1972 as an artificial intelligence research project under the supervision of Allen Newell, and pioneered the "frame" or "card" model of hypertext. ZOG was deployed in 1982 on the U.S.S. Carl Vinson and later commercialized as Knowledge Management System. Two other influential hypertext projects from the early 1980s were Ben Shneiderman's The Interactive Encyclopedia System (TIES) at the University of Maryland (1983) and Intermedia at Brown University (1984).

Early hypertext applications[edit]

The first hypermedia application was the Aspen Movie Map in 1978. 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. Guide was the first significant hypertext system for personal computers. In 1983, a hypermedia authoring tool, Tutor-Tech, designed for Apple II computers, was produced for educators.

In August 1987, Apple Computer released HyperCard for the Macintosh line at the MacWorld convention. Its impact, combined with interest in Peter J. Brown's GUIDE (marketed by OWL and released earlier that year) and Brown University's Intermedia, led to broad interest in and enthusiasm for hypertext and new media.[9] The first ACM Hypertext academic conference took place in November 1987, in Chapel Hill NC, where many other applications, including the hypertext literature writing software Storyspace were also demoed[10]

Meanwhile, Nelson, who had been working on and advocating his Xanadu system for over two decades, along with the commercial success of HyperCard, stirred Autodesk to invest in his revolutionary ideas. The project continued at Autodesk for four years, but no product was released.

van Dam's research groups at Brown University continued working as well. For example, in the late '70s Steve Feiner and others developed an ebook system for Navy repair manuals, and in the early '80s [[Norm Meyrowitz and a large team at Brown's Institute for Research in Information and Scholarship built Intermedia (mentioned above), which was heavily used in humanities and literary computing. In '89 van Dam's helped Lou Reynolds and van Dam's former students Steven DeRose and Jeff Vogel spun off Electronic Book Technologies, whose SGML-based hypertext system DynaText was widely used for large online publishing and e-book projects, such as online documentation for Sun, SGI, HP, Novell, and DEC, as well as aerospace, transport, publishing, and other applications. Brown's Center For Digital Scholarship [1] (nee Scholarly Technology Group) was heavily involved in related standards efforts such as the Text Encoding Initiative, Open eBook and XML, as well as enabling a wide variety of humanities hypertext projects.

Hypertext and the World Wide Web[edit]

In the late 1980s, Berners-Lee, then a scientist at CERN, invented the World Wide Web to meet the demand for simple and immediate information-sharing among physicists working at CERN and different universities or institutes all over the world.

"HyperText is a way to link and access information of various kinds as a web of nodes in which the user can browse at will. It provides a single user-interface to large classes of information (reports, notes, data-bases, computer documentation and on-line help). We propose a simple scheme incorporating servers already available at CERN... A program which provides access to the hypertext world we call a browser... "

Tim Berners-Lee , R. Cailliau. 12 November 1990, CERN[11]

In 1992, Lynx was born as an early Internet web browser. Its ability to provide hypertext links within documents that could reach into documents anywhere on the Internet began the creation of the Web on the Internet.

Early in 1993, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois released the first version of their Mosaic web browser to supplement the two existing web browsers: one that ran only on NeXTSTEP and one that was only minimally user-friendly. Because it could display and link graphics as well as text, Mosaic quickly became the replacement for Lynx. Mosaic ran in the X Window System environment, which was then popular in the research community, and offered usable window-based interactions. It allowed images[12] as well as text to anchor hypertext links. It also incorporated other protocols intended to coordinate information across the Internet, such as Gopher.[13]

After the release of web browsers for both the PC and Macintosh environments, traffic on the World Wide Web quickly exploded from only 500 known web servers in 1993 to over 10,000 in 1994. Thus, all earlier hypertext systems were overshadowed by the success of the Web, even though it originally lacked many features of those earlier systems, such as an easy way to edit what you were reading, typed links, backlinks, transclusion, and source tracking.

In 1995, Ward Cunningham made the first wiki available, making the Web more hypertextual by adding easy editing, and (within a single wiki) backlinks and limited source tracking. It also added the innovation of making it possible to link to pages that did not yet exist. Wiki developers continue to implement novel features as well as those developed or imagined in the early explorations of hypertext but not included in the original web.

The Firefox Add-On Hyperwords which has been developed in cooperation with Doug Engelbart[14] and Ted Nelson[15] gives Web surfers the ability to issue many commands on any text on the web, not only pre-written links—a return to what users could do 40 years earlier with Doug Engelbart's NLS.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Inventing the Medium", Janet H. Murray
  2. ^ # ^ Wardrip-Fruin, Noah and Nick Montfort, ed (2003). The New Media Reader. (29). The MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-23227-8.
  3. ^ Buckland, Michael K. "Emanuel Goldberg, Electronic Document Retrieval, And Vannevar Bush's Memex", 1992
  4. ^ a b Gary Wolf (June 1995). "The Curse of Xanadu". WIRED. 3 (6).
  5. ^ Did Ted Nelson first use the word "hypertext" at Vassar College?"
  6. ^ a b Barnet, Belinda (2010-01-01). "Crafting the User-Centered Document Interface: The Hypertext Editing System (HES) and the File Retrieval and Editing System (FRESS)". 4 (1).
  7. ^ Steven DeRose and Andries van Dam. "Document structure and markup in the FRESS hypertext system" (sometimes cited as "The Lost Books of Hypertext"). In *Markup Technology* Vol. 1, Issue 1 - Winter 1999. Cambridge: MIT Press. https://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=313600
  8. ^ "Where meter meets mainframe: An early experiment teaching poetry with computers | News from Brown". news.brown.edu. Retrieved 2016-05-24.
  9. ^ "Microscope: The Hazards of HyperCard, COMPUTE! April 1988".
  10. ^ Hawisher, Gail E., Paul LeBlanc, Charles Moran, and Cynthia L. Selfe (1996). Computers and the Teaching of Writing in American Higher Education, 1979-1994: A History Ablex Publishing Corporation, Norwood NJ, p. 213
  11. ^ Roads and Crossroads of Internet History Chapter 4: Birth of the Web
  12. ^ WWW-Talk Jan-Mar 1993: Re: proposed new tag: IMG
  13. ^ WWW-Talk Jan-Mar 1993: Support for CSO and gopher type 2
  14. ^ Hyperwords Advisory Board Archived 2009-07-17 at the Wayback Machine
  15. ^ Hyperwords Advisory Board Archived 2009-07-17 at the Wayback Machine

External links[edit]