Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Hypertext – Links from the past


Clickable text is so ubiquitous in everyday life that the concept of ‘linking’ to content is second nature. Hypertext has shaped the way that we think of the organization of information and the way we think of the information itself. Hypertext has been instrumental in the development of the individual nature of the personal computer, and the integration of massive amounts of people.


Hypertext is “ … text, distributed to a set of discrete sections, with referential links in between.”[ Müller-Prove] The most typical manifestation of hypertext is through World Wide Web, which
typically presents hypertext ‘links’ as underlined, blue text in order to separate it from the rest of the content on a web-page. When a person selects a link, they are re-directed to the information at the ‘target’ of the link.

Hypertext is essentially an expansion on the concept of reference. Precursors of hypertext include: Table of Contents, Footnotes, and Bibliographies. In a Table of Contents, one needs only find the page number associated with the chapter that you are interested in and turn to that page in order to access the content. Footnotes allow the author to refer to items that support their argument without breaking the flow of the document. Bibliographies ‘links’ to other
documents referenced in the creation of a document.

Bush and the Memex

Hypertext was conceived of very early. The ‘backbone of the web’ began in the mind of a man
named Vannevar Bush. Bush was the Director of the Office of Scientific Research and
Development which coordinate scientific research during World War II. In an article entitled “As
We May Think” published in the Atlantic Monthly in July 1945, Bush outlined his ideas for the future of the organization of knowledge:

“A special button transfers him immediately to the first page of the index. Any given book of his library can thus be called up and consulted with far greater facility than if it were taken from a shelf. As he has several projection positions, he can leave oneitem in position while he calls up another. He can add marginal notes and comments, taking advantage of one possible type of dry photography, and it could even be arranged so that he can do this by a stylus scheme, such as is now employed in the telautograph seen in railroad waiting rooms, just as though he had the physical page before him.” [Bush]

Bush envisioned the his information device as an item shaped like a desk with screens that the user can read from and some controls, such as a keyboard and sets of buttons and levers. This device would be “… 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.” [Bush] Bush saw into the future and predicted, to some extent, the personal computer.

Engelbart’s Expansion

The memex was never created. Douglas Engelbart took the concept of Bush’s memex and took
steps toward making it a reality [Simpson]. In his 1962 paper, “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual
Framework” Engelbart described a system that allowed a
professional to navigate cross-linked data [Engelbart]. Engelbart’s ideas were somewhat difficult for the rest of the
scientific community to stomach because computers were gigantic number-crunching
machines that
performed relatively simple number-related tasks.

On December 9, 1968, Douglas Engelbart made a bold move.
In a session of the Fall Joint Computer Conference held at the Convention Center in San Francisco, Engelbart presented was has been described as “The mother of all demos” to an
audience of 1000 computer professionals. In the demo Engelbart presented the Online System (NLS) for the first time. NLS was full of ‘firsts’, including the mouse, hypermedia, computer-aided meetings, and document version control system. [Engelbart, Christina]

Nelson and Project Xanadu

The word ‘hypertext’ was coined by Ted Nelson and was first published in a paper for th
e Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) in 1965 [Nelson 1]. Nelson has also been credited with the first use of the term ‘hypermedia’. While Nelson had also been greatly influenced by
Bush’s “As We May Think” paper, his approach was vastly different from Engelbart’s. Where Engelbart and Bush approached the problem of knowledge organization from a practical, mechanical perspective, Nelson came from a background of philosophy and sociology.

In 1960, Ted Nelson founded Project Xanadu [Xanadu] , which was the first ever hypertext project. In ‘Weaving the Web’, Tim Berners-Lee and Mark Fischetti stated [Berners-Lee 1]

“Ted Nelson, a professional visionary, wrote in 1965 of "Literary Machines,"computers that would enable people to write and publish in a new, nonlinear format, which he called hypertext. Hypertext was "nonsequential" text, in which a reader was not constrained to read in any particular order, but could follow links and delve into the original document from a short quotation. Ted described a futuristic project, Xanadu[®], in which all the world's information could be published in hypertext. For example, if you were reading this book in hypertext, you would be able to follow a link from my reference to Xanadu to further details of that project. In Ted's vision, every quotation would have been a link back to its source, allowing original authors to be compensated by a very small amount each time the quotation was read. He had the dream of a utopian society in which all information could be shared among people who communicated as equals.”
Nelson collaborated with Andries van Dam at Brown University in 1987 on the Hypertext Editing System, which was designed to produce printed documents nicely and efficiently on the IBM/360 system, but primarily to explore the hypertext concept. The Hypertext Editing System is described as “a pointer-rich data structure on arbitrary-length pages.”[Van Dam]

Nelson believes that his original ideas for hypertext have yet to be fully implemented. On its home page, the Project Xanadu website boldly states
“Today's popular software simulates paper. The World Wide Web (another imitation of paper) trivializes our original hypertext model with one-way ever-breaking links and no management of version or contents.
WE FIGHT ON.”[Xanadu]
Hypertext Explosion

Interest in hypertext finally exploded in 1987, due to the earlier release of Apple Computer’s of HyperCard , the release of Peter J. Brown’s GUIDE and Brown University’s Intermedia software. In November 1987, the first Association of Computer Machinery’s hypertext academic conference took place at the University of North Carolina. It was a huge success. According to Jakob Nielson’s 1987 Hypertext Bulletin ,

“When the workshop was originally planned in the fall of 1986, the planners were not sure whether they would be able to get a large enough set of papers and participants. But they had ended up having 500 people compete for the 200 seats at the
workshop.” [Nielsen]

Andries Van Dam presented the keynote address to the crowd about his earlier work in on the 1968 Hypertext Editing System. Ted Nelson and Douglas Engelbart were among the illustrious speakers at the 1987 Hypertext Conference.

Berners-Lee and the Web

In May of 1990, Tim Berners-Lee of CERN proposed the World Wide Web as a solution to the
communication problems of the widely-distributed CERN scientists. In his paper “Information Management: A
Proposal” Berners-Lee proposed a ‘Mesh’ that would solve CERN’s ‘information loss’ problem.
“Meanwhile, several programs have been made exploring these ideas (referring to an earlier discussion of hypertext), both commercially and academically. Most of them use "hot spots" in documents, like icons, or highlighted phrases, as sensitive areas. touching a hot spot with a mouse brings up the relevant information, or expands the text on the screen to include it. Imagine, then, the references in this document, all being associated with the network address of the thing to which they referred, so that while reading this document you could skip to them with a click of the mouse.”[Berners-Lee 2]

In a section entitled “What will the system look like?” Berners-Lee included the following diagram, which demonstrated the centrality of ‘hypertext’ to his idea of the ‘Mesh’.

Paradigm Transformation

Hypertext represented a radical departure from all textuality before its advent. In the time Vannevar Bush, the very idea seemed fanciful, yet inspiring. The exponentially increasing amount of information available after World War II made Bush keenly aware of the necessity of reducing the amount of time to locate information.

In addition to their technical and textual contributions to the concept of hypertext, Douglas Engelbart and Ted Nelson championed a vital part of Bush’s vision. In “As We May Think” the Memex that was proposed was a personal device in which “… an individual stores all his book, records, and communications”[Bush]. The Memex was a personal device. Engelbart and Nelson focused their research on the communication and record-keeping of individuals.

Hypertext simultaneously breaks language and unites people. The World Wide Web connected scientists initially and now connects the world. Instantaneous access to arcane information is possible by merely “Touching a hot spot with a mouse” in Berners-Lee’s words. Ted Nelson argues that hypertext breaks allows for escape from the tyranny of sequential text. An hypertext user can follow Alice down the rabbit hole and end up immersed in the saga of the origination of photography as a an art form .

Throughout the history of hypertext, you can catch glimpses of the extraordinary sparks of foresight that individuals have had. No one visionary can really claim the credit for what has become the modern concept of hypertext, yet the combined brilliance of its inventors has created something that we do not yet fully grasp.


Berners-Lee Tim and Fischetti, Mark Weaving the Web. Harper/San Francisco, 1999, p.5.

Berners-Lee, Tim 1989 Information Management: A Proposal. W3 Archive

Bush, Vannevar July 1945 As We May Think. The Atlantic Monthly

Engelbart, Christina 1986 A Lifetime Pursuit. Doug Engelbart Institute

Engelbart, Douglas C. October 1962 AUGMENTING HUMAN INTELLECT: A Conceptual Framework. SRI Summary Report AFOSR-3223

Müller-Prove, Matthias 2009 Hypertext. Vision and Reality of Hypertext and Graphical User Interfaces

Nelson, Theodor Holm 1965 Complex information processing: a file structure for the complex, the changing and the indeterminate. ACM Annual Conference/Annual Meeting Proceedings of the 1965 20th national conference

Nielsen, Jakob 1988 Hypertext ’87. ACM SIGCHI Bulletin Volume 19, Issue 4 (April 1988) DOI=

Simpson, R., Renear, A., Mylonas, E., and van Dam, A. 1996. 50 years after “As we may think”: the Brown/MIT Vannevar Bush symposium. interactions 3, 2 (Mar. 1996), 47-67. DOI=

Van Dam, A. 1988. Hypertext '87: keynote address. Commun. ACM 31, 7 (Jul. 1988), 887-895. DOI=

Wolf, Gary 1993 The Curse of Xanadu. Wired Magazine

Xanadu Project Project Xanadu

Additional Sources

Wikipedia Page - Hypertext

Wikipedia Page - Douglas Engelbart

Wikipedia Page - Ted Nelson

Nelson, Ted "Way Out of the Box"

The Demo - Video of 'The Mother of All Demos'

Dalgaard, Rune Hypertext and the Scholarly Archive: Intertexts, Paratexts and Metatexts at Work. ACM conference on Hypertext and Hypermedia (august 2001, Aarhus, Denmark). New York: ACM Press: 175-184.

1 comment:

Jeff Root said...

yay! I'm glad someone mentioned Nelson's Xanadu project.

In my research, I read some great articles on Nelson and Xandu and considered incorporating them into my paper:
1. The Curse of Xandu -
2. NY Time profile on Nelson -