Engadget came up with an interesting article about one in the Atlantic about the germinal thinking about the internet which involved a Belgian genius by the name of Paul Otlet (whom no one remembers) who in 1934 described a plan for a global network of “electronic telescopes” that would enable people all over the world to access a huge library of books, articles, films, photos and audio recordings. Sound familiar?
Even better: He wrote about wireless networks, speech recognition and even social networks as well as a mechanism to transmit taste and odors. In 1895, Otlet and Henri LaFontaine (a Nobel Peace Prize winner) started a project called the “Universal Bibliography” to catalogue all humanity’s published information. The Belgian government funded it and their staff created 15 million index cards all in a system called the Universal Decimal Classification (a derivative of the Dewey Decimal System). You can actually see it at the beginning of this video: http://youtu.be/KLX2OGw31Oo . The video is in French.
Their project actually went commercial. Customers could query the service and receive answers by telegram for a small fee. They then branched out and created more networks…a truly amazing enterprise. Otlet even went on to play a role in the founding of the League of Nations and presented a plan for a ‘World City’ where the world government would reside along with the Universal Bibliography. These folks dared to dream. And fail.
“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.” – Paul Otlet
Now, jump back to 1883 and the French novelist Albert Robida who described a machine called the telephonoscope capable of transferring words and images over great distances. In his novel “The Twentieth Century”, people used it for entertainment, news and shopping from the comfort of their homes, as the Atlantic article points out.
Interestingly, also in 1883 Charles Cutter (American) described the library of the future as “desks with keyboards on them.” He also invented an alternative to the Dewey Decimal System still in use by the Library of Congress.
In 1927, Emanuel Goldberg actually invented and patented his “Statistical Machine”which allowed a person to search and retrieve data stored on microfilm by using a “search card” – the first browser, which could be used via dial up telephone.
Unfortunately for Goldberg, his work came to an abrupt end. The Nazis arrested him, forced his resignation from Zeiss, stood him for hours at attention in front of a swastika. He fled with his family to Paris and in 1937 left Paris for Palestine, never resuming his work on his “Statistical Machine”. At least he and his family survived…a better fate than many other Jews saw.
Before leaving Paris, Goldberg attended a Conference with Otlet where they met H.G. Wells, who believed deeply in new information technologies. He stated, “The world has to pull its mind together,” he said, “This synthesis of knowledge upon which you are working is the necessary beginning of a new world.” That year he published his essay, “The World Brain”. He imagined a world wide network of libraries, research institutions and Universities. Well, the Nazis put an end to that, and Otlet died in 1944, a forgotten man.
Vannevar Bush (“As We May Think” – July,1945) set off the intellectual chain reaction which culminated with the formation of the internet. Bush is cited by the inventors of HTML as the conceptual forerunner, but he wasn’t really as you can see from the story above. He never cited his sources or connections in the formation of his ideas, so maybe he knew of the others and maybe not. He never predicted the internet. Otlet did.
History repeats itself. Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit Priest and visionary regarding information management and the creation of “A sort of ‘etherised’ human consciousness…a single, organized, unbroken membrane over the earth” that will “pave the way for a revolution.” was banned by the Church and forbidden to write and publish about the topic as heresy because he thought this transformed consciousness would approach the Divine.
They didn’t stop one of his Canadian grad students though, Marshall McLuhan.
So…when you think of the inventor of the internet, it’s not as simple as one declarative sentence by anyone. It didn’t start with Vint Cerf or DARPA and ‘packet switching’, nor connecting NIS supercomputers with optical cable nor the legislation allowing civilian usage of the government ARPANET backbone, either. Those developments were certainly extremely important, but they didn’t come out of thin air.
It started over 100 years ago. It’s about pioneers in information science who had incredible visions which we neither be ignorant about, nor take for granted: Once again, we stand on the shoulders of giants.
4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e3yXkYsvGlQ – Vint Cerf on the immediate developments before the birth of the net.