Ted Nelson – Hypertext Envisioned and Pursued

Nelson, Ted Portrait 2

Another element of the information management challenge that Bush understood was the fact that quickly finding information through data compression and advanced displays didn’t solve the need to move with ease from one type of pertinent information to different, but related, information. He recognized that there remained a need for a human/machine interface that more realistically mirrored the way people thought.

And, so, in one final burst of creative insight, Vannevar Bush dreamed up what we call today “hypertext” or “hyperlinking.” That’s the highlighted text or interactive graphic on a computer screen that, when clicked upon with a mouse, takes the user to related information stored in a different location.

Bush saw that static indices were an imperfect way to search for and access information and what was needed was a more direct way of moving from one thought to a related one. He understood that a major limitation in quickly accessing desired information was the absence of ways to associatively access that information. In short, he saw the need for a random-access mechanism that would also provide quick connections to related information in different locations– hyperlinks as we now refer to them.

“Mere compression, of course, is not enough; one needs not only to make and store a record but also be able to consult it. Our ineptitude in getting at the record is largely caused by the artificiality of systems of indexing. When data of any sort are placed in storage, they are filed alphabetically or numerically, and information is found (when it is) by tracing it down from subclass to subclass. It can be in only one place, unless duplicates are used; one has to have rules as to which path will locate it, and the rules are cumbersome. Having found one item, moreover, one has to emerge from the system and re- enter on a new path. The human mind does not work that way. It operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain. Selection by association, rather than indexing, may yet be mechanized.”

Xanadu Showing Changing Drafts of the Declaration of Independence

While Ted Nelson’s software concept named Project Xanadu, was unable to be reduced to practice notwithstanding decades of fitful development, researchers today look back on Nelson’s ideas about hypertext as influential in how people thought about computer interface concepts and the potentially revolutionary nature of hyperlinks.

His parents were Hollywood royalty. Father Ralph Nelson was the directed the 1963 movie Lilies of the Field that led to Sidney Poitier winning the first Academy Award for Best Actor. His mother was actress Celeste Holm who was nominated for her performance in the 1950 movie All About Eve.

Nelson, Ted - Dream Machines Cover

With a BA in philosophy from Swarthmore College, a small liberal arts school in Pennsylvania founded by Quakers, Nelson started graduate school in sociology in 1959 at the University of Chicago. Moving on to Harvard, he received his MA in 1962. It was at Harvard that he began to work on a “writing system” that would let people store what they had written, change it, and print it out. His concept included being able to see alterations in a side-by-side format that would also retain the train of changes. As Project Xanadu evolved through the decades of the unsuccessful effort to produce a useful and commercial software product, hints of what could be in store were evident, but never made workable

Nelson used the term “hypertext” in several papers he published in 1965. Nelson, Ted - Xanadu_SchematicThough the code for Xanadu could never be written that would make dream come true, the search went on to find a workable way to make usefully connect non-sequential text. Nelson published his ideas in a paper submitted to the Association for Computing Machinery in 1965. He further developed them in his books Computer Lib/Dream Machines (1974) and Literary Machines (1981).

In the 1950s and 1960s, the utility seen in the foresight and musings of Bush and Nelson was still far away given the state of computer development at the time. Nelson, Ted Xanadu ModelThis was the era of big iron, as the IBM and other mainframe computers were known. Even with their growing power and scale, they could not yet manage the facile integration of images with text, let alone coupling them with sound and video. While continuing to develop, the speed and processing power of big iron’s central processing units remained in its infancy. On the storage end of things. magnetic drum memory devices had come to market in 1950. They functioned by storing information on the outside of a rotating cylinder coated with ferromagnetic material. This was circledby read and write heads that remained in a fixed position.