History of Hypertext and the Web

The story of hypertext begins in 1945, with the proposal of the Memex System by Vannevar Bush in an essay entitled "As We May Think." In this essay, he proposes a method of storage and retrieval that is meant allow academics and professionals to take optimum advantage of new information. Instead of using books, Bush envisions a microfilm system that indexes the info using associative links much the same way that the World Wide Web links info today. Bush was well ahead of his time, writing in an era before computers were taken into consideration.

It took twenty years to pass before the word hypertext was coined, by Ted Nelson. Ted Nelson was one of the major visionaries of the coming hypertext revolution. He knew that typewriters and filecards could never handle the interconnections of information that were occurring as human knowledge grew. Luckily, there was a tool being developed to handle all of this information, the computer (from the book, Literacy Online):

Wait a minute, I thought: screen with graphics, storage of texts, cheap machines -- these meant that writing no longer had to be sequential. The preposterous extrinsic activity of taking the structangle of thought and breaking it into pieces could be dismissed. It was no longer a problem.
Ted would later go on to found the Xanadu project, an attempt to store all of human knowledge in a huge database of information. He envisioned instant, tiny, royalties attributed to the creator of any information that is accessed. Although this project was destined to fail, many people still believe that his vision will eventually succeed.

Many other hypertext systems were developed following 1965. The first attempts were in academic settings, and later some businesses tried to create systems. However, it was not until Apple Computer delivered HyperCard free with every Macintosh in 1987 that the effects of hypertext were truly felt in the industrial community. It was the first hypertext editing system available to the general public, and it caught on very quickly. Consumers saw this as a new way to move information, and there was a big push towards both multimedia systems and graphical user interfaces, both systems that needed to be in place for the Web to be successful.

Less than three years later, Tim-Berners Lee, working at CERN, proposes the WWW as the first global hypertext system, and it is implemented in 1991. Lee was already using a hypertext system, and he thought of the web as a way to implement it on a broader level:

I arrived at the web because the "Enquire" (E not I) program -- short for Enquire Within Upon Everything, named after a ?victorian? book of that name full of all sorts of useful advice about anything -- was something I found really useful for keeping track of all the random associations one comes across in Real Life and brains are supposed to be so good at remembering but sometimes mine wouldn't. It was very simple but could track those associations which would sometimes develop into structure as ideas became connected, and different projects become involved with each other.

I was using Enquire myself, and realised that (a) it would fulfill my obligation to the world to describe what I was doing if everyone else could get at the data, and (b) it would make it possible for me to check out the other projects in the lab which I could chose to use or not if only their designers had used Enquire and I had access.

Hence, the development of earlier hypertext systems were absolutely crucial to the creation of the Web. Widespread use of HyperCard, online Help files, and other proprietary systems such as Enquire allowed people to become acclimated to the hypertext paradigm and expand on it.

In the years to follow, the World Wide Web really took off. In 1993, The National Center for Supercomputing Applications introduced Mosaic, programmed by Marc Andreesson and Eric Bina. Mosaic was the first graphical browser for the World Wide Web, and it's ease of use, simplicity, and power caused a rising wave of hype that would allow the web to grow phenomenally. Shortly after graduation, the students who had worked on the Mosaic project collaborated to create what would eventually be Netscape Communications Corporation. In under two years after forming, Netscape took a dominant position on the web, and gained a market value of $500 Million on it's initial public stock offering. Below is a chart of the web's growth.

This graph shows how the WWW is rising at a rate much faster than any other Internet service. It is projected to shoot up even faster of the next decade. Interestingly, the line plotted on the chart for gopher denotes a hypertext system that was developed before the WWW was. This was touted as the next big wave in computing, but it was limited because creating links and putting documents on gopher was somewhat complicated, and it only had the ability to do straight written text.

I have combined timelines from many different sources to create a hypertext timeline. In addition, here's a detailed, timeline of the Web.

From here you may go back to the history of the Internet, go forward to an analysis of how the WWW will change society, or go up to the table of contents.

Chris Boraski