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The Birth of Hypertext in a Nut Shell

Tera Walters

Hypertext. The word itself sounds modern, contemporary, scientific. What exactly is it and how it plays a role in our lives today? Hypertext, put simply is non-sequential writing. When a link is on the internet and is selected it takes the user to a connected web site, which therefore can take them to anther. There is plenty of opportunity to loose the beginning point. It accesses the user to vasts amounts of information that one may not have access to otherwise.

Hypertext exists with nodes, which are units of information that are linked from one site to another. When we go to a web page we are at a node. Links are ways of accessing the nodes of information. The ability of traveling from one to another without ever having to return to the original node, define non-sequential reading in hypertext.

Although the idea of hypertext seems very new, it was in fact first voiced in 1945 when Vannevar Bush questioned, in 1945 the benefits of man's science and invention. In that year Bush released "As We May Think" where he addresses the issues of information in the future. "Science has provided the swiftest communication between individuals; it has provided a record of ideas and has enabled man to manipulate and to make extracts from that record so that knowledge evolves and endures throughout the life of a race rather than that of an individual." He raises concern that we are being 'bogged' down with information discovered along with information learned. We can only obtain so much information. Thus the first idea of hypertext evolved and theory of a machine that could enhance human memory was born. He referred to this machine as Memorex. With Memorex, one would be able to store and retrieve vast amounts of information that are linked by association. Although Bush died well before the internet arrived, his idea carried on to inspire others in the development of the web. Two men in particular were inspired by Bush's "As We May Think", Douglas Englebart and Ted Nelson

Englebart read Bush's "As We May Think" during World War II. The reading , along with settling for what calls simple " goals of a successful career and family", lead Englebart to question his contribution to man kind. He reflected on how the fast paced world of technology was growing and began to "envision people sitting in front of displays, 'flying around' in an information space where they could formulate and organize their ideas with incredible speed and flexibility." (Englebart bio, Bootstrap Institute). This was in the early 1960's, well before the World Wide Web.

Englebart went on to develop his idea of "augmenting human intellect". This, put simply, translates to increasing the capability of efficient comprehension. In situations where information may have been too complex or extensive, now can be digested quicker and easier on all variations of problems.

Through Englebart's Augmentation Research Center, he developed a hypermedia groupware system called NLS (oN Line System). This system "facilitated the creation of digital libraries and storage and retrieval of electronic documents using hypertext. This was the first successful implementation of hypertext. " (Englebart bio, Bootstrap Institute)

In 1965, Ted Nelson coined the phrase "hypertext" out of a vision he had while attending college. Out of this concept grew Xanadu Software, which he described as a "mystical place of literary memory" . As Bush created the idea of a hypertext as a system to organize books and records, Nelson's idea is computer based. In Dream Machines published in 1974, Nelson describes his ideas of "hypergrams (branching pictures), hypermaps (with transparent overlays), and branching movies, such as the film at the Czechoslovakian Pavilion at Expo '67 ".

Today hypertext, the non-sequential writing system uses nodes to assist the journey of obtaining knowledge. With this we are given opportunities to explore and discover multi-levels of information. Technology today came from complex ideas that grew from men with visions.

Our future is uncertain. As technology and science continue to progress at quick paces the theories of Vannevar Bush, Douglas Englebart and Ted Nelson will inspire newer and fresher ideas. The advancements that will be accomplished that once was considered impossible will become very real in our daily lives.