March 12, 2009 was the 20th anniversary of the World Wide Web, for which Tim Berners-Lee will someday be sainted if there is fairness in the world. However, it is worth remembering that his work was not done in a void. The magic of the World Wide Web is hyperlinking, a concept which has been around for a good long while longer than any of the technology that currently makes it so ubiquitous.
There were several notable precursors to the Web, and a few “competing” technologies that just didn’t fly for one reason or another. Most notable of these was gopher, which even had its own “search engine” called Veronica (companion to Archie, which indexed ftp sites). Those of us who were in college in 1991 should remember gopher well, but there were two major reasons why it lost out to the Web in the long run. First, it was text-only for the first few years, which doomed it to wither along with usenet (and yes, I know usenet is still around… but that is another blog post entirely). More importantly, though, even though gopher clients were open-source, the University of Minnesota never set gopher free, and instead chose to attempt to charge licensing fees two years after it had spread among universities throughout the US. This was 1993, when the free HTTP protocol was first starting to become noticed, and there was rumor at the time that the U of M instituted the fees to kill gopher so they wouldn’t have to maintain a competing protocol. At least that’s what I heard. A good history of gopher is on Wikipedia.
Before networked hyperlinks, though, local links were all the rage with Apple’s HyperCard. I created many HyperCard stacks in college when I was supposed to be doing schoolwork, which probably led directly to my career as a technical writer and my fascination with the Web and its potential back in 1992. I think what I love most about it, though, is that fans still continue to work with it. That is lasting power.
The first hypertext project, though, was long before gopher or HyperCard. It was called Project Xanadu, begun in 1960 by forward-thinker Ted Nelson, and it quietly revolutionized the way people thought about the links among information. The project still continues and is still owned by Mr. Nelson, now a professor in Japan, who continues to work hard to think differently.
The concept itself goes back still further. In 1945, engineer Vannevar Bush wrote a visionary article that was published in the Atlantic Monthly. Entitled As We May Think, this well-constructed article introduces the idea of a memex, short for Memory Extender, which was essentially a hypertext processor based on microfilm, high technology in his day.
So happy birthday to the web, with a nod to its long and varied history.