The World Wide Web: the beginning and now

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Early Ideas

While the word "hypertext" is fairly new, the ideas behind it have existed for quite some time.

[ Photo, Ramayana ]

The Ramayana, an ancient Indian epic about the life and culture of India around 1000 B.C., is an example of early hypertext. It was written by the poet Valmiki in the 4th century B.C.. The epic is an early example of hypertext because within the epic, there are stories that branch off to other stories, which leads to an intertwining among them and a process of skipping around within the book based on story associations (Rama and the Ramayana).[ Photo, Talmud ]

The Talmud, the central text of Jewish law, is another early example of hypertext through print. Written in the 3rd century, the Talmud consists of nested commentary, and commonly used annotations. The text of the Talmud is self-referential: discussions in different parts refer to each other. At the same time, later commentators latch onto specific words and phrases, hoping to explain the meaning of the text and earlier comentators more deeply. To understand a given unit of the Talmud, one may have to refer to another volume in which a similar or related discussion takes place. Or, one may have to keep several fingers in place while referring to one commentator, who cites a second, and who may then be challenged by a third (Introducing the Email Talmud Study Group).

These early ideas of hypertext would later be applied to the growing problem of information overload. A number of individuals proposed and devised methods or solutions to deal with this over-abundance of information.

[ Portrait, Denis Diderot ]

During the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century, a French philosopher named Denis Diderot devised the first encyclopedia, the Encyclopédie. His idea was to store as much of the world's information as possible in a set of volumes, to give man access to a wide array of knowledge (Campbell-Kelly & Aspray, 284). His encyclopedia is viewed as an old form of hypertext because of its network of textual concepts joined by referential links. For example, in looking up "baseball" in the encyclopedia, one would find a description of the game, and at the end of this description would be references such as "see Babe Ruth" or "see Sports".

[ Photo, Herbert George Wells ]

After World War I ended, there was a huge explosion of information in the United States due to an increase in academic research. Since there was so much information available, people began specializing in only one area of knowledge. This trend towards specialization caused concern among people, and started making them wonder how to organize and assemble all of this information so that one could have a wider span of knowledge.

Herbert George Wells was one of these people, and believed that specialization was tearing society apart. In the mid 1930's he came up with the idea for a World Encyclopedia. Unlike the traditional encyclopedia, Wells claimed that his would "have the form of a network that would constitute the material beginning of a real World Brain" (Campbell-Kelly & Aspray, 285) Although Wells never elaborated on this idea of a "network" and a "World Brain," perhaps he meant something similar to hypertext and computer networks, which would come within the next 35 years.

All of these early examples are ones of information storage and hypertext systems that existed or were intended to exist in print. While it is not certain if any of them had a direct influence on pioneers to come, they did indeed share common notions, visions, goals, and solutions. The most notable of these future pioneers is Vannevar Bush.


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