Envisioning the Web, 60 Years Ago

Sixty years ago, Vannevar Bush laid out a passionate vision of an "information appliance" of the future. Looking back, we find a remarkably prescient description of what we today call the world wide web.

In 1945, Bush was the Director of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development, a predecessor organization to DARPA, which oversaw much of the development of the Internet in the 1960s and 70s. During World War II, Bush's team had been focused on military applications of technology, specifically on uses for the newly invented "computer," used primarily at the time for code breaking and ballistics calculations.

But the war was ending, and Bush wanted to keep the collaborative spirit of previous years alive. "Scientists, burying their old professional competition in the demand of a common cause, have shared greatly and learned much. It has been exhilarating to work in effective partnership. Now, for many, this appears to be approaching an end. What are the scientists to do next?" wrote Bush in the introduction to As We May Think.

"The world has arrived at an age of cheap complex devices of great reliability; and something is bound to come of it."

Bush then went on to describe his vision of a "memex... a sort of mechanized private file and library." In 1945, when computers were little more than bulky, awkward calculators, Bush expounded on concepts we recognize today as personal computers, massive digital memory storage and "associative linking."

"A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory."

Even in 1945, Bush had a notion of a networked personal computer: "It consists of a desk, and while it can presumably be operated from a distance, it is primarily the piece of furniture at which he works. On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There is a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers. Otherwise it looks like an ordinary desk."

He also envisioned something very much like the web: "Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready-made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified."

The full essay is fascinating, and is truly a seminal work in the history of information and ideas. As we kick off our largest ever Search Engine Strategies conference today, it's well worth the time to read this remarkable essay and reflect on how amazingly far we've come in just sixty short years.

As We May Think
by Vannevar Bush
Originally published in the July 1945 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. It is reproduced at the site above with permission.

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