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.

Want to discuss or comment on this story? Join the As We May Think discussion in the Search Engine Watch forums.

Search Headlines

NOTE: Article links often change. In case of a bad link, use the publication’s search facility, which most have, and search for the headline.

Yahoo Set to Celebrate 10th Anniversary
Marketwatch.com Feb 27 2005 10:56PM GMT
China’s search engine censorship continues
Pandia Feb 27 2005 3:25PM GMT
Google Maps Expands Support
ResearchBuzz Feb 27 2005 3:26AM GMT
KMWorld’s 100 Companies That Matter in Knowledge Management
Knowledge Management World Feb 26 2005 5:31PM GMT
search Supports Aggressive SEM and SEO
ClickZ Today Feb 26 2005 5:29PM GMT
Journey to the (Revoltionary, Evil-Hating, Cash-Crazy, and Possibly Self-Destructive) Center of Google from
GQ Feb 26 2005 5:25PM GMT
Review: Copernic 1.5 (Beta)
PC Magazine Feb 26 2005 5:22PM GMT
New Search Engine Is Just the Ticket
sapinfo Feb 26 2005 5:14PM GMT
IBM Preps Enterprise Search Update
eWeek Feb 26 2005 5:10PM GMT
A Higher Google Standard?
InternetNews.com Feb 26 2005 5:08PM GMT
Sligo firm launches RSS directory
ElectricNews.net Feb 26 2005 4:55PM GMT
Paid-search volume strength may make up for PPC decline
Marketwatch.com Feb 26 2005 4:53PM GMT
Firefox ‘extensions’ boost browser’s power
Pioneer Planet Feb 26 2005 4:41PM GMT
Clicks by deception? Not quite
CNET News.com Feb 26 2005 4:25PM GMT
SEMPO Names New Board
ClickZ Today Feb 25 2005 10:40PM GMT

Related reading

Simple Share Buttons