Updated: Jul 28
The first ever search engine was something we have come to know as our brain. In prehistoric times, this organ was the only place humans and their ancestors stored important information – best places to hunt, worst places to gather, and even where their potential mating partners liked to hang out. Safe to say, we haven’t changed much since then.
It’s important to point out humans are predominantly visual creatures. Think about the cave paintings, which far predated formal written language. To provide a more concrete example of this bias, there was a famous study conducted in 1970 at the University of Rochester in which 21 students were first shown a series of 2,560 images. After a rest period of anywhere from 30 minutes to four days, the subjects were then shown the same images, although this time they were set opposed to a different image they had not seen . Any guesses on how well the subjects did?
The average retention for the students was, astonishingly, 93% across all the rest periods . Take a second before you move on to appreciate that number and what it means...
That number undoubtedly proves human are predominantly visual creatures. Therefore, it was critical to the advancement of our species that more advanced languages be developed to provide more precise visual-textual associations. These languages did develop through time. However, no matter how sophisticated the language, the ultimate remembrance or lack thereof came down to our brain’s memory storage capacity. Enter the question, brought to you by the Egyptians and the Chinese…
The Egyptians believed asking questions was an important part of learning and developed a system of hieroglyphics to record their knowledge and history. The Egyptian god Thoth was considered the god of knowledge and wisdom and was often depicted with a stylus and a scroll, which represented the importance of writing and learning. Similarly, in China, the tradition of learning through questions can be traced back to Confucius around 500 BCE. Confucius believed asking questions was the key to understanding the world and improving oneself.
Remember these two when you’re staring at the Giza Pyramids or the Great Wall. In fact, as a tribute to them, you should take a picture of yourself typing in a question about them into a Google search.
To continue with this cultural theme, the next group you can pay tribute to in the development of search engines is the Greeks. They developed the first modern transcription technique - scriptio continua. Scriptio Continua is a writing style with no spaces between words. Unlike hieroglyphics, the writings were not predominantly images, they resembled modern text. Obviously, this style made it difficult to search for specific information, as you would have to read the entire text to find what you were looking for.
Scholars, the aforementioned orators who society leveraged to gather information from, did develop techniques to help them find specific passages in these continuous texts, but it was still a time-consuming and tedious process, which, like those of their ancestors, depended on the brain’s capacity to store information.
So, then, what did humans do to solve this problem? They…..waited until next week to find out…..
P.S. I would highly recommend the book “Moonwalking with Einstein” by Joshua Foer. It was one of my favorite books I read last year. It goes into great depth about the history and mechanics of memory
 Standing, Lionel, et al. “Perception and Memory for Pictures: Single-Trial Learning of 2500 Visual Stimuli - Psychonomic Science.” SpringerLink, 16 Nov. 2013, link.springer.com/article/10.3758/BF03337426.