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Part 8: Ted Nelson, Douglas Engelbart, and the All-Important Hypertext

Updated: Jul 29

Ted Nelson and Douglas (Doug) Engelbart, as discussed last week, are the two men who contributed the most to the proliferation of hypertext, one of the foundational components of the internet and search engines. As with many of the innovators we’ve spoken about during this series, however, their contributions were not fully appreciated during their time.

Engelbart spent his entire career in academia. In 1962, he embarked on the ambitious Augment project. One major component of this project was the NLS, short for oN-Line System. It’s a clunky abbreviation, yes, but the reasoning behind it was the necessity to match its sister system – the oFf-Line System, or FLS. That damn twin sister always screwing up everything…

Anyway, back to the NLS. The NLS was the first attempt at creating code behind an interactive human-machine interface, also known as software. The intent behind it was to give humans a tool capable of rapidly accessing and processing vast amounts of information. Engelbart and his team worked on the project furiously for six years and, in 1968, gave the world's first software demonstration to a crowd of 1,000 at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium.

This demonstration, appropriately named the “Mother of All Demos”, was the world’s first look at what computer software was capable of. Among the features it showcased were the mouse, hyperlinks (hypertext), word processing, and video conferencing. The machine required to perform these functions was not your ordinary laptop or PC. Instead, it was an incredibly large and energy-demanding machine that required microwave transmissions and two hard line data connections from Stanford.

Following the demonstration, naturally, the technology community became incredibly excited about the potential of the NLS and the computer which ran it. However, Engelbart was blind to the system’s steep learning curve for inexperienced users. As a result of his naivety, the majority of the original development team left him to work further on the mouse and user interface, the components more relevant to the normal user. Engelbart no longer had the team necessary to continue developing the NLS. He would continue to privately research augmentation and computing until his death in 2013.

Now, to Ted Nelson, who was actually the first person to coin the term “hypertext”. Nelson was a grandiose thinker. He wasn't interested in taking small steps to prove hypertext worked as a concept. Instead, he commenced work on the final vision - an entire network of devices connected and able to be cross-referenced using hypertext. In 1965, he would begin a 30-year journey to convert this abstract vision into a tangible system. That journey would be called Project Xanadu.

For the purposes of this particular blog, I will keep the explanation of Xanadu at a high level – we will delve into this project more in next week’s blog. The theory behind Xanadu was to leverage the power of different computing devices to catalog every piece of information which had ever been written. Sound familiar? It should. That thoery was the basis for Paul Otlet’s RBU.

Xanadu, in a remarkably similar fashion to the RBU, had one major flaw – it was not attractive to private industry. Its foundation relied upon a completely democratic system of sharing information. In theory, completely democratic systems are achievable. However, in reality, institutions and individuals do not share information freely. These aforementioned institutions are who Nelson needed to progress Xanadu, but they never embraced its democratic spirit. Like the RBU, though, its presence did not go unnoticed in the history of search engines.

These two individuals, Ted and Doug, certainly did their part to advance the search engine. Hypertext, or hyperlinks, or linked referencing, is the fundamental mechanism of all search engines – Google, Amazon, Spotify, YouTube, Wikipedia, I could go on all day. Just think about how many applications we use that are search engines in disguise, and how all of these applications rely on not just answering the user’s query, but directing him or her to additional resources. That simple, beautiful functionality would not be possible without hypertext. Ted and Doug, we owe you a tremendous amount of gratitude.

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