About Hypertext


You may have used them hundreds of times today, but the origin of hypertexts dates all the way back to at least 1963.

Featuring Tom Merritt.



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Episode transcript:

Let’s say your Mom is an academy-award winning actress. And your Dad was a fighter pilot during World War II and now he’s a TV and movie director.
What do you think you’d end up becoming? An actor? Lots of children of actors do. Or maybe something in film, perhaps a cinematographer.
I’m going to bet you didn’t guess, technology visionary.
Ralph Nelson was a World War II fighter pilot and directed well-known films like Lilies of the Field, Charly and Once a Thief. Celeste Holm won an academy award for her performance in Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement in 1947. She was also nominated for her role in All About Eve.
Their son, Ted Nelson, came very close to inventing the Web. In fact, he’ll argue his version of the Web would have been better.
Project Xanadu, founded in 1960, aimed to create a computer network with a simple user interface. It never caught on. And nobody really agrees why.
But one big thing came out of it that you probably used today, maybe a hundred times.
In 1963, while working on Project Xanadu, Nelson coined a term for the way you could go from one piece of information to another in his network. He called it Hypertext.
Let’s help you know a little more about hypertext

Hypertext is pretty simple. It’s text on an electronic display that references other text in a way that a reader can access it. So you read the word Angola, you click on it, and it takes you to a history of the country of Angola. The connection between the two is a hyperlink. If you’re on a phone touchscreen, and you tap on the score of the Cardinals Cubs game and it takes you to a writeup about that game, you’ve used a hyperlink. We just call them links in everyday language but it’s short for hyperlink. And it connects Hypertext.
The most famous use for hypertext is of course is the web page. Web pages are typically written in HTML, which stands for Hypertext Markup Language. But the Web isn’t the only place it is used. Many software applications take advantage of hypertext to move you through documentation or features. CD-ROMs famously used hypertext in the 1990s.
However you come across it, you probably think of hypertext as static. You click on text and it takes you to other text. If it’s doing more it’s probably not using hypertext any more. But there are other features of hypertext you may run into. StretchText for example expands or contracts the text you’re looking at to give you more information if you want it. That little “click to expand” feature. Transclusion will bring multiple documents together in context. Sort of an object oriented method of displaying information. When that happens you may not even notice. The document just shows up with all the inclusions in it.
But to be honest, static hypertext is by far the most common occurrence. It’s the backbone of the Web. Without hypertext you don’t have links, you don’t have search engines, so you don’t have most of the modern economy.
Hypertext can be considered the backbone of the Web revolution.
But if the guy who coined the phrase didn’t bring it to us, how did we get here?
Let’s start before the beginning. Since the written word has existed we have used text to point to other text. Footnotes tell you to look at the bottom of the page for more info. So the idea has been around for a bit.
A lot of folks point to Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “The Garden of Forking Paths” as inspiration. It certainly has a modern World Wide Web feel to it. It’s also seen as feeding the many worlds interpretation of quantum physics.
But the root of Nelson’s idea of hypertext, was also the root of Doug Engelbart’s Mother of All Demos. We did a whole episode on that. If you heard that episode you know about Vanevar Bush’s 1945 article in Atlantic Monthly called “As We May Think.” Bush described a device called the “Memex” that could use microfilm and photocells to store and recall info. Coded symbols on the microfilm read by the photocells would let you link information and find it.
There’s a lot more to it, but 18 years after Bush’s article, in 1963, Ted Nelson coined the term Hypertext. In 1965, he published an article called “Complex information processing: a file structure for the complex, the changing and the indeterminate.”
Modern electronics made Bush’s ideas not just possible, but achievable.
In 1967, working at Brown university, Nelson and Dutch computer science professor Andy van Dam, created the Hypertext Editing System or HES. It ran on Brown’s IBM System/360 Model 50 mainframe. You accessed it from an IBM 2250 terminal and used a light pen as a pointing device. No mouse yet. Engelbart wouldn’t show that off for another year.
The HES was meant for the novice. It let you connect documents without needing to be trained in programming. It focused on menus and linking. It had a back button, which Nelson points out was the first system to contain what seems an obvious function. And it was put to use. NASA used it for some of the documentation of the Apollo space program.
Nelson had crossed paths with Douglas Engelbart over the years. Engelbart was working at Stanford on his networked information, also inspired by Vanevar Bush’s article. Engelbart’s system was called NLS, short for oNLine System. In December 1968, in what we later be called the Mother of All Demos, Engelbart demonstrated all kinds of things like a mouse, video conferencing and collaborative editing.
But for this episode it’s worth noting that Engelbart showed off Hypertext to the public for the first time.
Engelbart’s demo was the talk of the computer world, which was a small world back then. Inspired by Engelbart, Andy van Dam started working on another project called the File Retrieval Editing SyStem or FRESS. It included an “undo” feature to reverse small editing or navigational mistakes. And it could run on multiple terminals, giving it more flexibility than HES. It had two types of links. Tags, which took you to references and footnotes. And jumps, that took you to separate related documents.
FRESS was used by classes at Brown, including a poetry class to help students see references to other works. It was the word processor of choice at Brown through the 1970s.
Hypertext started to become more common. The folks at Carnegie Mellon developed ZOG, a hypertext system used on Nimitz class aircraft carriers for documentation. ZOG later evolved into the commercial systems called KMS or Knowledge Management System.
In 1978, people at MIT created the Aspen Movie Map. The entire city of Aspen had been filmed on 16mm stop-frame cameras driving down the middle of streets. The images were burned to laserdisc and linked together to let a user take a virtual tour of Aspen. You know, like Google Street View. Except much less easy to use.
In 1980, young Tim Berners-Lee created ENQUIRE, a database system somewhat like a wiki.
In 1982, University of Kent’s Peter J. Brown created Guide, the first hypertext system for a personal computer.
Jesuit priest Roberto Bush created a hypertext index of the works of St. Thomas Aquinas.
Ben Shneiderman led a group that created the first commercial electronic book, called Hypertext Hands-On!
Storyspace was a project to create hypertext narratives.
In August 1987, Apple Computer released HyperCard for the Macintosh computer. It was a database that used hyperlinks or more properly hypermedia, since links started on cards not text, and it was used for all kinds of things from BBC Radio to the game Myst. In what has become the fine tradition of Apple, its implementation of a pre-existing technology popularized it and the first ACM Hypertext academic conference happened in November 1987.
But that was about to happen right back at Apple.
Vanevar Bush inspired Nelson and Engelbart who inspired vanDam and many others, who inspired Apple, who inspired Tim Berners Lee.
Remember him? The guy who made ENQUIRE back in 1980. He was at CERN now, the physics laboratory in Europe. You know, the place that brought you the Large Hadron Collider. In 1989, he and some CERN teammates, in part inspired by Hypercard proposed a new hypertext project. CERN was generating incredible amounts of data and they wanted to help physicists at CERN share documents more efficiently. They called it WorldWideWeb.
In a 1990 writeup Berners-Lee wrote “HyperText is a way to link and access information of various kinds as a web of nodes in which the user can browse at will. Potentially, HyperText provides a single user-interface to many large classes of stored information, such as reports, notes, data-bases, computer documentation and on-line systems help. We propose the implementation of a simple scheme to incorporate several different servers of machine-stored information already available at CERN”
And the rest is history. Websites, browsers and links everywhere.
And what about Ted Nelson? He continued his work, with professorships at Hokkaido University, Keio University the University of Southampton, University of Nottingham, a fellowship at Oxford, and most recently teaching at Chapman University and UC – Santa Cruz.
In 1998 he was awarded the World Wide Web Conference’s Yuri Rubinsky Memorial Award.
In 2001 he was knighted by France.
And in 2014 the ACM’s Special Interest Group on Computer Human Ineraction gave him a Special recognition Award
And he hasn’t given up on project Xanadu.
You can visit it right now at xanadu.com and read about ZigZag data base structure, transcopyright licenses and more.
But the man who coined the term hypertext still thinks his vision might be the better one. Nelson feels like the Web oversimplified things, with its “ever-breaking links, links going outward only, quotes you can’t follow to their origins, no version management, no rights management.”
Whatever the implementation though, that idea that Nelson championed is still pivotal to how we use technology. Whether you click, point, tap or pinch to access it, Hypertext is the major way you’re navigating information these days.
In other words, I hope you know a little more, about hypertext.

Know A Little More is researched, written and hosted by me, Tom Merritt. Editing and production provided by Anthony Lemos and Dog and Pony Show Audio. It’s issued under a Creative Commons Share Attribution 4.0 International License.