Go BackindexGo to main page

Hypertext and the Web

By Lamont Wood

text edited by thocf for convenience of links and dates


Hypertext the Lingua Franca of the Internet


The Web wouldn't be there if Tim Berners-Lee did not design webbrowser and webserver software, invented HTTP and defined URL.
Also not less important if his bosses of CERN wouldn't have had the insight of allowing to have the world this for free it would have gone the same way many other fine projects went: "the big void. "


Tim Berners-Lee didn't invent hypertext, but he invented the World Wide Web. In 1989, the mild-mannered Berners-Lee was working at a high-energy physics lab in Switzerland. He had already written a few database programs to store information via random links, but those were only for his personal use. Then the idea came to him-Click!-to create a hypertext structure that would span the globe via the Internet, accessible to anyone with a mouse....

Out of Order: Hypertext's Past, Present, and Future

The Web exists since 1993, but the basic concept behind it -hypertext- is not. Hypertext can be defined loosely as an interconnected set of words and images that can be "browsed," instead of simply read in a particular, fixed order. Hypertext can be traced back to examples from the middle ages and to novels starting in the mid-eighteenth century. The World Wide Web is the most fully developed form of hypertext that is widely accessible. As a living, breathing, hypertextual organism, it continues to develop in a typically messy and chaotic fashion.

Technology rarely ends up where people expect it will. For every article, such as Vannevar Bush's pivotal 1945 piece "As We May Think" for The Atlantic Monthly, which foresaw today's desktop computers, there are hundreds of articles describing a future filled with food pills, jet packs, and vacations on the Moon. Bush proposed that we automate access to knowledge, before we drowned in it. In an astounding feat of extrapolation, he predicted microfilm (which would allow a million books to fit on one end of a desk), digital photography, speech recognition systems, and personal computers that could access hypertext databases. He called his hypertext links "associative trails," but the concept was essentially the same as our Web. Bush's article inspired many in the computer field, including Douglas Engelbart. Starting in 1963 at Stanford Research Institute, Engelbart proposed an online hypertext system that linked and cross-referenced all the documents in a workspace shared by users at different physical locations.

Project Xanadu, begun in 1960 by Ted Nelson, was even more ambitious. Its end goal was nothing less than a "docuverse," a document universe where all writing is linked and referenced, and where nothing can be deleted. Once something was published, it would exist in the document universe forever, accreting annotations, links, and revisions. Nelson's lofty goals have yet to be achieved with current technology. He is viewed by some as a trailblazing genius-and by others as a pie-in-the-sky crackpot with a penchant for neologisms.

The desktop publishing and personal computing boom of the early 1980s let the cat out of the bag. Personal hypertext database programs and languages became available for both Macintoshes and IBM-compatibles. Electronic hypertext novels began to appear; by choosing which links to follow, the reader determined the order of the episodes in the overall narrative. Hypertext as a literary form was met with skepticism, but a few authors have gained recognition by exploring the form beyond its "choose your own adventure" beginnings. Hypertext literature is now taken more seriously, and many university English departments offer courses on it.

The inventor of the Web had a purely practical objective: alleviate the information overload he suffered, along with others in the field of high-energy physics. In the early 1980s, London-born physicist/programmer Tim Berners-Lee was working at the CERN European Particle Physics Laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland, when he wrote a personal information manager he called "Enquire." It could handle random associations by linking database files. A new version of this program, one that could run on any computer and be used by multiple users on a large network (the Internet), was the obvious next step. It would incorporate codes within the text that would permit both text formatting and hypertext links. In 1989, he floated a proposal for such a system.

He was met with considerable skepticism. After all, maybe he was just another Ted Nelson or Vannevar Bush....

"There were two years of solid pushing, of persuading everyone against solid pressure," recalls Berners-Lee. "They thought it was too complicated, that people would get lost in hypertext, that it [interpreting the formatting tags for display] was too slow." But he eventually won some converts, and work began in the latter part of 1990 using students as staff. Berners-Lee wrote the first Web browser and Web server programs on his NeXT machine (Mosaic, developed by the folks who later formed Netscape, would not exist until 1993). Immediately, reality diverged from his original vision, which assumed that users could add links to the material they were viewing (as Bush envisioned in 1945).

For Berners-Lee, the promise of his "web" was that users would be shielded from the inner workings of hypertext, and that all users were created equal-everyone could act as content providers or editors. "You could make links very easily, in a collaborative environment, and you never saw format codes," Berners-Lee recalls of his vision. "It aimed to be universal, like paper. There would be a continuum of hypertext from personal sites to the president's site and everything in between, a place where people could build a common knowledge space," he says. But this proved impractical, so the system had to be broken into separate "server" software, which stored and allowed access to Web files on Internet computers, and "browser" software to display the files on user's desktops. More and more people have set up their own home pages, but the basic distinction between the Web server and the Web browser is still in place. Links still only work in one direction-if I'm a fan of rock musician Warren Zevon, I can add a link to his official page on my home page. This does not mean that Zevon's page will feature a link to mine, however. The basic power hierarchy of the real world is maintained, which is counter to Berners-Lee's original democratic vision.

By the end of 1990, the Web consisted of one server at the CERN lab in Switzerland, and one file, the CERN phone book. Today (2002), the number of files are over 3 billion, and there are more than 3.000,000 servers (public or private). Berners-Lee now is married, has two small children, and has little time to surf the Web. "I guess I am proud of it," he says of his creation. "But now I worry about the negative aspects. The Web is the great equalizer since everyone has access to the same information, but you do have to have access to it. If information providers begin relying on it, other sources, such as 800 numbers, may be turned off.

"And I expected to see a more heterogeneous mix on the Web. Instead of carefully edited papers, I expected to see groups and families using hypertext to keep track of what they were doing from day to day," Berners-Lee adds. As the father of the Web, he now seems both perplexed by how his baby has grown, and worried about its future development. It is doubtful that he could have imagined the Pamela Anderson Lee Fan Club home page when he was carving out the initial specs for the Web.

His current wish list for the future of the Web includes: interactivity, so a user can add content to another's files (his original vision); "Seals of approval" to vouch for accuracy, or suitability for children; more automation, with "software agents" that would act as souped-up, personalized versions of today's Web search engines.

However, the future rarely turns out the way it is planned. Today's buzzword is tomorrow's has-been. But hints of where hypertext might yet go -- among future writers, educators, programmers -- abound. After all, in a world where a database program written by a modest scientist in Switzerland evolves into the World Wide Web, anything can happen.


Go Backindex

Last Updated on June 11, 2002 For suggestions please mail the editor in chief 


Footnotes & References