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Precursor to the WWW, that very few know of

·8 mins

[Subtitle] The background context that laid the ground for the birth of WWW

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This post is a first of the series of posts on evolution of web technologies

Part 1 : Precursor to the WWW, that very few know of

Part 2 : Making sense of the evolution of the Internet

Part 3 : Which STACK do you pay your allegiance to?

Part 4 : Angular vs React vs Vue (Work in Progress)

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Context #

Today’s generation cannot imagine a time when there was no internet. I am not talking about intermittent loss of power or a patch of road with no cellular signals - I mean a time when the interne just did not exist.

Most probably we will hear “What !!!” adorning a confused face.

Yes - there was such a time.

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Who invented the Internet? #

Ask anyone or search online, “Who invented the Internet”, the instant answer we get is Tim Berners-Lee in 1989, as part of his proposal for the World Wide Web.


It is true. But there is a precursor to the story.

As the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union grew in intensity during the 1960s, there was a concern around how government and defense installations would stay in contact if telecommunication networks were to be wiped out. Researchers at MIT proposed linking computers together as a diffused and decentralized network, but the challenge was that the existing telecommunications infrastructure was not capable of sending large amounts of data across a large-scale network. DoD’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) took over the project and worked towards several key technical inventions like Packet Switching and TCP/IP. It facilitated the development of various applications and protocols that are still in use today, such as email (SMTP in 1982), the File Transfer Protocol (FTP in 1985) etc. Checkout US NSF - NSF and the Birth of the Internet.

While all these protocols enabled exchange of information, one essential aspect they all lacked was for a way to interconnect information - the concept of “hypertext”, which was addressed by Tim Berners-Lee’s Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP in 1989).

Now, was the concept of “hypertext” totally new? - interestingly, it wasn’t.

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Who invented the hypertext and hypermedia? #

The concept of interlinked texts was first expolored by Vannevar Bush, in his essay “As We May Think,” published in July 1945 edition of The Atlantic Monthly. He started his essay suggesting

Consider a future 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.

Bush called his device Memex (short for “memory extender”). His idea was more focused on the associative trails between pieces of information, mimicking the way human memory works through association.

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Theodor Holm Nelson (aka Ted Nelson), inpired by Vannevar Bush’s idea of a personal physical Memex device, envisioned a global interconnected system with pieces of text also carrying with them contextual metadata as well as links to other related texts, that would allow users to create, share, and edit documents collaboratively. His vision was to bring forth a universal library of human knowledge, where all documents would be interconnected and accessible to all users.

Hmmm …. this sounds eerily close to what we know as … 🤔

Ted Nelson coined the terms “hypertext” and “hypermedia” in ~1960 as he explored these concepts, and formally presented his paper “A File Structure for The Complex, The Changing and the Indeterminate” at Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) conference in Aug of 1965.

Thats right - it was ~29 years before HTTP was invented by Tim Berners-Lee.

Ironically, Nelson’s background was in philosophy, psychology, and the arts. He graduated with a BA from Swarthmore College in 1959 and was a graduate student in Sociology at Harvard University around the time when he began to formulate his ideas that he named Project Xanadu

Inspired from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1797 poem ‘Kubla Khan; or, A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment.’, where Xanadu was the mythical site of lavish palace.

Nelson had no background in computing or electrical systems - but was a profound visionary, who envisioned the creation of a wondrous and expansive space, not of physical architecture but of information architecture - a realm where knowledge and ideas could be linked together in an intricate, accessible, and infinitely extendable network.

Many called him eccentric and his ideas fantasy, which was understandable, as they were leaps and bounds ahead of what was possible at this time.

Ted Nelson’s vision of Xanadu was to be a repository where every piece of writing could be stored, continuously accessible, and interlinked in a manner that allowed for the easy comparison of documents and the tracing of ideas and information across non-linear text (hypertext), meaning users could follow links from one document to another, creating a web of interconnected information, long long before the WWW.

Key concepts of Xanadu included: #

  1. Transclusion: This is the ability to include a part of one document seamlessly within another, allowing readers to see the source material directly and authors to maintain copyright control while being compensated for their work.

  2. Version-Control: Xanadu aimed to track the version history of documents, enabling users to access and review every version of a document that had ever existed.

  3. Bidirectional-Links: Unlike the unidirectional hyperlinks of the WWW, Xanadu’s links were intended to be bidirectional, so that users could trace both forward to citations and backward to see what documents cited a particular document.

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Cult Figure #

Besides being a visionary, Nelson was also a cult figure.


Ironically, Ted Nelson is also the historian who charted how the computer world got to be the way it is.

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What made WWW a reality, while Project Xanadu withered away? #

While both aimed to create a networked system for linking and accessing documents, their approaches, underlying philosophies, and practical implementations differed significantly.

Key Distinctions #

  1. Complexity vs. Simplicity: Contrary to Nelson’s groundbreaking concepts of Project Xanadu, Berners-Lee’s WWW was built on simpler, more easily implementable technologies like HTML (HyperText Markup Language), URLs (Uniform Resource Locators), and HTTP (HyperText Transfer Protocol). This simplicity was crucial for the Web’s rapid adoption and growth.

  2. Centralization vs. Decentralization: Xanadu’s model proposed a more centralized structure for managing documents and links, which included ambitious features like “permanent, unbreakable links” and detailed document version histories. In contrast, The Web embraced a decentralized model where anyone could create and host content, leading to rapid, organic growth but also issues like link rot and fragmented information sources.

  3. Philosophical Underpinnings: Nelson’s vision was deeply influenced by his desire to enhance human cognition and the way people interact with information. Again, in contrast, Berners-Lee was motivated by practical needs for information sharing and management within the scientific community, specifically at CERN, where he worked. Though both visions aimed to revolutionize access to information, their starting points and priorities were quite different.

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Ted Nelson and the Xanadu team managed to attract some private investors who were intrigued by the project’s ambitious goals - but it had a lot of ups and downs.

In 1972, Cal Daniels completed the first demonstration version of the software. Daniels wrote some primitive Xanadu code in a now-defunct programming language that ran on Nelson’s rented Nova computer. However, before he could show a running Xanadu system to any potential backers, Nelson unexpectedly ran out of cash and was forced to return the Nova. The programmers had working code but no machine. (Later, they would have machines but no working code.)

 -  The Curse of Xanadu,, June 1995

While Project Xanadu was seen as a fantasy by many, there were some strong supports too. Autodesk (the maker of AutoCAD) was a strong proponent from 1988 to 1992.

Despite decades of development, Project Xanadu failed to deliver a fully functional product that could demonstrate its ambitious goals. This failure to materialize, especially in contrast to the WWW’s rapid development and adoption, further marginalized the project.

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So, the answer to the question of “Who invented the Internet”, is indeed Tim Berners-Lee, as its precursor was just an idea/vision, while WWW was real and it revolutionized entire human race.

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Lessons from the saga of Project Xanadu #

  1. The impact of a profound Vision, even if it does not always lead to immediate commercial success.

  2. Triumph of “Simplicity & Practicality” over “Complexity”.

  3. W.R.T manifestating a vision, distinction between delivering a

       “usable working product, even with some gaps”


       “seemingly amazing and complete vision that is vaporware”.

  4. Adaptability to changing conditions.

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References #

  1. Article - The Curse of Xanadu,, June 1995

  2. Book - What the dormouse said– : how the sixties counterculture shaped the personal computer industry

  3. Book - Computer lib ; dream machines

  4. Book - Geeks bearing gifts : how the computer world got this way