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The First Concept of the World Wide Web

This fascinating article from the New York Times describes how in 1934, [Paul] Otlet sketched out plans for a global network of computers (or electric telescopes, as he called them) that would allow people to search and browse through millions of interlinked documents, images, audio and video files.

The article includes the following clip from the documentary (see embedded below), The Man Who Wanted to Classify the World, which describes Otlets vision for his réseau, which might be translated as network — or arguably, web.

Heres a great passage that shows just how fine-tuned Otlets prescience was, though he may not have realized how unwieldy his human approach would have been if utilized to the extent that the contemporary internet is today- thank goodness for the soft-AI of Google, huh? (Interestingly, the article goes on to describe how Otlet envisioned links between articles carrying more data than just the link; including participatory response data and indications of agreement or disagreement between the two linked articles. This idea was a hint of what was to come with the current movement towards a semantic web, though some critics see it as requiring too much labor to create and sustain, similar to the human-analysis-driven web of Otlets vision…)

Otlet and LaFontaine eventually persuaded the Belgian government to support their project, proposing to build a “city of knowledge” that would bolster the government’s bid to become host of the League of Nations. The government granted them space in a government building, where Otlet expanded the operation. He hired more staff, and established a fee-based research service that allowed anyone in the world to submit a query via mail or telegraph — a kind of analog search engine. Inquiries poured in from all over the world, more than 1,500 a year, on topics as diverse as boomerangs and Bulgarian finance.

As the Mundaneum evolved, it began to choke on the sheer volume of paper. Otlet started sketching ideas for new technologies to manage the information overload. At one point he posited a kind of paper-based computer, rigged with wheels and spokes that would move documents around on the surface of a desk. Eventually, however, Otlet realized the ultimate answer involved scrapping paper altogether.

Since there was no such thing as electronic data storage in the 1920s, Otlet had to invent it. He started writing at length about the possibility of electronic media storage, culminating in a 1934 book, “Monde,” where he laid out his vision of a “mechanical, collective brain” that would house all the world’s information, made readily accessible over a global telecommunications network.

Tragically, just as Otlet’s vision began to crystallize, the Mundaneum fell on hard times. In 1934, the Belgian government lost interest in the project after losing its bid for the League of Nations headquarters. Otlet moved it to a smaller space, and after financial struggles had to close it to the public.

A handful of staff members kept working on the project, but the dream ended when the Nazis marched through Belgium in 1939. The Germans cleared out the original Mundaneum site to make way for an exhibit of Third Reich art, destroying thousands of boxes filled with index cards. Otlet died in 1944, a broken and soon-to-be-forgotten man.

Here is a full-length documentary about Paul Otlet, provided by the internet archive:

Lastly, here is an article about Paul Otlet from Boxes and Arrows, titled Forgotten Forefather (by the same author as the Times article).

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