The Electronic Labyrinth


Vannevar Bush first wrote of the device he called the memex early in the 1930s. However, it was not until 1945 that his essay "As We May Think" was published in Atlantic Monthly. The frequency with which this article has been cited in hypertext research attests to its importance. In particular, both Douglas Engelbart and Ted Nelson have acknowledged its pivotal influence. (From Memex to Hypertext contains both a letter from Engelbart to Bush (235) and an homage to Bush by Nelson (245).)

The memex is "a 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" (102). A memex resembled a desk with two pen-ready touch screen monitors and a scanner surface. Within would lie several gigabytes (if not more) of storage space, filled with textual and graphic information, and indexed according to a universal scheme. All of this seems quite visionary for the early 1930s, but Bush himself viewed it as "conventional" (103).

Bush saw the ability to navigate the enormous data store as a more important development than the futuristic hardware. Here he describes building a path to connect information of interest:

When the user is building a trail, he names it, inserts the name in his code book, and taps it out on his keyboard. Before him are the two items to be joined, projected onto adjacent viewing positions. At the bottom of each there are a number of blank code spaces, and a pointer is set to indicate one of these on each item. The user taps a single key, and the items are permanently joined [...]
Thereafter, at any time, when one of these items is in view, the other can be instantly recalled merely by tapping a button below the corresponding code space. Moreover, when numerous items have been thus joined together to form a trail, they can be reviewed in turn, rapidly or slowly, by deflecting a lever like that used for turning the pages of a book. It is exactly as though the physical items had been gathered together from widely separated sources and bound together to form a new book. (103)

This passage is an apt description of the process of forming a link between nodes in today's hypertext packages.

© 1993-2000 Christopher Keep, Tim McLaughlin, Robin Parmar.
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