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The Mundaneum – the analog internet

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June 17, 2008

June 18, 2008 Historians typically trace the origins of the World Wide Web through a lineage of Anglo-American inventors like Vannevar Bush, Douglas Engelbart and Ted Nelson. Now Belgian Paul Otlet another pioneer of information management and universally accessible information is beginning to gain recognition for his Mundaneum. Great video here on the life of the man who used terms like web of knowledge, link, and knowledge network to describe his vision for a central repository of all human knowledge – 100 years ago.

The Mundaneum was created by two Belgian lawyers, Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine, and aimed to gather together all the world's knowledge and classify it according to a system they developed called the Universal Decimal Classification.

Otlet regarded the project as the centerpiece of a new 'world city' - a centrepiece which eventually became an archive with more than 12 million index cards and documents. Some consider it a forerunner of the internet (or, perhaps more appropriately, of Wikipedia) and Otlet himself had dreams that one day, somehow, all the information he collected could be accessed by people from the comfort of their own homes.

A description of the project, written in 1914, describes it variously as a “universal body of documentation”, an “encyclopedic survey of human knowledge”, and an “enormous intellectual warehouse of books, documents, catalogues and scientific objects”.

Although Otlet’s proto-Web relied on a patchwork of analog technologies like index cards and telegraph machines, it nonetheless anticipated the hyperlinked structure of today’s Web. “This was a Steampunk version of hypertext,” said Kevin Kelly, former editor of Wired, who is writing a book about the future of technology.

Alex Wright of the New York Times has a full feature article on the forerunner to todays internet.

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About the Author
Mike Hanlon Mike grew up thinking he would become a mathematician, accidentally started motorcycle racing, got a job writing road tests for a motorcycle magazine while at university, and became a writer. As a travelling photojournalist during his early career, his work was published in a dozen languages across 20+ countries. He went on to edit or manage over 50 print publications, with target audiences ranging from pensioners to plumbers, many different sports, many car and motorcycle magazines, with many more in the fields of communication - narrow subject magazines on topics such as advertising, marketing, visual communications, design, presentation and direct marketing. Then came the internet and Mike managed internet projects for Australia's largest multimedia company, Telstra.com.au (Australia's largest Telco), Seek.com.au (Australia's largest employment site), top100.com.au, hitwise.com, and a dozen other internet start-ups before founding Gizmag in 2002. Now he writes and thinks. All articles by Mike Hanlon
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