November 28, 2023

HTML history. Part 1. Hypertext and Hypermedia

The appearance of the HTML language is usually dated to the late 80s - early 90s of the twentieth century. During this period, the first ideas of linking remote resources by means of hypertext links saw the light, and, as a result, there was a need for a convenient and simple way to create and add such links to a document. But how did the concept of "hypertext" and "hypermedia" arise in general? In this article, we will look even further into the past and try to follow the path of the formation of these terms from their very origin.

Переход по ссылке. Тед Нельсон. Литературные машины. 1987 г.

The 1940s. Memex

The Second World War is in full swing. The entire world industry and science is on military rails, although the rails, at that time, were quite old. Military leaders relied on the weapons of past wars, believing that it would determine the winner. New technologies were not taken seriously by the military at that time. And scientists and engineers were considered, at best, hired workers or just useless dreamers. However, the invention of radar, missiles, a radio-controlled fuse, mass-produced penicillin, an atomic bomb, literally turned the world upside down, including the views of the military on ways of waging war. One of those dreamers was Vannevar Bush. A gifted mathematician and electrical engineer, Bush came from a peculiarly American line of can-do engineers and tinkerers, a line beginning with Franklin and including Eli Whitney, Alexander Bell, Edison and the Wright brothers. Back in the 1930s, he developed the world's most powerful mechanical calculators, laying the foundation for the emergence of the digital computer and the digital revolution. The war years were the peak of Bush's stellar ascent. At that time, he was an adviser to President Roosevelt and headed the OSRD (Office of Scientific Research and Development). However, even in post-war America, he remained an influential person.

In 1945, The Atlantic Monthly magazine published an essay by Vannevar Bush entitled "As We May Think". In his article, Bush describes a prototype of an extremely futuristic device, by those standards, called "Memex" (Memory index). At its core, the device was a repository of visual information and was presented in the form of a table with two translucent screens and another small window-lens. With the lens, the user could photograph any graphic information, be it a sheet of paper, a page of a book, a note, and in general everything that could be put on this window at all. Reels with high-resolution microfilms are placed inside the table. The resulting image is recorded in a free frame of microfilm. Later, the user can return to the captured frames by means of electromechanical control, specifically, levers placed on the table. By pressing one of these levers to the left or right, you can rewind the film forward or backward at a comfortable speed for human perception. By pressing the same lever harder, you can rewind 10 frames at once, and by pressing even harder, you can rewind 100 frames at once. The microfilm reels themselves can change at the user's request. Also, the user has the opportunity to leave his notes directly on the frames or record a new frame with his comments. Technically, it was proposed to implement such functionality using dry printing technology and a stylus with a touch screen, similar to those used in the invented, back in 1887, telegraphs that could be found in the waiting rooms of railway stations of that time. Among other things, in this device it was still possible to find a printing device with the ability to recognize speech and a voice synthesizer to reproduce what was written.

But perhaps Bush's most revolutionary innovation is associative connections. Memex would allow you to create a so-called information trail from the passed links, which, later, could be restored. Having two screens in front of the eyes, the user can see two elements of microfilms at once in parallel. Below, under the frames, there are empty code cells. By means of the keyboard and buttons, the user can enter a numeric code that will be assigned to the frame. And write the same code in another frame as a link. Thus, it is possible to create chains of related frames. Later, it would be possible to enter the desired code from the keyboard and get the previously created sequence.

Although the Memex project had no chance to come to life, innovations seemed too audacious, the scientific and expert community discussed and studied Bush's ideas for the next half century. The criticism of Memex was quite broad, many disassembled individual solutions into cogs and discussed details, others accused Bush of misunderstanding computer science and a poor attitude to classification schemes (as, for example, Professor Michael Buckland in his 1992 article). But, be that as it may, Bush undoubtedly marked the beginning of a whole era of the future of the Web and HTML.

The 1960s. Hypertext. Hypermedia. Xanadu

Almost 20 years have passed since Vannevar Bush published his article on Memex before the world community first heard the term "hypertext". It was introduced by the American sociologist, philosopher and pioneer in the field of information technology Ted Nelson in 1965 in his report "A file structure for The Complex, The Changing and the Indeterminate" at the 20th National ACM Conference.

Let me introduce the word «hypertext» to mean a body of written or pictorial material interconnected in such a complex way that it could not conveniently be presented or represented on paper. It may contain summaries, or maps of its contents and their interrelations; it may contain annotations, additions and footnotes from scholars who have examined it.
By 'hypertext' mean nonsequential writing - text that branches and allows choice to the reader, best read at an interactive screen.

A little later, the term "hypermedia" was also introduced. Unfortunately, Ted Nelson himself could not remember when exactly this happened.

I first published the term "hypertext," which I had chosen quite carefully, in 1965, along with "hyperfilm" and "hyperfile." I do not know whether I published the term "hypermedia" at that time or not, although I used it in my notes. This is the obvious generic for non-sequential and branching media; the problem is that since the word media is plural, you can't reasonably speak of a work in this mix as "a hypermedia," the way you can reasonable speak of a hypertext. On the other hand, just as we say "a multimedia production," I suppose that such noun forms as hypermedia production and hypermedia unit are reasonable. In any case, the term "hypermedia" has resurfaced, in approximately this usage.

Later, in 1987, Ted Nelson's book "Literary Machines" will be published, where, in particular, he says that he preached the hypertext revolution for 20 years, telling people that hypertext will become a trend of the future, the next stage in the development of civilization, the next stage in literature and explanatory power in education and technical fields, as well as in art and culture. It seemed that no one had heard or read anything about it all these years. And suddenly, everyone started talking about it, it seems that many people really heard, read and began to agree. The word "hypertext" sounds literally from all sides. Ted Nelson recalls how at a conference in March 1987, passing through the waiting room, he heard the word "hypertext" nine times.

Unlike Memex, Ted Nelson's ideas did not remain just a theory. He dedicated his life to the Xanadu project, the first conceptual attempt to create a hypertext system in practice.

It is noteworthy that the project exists to this day. Today, the authors of the project call their product "an improved version of the World Wide Web", which corresponds to the spirit of Ted Nelson himself, a well-known opponent of HTML, XML and browsers.

The slogan on the official project page best illustrates the position of Xanadu followers.

The computer world is not just technicality and razzle-dazzle. It is a continual war over software politics and paradigms. With ideas which are still radical, WE FIGHT ON.
We hope for vindication, the last laugh, and recognition as an additional standard— electronic documents with visible connections.

In 2014, a partially working version of the project was published online under the name "OpenXanadu". And in 2016, Ted Nelson presented a demo version of the Xanadadoc specification, which formed the basis of the XanOrg markup format.

The 1980s. HyperCard. Asymetrix Toolbook. OWL Guide. Xerox NoteCards

Apple's chief designer, Bill Atkinson, best known as the creator of MacPaint, an easy-to-use program for drawing bitmaps, gave the world his first popular hypertext system called HyperCard. Released in 1987, HyperCard simplified the creation of graphical hypertext applications. It has raster graphics, form fields, scripts and a quick full-text search. HyperCard is based on the metaphor of a stack of cards with a common background. HyperCard spawned copycats such as the Asymetrix Toolbook, which used hand-drawn graphics and ran on a PC.

OWL Guide was the first professional hypertext system for large-scale applications, it was a year ahead of HyperCard and followed in the footsteps of Xerox NoteCards, a Lisp-based hypertext system released in 1985.

Late 1980s, early 1990s. World Wide Web

Two researchers at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research near Geneva), Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau, in 1989 jointly developed ideas for a connected information system that would be accessible to a wide range of different computer systems used at CERN. At that time, many people used TeX and PostScript for their documents (by the way, they are still quite widely used). Some used SGML. Tim realized that something simpler was needed that would cope with dumb terminals through high end graphical X Window workstations. HTML was conceived as a very simple solution, and matched with a very simple network protocol HTTP.

In March 1989, Tim Berners-Lee put forward an official proposal to CERN to create a single universal connected information system.

We should work toward a universal linked information system, in which generality and portability are more important than fancy graphics techniques and complex extra facilities.

The aim would be to allow a place to be found for any information or reference which one felt was important, and a way of finding it afterwards. The result should be sufficiently attractive to use that it the information contained would grow past a critical threshold, so that the usefulness the scheme would in turn encourage its increased use.

The passing of this threshold accelerated by allowing large existing databases to be linked together and with new ones.

A little later, in 1992, the Theme proposal resulted in the creation of the World Wide Web (WWW description of 1992) and the first version of HTML, giving rise to an entire era of the World Wide Web. But about this in the next article.

Чуть позже, в 1992-м года предложение Тима вылилось в создание Wold Wide Web (описание WWW 1992-го года) и первой версии HTML, дав начало целой эпохе всемирной паутины. Но об это в следующей статье.

Screenshot of Tim Bernars-Lee's browser editor as developed in 1991-1992

...To be continued...

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