The world at our fingertips

Posted: 11.09.09
Vannevar Bush’s Memex—note the dual screens and touch pad--1945.

We are so enamored with our multifunction mobile phone, and our multifunction PC—devices that promise us the world at our fingertips—that we may have forgotten, those of us that ever even knew, about the machines that got us here. The Jacquard loom comes to mind as an early single-function machine, and I’ve commented on that before. But the idea of having all the world’s knowledge available to you, your own library of Alexander, was first attempted by Ephraim Chambers in London in 1728, when he published his two-volume Cyclopaedia, which was the forerunner to the modern encyclopedia developed by Diderot in France (which actually started as a translation of Chamber’s work). H.G. Wells, the author of such famous works as The Time Machine, and War of the Worlds, as well as The Outline of History, envisioned a huge worldwide networked library he called the “World Brain.” The networking was the weak link in the concept and it never got funded, but the idea was fascinating and persisted.

Single-function analog electronic computers were developed in the 1900’s, one of the first being Arthur Pollen’s electrically driven mechanical analog computer for fire-control systems, based on James Thompson’s differential analyzer of 1876. But in the mid to late thirties, before Konrad Zuse had developed his digital computer, the vaunted Vannevar Bush, who designed several single-function analog computers, first publicly proposed the idea of a device that could hold all your information. It was to be a desk-like device that could hold the contents of a university library.

The war and the need for analog fire control systems distracted Bush from the idea, but afterwards, in 1945, he proposed it again in an article in the Atlantic Monthly unceremoniously titled, As We May Think. Here, Bush exposed the ideas of compression and indexing in a device he called the Memex—and it was the precursor single-function device that ultimately led to the ubiquitous PDA that we carry today. A memex, Bush said, “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.”

So the big ideas for a networked world library, and a personal information machine were developed before most of us reading this were born. In 1960 J.C.R. Licklinder proposed a geographically distributed network which led to the famous ARPANET. And, about the same time, Ted Nelson started project Xanadu and coined the term “hypertext” and “hypermedia” in 1963, which ultimately led to Tim Berners-Lee building the first web site at CERN in August 1991.

Now that we had all the ideas, the network was under way, and we just needed one more thing, which Gordon Moore observed in 1965. The number of transistors would double approximately every two years. It was easy then to project when we could build a Vannevar Bush’s Memex that would fit in our pocket.

The first attempts were single-function devices called PIMs—personal information management devices. They were like a pocket rolodex and had little LCD screens and an alphanumeric keyboard. The first ones appeared in the late 1980s, and were also known as digital diaries. I remember how proud I was of my Casio 4000. And these were truly single-function standalone devices—no I/O to a computer or phone line. The first PDA is considered to be the Casio PF-15115-36 released in May 1983, although Psion’s model introduced in 1985 is mentioned, and Apple often gets credited with having introduced the first PDA call the Newton MessagePad in 1993, with a touch sensitive screen to detect handwriting (the precursor to the iPhone, 14 years later.)

There’s a similar trail of firsts of single-function music players beginning with the Saehan’s MPMan, sold in Asia starting in the late spring of 1998, and followed by the more popular Diamond Multimedia Rio PMP300 that same year. Of course, most people still believe the Apple iPod introduced in 2001 was first.

So here we are today, 64 years since the concept of Memex, and 26 years since the first Casio unit and, lo and behold, there are these novel new things called single-function devices for tweeting and Wikipedia’ing. And aren’t they novel ideas? Imagine; the idea of having the entire world’s knowledge available to you, your own library of Alexander; a single function, in your pocket. Imagine.