Vannevar Bush: Memex 1945

Vannevar Bush: Memex 1945

Bush was chief science advisor to President Rooseveldt in WW2, and as such he had to examine thousands of proposals, inventions, papers, reports, and condense all these for the US cabinet. At the time Bush only had filing cabinets and card-index systems to help him sort and archive these documents. He dreamed of a filing system that would echo the way we actually think – the sequence of associative ideas that we create in our minds.

Immediately after the war, he himself wrote a paper, published in the influential Atlantic Monthly, entitled As We May Think. In this article he described an experimental memory-extension machine he had devised, called the Memex. Memex could store records (files), our notations,  and ‘associations’ – the conceptual links with other documents that made them a valid expression and communication. This machine could scan documents, make copies of them on microfilm, archive them with an index number, and retrieve them on demand, either by browsing through the archive, by typing a keyword, or by clicking on a link from one archive document (record) to another. Not only that, but the user could add notes and links to other Memex records, and if needed, build an associative  trail‘ of links connecting several or several dozen records together. He could then send this ‘trail’ of links to other Memex owners, so that they could follow the same logic, peruse the same evidence, the same diagrams, the same pictures.

Yes – Vannevar Bush described a hypothetical hypertext machine in 1945, some twenty years before the hypertext pioneer Ted Nelson coined the actual word. Now we all have computer-based personal digital assistants – our own Memex machines, but we still can’t send his associative trails.

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