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Skip to 0 minutes and 4 secondsPROFESSOR LES CARR: This Web that we see wasn't the first attempt to build an international, a global information system. But the people have been trying to do that, and not just in the last few decades since we've had computers, but people have been trying to do this for 100 years. And if you look back through history, you will see that, say, 100 years ago, or more than 100 years ago, there was the original Reuters company, and they needed to share information from the Paris and the London stock exchanges. They wanted to have information about the prices of stocks and shares being traded in those different places. They had a fleet of about 200 carrier pigeons.

Skip to 0 minutes and 55 secondsWell, probably not a fleet, a flock of 200 carrier pigeons. And then they upgraded that to the new technology of the telegraph, these wires that had been installed that could send messages between those cities, between Paris and London. In the 1920s a Belgian called Paul Otlet produced this magnificent building and service, which he called the Mundaneum, and it was very like a search engine that we have now.

Skip to 1 minute and 31 secondsBut they had recently had this invention of the telephone, and so people could phone up with a query, and it would be answered not by a computer, but by a human being on the other end, a librarian who would use another new invention which had been brought over from America, actually, the library card. Just a piece of paper, 3 inches by 5 inches, with information typeed on it about a book in the library. But they had millions of these library cards giving an index into the knowledge in a very significant library. And people could phone up and make queries of this. So in the 1920s we had something that was rather like Google.

Skip to 2 minutes and 25 seconds10-15 years later, people were trying to look at another technology. And so someone that you may know mainly as a science fiction author, H.G. Wells, who was actually a serious scholar as well, proposed a world encyclopaedia, something that would catch all of the knowledge, all of the books, all of the journal articles in the world, and would put it together in one place. The technology was microfilm. You could fit all of the knowledge of the world into one place, and he thought this was a fantastic proposal that there was no technical reason why it shouldn't be done. He called this the world brain, and his proposal was that this would become the standard way of a university working.

Ideas for the Web that predate the internet and computers

The Web was not the first attempt to create a global information sharing system.

Since 1850, various other attempts have been made and, in this video lecture, Professor Les Carr introduces you the forerunners of the Web.

At one point, a system called Xanadu had the potential to become a world wide web. Ted Nelson (who is a Visiting Professor here at the University of Southampton) began working on Xanadu in 1960. Ted is also the person who invented the term ‘hypertext’ to describe clickable links. You may be interested in reading more about the history of Xanadu in this 2014 article ‘World’s most delayed software released after 54 years of development’ in the online Guardian.

Here at the University of Southampton in 1988, a group of researchers including Professor Dame Wendy Hall and Professor Hugh Davis developed an open hypermedia system called Microcosm. Built on a peer-to-peer architecture (as opposed to the Web, which is built on a client-sever architecture), one of its main features is that links could be stored in ‘linkbases’ that contained information about such links. Watch this very short video clip on YouTube of Hugh (in 1992) demonstrating how Microcosm works. If you are interested, a longer version (15 minutes) is available from a link at the bottom of this page.

Why do you think the World Wide Web succeeded over other attempts at a global information sharing system?

This video is from the free online course:

Web Science: How the Web Is Changing the World

University of Southampton

Course highlights Get a taste of this course before you join:

  • What would happen if the Web was turned off tonight?
    What would happen if the Web was turned off tonight?
    video

    Watch Professor Dame Wendy Hall and Professor Sir Nigel Shadbolt discuss the inception of the Web, and its impact on modern society.

  • The recent history of the Web
    The recent history of the Web
    video

    In this video lecture by Professor Susan Halford you will learn more about some of the key factors and processes that shaped the evolution of the Web.

  • Is the Web for everyone?
    Is the Web for everyone?
    video

    Watch Prof Les Carr & Prof Susan Halford talk about how the Web is continually evolving & how the focus will shift as new steams of users come online.

  • What next for Web Science?
    What next for Web Science?
    video

    Watch Prof Dame Wendy Hall & Prof Sir Nigel Shadbolt share their vision of how they think Web Science will evolve as a discipline in the near future.