The invisible Internet pioneer

Paul OtletA museum has opened in Mons, Belgium, with an exhibit to internet pioneer Paul Otlet.

The invisible Internet pioneer

No, I haven’t heard of him, either.

Although, after reading about him, he seems like one of the most brilliant minds of the past 100 years – and one of the nuttiest.

In short, he proposed the Internet as we know it – and Wikipedia – and begun to develop his ideas into a feasible system. Except he started work in 1934 – a damn site earlier than Tim Berners-Lee and his pals started putting together the modern Internet.

His system – that ran on an interlinked version of early computers called ‘Electric Telescopes – revolved around people having the ability to browse documents, images, audio files and more all without leaving their armchair. If I stop today and think for a few minutes, it’s an odd enough concept now, even though the Internet has become entirely ubiquitous. Someone inventing it in the mid-thirties must have been viewed as an absolute madman.

He even named it as a ‘réseau’ – a network – and visualised how everybody would be linked together, initially, by telegraph machines.

That wasn’t the end of his ambition, either. In his infinite wisdom – almost literally – Otlet decided that he should collect every morsel of written information known to man, in one place. He started work with Henri La Fontaine, a future Nobel Prize winner, to gather all the knowledge in the world.

It’s a concept that belongs in a dodgy steampunk Science Fiction movie rather than in the real world but, remarkably, they pushed ahead and begun to collect books. They eventually managed to harvest about 12 million individual entries. By way of contrast, Wikipedia now has just under 2.5 million articles, and that’s put together by thousands of people with the help of the internet, and the National Library of Wales, which has just celebrated its centenary, only has about 6 million books. Even with the brilliant ‘Electric Telescope’ system to help him out, Otlet’s effort was a colossal undertaking.

He even developed a precursor to the modern search engine, by accepting queries from people all over the world and then finding them the answers. It was a hell of a lot slower than Google, for sure, but it’s still mightily impressive.

Otlet also wrote about or begun to develop a host of other concepts that we consider mundane today. Electronic storage – both using local resources and a global collective – was his idea, and he eventually planned to do away with using paper altogether. He also came up with social networking. Eat that, MySpace. And then there’s the semantic web, too.

Unfortunately, there’s no happy ending to this story. Funding for the project dried up, he had to move to a smaller space and the Nazis destroyed much of his work.

However, a small team are now working on a catalogue of the mammoth archive that Otlet put together, with the aim of publishing it online. It’ll be a fascinating glimpse into a true forerunner to the world wide web and an insight into one of the most innovative and creative minds that the world – and not just the world of technology – seems to have left behind.

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