The Null Device

Monsieur Otlet's electric telescopes

The New York Times has a piece on the works of Paul Otlet, a Belgian who, between the late 19th century and World War 2, invented early forms of hypertext, search engines, the semantic web and even social software. Of course, not having digital computers to work with, his "Mundaneum" had a vaguely Terry-Gilliam's-Brazil quality about it, relying on telegraphs, vast numbers of index cards, armies of clerks and analogue terminals referred to as "electric telescopes".
The government granted them space in a government building, where Otlet expanded the operation. He hired more staff, and established a fee-based research service that allowed anyone in the world to submit a query via mail or telegraph — a kind of analog search engine. Inquiries poured in from all over the world, more than 1,500 a year, on topics as diverse as boomerangs and Bulgarian finance.
Since there was no such thing as electronic data storage in the 1920s, Otlet had to invent it. He started writing at length about the possibility of electronic media storage, culminating in a 1934 book, “Monde,” where he laid out his vision of a “mechanical, collective brain” that would house all the world’s information, made readily accessible over a global telecommunications network.
Alas, when the Nazis took Belgium, they destroyed most of what he had achieved and he died a broken man, all but forgotten until a graduate student found what remained of the Mundaneum in 1968. 10 years ago, a museum dedicated to Mr. Otlet's singular vision was established:
The archive’s sheer sprawl reveals both the possibilities and the limits of Otlet’s original vision. Otlet envisioned a team of professional catalogers analyzing every piece of incoming information, a philosophy that runs counter to the bottom-up ethos of the Web.
Just as Otlet’s vision required a group of trained catalogers to classify the world’s knowledge, so the Semantic Web hinges on an elite class of programmers to formulate descriptions for a potentially vast range of information. For those who advocate such labor-intensive data schemes, the fate of the Mundaneum may offer a cautionary tale.

There are 1 comments on "Monsieur Otlet's electric telescopes":

Posted by: Greg Tue Jun 17 19:44:50 2008

This story is interesting in a number of ways. Vannevar Bush is usually credited with inventing the pre-web "memex" idea (according to Wikipedia, in 1936, which would be a little after Otlet - would Bush have heard of Otlet's project? The parallel with semantic-web is interesting - though I think there is also a parallel with non-Google search engines that use(d) human categorization of web pages. And would punched-card machines have made Otlet's project work better? You can't store much text on them, but they process data a lot faster than people, and were around since 1900. (Data processing by card machines is an interesting topic btw. There was a lot of data processing happening on these machines before Cobol and electronic computers. RPG began as a card language! I'm not sure the card era is remembered much better than Otlet's project is. And ... the Nazis, who shut down Otlet, were using IBM card machines!)

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