The thrill of human/computer/library history

Libraries of the Future by Licklider book cover imageI’ve been reading a little about the history of the human computer interaction (HCI) field, and as always I love reading the prophetic visions of researchers from the early days. It’s really cool that Stanford has made available video clips from Douglas Engelbart’s 1968 public demonstration which featured the online system, NLS, the mouse, hypertext, object addressing, dynamic file linking, and “shared-screen collaboration involving two persons at different sites communicating over a network with audio and video interface.” No wonder the Human Computer Interaction Handbook refers to it as “sensational”. It’s always surprising how quickly some (if not many) people in the mid-twentieth century realized networked information storage and retrieval systems would be the “libraries of the future“.

This Vannevar Bush quote kinda gives me chills no matter how many times I’ve read it. 1945, people!

Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified. The lawyer has at his touch the associated opinions and decisions of his whole experience, and of the experience of friends and authorities. The patent attorney has on call the millions of issued patents, with familiar trails to every point of his client’s interest. The physician, puzzled by a patient’s reactions, strikes the trail established in studying an earlier similar case, and runs rapidly through analogous case histories, with side references to the classics for the pertinent anatomy and histology. The chemist, struggling with the synthesis of an organic compound, has all the chemical literature before him in his laboratory, with trails following the analogies of compounds, and side trails to their physical and chemical behavior.

The historian, with a vast chronological account of a people, parallels it with a skip trail which stops only on the salient items, and can follow at any time contemporary trails which lead him all over civilization at a particular epoch. There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record.

Vannevar Bush. “As We May Think.” The Atlantic Monthly, July 1945.

college student using a clunky computer for word processing in the 80s mayberock on computerz


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