Hypertext's Background

Hypertext is a unique computer application. Unlike many computer programs, such as spreadsheets, word processing, and desktop publishing, it has no parallel application in the real world. Hypertext is unique to computers because it uses the technology to enable readers to pick and choose blocks of text by interacting with the machine. Moreover, it is a way of organizing information and navigating through electronic texts stored on individual computers and networks.

The original concept for hypertext was first proposed in a 1945 Atlantic Monthly magazine article written by Vannevar Bush. Bush (1991) wrote the article to address the problem of organizing vast amounts of information. During the 1940s, the growing numbers of published articles made it impossible for scientists to follow developments in an individual discipline. People did not have enough time to read the latest texts, synthesize the material and react to it. Bush stated, "professionally our methods of transmitting and reviewing the results of research are generations old and by now are totally inadequate for their purpose" (p. 89). Therefore he argued, new methods for reading and annotating research papers, books, and scientific records need to be developed.

To solve this problem, Bush (1991) described a device called a Memex or memory extender. "A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility" (p. 102). The owner of a Memex would store all of his or her research materials on the machine. Information could be accessed directly or from remote locations.

In addition to proposing a new method for storing and retrieving information, Bush described new ways of working with text. He introduced three entirely new elements for textual interaction,

  1. "associative indexing (or links),
  2. trails of such links, and
  3. sets or webs of such trails.

These new elements in turn produce the conception of a flexible, customizable text, one that is open--and perhaps vulnerable--to the demands of each reader" (Landow, 1992, p. 17). Bush's description of new methods for customizing texts directly influenced the work of Ted Nelson.

In the 1960s, Theodore Nelson coined the term "hypertext" to describe nonsequential reading and writing displayed on a computer screen. Nonsequential reading, as defined by Nelson (1987), is text that branches and allows the reader to pick and choose blocks of text by interacting with a computer. In describing his original concept of branching, Nelson (1992) states: First, there would be new documents, a new literary genre, of branching, non-sequential writings on the computer screen. Second, these branching documents would constitute a great new literature, but they would subsume the old, since all words, all literature would go online and extend to a new branching generality" (pp. 46-47).

Nelson envisioned an online system where all of the world's literature would be digitally stored on computers. Electronic links or branches would interactively connect the digital texts as the reader goes through them. For example, when a reader encounters a footnote in a text, the first text branches out and links to the second footnoted text. The reader can easily move back and forth between the first and second texts to grasp the different author's ideas. For the past thirty years, Nelson has been working to make his vision of hypertext a reality.

Today, the need for a method to store and access vast amounts of information is greater than it was in 1945. The population of journals and books is exploding. For example, on July 9, 1989, The New York Times reported that the Library of Congress receives 31,000 new books and journals per day. Many of these texts are stored on optical disk and microfilm to stretch shelf space in the library. As library storage space becomes a problem, hypertext systems are developing as a method to electronically store journals, books and texts that were formerly stored on paper.