Brief Insight Into the Historical Development of Hypertext

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Nowadays, when we hear the term “Hypertext” there is one typical image that comes to mind; underlined text in blue color. We can safely assume that 99.9% of people interacting with computers recognize this text format, and are subconsciously driven to interact with it (click).

Officially, we call “Hypertext” the kind of text that is displayed on a computer or other electronic device with references (hyperlinks) to other text that the reader can immediately access, usually by a mouse click or key-press sequence.

Hypertext has a really rich history. Its’ evolutionary timeline through history has many stations.

It all began as early as 1588, when an Italian military engineer invented the “Book wheel”. His name was Agostino Ramelli and his device was a wooden structure with a circular core that could hold books. In a more technical insight, to ensure that the books remained at a constant angle, Ramelli incorporated an epicyclic gearing arrangement, a complex device that had only previously been used in astronomical clocks. The idea was that he could present volumes of text to readers in whatever position they had last placed them, and thus it is considered an early prototype of hypertext.

Quite further into the timeline, an Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges published "The Garden of Forking Paths". It is a novel that can be read in multiple ways, a hypertext novel. Borges described this in 1941, prior to the invention of the electromagnetic digital computer. Not only did he arguably invent the hypertext novel—Borges went on to describe a theory of the universe based upon the structure of such a novel. Borges's vision of "forking paths" has been cited as inspiration by numerous new media scholars, in particular within the field of hypertext fiction.

Officially though, the publication of Vannevar Bush’s text “As We May Think” in 1945 marks the birth of the idea we refer today as “hypertext”. Bush proposed a system comprised of microfilm, cameras and electromagnetic controls. These parts would be all integrated in a desk. The name of this machine is “Memex”. It’s key functionality; enabling users to develop and read a large self contained research library, create and follow associative trails of links and personal annotations, and recall these trails at any time to share them with other researchers.

Twenty years after Bush’s vision, Ted Nelson invents the word “hypertext”. It was then when he came up with the idea of world-wide hypertext, and indirect documents. A few years after, in 1967, he worked with Andries van Dam to develop the “Hypertext Editing System” (text editing) at Brown University. HES ran on an IBM computer, and it was used to organize data into branching text and links and helped with formatting and printing large amounts of data.

In the meantime, Douglas Engelbart was working on an Augment project, developing computer tools to augment human capabilities and productivity. One part of the Augment project was NLS (for oN-Line System), which had several hypertext features even though it was not developed as a hypertext system. In 1968 Engelbart gave a demo of NLS at a special session of the 1968 Fall Joint Computer Conference.

In 1975 Donald McCracken and Robert Akscyn developed an early hypertext system at Carnegie Mellon University. Its’ name was “ZOG” and it was first developed by Allen Newell and George Robertson to serve as the front end for AI and Cognitive Science programs brought together at CMU for a summer workshop. ZOG consisted of "frames" that contained a title, a description, a line containing ZOG system commands, and selections (menu items) that led to other frames. ZOG pioneered the "frame" or "card" model of hypertext later popularized by Hyper-Card. In such systems, the frames or cards cannot scroll to show content that is part of the same document but held off-screen. Instead, text that exceeds the capacity of one screen must be placed in another (which then...
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