The idea of the Internet was born in Belgium

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In 1934, six decades before the birth of the web, a Belgian bibliophile described his vision for té lé photographie, an electronic telescope which could transmit any document in the world to a television screen.

Paul Otlet loved libraries. In 1895 he met a kindred spirit, fellow Belgian and future Nobel Prize winner, Henri La Fontaine. Together they conceived The Mundaneum, a comprehensive collection of the world’s published knowledge, equal in ambition to the great Library of Alexandria.

The telegraph room at The Mundaneum

The telegraph room at The Mundaneum

By 1910 they had collected thousands of books, newspapers, photographs, journals, posters and postcards. Otlet called the collection the ré seau, a network of documents connected by links. More than blind signposts, these links described the relationships between documents, an implementation of what we now call the semantic web. As the Mundaneum grew, this degree of annotation became unmanageable. Otlet put his mind to new technologies that would overcome the limitations of paper-based records. In his 1934 book, Monde, he describes “…a machinery unaffected by distance which would combine at the same time radio, X-rays, cinema and microscopic photography… From afar anyone would be able to read any passage, that would be projected onto his individual screen, thus in his armchair, anyone would be able to contemplate the whole of creation or particular parts of it.”

Otlet even predicted social networks and the mobile web with remarkable accuracy, expecting users to “participate, applaud, give ovations and sing in the chorus” and “carry, in his or her pocket, a tiny little handset that will be tuned with the turn of a screw to the wavelength adopted by each emitting centre.”

Otlet died in 1944 with his life’s work in ruins, his collection destroyed to make way for an exhibition of Third Reich art. Following the war, he was almost forgotten as American pioneers such as Vannevar Bush, Douglas Engelbart and Ted Nelson came to the foreground. It wasn’t until W. Boyd Rayward published his biography in 1975 that the prescience of his work became apparent.

In 2012, Google acknowledged Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine as their spiritual forefathers. Vinton Cerf, vice-president of Google and inventor of the Internet, says it as it is, “The idea of the Internet was born in Belgium.

This is an extract from 100 Ideas that Changed the Web, available on Amazon UK and Amazon US.

6 Responses to The idea of the Internet was born in Belgium

  1. Charles Oppenheim says:

    An interesting piece, but Otlet was not ignored until 1975. He was widely acknowledged as a pioneer in the library and information science community well before then.

    • Jim Boulton says:

      Hi Charles – thanks for letting me know. I suppose it’s his role in the history of hypertext that I mean. All the texts I have read name check Bush, Engelbart, Nelson, Atkinson and even Borges and Wells but few mention Otlet. Any links / further info appreciated.

  2. Delphine says:

    Hi!

    The Mundaneum still exists as a museum in the city of Mons in Belgium (40 miles from Brussels) and our concern is to highlight the heritage of its founders Otlet and La Fontaine. We’ve been working with Google as well from March 2012 and you’ll find here a few archives on the Google Cultural Institute: http://digitalarchives.mundaneum.org/?hl=en-GB#!home:hl=en-GB.

    I’d be delighted to learn further about the exhibit Error 404 but also about the digital archaelogists community to do outreach. I’d be glad to discuss the point with you! In the meantime here’s our website: http://www.mundaneum.org (which features a virtual tour of the museum:http://lieu.mundaneum.org/en/virtual-tour ) and also this nice NY Times article about the Mundaneum: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/17/science/17mund.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.

    Best,
    Delphine, Belgium

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