Is a 1945 Magazine Article Responsible for the Modern Internet?

Justin Daab
Customer Experience Design, Innovation

At Magnani, everything we do is infused with storytelling. Story is integral to our innovation, development, and our overall creative process. You can read a little more about why we do that in our Narrative-Based Innovation series of posts, here.

But as I was preparing a presentation for the Innovation Enterprise CTO Summit coming up in a few weeks, I came across an incredible example of the reverberative power of storytelling. When I stumbled on this story, I felt like I had fallen into some Joseph-Campbell-esque hero’s journey and the real world had been revealed to me. Or, perhaps a more apt, yet as fantastic, analogy would be that I felt like a cosmologist who somehow stumbled on pictures of the actual big bang. That big bang, however, came in the form of a seemingly humble scientist who was sharing his vision for where technology could lead.

A single story that changed everything.

For the July 1945 issue of The Atlantic, an American scientist, Dr. Vannevar Bush, penned an article entitled, “As we may think.” The magazine characterized it, “A scientist looks at tomorrow.” I have to assume the Atlantic had little understanding at the time just how true that assertion would inevitably be.

In roughly 8,000 words, Bush outlines a vision for the future of computing that so incredibly prescient that it seems like the vision of a time traveler. We must remember the context and timeframe within which Dr. Bush was writing to truly understand how significant this achievement was.

 

Dr. Vannevar Bush

In July 1945, the war in Europe had ended and the war with Japan was nearing its final days. Bush acknowledges that there will be a time very soon when all of the scientific and engineering efforts that had been marshaled for the war effort could be directed away from fighting wars and toward bettering the human condition. Further, it should be noted that in 1945, a computer was a room-size rack of raw-number-crunching vacuum tubes and paper tape, with no displays or anything resembling a modern input device attached.

 

Colossus II computer, 1943

Redefining human-computer interaction.

So, what exactly did Dr. Bush envision? While, I would recommend reading the entire article, a full summary of ideas including nothing less than conceptual prototypes for personal computers, touch screens, hypertext, metadata, the world wide web, speech recognition and Wikipedia.

Dr. Vannevar Bush’s MEMEX concept

A reverberating influence.

I’ll admit I was aware of much of the ensuing echoes of Dr. Bush’s vision (which is what lead me to his original work), but I hadn’t realized the straight lines one could draw from the world of computing we experience today and the vision he laid out. So, if you’ll allow me to channel my inner James Burke for a moment, I’ll offer a far too simplified version of some of the more interesting connections.

Skip ahead to 1968.

Professor Douglas Englebart of the Stanford Research Institute, inspired by the vision laid out by Dr. Bush, performs for a crowded lecture hall, what is now called, “the mother of all demos.”

In this event, Englebart presented his oNLine System (NLS) computer. Wrapped up in this demo are not only many of the concepts proposed by Bush, but actual working prototypes of the mouse, graphical user interfaces, WYSIWYG editing, hypertext, word processing, collaborative screen sharing and editing, and video conferencing.

In 1972, Xerox takes these ideas to market… sort of.

In the following few years after Dr. Englebart’s mother of all demos, many of his fellow researchers and assistants leave the halls of academia to join a new R&D facility, the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). Here, this group of Silicon Valley pioneers creates an incredibly expensive business computer called the Alto that incorporated most of the features of the modern computer functionality. The Alto incorporated object oriented programming (OOP), what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG) text display and editing, windows, menus, icons, cut and paste, etc.

It’s a bit of a stretch to call this a commercial computer however as of the 2,000 that were known to have been manufactured, 1,000 of them remained within the halls of Xerox, 500 went to universities and it’s believed only a handful of the remainder found homes in actual businesses.

But Xerox PARC was a veritable seed vault for the talent about to fuel impending personal computer market of the early 80’s and beyond. But more on that in a minute.

In 1979, Steve Jobs gets a tour of Xerox PARC.

It’s likely anyone with the slightest interest in the history of Apple or Steve Jobs has heard about this tour. In exchange for the opportunity to invest in Apple, pre IPO, Xerox agrees to give Steve Jobs a tour of their research facility and demonstrations of everything they’re working on.

It’s on this tour where Steve is convinced that the future of computing is based on the graphical user interface (GUI). It’s understood that many of Apple’s lead engineers were already aware of the work at Xerox, but it’s believed that this was the moment Steve himself was convinced.

Some of the interface concepts made their way into the Apple Lisa, a computer that at $10,000+, was similarly priced for businesses and academia. But as everyone knows, the more important adoption of these design patterns and technologies appeared in the Macintosh in 1984.

What is often overlooked, however, is that one of the key drivers of the success of the Macintosh was the PostScript laser printer. PostScript and Apple’s LaserWriter, combined with the WYSIWYG editing capabilities of the Macintosh, fueled the new desktop publishing market that was a major force for the adoption of the Mac. And the PostScript page rendering language that made the LaserWriter print so beautifully was created by an Englebart/PARC alumnus, John Warnock, who founded Adobe systems after leaving Xerox in 1982.

1988 Jobs takes another mental walk in the PARC.

After being forced out of Apple by the CEO John Sculley and Apple’s Board of Directors, he formed another computer company he named NeXT. Jobs was angry and committed to beating Apple at their own game. The inspiration for that one-upmanship was also inspired by technologies he was introduced to on his 1979 tour of Xerox PARC. And not surprisingly, those innovations were presented by Englebart in 1968 and described by Bush in 1945. In the PBS documentary, “Triumph of the Nerds,” Jobs describes the moment:

“And they showed me really three things. But I was so blinded by the first one I didn’t even really see the other two. One of the things they showed me was object orienting programming—they showed me that but I didn’t even see that. The other one they showed me was a networked computer system… they had over a hundred Alto computers all networked using email etc., etc., I didn’t even see that. I was so blinded by the first thing they showed me which was the graphical user interface.“

So, jobs NeXT computer incorporated within the NeXTStep operating system object-oriented programming (Objective-C) and networking and email.

1989 Tim Berners-Lee creates what’s next on his NeXT.

While at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory, in 1989 using the tools available on his new NeXT workstation, Berners-Lee invented the Web. Defining standards for hypertext and networking protocols, he wrote the first web client and server in 1990. As with the team at Xerox PARC, he was fulfilling the vision of online interconnected human knowledge set forth by Dr. Bush and demonstrated by Dr. Englebart.

1996 Apple buys NeXT.

Lest we all forget, in the mid 90’s, Apple was in dire shape financially. In Jobs’ absence, the company had failed to create its own next-generation operating system and had substituted product innovation with SKU proliferation. Buying NeXT was a late-4th-quarter Hail Mary pass.

1998 Google effectively gives life to Bush’s MEMEX.

In “As we may think”, Dr. Bush describes his future MEMEX device as such:

“…enabling individuals 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. This device would closely mimic the associative processes of the human mind, but it would be gifted with permanent recollection.” Not surprisingly, the initial investment funding for Google came from Andy Bechtolsheim, founder of Sun Microsystems and alumnus of, wait for it, Stanford University and Xerox PARC.

2006-2007 MEMEX goes handheld.

Thanks to the combination of Moore’s Law, the exploding adoption of the internet, and the increasing cell phone market, both Apple and Google launch competing mobile network devices in the iPhone and Android platforms. Regardless of the OS camp in which you plant your loyalties, what drives the value of these platforms are precisely their ability to connect to a greater network, store, recall and share information, and become our second brains. The ultimate expression of Bush’s MEMEX ideal. And as a final aside, the Google CEO that oversaw the launch of Android—Eric Schmidt, a Xerox PARC alumn.

In truth, Ground Zero is an illusion.

It’s probably fair to assert that most of the technologies driving the world’s current economic growth can be traced back to the story presented in Dr. Bush’s article. But it’s probably unfair to give Vannevar Bush sole credit for the sum of visions therein. All innovation is built on the shoulders of innovations that came before. But it’s still an amazing example of the power and influence in a story well told.

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