Unsung innovators: Ted Nelson

First dreamed up hypertext, micropayment

The next time you click a link online, raise a metaphorical cup to Ted Nelson. The curmudgeonly Nelson came up with the concepts and terms for "hypertext," "hypermedia," "virtuality" and "micropayment" -- and he did it in 1960.

That was the year, Nelson says, that he first thought up the idea of a "nonsequential" document. In his first year as a Harvard graduate student in sociology, he imagined a global, networked computer system. He envisioned a world where personal computers were ubiquitous and people could navigate their own, individualized paths through the world's art and literature by using "hypertext" links to related documents. They might even legally buy portions of them.

Nelson ultimately described his ideas in a paper submitted to the Association for Computing Machinery in 1965. Later on, he elaborated on them in his books Computer Lib/Dream Machines (1974) and Literary Machines (1981).

He hasn't been completely successful, however. His aim to build a more complete literary network has so far eluded him. Since 1960, he has called that system Project Xanadu and has tried several times to see it to fruition.

Still, he has lived to see many of the core ideas he described five decades ago materialize before his eyes -- albeit imperfectly.

He's disdainful of the "commercial garbage" and clunky interfaces he sees online today. In particular, he is agitated by the way the Web duplicates the metaphor of paper, and he can't understand why hypertext linking works only in one direction. To Nelson, it just seems inelegant. And he takes the blame.

"If you are talking about worldwide hypertext and individuals anarchically self-publishing worldwide, then yes, those were the ideas I described so many years ago," he says. But Nelson also takes responsibility for the simplistic and "crappy" way things are done on the Web.

Nelson, now 70 and a fellow of Wadham College in Oxford, England, tells a winding and bittersweet tale of how he watched parts of his dream take hold. "I had certain ideas before everyone else, especially in 1960 and 1961, when I imagined personal computing and worldwide hypertext," he says, adding that it took years for people to comprehend what he described.

Ted Nelson

Ted Nelson "In the 1960s, I would tell anyone who would listen: 'Soon we'll be [using] interactive computer screens. And we'll be able to create new kinds of writing that branch in all directions and that show the origins of quotations. And anyone will be able to publish, and legally quote anyone else's document, with an automatic royalty to each author when their content is read.' "

Nelson says that at this point, a long pause would typically follow. "The other person would almost always say, 'Is it like a tape?' They just didn't get it," Nelson says.

"Then," he explains, "when personal computer kits like the Altair and Apple I came along in 1975, the people would say, 'Oh, that's what you meant.' And I would say, 'That's part of it.' When word processing software came along, the people would say, 'Oh, that's what you meant.' And I would say, 'Yes, that's part of it.'

"Then, when the World Wide Web came along in the 1990s, the people would say, 'Oh, that's what you meant.' And I would say, 'No! That is not what I meant at all!' "

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