Artemy Lebedev

§ 54. Hyper-short history of hypertext

June 12, 2000

A fresh phase in the history of invention opened when in the eighties a new type of engine came into use, an engine in which the expansive force of an explosive mixture replaced the expansive force of steam.

H.G. Wells. A Short History of the World

As a matter of fact, the advent of hypertext preceded that of HTML.

In Psalterium (a commentary on the Psalms) by Gilbertus Porretanus, Bishop of Tours (d. around 1150 A.D.) is generally considered to be the earliest forerunner of hypertext. Special notes on page margins served as references to other pages and parts of the book. A PC was all one needed but didn’t have to make the use of these hyperlinks easier.

Vannevar Bush is credited with creating the first theory as to how the reference process might be automated. He envisioned the hypertext system as a device working with microfilms. In 1945 Bush described this never-to-be-built device, naming it “Memex” (“Memory Extender”). Of course, transferring the query from one Memex to another was out of the question, since the device was conceived as an autonomous mechanical desk.


The term hypertext was coined and brought into use by Ted Nelson in the description of his Xanadu system. In 1972 the system capable to visualize “parallel documents” and display references and links was presented.

“Xanadu” work station with two parallel documents on monitor

Hypertext was first used in practice by Douglas Engelbart (who also devised the mouse and the screen interface) in 1968.

A huge contribution to the development of hypertext systems was made by Apple whose product HyperCard had used hypertext principles from mid-1980s till the dawn of the WWW era and served as a basis for many hypertext assistance systems, shaping up all major navigation tools of web browsers.

Most of groundbreaking inventions and ideas remained on paper or were poorly implemented in today’s browsers (which incorporate the notion of hypertext widespread in today’s public).

We have to admit that ever since the Renaissance the amount of time normally spent to map out a document hasn’t changed much: if you need to provide a document with a good hyperlink system, you will have to work just as hard as Gilbertus did. But today navigation works much faster.

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