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Highway of Knowledge Is Old Road

August 24, 1986

In the interests of historical accuracy, I believe that John Lawrence ("Work Starts on Superhighway of Knowledge," Aug. 17) and Robert Kahn ought to know that the work began at least as early as 1945.

In July of that year, Atlantic Monthly published an article, "As We May Think," written by Vannevar Bush. Bush had been the director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II. An eminent scientist in his own right, he had been the president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology; he was also the inventor of an early computer called the Digital Differential Analyzer.

As World War II was drawing to a close, Bush cast about for a task that might keep a substantial body of scientists and engineers--who had contributed so much to the successful prosecution of the Allied war effort--in the service of mankind. In "As We May Think," Bush described that task as the realization of a machine he named Memex, (probably for "memory extender," although he made no explicit statement to that effect).

Memex was intended to allow us to preserve what humankind knew so that anyone could consult "the record of the (human) race."

Uncounted numbers of people have been inspired by Bush's description, among them Douglas Engelbart, formerly of Stanford Research Institute. Engelbart's Augmentation Research Project for the Air Force, beginning in 1962, resulted in both hardware (for example, the device many computer users know today as a mouse) and software that, even today, could be an essential part of Kahn's "Superhighway of Knowledge."

My own work, on a much smaller scale, was also inspired by "As We May Think" and also began in 1962, just weeks after I was introduced to the article by a reference librarian to whom I had turned for advice in creating my own personal "Highway of Knowledge."

Without access to a computer other than the one available in the data processing center of my employer, I chose to create my system using the primitive technology known as pencil and paper. Now I provide the same functionality to users of personal computers.

Under the circumstances, it seems inappropriate to say that since the Kahn effort will require a decade or two to succeed, "it's important that it is starting now," when the first attempt to produce such a system of knowledge began more than 40 years ago!

Indeed, it may be fairer to observe that the effort began millennia ago with man's first efforts at writing.


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