Friday, June 20, 2014


Although we tend to think of computers as ultramodern types of things, several of the ideas that govern how they work have some deep roots in time. Alan Turing worked around the middle of the last century. Charles Babbage's "difference engine" was on the drawing boards in the 19th century.

And a fellow named Paul Otlet developed many of the principles used in sorting information online when he opened a gigantic research facility called "the Mundaneum" in 1920. Otlet saw it as a kind of "universal bibliography," a way of cross-referencing and indexing as much information as he possibly could.

Sited in Belgium, the Mundaneum suffered a little when it was replaced with a Nazi art exhibit (surprisingly, Nazis weren't interested in knowledge). It exists today as a museum in a refurbished department store building. Otlet saw the main value of the information not in its centrality but in how it could open access to anyone who requested it from Mundaneum staff. He also foresaw speech recognition tools and wireless data transmission, even if he didn't necessarily predict the manner by which that would come about.

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