Anyone who has done any looking into the history of the Internet eventually makes their way back to the invention of the mouse and the desktop metaphor at Xerox’s PARC, past that to the old DARPA days, past Ted Nelson’s invention of the term “hypertext” and back to the “Memex” envisioned by Vannevar Bush. But have you ever heard of the Mundaneum? Me neither — until I came across a fascinating article at one of my favourite websites, the Proceedings of the Athanasius Kircher Society.
Apparently, the Mundaneum was a kind of card-catalogue version of the Internet, created around the turn of the century by Belgian lawyer Paul Otlet and Nobel Peace Prize winner Henri LaFontaine. Opened in 1910, the idea was to collect all of the worldâ€™s knowledge on 3â€³ x 5â€³ index cards organized by topic. The project eventually grew to 12 million cards, classified according to the Universal Decimal Classification system developed by Otlet. In many ways, the Mundaneum was a product of the same impulse as Bush’s Memex and the early Internet (and the Library at Alexandria).
Otlet even came up with the idea for a kind of desk, shaped like a giant wheel, which would let users search through, read and even write on millions of 3Ã—5 index cards.
“This new research environment would do more than just let users retrieve documents; it would also let them annotate the relationships between one another, â€œthe connections each [document] has with all other [documents], forming from them what might be called the Universal Book.â€
“Otlet imagined a day when users would access the database from great distances by means of an â€œelectric telescopeâ€ connected through a telephone line, retrieving a facsimile image to be projected remotely on a flat screen.”
According to the Kircher Society piece, the Mundaneum didn’t really catch on for one reason or another, and it eventually wound up being housed in a refurbished parking garage in Belgium, and closed in 1934.