From Memex to Google
I’ve been thinking a lot about Google these days. Its IPO has been in the news, and “60 Minutes” recently ran a fascinating profile of the company.
But there was other news about Google that got only brief media attention and deserved much more, because the announcement was no less than historic: Google’s plan to scan all text from books in five libraries (e.g., the New York Public Library, University of Oxford) and make that content available online and easily searchable.
Something like this was a dream of Vannevar Bush, Ph.D., science advisor to President Roosevelt, former director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, and a prominent intellectual figure of the mid-20th century.
In 1945, Bush (a distant relative of President Bush) published an article in Atlantic Monthly called “As We May Think.” In it, Dr. Bush called for the creation of a machine that would make high-quality, vetted information readily available to anyone. Being 1945, before the advent of PCs and the Internet, his idea entailed microfilm and mechanical gears — vestiges of the Industrial Era in which he lived, rather than the Information Age he helped to usher in.
Yet his Memex machine, as he called his proposed idea, turned out to be a call to action for many computer science professionals in the ensuing years to invent and develop information technologies, according to computer historians. Developments that had to occur for Dr. Bush’s dream to come to fruition included packet-switching data networks able to transmit electronic bits through telecommunications lines; the Internet itself; the commodification of PCs and software; the World Wide Web; computer graphics; search technologies; and much more.
Moreover, to make Bush’s dream economically feasible required a company with enough money and resources to undergo the book-scanning process. Google expects to scan 15 million books and other documents at an average cost of $10 per unit, and to take several years to complete the project.
No doubt, much of that funding is coming from Google’s IPO and its vaunted place in the online search market — a place that both users and advertisers/merchants have helped to develop.
In short, the online community, which includes you, is helping to make Dr. Bush’s dream of making library-quality, vetted information available to anyone, anywhere, a reality. I heartily commend Google for its ambitious and groundbreaking plan. I have no doubt that Dr. Bush is smiling down from his lab in the sky and nodding his head in satisfied approval.
P.S.: Here are some recommended books on Internet history:
“Inventing the Internet”
by Janet Abbate (MIT Press, 1999)
“A History of Modern Computing (second edition)”
by Paul E. Ceruzzi (MIT Press, 2003)
“Transforming Computer Technology”
by Arthur L. Norberg and Judy E. O’Neill, (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996)
“Computer: A History of the Information Machine”
by Martin Campbell-Kelly and William Aspray (Basic Books, 1996)
“A Brief History of the Future: From Radio Days to Internet Years in a Lifetime”
by John Naughton (Overlook Press, 1999).