Many people correctly place the credit for the creation of the World Wide Web with Tim Berners-Lee, and rightly so. However, Berners-Lee himself refers to the creation of the web as more of an exercise in putting the pieces together rather than making anything from scratch. Some of those pieces were technical, while others were theoretical. In this article, we’ll look at the people who laid some of the theoretical groundwork for a World Wide Web, giving Berners-Lee the conceptual pieces he needed for his grand puzzle.

Conceptualizing the Internet

Where does an idea start? The truth is, that most ideas are built off of previous ideas. Consequently, there are no tidy lines to separate who thought of what when it comes to the theoretical groundwork of the internet. But there are four men who brought important – although not necessarily unique – ideas to the forefront at the right time. (To learn more about the internet, check out A Timeline of the Development of the Internet and World Wide Web.)

Vannevar Bush’s Memex

Vannevar Bush falls purely on the theoretical side when it comes to the creation of the World Wide Web. Although he did important work in computing, Bush was not born in an era where he could carry through on his ideas about information.

In a 1945 essay entitled “As We May Think,” Bush outlined his concept of Memex. Memex was a collective memory storage system that Bush envisioned people navigating through using associative trails that linked relevant information, rather than a central index.

This is, of course, exactly how much of the web works. On this page, for example, there are links for any words we have in our dictionary. Should you be unfamiliar with one, you can click it to go to the definition page and then explore more related terms from that page. By clicking these links and reading the content, you’ll have a better understanding of the original term that caught your eye.

Memex was also meant to allow the user to log the main reading paths for further reference (like bookmarking), and share beneficial trails with others (similar to social media sharing). Bush also introduced the idea of an information repository (similar to a knowledge base) that others could use to enhance their everyday professional activities.

Most importantly, Bush’s essay influenced many individuals, some of whom would get to see these concepts brought to life in the form of hypertext.

Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider’s Intergalactic Computer Network

J.C.R. Licklider wrote a 1960 paper, “Man Computer Symbiosis,” wherein he described a network of computers linked by wideband communication lines that could handle information storage and retrieval in the same manner as physical libraries did. Licklider was convinced that the future would revolve around people using networked computers to find all the information they needed.

Although he did little direct work on networking computers, Licklider was instrumental in convincing people to focus on creating an all-purpose network. In 1962, ARPA recruited Licklider to be the head of the Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO). He used this position to further his concept of a networked future, granting funding to projects in this field and helping fund the people that created the internet – allowing for the later creation of a World Wide Web. (For more on the creators of the internet, see Architects and Builders of the Internet Cathedral.)

Ted Nelson’s Pilgrimage to Xanadu

Ted Nelson is one of the most enigmatic figures to leave a mark on the early concept of a World Wide Web. Nelson coined the term hypertext and outlined what may be its most ambitious use in 1960 with Project Xanadu. Xanadu was intended to do all the web does as well as promote the expansion of literature and art by building a pay-per-copy system right into the web. Users would be able to copy and use the work of others in exciting new ways, but the original author would receive electronic payments proportional to the amount of the original used. Xanadu wasn’t ready when Berners-Lee released a simpler version known as the web. The project has yet to be fully completed.

Douglas Engelbart and the Mother of All Demos

If anyone other than Berners-Lee was to claim the credit for inventing the web, Douglas Engelbart would have the strongest case. Not only did Engelbart invent the computer mouse, but he demonstrated it on the same day – December 9, 1968 – as he unveiled a working hypertext system, a graphical user interface (GUI), collaborative videoconferencing over a network and more. The demo is staggering when you consider how much was new and how many fields Engelbart and his team spurred on with their groundbreaking work. You can see the demo for yourself here:

Conclusion: Putting it All Together

Tim Berners-Lee still deserves a lot of credit for bringing all these concepts together in one succinct package of protocols and language. More to his credit is the fact that he freely admits that he was able to pull it all together because of the work that was already out there. This makes it easier to lavish praise not only on the man who built the web, but also on the people who laid the conceptual foundation to make it possible.