The Hut Where the Internet Began

When Douglas Engelbart read a Vannevar Bush essay on a Philippine island in the aftermath of World War II, he found the conceptual space to imagine what would become our Internet.
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Let's start at the end point: what you're doing right now. You are pulling information from a network onto a screen, enhancing your embodied experience with a communication web filled with people and machines. You do this by pointing and clicking, tapping a few commands, organizing your thoughts into symbols that can be read and improved by your various correspondents.

There was a beginning to all this, long before it became technically possible.

Well, actually, there were many beginnings.

But one -- maybe the most important one -- traces back to Douglas Engelbart, who died last week, and his encounter with a 1945 article published here at The Atlantic, "As We May Think," by Vannevar Bush, an icon of mid-century science.

The essay is most famous for its description of a hypothetical information-retrieval system, the Memex, a kind of mechanical Evernote, in which a person's every "book, record, or communication" was microfilmed and cataloged.

"It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory," Bush wrote. "It consists of a desk, and while it can presumably be operated from a distance, it is primarily the piece of furniture at which he works. On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There is a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers. Otherwise it looks like an ordinary desk."

Bush did not describe the screens, keyboard, buttons, and levers as a "user interface" because the concept did not exist. Neither did semiconductors or almost any other piece of the world's computing and networking infrastructure except a handful of military computers and some automatic telephone switches (the latter were, in fact, one of Bush's favorite examples).

A crucial component of the Memex was that it helped the brain's natural "associative indexing," so "any item may be caused at will to select immediately and automatically another." The Memex storehouse was made usable by the "trails" that the user (another word that did not have this meaning at the time) cut through all the information, paths that could later be refollowed or passed onto a friend.

("There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record," Bush predicted. Consider for a moment that these processes -- at scale -- are exactly what makes Google a good search engine or Reddit a good social news site.)

Bush's essay was a groundbreaking ceremony for the information age. In Bush's own terms, the complexity of the world and its problems required a better system, lest our memories and minds become overwhelmed by all there was to know. And this was not merely a personal, lifestyle problem. The worst war the world had ever known was finally coming to a close, and to a man like Bush, it had begun because of a lack of human wisdom. This is how his essay ends:

The applications of science have built man a well-supplied house, and are teaching him to live healthily therein. They have enabled him to throw masses of people against one another with cruel weapons. They may yet allow him truly to encompass the great record and to grow in the wisdom of race experience. He may perish in conflict before he learns to wield that record for his true good. Yet, in the application of science to the needs and desires of man, it would seem to be a singularly unfortunate stage at which to terminate the process, or to lose hope as to the outcome.

What Bush knew when he wrote these words in the months leading up to July 1945 was that the most cruel weapon had been invented: American atomic bombs would not fall on Japan for two more months, but Bush had been intimately involved in their creation and certainly knew their use was a possibility. With that knowledge in his pocket, his answer to the prospective (and then real) horrors of science-enabled nuclear war -- odd as it may seem -- was to imagine a contraption to aid human knowledge acquisition.

For Bush, humans were racing against themselves: understand the complex world or face extinction through war. Those were the stakes at the outset of the information age.

Bush's article went far and wide, and if I can brag for our magazine a little, is considered one of the most influential magazine articles ever published about technology, and perhaps in any field. It even landed inside LIFE Magazine in a condensed format in September of 1945.

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The Memex as imagined by a LIFE illustrator.

Millions of copies of the September 10 issue were printed and distributed around the world. LIFE had established itself as the preeminent photo chronicler of World War II and the Red Cross habitually kept reading materials like it around for soldiers. And so it was that a copy of that issue, containing most of Bush's article -- including the whole Memex section and conclusion quoted here -- made its way to a Red Cross library on the (even now, still remote) island of Leyte in the Philippines.

Meanwhile, young Doug Engelbart, a radar technician in the Navy who never saw combat (the war ended as his boat pulled out of the San Francisco Bay), was on his way to the Philippines, too. He was transferred to Leyte, the island, and though the record is not precisely clear on this point, perhaps to the little village called Leyte, too, at the end of a long inlet. It was here that, in the words of John Markoff, Engelbart "stumbled across a Red Cross reading library in a native hut set on stilts, complete with thatched roof and plentiful bamboo." Five years ago, a visitor to Leyte snapped this photograph of the the town of Leyte.

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In a hut like this -- and maybe even one of these huts specifically -- Engelbart opened up that issue of LIFE and read Bush's Atlantic article. The ideas in the story plowed new intellectual terrain for Engelbart, and the seeds that he planted and nurtured there over the next twenty years grew, with the help of millions of others, into the Internet you see today.

The Los Angeles Times obituary succinctly summed up his impact on the world: "Douglas Engelbart, whose work inspired generations of scientists, demonstrated in the 1960s what could happen when computers talk to one another." Steve Wozniak went further, crediting Engelbart's 1960s research "for everything we have in the way computers work today." Yes, he invented the mouse, but he also laid out the concepts we'd need to understand the networked world.

So, in one tangible and real sense, the Internet we know now began in that hut across the world. As Bush made new thoughts possible for Engelbart, Engelbart made it possible for us to imagine the rest of it.

Engelbart wrote Bush a letter describing how profoundly he'd been affected by the latter's work. "I might add that this article of yours has probably influenced me quite basically. I remember finding it and avidly reading it in a Red Cross library on the edge of the jungle on Leyte, one of the Philippine Islands, in the fall of 1945," he wrote. "I rediscovered your article about three years ago, and was rather startled to realized how much I had aligned my sights along the vector you had described. I wouldn't be surprised at all if the reading of this article sixteen and a half years ago hadn't had a real influence on my thoughts and actions."

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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