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Paul Otlet – The Amazing Communicator

By James Donahue

The Belgium genius Paul Marie Ghislain Otlet, the man that created the Universal Decimal Classification still used to index library books, was believed to have conceived the concept of the World Wide Web as early as 1934.

It was that year that Otlet drew plans for a global network of “electric telescopes,” his description of future communication devices, that would allow people to search and browse through millions of interlinked documents, images, recordings and movies. He described how people could use these machines to send messages to one another, share information and even gather in “online” social networks.

Otlet had an interesting name for his Jules Verne styled creation. He called it a “reseau,” which translates as “network.”

Kevin Kelly, former editor of Wired who has studied Otlet’s work as part of the research he is going for a book, notes that the man’s concept of the contemporary Internet “hinged on the idea of a networked machine that joined documents using symbolic links. “The hyperlink is one of the most underappreciated inventions of the last century,” he said. “It wil go down with radio in the pantheon of great inventions.”

He said Otlet’s idea used a patchwork of analog technologies like index cards and telegraph machines, the best communication that was available in his day, yet he clearly anticipated the hyperlinked structure of today’s Web.

Otlet, who lived from 1868 to 1944, was an outstanding member of the European society in his day. He was an author, entrepreneur, lawyer, visionary and peace activist. Because of many of his inventive ideas he is considered the father of information science.

While he enjoyed fame during his lifetime, it might be said that Otlet either lived 100 years too soon, or that he fell victim to the turmoil that swept Europe during World War II. When the Nazis marched into Belgium they destroyed much of his life’s work. It has only been in recent years that researchers have begun to republish some of his writings, restore some of his inventions and are even raising money to establish a museum in his name.

The son of a wealthy businessman, Otlet was tutored at home in his early years, where he discovered the joy of books. When he entered school he soon became the school librarian. In spite of being pushed by his father through law school, Otlet never lost his love of books. In 1895 he joined forces with Henri La Fontaine, a Nobel Prize winner, in a campaign to create a master bibliography of all of the world’s published knowledge.

The two men went even farther. They attempted to collect data on not only every book ever published, but also the magazines, journals, photographs and posters. They did all of this documentation on 3 by 5 inch index cards. In the end they created a database with more than 12 million cards.

Otlet and LaFontaine eventually persuaded the Belgian government to build what they called a “city of knowledge” which was placed in a government building. Here they used government money to hire more staff and open their “city” to the world which acquired information by either the mail or telegraph.

As more and more books and magazines were published, and as demand grew for information, the collection of documentation literally choked on the sheer volume of paper. It was at this time that Otlet began thinking of new technologies for managing so much information. It led to early thoughts of a computer of wheels and spokes that would automatically move documents around upon demand. Eventually Otlet realized there was a need to find a way to avoid using paper altogether.

Otlet invented the concept of electronic media storage in his book Monde, published in 1934. In the book he wrote of a “mechanical collective brain” that would store all of the information in the world and be available to anyone via a global telecommunications network.