The British Hypertextual Society (1905-2017)

With their globe-spanning satellite network nearing completion, Peter Linkage reports on some of the key milestones in the history of the British Hypertextual Society.

The British Hypertextual Society was founded in 1905 with a parliamentary grant from the Royal Society of London. At the time there was growing international interest in finding better ways to manage information, particularly scientific research. Undoubtedly the decision to invest in the creation of a British centre of expertise for knowledge organisation was also influenced by the rapid progress being made in Europe.

Paul Otlet‘s Universal Bibliographic Repertory and his ground-breaking postal search engine were rapidly demonstrating their usefulness to scholars. Otlet’s team began publishing the first version of their Universal Decimal Classification only the year before. Letters between Royal Society members during that period demonstrate concern that Britain was losing the lead in knowledge science.

As you might expect, the launch of the British Hypertextual Society (BHS) was a grand affair. The centre piece of the opening ceremony was the Babbage Bookwheel Engine, which remains on show (and in good working order!) in their headquarters to this day. The Engine was commissioned from Henry Prevost Babbage, who refined a number of his fathers ideas to automate and improve on Ramelli’s Bookwheel concept.

While it might originally have been intended as only a centre piece, it was the creation of this Engine that laid the ground work for many of the Society’s later successes. Competition between the BHS members and Otlet’s team in Belgium encouraged the rapid development of new tools. This includes refinements to the Bookwheel Engine, prompting its switch from index cards to microfilm. Ultimately it was also instrumental in the creation of the United Kingdom’s national grid and the early success of the BBC.

In the 1920s, in an effort to improve on the Belgium Postal Search Service, the British Government decided to invest in its own solution. This involved reproducing decks of index cards and microfilm sheets that could be easily interchanged between Bookwheel Engines. The new, standardised electric engines were dubbed “Card Wheels”.

The task of distributing the decks and the machines to schools, universities and libraries was given to the recently launched BBC as part of its mission to inform, educate and entertain. Their microfilm version of the Domesday book was the headline grabbing release, but the BBC also freely distributed a number of scholarly and encyclopedic works.

Problems with reliable supply of electricity to parts of the UK hampered the roll out of the Card Wheels. This lead to the Electricity (Supply) Act of 1926 and the creation of Central Electricity Board. This simultaneously laid the foundations for a significant cabling infrastructure that would later carry information to the nation in digital forms.

These data infrastructural improvements were mirrored by a number of theoretical breakthroughs. Drawing on Ada Lovelace’s work and algorithms for the Difference Engine, British Hypertextual Society scholars were able to make rapid advances in the area of graph theory and analysis.

These major advances in the distribution of knowledge across the United Kingdom lead to Otlet moving to Britain in the early 1930s. A major scandal at the time, this triggered the end of many of the projects underway in Belgium and beyond. Awarded a senior position in the BHS, Otlet transferred his work on the Mundaneum to London. Close ties between the BHS members and key government
officials meant that the London we know today is truly the “World City” envisioned by Otlet. It’s interesting to walk through London and consider how so much of the skyline and our familiar landmarks are influenced by the history of hypertext.

The development of the Memex in the 1940s laid the foundations for the development of both home and personal hypertext devices. Combining the latest mechanical and theoretical achievements of the BHS with some American entrepreneurship lead to devices rapidly spreading into people’s homes. However the device was the source of some consternation within the BHS as it was felt that British ideas hadn’t been properly credited in the development of that commercial product.

Of course we shouldn’t overlook the importance of the InterGraph in ensuring easy access to information around the globe. Designed to resist nuclear attack, the InterGraph used graph theory concepts developed by the BHS to create a world-wide mesh network between hypertext devices and sensors. All of our homes, cars and devices are part of this truly distributed network.

Tim Berners-Lee‘s development of the Hypertext Resource Locator was initially seen as a minor breakthrough. But it actually laid the foundations for the replacement of Otlet’s classification scheme and accelerated the creation of the World Hypertext Engine (WHE) and the global information commons. Today the WHE is ubiquitous. It’s something we all use and contribute to on a daily basis.

But, while we all contribute to the WHE, it’s the tireless work of the “Controllers of The Graph” in London that ensures that the entire knowledge base remains coherent and reliable. How else would we distinguish between reliable, authoritative sources and information published by any random source? Their work to fact check information, manage link integrity and ensure maintenance of core assets are key features of the WHE as a system.

Some have wondered what an alternate hypertext system might look like. Scholars have pointed to ideas such as Ted Nelson’s “Xanadu” as one example of an alternative system. Indeed it is one of many that grew out of the counter-culture movement in the 1960s. Xanadu retained many of the features of the WHE as we know it today, e.g. transclusion and micro-transactions, but removed the notion of a centralised index and register of content. This not only removed the ability to have reliable, bi-directional links,  but would have allowed anyone to contribute anything, regardless of its veracity.

For many its hard to imagine how such a chaotic system would actually work. Xanadu has been dismissed as “a foam of ever-popping bubbles“. And a heavily commercialised and unreliable system of information is a vision to which a few would subscribe.

Who would want to give up the thrill of seeing their first contributions accepted into the global graph? It’s a rite of passage that many reflect on fondly. What would the British economy look like if it were not based on providing access to the world’s information? Would we want to use a system that was not fundamentally based on the “Inform, Educate and Entertain” ideal?

This brings us to the present day. The launch of a final batch of satellites will allow the British Hypertextual Society to deliver on a long-standing goal whilst also enabling its next step into the future.

Launched from the British space centre at Goonhilly, each of the standardised CardSat satellites carries both a high-resolution camera and an InterGraph mesh network node. The camera will be used to image the globe in unprecedented detail. This will be used to ensure that every key geographical feature, including every tree and many large animals can be assigned a unique identifier, bringing them into
the global graph. And, by extending the mesh network into space the BHS will ensure that the InterGraph has complete global coverage, whilst also improving connectivity between the fleet of British space drones.

It’s an exciting time for the future of information sharing. Let’s keep sharing what we know!