The First Internet Hero Was Paul Otlet and His Steampunk Wikipedia

In 1895, a Belgian internationalist began building the world's richest knowledge database and search engine out of index cards. He succeeded.

A Belgian lawyer and amateur researcher named Paul Otlet had one modest vision: to harness the whole of human knowledge. And not only did he want to store that information, he wanted to be able to verify it, then organize it in a way that would make it accessible to the world’s population. He argued that libraries were an inefficient way to store information, as books were cumbersome, hard to update, and subject to one author’s interpretation of what construed “important” information.

Otlet had a vision of a bibliography on a grand scale — a database of information that could easily be sorted, searched, and updated in real time. The only problem is that the year was 1895, still decades away from the first micro-processors —computers — so Otlet and his partner Henri La Fontaine (and future Nobel Peace Prize winner) started manually recording history’s greatest thoughts and ideas on 3x5 index cards, calling their project the Universal Bibliographic Repertory.

Within a year’s time, the two men and a team of volunteers had gathered 400,000 entries recording books, speeches, sheet music, medical journals, museum pieces, even newspaper and poster advertisements. By 1896, Otlet opened the doors on a mail-in research service: users would pay a small fee to request information on any number of topics, while staff would copy relevant note-cards, and send them back by delivery service. In essence, Otlet and Fontaine were on their way to turning their bibliography into a steampunk version of Wikipedia.

Otlet's ingenious index card system

Mundaneum Archive, Belgium

Over the next decade, as their bibliography swelled to millions of entries, simply organizing data into broad categories was not enough. Otlet sought to create a classification system and subsequent search mechanism that could intersect several subjects, and in 1904 he published a more polished version of his Universal Decimal Classification system. Basically it was a hierarchical card catalog system, sort of like the Dewey Decimal System on ‘roids. To handle retrieval, Otlet devised an algebraic algorithm based on category and subcategory identification numbers, complete with a set of relational operators. He had created his own analog search engine almost 90 years before Archie was developed.

As it turns out, Otlet was a pretty altruistic cat. His goal wasn’t to launch an IPO and make a zillion dollars; he was a dedicated peace activist and internationalist who thought linking the world through open and unfettered channels of knowledge might create a sense of human unity and understanding that could potentially end war, poverty, and oppression. Some of his writings from the end of the 19th century on the freedom of information mirror net neutrality arguments today. The jewel of Otlet’s vision for the new “global village” would be the Mundaneum, a vast repository open to the public, that would house the now 12 million 3x5 index cards and accompanying filing system.

A Mundaneum media room

Built in Brussels, (the Belgian government sponsored the project in hopes that it would help its bid to host the League of Nations headquarters), the Mundaneum was the first and central hub of what Otlet hoped would become a brick and mortar knowledge network. Now instead of mailing in requests for information, people would simply be able to walk in, fill out a form, and have the knowledge provided with a minimal wait. Open from 1919 to 1934, the Mundaneum eventually would contain hundreds of thousands of files, manuscripts, and images, the world’s first micro-film encyclopedia, and more than 15 million index cards.

Then, Nazis. Germany invaded in 1940, and book-burning fascists saw a central hub of recorded knowledge as antithetical to Third Reich domination. They gutted the Mundaneum and burned more than 63 tons of files and materials. The building became a repository for Nazi art.

What remained was found somewhat intact after the war (a Mundaneum museum was erected in Mons in 1984). Otlet died in 1944, and his dreams for a fully interconnected, global information stream would have to wait until Tim Berners-Lee started developing the internet a quarter-century later.

Before he died, Otlet prophesied that once other hubs were constructed around the world, they would be able to link to each other via “connected electric telescopes” (his description of a wireless computer network) transmitting data back and forth on demand. If a college student in Los Angeles had questions about the history of British coal mines, he could simply access the hubs via a desktop workstation, and have access to all the information from repositories across the globe in seconds, using a version of the Universal Decimal Classification search algorithm to filter results.

But even then, Otlet wouldn’t be satisfied until every human being had access to the data network. Specifically, he envisioned technology where a person could access information contained in any of the Mundaneums from the comfort of their own living room.

“Everything in the universe, and everything of man, would be registered at a distance as it was produced. In this way a moving image of the world will be established, a true mirror of [its] memory. From a distance, everyone will be able to read text, enlarged and limited to the desired subject, projected on an individual screen. In this way, everyone from his armchair will be able to contemplate creation, in whole or in certain parts.”

While we certainly shouldn’t think of Otlet as the granddady of the interwebs, there is no denying that his ideas were well ahead of his time. According to Otlet biographer Alex Wright, the Belgian visionary not only previewed the search-engine-driven hyperlink access of today’s world wide web, but foretold of a network that would eventually accommodate innovations like distributed encyclopedias, virtual classrooms, three-dimensional information spaces, and even social networks.

The fact that he was able to create a knowledge database on the scale of the Mundaneum using 19th-century methods is pretty damned remarkable. Google even honored Otlet in the form of a Google Doodle, acknowledging his role as an early pioneer of the search engine. The internet is not just a series of tubes after all. It’s cards, in filing cabinets, connected by telescopes.


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