On August 24, 1965 Ted Nelson used the word “hypertext” (which he coined) in a paper he presented at the Association for Computing Machinery. I was able to interview him earlier this month about the event and his early thoughts on the future of computing.
It is hard to know where to start when writing an introduction for Ted Nelson because his interests and accomplishments have spanned so many areas across six decades. To get a sense of the breadth and depth of them, the best thing to do is to read over his CV on his website.
Byron Reese: Well, we are coming upon the 50th anniversary of your presentation of your paper “A File Structure for the Complex, the Changing and the Indeterminate” at the Association for Computing Machinery where you introduced the world to the word “hypertext.” What do you recollect about that event?
Ted Nelson: First of all, remember that I was building up to it for years beforehand, thinking about hypertext and how to present the idea to the world.
So for me it was an important rollout, a rollout of my ideas. And I took it very seriously. And because of my partially theatrical background, I was very conscious of giving a good show.
This was in New York in midsummer?
Pittsburgh. I think it was hot, but we were in an air-conditioned hotel.
Tell us about what it was like to give that talk.
Well, from my point of view, I saw it as my major career rollout, daring and intense. I wasn’t so much scared as excited and keyed up. I was going to tell the world, from a literary and philosophical point of view, where interactive documents would go. I was about to tell a technical group that their whole world would be redefined.
That must have taken some amount of confidence! What made you think you were qualified?
I wasn’t a techie, I had an entirely different background. I knew something of literature, history, and the invention of media. I saw hypertext as the medium of the future, and I wanted to tell them that convincingly.
I was a media guy, already with a background in showbiz and publishing. I had won prizes for poetry and playwriting, I’d published a kite-shaped magazine, and I’d written the first rock musical.
I’d acted on television and summer stock stage, courtesy of my father. So I had no stage fright. [ed note: his father was the Emmy Award-winning director Ralph Nelson; his mother was the Academy Award-winning actress Celeste Holm].
Also, I could ad lib on technical issues. But that would come later.
Mainly I thought of myself as a philosopher and a filmmaker. I had majored in philosophy, and I had been led to believe by my professors that I was good at it, and I made my first film [“The Epiphany of Slocum Furlow”]. Which is, by the way, on the Net. You can see it on YouTube. It’s a half-hour comedy about loneliness at college, and I think it’s very good, but it’s very unusual and surrealistic and badly synced, and in black-and-white, so most people can’t handle it. You know the film director Wes Anderson?
He’s the first other director I’ve seen with the same style of surrealistic comedy that I came up with. So you could say that Wes Anderson is, in some sense, my cinematic descendant.
Anyway, I called myself a philosopher and a filmmaker, and I believed that I was going to be a serious, multifaceted intellectual (like, say, Norman Mailer or Christopher Hitchens), and that I was going to get to Hollywood and direct films (as my father later did, to my surprise).
How did you get into computer science?
I never thought of myself as a computer scientist, till last year when they gave me a degree in it.
I went to graduate school because I still wanted to continue my education—which graduate schools don’t like. But then I took a course in computers, and that blew the lid off my head, because it became entirely clear that the public stereotype of computers was absolutely incorrect, that the computer was an all-purpose machine, and that you could put a screen on it.
Well, screens! I can do that, I’m a filmmaker! So, then the issue is what should be the conceptual unification, the design of such interaction? Well, I can do conceptual unification, I’m a philosopher! It’ll be a new medium, and I’m a media guy! I had, by chance, the ideal background to design this new world of the future.
The cosmic joke is that everybody has a different reason for thinking the same thing—I’m the one who’s perfectly qualified to design software.
So this epiphany was in 1960?
Yep. For the ensuing five years I was thinking and designing how computer screens should interact.
What kind of reaction did you get from others?
No one, absolutely no one that I met, could imagine interactive computer screens. Whereas I could see them with my eyes closed, practically touch them and make them respond. It was very sensual.
And all during the 1960s and 1970s I was trying to tell people what interactive screens would be like, in my writings and my talks. But no one got it.
My great-grandfather, for example, who was a very smart man, a science teacher—he couldn’t understand what I was talking about. No one could imagine what an interactive screen would be. No one I talked to could imagine what an interactive screen would be, whereas I saw and felt them sensually in my mind and at my fingertips. Yet to me this was an extension of literature as we had always known it.
But books aren’t interactive.
Of course they are! You turn the pages and see different things. Children’s books were often very interactive, with pages cut into strips you could recombine, clock dials you could turn, and the like.
And interaction was hardly a new concept. I’d been to penny arcades since the 1940s. Put in two pennies or a nickel, and you could shoot at things or knock them over. They were mechanical and electrical, but they challenged your coordination and could hold your interest for quite a few nickels.
So interaction on a screen was the logical next step?
Of course! It was just a matter of software [laughs].
That extended the range of possibility.
Infinitely. There were no electromechanical limitations. It would be entirely different, an extremely new and exciting possibility. But I couldn’t tell anybody about this, they wouldn’t listen. So, it all came out of my own head.
But they were working on screen interaction at different places …
A few. I knew that they were working on interactive screens for air defense—the SAGE system—and for air traffic control. But those were special purpose. When the public got interactive screens, they would be general purpose.
But how did you imagine that they would they get to the public?
I immediately believed that there would be a personal computer industry, and that there would be computer screens for the public. I didn’t know when, I didn’t know how long it would take, I thought it would come much sooner. But something like Moore’s Law was bruited about in my class, so that the falling prices were clear. There was nothing standing in the way of computers for the public except for imagination, it seemed to me, and so I was trying to supply that.
I planned a company that I called the General Creative Corporation, with a picaresque and crusading style—very like the pose Apple has taken. But in 1960, Steve Jobs was five years old. It took longer than I thought, and I never got leverage. Neither did a lot of other people; Jobs grabbed a brass ring and knew what to do with it.
But what about hypertext? What about electronic documents?
That’s what I was mostly thinking about—electronic documents, and what they would be like. But nobody could imagine it. They would almost always ask, “Is it like a tape?” I should just have said yes.
I was sure I knew how electronic would look and feel. Unfortunately I overemphasized the jump link, jumping from page to page, which is all the Web does. (Along with the regrettable emphasis on fonts and layout, foisted on the public by Simonyi and Warnock.) [Charles Simonyi, who oversaw Microsoft’s development of Word, and John Warnock, the co-founder of Adobe Systems.]
What else should electronic documents do?
We’ll get to that.
What did this have to do with making movies?
To me, the computer was just another kind of movie camera, another system of details to be dealt with.
A moviemaker has to understand about sprockets and footage, exposure and focus; he has to understand actors; he doesn’t have to play the violin or ride a horse, but he has to know how to arrange these matters with those who do.
So what did you see as the relationship between software and movies?
I still believe software is a branch of movies. Movies are events on a screen that affect the heart and mind of the viewer, right? And software—interactive software—is events on a screen that affect the heart and mind of the user, and interact, and have consequences. So understanding the theatrics (some say rhetoric, some say cascading) of interaction is the real issue, not just making the wheels go around.
So to me, computer technicalities, including programming, were just more technicalities of moviemaking.
Did you understand the technical issues?
Well enough to get three patents and independently invent ray tracing, if anyone is interested.
[Nelson’s patent application for ray-tracing hardware is available as a paperback.]
The real issue was selecting the appropriate technicalities. I came to see that the issues I was facing for electronic documents were not algorithms but data structure.
So all this was leading up to your ACM presentation, 50 years ago.
I had worked hard through the early ’60s, learning all I could about computers and electronics. Meanwhile, I got a two-year appointment to Vassar teaching sociology. The first year at Vassar I had to work hard preparing my courses, but the second year I had free time to start submitting papers. I submitted five papers to conferences that would meet in 1965; all were accepted! But the biggie was to the ACM National Conference.
I was a member of the ACM, so I knew the mindset. I’d been reading a lot of journal articles, so I knew how ACM people thought: they were interested in files and operating systems and the like. But I was going to be talking about revolutionary and radical ways of thinking.
And so I knew that I’d be facing an attentive but skeptical audience. And I knew it would be of vast significance for my career and my hopes, and I prepared carefully.
I spent a great deal of time and work on it. And, as I recall, my great-grandfather died while I was working on it, and that was a great sorrow to me, but I had to keep on it. He died on a Monday, and I got the news while I was playing the Mamas & the Papas as I worked, singing “Monday, Monday, can’t trust that day.” But there was no time to grieve. I had to keep going.
I think the deadline was June 15, but because of his death I was allowed to get it in later.
And they accepted the paper! It was refereed, it was peer-reviewed! But the peer review was light. I talked to a couple of guys on the phone, as I recall, and they were very enthusiastic, they thought the paper was radical and exciting. I made the few changes they asked for, and that was it.
So this became the rollout of all these ideas, told in the best way I could, given that I knew I was going to be addressing computer professionals. And while I respected them very much, I also thought that I was opening a new chapter into a new part of the world.
I was by no means modest. Although I wasn’t telling anybody about it, I thought hypertext would lead to a millennial system of changes, and so it has, but much less influenced by my own work—my designs and ideas—than I’d hoped.
The written paper is in academic style. It bears almost no relation to the oral presentation I gave, which was intended to be rousing. I was used to off-the-cuff public speaking, but I scripted this one tightly.
In those days a talk was accompanied by 35-millimeter slides, and I believe the last three slides had the same word on it: CHANGE. The first one said CHANGE” in small letters, and the next one said “CHANGE” in bigger letters, and the third one said “CHANGE” in really big letters. I told them we had to be prepared for ever-changing documents.
And my recollection is that I got thunderous applause.
How many people were in the audience?
It was a huge room, at least as I recall. I think I counted the seats and it was something like 600, but again, this is only my wild recollection now, and I have no access to those diaries. I know I have a tape recording of the talk, and I know I have the original artwork and slides, so if anyone wanted to put it all together and restore it to an audiovisual presentation, it could be done.
What happened then?
I thought my work would be a watershed, because I didn’t know that anyone else in the world was working on text-on-screens. It was only after the talk that Bob Taylor came up to me, whom I did not know, and asked me if I had heard of Douglas Engelbart [Engelbart was an early computer pioneer, best known for inventing word processing, multiple windows on a screen, and the mouse, all rolled out in his 1968 “Mother of all Demos”].
Taylor told me that Engelbart had been working on similar things, so I made a note to get in touch with Engelbart. But I had very few resources and no secretary, so that actually carrying on any correspondence was essentially beyond my capabilities. I only found out later that Taylor had been Engelbart’s principal backer through ARPA [Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Department of Defense, now called DARPA].
Ironically, when Taylor took over Xerox PARC in the 1970s, he dropped Engelbart, who was tragically out in the cold for the rest of his career.
Did you get in touch with Doug Engelbart?
Yes. The next year, 1966, I flew out to see him with William Jovanovich, head of Harcourt, Brace Publishers, where I worked at the time. He showed us the mouse, and I was instantly converted.
Eventually Doug Engelbart and I became close friends. In fact, he performed the marriage ceremony when I married Marlene in 2012.
So what happened after the presentation?
As I said, I believe I got thundering applause, and I also think that most of the computer scientists in the world were in the room. Those were the days when it was possible to get all the computer scientists in one room, but of course I don’t know. You could say it was the high-water mark of my career, just as Engelbart’s 1968 demo was the high-water mark of his.
But because I was unable to carry on any correspondence about it, and had to pay for the conferences out of my own pocket, I couldn’t stay in the computer-science swim.
I hardly understood academic politics. Underneath the handshakes and overt appreciation, everyone is backstabbing for the same money.
I was hoping to get backing for my work, but I was very naive about how backing worked, at that time, and the amazing thing was that I did get one approach—a very prestigious and amazing approach.
I got a call from the Central Intelligence Agency—at least the guy said he was from the Central Intelligence Agency—and he intimated that they might back me, and I said, “sure.” That conversation went on for several years, but no backing appeared. I actually did go to McLean to meet there once, so it had been an authentic call.
What was that meeting like?
The surprise at the meeting was that I was attacked by several Artificial Intelligence guys in the room. It was years before I understood that there was a dog-and-cat relation between AI and hypertext—AI guys thought we were stealing their rightful territory. (I was actually followed at one conference by a famous AI guy who began, “Hypertext is evil.”)
Was there no further interest in your work?
Like ripples in a pond, it died down quickly. But the idea of hypertext was out and about.
It’s been an uphill fight all these years. Not only did the AI guys hate hypertext, but it turns out that everybody has a different notion of what hypertext should be. For example, HyperCard on the early Macintosh. I couldn’t understand it then; I still don’t understand it now. A very strange system. But that just shows the kaleidoscopic variety of thoughts that these concepts engender.
You’ve coined a lot of words.
Yep. I think a dozen of them may be in the dictionary, or in use in some degree. Of course I’ve coined a lot of words that people aren’t using, but my score is good.
It’s almost Shakespearean. How does that go about? Do you just think, “I need a new word here,” and just make one up?
Of course! My motto is, you can’t think new thoughts in old words.
But I always knew words were made up all the time. They either catch on or they don’t. I was a fan of Lewis Carroll, and I knew he’d put half a dozen words in the dictionary. The notion of inventing words was straightforward to me.
In what sense did you think “hypertext” was hyper?
“Hyper” in the sense of extended and generalized, as in “hypercube” and “hyperspace.” My father-in-law was a psychologist, and he was disturbed at the word because he thought “hyper” meant pathological and agitated.
Like a hyper child, or something.
Doctors and psychologists use “hyper” for sickness; mathematicians use it for generality.
The term seems tied to Xanadu, which goes back even before 1963, goes back to 1960. Can you talk about Xanadu?
I didn’t choose the name “Xanadu,” I don’t think, until ’66 or ’67, when I was at Harcourt, Brace Publishers. But there is an exact Xanadu model. If we had a whiteboard and a couple of hours, I could go through this with you in detail [laughs], but clearing up different notions takes a long time. For example, just the other evening, I was chatting with a friend of 30 years standing, and I cleared up some misunderstandings that he’d had about it for 30 years. So, the Xanadu model, and again, you can only say “the Xanadu model” because I control that trademark. It’s actually a registered trademark, and so I can say exactly what it means, whereas everybody else is still guessing.
[Laughs] Right. Has it changed over the past 50 years?
The fundamental notions haven’t changed—parallel pages with visible connection.
Other people’s hypertext just use jump links—that’s what the World Wide Web is, just jump links—whereas I consider it essential to see pages side by side, as in the Talmud, as in medieval manuscripts, as in any number of documents over the centuries. This is an essential part of the electronic document which we don’t have yet.
The different instantiations of Xanadu have changed repeatedly, because of the resource issues and whoever was working on it, and what language we were working in. There have been a dozen different tragic stories of attempted implementations. And each of them somewhat different. Notably the one we did in 1979. My team—I don’t take any credit for it, but the guys I was leading—came up with a brilliant system of addressing, based on what is now called tumblers. If you look up “tumblers” on Wikipedia, tumbler numbers, that was used in the 1979 Xanadu system. That version is now called Xanadu Green.
Then we got backing from Autodesk, and unfortunately, due to a power shift, and the demotion of Roger Gregory, it became a debate about what Xanadu should be. (I was no longer in charge.) After four years the project delivered nothing and Autodesk shut it down, and in the meantime, in the last of those two years, Tim Berners-Lee created the Web. So we might well have been the hypertext system of the world if we had stuck with the original 1979 design.
The Xanadu concept has always remained the same, and it involves two visible relations, links and transclusions, which in fact you’ll see in that ACM paper. Transclusion—Xanadu transclusion, not the kinds other people have come up with—is based on the notion that you often want to compare things, and use the same material in two places, and you want to see that it’s the same material, so you want to have a visualization, saying, this is in fact that.
How is this related to the 1965 design? You called it the Evolutionary List File, or ELF.
It showed parallel documents with visible connections, both links and transclusions! Except it was divided into paragraphs, which were actual objects. It would have been trivially implementable. It’s really a terrible design, but it was the best I could come up with at the time, and very oddly, it has essentially diverged into my two fundamental inventions now, one system I call Xanadu® and the other which I call ZigZag®, and you can see them both there, in the proto-structure described in the paper.
So, the idea was that as a hypertext would evolve, it would consist of a number of side-by-side lists of this type. That’s still the general idea.
Now, one of my fundamental notions, that you don’t see anywhere else, is the notion of a visible bridge between pages. That to me is absolutely fundamental. Actually, I’ve got one public instantiation, called “OpenXanadu.”
You have always been a “high ground” kind of guy.
That’s how I see better.