Internet and the Ancient Dream of Free Access to Information

From the Lecture Series: Turning Points in Modern History

By Vejas Liulevicius P.h.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville

The establishment of libraries best manifests the humans’ dream of having free access to information. The massive amount of knowledge gathered in the ancient Library of Alexandria is the earliest example of this desire. Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie also was inspired by the same concept to make knowledge accessible to everyone. Visionaries did not stop envisioning the free flow of information at the global level, each building upon previous ideas.

Glen Beck (background) and Betty Snyder (foreground) program ENIAC in BRL building 328.
ENIAC was the first electronic general computer invented at the University of Pennsylvania in 1946. (Image: U. S.Army Photo / Public domain)

H.G. Wells and his World Encyclopedia

The dream lived on until closer to our time with H.G. Wells, the British author of scientific romances. As a visionary who had warned against the atomic weapons and predicted humans going to the Moon, he foresaw the idea of the internet. In his 1938 book World Brain, he proposed that giving every human the same frame of reference would lead to world peace. He argued that the vehicle for providing that frame of reference was a “World Encyclopedia,” which functioned as a new universal institution.

Denis Diderot
Denis Diderot compiled the Encyclopédie to make knowledge accessible to everyone (Image: Louis-Michel van Loo / Diderot Collection. Gift of M. de Vandeul to the French State in 1911/ Public domain)

Wells pointed out that Diderot’s Encyclopédie inspired his idea, but he wished to expand the concept and make it more comprehensive. He planned to collect all expert knowledge that was up-to-date and authoritative and use the new technology of microfilm to make knowledge available to everyone. He dreamed of making it “the mental background of every intelligent man in the world,” and an “undogmatic Bible to a world culture.” Research labs and universities would keep this World Brain updated, leading to holding “the world together mentally.”

This institution resulted in a network of nerves that expanded around the world, becoming a World Brain. At the beginning of the Second World War (WWII), he went on a lecture tour, including to the US, to raise interest in the World Encyclopedia, but he failed in attracting attention.

This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Vannevar Bush and Memex

After a short time, another prominent scientist predicted the internet. Vannevar Bush, who is not much known today, was involved in the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. In 1945, at the height of WWII, Vannevar Bush put forth the idea of a “memex” in an article he published in Atlantic magazine. Memex, which is the short form of memory extender, was a new kind of encyclopedia consisting of a desk with a built-in microfilm reader. It also contained a collection of microfilms that were fully-indexed and included all the contents of a whole research library. The Memex would become a sort of browsable auxiliary mind that followed links and created connections between pages of different texts.

Learn more about Diderot’s Enlightenment Encyclopedia.

The Computer: a Medium to Achieve the Big Dream

These predictions of the internet became a reality through the invention of the modern computer. The origin of the computer also dates back to the Second World War.

The first electronic general computer, called the ENIAC machine (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), was invented in 1946 at the University of Pennsylvania. It was a project for the US Army Ballistic Research Laboratory for use in computing artillery firing tables.

When the Second World War started, a “computer” was a person who did complicated mathematical calculations; it was not a machine. But with computers, these calculations became automated.

The next step was in 1950 at Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Study, where an all-purpose computer was designed for the calculations of making a hydrogen bomb. So in the words of George Dyson, the science historian, “The digital universe and the hydrogen bomb were brought into existence at the same time.”

Learn more about Gutenberg’s print revolution.

The Birth of the Internet

With the advances made in computer technology, the world was ready for the internet. In 1969, ARPA of the US Department of Defense developed the ARPANET. It connected some West Coast universities that conducted government-funded research. Then, other research networks connected to the ARPANET by standard protocols for communication.

Digital signals flying over highway. Digital transformation. Internet of Things.
The Computer Made the Development of the Internet Possible (Image: metamorworks/Shutterstock)

With the help of the National Science Foundation, commercial users also connected to the network in 1993. This development made the spread of the internet faster, first in the US and Europe and then in the whole world.

The next phenomenon was the World Wide Web (WWW) or the web. Web users could survey documents connected through hypertext or hyperlinks by using that internet application. This development happened in CERN, a laboratory in Geneva where Tim Berners-Lee, the British engineer and computer scientist, created a protocol for standardized communication and a browser in 1992.

These attempts were followed by the Mosaic browser in 1993 at the University of Illinois and then the Netscape Navigator system in 1994. Now, the internet is so ubiquitous that we all take it for granted.

Common Questions about the Internet and the Ancient Dream of Free Access to Information

Q: What was Diderot’s Project?

Diderot’s Encyclopédie was inspired by the concept of making knowledge accessible to everyone. His Encyclopédie was the collection of scholarly texts in the form of an encyclopedia which he edited to fulfill his dream of changing the way people thought.

Q: What is the Memex Machine?

The “Memex” is an idea put forth by Vannevar Bush in an article he published in the Atlantic Magazine. The Memex, which is the short form of memory extender, was a new kind of encyclopedia consisting of a desk with a built-in microfilm reader that contained the information of a full research library.

Q: When was ENIAC invented?

In 1946 the first electronic general computer called the ENIAC machine (Electronica Numerical Integrator and Computer) was invented at the University of Pennsylvania. It was a project for the US Army Ballistic Research Laboratory for use in computing artillery firing tables.

Q: When was ARPANET created?

In 1969,ARPA of the US Department of Defense developed the ARPANET. It connected some West Coast universities that conducted government-funded research. Then, other research networks connected to the ARPANET by standard protocols for communication.

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