The World Wide Web, with its network of information and media linked through keywords and hypertext, was introduced in 1991, and the web browser was invented a year later. But it didn’t have to take so long. Almost 70 years ago, an engineer named Vannevar Bush basically invented the Web—only no one thought it was a good idea, and his invention was never made.
In a 1945 essay in The Atlantic, Bush described “a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library”—a kind of mechanical workdesk with a viewing screen, a keyboard, and a bunch of gears and levers, that could store and retrieve not just gobs of information from books and documents but also a user’s personal thoughts and memories, on microfiche (microscopic text on plastic film). Called the Memex (for “memory extender”), it would be basically like having an entire library, or—even better—all of Wikipedia, inside a desk.
The Memex might sound like just a really complicated and bizarre filing cabinet—but what made it truly ingenious was Bush’s approach to organizing all that information. At the time, information was organized either alphabetically or categorically, which, Bush recognized, was not how the human brain generally works. Our minds tend instead to travel down paths guided by thought association, where one thing makes you think of some seemingly random other thing, which leads you somewhere else entirely—but the whole trail makes sense in your head, and leads you to new understandings at every step along the way.
To demonstrate, here’s a quick association trail from my own mind, starting with a word I picked at random:
the ballroom scene from in Beauty and the Beast
If I were using the old filing methods that were available during Bush’s time, none of those ideas would be clustered together. Rainbow would perhaps be filed under “color,” prism under “physics,” chandelier under “decorative accents,” and Beauty and the Beast under “Disney movies.” According to that system, you’d think these ideas had nothing in common. But for me, clearly, they have everything in common. Using a Memex, I could enter the word rainbow and then see a picture of a rainbow that I took, and Newton’s treatise on Opticks, and some pictures of chandeliers, and finally that movie clip. Then I could add my own thoughts and notes and store this associative trail, plucked straight from my own brain, for easy reference later. So if someone were to rifle through my Memex, they wouldn’t just gain insight into my interests, they’d learn a bit about how my mind works. It would be kind of like sneaking a look at someone’s internet browsing history, but way more fun!
Sadly, those sketches are about as far as the Memex ever got—no one thought it seemed useful enough to pay for its creation. I really wish it had caught on, though, and that we could use these wild contraptions instead of the internet for research purposes. The Memex was designed to be the ultimate study aid, helping you store, organize, and retain information according to your own thought patterns and needs, while the internet constantly distracts us from our brains. People talk about going down internet “rabbit holes,” where you follow links into oblivion before realizing that you just wasted two hours reading about celebrity wardrobe malfunctions. I recently went down a rabbit hole involving an Amazon book-review controversy over a romance novel I’d never read or even heard of. And yet, I spent over an hour filling my brain with all this wacko information that has nothing to do with me or my actual interests. How did that happen?!
What happened is that I lost control of my path. On the internet, there’s often no clear goal, and no clear exit. It’s easy to get lost, and you just have to decide at some point to close your browser and go to bed. But you would never get lost like that using the Memex, because this magical desk was specifically designed to avert rabbit holes, and help you forge a meaningful path through the jungle of information. Alas, there is no Memex, and we each must face the internet jungle alone. But when I feel myself going down a rabbit hole, I like to pretend my computer is a Memex, and that by pulling a lever I can be guided back to my brain.
There are a lot of cool but ill-fated inventions like the Memex. I like to imagine all the parallel universes where these strange inventions caught on. Maybe there’s a Memex world out there, or a world where everyone wears ear trumpets. Instead, we live in this world. The one with the wine rack bra.
Here are some other worlds that we’re sad never happened. —Maggie
The Analytical Engine
The first computers were actually humans. Their job was to compute numerical tables, and they were actually called “computers.” Being human, though, they made mistakes. In the 1820s, a mathematician named Charles Babbage thought he could eliminate these inevitable human errors by creating a mechanical device that could compute numbers. He called this theoretical device the Difference Engine. But the funding for the project ran out before it could be completed.
Never mind, though—years later, Babbage came up with a more sophisticated version of the Difference Engine, which he would call the Analytical Engine. His blueprints describe a gigantic contraption created from thousands of interlocking metal gears and wheels, powered by steam and cranks.
This new machine was way, way more than just a wildly expensive number-cruncher the size of a house (the thing was truly gigantic and made from literally tons of cast iron, bronze and steel). Basically he’d designed the world’s first general-purpose computer—a device that, through a system of numerical instructions fed to the machine with punchcards, could be programmed to do all kinds of things.
Babbage was so ahead of his time that no one understood what he was talking about—except Ada Lovelace, the math-genius daughter of the poet Lord Byron, who was became fascinated with the theoretical machine as a teenager, and whose later notes on its potential use went far beyond Babbage’s original understanding, earning her widespread recognition as the first computer programmer. Everyone else just thought he was a nutcase, so the Analytical Engine never happened.
It’s fun to think about how our world might be different if the Analytical Engine had caught on. The way our history worked out, the computer revolution came a century after the Industrial Revolution. But what if they had occurred simultaneously? What if computers had been around to help with our industrial advancement? The world would be a wildly different place. For one thing, we would be 100 years ahead in robotic technology; we would probably have high-functioning robots at this point to do our bidding. On the other hand, there’s a steampunk novel called The Difference Engine that describes a world in which the Analytical Engine is used by a cyborg to digitize and enslave all of humanity. So maybe we dodged a bullet there after all. —Maggie
There are some annoying things that I, as a sophisticated lady on the go (aka a disheveled teenager who oversleeps), just don’t have time for, including hangnails, bathroom stalls that are out of toilet paper, and, most frustrating of all, RUNS IN MY TIGHTS. Without fail, no matter how cheap or expensive the tights, they will run, and I will shake my fist to the sky and be all “Damn you, stocking gods! What did I do to deserve this?!” But it turns out that those runs could have been prevented if it weren’t for this thing called “planned obsolescence.” Planned obsolescence is when companies create products that are purposely designed to break down after a period of time, forcing you to buy more. Some say this creates incentive for innovation, but I just say it creates incentive to make me BROKE.
Anyways, back to the tights. Around 1940, scientists at DuPont invented the strongest nylon stockings around. These bad boys were strong enough to tow cars with! Imagine how well they’d hold up to tripping on the sidewalk. But the company’s execs realized that if they created indestructible tights for the masses, women wouldn’t have to buy new damn tights all the time! They sent the scientists back to the lab to make the tights more fragile and, thus, shorter-lived.
It seems that no one has revisited the concept of indestructible tights, so I say we all just start pulling a Miley and stop buying new tights, in protest. —Gabby
I have wanted a hoverboard ever since I saw Marty McFly in this epic chase scene in Back to the Future 2. Skateboards, scooters, and driving are fun, but everyone knows that FLOATING is better than using wheels. My desire to hover on a board only increased when I read Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series of novels. His main character spies, sneaks off, and goes on major adventures via hoverboard, which makes all manner of mischief possible because unlike a skateboard, the hoverboard just does the work for you, so you’re free to concentrate on other things (like spying). OK, this isn’t really an invention that died before its time—more like one that people keep saying is gonna happen and then it just doesn’t get off the ground. All real-life versions of the hoverboard so far are either hoaxes like this or have to travel along one specific path, because apparently they need magnetized tracks to work. We need to find another way—I want the future I was promised! —Stephanie
The Flying Car
What if cars could fly? Guess what, they already did. In the 1970s, a guy named Henry Smolinski quit his job as an auto engineer and dedicated himself to the creation of a car with wings. It was a simple but weird plan: take a Ford Pinto, attach a giant pair of wings, then drive really fast until the car just starts flying. What’s even weirder was the fact that it worked.
Henry actually flew around in his car, which he dubbed the Mizar (one of the stars in the Big Dipper). Unfortunately there was a fatal design flaw: the concept of the car was that the wings were detachable, so you could drive your car on regular roads, and then stop and affix the wings when you were ready to fly. During one fateful flight, the wings detached without warning, sending Henry and his Mizar crashing to the ground. The fact that Henry was killed by his own invention put a damper on the business, and after that the flying-car concept failed to take off (yuk yuk). —Maggie
Thomas Edison’s Talking Dolls
Though Thomas Edison is generally considered one of the greatest inventors of all time, he had his share of clunkers, as well. One of them was the talking doll—Edison’s was the first of its kind (it was basically just a giant doll with a little phonograph inside). Though these dolls failed to catch on because of their lack of durability and overabundance of creepiness, they are a complete success in my eyes for being perhaps the scariest toy ever created. Listening to the dolls, whose voices were recorded in the late 1800s, is pretty terrifying, and it’s not entirely surprising that kids weren’t really in to the whole 19th century Chucky vibes. But perhaps the spookiest—and best—part of the Edison’s-talking-dolls story is the legend that Edison himself was so embarrassed by their failure that he buried the remaining stock on the grounds of his factory somewhere. Can you imagine being the lucky one to dig that treasure up? Nightmares forever! —Pixie ♦