Internet Pioneers

Ted Nelson

Ted Nelson is a somewhat controversial figure in the computing world. For thirty-something years he has been having grand ideas but has never seen them through to completed projects. His biggest project, Xanadu, was to be a world-wide electronic publishing system that would have created a sort universal libary for the people.He is known for coining the term "hypertext." He is also seen as something of a radical figure, opposing authority and tradition. He has been called "one of the most influential contrarians in the history of the information age." (Edwards, 1997). He often repeats his four maxims by which he leads his life: "most people are fools, most authority is malignant, God does not exist, and everything is wrong." (Wolf, 1995)


Nelson was raised by his grandparents in Greenwich Village, New York. His father is a movie director and his mother an actor. He had little contact with his father and almost none with his mother. He was lonely as a child and had problems caused by his Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).

Nelson attended Swarthmore college where he earned a BA in philosophy. In 1960, he enrolled in graduate school at Harvard. During his first year he attempted a term project creating a writing system similar to a word processor, but that would allow different versions and documents to be linked together nonlinearly, by association. This was, in part, an attempt to keep track of his own sometimes frantic associations and daydreamings brought about by his ADD.

Nelson did not complete the project, but he continued to work on it after that semester and it became the overriding concern of his life. In 1965, he presented a paper at the Association for Computing Machineryin which he coined the term hypertext. Nelson's system was very similar to that envisioned by Vannevar Bush.


Nelson continued to expound his ideas, but he did not possess the technical knowledge to tell others how his ideas could be implemented, and so many people simply ignored him (and have ever since). Still, Nelson persisted. In 1967, he named his system XANADU, and with the help of interested, mainly younger, computer hacks continued to develop it.

Xanadu was concieved as a tool to preserve and increase humanity's literature and art. Xanadu would consist of a world-wide network that would allow information to be stored not as separate files but as connected literature. Documents would remain accessible indefinitely. Users could create virtual copies of any document. Instead of having copyrighted materials, the owners of the documents would be automatically paid via electronic means a micropayment for the virtual copying of their documents.

Xanadu has never been totally completed and is far from being implemented. In many ways Tim Berners-Lee's World Wide Web is a similar, though much less grand, system. In 1999, the Xanadu code was made open source.

For Further Reading


Hypertext 2.0: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (Parallax - Re-Visions of Culture and Society)

Home| Vannevar Bush | J.C.R. Licklider | Larry Roberts | Paul Baran |
Bob Metcalfe |
Doug Engelbart | Vint Cerf | Ted Nelson | Tim Berners-Lee |
Marc Andreesen
| Epilogue | References |