Forget Al Gore. The Internet — at least as a concept — was invented nearly a century ago by a Belgian information expert named Paul Otlet imagining where telephones and television might someday go.
That was one of the topics in a wild discussion on the history of the Internet, and its future, at the recent World Science Festival in New York City.
The unofficial guest of honor at the panel was Vinton Cerf, know universally as the "Father of the Internet" for co-inventing its fundamental technology, a system for routing packets of data around the globe called TCP/IP. Working on a U.S. Military project called ARPAnet starting in the 1960s, Cerf and colleagues developed the tech that would eventually become the Internet that dominates our lives today.
But panel member Alex Wright, who heads up the "user experience" team at The New York Times, reminded the audience that the ideas leading to the Internet have been around a lot longer. (Wright is also the author of the book "Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages.")
In 1934, Paul Otlet realized that the wires and radio waves connecting the world could be used for more than chatter and entertainment, but also to bring the world's knowledge into any home.
In his Radiated Library vision, people would place a telephone call requesting information to a great library. It wasn't as easy as typing a question into Google, but Otlet was making the most of the technology he had.
Librarians would pull the information and send the pages as TV signals for what Otlet called the Televised Book. He also suggested dividing the screen into sections to display several books — what we know as opening multiple windows or browser tabs.
Otlet went as far as suggesting that this phone-and-screen combination would replace traditional books. In other words, he foresaw the Kindle and the iPad.