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When Did That Happen?

HyperCard, Hyperlinks, and Grunge

by Dan Wohlbruck

Generic image illustrating the article
  24 years ago this month, Kurt Cobain and Bill Atkinson released products that are still remembered fondly.  

In 1987, Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl founded the rock group Nirvana. Their 1991 album, Nevermind, helped Nirvana move into the mainstream and start something then called “grunge.”

At the MacWorld Conference & Expo held in Boston, Massachusetts, in August of that year, Apple introduced a product called HyperCard. The system was created by Bill Atkinson and its programming language, HyperTalk, was implemented by Dan Winkler. HyperCard allowed people who had never written a line of code to create applications in its cards-in-a-stack metaphor. Although it used a single-computer database, information in the cards could be linked via clickable text or images or buttons, with the links working within a stack or between stacks. A kind of hyperlink.

One person influenced by the simplicity and power of HyperCard was Robert Cailliau. In an interview with Computing Now, he recalled:

“I had been developing document handling systems at CERN, and I had also been toying with Hypercard. We had all buildings connected with Appletalk, and it was just conceivable that we could get something done with hypertext over the network.”

Cailliau worked with a colleague at CERN, one Tim Berners-Lee, who was also a HyperCard fan, and who also saw great potential in the idea of hypertext. In March 1989, a memo titled “Information Management—A Proposal,” written by Berners-Lee, was distributed at CERN. In its understated introduction, he said that he would summarize his short experience with a non-linear text system called hypertext. Berners-Lee called his proposed solution a system of linked information and he went on to summarize such a system:

“In providing a system for manipulating this sort of information, the hope would be to allow a pool of information to develop which could grow and evolve with the organisation and the projects it describes. For this to be possible, the method of storage must not place its own restraints on the information. This is why a ‘web’ of notes with links (like references) between them is far more useful than a fixed hierarchical system. When describing a complex system, many people resort to diagrams with circles and arrows. Circles and arrows leave one free to describe the interrelationships between things in a way that tables, for example, do not. The system we need is like a diagram of circles and arrows, where circles and arrows can stand for anything. We can call the circles nodes, and the arrows links.”

The memorandum proposes a solution: hypertext. He says, “Hypertext is a term coined in the 1960s by Ted Nelson which has become popular for these systems, although it is used to embrace two different ideas. One idea (which is relevant to CERN’s problem) is the concept: ‘Hypertext’: Human-readable information linked together in an unconstrained way.” The memorandum suggests that hypertext could be used to make hot spots in documents. Hot spots were described as being “ icons, or highlighted phrases, as sensitive areas. Touching a hot spot with a mouse brings up the relevant information, or expands the text on the screen to include it. Imagine, then, the references in this document, all being associated with the network address of the thing to which they referred, so that while reading this document you could skip to them with a click of the mouse.”

Berners-Lee then cataloged the requirements of a documentation system at CERN. He identified the need for remote access across networks, the desire for heterogeneity which he said would permit the system to address data from different systems, and the ability to include access to existing data. Berners-Lee finished his list of system requirements by saying that users of the system must be able to add their own private links to and from public information.

The proposal came to this conclusion: “We should work toward a universal linked information system, in which generality and portability are more important than fancy graphics techniques and complex extra facilities. The aim would be to allow a place to be found for any information or reference which one felt was important, and a way of finding it afterwards. The result should be sufficiently attractive to use that it the information contained would grow past a critical threshold, so that the usefulness of the scheme would in turn encourage its increased use.” CERN decided to proceed with the proposed system but even Berners-Lee could not envision how attractive it would become.

Like Grunge, it would take several years for Berners-Lee’s idea to become a phenomenon. On Christmas Day 1990, the new system accomplished its first successful communication link between a Web browser and server. The components of the first successful transmission were the hypertext markup language (HTML), a browser to interpret HTML coding, and a server capable of supporting HTML by executing the hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP).

HyperCard, although still in use, is no longer supported by Apple. Its creator, Bill Atkinson, once lamented that had he foreseen the power of the network he would have expanded HyperCard beyond a single processor. The World Wide Web, however, just like Nirvana, goes on and on.

Grunge and HyperCard started almost 25 years ago. And that’s when it happened.

Dan Wohlbruck has over 30 years of experience with computers, with over 25 years of business and project management experience in the life and health insurance industry. He has written articles for a variety of trade magazines and websites. He is currently hard at work on a book on the history of data processing.

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