Ted Nelson: A Critical (and Critically Incomplete) Bibliography

Devoting time to serious bibliographical matters as a tribute to Ted Nelson may seem like a quaintly out-of-tune and bookish, if not totally misguided project. It is easy to pigeon-hole Ted’s work as belonging to a generation of adventurous and creative writers and editors active during the 1960s who began to find that traditional print media constrained the expression of their ideas. Marshall McLuhan and the Whole Earth Catalog come to mind. Indeed, Literary Machines opens with the declaration that it is “a hypertext, or nonsequential piece of writing.” Each reader of this book has confronted the difficulties imposed by non-linear writing on the linear medium of print. And yet, there is no way around the fact that most of Ted’s work has been published on paper. This fact alone does not produce a particularly difficult problem for bibliography. The difficulty is rather that many of his important writings appeared in ephemeral or semi-published formats, ranging from conference proceedings and magazines of every ilk to self-published books that were produced anywhere and nowhere – at least from the perspective of libraries such as my own that tried desperately to acquire copies.

Internet Pioneers: Ted Nelson

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.”

.. He was lonely as a child and had problems caused by his Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).

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.

Possiplex: Ted Nelson ’59 and the Literary Machine

IN A WHARTON LOUNGE A LITTLE MORE THAN 50 YEARS AGO, a Swarthmore student named Ted Nelson tried to compose a difficult seminar paper. He was overflowing with ideas and awash in distractions, and e was intensely frustrated that these ideas could not be easily  organized on paper. He wondered if the recently invented computer might play a role in solving the problem and sketched out some ideas for how a literary machine might facilitate better term papers, better libraries, and indeed a better repository for the world’s documents. The pursuit of that idea changed the world.

.. Possiplex makes it clear that Swarthmore exerted and continues to exert a strong influence on Nelson. This starts with the College’s foundational belief in the equal dignity of art, science, and engineering: All of Nelson’s work emphasizes their unity. The omnivorous intellectual interests (and lengthy reading lists) long characteristic of Swarthmore students are reflected in Nelson’s insistence that reading is nonsequential, that each reader must be free to follow fresh paths as spirit and understanding dictate.

.. Possiplex records two recurring struggles: Nelson’s struggle to be understood, and his fight to retain “creative control.” Time and again, Nelson is frustrated by investors, managers, and colleagues who do not understand or cannot quite believe his vision, and by developers who stray from his designs.

.. one defining experience was a rare visit, at age 13, to see his father direct the live television broadcast of a soap opera. Shortly after the show began, one of the cameras failed, and all the carefully rehearsed camera moves were suddenly useless.

“Ralph, with military composure and the ever-present cigarette, started talking on the intercom, with one eye on his script and one eye on the monitors that fed from cameras two and three. ‘Camera three to the kitchen, focus on Mama… Hold it there, camera three. Switch to camera three. Camera two to the kitchen, focus on Nels. Switch to camera two.’”

This dream of art and command stayed with Nelson and has shaped his vision of how software ought to be created. “Most software,” Nelson writes, “has no director—nobody with the authority to decide and change every part—and that’s why it’s all so lousy.”


To satisfy deeper literary needs, we want to provide a deep new system for editing and rich document management.

Instead of the “clipboard,” which loses all identity of its contents, we propose pullacross editing, where the user pulls a portion from some source and carries it visibly to its new context.

INDIRECT DOCUMENTS AT LAST! Now for a Humanist Computer Agenda.

But sloshed by money, swollen by newcomers and wholly out of my hands, the project spiralled out of control with all the classic mistakes at once: too many cooks, bridges too far, horses in midstream, and Second System Syndrome. And the new people took the software in another direction, digressing from open parallelism.

It all crashed; four years and millions in funding were wasted and the new software was unfinishable. By the time the smoke cleared I was left standing with only the trademark in hand, to pick up the pieces by going back to the previous version. The other participants, less committed, went their separate ways, except for Roger Gregory and briefly a few others.

.. On the day in 1992 that Autodesk funding collapsed, a young man came to see me in my office. He showed me a simpleminded hypertext system he had cooked up. I was polite, didn’t say anything negative about it, and took him to lunch. Since then I have watched aghast as this and shallow system, doing only small parts of what we were trying to do (and in a completely wrong way), has taken over the world.

Now, I have great liking and respect for Tim Berners-Lee, who is a good and decent and honorable and very nice guy, of whom I have not the slightest personal criticism whatever. I believe that his ideals are probably the same as mine at some level of abstraction.

All that said, I don’t think Tim and I agree on anything in the universe. He bases his ideas on computer tradition: hierarchy, and legacy mechanisms of files and directories. I base my ideas on the nature of ideas and literature and what I believe human beings need for keeping track of ideas and presenting them, for which I believe the imposition of hierarchy, files and exposed directories are highly destructive.

.. (“Most people don’t want to publish,” said arch-publisher William Jovanovich to me in 1966. I said everyone did. “Oh, you mean VANITY publishing,” he said. Since he was my boss, I had to stifle the urge to explain that ALL publishing is vanity publishing.)

.. Only trivial links are possible; there is nothing to support careful annotation and study; and, of course, there is no transclusion.

.. The purpose of the article was to dishonor and destroy our work, to annihilate our reputations and our ideas, to hide the depth and integrity of the Xanadu project and present us as clueless bozos; to make sure we had no access to respect or funding, even in the dot-com feeding frenzy that was underway; and above all to deny us any credit for the thinking behind the World Wide Web. So far its dastardly purposes have been quite successful.

During the course of the article, Jackal successively implies:

    1. that I am a terrifyingly reckless driver;
    2. that I am a drug addict;
    3. that I am mentally defective;
    4. that my every utterance in the course of my life has been incoherent and offensive;
    5. that my work was driven by ignorance;
    6. that my Xanadu colleagues and I were slap-happy, deluded twits attempting the impossible with toothpicks and string;
    7. that my colleague Roger Gregory is an ignorant “repairman” (on account of a job he once had);
    8. that we were all clinically insane.

.. Jackal’s article deserves careful analysis for the cleverness and subtlety of its deceptions, and I intend it will become known to posterity as a classic of deceit next to the Protocols of Zion.

.. But my concern is that .. these unspeakable individuals may have destroyed one of the few great possibilities the human race ever had: an electronic publishing network where contents could be freely combined and remixed under legal copyright, with each portion being purchased from the original, and everything deeply linkable and annotatable– while being changed.