Ted Nelson

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Nelson, Theodor (Ted) Holm (17 June 1937 - )

In 1960, Nelson created a computer project called Xanadu, one which resulted in his being called the “hypertext guru and design genius” of cyberspace, “one of the seminal thinkers of our century,” and “the greatest computer visionary of our time.” He predicted the universal knowledge repository known today as the World Wide Web. He coined "HTTP" (Hyper Text Transport Protocol).

The Youth

While attending a progressive high school in New York City, Bentley School at 48 West 86th Street, Nelson lived with his grandparents on Washington Square North in the northwest corner building. His mother is Hollywood star Celeste Holm, and his father was playwright Ralph Nelson (1916–1987), who directed the movies Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962) and Lilies of the Field (1963).

When fifteen and already a wit, Nelson wrote the following:

There are apparently people
To whom a small bier
From the bartender of the First Cause
Signifies the ultimate binge.

“I identify as a card-carrying atheist,” he has written, “but I can’t find anyone to issue me a card.”


A designer, generalist, sociologist, and contrarian, Nelson holds that “transclusive hypermedia will be the publishing medium of the future” and in his Literary Machines has called himself a “Systems Humanist.”

His early computer project, Xanadu, changed its specifications a number of times. But it has been described as an ultimate vision of the “docuverse” and involves all documents in the world accessible to all people in the world, with a way to see and create connections among all the documents and their parts.

Project Xanadu was devoted to the idea that, in or out of cyberspace, we need freedom and availability of information. Nelson’s dream is of a global hypertext publishing system, a universal library, a system to resolve copyright disputes, and a meritocratic forum for discussion and debate. By putting all such information within reach of all people, Xanadu would eliminate scientific ignorance and help cure political misunderstandings. It would link virtual documents from text or audio-visual elements widely dispersed on a computer network with easy version tracking. It also would provide for micropayment of authors’ royalties and coordinate copyright, ownership, and quotations functions. His concept of hypertext has made Nelson legendary in programming circles.


From the early 1980s until 1998, Nelson worked on a design for ZigZag, a software program that uses no metaphors, no icons, no applications, “a Tinkertoy world for users to share, explore, and reconfigure.” An Australian, Andrew Pam, wrote a demo version of the program which uses a Perl 5 code and runs under the Linux operating system which Nelson describes as “the sexual revolution brought to the spreadsheet. In a spreadsheet, society required that a cell have an up connection, a down connection, a left connection, and a right connection. In this system each cell’s connections are its own business.”

His Schooling

In 1959 he earned a B.A. in philosophy from Swarthmore College, almost being expelled for his arguments in favor of sexual liberation. In 1963 at Harvard he earned an M.A. in sociology. In on online article by Christopher Keep, Tim McLaughlin, and Robin Parmar, Nelson is said, while in a humanities computer course, to have been

  • struck by a vision of what could be. For his term project, he attempted to devise a text-handling system which would allow writers to revise, compare, and undo their work easily. Considering that he was writing in Assembler language on a mainframe, in the days before "word processing" had been invented, it was not surprising that his attempt fell short of completion. Five years later, he gave his first paper at the annual conference of the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM). It was around this time that he coined the term ‘hypertext.”
  • [Further] The Xanadu software is as mythic as the place after which it was named. In Dream Machines, published in 1974, Nelson announced that it would be ready for release by 1976. In the 1987 edition of Literary Machines, the due date was 1988. The development of Xanadu was given a large boost in early 1988 when Autodesk (the company which made their fortune from AutoCAD) bought the Xanadu Operating Company. Code for a prototype of part of the system was made public later that year. In an article published in Byte in January 1988, Nelson expected to be fully completed by 1991. Then, nothing. Autodesk has since relinquished interest in Xanadu.
  • Nelson's conception of hypertext is a rich one. Dream Machines describes hypergrams (branching pictures), hypermaps (with transparent overlays), and branching movies, such as the film at the Czechoslovakian Pavilion at Expo '67. The modular layout of this book attempts to impart the interconnectedness of knowledge which hypertext can convey. Its large format, hand-drawn illustrations, and irreverent tone were inspired by Stewart Brand's Whole Earth Review. Flip the book over, and you'll find a second polemic—Computer Lib. The book sold a total of 50,000 copies.
  • In Dream Machines, Nelson provides three categories of hypertext. The first, basic or chunk hypertext, supports what we have been calling reference and note links. The second, stretchtext, is a full implementation of expansion links. The third, collateral, stems from his work in 1971 with the Parallel Textface, which provides a view of two documents on one screen, with full support for versioning. Nelson also distinguishes between "fresh" or original hyperbooks on one topic, "anthological" hyperbooks linking different works, and "grand" systems:
  • Despite Nelson's unwavering optimism, Xanadu has failed to materialize. Nonetheless, its intellectual presence has exerted an enormous force on the evolution of hypertext systems. Few researchers would deny the influence of his ideas.

The Teacher

A developer of software and zipper lists, Nelson for a long time taught at Keio University Shonan Fujisawa Campus. Explaining his coinages hypertex (http) and hypermedia, Nelson has told his students at the Japanese university and othersthat

  • • Hypertext is Literature, not Technology.
  • • Literature is a Two-God System.
  • • There is a philosophy of interconnection behind Xanadu.
  • • Xanadu is a Three-God System.
  • • Xanadu may be a Four-God System.
  • • Xanalogical Structure Is the Manifest Destiny of Literature.

Nelson has lectured widely, not only to computer engineers but also to the general public. In 2005 he did full-time research at Oxford in England Ted_Nelson. Asked if he taught there, he responded in a 9 May 2007 e-mail:

Not teaching but full-time research. However, I was technically an "Oxford Don" for two years, since a Don is either a Professor or a Fellow of a College, and I held the post of Visiting Fellow at Wadham College for the two years that I was a Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute (not a College).

Who's Who in Hell, which was published at the end of 1999, contains an error which he did not overlook, writing its author,

Also, you stated in Who's Who in Hell that I was responsible for HTML, Hypertext Markup Language. PERISH THE THOUGHT! I hate HTML. I came up with the idea of computer-based non-sequential writing (hypertext) in 1960, and coined the word hypertext around 1963 (publishing it first in 1965). But HTML, which I consider appalling, was created by a rival ca. 1988.
The World Wide Web, basede on HTML, is a horrific dumbdown of what I believe in, which is what I'm still working on. The web, like Microsoft Word, simulates paper. I am still trying to create structures for the representation of thought that are much better than paper.

When Who's Who in Hell was updated and became an online version known as Philosopedia, the error was corrected, as shown here.

A Critique and A Confirmation of Nelson's Futuristic Ideas

In “The Curse of Xanadu” (Wired, June 1995), Gary Wolf wrote,

  • Nelson’s hatred of conventional structure made him difficult to educate. Bored and disgusted by school, he once plotted to stab his seventh-grade teacher with a sharpened screwdriver, but lost his nerve at the last minute and walked out of the classroom, never to return. On his long walk home, he came up with the four maxims that have guided his life: most people are fools, most authority is malignant, God does not exist, and everything is wrong.

Nelson lamented that the Wired article did not understand what he was thinking and doing in his various software experiments. Others have discounted Wolf's conclusions as being unworthy of the magazine.

John Markoff, in The New York Times (11 December 2007), writes that Nelson has had a much larger influence on the computing world than has ever before been acknowledged. William C. Lowe, the I.B.M. executive who oversaw the introduction of I.B.M.'s PC in 1981, spoke at a panel celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Commodore 64 home computer that Markhoff moderated:

Along with Jack Tramiel, the founder of Commodore, Steve Wozniak, Apple’s co-founder, and Adam Chowaniec, the lead designer of the Commodore Amiga, Mr. Lowe retold war stories from an era that brought computing into the mainstream of American life. (Also present in the audience were Al Alcorn, a pioneering Atari engineer, and Lee Felsenstein, the designer of the Sol and the Osborne One computers.)
In 1978, I.B.M. was beginning to design its PC, which was a radical break for a company that had until then resisted open architectures and industry standards. Mr. Lowe invited Mr. Nelson to the company’s offices in Atlanta for a 90-minute presentation.
The resulting slide show, in which Mr. Nelson sketched out a world in which computer users would be able to retrieve information wherever they were, came as a shock to the blue-suited I.B.M. executives, Mr. Lowe said. It gave a hint of the world that the PC would bring, and even though the I.B.M.-ers were getting ready to transform a hobbyist business into one of the world’s major industries, they had no clue of the broader social implications. That would have to wait two decades for the rise of Google and the search engines.
But Mr. Nelson, almost simultaneously with Douglas C. Engelbart, a pioneering SRI International computer scientist, conceived it all first. During the 1960s the two independently began designing the computer world we now think of as the Internet.
As it happens, both men — who are friends — also believe that the commercial world cherry-picked some of their ideas, but missed the big picture.
Ted Nelson's 2009 book, Geeks Bearing Gifts, featured a cover photo of a 22-year-old Gates, arrested in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for a driving infraction.

in 2009, Markoff wrote another article, this time about Nelson's Geeks Bearing Gifts (2009), a work whose cover features a mug shot of a young Bill Gates that was taken by the Albuquerque Police Department when Gates was arrested for speeding in 1977. Gates, wrote Markoff, "borrowed many of Mr. Nelson's ideas and implemented them in what would become the world's largest software-company." Nelson, unlike Gates, has not significantly profited from his having been influential before anyone had heard of a Microsoft or an Apple.

(See entry for Vannevar Bush.

{CA; E; Technology Review, September-October 1998; WAS, numerous discussions, 1950–2007; Wired, June 1995 and September 1995}