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Ted Nelson

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Ted Nelson

Ted Nelson
Ted Nelson, speaking at the Tech Museum of Innovation in 2011
Born (1937-06-17) June 17, 1937
Chicago, Illinois, United States
Fields Information technology, philosophy, and sociology
Institutions Project Xanadu
Alma mater Swarthmore College
Harvard University
Keio University
Known for Hypertext
Influences Vannevar Bush

Theodor Holm Nelson (born June 17, 1937) is an American pioneer of information technology, philosopher, and sociologist. He coined the terms "hypertext" and "hypermedia" in 1963, and published them in 1965. Nelson has also been credited as being the first person to use the words transclusion, virtuality, intertwingularity, and teledildonics.

Early life and education

Nelson is the son of Emmy Award-winning director Ralph Nelson and the Academy Award-winning actress Celeste Holm.[1] His parents' marriage was brief and he was mostly raised by his grandparents, first in Chicago and later in Greenwich Village.[2]

Nelson earned a BA from Swarthmore College in 1959. While there, he made an experimental humorous student film titled The Epiphany of Slocum Furlow, in which the titular hero discovers the meaning of life. His contemporary at the college, musician and composer Peter Schickele scored the film.[3] In 1960 Nelson began graduate work at Harvard University in philosophy, earning a Master's Degree in sociology in 1963. Much later in life, in 2002, he obtained a Doctorate in Media and Governance from Keio University.

During college and graduate school, he envisioned a computer-based writing system that would provide a lasting repository for the world's knowledge, and also permit greater flexibility of drawing connections between ideas. This came to be known as Project Xanadu.

Project Xanadu

Nelson founded Project Xanadu in 1960, with the goal of creating a computer network with a simple user interface. The effort is documented in his 1974 book Computer Lib / Dream Machines and the 1981 Literary Machines. Much of his adult life has been devoted to working on Xanadu and advocating for it.

The Xanadu project itself failed to flourish, for a variety of reasons which are disputed. Journalist Gary Wolf published an unflattering history of Nelson and his project in the June 1995 issue of Wired magazine, calling it "the longest-running vaporware project in the history of computing".[4] On his own website, Nelson expressed his disgust with the criticisms, referring to Wolf as "Gory Jackal", and threatened to sue him.[5] He also outlined his objections in a letter to Wired,[6] and released a detailed rebuttal of the article.[7]

Nelson has stated that some aspects of his vision are being fulfilled by Tim Berners-Lee's invention of the World Wide Web, but he dislikes the World Wide Web, XML and all embedded markup – regarding Berners-Lee's work as a gross over-simplification of his original vision:
HTML is precisely what we were trying to PREVENT— ever-breaking links, links going outward only, quotes you can't follow to their origins, no version management, no rights management.[8]

Jaron Lanier explains the difference between the World Wide Web and Nelson's vision, and the implications:

A core technical difference between a Nelsonian network and what we have become familiar with online is that [Nelson's] network links were two-way instead of one-way. In a network with two-way links, each node knows what other nodes are linked to it. ... Two-way linking would preserve context. It's a small simple change in how online information should be stored that couldn't have vaster implications for culture and the economy."[9]

Other projects

In 1965, he presented the paper "Complex Information Processing: A File Structure for the Complex, the Changing, and the Indeterminate" at the ACM National Conference, in which he coined the term "hypertext".[10]

Nelson co-founded Itty bitty machine company, or "ibm", which was a small computer retail store operating from 1977 to 1980 in Evanston, Illinois. The Itty bitty machine company was one of the few retail stores to sell the original Apple I computer. In 1978 he had a significant impact upon IBM's thinking when he outlined his vision of the potential of personal computing to the team that three years later launched the IBM PC.[11]


Nelson is currently working on a new information structure, ZigZag,[12] which is described on the Xanadu project website, which also hosts two versions of the Xanadu code. He also developed XanaduSpace, a system for the exploration of connected parallel documents (an early version of this software may be freely downloaded).[13]

Influence and recognition

In January 1988 BYTE computer journal published an article about Nelson's ideas, titled "Managing Immense Storage". This stimulated discussions within the computer industry, and encouraged people to experiment with Hypertext features.

In 1998, at the Seventh WWW Conference in Brisbane, Australia, Nelson was awarded the Yuri Rubinsky Memorial Award.

In 2001 he was knighted by France as "Officier des Arts et Lettres". In 2004 he was appointed as a Fellow of Wadham College, Oxford, and associated with the Oxford Internet Institute, where he was a visiting fellow from 2004 through 2006.[14] In 2007 he celebrated his 70th birthday by giving an invited lecture at the University of Southampton.[15] In 2014 ACM SIGCHI honored him with a Special Recognition Award.[16]


  • “A user interface should be so simple that a beginner in an emergency can understand it within ten seconds.”
  • “We should not impose regularity where it does not exist.”[17]
  • “I hope, that in our archives and historical filings of the future, we do not allow the techie traditions of hierarchy and false regularity to be superimposed to the teeming, fantastic disorderlyness of human life.”[17]
  • “The World Wide Web was precisely what we were trying to PREVENT— ever-breaking links, links going outward only, quotes you can't follow to their origins, no version management, no rights management.”[18]


Nelson is credited with coining several new words that have come into common usage especially in the world of computing. Among them are:


Many of his books are published through his own company, Mindful Press.[20]

  • Life, Love, College, etc. (1959)
  • Computer Lib: You can and must understand computers now / Dream Machines: New freedoms through computer screens—a minority report (1974), Microsoft Press, revised edition 1987: ISBN 0-914845-49-7[21]
  • The Home Computer Revolution (1977)
  • Literary Machines: The report on, and of, Project Xanadu concerning word processing, electronic publishing, hypertext, thinkertoys, tomorrow's intellectual revolution, and certain other topics including knowledge, education and freedom (1981), Mindful Press, Sausalito, California; publication dates as listed in the 93.1 (1993) edition: 1980–84, 1987, 1990–93
  • The Future of Information (1997)
  • A Cosmology for a Different Computer Universe: Data Model, Mechanisms, Virtual Machine and Visualization Infrastructure. Journal of Digital Information, Volume 5 Issue 1. Article No. 298, July 16, 2004
  • Geeks Bearing Gifts: How The Computer World Got This Way (2008; Chapter summaries)
  • POSSIPLEX: Movies, Intellect, Creative Control, My Computer Life and the Fight for Civilization (2010), autobiography, published by Mindful Press via Lulu[22][23]


  1. ^ John Leland (July 2, 2011). "Love and Inheritance: A Family Feud". The New York Times. Retrieved July 3, 2011. 
  2. ^ "Internet Pioneers: Ted Nelson". Ibiblio. Retrieved July 3, 2011. 
  3. ^ Ted Nelson (1959). "The Epiphany of Slocum Furlow". Student film available on YouTube. Retrieved November 2, 2013. 
  4. ^ Gary Wolf (June 1995). "The Curse of Xanadu". Wired magazine. Retrieved July 3, 2011. 
  5. ^ "What they say". Retrieved 2011-05-26. 
  6. ^ """Letters about "The Curse of Xanadu. 2009-01-04. Retrieved 2011-05-26. 
  7. ^ "Errors in "The Curse of Xanadu," by Gary Wolf". 2010. Retrieved May 25, 2011. Errors in 'The Curse of Xanadu', by Gary Wolf 
  8. ^ Ted Nelson (1999). "Ted Nelson's Computer Paradigm Expressed as One-Liners". Retrieved July 3, 2011. 
  9. ^ Jaron Lanier, Who Owns the Future, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013. p. 227
  10. ^ Rettberg, Jill Walker. "Complex Information Processing: A File Structure for the Complex, the Changing, and the Indeterminate". Electronic Literature as a Model of Creativity and Innovation in Practice. 
  11. ^ John Markoff (December 11, 2007). "When Big Blue Got a Glimpse of the Future". Retrieved July 3, 2011. 
  12. ^ Ted Nelson. "ZigZag and Its Structure". Retrieved 2011-05-26. 
  13. ^ Ted Nelson (June 25, 2007). "XanaduSpace". Retrieved July 3, 2011. 
  14. ^ "Dr Ted Nelson: Former Fellow". Oxford Internet Institute. Retrieved July 3, 2011. 
  15. ^ 70th Birthday Lecture: Intertwingularity: where ideas collide on YouTube
  16. ^ ACM SIGCHI 2014 awards page
  17. ^ a b "Ted Nelson on Zigzag data structures‏". YouTube. September 6, 2008. Retrieved July 3, 2011. 
  18. ^ "Ted Nelson's Home Page". Ted Nelson, November 17, 1998. Retrieved April 16, 2013. 
  19. ^ Stuart Moulthrop (May 1991). "You Say You Want a Revolution? Hypertext and the Laws of Media". Postmodern Culture (The Johns Hopkins University Press).  
  20. ^ Mindful Press
  21. ^ L. R. Shannon (February 16, 1988). "Peripherals: A Book That Grew Up". New York Times. Retrieved July 3, 2011. 
  22. ^ "Ted Nelson Possiplex book launch at The Tech Museum – Eventbrite". The Tech Museum San Jose. October 6, 2010. Retrieved July 3, 2011. 
  23. ^ "Ted Nelson Speaks About Possiplex". The San Francisco Chronicle. October 8, 2010. Retrieved July 3, 2011. 

External links

  • Ted Nelson's homepage
  • Ted Nelson's homepage at
  • Ted Nelson at DMOZ
  • Detailed Ted Nelson bibliography
  • Xanadu project webpage
  • Transliterature – A Humanist Design
  • The Magical Place of Literary Memory: Xanadu in Screening the Past, July 2005 by Belinda Barnet.
  • Ted Nelson and Xanadu, in The Electronic Labyrinth, 1993.
  • Orality and Hypertext at the Wayback Machine (archived October 9, 2004): An Interview with Ted Nelson, 1999.
  • Way Out Of The Box , by Theodor Nelson, October 8, 1999.
  • Software and Media for a New Democracy a talk given by Ted Nelson at the File festival Symposium/November/2005.
  • Wired article, recalling interview with Nelson, August 2005.
  • The Politics Of Internet Software 'Geeks Bearing Gifts', a talk given by Ted at the Oxford Internet Institute, November 30, 2005.
  • Transclusion: Fixing Electronic Literature on YouTube, a talk given by Ted at Google, January 29, 2007.
  • Ted Nelson Possiplex Internet Archive book reading video, October 8, 2010.
  • Ted Nelson original interview footage from PBS's Machine That Changed the World, 1990.
  • Video excerpts of a dinner at Howard Rheingold's home with Doug Englebart and Ted Nelson, August 18, 2010.
  • Ted Nelson interviewed on the TV show Triangulation on the network, August 18, 2014.
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