Nelson, Ted

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Ted Nelson is known for creating the term "hypertext." Although his Xanadu software project, conceived in the 1960s, had not yet come to fruition by the turn of the century, Nelson's ideas for developing an information handling system that would allow for a highly complex level of linked data had a profound impact on programmers throughout the personal computer (PC) and Internet revolutions.

Nelson earned his undergraduate degree in philosophy from Swarthmore College and launched his graduate studies in sociology at Harvard in 1960. While taking a course on computers for the humanities, he began using the Assembler computer language in an attempt to develop a text management system that would allow users to manipulate their work in a variety of ways. Nelson envisioned a system complete with saving, editing, and printing capabilities. Although his early efforts to create what is now known as a word processing application failed, Nelson continued working to flesh out his abstract ideas. He completed his master of arts degree in 1963. Two years later, he presented a paper at the Association of Computing Machinery annual convention, where he first made public his vision of hypertext.

In 1974, Nelson published Dream Machines, in which he described his vision of a software system that would use hypertext technology to link all kinds of information in highly sophisticated ways. The software project eventually became known as Xanadu, and more than 50,000 copies of Dream Machines were sold, mainly to computer programmers who embraced Nelson's belief that computer technology was going to change the way the world communicated. According to Gary Wolf in The Curse of Xanadu, "Nelson's writing and presentations inspired some of the most visionary computer programmers, managers, and executivesincluding Autodesk Inc. founder John Walkerto pour millions of dollars and years of effort into the project. Xanadu was meant to be a universal library, a worldwide hypertext publishing tool, a system to resolve copyright disputes, and a meritocratic forum for discussion and debate. By putting all information within reach of all people, Xanadu was meant to eliminate scientific ignorance and cure political misunderstandings."

Nelson spent the latter half of the decade working for publisher Harcourt, Brace as a computer technology advisor. He persuaded a few colleagues to invest in the Xanadu project and hired programmer Cal Daniels from Minicomputer Systems Inc. to develop a rudimentary Xanadu program to run on a Nova computer he was renting. Before Daniels was able to display his work to additional investors, however, Nelson ran out of money and could no longer afford to rent the Nova. In 1974, he published Computer Lib, an eccentric compiling of statistics, lists, quotations, and thoughts with no table of contents or index to help readers locate specific passages. The book was republished by Microsoft Press through 1987.

Programmer Roger Gregory and Yale University student Mark Miller joined Nelson in Pennsylvania in the summer of 1979 to work on developing code for Xanadu. At first, they used a Sol 20 machine, and later upgraded to an Onyx with a 10MB hard drive. Nelson published Literary Machines, which housed a detailed explanation of hypertext, in 1981. During the early 1980s, it was Gregory who spent most of his time working on Xanadu, while Miller and Nelson ended up in San Antonio, Texas, working for networking technology powerhouse Datapoint. In 1982, Gregory became the fist individual without institutional backing to purchase a Sun computer, which cost $26,000. The machine was the first one truly capable of handling the code he was writing for Xanadu.

When Datapoint dissolved in the midst of a financial scandal, Nelson again found himself low on cash and work on Xanadu ground to a near halt. The project caught the attention of John Walker, founder of Autodesk, in 1987. Walker, who had parlayed his $15,000 computer-aided design startup into the $54 million maker of AutoCAD software, believed that Nelson's ideas were worth pursuing. Consequently, he helped to found the Xanadu Operating Co. in 1988. After a period of intense negotiations, Walker ended up owning 80 percent of the new firm, while Nelson retained rights to the Xanadu name and to any publishing system that might result from the alliance.

Autodesk's plans to complete work on Xanadu by the end of 1989 never materialized, and Autodesk eventually sold its stake in Xanadu Operating Co. Nelson attempted to regain managerial control of the project, but was blocked by programmers who felt his eccentricities would hinder progress. By the mid-1990s, after several battles for control of the project, all work on Xanadu had ceased. Nelson moved to Japan and took a position as visiting professor of environmental information at Keio University. He views the World Wide Web as a simplistic version of his vision of the capabilities of hypertext and believes that, one day, some form of the Xanadu project will be completed.


Keep, Christopher, McLaughlin, Tim, and Robin Parmar. "Ted Nelson and Xanadu." 2000. Available from

Wolf, Gary. "The Curse of Xanadu." Wired. June 1995. Available from

SEE ALSO: HTML; World Wide Web (WWW)