What is Memex: Complete Explanation

The Memex was a conceptual system created by Vannevar Bush for storing data and retrieving it in an easy and organized manner. The system was to provide easy access to the large amount of knowledge that was already recorded. Building on the technology of his time, Bush described a new kind of device which was a sort of mechanized file and library system. He called it a “memex.” The word memex came from combining portions of the words (mem)ory and (ex)tender. 

Memex was the intended solution for individuals to navigate through massive amounts of information and documents while also adding new information through an orderly and organized system. However, there was never even a prototype constructed for the device. Even though Memex was never actually built, the concept was used as a guideline in the process of creating our modern-day internet. The device theoretically had a keyboard, viewing screens, and microfilm storage to hold information. The Memex was an inspiration to Douglas Engelbart, Ted Nelson, and several other individuals who helped develop hypertext and other aspects of what is on the Web today.

Memex: An Exact Definition

Vannevar Bush described a specific definition of the memex, and what the prototype would potentially look like in the article published in 1945 titled, As We May Think. The primary feature of the memex was the process of tying two items together so that the user can build trails as he types it out on the keyboard. The two items that are to be joined are projected onto adjacent viewing positions. At the bottom of each, there were several blank code spaces and a pointer was set to indicate one of these on each item. 

The user then tapped a single key, and the items were then permanently joined. Thereafter, any time one of these items was in view, the other could be instantly recalled merely by tapping a button below the corresponding code space. When the user made an entry, such as a new manuscript or image, he was expected to index and describe it in a personal codebook. Later on, the user could retrace generated entries by consulting his codebook.  

How Does Memex Work?

The device consists of a desk, and while it can presumably be operated from a distance, it is primarily the piece of furniture at which an individual works. On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There are a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers. Otherwise, it looks like an ordinary desk. (See the lower illustration.)

The letters for rods
The original illustration of the Memex from the Life reprint of “As We May Think”

With what Vannevar Bush called associative indexing, users would be able to quickly search through large amounts of information. Bush envisioned using the technology of his current day to bring this all seamlessly together. Slanted screens would magnify the microfilm that operated within the desk. There was also a mechanism that would automatically photograph letters, notes, and pictures.

All of the documents used in the memex would be stored in the form of microfilm copies and new information transferred to microfilm by the machine itself. Memex would also use new retrieval techniques based on a new kind of associative indexing. The basic idea included a provision whereby any item may be caused at will to select immediately and automatically another to create personal trails through linked documents. These new procedures that Bush anticipated facilitating information storage and retrieval would lead to the development of completely new forms of the encyclopedia.

The most important aspect conceived by Bush and considered close to the modern hypertext system is the associative trail. It would be a way to create a new linear sequence of microfilm frames across any arbitrary sequence of microfilm frames by creating a chained sequence of links in the way just described, along with personal comments and side trails.

How Do You Create Memex?

Creating a memex would begin with understanding and building the physical desk as pictured above. The inside would include the microfilm and other mechanical devices that would enable the user to look up as well as record information. The outside of the desk would include slanted computer screens and a keyboard for retrieving and typing in information.

Just as Bush updated his concept through the years as technology advanced, the actual desk and the material and devices in it would need updating on a regular basis to stay current. In his article, As We May Think, Bush explained how machines with a variety of interchangeable parts are now able to be constructed.

Who Created Memex?

Vannevar Bush on the cover of Life magazine, September, 1945
Vannevar Bush on the cover of Life magazine, September, 1945

Vannevar Bush (1890-1974) was an American engineer, policymaker, and science administrator. He was known primarily for his work on analog computing and his political role in the development of the atomic bomb.

Bush wrote the article titled As We May Think, which was published in the July 1945 issue of the magazine The Atlantic Monthly. In this article, Bush gave a specific definition of a theoretical proto-hypertext system, which was an electromechanical device called the memex. This has since influenced the development of subsequent hypertext and intellect augmenting computer systems.

Bush was inspired to fill a need, following those such as Paul Otlet, Herbert Wells, and Emanuel Goldberg who were similarly inspired. Bush had come to believe that our methods for transmitting and reviewing the results of the research were no longer adequate. As the scientific specialization needed for progress increased, he was overwhelmed by the findings and conclusions of thousands of other individuals. He could not find the time to study, or even remember, all of this information. It seemed to him that the publication of information had extended beyond our present ability to make real use of the record.

In his view, as an engineer and scientist, the answer was to be found in harnessing technology to provide a sophisticated mechanical solution to the problem. Bush’s idea should be viewed from the historical perspective of microfilm technology developed prior to 1945. Bush had been involved in the development of this technology and directed the creation of a photoelectronic microfilm rapid selector at MIT from 1938 to 1940.

In 1965 Bush took part in the project INTREX of MIT, for developing technology for mechanizing the processing of information for library use. In his 1967 essay titled, “Memex Revisited,” he pointed out that the development of the digital computer, the transistor, the video, and other similar devices had heightened the feasibility of such mechanization, but costs would delay its achievements.

Ted Nelson, who later did pioneering work with the first practical hypertext, dubbed the word “hypertext” and gave credit to Bush as his primary influence. Other individuals such as Engelbart and Licklider have also paid tribute to Bush. Our modern internet and the use of searching online are both testimonies to the foresight of Vannevar Bush.

Bush was considered a top-notch engineer and he envisioned the memex using contemporary technology. As everything in technology from software to hard drive capabilities changed and improved, Bush continued to update the Memex. He did this in 1959 and in 1967.

What Are the Applications of Memex?

A memex is a device in which an individual can store books, records, and various communications. The device is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. The uses for it would be very similar to how our modern internet works. The internet, just as Bush envisioned the memex, stores information, links and connects various information, and then enables users to quickly retrieve the information.

One specific example of how this concept has actually been put to practical use is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). DARPA is a government agency that oversees a variety of research and development programs. The DARPA started what they specifically called the memex project. The goal is to improve methods for sharing and interacting with information. 

Specific benefits of the program would include the development of advanced search technologies, the creation of a new search paradigm, and the extension of current searching capabilities for nontraditional and deep web content. They also hope to improve interfaces for government, military, and commercial enterprises to find and organize information found on the internet.

Other examples of implementing memex include the MyLifeBits project by Microsoft. Carnegie-Mellon started what was called Experience on Demand, and Yale University had the Lifestreams project. Each of these projects involved trying to save and store certain memories that could be retrieved later. None, however, were ever commercially developed. 

These are just a few examples of the far-reaching impact of the memex. Besides influencing contemporary software tools, the memex inspired countless books and articles. There was also the 50-year anniversary conference titled “Memex and Beyond” that took place in 1995 at MIT. Computer scientists gathered at this event to discuss the impact that the memex had on computer technology, the internet, and software development.

Examples of Memex In the Real World

While the Memex itself was never officially developed or even had a prototype, there are several examples of real-world technology related to the concept of the memex. The following are a few of these examples.

Hypertext

The basic definition of hypertext is that it’s a type of software system that links related graphics and information. One of the key aspects of the memex was linking information through building trails. Our current hypertext system that was influenced by memex is connected by hyperlinks.

Interfaces

Interfaces are shared boundaries where two or more components can exchange different types of information. This exchange can occur between different elements such as hardware, software, peripheral devices, and even humans. This exchange of information and ideas was first conceptualized by the memex.

Touch Screens

A touch panel is usually layered over some type of processing system such as a phone or laptop computer. Bush envisioned touchscreens as part of the outer part of the desk. His design specifically included two touchscreen monitors that an individual could use with a pen.

Retrieval Methods

Current retrieval methods that occur on computers and throughout the internet are related to what Vannevar Bush explained in the article, “As We May Think.” He had proposed building a memory extender that would help people find information when searching through the ever-growing amount of knowledge and research.

Smartphone Cameras

Even our modern smartphone cameras can be seen in the genius of Bush and his memex. Part of what he designed included a camera that would be strapped around a person’s forehead so that pictures could be taken and then “uploaded” into the memex.

Memex Explained: Everything You Need to Know FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

What was Memex?

The memex was a hypothetical automated information system. It was an electromechanical device built into a desk that would help people quickly and efficiently retrieve information.

Was the Memex real?

No, the memex was a hypothetical concept. As incredible as the machine was, Bush was never able to even get a prototype started.

Who created the idea of the Memex?

Vannevar Bush invented the concept that was known as the memex.

What article was the Memex in?

The memex was in the article “As We May Think.” This was published in the Atlantic in July 1945.

How did the Memex work?

The memex included a keyboard, screen, voice recorder, and document scanner that were all built into a desk for recording information. Data was assigned an identification number and then stored on microfilm. Trail codes or tags would link different information into categories.

Why is the Memex important?

The memex was instrumental in the early development of hypertext and also influenced the eventual creation of the internet. Even though the device was never actually created, it helped develop and influence the very definition of what we now know as modern software and internet research.

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