Sunday, March 30, 2008


The House of Cards

I'm in New Scientist with a piece on the Mundaneum, an early 20th century proto-Internet (or really, a proto-Wikipedia) where information was broken down into over 15 million index cards -- that's just a few of them in the picture above. In 1934, founder Paul Otlet envisioned users at multi-tasking telephone and TV equipped desks calling in information requests and commentary from around the world.

After being badly damaged in World War II, the Mundaneum wound up neglected in a former anatomy theater in Brussels; one of my interviewees recalled going up in a former cadaver elevator in 1968 and finding Otlet's office untouched 24 years after his death: "The building was freezing cold... Panes of glass were broken, and pigeons flew in. So the piles of books and documents were covered in these... layers. It was like an archeological dig."

Searching the history of index cards also led me to this odd incident:
Index cards used to be information technology's killer app... literally. In the US, for instance, the War Department struggled with mountains of haphazard medical files until the newly touted method of card filing was adopted in 1887. Hundreds of clerk transcribed personnel records dating back to the Revolutionary War. Housed in Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC - the scene of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination a generation earlier –the initiative succeeded a little too well. Six years into the project, the combined weight of 30 million index cards led to information overload: three floors of the theatre collapsed, crushing 22 clerks to death.

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