Ted Nelson

For other people named Ted Nelson, see Ted Nelson (disambiguation).
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 "Ted" 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.[1] Nelson coined the terms transclusion,[1] virtuality, and intertwingularity (in Literary Machines).

Early life and education

Nelson is the son of Emmy Award-winning director Ralph Nelson and the Academy Award-winning actress Celeste Holm.[2] His parents' marriage was brief and he was mostly raised by his grandparents, first in Chicago and later in Greenwich Village.[3]

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.[4] 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.

Nelson is an atheist.[5]

Project Xanadu

Main article: 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".[6] On his own website, Nelson expressed his disgust with the criticisms, referring to Wolf as "Gory Jackal", and threatened to sue him.[7] He also outlined his objections in a letter to Wired,[8] and released a detailed rebuttal of the article.[9]

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.[10]

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.[11]

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".[1]

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.[12]


Main article: ZigZag (software)

As of 2011, Nelson was working on a new information structure, ZigZag,[13] 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).[14]

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.[15] In 2007 he celebrated his 70th birthday by giving an invited lecture at the University of Southampton.[16] In 2014 ACM SIGCHI honored him with a Special Recognition Award.[17]


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.[19]


  1. 1 2 3 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.
  2. John Leland (July 2, 2011). "Love and Inheritance: A Family Feud". The New York Times. Retrieved July 3, 2011.
  3. "Internet Pioneers: Ted Nelson". Ibiblio. Retrieved July 3, 2011.
  4. Ted Nelson (1959). "The Epiphany of Slocum Furlow". Student film available on YouTube. Retrieved November 2, 2013.
  5. "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." Warren Allen Smith, Celebrities in Hell, pages 88-89.
  6. Gary Wolf (June 1995). "The Curse of Xanadu". Wired magazine. Retrieved July 3, 2011.
  7. "What they say". Ted.hyperland.com. Retrieved 2011-05-26.
  8. "Letters about "The Curse of Xanadu"". Wired.com. 2009-01-04. Retrieved 2011-05-26.
  9. "Errors in "The Curse of Xanadu," by Gary Wolf". vinci.org. 2010. Retrieved May 25, 2011. Errors in 'The Curse of Xanadu', by Gary Wolf
  10. Ted Nelson (1999). "Ted Nelson's Computer Paradigm Expressed as One-Liners". Retrieved July 3, 2011.
  11. Jaron Lanier, Who Owns the Future, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013. p. 227
  12. John Markoff (December 11, 2007). "When Big Blue Got a Glimpse of the Future". Bits.blogs.nytimes.com. Retrieved July 3, 2011.
  13. Ted Nelson. "ZigZag and Its Structure". Xanadu.com. Retrieved 2011-05-26.
  14. Ted Nelson (June 25, 2007). "XanaduSpace". Xanarama.net. Retrieved July 3, 2011.
  15. "Dr Ted Nelson: Former Fellow". Oxford Internet Institute. Retrieved July 3, 2011.
  16. 70th Birthday Lecture: Intertwingularity: where ideas collide on YouTube
  17. ACM SIGCHI 2014 awards page
  18. Stuart Moulthrop (May 1991). "You Say You Want a Revolution? Hypertext and the Laws of Media". Postmodern Culture. The Johns Hopkins University Press. doi:10.1353/pmc.1991.0019. Retrieved July 3, 2011.
  19. Mindful Press
  20. L. R. Shannon (February 16, 1988). "Peripherals: A Book That Grew Up". New York Times. Retrieved July 3, 2011.
  21. "Ted Nelson Possiplex book launch at The Tech Museum – Eventbrite". The Tech Museum San Jose. October 6, 2010. Retrieved July 3, 2011.
  22. "Ted Nelson Speaks About Possiplex". The San Francisco Chronicle. October 8, 2010. Retrieved July 3, 2011.
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