The hyphen text postcard
How a British lord accidentally invented the web
The origin of the World Wide Web is commonly associated with the scientific activities at CERN in the 1980s and ’90s. What few people do know, however, is that there briefly existed a transregional network a few centuries ago somewhere in Britain, which had remarkable similarities to the web as we know it today. Unfortunately, almost no testimonies were passed on about this piece of history, so over time it mostly fell into oblivion. I only know about this legend from hearsay as well, so I tried my best to recall it and to put it into writing for posterity.
Grafting in the library
The story1 takes place in the mid 17th century in southern Great Britain, more precisely in a county governed by a wealthy family that went by the name Learnersbee. Son and heir was Lord Timothy, an aristocratic but good-natured man in the prime of his life. Having ensured that all burdensome administrative tasks were taken care of by sedulous personnel, Timothy was free to spend his days to his own liking, namely to pursue his passion for learning and to satisfy his everlasting hunger for knowledge. He was not only the most well-read and universally erudite person far and wide at that time, he also had the heartfelt ambition to spread the spark of education among his fellow human beings, in particular to his poorer subjects.
The most comprehensive resource for knowledge back then was the infamous Great Encyclopædia Wicitannica. Only a handful of moneyed families, such as the Learnersbees, were able to afford all of its approximately eighteen thousand leather-bound volumes. The complete edition filled seven long aisles of bookshelves, covering all imaginable topics from “A” like aardvark (a peculiar anteater-like pig-kind-of animal) via “I” like “Ireland” (a then relatively new but also unpleasantly rebellious extension of the British empire), through to “Z” like Zygmund Freud (author of the morally controversial bestseller “The Amorous Adventures of Young Oedipus“).
As expected for the British establishment, Lord Timothy relished the comfort of a grave armchair and valued having a fresh cup of tea within arm’s reach above everything else. Such a lifestyle was not available for all to enjoy – least of all Timothy’s butler Isaac. While the Lord virtually never left his study room throughout the day, his butler constantly had to rush around between the endless bookshelves of the mansion’s private library. He was climbing up and down the creaking ladders, hastily gathering the books that the Lord wanted to browse through next. But as soon as Isaac had hauled a heavy pile of tomes over to the study room, Lord Timothy would send him back again with yet another list of titles to fetch.
That, day after day, was how the years went by at the Learnersbee villa – until early October 1659. It was a drizzly, murky and overall dull afternoon (like most afternoons in Britain) and Lord Timothy was just about to finish a cup of mediocre second flush Darjeeling tea. His butler Isaac had already left for the library an hour ago to search for a couple of Wicitannica volumes. Lord Timothy, who felt a bit uneasy that day anyway (not to mention the rather underwhelming beverage), eventually lost patience. He heaved himself up from his armchair and shuffled over to the library to see “what the bloody Deuce” was going on. Upon his arrival he found Isaac ensconced on a carpet with his back against the column of a bookshelf, snoring blissfully.
Lord Timothy wasn’t amused. Despite his exceptionally calm temperament and polite manners (even by British standards), he lost his composure for the fraction of a second. A twinge of sheer anger made him stamp his foot on the floor with such vigor that doors and windows trembled. Before Isaac had a chance to realise what was going on, a small wooden box from one of the upper shelves came loose and fell down, right onto the butler’s head. Its lid broke open and small slips of paper by the hundreds were scattered all over the ground. The then following occurrence was precisely recorded in Isaac’s journal: Lord Timothy appeared to be glued to the spot with his eyes staring stonily at the floor. Then, after a long-lasting and awkward moment, he suddenly screamed “Eureka!” – and burst away, back to his study room, where he locked himself in for 3 days in a row.
The hyphen text postcard
This odd incident in October 1659 is said to be the birth of a remarkable innovation, which soon thereafter became popular as the “hyphen text postcards”. Lord Timothy’s idea was technically groundbreaking and humanly honourable at the same time: he wanted to establish a public and open communication infrastructure in all of Learnersbeeshire that would allow everyone to freely exchange information and ideas – no matter where they lived, what social class they belonged to, how old they were, rich or poor, man or woman, weak or strong.
His invention was implemented county-wide within just a couple of months and can be best described as a postcard-based message exchange system. Centrepieces – and also widely recognisable symbols – were small, square-shaped kiosks, painted in glaring red, which were erected in the centre of every village. These kiosks had windows to all sides and were manned with a dispatcher during the daytime. Every citizen could just walk up to them in order to have a message recorded and sent out.2 The message itself was captured on the foreside of a small, roughly hand-sized piece of paper, along with some meta-information about sender and recipient. In order to save precious space on the card the notation followed a strictly standardised protocol, in which the different parts of the message were separated by hyphens (hence the term “hyphen text postcard”).
Whoever was about to leave town – be it by foot, on horseback, or in a carriage, from the poorest beggar to the Lord himself – was officially obligated to stop by the local kiosk beforehand and pick up a batch of postcards. The clue was that these were not sorted by their final destination but rather by the direction they were supposed to take. So if someone left town on an eastbound path, they would carry along all postcards that were designated to go somewhere in the East. Once the next village on the route was reached, the traveller would drop off the postcards at the respective kiosk, where they were looked through afresh and dispatched accordingly.
That way the messages gradually but steadily moved towards their eventual destination. And as there usually was brisk traffic between the villages throughout the day (except for Sundays of course) this routing procedure was both fast and reliable. Upon arrival at the target location the postcards were delivered to the recipients once or twice a day.3 The reponse was captured on the backside of the postcard and transmitted back via the same mechanism.
For all we know today, some hundred postcards were underway during peak times every day in all of Learnersbeeshire. The contents of the messages were as different as the people who posted them: a caring mother, who wanted to know whether her son had safely arrived after a day’s journey to a neighbouring village. A price-conscious farmer, who wanted to compare offers between various cattle traders in the greater region. A sick person, who wanted to seek advice from a remote doctor. In order to promote discoverability everyone was invited to register themselves in a public directory.4 It listed location, name and optionally a descriptive headword for each entry and was available for lookup at every kiosk.
It was a matter of honour for Lord Timothy to be registered from the very start. He advertised his private library, which, to his own surprise, people made excessive use of. Questions from all over the county arrived at the Learnersbee villa every day: curious kids wanted to know what there is behind the horizon, eager teachers asked about the latest developments in the Commonwealth, and self-taught healers wanted to learn about the effects of local herbs. Lord Timothy soon had to detail a savant whose sole responsibility was to research and answer the daily increasing volume of requests.
A political wind of change
The idea behind the hyphen text postcards was well ahead of its time and had the potential to be a societal game changer. Unfortunately, it didn’t even get a real chance to take off – it rather ended as aprupt as it had begun: Lord Timothy Learnersbee was dismissed in the light of the restoration of the Stuart monarchy in late 1660. Appointed successor and leader of the county thereupon was Lord Boris, Son of John II., an uncompromising traditionalist and ardent proponent of the monarchy, who didn’t find too much pleasure in the notion of an interconnected and independently thinking populace. Thus the hyphen text postcards were doomed to extinction shortly after their rise. Lord Timothy’s fate is unknown.
All in all, this brief chapter in the British history is not just interesting from a purely technical point of view. It is also an impressive example that shows how infrastructure and technology in its broadest sense can have a powerful impact on society for the good of all. At the same time, however, the course of the subsequent events exemplifies how the success of forward-looking political ideas is largely dependent on the whims of those who rule. (And that, for a change, not just in Britain.)
Just for the records: this entire story is made-up. Its purpose is to fictitiously explore what the web could have looked like a few centuries ago. ↩︎
Most people were illiterate at that time, so it was the dispatcher’s job to put the text on paper. ↩︎
Analogous to the writing, the dispatcher mostly had to read the messages aloud upon delivery. ↩︎
Changes and additions to the directory were broadcast to the other kiosks regularly, also via postcards. ↩︎