1895 - 2013

The origins of the Internet in Europe


Collecting, indexing & sharing knowledge 
Mundaneum / 05.02.2013

Brussels, Belgium, Europe, 1895: two men shared a dream of « indexing and classifying the world’s information ». Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine’s work foreshadowed the network of knowledge that a century later became the Internet with its search engines!

Otlet and La Fontaine aimed to preserve peace by assembling knowledge and making it accessible to the entire world. They built an international documentation center called Mundaneum. They invented the modern library Universal Decimal Classification system. La Fontaine won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1913. 

By 1935, their Mundaneum grew to a staggering 16 million cards covering subjects ranging from the history of hunting dogs to finance!

World War II and the death of both founders slowed down the project. Although many Mundaneum archives were stored away, some even in the Brussels subway, volunteers kept the dream alive. The French community government of Belgium brought most of the archives to a beautiful Art Deco building in the heart of Mons near Brussels.

Paul Otlet (1868-1944), father of Documentation

Paul Otlet was a Belgian author, entrepreneur, visionary, lawyer and peace activist. He is considered as one of the fathers of information science, a field he called “Documentation“. The World Science Festival 2012 in New York recognized him as ”the father of the idea of Internet".

Paul Otlet wrote numerous essays on how to collect and organize the world's knowledge, culminating in two books, the “Traité de Documentation” (1934) and “Monde: Essai d'universalisme” (1935).

Henri La Fontaine was a Belgian lawyer. He promoted a vision of peace stemming from the global diffusion of information.

Henri La Fontaine (1854-1943), Nobel Peace Prize in 1913
Henri La Fontaine's Peace Nobel Prize (1913)
Both men's life project consisted of collecting... 
... and spreading knowledge in order to promote a peaceful society by sharing knowledge!

“Historians typically trace the origins of the World Wide Web” through a lineage of Anglo-American inventors like Vannevar Bush, Doug Engelbart and Ted Nelson. But more than half a century before Tim Berners-Lee released the first Web browser in 1991, Otlet described a networked world where “anyone in his armchair would be able to contemplate the whole of creation.” Alex Wright (New-York Times, 2008)

The first biographer of Paul Otlet was an Australian student whose name was Boyd Rayward (University of Illinois). He re-discovered Otlet and the Mundaneum in Brussels in the 1960's. 

The New York Times journalist Alex Wright wrote about the Mundaneum “The Web time forgot” in June 2008.

Everything began in 1895 when Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine created the International Bibliography Office in Brussels (Belgium). Both men appear in the front row on the left side.
The publishing of the Universal Decimal Classification (1905)
and the promotion of a brand new tool: the Universal Bibliographic Repertory was the world’s first search engine!
The Mundaneum’s Universal Bibliographic Repertory in Brussels was supposed to answer any question about any subject.

It started with two basic questions: What works have been written by an author? / What has been written on a subject? No restrictions were placed on the time, location, or language of the document.

The Repertory today as you can see it in Mons, Belgium
A  new idea emerges in the early 1900's: The concept of Documentation

Paul Otlet comes to the conclusion that knowledge is spread around the world. He starts to collect sources of information... 

"The documentation and its parts"
According to Paul Otlet: images can be considered as knowledge as well as books. This statement leads him to create the International Institute of Photography.
Newspapers are considered a source of knowledge: Otlet creates the International Newspaper Museum but also...
... The Universal Repertory of Documentation
A series of different collections are created in order to index different kinds of documents.
Une méthode universelle destinée à indexer la connaissance

A universal method aiming at indexing and organizing knowledge is created: The Universal Decimal Classification

The UDC is a numbering system based on the Decimal Classification of American librarian Melvil Dewey. After several additional developments, libraries around the world adopt it. 

“By means of the collaboration of huge numbers of specialists throughout the world, the classification has continued to reflect the technological and scientific advances in all fields of knowledge. It is still being maintained, and versions in several languages continue to be published.”

(“Mundaneum: Archives of knowledge”, translated and adapted by W.Boyd Rayward (University of Illinois)

“The Semantic Web is rather Otlet-ish” 

Michael Buckland, professeur at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley

Human knowledge was divided into 10 classes and each class was divided into 10 groups, each group included 10 divisions and each division 10 subdivisions,...
The "document transtélévisé" by Paul Otlet (1920): Laying the foundations of the Internet 

« Books no longer burden the desktop. A screen, with a telephone, replaces them. Far away, an immense building contains every book and every piece of information. Questions are asked by telephone, and the page providing the answer is made to appear on the screen to be read. »


Paul Otlet, "Traité de documentation", 1934

Paul Otlet imagined the videoconference in the 1920's

Throughout his life, Paul Otlet kept thinking about the most efficient way to pass on knowledge: he worked on thousands of plans and ideas with some engineers of his time. Take a look at these “prototypes” and you will understand why he was so far ahead of his time!

Transmedia approach...
Conference call!

In 1913, Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine welcomed the famous american pacifist steel investor Andrew Carnegie for a visit of a museum of a brand new kind : the “Palais Mondial-Mundaneum” in Brussels...

“ This way, a moving image of the world will be established, a true mirror of its memory. From a distance, everyone will be able to read text, enlarged and limited to the desired subject, projected on an individual screen. This way, everyone will be able to contemplate creation, as a whole or in certain of its parts, from their armchair.”

Paul Otlet, “Monde”, 1935

Wired Magazine’s founding editor Kevin Kelly wrote about Paul Otlet:

Otlet outlined these grand visions of easily accessible knowledge and interconnected data many decades before Vannevar Bush and Ted Nelson first articulated them. And more importantly, he actually built an analog hypertext system.

Interview of Professor Boyd Rayward, biographer of Paul Otlet (University of Illinois)

“Was the internet invented in 1934? The scientist whose 'televised book' foretold the world wide web seven decades ago”

Daily Mail

The Mondothèque drawn by Paul Otlet in the 1920's
The Mondothèque built for the first time in the Mundaneum museum!

The Mondothèque: the laptop's ancestor!

“Paul Otlet designed the Mondothèque as a work station to be used at home to engage people in the production and dissemination of knowledge. It contained reference works, catalogues, multimedia substitutes for traditional books such as microfilms, TV, radio, and finally a new form of encyclopedia, the Encyclopedia Universalis Mundaneum.” 

Charles Vandenheuvel (Places & Spaces/Mapping science)

An international knowledge network aimed at universal understanding:

According to Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine, international harmony could be built on the foundations of intellectual cooperation. After the devastation of World War I from 1914-to 1918, both men believed working for intellectual cooperation would open up a global cultural dialogue that would eventually lead to a lasting peace...

"Le Pont mondial: L'union des continents par la plus grande civilisation universelle" Paul Otlet (1937)
Both men created the Union of International Associations (UAI), which foreshadowed the creation of international institutions we know today such as the United Nations and  the European Union.
"An International World Center" by the Norwegian architect Hendrik Andersen (1872-1940)

The idea of a World City took shape in the mind of Paul Otlet from 1910. The World City is an international centre entirely devoted to knowledge!

Otlet collaborated with a series of architects including Le Corbusier to build his pacifist project in bricks. Designs were envisioned for many cities, including Geneva, Brussels, and Antwerp... but none became a reality.

Paul Otlet poses behind a 3D model of what's meant to be the "World City"
The Mundaneum today: Preserving and highlighting a unique heritage of the last century
The Universal Bibliographic Repertory applies to be registered in Unesco's "Memory of the World" project
Today the Mundaneum is an international archives center and a museum located a few miles away from Brussels in the heart of Mons, European capital of culture in 2015. 
The collections of Mundaneum compose 3.7 miles of documents.
Les collections du Mundaneum: 6 kilomètres courant de documents
All types of documents are preserved: from newspapers to glass negatives. The memory of the early 20th century!

In this era of digital switchovers and Web 2.0, the awareness of new challenges related not only to organizing and sharing knowledge but also to citizenship is starting to emerge. The essence of the Mundaneum is such as it lends depth and perspective to this digital revolution, which we are observing from a privileged standpoint...

Credits: Story

Role — Cornille, Raphaèle, archivist in charge of Iconography department (Mundaneum) 
Role — Jenart, Delphine, assistant manager in charge of Communication (Mundaneum)

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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