2013 – the 50th Anniversary of search

2013 marks the 50th Anniversary of real-time search. The story starts when Doug Engelbart began the Augmented Human Intellect Program at Stanford Research Institute, Menlo Park, California. In June 1962 Charlie Bourne, who had been a student of Engelbart’s at the University of California Berkeley in 1957, joined the AHI team. In 1963 Bourne started work on a project funded by US Air Force Electronic Systems Division to investigate remote online computer access to databases. The total funding was $39,000, which was quite a sizeable project in 1963. Bourne looked at a number of batch search applications, and working with programmer Len Chaitin implemented an online search application using a Q-32 computer developed by Systems Development Corporation based in Santa Monica. The Q-32 was one of the first computers to support online remote access and computer-to-computer communication.

Records of internal reports and other documents were either keyboarded or loaded onto paper-tape typewriters and then converted to magnetic tape for transfer to SDC. Each tape drive was able to store around 1500 three-page items. The data entry software developed by SRI supported tasks such as Insert, Delete, Move and copy and also had a spell checker and so was the forerunner of word processing software. The co-sponsor of the SRI and SDC projects was J.C.R.Licklider, widely regarded as one of the founders of both interactive computing and of Arpanet, the precursor of the Internet. The initial online experiments were conducted in June 1963 and developed rapidly during the course of the year. Towards the end of the year a CRT terminal was being used rather than a keyboard and printer.

Somewhat surprisingly the SRI involvement in online processing and retrieval was not continued after the initial project was completed at the end of 1963.  It was SDC that then started to build on this initial project and by 1964 was working with the Los Angeles Police Department on natural language processing of crime reports. This led to the development of TEXTIR (Text Indexing and Retrieval) in 1965 which provided users with text prompts about the options they had to refine the search and also provided search term weighting. These early projects developed into the large scale online information services such as DIALOG, MEDLARS and ORBIT in the late 1960s. The history of the development of the technology of these online services is described in great detail in A History of Online Information Services 1963-1976 by Charles Bourne and Trudi Bellardo Hahn, which I have used in preparing this blog post.

So why not come to Enterprise Search Europe 2013 in London next month and join the search community in recognising this golden anniversary?

Martin White