Photo Gallery The Forgotten Visionary

Belgian lawyer and librarian Paul Otlet dreamed of a "mechanical, collective brain," and started a gigantic paper search machine. Otlet's attempt at creating a global nexus of information, started at the beginning of the 20th century, is considered a precursor to the Internet.
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Belgian lawyer and librarian Paul Otlet dreamed of a "mechanical, collective brain," and started a gigantic paper search machine using card catalogues like this one. Otlet's archive system includes millions of filing cards dating from 1895 until the end of 1930.

Foto: Archiv Mundaneum, Mons
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Otlet, pictured here in 1932, is a forgotten pioneer of technology. In 1895, he started working with fellow Belgian and later Nobel Peace Prize winner Henri La Fontaine on creating a giant catalogue of information. It was later called the Mundaneum.

Foto: Archiv Mundaneum, Mons
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Otlet standing in front of his drawers of index cards. Millions of index cards were the heart of the Mundaneum. They cross-referenced the content of books by theme, region and key words.

Foto: Archiv Mundaneum, Mons
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Otlet designed specialized furniture to house his cards. About 16 million of the index cards in the collection are still available today.

Foto: Archiv Mundaneum, Mons
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The gigantic cataloguing system was in use through the 1920s. The Mundaneum received up to 1,500 requests for information per year, sent in by letter or telegram.

Foto: Archiv Mundaneum, Mons
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The answers had to be searched for by hand, and that could take weeks. The index card system was developed in 1903 by Otlet, seen here in the same year.

Foto: Archiv Mundandeum, Mons
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Otlet dreamed of a universal network that would allow the dissemination of knowledge without limits.

Foto: Archiv Mundaneum, Mons
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He also worked on paperless ways in which information could be transmitted, such as "radio telephotography," or a form of transmitting pictures by radio.

Foto: Archiv Mundaneum, Mons
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A group visits the Mundaneum, presumably in 1927. Conceived by Otlet and Henri La Fontaine, the Mundaneum opened its doors in 1920. It was part museum, part meeting spot for scientists and researchers, and part archive. The project had to close in 1934 after Belgian politicians lost interest.

Foto: Archiv Mundaneum, Mons
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In the 1940s, Nazi occupiers in Belgium dissolved the collection. In 1968, US researcher W. Boyd Rayward discovered parts of the collection and worked on restoring it until the Mundaneum opened again in 1998. It is now located in the Belgian city of Mons.

Foto: Frédéric Raevens
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