Paul Otlet (1868-1944) was trained as a lawyer, but gave it up to begin a life-long fascination with what we today call information science.
In 1895, he and Henri La Fontaine (who later won the Nobel Peace Prize) started a collection of index cards, each of which cataloged distinct facts. In 1896, when the collection had reached 400,000 entries, Otlet set up a fee-based service to answer search queries by mail. Some scholars refer to this as an "analog search engine."
Otlet's vision soon outpaced the technology available at the time. Take a look at this remarkable video, which presents some of Otlet's ideas in his 1934 essay Traité de documentation.
(Paul Otlet video)
Science fiction authors were not far behind in popularizing this kind of idea. In 1946, Murray Leinster wrote about an amazing interconnected network in his story A Logic Named Joe:
You know the Logics set-up. You got a Logic in your house. I looks like a vision-receiver used to, only it's got keys instead of dials and you punch the keys for what you wanna get. It's hooked in to the Tank, which has the carson Circuit all fixed up with relays. Say you punch "Station SNAFU" on your Logic. Relays in the Tank take over an' whatever vision program SNAFU is telecastin' comes on your logic's screen. Or you punch "Sally Hancock's Phone" an' the screen blinks an' sputters an' you're hooked up with the Logic in her house an' if someone answers you got a vision-phone connection. But besides that, if you punch for the weather forecast or who won today's race at Hialea or who was mistress of the White House durin' Garfield's administration or what is PDQ and R sellin' for today, that comes on the screen too.
(Read more about the Carson circuit)
Thanks to Moira for pointing this video out.
Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 9/28/2008)