The Lowly Hyperlink

Did you ever think about online links, and how dependent we are on them? We don’t really think about it much, but we all link dozens or maybe even hundreds of times a day. (In fact, you just clicked on a link to get to this article.)

We call them links, but the correct term is hyperlink. I recently landed on a CBSNews article from 2002 where British Telecommunications PLC wanted to enforce their 1976 patent on hyperlinks and was suing a U.S. internet service provider named Prodigy Communications Corp. The article doesn’t say how much money was at stake, but states that BT wanted to get paid every time someone clicked on a link. I’m pretty sure BT lost that one because we all click numerous times a day without any fees.

All this made me go back and check on the history of hyperlinks. Apparently the concept goes way back to 1945 and was originally conceived as a way to link one piece of microfilm to another, so you could have a thread of related microfilm information that you could follow.

I don’t know that the microfilm linking but was ever developed, but I do remember seeing a demonstration of HyperCard, a database system for Apple Macintosh computers whereby you could click on a link to go from one piece of data to another. At the time—late 1980s—I didn’t see the real value of it, but when the World Wide Web came about in the early 1990s, their usefulness became quite apparent.

So we click here, click there, as something very natural. Someday we’ll look back at how revolutionary that little linking thing was.

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