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Celebrating A Half-Century Of Hypertext

Among other things, Brown CS history is a treasure trove of stories, and sometimes even the sequence of events that led to a recent symposium is a tale worth telling.

As last year began, Marc Weber ‘84 had hypertext on the brain. The Computer History Museum (CHM) was planning a conference on pioneering inventor Douglas Engelbart, and in Marc’s role as the Curatorial Director of CHM’s Internet History Program, he knew about an effort by two alums to revive Brown’s late 1960s hypertext system, FRESS.

Steven DeRose ‘81 AM ‘86 PhD ‘89 had been the final director of the FRESS project, building its last binary from 82,000 lines of assembly source. David Durand ‘83 had been a FRESS user in high school due to a policy that gave access to the children of faculty members. In 1989, they created a FRESS demo for the ACM Hypertext Conference after building an emulator for its original vector graphics display. 

Marc asked Professor Andries “Andy” van Dam to revive the FRESS demo for CHM’s conference, but the emulator no longer worked, so Tyler Schicke ‘18 ScM ‘19 was pressed into service, working with David to create a new one. That’s where Norm Meyrowitz ‘81 enters our story. 

“Andy, in his classic ‘the more the merrier’ style,” Norm remembers, “thought I should try to revive Intermedia, Brown’s hypertext system from the late 1980s. We thought it had been lost due to a degraded disk, but someone had saved our demo copy.” And so he started buying up 30-year-old hardware: mice, displays, video cards, cables. 

“And it worked!” he says. “It got me thinking two things. The first was that we should find more of our old systems and create a symposium to celebrate Brown’s impact on the online universe, and the second was that I was about to create a lot of work for myself.”   

A symposium was born, and on May 23, Brown CS held A Half-Century of Hypertext to recognize Brown’s many contributions to the linked world. The event featured a half-dozen demos and almost thirty presenters, ranging in age from their early twenties to late eighties.

In the article here, our largest feature to date, we retrace the symposium’s chronology to provide a brief history of five decades of research with a lasting impact.