Digital Environments: CW1 - Andru Dunn

Ted Nelson Biography


Ted (Theodore Holm) Nelson was a pioneer of information technology and the main focus of his work was to make computers more widely accessible. He is quite a controversial figure in the computing world as he is very thought-driven, but however spectacular the idea, he never saw them through as projects. He often repeats his four maxims by which he leads his life: "most people are fools, most authority is malignant, God does not exist, and everything is wrong." (Wolf, 1995)

Ted was born in New York in 1937 and raised by his grandparents. His mother was an actor and his father was a film director, of which neither had much contact with him. As a child he also suffered from ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) to which may reflect the fact his projects as an adult were never followed through.


Ted attended Swarthmore College and read philosophy. Upon graduation he went on to go to Harvard where he acquired a masters in Sociology.  At the Harvard Graduate School he worked on a word processor style system that linked documents nonlinearly, by association. This system suggests a link to the frenetic style of though patterns Ted had due to his ADD.

In 1960, Ted developed an idea/project – Xanadu. This project was to create a computer network with a simple user interface. The project did not amount to anything of real substance and was deemed more a failed idea in the computer world. Especially after a very antagonistic article was published in Wired magazine in 1995 by Gary Wolf. This controversial article brought a lot of attention to both Nelson and Wolf, and also Xanadu. Much of the development of Xanadu is in Nelson’s book ‘Computer Lib/Dream Machines’ (1974).

Ted was a co-founder of ‘Itty Bitty Machine Company’ – IBM. This started out as a small retail computing store in Illinois, 1977. They were one of the first distributors of the original Apple I computer. Nelson had such an impact upon the workings of IBM that his ideas on the potential personal computers could have in the computing market, IBM led on to create the IBM PC three years later.

In 2002, Ted achieved a doctorate in Media and Governance at a prestigious Japanese University, Keio University.

From 2004 to the present day, Ted is based at Oxford University as a Fellow of Wadham College. He is currently undertaking research associated with the Oxford Internet Institute.

Gary Wolf (1995) -
Picture courtesy of YouTube