A history of enterprise search – starting out

by | Jul 27, 2017 | Search

Later this year I will be publishing a report that sets out a chronological history of enterprise search. The evolution is quite complicated and so I’m planning to publish a series of blog posts that set out a few of the milestone events and developments as a way of getting my research into some form of order and in addition perhaps prompting readers to comment and contribute. The functionality that is now encapsulated in enterprise search software has been in constant development since the early 1950s, with especially rapid evolution in the 1970s and 1980s with the availability of large-scale commercial online search services such as Lockheed Dialog, SDC Orbit, BRS and Mead Data Central (Lexis).

I started my career in search in 1975 and have had the good fortune to have met many of the early pioneers, notably Roger Summit, Charles Bourne, Carlos Cuadra, Jerry Rubin, Noel Isotta, David Raitt and Cyril Cleverdon. Whilst working in Cupertino in the early 1980s I also had the opportunity to meet research staff from Stanford Research Institute who had worked with Doug Engelbart. These and other pioneers will feature in future posts. Other personal milestones include working on the development of first UK enterprise software application in 1980 and in 1983-84 inadvertently playing a role in the establishment of OpenText a decade later.

Anyone writing a history of enterprise search is enormously indebted to Charles Bourne and Trudi Bellardo Hahn for their book A History of Online Information Services 1963-1976. Their book also provides a substantial amount of detail about enterprise search applications, though this term was not used at the time. Arguably the first ever enterprise/internal search service was set up in 1965 at the Cox Coronary Heart Institute in Kettering, Ohio by G Douglas Talbott. I would cite this as enterprise search because the application indexed content that the Institute was publishing in a quarterly internal publication. Another core source is Jeremy Norman’s History of Information web encyclopedia, which is helpfully can be browsed through chronologically. A series of interviews with the pioneers of the pre-internet online search services was published in the Searcher magazine and these are an invaluable source of primary information on these services.

Any history of enterprise search is intrinsically linked to the history of information retrieval, a term first used by Calvin Mooers in 1950. There have been many articles published on the history of information retrieval but by far the most readable is the chronology of information retrieval research written by Mark Sanderson and W Bruce Croft. I’ve always been intrigued that the URL id is 1066, and have often wondered if that was an accident or by design!

Subsequent posts will not be published at regular intervals, but they will all be linked back to preceding posts. The series will be a personal selection of history highlights and I will make no attempt at being ‘comprehensive’. It will be ‘A history’ and not ‘The history’. After all the Bourne and Hahn book runs to 500 pages and only covers the period up to 1976.  I hope that along the way you find people and events that are new to you and help put the current state of search into a developmental perspective. I am sure I will as well.

(A history of enterprise search 1948-1959 27 July)

(A history of enterprise search 1960-1969 7 August)

(A history of enterprise search 1970-1979 8 August)

Martin White