The evolution of enterprise search is quite complicated and poorly documented. In this report I have set out a few of the milestone events and developments. They are a personal selection of history highlights and I make no attempt at being ‘comprehensive’. It is ‘A history’ and not ‘The history’.
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 1976 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. Other personal milestones include working on the development of one of the early UK enterprise software applications (DECO) in 1981-1982 and in 1983-1984 inadvertently playing a role in the establishment of OpenText a decade later when I was involved with the conversion of the Oxford English Dictionary into a machine-readable format for editing and production.
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!
In 2019 Donna Harman published Information Retrieval: The Early Years, combining a very comprehensive bibliography of almost 300 research papers with her own experience of having been at the forefront of IR research. However, there are no specific references to enterprise search. The role of the Chemical Abstracts Service in advancing the use of computers in information retrieval through the commitment of James Perry, G. Malcolm Dyson and Pete Luhn is not mentioned at all.
I authored a profile of G. Malcolm Dyson for the RSC CICAG Newsletter published in late 2021. This focused on his work in the area of chemical information management. A more detailed biographical account of his life is in preparation.
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.
Another excellent source is a literature review entitled Cooperation, Convertibility, and Compatibility Among Information Systems: A Literature Review published in 1966 by the US Department of Commerce that considered the issues arising from a multiplicity of information systems even at that early stage of development. This review provides a very good outline of the development of computer-based information services dating back to the early 1950s as well as reflections on scientific communication in the widest sense from the founding of the Royal Society in London in 1660.
Stephen Robertson contributed a survey on Computer Retrieval as seen Through the Pages of Journal of Documentation to B.C. Vickery, Ed., Fifty years of information progress: a Journal of Documentation review. London: Aslib (1994) . It contains a bibliography of 146 items. Brian Vickery’s career spanned much of the period covered in this history and his personal account of his work provides valuable insights into events in both the USA and the UK with regards to the role of computers in information retrieval. Stephen Robertson has also published B C, Before Computers: On Information Technology from Writing to the Age of Digital Data in 2020.
Another personal perspective on the development of search technology has been written by David Hawking, who took a lead role in the development of the P@ntopic search application which was later commercialised as Funnelback.
Probably the definitive text on information seeking in its broadest sense is Looking for Information by Donald Case and Lisa Given, which has a very good section on the models that have been developed to help define and manage the process of information search.
Jeremy Norman’s History of Information web encyclopedia, 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.
Information – A Historical Companion was published in 2021, edited by Ann Blair, Paul Duguid, Anja-Silvia Goeing, and Anthony Grafton. This 880-page book is a comprehensive account of the development of information handling from the early dynasties of China onwards. Chapter 13 is specifically about search and includes a useful bibliography.
Also of immense historic value are the series of interviews carried out by Stephen Arnold between 2008 and 2013 and published in his Wizards Index. Most of the founders of enterprise search applications tell the inside stories of how they created, launched and developed these applications.
All the links were checked on 20 June 2022. Please report any broken links to email@example.com.
I would of course appreciate comments on factual inaccuracies, omissions and additional resources. Contact me.