World Brain

collection of essays by H. G. Wells

World Brain is a collection of essays and addresses the English science fiction pioneer, social reformer, evolutionary biologist and historian H. G. Wells authored during the period 1936–38.

Throughout the book, Wells elaborates his vision of World Brain, or more explicitly, a new, free, synthetic, authoritative, permanent World Encyclopaedia that could help the world citizens make the best use of universal information resources and make the best contribution to the world peace. There underlie egalitarianism and utilitarianism in sharp contrast to commercial encyclopedias published "for gentlemen by gentlemen". A union of Google and Wikimedia Foundation, however, may roughly look like his utopian dream coming true.[citation needed]


  • The human individual is born now to live in a society for which his fundamental instincts are altogether inadequate. He has to be educated systematically for his social rôle. The social man is a manufactured product of which the natural man is the raw nucleus. (p. vii)
  • There has been ... an enormous waste of human mental and physical resources in premature revolutionary thrusts, ill-planned, dogmatic, essentially unscientific reconstructions and restorations of the social order, during the past hundred years. This was the inevitable first result of the discrediting of those old and superseded mental adaptations which were embodied in the institutions and education of the past. They discredited themselves and left the world full of problems. (p. xiii)
  • We do not want dictators, we do not want oligarchic parties or class rule, we want a widespread world intelligence conscious of itself. To work out a way to that world brain organization is therefore our primary need in this age of imperative construction. (p. xvi)

World Encyclopaedia

Lecture delivered at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, November 20th, 1936 (pp. 3-35)
  • My particular line of country has always been generalization of synthesis. I dislike isolated events and disconnected details. I really hate statements, views, prejudices and beliefs that jump at you suddenly out of mid-air. I like my world as coherent and consistent as possible. So far at any rate my temperament is that of a scientific man. And that is why I have spent a few score thousand hours of my particular allotment of vitality in making outlines of history, short histories of the world, general accounts of the science of life, attempts to bring economic, financial and social life into one conspectus and even, still more desperate, struggles to estimate the possible consequences of this or that set of operating causes upon the future of mankind. All these attempts had profound and conspicuous faults and weaknesses; even my friends are apt to mention them with an apologetic smile; presumptuous and preposterous they were, I admit, but I look back upon them, completely unabashed. Somebody had to break the ice. Somebody had to try out such summaries on the general mind. My reply to the superior critic has always been ... "Damn you, do it better." (pp. 3-4)
  • This World Encyclopaedia would be the mental background of every intelligent man in the world. It would be alive and growing and changing continually under revision, extension and replacement from the original thinkers in the world everywhere. Every university and research institution should be feeding it. Every fresh mind should be brought into contact with its standing editorial organization. And on the other hand, its contents would be the standard source of material for the instructional side of school and college work, for the verification of facts and the testing of statements -- everywhere in the world. Even journalists would deign to use it; even newspaper proprietors might be made to respect it. (p. 14)
  • I will introduce a phrase New Encyclopaedism [...] I want to suggest that something -- a new social organ, a new institution -- which for a time I shall call World Encyclopaedia, is the means whereby we can solve the problem of that jigsaw puzzle and bring all the scattered and ineffective mental wealth of our world into something like a common understanding, and into effective reaction upon our vulgar everyday political, social and economic life. [...] I am sketching what is really a scheme for the reorganization and reorientation of education and information throughout the world. No less. (p. 17)
  • The modern World Encyclopaedia should consist of relations, extracts, quotations, very carefully assembled with the approval of outstanding authorities in each subject, carefully collated and edited and critically presented. It would not be a miscellany, but a concentration, a clarification and a synthesis. (p. 20)
  • This World Encyclopaedia would be the mental background of every intelligent man in the world. It would be alive and growing and changing continually under revision, extension and replacement from the original thinkers in the world everywhere. Every university and research institution should be feeding it. Every fresh mind should be brought into contact with its standing editorial organization .... It would do just what our scattered and disoriented intellectual organizations of today fall short of doing. It would hold the world together mentally. (pp. 20-21)
  • To [the specialist] even more than to the common intelligent man World Encyclopaedia is going to be of value because it is going to afford him an intelligible statement of what is being done by workers parallel with himself. And further it will be giving him the general statement of his own subject that is being made to the world at large. He can watch that closely .... He will be able to criticize the presentation of his subject, to suggest amendments and re-statements. (p. 24)
  • I am not saying ...; what I am saying ... is this, that without a World Encyclopaedia to hold men's minds together in something like a common interpretation of reality, there is no hope whatever of anything but an accidental and transitory alleviation of any of our world troubles. (pp. 34-5)

The Brain Organization of the Modern World

Lecture delivered in America, October and November, 1937. (pp. 39-80)
  • For half a century I have resisted temptations to lecture in America -- if for no reason than the inefficiency of my voice. But the microphone is a great leveller and here I am at last on terms of practical equality with your most audible speakers and very glad indeed of this belated opportunity of talking to you. I want to talk to you about an idea which seems to me to be a very important one indeed. I want to interest you in it, and if possible find out what you think of it. I call that idea for reasons I shall try to make clear as I proceed, The New Encyclopaedism, and the gist of it is that the time is ripe for a very extensive revision and modernization of the intellectual organization of the world. Can I put it more plainly than that? Perhaps I can.
    Our world is changing and it is changing with an ever-increasing violence. An old world dies about us. A new world struggles into existence. But it is not developing the brain and the sensitiveness and delicacy necessary for its new life. That is the essence of what I have to say. (pp. 39-40)
  • We have been gradually brought to the pitch of imagining and framing our preliminary ideas of a federal world control of such things as communications, health, money, economic adjustments, and the suppression of crime. In all these material things we have begun to foresee the possibility of a world-wide network being woven between all men about the earth. So much of the World Peace has been brought into the range of -- what shall I call it? -- the general imagination. But I do not think we have yet given sufficient attention to the prior necessity, of linking together its mental organizations into a much closer accord than obtains at the present time. All these ideas of unifying mankind's affairs depend ultimately for their realization on mankind having a unified mind for the job. The want of such effective mental unification is the key to most of our present frustrations. While men's minds are still confused, their social and political relations will remain in confusion, however great the forces that are grinding them against each other and however tragic and monstrous the consequences. (p.57-8)
  • We are living in 1937, and our universities, I suggest, are not half-way out of the fifteenth century. We have made hardly any changes in our conception of university organization, education, graduation, for a century -- for several centuries. The three or four years' course of lectures, the bachelor who knows some, the master who knows most, the doctor who knows all, are ideas that have come down unimpaired from the Middle Ages. Nowadays no one should end his learning while he lives and these university degrees are preposterous. It is true that we have multiplied universities greatly in the past hundred years, but we seem to have multiplied them altogether too much upon the old pattern. [...] [A] new university is just another imitation of all the old universities that have ever been. Educationally we are still for all practical purposes in the coach and horse and galley stage. (pp. 64-65)
  • [The educated specialist] can increase knowledge, but without a modern organization backing him he cannot put it over. He can increase knowledge which ultimately is power, but he cannot at the same time control and spread this power that he creates. It has to be made generally available if it is not to be monopolized in the wrong hands. (p. 66)
  • A great new world is struggling into existence. But its struggle remains catastrophic until it can produce an adequate knowledge organization ... An immense, an ever-increasing wealth of knowledge is scattered about the world today, a wealth of knowledge and suggestion that – systematically ordered and generally disseminated – would probably give this giant vision and direction and suffice to solve all the mighty difficulties of our age, but the knowledge is still dispersed, unorganized, impotent in the face of adventurous violence and mass excitement. (p.66-67)
  • An immense and ever-increasing wealth of knowledge is scattered about the world today, a wealth of knowledge and suggestion that -- systematically ordered and generally disseminated -- would probably give this giant vision and direction and suffice to solve all the mighty difficulties of our age, but that knowledge is still dispersed, unorganized, impotent in the face of adventurous violence and mass excitement. (p. 67)
  • I put forward this new encyclopaedism as a possible method, the only possible method I can imagine, of bringing the universities and research institutions of the world into effective co-operation and creating an intellectual authority sufficient to control and direct our collective life. I imagine it as a permanent institution -- untrammeled by precedent, a new institution -- something added to the world network of universities, linking and co-ordinating them with one another and with the general intelligence of the world. (p. 68)
  • A World Encyclopaedia no longer represents itself to a modern imagination as a row of volumes printed and published once for all, but as a sort of mental clearing house for the mind, a depot where knowledge and ideas are received, sorted, summarized, digested, clarified and compared. It would be in continual correspondence with every university, every research institution, very competent discussion, every survey, every statistical bureau in the world. It would develop a directorate and a staff of men of its own type, specialized editors and summarists. They would be very important and distinguished men in the new world. The Encyclopaedic organization need not be concentrated now in one place; it might have the form of a network. It would centralize mentally but not physically. Quite possibly it might to a large extent be duplicated. It is its files and its conference rooms which would be the core of its being, the essential Encyclopaedia. It would constitute the material beginning of a real World Brain. (pp. 69-70)
  • So that while I believe that ultimately the knowledge systems of the world must be concentrated in this world brain, this permanent central Encyclopaedic organization with a local habitat and world-wide range . . . yet nevertheless I suggest that to begin with, the evocation of the World Encyclopaedia may begin at divergent points and will be all the better for beginning at divergent points. (p. 74)
  • It seems possible that in the near future, we shall have microscopic libraries of record, in which a photograph of every important book and document in the world will be stowed away and made easily available for the inspection of the student.... The general public has still to realize how much has been done in this field and how many competent and disinterested men and women are giving themselves to this task. The time is close at hand when any student, in any part of the world, will be able to sit with his projector in his own study at his or her convenience to examine any book, any document, in an exact replica. (pp. 76-77)
  • And for me at any rate this [prediction] is no Utopian dream. It is a forecast, however inaccurate and insufficient, of an absolutely essential part of that world community to which I believe we are driving now .... I have been talking of real intellectual forces and foreshadowing the emergence of a vital reality. I have been talking of something which may even be recognizably in active operation within a lifetime -- or a lifetime or so, from now -- this consciously and deliberately organized brain for all mankind. (pp. 79-80)

The Idea of a Permanent World Encyclopedia

Contribution to the new Encyclopédie Française, August, 1937 (pp. 83-88).
  • It is probable that the idea of an encyclopaedia may undergo very considerable extension and elaboration in the near future. Its full possibilities have still to be realized. The encyclopaedias of the past have sufficed for the needs of a cultivated minority. They were written "for gentlemen by gentlemen" in a world wherein universal education was unthought of, and where the institutions of modern democracy with universal suffrage, so necessary in many respects, so difficult and dangerous in their working, had still to appear. Throughout the nineteenth century encyclopaedias followed the eighteenth-century scale and pattern, in spite both of a gigantic increase in recorded knowledge and of a still more gigantic growth in the numbers of human beings requiring accurate and easily accessible information. At first this disproportion was scarcely noted, and its consequences not at all. But many people now are coming to recognize that our contemporary encyclopaedias are still in the coach-and-horses phase of development, rather than in the phase of the automobile and the aeroplane. Encyclopaedic enterprise has not kept pace with material progress. These observers realize that modern facilities of transport, radio, photographic reproduction and so forth are rendering practicable a much more fully succinct and accessible assembly of fact and ideas than was ever possible before. (p. 83-4)
  • more...

Passage from a Speech

Passage from a Speech to the Congrès of Mondial de la Documentation Universelle, Paris, August 20th, 1937 (pp. 91-93).
  • Plainly we have to make a centralized and uniform organization but, as Mr. Watson Davis [1] is here to remind us, it need not have any single local habitation because the continually increasing facilities of photocopy render reduplication of our indices and records continually easier. In these days of destruction, violence and general insecurity, it is comforting to think that the brain of mankind, the race brain, can exist in numerous replicas throughout the world. (pp. 91-2)

The Informative Content of Education

Presidential Address to the Educational Science Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, September 12th, 1937 (pp. 97-130)
  • I have been keenly interested for a number of years, and particularly since the War, in public thought and public reactions, in what people know and think and what they are ready to believe impresses me as remarkably poor stuff. A general ignorance -- even in respectable quarters -- of some of the most elementary realities of the political and social life of the world is, I believe, mainly accountable for much of the discomfort and menace of our times. The uninstructed public intelligence of our community is feeble and convulsive. It is still a herd intelligence. It tyrannizes here and yields to tyranny there. What is called elementary education throughout the world does not in fact educate, because it does not properly inform. I realized this very acutely during the later stages of the War and it has been plain in my mind ever since. It led to my taking an active part in the production of various outlines and summaries of contemporary knowledge. Necessarily they had the defects and limitations of a private adventure, but in making them I learnt a great deal about -- what shall I say? -- the contents of the minds our schools are turning out as taught. (pp. 98-9)
  • I suggest [...] that we concentrate on the inquiry: What are we telling young people directly about the world in which they are to live? What is the world picture we are presenting to their minds? What is the framework of conceptions about reality and about obligation into which the rest of their mental existencies will have to be fitted? I am proposing in fact a review of the informative side of education, wholly and solely -- informative in relation to the needs of modern life. (p. 99)
  • Every schoolmaster, every teacher, nearly every professor must, by the nature of his calling, be wary, diplomatic, compromising -- he has his governors to consider, his college to consider, his parents to consider, the local press to consider; he must not say too much nor say anything that might be misinterpreted and misunderstood. I can. And so I think I can best serve the purposes of [education reform] by taking every advantage of my irresponsibility, being as unorthodox and provocative as I can be, and so possibly saying a thing or two which you are not free to say but which some of you at any rate will be more or less willing to have said. (p. 100)
  • As educators we are going to ask what is the subject-matter of a general education? What do we want known? And how do we want it known? What is the essential framework of knowledge that should be established in the normal citizen of our modern community? What is the irreducible minimum of knowledge for a responsible human being today? (p. 101)
  • Under contemporary conditions our only prospect of securing a mental accord throughout the community is by laying a common foundation of knowledge and ideas in the school years. No one believes today, as our grandparents [...] believed, that education had an end somewhen about adolescence. Young people then left school or college under the imputation that no one could teach them any more. There has been a quiet but complete revolution in people's ideas in this respect and now it is recognized almost universally that people in a modern community must be learners to the end of their days. [...] Our modern ideas seem to be a continuation of learning not only for university graduages and practitioners in the so- called intellectual professions, but for the miner, the plough-boy, the taxi-cab driver, and the out-of-work, throughout life. Our ultimate aim is an entirely educated population. (pp. 101-2)
  • [...] it is true that what I may call the beams and girders of the mental framework must be laid down, soundly or unsoundly, before the close of adolescence. [...] And even if we were free to carry on with unlimited time and unrestrained teaching resources, it would still be in those opening years that the framework of the mind would have to be made. (pp. 102-3)
  • The maximum school hours we have available [in the week] are something round about thirty, but out of this we have to take time for what I may call the non-informative teaching, teaching to read, teaching to write clearly, the native and foreign language teaching, basic mathematical work, drawing, various forms of manual training, music and so forth. A certain amount of information may be mixed in with these subjects but not very much. They are not what I mean by informative subjects. (p. 103)
  • If the teachers we have today are not equal to the task required of them, then we have to recondition our teachers or replace them. We live in an exacting world and a certain minimum of performance is required of us all. If children are not to be given at least this minimum of information about the world into which they have come -- through no fault of their own -- then I do think it would be better for them and the world if they were not born at all. [2] (p. 105)
  • We are telling our young people about the real past, the majestic expansion of terrestrial events. In these events the little region of Palestine is no more than a part of the highway between Egypt and Mesopotamia. Is there any real reason nowadays for exaggerating its importance in the past? Nothing really began there, nothing was worked out there. All the historical part of the Bible abounds in wild exaggeration of the importance of this little strip of land. We were all brought up to believe in the magnificence of Solomon's temple and it is a startling thing for most of us to read the account of its decorations over again and turn its cubits into feet. It was smaller most barns. We all know the peculiar delight of devout people when, amidst the endless remains of the great empires of the past, some dubious fragment is found to confirm the existence of the Hebrews. Is it not time that we recognized the relative historical insignificance of the events recorded in Kings and Chronicles, and ceased to throw the historical imagination of our young people out of perspective by an over-emphasized magnification of the national history of Judea? To me this lack of proportion in our contemporary historical teaching seems largely responsible for the present troubles of the world. The political imagination of our times is a hunch-back imagination bent down under an exaggeration. It is becoming a matter of life and death to the world to straighten that backbone and reduce that frightful nationalist hunch. (pp. 113-4)
  • Look at our time-table and what we have to teach. [...] Even if we think it desirable to perplex another generation with the myths of the Creation, the Flood, the Chosen People and so forth, even if we want to bias it politically with tales of battles and triumphs and ancient grievances, we haven't got the time for it -- any more than we have the time for the really quite unedifying records of all the Kings and Queens of England and their claims on this and that. So far as the school time-table goes we are faced with a plain alternative. One thing or the other. Great history and hole-in-corner history? The story of mankind or the narrow, self-righteous, blinkered stories of the British Islands and the Jews? (p. 114-5)
  • I admit we cannot have a modern education without a modernized type of teachers. A teacher enlarged and released. Many of our teachers [...] are shockingly illiterate and ignorant. Often they know nothing but school subjects; sometimes they scarcely know them. [...] Everything I am saying now implies a demand for more and better teachers -- better paid, with better equipment. And these teachers will have to be kept fresh. It is stipulated in most leases that we should paint our houses outside every three years and inside every even years, but nobody ever thinks of doing up a school teacher. There are teachers at work in this country who haven't been painted inside for fifty years. They must be damp and rotten and very unhealthy for all who come in contact with them. Two thirds of the teaching profession now is in urgent need of being either reconditioned or super annuated. In this advancing world the reconditioning of [them] is becoming a very urgent problem indeed. (pp. 117-8)
  • For the next five-and-twenty years now the ordinary man all over the earth will be continually confronted with these systems of ideas. [3] They are complicated systems with many implications and applications. Indeed they are aspects of life rather than systems of ideas. But we send out our young people absolutely unprepared for the heated and biased interpretations they will encounter. We hush it up until they in the thick of it. And can we complain of the consequences? The most the poor silly young things seem able to make of it is to be violently and self-righteously Anti-something or other. Anti-Red, Anti-capitalist, Anti-Fascist. The more ignorant you are the easier it is to be an Anti. To hate something without having something substantial to put against it. Blame something else. (pp. 120-1)
  • Clearly parallel to this history [of war] our young people need now a more detailed and explicit acquaintance with world geography, with the different types of population in the world and the developed and undeveloped resources of the globe. The devastation of the world's forest, the replacement of pasture by sand deserts through haphazard cultivation, the waste and exhaustion of natural resources, coal, petrol, water, that is now going on, the massacre of important animals, whales, penguins, seals, food fish, should be matters of universal knowledge and concern. (p. 121)
  • Then our new citizens have to understand something of the broad elements in our modern social structure. They should be given an account of the present phase of communication and trade, of production and invention and above all they need whatever plain knowledge is available about the conventions of property and money. Upon these interelated concentions human society rests, and the efficiency of their working is entirely dependent upon the general state of mind throughout the world. We know now that what used to be called the inexorable laws of political economy and the laws of monetary science, are really no more than rash generalizations about human behaviour, supported by a maximum of pompous verbiate and a minimum of scientific observation. Most of our young people come on to adult life, to employment business and the rest of it, blankly ignorant even of the way in which money has changed slavery and serfdom into wages employment and of how its fluctuations in value make the industrial windmills spin or flag. They are not even warned of the significance of such works as inflation or deflation, and so the wage-earners are the helpless prey at every turn towards prosperity of the savings-snatching financier. Any plausible monetary charlatan can secure their ignorant votes. They know no better. They cannot help themselves. Yet the subject of property and money -- together they make one subject because money is only the fluid form of property -- is scarcely touched upon in any stage in the education of any class in our community. They know nothing about it; they are as innocent as young lambs and born like them for shearing. (pp. 122-3)
  • A mean atmosphere makes mean people, a too competitive atmosphere makes greedy, self-glorifying people, a cruel atmosphere makes fierce people, but this issue of moral tone does not concern us now here. But it does concern us that by adolescence the time has arrived for general ideas about one's personal relationship to the universe to be faced. The primary propositions of the chief religious and philosophical interpretations of the world should be put as plainly and impartially as possible before our young people. They will be asking those perennial questions of adolescence -- whence and why and whither. They will have to face, almost at once, the heated and exciting propagandas of theological and sceptical partisans -- pro's and anti's. So far as possible we ought to provide a ring of clear knowledge for these inevitable fights. And also, as the more practical aspect of the question, What am I to do with my life? (pp. 123-4)
  • It seems to me altogether preposterous that nowadays our educational organization should turn out our new citizens who are blankly ignorant of the history of the world during the last twenty-five years who know nothing of the causes and phases of the Great War and are left to the tender mercies of freakish news-paper proprietors and party organizers for their ideas about the world outlook, upon which their collective wills and actions must play a decisive part. (pp. 125-6)
  • We are all agreed [...] that the general interest of the community should not be sacrificed to Private Profit. Yes -- beautiful, but what is not realized is that Socialism in itself is little more than a generalization about the undesirability of irresponsible ownership and that the major problem before the world is to devise come form of administrative organization that will work better than the scamole of irresponsible owners. That form of administrative organization has not yet been devised. You cannot expropriate the private adventurer until you have devised a competent receiver for the expropriated industry or service. This complex problem of the competent receiver is the underlying problem of most of our constructive politics. (pp. 126-7)
  • [The stage of new knowledge and thought] accumulates, rectifies, changes human experience. [...] You see, indicated by these arrows, the rich results of the work of [this stage] flowing into a central world-encyclopaedic-organization, where it will be continually summarized, clarified, and whence it will be distributed through the general information channels of the world. (p. 128)



Appendix I

Ruffled Teachers
Sunday Chronicle, September 12th, 1937. (pp. 133-138)
The Breeze at the British Association
  • Education and social existence are reciprocal. Its informative side has to be essentially social elucidation. So that the ideal teacher can never be a specialist; he has to have a working conception of the world as a whole into which his teaching fits. When I write or talk to teachers about the real magnitude of their task I am apt to feel like Max Beerbohm's caricature of Walt Whitman urging the American eagle to soar. It remained ruffled and inactive on its perch. Nevertheless for good or ill the future is in the hands of the teachers as it is in the hands of no other men and women and the more this is recognized the more urgent our criticisms of them will have to be. (p. 138)

Appendix II

Palestine in Proportion
Sunday Chronicle, October 3rd, 1937. (pp. 141-149).
  • In my survey of the minimum knowledge needed to make an efficient citizen of the world, I laid great stress upon history. It is the core of initiation. History explains the community to the individual, and when the community of interests and vital interaction has expanded to planetary dimensions, then nothing less than a clear and simplified world history is required as the framework of social ideas. The history of man becomes the common adventure of Everyman. (pp. 141-2)

Appendix III

The Fall in America 1937
Collier's January 28th, 1938. (pp. 153-169)
  • Labour parties have failed to become anything but trade-union parties and trade unionism is nothing more than the defensive organization of the workers under a private capitalistic system. Its natural tactics are defensive and obstructive. It aims at shorter hours, better pay and a restraint upon dismissals. It is unable to imagine a new system. But a hundred years ago Karl Marx evolved a fantastic notion, partly from an inadequate analysis of British trade unionism and partly out of his inner consciousness, that the worker mass could become a mighty reconstructive force in the world. With no Blue Prints of what it was going to reconstruct. That would be the heresy of Utopianism. That delusion, embodied in communism and labour socialism, has undermined and checked the forces of science and creative liberalism for a century. (pp. 164-5)

Appendix IV

Transatlantic Misunderstandings
Liberty, January 15th, 1938. (pp. 173-182)
  • I refuse to call myself foreign or alien among any people who speak, read and think in English. (p. 174)

Appendix V

The English-Speaking World: "As I See It"
Broadcast talk delivered December 21st, 1937. (pp. 185-194)
  • I want to talk about ourselves and the community to which we belong. I see that as a tremendous world brotherhood full of possibilities and full of promise for the hope, the peace, the common understanding of all mankind. (p. 186)
  • History has gone into reverse. Instead of being scattered about the earth and forgetting one another, a thing which happened to the Aryan speakers and the Mongolian speakers of the past, we English speakers are being drawn together and learning more and more about each other. This reversal of the old order of things has been going on ever since the steamship and the railways appeared, a century ago. It goes on faster and faster. In the past new dialects were continually appearing; now dialects are disappearing. The curse of Babel has been lifted from over three hundred million people. This coming together is a new thing in human experience. (p. 188)
  • Nothing can pull our minds together as powerfully as books. We all want to read books according to our interest and habits. We find them so dear to buy or so difficult to borrow that most of us cannot read half the books we hear about. And three-quarters of what books there are, we never hear about at all. (p. 189)
  • Cheap good books -- and next comes the problem of how to hear of them -- so that we may -- from the ends of the earth -- order the ones we really want and spend our sixpences properly. Well, probably half my hearers have never heard of what is called documentation, and they think bibliography is something remote and scholastic and all that sort of thing. But really it is nothing more or less than indexing all that has been written in the world, so that you can find out quickly and surely what has been done, by whom, and under what title. Don't you want to know that? And do you know it? There are hundreds of clever people working out methods of indexing and in a little while it will be quite possible to print and keep up-to-date bibliographies, lists of all the best books, in every great group of subjects in the world. It would be as easy to keep up such bibliography as it is to keep up the issue of railway time-tables. The cost of producing these book guides need not be very much greater than the cost of producing those time-tables. I doubt if today a hundred thousand of us use any bibliographies at all. What is the good of reading unless you know what books to read? Bibliographies ought to lie about in every educated household. (pp. 191-2)
  • And another thing which we English speakers have a right to ask for [...] is a general summary of contemporary knowledge and ideas, a real modern, adequate Encyclopaedia, kept up to date and available for the use of any one. That would hold us all together as nothing else would do. We should all be of a mind and nothing on earth would have the strength to stand against our thinking. But is there anything of the sort? No. The latest Encyclopaedia in my study is dated 1929 -- eight years old -- and it is a very imperfect performance at that. Very old-fashioned. Very little better than the Encyclopaedias of a hundred years ago. Discovery and invention have been going on vigorously for the past eight years -- but how am I to learn quickly about that new stuff? There is not a sign of a new one in sight. Does any one care -- any of our education departments? Not a rap. The French just now -- in spite of threats of war, in spite of great financial difficulties are making a new and a very admirably planned Encyclopaedia. You may think an Encyclopaedia is something only rich people can afford to buy. It ought not to be. If you can afford a radio set -- if you can afford a motor-car, surely you can afford a summary of human thought and knowledge. Encyclopaedias need not be as dear as they are, any more than books or bibliographies. Cheaper books, handy bibliographies, a great encyclopaedia, our English-speaking world needs all these things. When automobiles first came along, they seemed likely to become a rich man's monopoly. [...] Henry Ford altered all that. He put the poor man on the road. We want a Henry Ford today to modernize the distribution of knowledge, make good knowledge cheap and easy in this still very ignorant, ill-educated, ill-served English-speaking world of ours. Which might be the greatest power on earth for the consolidation of humanity and the establishment of an enduring Pax for all mankind. (pp. 193-4) [4]

Quotes about World Brain

The Social Function of Science.

W. Boyd Rayward (1975)

The Universe of Information: The Work of Paul Otlet for Documentation and International Organisation. FID520, VINITI, Moscow. (txt).
  • In 1937 the Institute for Intellectual Co-operation [5] organised a World Congress for Universal Documentation in Paris. This was an enormous congress attended by representatives of governments as well as by those interested in documentation in a more private capacity. It was, in fact, the first time that such a large, influential congress had been held in the field since the IIB conferences of 1908 and 1910 and those of the UIA in 1910 and 1913. Here Otlet and La Fontaine came into much respectful praise. Their positions as grand old men of European documentation were clearly acknowledged. The idea of a Universal Network or System for Documentation was taken up and the IID once more changed its name and statutes to become the International Federation for Documentation, in order better to promote this. Here there was much talk of H. G. Wells' idea of a World Brain, a new form of the encyclopedia, an idea which, in a different form, Otlet had been writing about for decades. Here Otlet met Wells and made "magnificent improvisations".[6] (p. 356)
  • It is indeed paradoxical that libraries and archival repositories preserve large masses of documents without having the resources to catalog, analyse and circulate them [...]. The Universal Network of Documentation is called on to organise the liason of these reservoirs and repertories, of producers and users. The ultimate goal is to realise the World Encyclopedia according to the needs of the twentieth century.[7] (p. 357)

Dagobert Soergel (1977)

"An Automated Encyclopedia -- A Solution of the Information Problem?" (Part I, Sections 1-4) In: Intern. Classification 4(1): 4-10. [4]
  • General references on the idea of an automated encyclopedia, or, more general, a universal encyclopedia not necessarily using computers. Wells 1938 Pollard 1938 Bush 1945.7 (However, Bush is concerned with the structure of an individual's "external memory," not with a public data store.) Manly 1960 Doren 1962.7. Bohnert et al. 1963, 10- (excellent brief overview; extensively quoted in this article.) Milbrath et al. 1964.9? p. 1-2 Licklider 1965 Davis 1965.5 Kochen ed. 1967 Soergel 1971, Section B6.2, p. 214-234 (This section is superseded by the present article, except for some specifics given in footnotes) Pager 1972.2 (covers data structure, interrogation of, and input to an automated encyclopedia in mathematics.) Kochen 1972.12

W. Boyd Rayward (1994)

"Visions of Xanadu: Paul Otlet (1868-1944) and Hypertext." Journal of the American Society for Information Science 45: 235-250. [5]
  • Thus did Otlet early in the century envisage the kind of encyclopedia the idea of which independently attracted H.G. Wells's interest in those last few fateful years before the outbreak of the Second World War (Rayward, 1992). It was an idea of encyclopedia not greatly dissimilar from that about which Bush was to speculate in the context of memex in the first years of peace following the War.
Computer: A History of the Information Machine (with William Aspray)
  • In his most prescient passage in the World Brain Wells wrote:

    The general public has still to realize how much has been done in this field and how many competent and disinterested men and women are giving themselves to this task. The time is close at hand when any student, in any part of the world, will be able to sit with his projector in his own study at his or her own convenience to examine any book, any document, in an exact replica.

    This passage is very suggestive of the World Wide Web, although we have some way to go before all the world’s literature is available on-line to scholars.
    Wells was conscious that simply putting a microfilm projector on to peoples’ desks would not be sufficient. In addition, he proposed creating a universal index, and envisioned that "A great number of workers would be engaged perpetually in perfecting this index of knowledge."
    • "From the World Brain to The World Wide Web" (the last chapter, and also the title of Annual Gresham College BSHM Lecture, 09/11/2006 [6] Lecture notes [7]
"Convergence to the Information Highway"
  • The motivation for an "information highway" was expressed in 1937, just prior to the advent of computer technology, when Wells was promoting the concept of a "world brain" based on a "permanent world encyclopaedia" as a social good through giving universal access to all of human knowledge. He remarks:

    "our contemporary encyclopaedias are still in the coach-and-horses phase of development, rather than in the phase of the automobile and the aeroplane. Encyclopaedic enterprise has not kept pace with material progress. These observers realize that the modern facilities of transport, radio, photographic reproduction and so forth are rendering practicable a much more fully succinct and accessible assembly of facts and ideas than was ever possible before." (Wells, 1938)

    Bush, a technical advisor to Roosevelt, published in 1945 an article in Atlantic Monthly which highlighted problems in the growth of knowledge, and proposed a technological solution based on his concept of memex, a multimedia personal computer:

    "Professionally, our methods of transmitting and reviewing the results of research are generations old and by now are totally inadequate for their purpose...The difficulty seems to be not so much that we publish unduly in view of the extent and variety of present-day interests, but rather that publication has been extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record." (Bush, 1945)

    The world brain has continued for over fifty years to provide an active objective for the information systems community (Goodman, 1987), and memex is often quoted as having been realized fifty years later through the World Wide Web (Berners-Lee, Cailliau, Luotonen, Nielsen and Secret, 1994).
    • The first paragraph
  • Tracking the individual learning curves of the major technologies that comprise the infrastructure of information technology provides a more detailed account of the present and future state-of-the art of the technologies underlying convergence. The base technologies of digital electronics, general-purpose computer architectures, software and interaction are mature and provide solid foundations for computer science. The upper technologies of knowledge representation and acquisition, autonomy and sociality, support product innovation and provide the beginnings of foundations for knowledge science. Well's dream of a world brain making available all of human knowledge is well on its way to realization and it is in the representation, acquisition, and access and effective application of that knowledge that the commercial potential and socio-economic impact of convergence lies.
    • The last paragraph

H.J. Abraham Goodman (1997)

World Brain World Mind (A Workshop at the University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, June 14th, 1997.)
  • The Workshop will deal with the next level of international information systems, one stage above the Internet and the Web - humanity's global communication system / network - the World Brain / World Mind.
    • "Fashioning The Emerging World Brain / World Mind"
"The Internet: A World Brain?" Skeptical Inquirer (Jan-Feb, 1999)
  • Although Wells could not have known it at the time, he was writing about the Internet and the World Wide Web. How amazed and delighted he would have been by this revolution had he lived another half century!
"From the World Brain to the Informatorium." Information Services & Use 19 (1999): 99-105.
  • As most of you know, H.G. Wells' World Brain[8] has become a metaphor for a futuristic view of information science and technology. Others prefer to credit Vannevar Bush's Memex.[9] However, I have always given H.G. Wells the priority and even commissioned a major and unusual work of art in 1981 by Gabriel Liebermann with technical assistance from Vernon Porter at Texas Instruments. Their holographic etching entitled "The World Brain" resides in the lobby at ISI[10] in Philadelphia. Wells was also on my mind when I wrote "Towards the World Brain,"[11] which includes my testimony before a Congressional Subcommittee on Education and Labor of the US House of Representatives of the 88th (1963-64) Congress. Here is how I described the "Information Crisis" to a lay audience ...

W. Boyd Rayward (1999)

"H.G. Wells's Idea of a World Brain: A Critical Re-Assessment." Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 50 (May 15, 1999): 557-579. [8]
  • World Brain or Global Brain proponents tend to extrapolate quite extravagantly the capabilities and implications of emerging technology. For Wells it was microfilm. Today it is the infinitely more sophisticated Internet and World Wide Web which have enmeshed our globe in a fantastically intricate and diffused communications infrastructure. By means of this technology as World or Global Brain proponents imagine it taking shape, the effective deployment of the entire universe of knowledge will become possible. But this begs unresolved questions about the relative value of the individual and the state, about the nature of individual and social benefits and how they are best to be allocated, about what constitutes freedom and how it might be appropriately constrained. It flies in the face of the intransigent reality that what constitutes the ever-expanding store of human knowledge is almost incalculably massive in scale, is largely viewpoint-dependent, is fragmented, complex, ceaselessly in dispute and always under revision.
    • "Conclusion"
Community in the Digital Age: Philosophy and Practice (et al. eds.) Google Preview
  • ... I present some preliminary considerations for a new world brain or civic intelligence that is based on and addresses current social and technological realities. similar to the approach taken by Leibniz, Dewey, and Wells, I am proposing an approach that builds on the development and use of appropriate communication and information systems. Of course humankind's communication and information systems are currently undergoing massive changes at the global level. the civic intelligence challenge is to develop programs, applications, and policies that help shape this juggernaut into useful forms. We need to ask in what ways can connecting a huge and potentially unruly and fractious group of people from a multitude of cultures and life circumstances help society as a whole deal more effectively and equitably with problems and other issues of shared concern. (p. 273)
    • "Toward Civic Intelligence: Building a New Sociotechnological Infrastructure" by Douglas Schuler
  • Unfortunately, humankind's problems may be so profound, and our ability to respond so divided, unmotivated, and feeble, that attempts to deal with them are doomed to failure. "Grand schemes" such as Wells's World Encyclopedia, Dewey's Thought News, Kochen's WISE, and Jungk's Everyman Project, have periodically sprouted up, attracted a modest following, and then faded away, apparently without a trace. The proponents are likely to be dismissed as cranks by the media and by the conventional wisdom of the era; their schemes are generally utopian, overly ambitious, and, ultimately unrealistic. (p. 282)
    • "Toward Civic Intelligence: Building a New Sociotechnological Infrastructure" by Douglas Schuler
Digital Searching to Digital Reading (Presentation at LITA session at American Library Association conference, Chicago 2005).
  • "... every child can stretch a hand across a keyboard and reach every book ever written, every painting ever painted, every symphony ever composed." -- Bill Clinton's State of the Union message, January 1998.

    Similarly: H. G. Wells, World Brain, "There is no practical obstacle whatever now to the creation of an efficient index to all human knowledge, ideas and achievements, to the creation, that is, of a complete planetary memory for all mankind."

    "If the human race has produced since the invention of movable type a total record, in the form of magazines, newspapers, books, tracts, advertising blurbs, correspondence, having a volume corresponding to a billion books, the whole affair, assembled and compressed, could be lugged off in a moving van." -- Vannevar Bush, As We May Think.

    • "Everything Digital"

Richard Lung (2005)

"H G Wells' pre-internet idea of a World Brain"
  • ... it's a good idea and has been justified by events, in that the sciences do have journals which are abstracts of the increasingly unmanageable output of the profession. As far back as his utopian science fiction, Men Like Gods, he envisaged publication available to all. Until the world wide web, this was just a dream. Yet, it seems unlikely that the internet will be enough to help education win the race against catastrophe. (One of Wells' most famous pronouncements is that "Civilisation is a race between education and catastrophe.").
"HG Wells on the World Brain" [9]
  • Commenting on my Google Library vs. Publishers piece, George Dyson sent me this great piece from HG Wells. I already reposted it to the comments on that blog, but this is enough of a relevant historical artifact that it deserves its own top level posting. (As always, George does an amazing job of reminding us all of how many of the ideas we are wrestling with are not new, just because we finally have the technology to realize them.).
"Commentary: Fifty Years of Citation Indexing." International Journal of Epidemiology, 35: 1127-1128. [10]
  • Reading the 1955 paper[12] once again reminds me of the inspiration that the concept had from my early interest in encyclopaedism. In 1970,[13] Manfred Kochen commented on its role in the worldwide encyclopaedic movement.13 Today the Internet has enabled the development of Wikipedia and other grand schemes that will make the H.G. Wells dream of a World Brain a reality.
    13. Kochen M. WISE - world information synthesis and encyclopedia. J Document, 1972; 28:3 22 - 343.

Danny P. Wallace (2007)

Knowledge Management: Historical and Cross-Disciplinary Themes. Libraries Unlimited. Google Preview
  • Like Otlet, Wells has assembled in his essays and addresses ... a preview of the World Wide Web: a colossal, globally accessible compendium of everything knowable. Although the World Wide Web clearly lacks the authority and editorial consistency both Otlet and Wells favor, the notion of a practicable universal source of information preceded the realities of the Internet and the World Wide Web by several decades. (pp. 151-2)
    • "World Brain = World Wide Web"

W. Boyd Rayward (2008)

European Modernism and the Information Society: Informing the Present, Understanding the Past. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. Google Preview
  • The march of the modern and the reconstitution of the world's knowledge apparatus : H.G. Wells, encyclopedism, and the world brain
    • The title of an essay by W. Boyd Rayward.


  1. Watson Davis
  2. [more...] And to make what I have to say as clear as possible I have had a diagram designed which I will unfold to you as my explanation unfolds.
  3. That is, "the increasing importance of economic changes in history and the search for competent economic direction and also of the leading theories of individualism, socialism, the corporate state, communism."
  4. [Continued:] My quarter of an hour is at an end. I haven't said half of what I would like to say. But if I have made you a little discontented with what we are doing with this precious inheritance of ours--English, I shall not have used this bit of time in vain. (The closing paragraph of the book)
  5. Mistaken for International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation that since 1946 gave way to UNESCO founded in 1945. H. G. Wells's colleague Julian Huxley became the first Director.
  6. 45. For an account of this Congress with its resolutions on the Universal Network for Documentation and incidental references to Otlet and La Fontaine see "Congres Mondial de Documentation, Paris, 16-21 aout, 1937," IIiD Communicationes, IV Fasc. Ill (1937), passim but especially pp. 16—18.
  7. 47. "Le Congres Mondial de la Documentation". This is a single page of typescript in the Otletaneum dated 1937.09.20 and signed Paul Otlet.
  8. H.G. Wells, World Brain, Doubleday, Doran & Co., Garden City, NY, 1938.
  9. V. Bush, "As we may think," Atlantic Monthly 176 (1945), 101-108.
  10. G. Liebermann, "ISI's 'World Brain' by Gabriel Liebermann: The World's first holographic engraving," Current Contents 15 (28 December 1981), 5-11. Reprinted in Essays of an Information Scientist, Vol. 5, ISI Press. Philadelphia, 1983, pp. 348-354. [1]
  11. E. Garfield, "Towards the World Brain," Current Contents (6 October 1964). Reprinted in Essays of an Information Scientist, Vol. 1, ISI Press, Philadelphia, 1977, pp. 8-9. [2]
  12. Eugene Garfield. Citation indexes for science: a new dimension in documentation through association of ideas. Science, 1955; 122: 108-11. [3]
  13. "1970" may be mistaken for 1972.
Wikipedia has an article about: