The Memindex Method: an early precursor of the Memex, Hipster PDA, 43 Folders, GTD, BaSB, and Bullet Journal systems

Wilson Memindex Co., Rochester, NY

It was fascinating to run across the Memindex, a productivity tool from the Wilson Memindex Co., advertised in a December 1906 issue of System: The Magazine of Business. Memindex seems to be an obvious portmanteau of the words memory and index.

Black and white advertisement for the Memindex featuring a notebook like card system and a wooden card index. The headline reads: Let your mind go free.

Do not tax your brain trying to remember. Get the MEMINDEX HABIT and you can FORGET WITH IMPUNITY. An ideal reminder and handy system for keeping all memoranda where they will appear at the right time. Saves time, money, opportunity. A brain saver. No other device answers its purpose. A Great Help for Busy Men, Used and recommended by Bankers, Manufacturers, Salesmen, Lawyers, Doctors, Merchants, Insurance Men, Architects, Educators, Contractors, Railway Managers Engineers, Ministers, etc., all over the world. Order now and get ready to Begin the New Year Right. Rest of ’06 free with each outfit. Express prepaid on receipt of price. Personal checks accepted.
Also a valuable card index for desk use. Dated cards from tray are carried in the handy pocket case, 2 to 4 weeks at a time. To-day’s card always at the front. No leaves to turn. Helps you to PLAN YOUR WORK WORK YOUR PLAN ACCOMPLISH MORE You need it. Three years’ sales show that most all business and professional men need it. GET IT NOW. WILSON MEMINDEX CO. 93 Mills St., Rochester, N. Y.

Early Computer Science Influence?

The Memindex product appears several decades prior to Vannevar Bush’s “coinage” of memex in As We May Think (The Atlantic, July 1945). While many credit Bush for an early instantiation of the internet using the model of a desk, microfiche, and a filing system, almost all of these moving parts had already existed in late 19th century networked office furniture and were just waiting for automation and computerization. The primary difference in this Memindex card system and Bush’s Memex is the higher information density made available through the use of microfiche. Now it turns out his coinage of memex appears to have been in the zeitgeist decades prior as well. I’ve got evidence that the Wilson Memindex was sold well into the early 1950s. (My current dating is to 1952, though later examples may exist.) Below I’ve pictured some cards from the same year as Bush’s now famous piece in the Atlantic.

Six different cards from a 1945 set of Memindex featuring cards for automobile expenses; a list of orderable supplies including cards, guide cards, and leather cases; an advertisement for Griptite Bands for holding cards; a pocket calendar for 1945, and a small instruction card on how the cards and system should be used.

Most people are more familiar with the popular 20th century magazine System than they realize. Created and published by A. W Shaw, one of the partners of Shaw-Walker, a major manufacturer of office furniture in the early 20th century, the popular magazine was sold to McGraw-Hill Company in 1927/8 and renamed Businessweek which was later sold again and renamed Bloomberg Businessweek.

Relationship to other modern productivity methods

Some will certainly see close ties of this early product to the idea of the “hipster PDA” or Hawk Sugano’s Pile of Index Cards which appeared in 2006. It also doesn’t take much imagination for one to look at the back of a Wilson Memindex envelope from 1909 or an ad from the 1930s to see the similarity to the 43 folders system, bits of Getting Things Done (GTD), or the Bullet Journal methods in common use today. The 1909 envelope also appears to combine a predecessor to the 43 folders idea mixed with the hipster PDA in a coherent pocket and desk-based system.

With alphabetic tabs for the desktop version, one could easily have used this for “Building a Second Brain” as described by modern productivity gurus who almost exclusively suggest digital tools for maintaining their systems now. The 1909 envelop specifically recommends using the system as “comprehensive card index” which is essentially what most second brain or zettelkasten systems are, though there is a broad disconnect between some of this and the reimagining of the zettelkasten in current craze for using Niklas Luhmann-esque organization methods which have some different aims.

What’s interesting beyond the similarities of the systems is the means by which they were sold and spread. Older systems like the Memindex or related general office filing and indexing systems (Shaw-Walker),  were primarily selling physical products/hardware like boxes, filing cabinets, holders, cards, and dividers as much as they were selling a process or idea. Mid- and late-century companies like  Day-Timer or FranklinCovey also sold physical stationery products (calendars, planners, boxes, binders, books, ) but also began more heavily selling ideas like “productivity” and “leadership”. Modern productivity gurus are generally selling the ideas of the systems and making their money not on the physical items, software or programs which implement them, but with consulting fees, class fees, subscriptions, books which describe their systems, or even advertising against page or video views.

The 1906 version of the Memindex was popular enough to already be offered with the following options of materials for the distinguishing tastes of consumers: 

  • Cowhide Seal Leather Case and hardwood tray
  • Am. Russia Leather Case and plain oak tray
  • Genuine Morocco Case and quartered oak tray

What options is your current productivity guru or system offering? What are the differentiations and affordances it’s offering compared to similar systems in the early 1900s? Where is the “rich Corinthian leather“?

Memindex advertisement on the back of a standard business envelope picturing a hand held card holder for up to three weeks of cards and the sister desk-based card index with  a variety of date and alphabetical tabbed indexes.
Memindex envelope from 1909
A small desk-based card index with tabs for the days of the week and months as well as an alphabetical index.
1930’s Memindex advertisement featuring a pedestal based system with a pocket card holder.

The Memindex Method

The basic Memindex method consists of using 2 3/4″ x 4 1/2″ (vest pocket sized) or 3 x 5 1/2″ cards depending on one’s size preference to jot down to do lists or tickler items on individually dated cards which are kept in a desk-based wooden card index with tabs for both months as well as alphabetic tabs in some systems. One then keeps a small pocket-sized card holder with the coming three weeks’ worth of cards on their person for active daily use and files them away as the days go by. 

Advertisement for the Memindex outlining their method of use.
1930’s advertisement for the Memindex Jr.

Apparently the truism “everything old is new again” is true yet again.

Angle down on a wooden Memindex box with a front locking mechanism. On the front visible card are the words "Jot here reminders of important things to be done this month, so you can see all at a glance."
Memindex box with lock from 1937

Published by

Chris Aldrich

I'm a biomedical and electrical engineer with interests in information theory, complexity, evolution, genetics, signal processing, IndieWeb, theoretical mathematics, and big history. I'm also a talent manager-producer-publisher in the entertainment industry with expertise in representation, distribution, finance, production, content delivery, and new media.

62 thoughts on “The Memindex Method: an early precursor of the Memex, Hipster PDA, 43 Folders, GTD, BaSB, and Bullet Journal systems”

  1. Amazing. I always love seeing these old ads and realizing that things haven’t changed much. Everyone is trying to find ways to be more efficient with their time, and a lot of that is often misplacing the focus on doing more work. I like that I see a lot of BuJoers less focused on getting more done, and more focused on personal improvement.

    Very cool. Thanks for sharing your find!

  2. This is cool and interesting. The only thing I wonder is if you find it hard to look back and find notes you need? I use my Bujo for a lot of record keeping, and it seems like things would be harder to flip back and find when on index cards…

  3. Omg this is genius!!

    Is there anything you didn’t like about it? Would you like to change something?

    How do you feel about archiving or finding information?

    Also great questions in the other comments!

  4. Very inspiring, very cool. THere’s something about the separate-ness of having an index card to jot down what you need that day, almost like being in the moment. I’ll often keep one clipped to the front cover of my BuJo as a reminder/checklist which makes me think why am I carrying around this notebook when the card and the pen are all I need. Thanks for sharing this!

  5. I love this idea, and I can’t believe I never thought of it before. I end up getting overwhelmed with a big empty page, but hate tiny notebooks. A tiny index card tho. Easy to write on, easy to toss if I make a mistake. If I space on a day it doesn’t ruin the notebook for having blank pages of I predate cards etc.

    Plus, best of all, it gives me an excuse to look into getting a card catalog cabinet cause I’ve always loved those when I went to the library as a kid

  6. I did something like this. It’s kind of boju meets second brain. My life is extremely project heavy.

    My work project box looks and works pretty much like the original image.

    My personal cards are vertical. It’s a trade off.

    Pros to vertical:

    They work well with a “Field Notes” notebook as a place to capture an index/ goals/do last/ want to research lists, etc as a traditional, if tiny, boju.

    The vertical 3×5 cards fit in a clear pocket protector as a mode of transportation, (although I often just clip the day’s cards to the front of the field notes notebook). The whole works fits into a cargo pocket in my slacks.

    Vertical cards lay out nicely on my desk as a task list with the top line of each project card showing.

    Cons: not a lot of pre-made resources exist for a vertical system. I’ve adapted.

    I mostly use sticky tabs instead of pre-made dividers. Otherwise, my task/project cards are pretty much set up like Memidex/ Side Track Home Executives/ 43 Folders. I’m using a tall 4×6 card storage (Globe-Weis) box and have two rows of 3×5 cards side by side.

    I’ve seen complicated ways that people index their knowledge cards. Zettelkasten, for example. I just use the Dewey Decimal System. I’m a librarian and professor, so I already know the Dewey System, but I can always quickly check to see where a subject should be filed by looking up a book on that topic in any library catalog. I just note at the bottom of the card if there are any connected notes filed elsewhere. I put book knowledge cards for fiction in 801 by author both read and to read.

    I note in my bujo index where any card is filed (knowledge or project), and if it has a status. Task cards are rarely indexed and are often written on scrap paper that is trimmed 3×5. It works. I am not researching the same information repeatedly, stuff gets done, and I have an archive of completed projects.

    My calendar is required to be digital at work, so that never figured into my system. If I have a busy day though, I write it out on a card with appointments and times in red and other reminders in pencil.

    This system has saved my sanity. I literally had so many to-do list items and projects that no digital system could really handle it. And probably some undiagnosed ADHD, so getting away from checking things on a screen has been a game-changer. 🙂

    1. Chris Aldrich says:

      You’re right, I ought to have a collected segment on this sub-topic on my own site.

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