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
Read The Quest for a Memex 2022-07-31 by Kevin MarksKevin Marks (
This week John Borthwick put out a call for Tools for Thinking: People want better tools for thinking — ones that take the mass of notes that you have and organize them, that help extend your second brain into a knowledge or interest graph and that enable open sharing and ownership of the “knowl...
I got stuck over the weekend, so I totally missed Kevin Marks’ memex demo at IndieWebCamp’s Create Day, but it is an interesting little UI experiment.

I’ll always maintain that Vannevar Bush really harmed the first few generations of web development by not mentioning the word commonplace book in his conceptualization. Marks heals some of this wound by explicitly tying the idea of memex to that of the zettelkasten however. John Borthwick even mentions the idea of “networked commonplace books”. [I suspect a little birdie may have nudged this perspective as catnip to grab my attention—a ruse which is highly effective.]

Some of Kevin’s conceptualization reminds me a bit of Jerry Michalski’s use of The Brain which provides a specific visual branching of ideas based on the links and their positions on the page: the main idea in the center, parent ideas above it, sibling ideas to the right/left and child ideas below it. I don’t think it’s got the idea of incoming or outgoing links, but having a visual location on the page for incoming links (my own site has incoming ones at the bottom as comments or responses) can be valuable.

I’m also reminded a bit of Kartik Prabhu’s experiments with marginalia and webmention on his website which plays around with these ideas as well as their visual placement on the page in different methods.

MIT MediaLab’s Fold site (details) was also an interesting sort of UI experiment in this space.

It also seems a bit reminiscent of Kevin Mark’s experiments with hovercards in the past as well, which might be an interesting way to do the outgoing links part.

Next up, I’d love to see larger branching visualizations of these sorts of things across multiple sites… Who will show us those “associative trails”?

Another potential framing for what we’re all really doing is building digital versions of Indigenous Australian’s songlines across the web. Perhaps this may help realize Margo Neale and Lynne Kelly’s dream for a “third archive”?

Replied to a tweet by Tudor Girba (Twitter)
Mostly for want of the mention of a single idea in Vannevar Bush’s As We May Think: commonplace books. He got so dewy-eyed about the technology that he forgot about the 2000+ years of prior tradition. Many are now re-discovering what we’ve lost.
Replied to The Memex, the Manhatten Project, and the month of July 1945 by Matt WebbMatt Webb (Interconnected)
I wonder about these two legacies, the Memex and the Manhatten Project, and which has had the greater influence on the world.
Some revisionist history here glorifying Bush and the Memex without any mention of the long historical precedent of the commonplace book.

So for Bush’s greatest legacy, my answer would have to be his supervision and support of Claude Shannon’s work at MIT.

Replied to a tweet by rachel symerachel syme (Twitter)
I find myself regularly revisiting Vannevar Bush’s July 1945 essay As We May Think from The Atlantic.


Five: The Memex

This is just what Vannevar Bush suggests in his famous article As We May Think in the July 1945 issue of The Atlantic. Here he posits the Memex, and opens up the idea of networked information.


The internet itself could be though of as a massive living and ever-growing commonplace book which can be digitally queried to provide the answers to nearly every conceivable question.

(Some may forget that Bush was the thesis advisor of Claude Shannon, the father of the modern digital age.)


Replied to a thread by Timoni West, Trevor Flowers, Tantek Çelik (Twitter)
A concept closely related to the memex, but which significantly predated it is the commonplace book and definitely has some examples of that:

👓 The Garden and the Stream: A Technopastoral | Hopgood

Read The Garden and the Stream: A Technopastoral by Mike Caulfield (Hapgood)
Opening keynote for dLRN 2015. Delivered October 16th @ Stanford. Actual keynote may have gone on significant tangents… 1 | a year in the garden A week or so ago, I was reading about the Oreg…
A fantastic read. This makes me want to supplement my commonplace book here on the web with a wiki instance.

📖 Read pages 16-55 of A Mind at Play by Jimmy Soni & Rob Goodman

📖 Read pages 16-55 of A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age by Jimmy Soni & Rob Goodman

Knowing that I’ve read a lot about Shannon and even Vannevar Bush over the years, I’m pleasantly surprised to read some interesting tidbits about them that I’ve not previously come across.  I was a bit worried that this text wouldn’t provide me with much or anything new on the subjects at hand.

I’m really appreciating some of the prose and writing structure, particularly given that it’s a collaborative work between two authors. At times there are some really nonstandard sentence structures, but they’re wonderful in their rule breaking.

They’re doing an excellent job so far of explaining the more difficult pieces of science relating to information theory. In fact, some of the intro was as good as I think I’ve ever seen simple explanations of what is going on within the topic. I’m also pleased that they’ve made some interesting forays into topics like eugenics and the background role it played in the story for Shannon.

They had a chance to do a broader view of the history of computing, but opted against it, or at least must have made a conscious choice to leave out Babbage/Lovelace within the greater pantheon. I can see narratively why they may have done this knowing what is to come later in the text, but a few sentences as a nod would have been welcome.

The book does, however, get on my nerves with one of my personal pet peeves in popular science and biographical works like this: while there are reasonable notes at the end, absolutely no proper footnotes appear at the bottoms of pages or even indicators within the text other than pieces of text with quotation marks. I’m glad the notes even exist in the back, but it just drives me crazy that publishers blatantly hide them this way. The text could at least have had markers indicating where to find the notes. What are we? Animals?

Nota bene: I’m currently reading an advanced reader copy of this; the book won’t be out until mid-July 2017.