Carl Linnaeus invented the index card

Jun 16, 2009

As a consequence of overseas discoveries, early modern scientists faced serious information overload. The sheer amount of exotic, hitherto unknown species reaching the shores of Europe forced naturalists to reconsider the ways in which information about the natural world was processed and organized.

The Swedish naturalist and physician Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) - the father of modern taxonomy - has been described as a “pioneer of information retrieval”. But exactly how he was able to master such vast amounts of data has remained something of a mystery.

Staffan Mueller-Wille from the Centre for Medical History at the University of Exeter in the UK recently received a major grant from the Wellcome Trust to get to the bottom of Linnaeus’ method of data processing.

Speaking at the annual meeting of the British Society for the History of Science in Leicester, UK on Saturday 4 July, Mueller-Wille will reveal his preliminary findings of research on Linnaeus’ held today at the Linnaean Society of London.

Linnaeus had to manage a conflict between the need to bring information into a fixed order for purposes of later retrieval, and the need to permanently integrate new information into that order, says Mueller-Wille. “His solution to this dilemma was to keep information on particular subjects on separate sheets, which could be complemented and reshuffled,” he says.

Towards the end of his career, in the mid-1760s, Linnaeus took this further, inventing a paper tool that has since become very common: index cards. While stored in some fixed, conventional order, often alphabetically, index cards could be retrieved and shuffled around at will to update and compare information at any time.

“Although a seemingly mundane and simple innovation, Linnaeus' use of index cards marks a major shift in how eighteenth-century naturalists thought about the order of nature,” says Mueller-Wille. The natural world was no longer ordered on a fixed, linear scale, but came to be seen as a map-like natural system of multiple affinities.

Source: British Society for the History of Science

Explore further: Insect mating behavior has lessons for drones

Related Stories

Scientists announce top 10 new species, issue SOS

May 23, 2008

The International Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State University and an international committee of taxonomists – scientists responsible for species exploration and classification – today ...

The great escape -- fleeing fish fall in line

Mar 31, 2007

With the unappealing prospect of being eaten, one might imagine that during a predator attack it is a case that all fish escape at once in the desperate hurry to escape as quickly as possible. However, new research indicates ...

Recommended for you

Insect mating behavior has lessons for drones

23 hours ago

Male moths locate females by navigating along the latter's pheromone (odor) plume, often flying hundreds of meters to do so. Two strategies are involved to accomplish this: males must find the outer envelope ...

Godwits are flexible... when they get the chance

May 29, 2015

Black-tailed godwits are able to cope with unpredictable weather. This was revealed by a thorough analysis of the extraordinary spring of 2013 by ecologist Nathan Senner of the University of Groningen and ...

Do you have the time? Flies sure do

May 28, 2015

Flies might be smarter than you think. According to research reported in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on May 28, fruit flies know what time of day it is. What's more, the insects can learn to con ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.