Carl Linnaeus invented the index card

June 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: New Study Examines Evolutionary Explanations For Biological Immortality

Related Stories

The great escape -- fleeing fish fall in line

March 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 ...

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 announce the top ...

Recommended for you

Scientists overcome key CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing hurdle

December 1, 2015

Researchers at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT have engineered changes to the revolutionary CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing system that significantly cut down on "off-target" ...

Study finds 'rudimentary' empathy in macaques

December 1, 2015

(—A pair of researchers with Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and Université Lyon, in France has conducted a study that has shown that macaques have at least some degree of empathy towards their fellow ...

Which came first—the sponge or the comb jelly?

December 1, 2015

Bristol study reaffirms classical view of early animal evolution. Whether sponges or comb jellies (also known as sea gooseberries) represent the oldest extant animal phylum is of crucial importance to our understanding of ...

Trap-jaw ants exhibit previously unseen jumping behavior

December 1, 2015

A species of trap-jaw ant has been found to exhibit a previously unseen jumping behavior, using its legs rather than its powerful jaws. The discovery makes this species, Odontomachus rixosus, the only species of ant that ...


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.