The Beginnings Of Databases

databaseIt’s interesting to look back on the earliest databases and how they were constructed.  There were usually both text databases and numeric databases.  These were cutting edge back in the day and enabled businesses and administrations to finally be able to deal with large quantities of data in a more effective way.

Full-Text Databases

A relatively new trend in electronic databases is the creation of full-text databases for search and retrieval on the systems that traditionally have provided bibliographic databases. A full-text databases contains the entire text of documents such as wire service stories, legal cases, statutes, encyclopedia articles, journals, or textbooks (7). The Mead Data Central (MDC) LEXIS database is not only one of the largest databases in the world but was one of the first full-text databases, having begun in the 1960’s. LEXIS contains the full text of legal cases as well as statutes and many other types of legal documents. Competing with LEXIS in the legal database area is WESTLAW of West Publishing Co. Initially, the two took different approaches, with LEXIs going the full-text route and WESTLAW following the more conventional surrogate (digest) route. WESTLAW provided indexing and surrogates, together with case names, citations, headnotes, and key numbered topics. In 1978, West added full-text information to the WESTLAW database to remain competitive.

Law was the first economically successful application area for full-text databases because lawyers often require the full texts of cases together with applicable statutes, rulings, and so on. The legal databases keep growing as the body of knowledge expands with new cases and with new and changing statutes and regulations. Unlike many fields where recent findings replace prior ones, in law the earliest case of a given type may set the precedent and become the linch pin of a subsequent case. The same is true with respect to patent databases–new patents do not supplant older ones; the object of most patent searches is to determine whether there is prior art. The database is constantly expanding and the recorded data, regardless of age, are essential for practitioners. These are two of the reasons for the tremendous success of legal databases.

Newspapers (for example, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal), wire services (for example, United Press International and Associated Press), news magazines (for example, U.S. News and World Report and Newsweek), and newsletters (for example, World Environment Report and Financial Management Advisor, which are among the 250 newsletters offered by the NewsNet search service) are examples of full-text databases providing access to news. For a number of ayears, the New York Times Information Service (NYTIS) was in the forefront of news databases offering its InfoBank database online in 1973. In 1981, NYTIS first put the full text of New York Times articles online, but MDC beat them with NEXIS, a full-text database covering newspapers, news magazines, and the wire services. In 1983 MDC took over the NYTIS databases through a long-term license agreement, making MDC the leader in news databases as well as legal databases.

Among the full-text databases available for researchers are journals, reference works, and encyclopedias. The electronic version of Encyclopaedia Britannica is available through MDC, the Academic American Encyclopedia from Bibliographic Retrieval Services, Inc. (BRS), Dow Jones, and CompuServ, and, of interest to chemists, is the Kirk-Othmers Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology. In 1961 CAS produced the first electronic database offered for searching by the public, and by 1983 the full texts of 18 ACS journals were available for searching on BRS. BRS and BRS/Saunders provide more full-text scientific journals than any other online vendor. BRS/Saunders’ Colleague system provides easy access to databases in the Comprehensive Core Medical Library of databases, including major medical journals such as the New England Journal of Medicine and Lancet and textbooks (8).

The legal full-text databases have been eminently successful in terms of wide use and high revenues, but the record, to date, with encyclopedias and full-text journal databases, such as the Harvard Business Review database, has not been remarkable. Full-text databases may well be more successful on the optical disk medium, which can accommodate extremely high volumes of information (billions of characters) that can be recorded on a single disk and disributed to the user at relatively low cost. Optical disks may replace some magnetic disk databases and may complement others by providing a means of displaying pictorial information which is often needed with medical texts, for example.”

Williams, Martha E. “Electronic databases.” Science 228 (1985): 445+.


So there you have it – the first databases that were becoming available and were largely used for education.  The computers of the time were only capable of certain things.

In the future, quantum computing will make databases infinitely faster.  They will be able to search large amounts of data in incredibly fast speeds.