There’s really a very long and rich history behind the kinds of things we’re doing with Wolfram|Alpha. And in fact, a little while ago my staff took some notes of mine and assembled a timeline about the history of “The Quest for Computable Knowledge.” I think it makes interesting reading; there’s quite a diverse collection of elements, some very well known, some not. I’ve always been particularly struck by Gottfried Leibniz’s role. He really had pretty much the whole idea of Wolfram|Alpha—300 years ago.
At the end of the 1600s he came to believe that somehow there must be a way to mechanize the resolution of all human arguments. He imagined that one could represent human discourse using logic and mathematics. Then he imagined that one could use a machine to work out answers from this—and in fact he even built some small mechanical calculators himself.
He also realized that to provide raw material for his mechanization it would be necessary to assemble lots of knowledge. So he worked hard to get libraries constructed, and to invent systems for organizing them. Of course there were some elements missing. But Leibniz really had the right basic idea.