[re-search] Project description - a pre-history of search engines

Adresscomptoir adresscomptoir at gmail.com
Wed Oct 31 12:14:37 CET 2012

Dear list,

the "Society of the Query" is a fine initiative and I am delighted to
send you a description of my research activities:

Project: Before Google. A pre-history of search-engines in analogue times

I am a historian and during the last years I have done extensive
research on what could be called the “pre-history” of search-engines
especially in early modern times: Starting from questions that arise
from today’s discussions on search-engines I finished in 2011 a
habilitation thesis about the so called “intelligence offices” in
early modern Europe.
The “primal scene” of these establishments was written in a chapter of
Montaigne’s Essais, entitled “Of one defect in our government”: The
author proposed that in every city there should be an office assuming
the tasks of a sales agency, a labour exchange and a travel companion
service. This idea was later taken up by the physician and journalist
Théophraste Renaudot who in 1630 founded the Paris-based “Bureau
d’adresse”, which, in addition to the mentioned intermediary
activities, concerned itself with providing medical care to the poor,
acting as a pawn shop as well as a scholarly academy and throughout
its existence drew a lot of attention. Following the enforced
abandonment of most of its activities in 1644, new facilities were
launched in Paris whose activities, however, were limited to more
profane kinds of intermediary services, their core functions including
those of a sales agency as well as a labour and a real estate
exchange. The reputation held by Renaudot’s “Bureau d’adresse” spread
over to other places, in particular to London, where, beginning from
the middle of the 17th century, “registry” or “intelligence offices”
were established. Also as early as in the 17th century, similar
offices were suggested to be launched in German-speaking territories
(as far as is known, the only project implemented was, in 1689, the
“Adress-Haus” in Berlin, which, however, primarily served as a pawn
shop). In effect, it was not until the 18th century that intelligence
offices started to operate in many German-speaking cities by names
such as “Frag- und Kundschaftsämter“, “Adresscomptoirs”,
“Berichthäuser” or “Intelligenzämter”; around 1800, many of them were
merged into the advertising departments and editorial offices of the
intelligence papers issued by them. Both intelligence offices and
modern search engines refer users to addresses which they may expect
to serve their needs and facilitate orientation amidst an otherwise
confusing host of information.
I defended my habilitation thesis at Vienna University last July and
then published it online:

TANTNER, ANTON: Adressbüros im Europa der Frühen Neuzeit.
Habilitationsschrift, eingereicht an der
Historisch-Kulturwisenschaftlichen Fakultät der Universität Wien,
2011. http://phaidra.univie.ac.at/o:128115

A short article on the results of this work will be published in the
January 2013-issue of „Merkur. Deutsche Zeitschrift für europäisches

For other publications (all of them in German, but I intend to publish
an English article on the intelligence offices in the near future) see
the project homepage: http://adressbueros.tantner.net/

Apart from the „intelligence offices“ I did also some research on
other human media and institutions that can be regarded as part of a
„pre-history“ of search engines that remains to be written; so I
published last year a sketch that is called „Searching and Finding
before Google“:

TANTNER, ANTON: Suchen und finden vor Google. Eine Skizze, in:
Mitteilungen der Vereinigung österreichischer Bibliothekarinnen &
Bibliothekare, 64.2011/1, pp. 42–69.
Online: https://fedora.phaidra.univie.ac.at/fedora/get/o:103096/bdef:Content/get

Together with Thomas Brandstetter and Thomas Hübel I organised in
Vienna in 2008 also a conference on this topic; the collected essays
of this conference will be published at Transcript in November 2012:

Eine Mediengeschichte der Suchmaschine im analogen Zeitalter.
Bielefeld: Transcript, to be published in November 2012, see
(contributors: Stefan Rieger, Daniel Weidner, Alix Cooper, Volker
Bauer, Andreas Golob, Markus Krajewski, Henning Trüper, Martin
Schreiber and Bernhard Rieder)

Currently I am a Research Fellow at the Internationale
Forschungszentrum Kulturwissenschaften (IFK) in Vienna and working
especially on Jacob Bianchi, who initiated in 1770 in Vienna a
„Counter of Commerce, Arts and Sciences“ that was broking information,
selling models of scientific instruments and acted as a cabinet de


Anton Tantner
Research Fellow at Internationales Forschungszentrum Kulturwissenschaften (IFK)
Privatdozent für Neuere Geschichte an der Universität Wien
Homepage with "Gallery of House Numbers": http://tantner.net
Weblog: http://adresscomptoir.twoday.net
Twitter: @adresscomptoir

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