25 Years: How the Web began

25 Years: How the Web began

Summary: 25 years ago there was the Internet, but there was no Web. Then, Tim Berners-Lee proposed creating an Internet-based hypertext system and the Web was on its way.


When I was a young man, we had it rough. We used to have to get up out of the shoebox at twelve o'clock at night and lick the road clean with our tongue. We had two bits of cold gravel, worked twenty-four hours a day at mill for sixpence every four years, and when we got home our Dad would slice us in two with a bread knife and while we had the Internet we didn't have the Web. And, when you tell the young people today that... and they won't believe ya!*

Through the character-based Lynx Web browser you can an idea what the Web looked like in 1993.

I actually did use the Internet for years before there was a Web, but when Tim Berners-Lee proposed the Web, an Internet-based hypertext system, to his boss at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory, we didn't know it but we were on the brink of a revolution.

Say hello to the early days of Web browsers (gallery)

Berners-Lee idea wasn't new with him. You can trace it back to Vannevar Bush's As We May Think article in July 1945. Personally, I think Ted Nelson’s 1960 Xanadu hypertext vision had even more influence on how the Web would turn out. And, of course, Apple's HyperCard did give us a hypertext system that might have beat Berners-Lee to the Web... except HyperCard was totally network unaware. Whoops!

In 1989, all Berners-Lee had was an idea. Turning that idea into working reality wouldn't happen until October 1990. Then, by using Steve Jobs' NeXT machines, the BSD Unix-based computers that are the modern day Mac's most direct ancestor, he created the first Web server: info.cern.ch. A version of this lives on to this very day. 

By  December 25th 1990, Nicola Pellow, a visiting student at CERN, created the first Web browser. This was a simple text-based browser. During 1991, the first real data, the CERN telephone directory, was put online and the WorldWideWeb was made available to other CERN users.

During the next few years, the WorldWideWeb slowly started to spread through academic and research communities and others started to work on it. That's where I came in. I was then a contributing editor at Computer Shopper, part of the same publishing company that would father ZDNet.

I wrote the first "review" of the Web in April 1993 for Shopper. I said "World-Wide Web (WEB) is still a development project, but it is publicly accessible and it provides Internet information hunters with greater power. WEB brings hypertext to the Internet."

I concluded, "Alas, for now, WEB remains mostly potential. The WEB server is only available by telneting to info.cern.ch or nxo01.cern.ch. Its full hypertext informational resources are limited at this time, but they are growing. WEB is the informational wave of the future."

Little did I know! The Web quickly became a tidal wave that would sweep aside such online services as CompuServe and Genie and transform the world.

In the next few years, I wrote endlessly about the Web. I reviewed such early Web browsers as Cello, Mosaic, and Viola.

As a result of the sudden passion for everything Web, I also wrote numerous tales about how TCP/IP, the Internet's fundamental networking protocol, worked. What was far harder was explaining to people how to get it to work on then state-of-the-art Windows 3.1 PC with a program called Trumpet Winsock.

Without this or a handful of similar programs, Windows machines couldn't connect to the Internet. Even with it, you had to do a lot of fiddling with the program, your state of the art V32bis's modem with its top speed of 28.8Kbps, and shouting at your ISP tech support line located above a local Chinese restaurant. I have no idea how many times I explained in stories how to get from your PC to the Web but it had to be in the dozens.

In those early days anyone who wanted to use the Web had to be a techie. As I said in PC Magazine in 1994, "Mosaic is in no way, shape or form a program designed for everyone to use, but anyone who loves computing will enjoy it."

Today, the only time you really think about the Web per se is when a major site, such as Twitter goes down. And even then you don't think of the Web as being in trouble. It's just another annoyance.

In 25 years we've gone from the Web being little more than a thought experiment to where we keep up with our friends on Facebook, where we get all our news, and we sit down in front of our Internet-connected TVs every night to watch Netflix movies. Indeed, had I dreamed where the Web would take us today in the early 90s I too would never have believed it.

*With apologies to Monty Python.

Related Stories:

Topics: Networking, Browser, Web development

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  • Windows 3.1 was easy,

    compared to getting DOS to browse the web. Most people I
    told about getting my old DOS kit to browse didn't believe me.
    • DOS

      Yes, getting it to work on MS-DOS was a major PITA. I did it and wrote one (1) story on how to do it. The pain! The pain!
      • Child Play

        Try hiding your BBS behind the bosses back using DESQview, LIM EMS 1M board and Hayes 2400 modem ;')
        Tired Tech
      • Well, since you opened the door about writing...

        I did an entire web page back in the day...last updated
        about 2004 or so....please be kind in your critique!
        By the way...those techniques still work for dialup!
  • Back in my day,

    we had to write hypertext on rocks and throw them at people.
    • RE: Back in my day

      They gave you rocks!!??
      • RE: Back in my day

        LUXURY! We had to make our own rocks from ejected star material!
        • Thank goodness that Linux fixed all that!

          (Hey, somebody had to claim it ...)
  • Forgot about gopher...

    Which started very nearly the same time, if not slightly before.

    And the web would never have grown without search engines - of which the earliest was Veronica... or the WAIS software for implementing early search.
  • What?

    No mention of Al Gore?
    • Anyone who bothered to fact-check that joke in 2000

      knows that Al Gore NEVER claimed to "invent" or make any technical contribution to the web or to the internet. He claimed, CORRECTLY, to have pushed in Congress for its FUNDING to develop from a military/college tech resource to an initially minor (now MAJOR) worldwide communication infrastructure. The Senator and Vice President was and is surely as much in awe of those whose brains made it grow as any other non-technical person. He just helped to fetch the money to get it started (which, incidentally, the Tea Party ideologues would have blocked if they had been in control back then).
      • Well,

        Technically you are correct, but his EXACT words i(n an interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN) were: "During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet."

  • The old days

    I was a tech at a computer store in 1987. Before that I had been a computer operator at a bank, so it was my first professional foray into PCs. I had a PC at home that I used through college (dual floppy, no way I could afford a hard drive!). Anyway, I fondly remember CALLING tech support and having them Federal Express a floppy with a device driver on it. We also used Compaq's BBS to download drivers and such, but at 9600 baud it would take hours and any failure meant you started over (at least until the newer protocols came out that could resume downloads). Now I am an IT director and try to tell my team members about this stuff and guess what - They won't believe me!

    BTW, Monty Python - The confection "Crunchy Frog". "You mean you don't even take the bones out of it?" - "If we took the bones out, it wouldn't be crunchy, would it?"

    "That's not a horse, you've got two empty halves of coconuts and you're banging 'em together!" :-)
  • Hated 3.1 for internet

    I had to use Prodigy without that could never get my modem to work My computer Packard Bell 486 DX-66 had a 300 baud modem. I upgraded to a 28.8 thought I was hot stuff. I remember dialing in to bbs and spending all night downloading a program that takes mins today.

    Today I see it was a waste of time but, at the time it was cool because I knew how to do it and no one else I knew did. LOL Call me crazy but I do miss the sound of my computer connecting to the net.
    • I hadn't even thought of that!

      You are right. I used to love the combination of beeps and growls made as a dial-up modem connected to the old Internet. I am going to look for a audio file and use it as a ring tone when my spouse calls LOL.
      The Heretic
  • We also used to punch holes in pasteboard cards.

    At holiday time, the ladies (that was a gender-segregated era) in the keypunch (i.e. batch data entry) department took discarded ones and folded them into wreaths to hang on the walls. After spray painting they looked quite nice. Security was not such a problem then; if the bad guys (nobody really, except competitor's spies) got enough wreaths they might get some customer information, so today's security consultants would freak out over the idea!

    There are probably some pictures of the wreaths on the web. But of course there WAS NO INTERNET, and only corporate users of computers had data communications back then.
    • I had three we used to decorate my parents home with each Christmas.

      I had painted each and embedded random flashing little lights in each. One gold, one silver and one red. Wonder what ever became of them. Hours and hours of coding I spent making all those cards just to turn them into a wreath LOL. I remember that the big one, the gold, was dang near 5' across and had to be hung on the big picture window.
      The Heretic
  • Windows 95 allowed the Internet to progress

    Windows 95 brought computing to the mainstream, which allowed the Internet to grow because Netscape had a platform to drive their adoption. So, we should be thanking Microsoft. Yes, the web might have been developed on a NeXT box, but it was the ubiquity of Windows that made it relevant, otherwise, it would have just been an experiment available to a select group of people or an elite platform with a small user base (Apple).
  • Vannevar Bush's 'selection by association'

    His referenced article in 1945 is so amazing; instead of storing information using a library's 'artificial' system of indexing, it would be better to mimic the way the human mind operates, "by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts,"

    And further, "Selection by association, rather than by indexing, [that] may yet be mechanized."

    Then, bingo -- "Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and to coin one at random, ``memex'' will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. ...It consists of a desk, and while it can presumably be operated from a distance, it is primarily the piece of furniture at which he works. On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There is a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers."
  • Computer Shopper...

    ...572 pages full of "you can't afford this".