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.

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Topics: Networking, Browser, Web development


Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, aka sjvn, has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was the cutting edge, PC operating system; 300bps was a fast Internet connection; WordStar was the state of the art word processor; and we liked it.His work has been published in everything from highly technical publications... Full Bio

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