Q&A: Meet the unknown Web pioneer

Summary:A decade ago, physicist Paul Kunz launched the first Web server and first Web page on U.S. soil. So why doesn't anyone know his name? And what was the substance of that very first Web page anyway?

The commonly held image of the American Web pioneer is that of a twenty-something, bespectacled computer geek hunched over his Unix box in the wee hours of the morning, surrounded by the detritus of heavily caffeinated drinks and junk food while deep in pursuit of worldwide information domination and IPO riches.

This country's actual Web pioneer, by contrast, had smaller things on his mind when he launched the first Web server and Web page on U.S. soil. Much smaller, in fact: electrons.

It was at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) that particle physicist Paul Kunz wrote and posted the first American Web page 10 years ago today. As an aside to his work smashing and studying subatomic particles, Kunz set up the first Web server outside Western Europe as a way of providing easier access to a database of scientific paper abstracts.

Researchers, long frustrated by more cumbersome protocols and interfaces for accessing distant computers over the Internet and other computer networks, took to the new World Wide Web with alacrity. Ambitious computer geeks, followed by venture capitalists, curious Web surfers and IPO speculators, were not far behind.

Kunz didn't invent the Web--that credit goes to Tim Berners-Lee, an English researcher then working at the CERN laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland and now heading the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), a preeminent standards body. But with his powerful, practical demonstration of the Web's potential, Kunz arguably set off a chain of events that turned the Web into a staple: first of academic research, and ultimately of everyday life.

Kunz spoke to from his office at SLAC (where he and colleagues refer to themselves as SLACers) about the dawn of the Web in America.

Q: How is it that an atom smasher like yourself created the first U.S. Web page?
A: I was visiting the laboratory called CERN, in Geneva, Switzerland--a big international lab funded by European countries--and a guy by the name of Tim Berners-Lee asked me to come see him demonstrate the application he'd just written called the World Wide Web. It was written on a NeXT computer. There were only a few of us out there using them so we had to stick together. On Friday, Sept. 13, 1991, he showed me his Web browser that he had written on NeXT, with hypertext. I was terribly interested in that.

What interested you?
The first Web browser was more than just a browser--it had the ability to do a search on a remote machine. That's the key to the Web--the ability to do searches. He did a search on the mainframe IBM computer and the help system gave back pointers as to where to find documents you might be searching for. That gave me the idea: If he could do searches, then I could do that too. I had a database online at SLAC that needed an interface to the Internet. That database is called SPIRES.

When I saw what Tim Berners-Lee had done I said, "This is all well and good, but will it work over the Internet?" And Tim said, "Of course--it's designed for that." I said, "Show me." But he said the only problem is that all the Web servers in the world were in that same building. So what we did was we uploaded this browser software to my computer at SLAC, six thousand miles away, and then we ran the browser and pushed all the windows back to his machine at CERN. The NeXT computers had that capability, to run an application on a computer and push the windows to another computer. It was a way for us to test how well the Web would work over the Internet. Would it be slow, would it be fast? We had no way of doing that without operating a Web browser by remote control.

This was the first demonstration of the World Wide Web in action?
Anything we did had to go from SLAC to CERN and back again. I believe that was the first time Tim Berners-Lee saw the (Web) work on the Internet. So I told him I would start a Web server at SLAC as soon as I got back, and the idea I had in mind was that we had a database at SLAC that contained at the time 200,000 references to papers that were written in the field of high-energy physics (HEP). Each entry contained authors, titles, keywords--this database was heavily used by the HEP community, thousands of users in 40 different countries.

So it was already accessible over computer networks.
Yes, but it was rather difficult to use because you were always logging onto a foreign machine, and the database commands were not very user-friendly. And the database was not accessible to the Internet. So what I planned to do was use the Web as a more friendly interface so that people throughout the world could do searches, just like I saw with that help system at CERN.

When I got back to the U.S., I gave the job to someone else and nothing happened for two months. I had something more important to do--I was working on another NeXT application, something that at the time seemed more important than putting the Web server up. Two months later, Tim reminded me that I was supposed to launch the demo, and said he was going to a hypertext conference. And that's why it wasn't until Dec. 12 that I finally finished the job and got the page up.

What was the substance of that first Web page?
What you could do with that home page was two things. The BINLIST link would allow you to do a search onto the SLAC online phone book and get phone numbers and e-mail addresses. The second link, called HEP, was an interface to a pre-print database. People would send a copy of their paper to various institutes before it got published, and that was called a pre-print.

What did you use by way of a browser in those early days?
The only browsers available were on the NeXT machine. The only other thing you could use was the line mode browser, like your DOS shell. Microsoft called it a command prompt. All people who did not have a NeXT machine would see was text. Wherever there was a link you'd find a number, and you'd have to type in the link.

But even that was an improvement over the way people used to interface with SPIRES. So I sent an e-mail to Tim Berners-Lee, saying, "Our server's up and running, give it a try." This would be Dec. 13. Tim wrote back and said, "Great, congratulations. But your pages don't look very pretty."

What happened next?
The next most important event happened a month later, Jan. 15, 1992. There was a workshop in La Londe, France, on advanced computing techniques for high-energy and nuclear physics. At that workshop, Tim Berners-Lee gave the first demo of the Web outside of the CERN laboratory. The attendance of the workshop was about 200 physicists from around the world, and he gave a demonstration that started off with his technology, showing what you could do, like a sales pitch. But the grand finale of this demo was that he connected to the SLAC database using his browser, and this opened people's eyes. Their jaws just dropped. They knew the database, and they saw how easy it was to access it from this town in southern France.

You had these 200 people, who were coming from maybe 100 or more different institutes from around the world, and imagine how anxious they were to get back home and show their colleagues! That was a giant push in advancing the Web. It not only existed, but it had something useful on it.

What was your traffic like in those early days?
It immediately started picking up once that conference was over. It took people a while to figure out where to get a browser, but once they did, traffic started picking up. CERN had their own pre-print database, but it didn't take long before more CERN physicists were using the SLAC database 6,000 miles away than the CERN database, because (the Web interface) was more friendly.

So this idea of friendliness is the key to the Web's success?
I think so. The early information on the Web may have been available by other means, but could mere mortals actually handle it? You usually found yourself on some foreign computer, you didn't know the commands, there was always some syntax you couldn't quite remember. There are two things about the Web: It makes things easier with visual clues, and what you see and do doesn't depend on what computer is hosting the service.

What happened with browser development after your Web page went up? There's some confusion over who invented the first browser, or the first browser with a graphical interface.
The only graphical browser available was for the NeXT machines, which were not that popular. I think there were fewer than 100,000 sold. Everybody else had a line mode browser. And Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau were too busy promoting the Web to write a graphical browser for Unix. They hoped that the idea of the Web would spread and somebody else would do that work.

Did you go on to become an ace Web designer?
No. I was too busy with my other projects. I handed it over to the chief librarian and told her she'd have to find some help to keep it going. I told her frankly that I didn't want to spend my time doing a lot of that but that she could find help from other people in the lab.

That group of people who helped her were called the Web Wizards. Tony Johnson was one of the people at that workshop. He started working much more closely with the Web and created the first dynamic Web pages, or pages that were dynamically created in response to the query, as opposed to static pages that are written up. That was an innovation--nobody had done that before he did it.

He was also interested in the graphics. He wanted a browser that would work under X-Windows (the Unix windowing system). Tony was interested in having not only a browser, but a browser that could do graphics.

What was (Netscape Communications co-founder) Marc Andreessen's contribution?
Marc picked it up and tried it out. Tony the other day showed us the e-mail he got from Marc, saying, "Congratulations, this is super," and then giving him a list of about 10 bugs. Over the next few days, he got an additional 10 messages from Marc with bug reports and additional features Marc wanted. At this point Tony felt he didn't want to work on the browser full-time, and got out of the business. Marc took over. Once Mosaic came out from the NCSA, it really started moving.

But it all started among a bunch of physicists.
It really had to start somewhere, and it all started here in high-energy physics.

High-energy physics means atom smashing?
We don't do atoms anymore, they're too big. We smash particles. At SLAC we work on electrons, at Fermilab they do protons.

How did the first graphical browsers get started?
In parallel with all of our Web development there was an effort going on at Los Alamos. We had a pre-print server, so you'd get the pre-prints. That's OK, but if you were going to put the whole paper on the Web the figures in the papers needed graphics to be displayed. So the motivation to have a browser that would do graphics was pretty strong.

What's the worst thing about how the Web has developed, from a structural/architectural perspective?
I don't want to answer that question, because it's been so remarkably successful with hardly any glitches. The whole Internet itself was designed by a group of people sitting on the network with less than 256 computers. The original ARPANET protocol, the predecessor of TCP/IP, could only support 256 computers. When they realized it was going to run out, they made the plans and did the testing, and since then things haven't really changed.

We've gone from tens of thousands of computers to millions of computers today without a major glitch. When you design systems, it's hard to design them to be scalable. That's a very hard thing to do, and they did a very, very good job. The same holds (true) for the Web itself. I don't think Tim Berners-Lee imagined that every high school, news station and airline would have a Web server. And yet it scaled that far without any fundamental change in how it works.

It's hard to think about the last ten years and say there weren't any glitches.
Of course, along the way, there are tricks that hackers like to do for fun that put some glitches in things. But this has always been relatively minor compared to the ways that it scaled from the original imaginings of its authors.

When did the Web become a central or daily part of the average scientist's life and work? When did it become ubiquitous in science?
Of course (the academic community) took to it immediately. It was obvious to everybody that this was the better way. It was an easy sell. This is an example of the science community solving problems for themselves with a residual benefit to the rest of the world. My bottom line is that you must have a healthy, adequately funded scientific community, because we're solving problems you don't even know you have yet. And the Web is one of the most outstanding examples of that.

Topics: Browser, Servers, Software

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