CERN's world-first browser reborn: Now you can browse like it's 1990

Sir Tim Berners-Lee's WorldWideWeb browser is recreated as an app.

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A team at Switzerland-based research center CERN has rebuilt WorldWideWeb, the world's first browser created in 1990 for its researchers.   

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Earlier this month a group of developers and designers convened at CERN, or The European Organization for Nuclear Research, to rebuild WorldWideWeb in celebration of its 30th anniversary. 

The WorldWideWeb browser was built by Sir Tim Berners-Lee in 1990 on a NeXT machine, following his March 1989 proposal for a 'Mesh' or global hypertext system for CERN that he would later call the World Wide Web. 

The system aimed to address information loss that came with a high turnover and CERN's constantly changing technology. This was an acute problem at CERN that Berners-Lee predicted the world would also face within the next decade.    

Besides the browser, Berners-Lee developed 'httpd', the first hypertext server software for serving up early webpages. 

The WorldWideWeb browser simulator is now available online to view in a modern browser. For anyone curious to know how to use it, the developers have provided written instructions and a video demo

Opening a webpage in the browser involves selecting 'Document' from the menu, then selecting 'Open from full document reference', and typing in a URL such as http://w3c.org. Once inside a document, navigation requires double-clicking links.    

The team who rebuilt Berners-Lee's WorldWideWeb browser documented the five days they spent on the project. A key goal was to get the browser running on a NeXT cube machine they borrowed from CERN's museum.  

The developers used the NeXT computer's NeXTSTEP operating system to replicate the fonts used in the WordWideWeb browser, which were Helvetica, Courier, and Ohlfs. 

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Part of the WorldWideWeb site includes a neat infographic of the web's development since 1989 and key developments leading up to it, covering browsers, new HTML formats, key milestone websites, computers, networks, and formats. 

As noted by the WordWideWeb team, Berners-Lee's browser was also designed to be an editor. 

"At its heart, WorldWideWeb is a word processor …but with links. And just as you can use a word processor purely for reading documents, the real fun comes when you write your own. Especially when you throw hyperlinks into the mix," they explain. 

"Today it's hard to imagine that web browsers might also be used to create webpages. It turned out that people were quite happy to write HTML by hand — something that Tim Berners-Lee and colleagues never expected. 

"They thought that some kind of user interface would be needed for making web pages and links. That's what the WorldWideWeb browser provided. You could open a document in one window and 'mark' it. Then, in a document in another window, you could create a link to the marked page."

screenshot-2019-02-20-at-12-38-48.png

The WorldWideWeb browser simulator is now available online to view in a modern browser.

Image: CERN

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