The first graphical browser running on an old NeXt computer.

The World’s First Website

A while ago, in my post about Spam, I noted offhandedly that the World Wide Web celebrated its twentieth birthday last year. I don’t think many noticed, but this was actually celebrated, just a little bit, through a little gathering at CERN, the scientific institute where the Internet was born.

The Birth of the Web

The technology behind the World Wide Web, tracing back to 1989, was invented by Tim Berners-Lee, now the head of the W3C consortium, when he worked at CERN. His original proposal for the project is a bit dry, but nonetheless a very interesting read, and can be found over at the W3C website.

The inspiration for the ideas was modest, compared to what the Web has grown into. Berners-Lee noticed a problem at CERN: within such a large organization, where many different people worked on various complex projects, it was hard to keep track of who was who, what expertise was where, how to transfer knowledge between people or to newcomers, etc. He figured computers might be able to help out. He therefore wanted to create one big computer system where all worthwhile information could be stored and accessed. In the proposal, Berners-Lee sums up his idea for an interconnected web of information as follows:

`We should work toward a universal linked information system, in which generality and portability are more important than fancy graphics techniques and complex extra facilities.

The aim would be to allow a place to be found for any information or reference which one felt was important, and a way of finding it afterwards. The result should be sufficiently attractive to use that the information contained would grow past a critical threshold, so that the usefulness [of] the scheme would in turn encourage its increased use. ‘

That critical threshold was certainly reached, although we decided we did like ourselves some fancy graphics, and the Internet exploded into what it is today: a global network with half a billion websites that has radically transformed the way we communicate.

The First Websites

Back in the day, though, the Internet was not quite so vast. Berners-Lee developed the first server, the first web browser and editor, and the first web pages, and originally the technology was used to connect CERN to its affiliated scientific institutes, such as NIKHEF in The Netherlands and SLAC in the United States. In fact, for a while those three institutes provided the only three websites that were to be found online when people first started browsing the web.

As per Berners-Lee’s proposal, those first websites were nothing very fancy. One of the things CERN got up to last year for the Web’s twentieth birthday was to dig up the oldest version of the very first website they could find, and put it back online. You can now see what it looked like here. It’s interesting to see what the early Web was actually used for.

However, before there even was a graphical web browser, like we use today, there was, well, not a graphical browser. Before computers became widespread and readily available, many people were working on machines that weren’t capable of rendering a graphical representation of a website. For them, there were more primitive ways of accessing the Web, the main one being the Line-Mode Browser. As you might have guessed, this was a command-line browser that rendered websites purely as text, numbering the hyperlinks to allow navigation. Have a look at Fig. 1, for example.

Old line-mode view of one of the world's first websites from the Nikhef Institute in Amsterdam.

Fig. 1: Old line-mode view of one of the world’s first websites from the Nikhef Institute in Amsterdam.

But the celebratory gathering at CERN last year decided to go beyond just digging up such fossils. They figured, wouldn’t it be neat if people could line-mode-browse the web again? So, they built a new line-mode browser that anyone can use (rather than just those with twenty-year-old computers lying around) to treat us to a blast from the past. You can now see for yourself what the world’s first website looked like to people twenty years ago, and also how today’s Web would have been presented to them! Try for yourself at http://line-mode.cern.ch/.

Of course, modern websites aren’t meant to be viewed in line mode. You won’t see any images and some of the more complicated ones will be difficult to read, (just try line-mode browsing Google) but if you point it at a simpler website, it works just the same as for the world’s first website, representing the HTML code just as it would have twenty years ago.

The Web Unleashed

It’s hard to imagine that the World Wide Web started out as a side project that only a handful of people were interested in. But they quickly realized that Berners-Lee’s ideas were very useful and CERN decided they couldn’t very well keep it to themselves. On April 30th, 1993, they therefore released the Web, the first web browser and web server, as well as all the associated software that had been produced over the years, into the public domain. You can see the original statement here. No one owned the Internet, anyone could use it for whatever they pleased, and the World Wide Web as we have come to know it was born.

 

Image credit: Top image copyrighted to CERN, reproduced with permission; Fig. 1 provided by Kees Huyser at Nikhef.

Marco is a theoretical (bio)physicist, currently engaged in unraveling the sequence-dependent dynamics of DNA molecules to earn his PhD at Leiden University. Other passions include literature and history.

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