Website Design

What the web looked like 30 years ago


A photo of Tim Berners-Lee in 1994.
Tim Berners-Lee at CERN in 1994. CERN

Thirty years ago today, August 6, 1991, Tim Berners-Lee posted an article about his World Wide Web project on the alt.hypertext newsgroup, inviting the public to take a look at the world’s first website . The invitation eventually launched a billion websites. Let’s go back to the genesis of the web.

WWW: the NeXTSTEP in the evolution of the Internet

In 1989, a British software developer at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (commonly abbreviated “CERN”) named Tim Berners-Lee became frustrated with the way scientists were sharing research within his organization. With many different file formats, programming languages ​​and computer platforms, he found it frustrating and inefficient to locate electronic records and figure out how to use them.

To solve this problem, Berners-Lee envisioned a network system using hypertext that would allow computers of different types to effortlessly share information over a computer network. This invention, first documented in 1989, became the World Wide Web, or WWW for short.

In 1990, Berners-Lee wrote the first web browser – called WorldWideWeb.app at first – and the first web server, httpd. They ran on Berners-Lee’s NeXTCube computer, which included advanced object-oriented development tools that came with the NeXTSTEP operating system.

The NeXT computer with a MegaPixel screen
Tim Berners-Lee used a similar NexT computer to design the World Wide Web. Next, Inc.

On his personal website, Berners-Lee recalls how NeXT’s development platform, which allowed people to design graphical interfaces quickly, helped him develop the web quickly. “I could do in a few months what would take over a year on other platforms because on the NeXT so much has already been done for me,” he wrote, referring to the ability to quickly create menus and display in text format.

During its initial testing phase, the World Wide Web remained an internal CERN project. According to CERN, Berners-Lee published the first website on December 20, 1990. Just 21 days later, on January 10, 1991, Berners-Lee invited the high-energy physics community to participate in his project, by publishing its software outside CERN. for the first time.

Throughout 1991, Berners-Lee continued to refine his browser and server code with feedback from others. On August 6, 1991, in a response to a request on the Usenet newsgroup alt.hypertext, Berners-Lee described the Web and mentioned a very public invitation for the community at large to participate: “The WWW Project has been launched to enable high energy physicists to share data, news and documentation. We are very interested in extending the web to other areas and having gateway servers for other data. Collaborators welcome!

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The “Info” box for the 1991 WorldWideWeb browser on NeXTSTEP.

This seemingly mundane post is now considered a key historical moment, mainly because it is so clearly documented. Berners-Lee’s desire to “[spread] the Web to Other Domains” follows his earlier realization that the Web could be useful to everyone on Earth, not just scientific researchers. It was time to share his creation with the world.

In his following post of the same day, Berners-Lee provided a summary of the WorldWideWeb project at CERN, outlining its purpose and operation. At the very end of the document, he included the now famous URL of the first website: http://info.cern.ch/hypertext/WWW/TheProject.htmlwhich you can still visit today.

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The first website: simple and informative

Titled the World Wide Web, the world’s first public website served as a simplified introduction to the concept of the Web itself for people outside CERN who might have been interested in the technology. Amazingly, CERN still hosts a copy of the site that you can view in your modern browser, believed to be from 1992. Unfortunately, the original version from December 1990 is lost to history.

The first website running in the WorldWideWeb browser on NeXTSTEP.
The first website running in the WorldWideWeb browser on NeXTSTEP.

Just like today, to use the very first website, you need to follow the hyperlinks (underlined on the page) by double-clicking them in the original WorldWideWeb browser. Each link would take you to other related sources of information in a decentralized, non-hierarchical web model, where information could take its most convenient form without rigidly imposed restrictions.

It should be noted that Berners-Lee’s WorldWideWeb browser had the particularity of allowing the editing of source Web documents as well as their viewing, which was part of his original vision of the Web. Subsequent browsers lost this capability until many years later. For a while, the web was primarily a read-only medium, with authoring taking place using offline tools.

Try the first web browser today

If you want to get a feel for what using the first browser was like, CERN hosts a simulation of the first web browser as it appeared in the NeXTSTEP operating system, and you can run it in your browser right now. today. The menu on the side of the screen follows the conventions of NeXTSTEP at the time. It is rendered in shades of gray because many NeXT computers come with high-resolution monochrome monitors.

A simulation of the first web browser working in a modern browser.
A simulation of the original WorldWideWeb browser running in a modern browser.

The link we have provided will take you directly to a recreation of the first website, but CERN also provides instructions on how to navigate to other sites. And if text looks blurry or choppy in Windows, we’ve found that making text bigger or smaller by holding down the Ctrl key and moving the mouse scroll wheel back and forth can fix it. lighten.

The rapid growth of the web

After Tim Berners-Lee opened the web to the public in 1991, the new medium grew rapidly. In particular, a few key milestones took place in 1993. On April 30, CERN released the fundamental technologies of the WWW into the public domain, paving the way for the Web to become a royalty-free standard that anyone could use. free. It was huge.

An excerpt from the April 1993 document declaring the web to be public domain.
An excerpt from the April 1993 document declaring the web (“W 3”) as public domain. CERN

Also in 1993, NCSA released Mosaic, the first web browser to display inline graphics (images within text on the page rather than in a separate window), sparking a multimedia revolution on the web. Mosaic has also integrated support for other Internet protocols such as FTP, NNTP and Gopher, conveniently putting them under the umbrella of the web browser. And Mosaic was free to download, which further encouraged the use of the WWW as an open platform.

In 1994, Tim Berners-Lee founded the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which was almost as important as the invention of the web itself. Without W3C’s open guidance, it is possible that the web long ago split into many incompatible technologies, which would have hampered the rapid adoption of the web worldwide.

But that didn’t happen, and today there are more than 1.2 billion websites online, according to Netcraft, although they estimate that only 126 million of them are “active” and not just parked domain names or other placeholders. Yet there is no doubt that activity via online social media (which is not factored into these results) has also increased astronomically over the past decade.

Will the web one day give way to a technology of the future? Only time will tell, but for now, the WWW remains an essential tool that connects most of humanity’s sources of information, just as Tim Berners-Lee envisioned it 30 years ago.


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