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A Short History of The World Wide Web

by Thomas More

Copyright © 1997 Thomas More. All rights reserved.

"The world has arrived at an age of cheap complex devices of great reliability; and something is bound to come of it." -Dr. Vannevar Bush, in 1945

First of all, what is the World Wide Web? Also known as WWW, or W3 for short, many people think it's just a nerd's term for the Internet. Not so! The Internet was developed in the 1970s, and W3 wasn't born until 1990, almost 20 years later! Think of the Internet as the hardware, mostly computers and telephone wires, and W3 as the software-the computer program that allows you to search for specific information from any of the (currently) over one million Web servers on the Internet, without knowing anything about how it works, where the server is located, or any funny codes. This is important to most of us, because prior to W3, the Internet was practically limited to computer-science academics and hobbyists.

In the Beginning, There Was Chaos

The problem with sharing information between different kinds of computers is that, like people, they don't all speak the same language. W3 is the answer to that problem, and it has brought the global wealth of information that is available on the Internet within reach of anyone with a personal computer and a modem, or just a television and a set-top box (WebTV).

So if W3 is not the Internet, what is it? Technically, W3 is a distributed heterogeneous collaborative multimedia information system. You knew that, right? Actually, it's a computer program, the purpose of which is to allow you to search for information from the Internet by relative content, or to put it another way, to create your own index of such information that you may identify with key words, and then to view text and pictures on that subject from many different types of computers.

W3 was conceived by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, in 1989, and the program was written in 1990-1991, using a NeXT computer. CERN is located on the border between Switzerland and France, and represents a European collaboration to share the expense of advanced research into the tiniest bits that make up the universe. Tim was consulting there on the problems of indexing the large amounts of data associated with particle physics research. A graduate of Oxford University (UK), Tim was already an expert in electronic data management and telecommunications when he came to CERN. Currently he does research at the Laboratory for Computer Science (LCS) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) (USA). He also directs the W3 Consortium, an open forum of companies and organizations with the mission to realize the full potential of the World Wide Web.

Essentially, what Tim did at CERN was develop a hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP). This set of instructions allows computers to exchange data in hypertext, rather than native file formats. In Tim's own words (from his paper titled "Hypertext Transfer Protocol: A Stateless Search, Retrieve and Manipulation Protocol"): "HTTP is a protocol with the lightness and speed necessary for a distributed collaborative hypermedia information system."

In 1991, in a presentation of the data transfer protocol, Tim described the Web this way: "The WWW project merges the techniques of information retrieval and hypertext to make an easy but powerful global information system. The WWW consists of documents, and links. Indexes are special documents which, rather than being read, may be searched. The result of such a search is another ('virtual') document containing links to the documents found. The Web contains documents in many formats. Those documents which are hypertext (real or virtual) contain links to other documents, or places within documents. All documents, whether real, virtual or indexes, look similar to the reader and are contained within the same addressing scheme. To follow a link, a reader clicks with a mouse (or types in a number if he or she has no mouse). To search and index, a reader gives keywords (or other search criteria). These are the only operations necessary to access the entire world of data."

In December 1991, W3 was demonstrated at Hypertext '91 in San Antonio, Texas. It was received with considerable enthusiasm by the technical types in attendance, but it was not the only system for "surfing the Internet." By the way, that term "surfing the Internet" was coined by Jean Armour Polly, the original "Net Mom" and member of an early communal connection to the Internet, in the San Francisco Bay area (USA), known as "The WELL" (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link). This group of Internet pioneers ventured forth into cyberspace without the Web as a safety net, and without a Navigator to guide them. The WELL dates back to 1985, practically the Dark Ages of the Internet, and was the prototype for future organizations such as America Online (AOL) and CompuServe.

But there was life on the Internet before W3. In 1988, CERFnet (California Education and Research Federation network) was founded at San Diego State University (USA), by Susan Estrada. You will see from the following announcement that surfing the Net was considerably more costly then than it is now.

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CERFnet

The California Education and Research Federation (CERFnet) has announced DIAL N' CERF USA. It allows educators, scientists, corporations, and individuals to access the Internet from anywhere in the continental US. A toll-free number provides subscribers with the capability to log in to remote machines, transfer files, and send and receive electronic mail, as if they had a standard, dedicated connection. The cost of this toll-free connection is $20 a month with a $10 per hour usage fee. There is an installation charge of $50.

CERFnet Network Information Center (NIC)

This is a repository for many eclectic Internet guides and RFC (Requests For Comments) from many sources, including the famous, if technical, "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Internet." These may be obtained via anonymous ftp to nic.cerf.net (192.102.249.3).

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Wow, only $10 per hour online! And be sure to memorize all those numbers in the Internet address.

Way Stations on the Information Superhighway

Another forerunner of W3 was Wide Area Information Servers (WAIS), pronounced "ways." This server software, developed in 1991 by Thinking Machines Corporation of Menlo Park (USA), allows users to get information from a variety of servers by means of a client, or user program. The user tells the client, in plain English, what to look for out in dataspace. The client then searches various WAIS servers around the globe. The user tells the client how relevant each hit is, and the client can be sent out on the same quest again and again to find new documents. Client software is available for many different types of computers. WAIStation is an easy-to-use Macintosh implementation of the WAIS client application.

If Archie, Veronica and Jughead Can Surf the Net, When Will We?

At the same time that WAIS and W3 were being developed (1991-1992), the "archie" server program was written by Peter Deutsch, Alan Emtage, Bill Heelan, and Mike Parker at the Computing Centre, McGill University in Quebec (Canada). Archie is a user application for AIX operating systems, and can perform a search for keywords in all of the file names available from the Internet's anonymous file-transfer-protocol (FTP) servers.

Deutsch described it as follows: "The archie service is a collection of resource discovery tools that together provide an electronic directory service for locating information in an Internet environment. Originally created to track the contents of anonymous FTP archive sites, the archie service is now being expanded to include a variety of other online directories and resource listings. Currently, archie tracks the contents of over 800 anonymous FTP archive sites containing some 1,000,000 files throughout the Internet. Collectively, these files represent well over 50 Gigabytes (50,000,000,000 bytes) of information, with additional information being added daily. Anonymous FTP archive sites offer software, data and other information which can be copied and used without charge by anyone with connection to the Internet. The archie server automatically updates the listing information from each site about once a month, ensuring users that the information they receive is reasonably timely, without imposing an undue load on the archive sites or network bandwidth."

Almost simultaneously in 1991, the "Internet Gopher" was developed by graduate students at the University Of Minnesota. A gopher (or go-fer) is someone who fetches items at his or her boss's command. Gopher is not an acronym; it happens to be the team mascot at U of M. Some of the early '90s Internet resource programs had much more colorful names. Remember, these are a bunch of college kids playing with their computers. (There's even a command on the Gopher screen to "Hide" the browser window, just in case you were "researching" something other than your current assignment.) Unfortunately, the Gopher server is not being maintained at U of M any longer, although there are still some active ones at other universities.

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/ / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / Introduction to the UNIX Gopher Client / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / /

-----> Rev. 2 <-----

This guide assumes you use a command line interface for UNIX. This means that you type commands at some sort of prompt. If you use a menu or other interface then you may have to adapt some of the information in the procedures.

Login as gopher after you telnet to consultant.micro.umn.edu and enjoy having a computer do all the work for you. Almost. Gopher is still in experimental mode at many gopherized sites. Still, it is one of the best ways to locate information on and in the Internet.

Besides archie, the gopher at consultant.micro.umn.edu includes fun and games, humor, libraries (including reference books such as the Hacker's Dictionary, Roget's 1911 Thesaurus, and the CIA World Fact Book), gateways to other US and foreign gophers, news, and gateways to other systems.

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Veronica Goes for the Gopher

If you've ever read Archie comics, you know that Veronica is always after Archie, but Archie has eyes only for Betty. In this case, Veronica was after the Gopher problem, not Archie.

VERONICA is an acronym for Very Easy Rodent-Oriented Net-wide Index to Computerized Archives. The program was designed as a solution to the problem of the rapidly expanding Gopher Web, which it does by providing a keyword search of more than 500 Gopher menus. VERONICA helps you find Gopher-based information without doing a menu-by-menu, site-by-site search. VERONICA is to the Gopher database what archie is to the FTP archives. VERONICA was developed by Steve Foster and Fred Barrie at the University of Nevada in 1992.

While archie searches for key words in file names, VERONICA searches for key words in the Gopher menus. VERONICA provides the user with a customized Gopher menu that can be used to immediately access the information. Archie gives the user a listing of files and their directory path names so that a user can manually download a file, using an FTP program for file retrieval.

Jughead to the Rescue

In the comics, Jughead was Archie's hapless friend, sort of a human Goofy. JUGHEAD is an acronym for Jonzy's Universal Gopher Hierarchy Excavation And Display. JUGHEAD is a search engine that allows structured searching through Gopher menus, or it can create a linear view of the Gopher menu space. JUGHEAD was developed by Rhett "Jonzy" Jones at the University of Utah Computer Center (USA), and released in 1993.

Mosaic Makes it Easy to Surf the Web

Also in 1993, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois (USA), released the first version of "Mosaic for X." This was the first "Web browser" suitable for nontechnical people to search the Web, and it was available for the Macintosh, Windows and UNIX operating systems, all with the same interface. "Mosaic" helped to make W3 the most popular system for finding information on the Internet because of its graphical user interface (GUI) which eliminated the tedium of typing commands, paths, and Internet addresses that was necessary in earlier systems.

1994: "The Woodstock of the Web"

Although it was released in 1991, it wasn't until 1994 that W3 became the world's surfboard on which to ride the wave of the rapidly expanding Internet. At the beginning of 1993 there were only about 50 HTTP servers on the Web. Now there are over one million. This geometric expansion began in earnest in 1994, along with similar developments that together fueled the tremendous growth of the Internet.

In January of that year, Spry Electronics announced "Internet in a Box," the first commercial product designed to enable nontechnical people to access the Internet. Later, Spry would be purchased for "about $100 million" by CompuServe which, by doing so, stepped up to the competition for the burgeoning numbers of Internet service subscribers, along with AOL and Prodigy, which are currently the big three of Internet service providers (ISPs).

In March 1994 Marc Andressen and several colleagues left NCSA to form Mosaic Communications Corporation, which is known nowadays as Netscape.

In May 1994 a press conference was held at the CERN nuclear laboratory in Switzerland where W3 was developed. Local high-school students demonstrated to the press how easy it was to "surf the Net" using the Web. This was the "First International W3 Conference," and has been called "the Woodstock of the Web." VRML was conceived at this conference, which was described in the presentation as follows: "VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language) is a language for describing multi-participant, interactive simulations-virtual worlds on the Internet, hyperlinked through W3. All aspects of virtual world display, interaction and internetworking can be specified using VRML. It is the intention of its designers that VRML will be the standard language for interactive simulation on W3."

December 14 - First W3 Consortium Meeting at MIT (USA).

December 15 - First meeting with European Industry and the W3 European Consortium.

December 20 - Thomas More goes online.

In the Future You'll Have an "Oh, Yeah?" Button on Your Browser

The following is part of a recent interview with Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of W3, which appeared online in MIT's Technology Review (TR in the text, below). You can read the entire interview, if you wish (and get a free copy of Technology Review) from the folks at MIT.

TR: How has the Web departed from your early vision of it?

BERNERS-LEE: The original idea was that anybody would very easily be able to write documents that could be connected through hypertext links. What has surprised me is the way people have been prepared to put up with manually encoding text. HTML was never supposed to be something that you would see-it was intended to be something produced by an editor program. An analogy is with word processors. Computer users don't have to write in all kinds of codes to format their document with fonts, margins, and so on. So it staggers me that people have actually put up with having to write HTML by hand. Similarly, I had not expected people to have to work out the hypertext links by looking up and typing in those long, complex codes for addressing. URL syntax was never intended for human consumption. It was intended for a machine.

TR: But ordinary users of the Web don't need to know HTML-that's only for the people who create content.

BERNERS-LEE: Yes, but the Web needs information providers as well as readers. And the fact that creating Web pages has been difficult has directly influenced the type of information made available on it; content is produced only by those with enough incentive to learn to write HTML.

TR: How had you envisioned it working?

BERNERS-LEE: In the prototype, you could create a link without having to write any code. You'd just browse around, find something interesting, go back to the thing you were writing, and then just make a click on a hot key, and it would make a link for you automatically. This ability is now starting to become available-in a couple of years, all the documents on the Web will probably be created without the direct use of HTML and URL syntax that is now so much a part of the Web.

TR: The Web has a reputation in some quarters as more sizzle than steak-you hear people complain that there's no way of judging the authenticity or reliability of the information they find there. What would you do about this?

BERNERS-LEE: People will have to learn who they can trust on the Web. One way to do this is to put what I call an "Oh, yeah?" button on the browser. Say you're going into uncharted territory on the Web and you find some piece of information that is critical to the decision you're going to make, but you're not confident that the source of the information is who it is claimed to be. You should be able to click on "Oh, yeah?" and the browser program would tell the server computer to get some authentication-by comparing encrypted digital signatures, for example-that the document was in fact generated by its claimed author. The server could then present you with an argument as to why you might believe this document or why you might not.

TR: This would be particularly useful, I'd think, in verifying orders or payments for electronic commerce.

BERNERS-LEE: Yes-it would help if, for example, you find a beautiful offer on the Web for some product and you want to find out if it's for real. But this kind of verification is important for more than just buying and selling things. Every political candidate, for instance, seems to have two or three "spoof" Web sites-they look almost, but not quite, like the real thing. When you visit the real White House Web page, for example, you can click on an icon of a cat and hear a meow. Then one day you click on a White House link from somebody's page and you click on the cat and you hear some awful noise instead-you've been spoofed. You're not really at the White House-you're at something like white-house.com instead of the real thing, which is whitehouse.gov. So you ought to be able to press "Oh, yeah?" and the browser sends out a request to cryptographically check the authenticity of the site.

TR: What other refinements in the Web are you most eager for?

BERNERS-LEE: I hope that the notion of having a separate piece of software called a "browser" will disappear. A browser is something that (a) only allows you to read and not write, and (b) is a single window on the world. Instead, your entire screen should be a window on the information world, with a small part of it representing what's on your local "desktop." Browser and operating-system interfaces will become so interlinked that they will, for all practical purposes, become one. Whether the operating system swallows the browser or the browser swallows the operating system, there will be one interface. As with the television and the home computer, the question of which will "win" is really a question about which companies will come out on top; the resultant object in any case will be both.

TR: What will using the Web be like in a few years, assuming these developments occur?

BERNERS-LEE: You won't see a browser, you will see a document. You'll follow some links and find other documents and these documents will leave a trail of documents across your desk. And then you might find that one of them takes you to a store, and in the store you find a shopping cart that you can move around and put into it things that you want to buy. And then at the end of the day you can buy what's in the cart. The code that makes this cart do what it does won't be anything you've bought, but when you first click on the cart icon that software will be automatically transferred through the Net to your computer.

TR: So software would be acquired on a need-to-use basis?

BERNERS-LEE: Yes, as you wander around the Web, your computer will become encrusted with pieces of software necessary to allow you to interact with and represent to you the things that you're reading about. If you happen to be an astronomer and you've been looking at spectra, then spectrum-analyzer software will allow you to manipulate them. If you're a biology student and you download some images of DNA molecules, then the code to send this DNA will come with a little bit of software that allows you to spin it around and break it up. And so your computer's software ability will not depend on where you've been shopping but just where you've been reading-where you've been browsing on the Web. The very idea of software will become a bit more submerged. It will be seen less as a discrete entity that you go out and buy and more as a support to the objects that are part of the information space. The software will move on and off your machine without your having to worry about it.

TR: What you're talking about sounds like a world in which far more people write software than do now.

BERNERS-LEE: Yes, but they won't think of it as creating a program. They will just be creating documents, but the software needed to view and manipulate these documents will be part of it. Tables of data will have spreadsheet software built into them, for example, but the person writing the table certainly won't have to write a spreadsheet program. Java is a step in this direction. But an incredible amount of work needs to be done to achieve the user interface that I have rather glibly described. We also have to establish a level of trust that makes it possible for information to move from the Net onto your computer and to do work, possibly including writing files onto your hard drive. You want to make sure that it's not possible for a malicious person to be able to send you something that will look at your personal files and override them, or broadcast their contents.

TR: Are there any other items on your World Wide Web wish list?

BERNERS-LEE: I want better international access, especially in developing countries. And I'd like to see a more organized market of Web server space, so that everybody with an Internet connection could put information out cheaply. I expect that computers able to use the Web will become fairly ubiquitous, about as pervasive as televisions are now. In fact, the last computer I bought can play video-when you have a computer and good Web access, who even needs a television? I don't think everybody will want to post information on what amounts to a global bulletin board, but I certainly hope that every business has a Web page. I would also like to see deregulation of telecommunications globally so that Internet access to the home becomes cheaper. The United States is better than Europe in this regard, but even here Net access is not as cheap as it could be.

TR: Why do you think the Web has resonated so strongly with today's culture?

BERNERS-LEE: The openness of the Web is a powerful attraction. Everyone can not only read what's on the Web but contribute to it, and everybody is in a sense equal. There's a sense of boundless opportunity.

Author's note: In spite of Tim's foreboding, here is a link to the "Beginner's Guide to HTML."

A Short History of Hypertext, the Seed From Which W3 Was Grown

A prerequisite for W3 was hypertext, the idea for a database program in which one can encode links to cause additional information to be displayed, sort of like electronic footnotes. Ted Nelson, who calls himself a designer and generalist, coined the terms "hypertext" and "hypermedia" in 1965. Currently he is a Professor of Environmental Information at Keio University SFC campus, Fujisawa (Japan), where he hopes to continue development of project Xanadu, a global shared-information system similar to W3; in fact it could have been a model for W3, having predated it by several years.

Here are some remarks from Theodor Holm Nelson:

"The Xanadu system, conceived in 1960 and still an active project, has been misunderstood by nearly everyone, sometimes graciously (as in the O'Reilly Mosaic Handbook), sometimes maliciously (as in "The Curse of Xanadu" by Gary Wolf in WIRED). The Xanadu system was backed for a time by Autodesk, Inc. in California; now I am living and working in Japan in order to get backing for a new incarnation of the system. Many people think Xanadu was an attempt to build the World Wide Web. On the contrary: the World Wide Web was exactly what we were trying to prevent. The Xanadu system has always been a specific data structure and a publication plan around it, with a complete method for copyright handling, royalty, ownership and quotation."

You can read about the Xanadu project online.

In his autobiography, Ted explains that he feels the free exchange of information on the Internet will affect the world to an extent well beyond the Information Age. He says this freedom of information will promote the following:

If you find the social and philosophical implications of hypertext totally fascinating, as I did, you might also want to visit this site.

What Tim Berners-Lee did at CERN was apply the principle of hypertext to retrieve data, not from just within a single computer, but from all of the computers hooked together in a network and, ultimately, to the millions of computers on the Internet. The result of his effort was the data-transfer protocol, HTTP, which is the heart of W3.

To make W3 universal, it was also necessary for Tim to develop the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), which is a programming language for style sheets, or document definition. HTML is the code used to define the parts and layout of a document on the World Wide Web. This makes it possible to read data from many different types of computers, and display it on other different types of computers.

A View of the Future, From 1945

The concept of hypertext, or the coded linking of related information among numerous documents, was conceived well before the term was coined by Ted Nelson or W3 was developed by Tim Berners-Lee. Dr. Vannevar Bush described a hypothetical "personal device" that he called a "memex," in an article entitled "The Way We Think," which appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in July 1945. In an eerie vision of the future, he pointed out that this device's most important feature would be to associate information at hand with related information from other documents. This is the principle of hypertext. Dr. Bush's vision of the future has been likened to Ralph Waldo Emerson's famous address of 1837 on "The American Scholar." (Read the entire article online.)

Here is Dr. Bush's description of the "memex":

"Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and to coin one at random, 'memex' will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.

"It consists of a desk, and while it can presumably be operated from a distance, it is primarily the piece of furniture at which he works. On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There is a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers. Otherwise it looks like an ordinary desk.

"Any given book of his library can thus be called up and consulted with far greater facility than if it were taken from a shelf. As he has several projection positions, he can leave one item in position while he calls up another. A special button transfers him immediately to the first page of the index.

"When the user is building a trail, he names it, inserts the name in his code book, and taps it out on his keyboard. Before him are the two items to be joined, projected onto adjacent viewing positions. At the bottom of each there are a number of blank code spaces, and a pointer is set to indicate one of these on each item. The user taps a single key, and the items are permanently joined. In each code space appears the code word. It is exactly as though the physical items had been gathered together to form a new book. It is more than this, for any item can be joined into numerous trails.

"[This is the principle of] associative indexing, the basic idea of which is a provision whereby any item may be caused at will to select immediately and automatically another. This is the essential feature of the memex. The process of tying two items together is the important thing."

Dr. Bush died in 1974, 20 years before his amazing vision of W3 became a World Wide reality. Thank you, Van, for seeing this in our future more than 50 years ago.


During the week, Thomas More writes rather technical stuff about business software, but on weekends he likes to loosen up a bit and write about WWWiz stuff.