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It is hardly credible that there was a time before “The Web” but the truth of the matter is that it is a little over 20 years ago since it was first thought of and even less since it became widely used. The “dot com” bubble is now long burst and many of us can’t imagine the world without the web.
It is difficult to trace the ideas that led to the web back to a single original thought, but there have been many attempts to find ways of organising information to make it easier to access. In 1945 Vannevar Bush wrote an article describing how computers could be used create networks of information retrievable by the associations between them. In 1965 Ted Nelson invented the word “Hypertext” and proposed a system a lot like the Web – but nothing much came of it and a similar fate was suffered by lots of very general philosophical schemes for building systems that linked knowledge together in ways that would revolutionise human thought.
The CERN connection
One that stood out from the rest was “Enquire”, a hypertext system implemented by British scientist, Tim Berners-Lee, to help him remember the connections between people working at the CERN high-energy physics lab. After a brief spell away from CERN, Berners-Lee returned to a more permanent position there and, in 1989, submitted a proposal entitled 'A large hypertext database with typed links' to build a more ambitious hypertext system that would make use of the, by then well-established, Internet to share hypertext linked documents. Initially his proposal received no reply but he began working on the idea nevertheless.
Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web
In 1990 he wrote the Hyper Text Transfer Protocol HTTP, invented the Hyper Text Markup Language HTML, wrote a client browser and the first web server. The web server was installed at info.cern.ch and this was the very first web server from which everything grew. The web went public on August 6, 1991 but it was an event that was largely unnoticed by the world!
HTTP was, and is, a very simple request/response protocol. The browser sent a request for a file to the server and the server transmits the file to the browser. That’s more or less all there is to it.
HTML was used to format the data in the files. It consisted of formatting “tags” that the browser used to present the text to the user. At first the range of tags was very limited – headers, paragraphs, italic text and so on. It had hypertext links but they weren't clickable in the manner of a modern Web page – you had to type in the reference number!
Notice that the Web was built on top of the Internet as it then existed. It made use of the Internet and its lower level protocols such as TCP/IP to transmit data. The Internet could have carried on quite happily without the invention of the Web but the Web needed the Internet as a communications infrastructure.
At the time people were using the Internet but there was no web and this is difficult to understand.
What did they do?
Before the web there were a range of ways to get at information. Of the protocols the only ones that are still in common use are newsgroups, email and FTP – File Transfer Protocol. The key fact to keep in mind is that everything on the Internet at that particular time was text based. Everything was done with simple console based programs and everything was a matter of typing.
The original browser – you had to type in the numbers to follow the links! You can try other old browsers out at www.dejavu.org.
The early Web was like this as well and this too might come as a surprise. Berners-Lee thought that the Web should be about serious things and images shouldn’t be part of every page. The web was all about text documents. Even so the Web was so attractive an idea that it took off.
There are people who still find Lynx, an early text mode browser so much better than any of the modern browsers
In 1992 the first text browser was available by FTP download. At the start of 1993 the Web accounted for only 0.1% of the traffic on the Internet; by the end of the year this had risen to 1%. At the end of 1993 there were 200 web servers and six months later there were 1500. The Web just grew and grew and was rapidly becoming the only way to find and make information available.