The Web - The Early Years
The Web - The Early Years
Written by Historian   
Wednesday, 22 May 2013
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The Web - The Early Years

A time before the World Wide Web? Yes, there was one. In fact the Web is quite young and we are just celebrating its 20th birthday. Can you imagine, or remember, an Internet without it?


It really  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. In fact there are a lot of users who today don't even realize that the wWeb is not the Internet and the Internet is not the wWeb. 

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 problem seemed to be that deep thinkers had lots of ideas about how to make data more accessible but they lacked the key technology to implement anything that worked.

The CERN connection

One that stood out from the rest  of the ideas 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 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!

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of this historic undertaking , a team at CERN have set out to restore the world's first Website and to preserve some of the digital assets associated with the birth of the Web.

You can now browse the world's first Website, which was originally hosted on Berners-Lee's NeXT computer and was about the World Wide Web itself. It is well worth clicking around the replica of this primitive site to realize just how far we've come in 20 years.



According to Dan Noyes on the project's blog, this first Website "was probably quite lonely" as few people had access either to browser or Web servers. One of the people who has a browser was Tim Berners-Lee and this screenshot is of the original NeXT Web browser in 1993:




It seems almost spooky to think of this very first Website, sitting there with no one able to browse it and few other pages to link to. There certainly would have been no need for Google at this point and you could correctly say "Have you visited the Website?"

What exactly did Berners-Lee invent?

The simple answer is HTTP and HTML. 

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. Over time it has been developed but it still is just a way for a Web browser to request a file. 

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. For example there was no need to invent URLs, domain names or IP addresses all of this already existed as part of the Internet. 

The Internet could have carried on quite happily without the invention of the Web but the Web needed the Internet as a communications infrastructure.



Last Updated ( Wednesday, 22 May 2013 )

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