Hypertext history

I’m not a big fan of acronyms in general but I like the word WWILF: What Was I Looking For. It’s such a webby word.

You know the drill: you start looking at a Wikipedia page about zeppelin crashes and before you know it, you’re reading about ekranoplans and Dyson spheres. That’s wwilfing.

Interestingly, there’s no Wikipedia entry for wwilfing. Maybe it should just redirect to the page about .

I’ve found the wwilfing motherlode for markup nerds like me: The Early History of HTML. It’s a short document, but each link will send you down a rabbit hole of geek history.

Thrill to the original code by Tim Berners-Lee for parsing hypertext! Gasp at the first document ever published on the web!

Interestingly, that first ever web page almost validates as HTML5. It’s just missing a doctype, which—as the spec makes clear—is only required for legacy reasons. Oh, the irony!

As an aside, the world’s first ever web site went live exactly nineteen years ago on August 6th, 1991. I know that because the front page of Wikipedia had it listed under “On this day…” I was wwilfing again.

Back to that document about the early history of HTML… it’s a fascinating look at the origins of many of the elements that we use to build web pages today. I knew that HTML was based on SGML but I always thought that Sir Tim came up with the elements in HTML Tags himself. It turns out that many of the elements come directly from an existing flavour of SGML already in use at CERN called GMLguide.

That’s a textbook example of the that are now codified for HTML5:

Speaking of HTML5, check out this excerpt from an email Tim Berners-Lee sent to Dan Connolly in 1991, describing how HTML should work:

I would in fact prefer, instead of <H1>, <H2> etc for headings [those come from the AAP DTD] to have a nestable <SECTION>..</SECTION> element, and a generic <H>..</H> which at any level within the sections would produce the required level of heading.

That’s right: the outline algorithm for sectioning content in HTML5 was first proposed nineteen years ago!

If you’re as fascinated as I am by the history of the web, you’ll enjoy re-reading the original proposal by Tim Berners-Lee for a global hypertext system, which is famously described as vague but exciting. I’m struck by the relevance of the opening problem statement, Losing Information at CERN:

The problems of information loss may be particularly acute at CERN, but in this case (as in certain others), CERN is a model in miniature of the rest of world in a few years time. CERN meets now some problems which the rest of the world will have to face soon.

The proposed solution—what would become the World Wide Web—is ingenious:

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 it the information contained would grow past a critical threshold, so that the usefulness of the scheme would in turn encourage its increased use.

The original problem still remains. The web hasn’t solved the problem of data loss but it has provided us with the means to quickly and easily share incredible amounts of data …but will that data simply disappear again?

Have you published a response to this? :