Tags: cern



100 words 053

When I got back from Bletchley Park yesterday, I immediately started huffduffing more stories about cryptography and code-breaking.

One of the stories I found was an episode of Ockham’s Razor featuring Professor Mark Dodgson. He talks about the organisational structure at Bletchley Park:

The important point was the organization emphasised team-working and open knowledge sharing where it was needed, and demarcation and specialisation where it was most appropriate.

This reminds of another extraordinary place, also displaying remarkable levels of collaboration, that has an unusual lack of traditional hierarchies and structure: CERN.

Bletchley Park produced the computer. CERN produced the web.

100 words 040

Yesterday was April 30th. On April 30th in 1993, the world changed. But this world-changing event was marked by the simplest of actions—a couple of signatures and a some rubber stamps.

Twenty two years ago the World Wide Web was placed into the public domain.

When I was at CERN a few years ago with my fellow hackers, Robert Cailliau produced his copy of this document. It passed around the table. When it came to me, I held it like a magic scroll.

“Be careful—there are only two copies of that,” he said. “And CERN have misplaced theirs.”

The ghost of browsers past

Even before a line of code was written for the line-mode browser simulator when we gathered together at CERN, there was a gleeful period of digital spelunking.

Brian goes browsing Demonstration data sources

We poked at the markup of the first ever website

  • What’s that NEXTID element? Turns it out it’s something specific to the NeXT operating system.
  • Why does the first iteration of HTML already contain H1 through to H6? It’s because they were lifted wholesale from a flavour of SGMLStandard Generalized Markup Language—that was already in use at CERN.

Oh, and Brian asked Robert Cailliau why they went with the term World Wide Web. “Well,” he said, “we had to call it something. And we thought we could always change it later.”

Then there was the story of the line-mode browser. It was created by Nicola Pellow, who was a student at CERN in 1990. She later worked on the Mac browser but her involvement with kickstarting the world wide web ended around 1993. She never showed up to any of the reunions.

We poked around in the (surprisingly short) source code of the line-mode browser. We found the lines that described how elements should be styled—the term “style sheet” appeared in a comment!

Proto-stylesheet Parsing the parser

If you’ve fired up the line-mode browser simulator and run some websites through it, you’ll probably see occasions where a whole bunch of JavaScript—nestled between script tags in the head of the document—gets rendered to the screen.


We could’ve hidden that JavaScript, but we made a deliberate decision to display it. That’s what the line-mode browser would have done. The script element didn’t exist back then. Heck, JavaScript didn’t exist back then. So browsers would have handled the unknown element in the standard HTML way: ignore the opening and closing tags and just render what’s in-between them. That’s still the error-handling model for unrecognised elements in HTML.

This is why we used to write our JavaScript like this:

<script language="JavaScript" type="text/javascript">
(JavaScript goes here)

The HTML comments stopped the JavaScript from being rendered to the screen in older browsers (like the line-mode browser). Using the opening HTML comment <!-- is functionally equivalent to // single-line comments in JavaScript …although you still need to prefix the closing --> comment with a //.

I remember doing this when I first started making websites in the 90s. You can see it if you view source on the first version of this website.

Later on, we all switched to XHTML so we updated the syntax to make it valid XML.

<script type="text/javascript">
(JavaScript goes here)

The <![CDATA[ part stops an XML parser from trying to parse the JavaScript. But HTML parsers would choke on that because it starts with an angle bracket. Hence the JavaScript-style // comment.

Anyway, we don’t bother with HTML or XHTML comments at the start of our script blocks anymore. And that’s why the line-mode browser simulator renders the JavaScript to the screen.

Note that the JavaScript isn’t executed. That’s thanks to a clever little hack by Remy: the line-mode browser simulator changes the type attribute of every script element to text/plain, effectively defusing them. Smart!

CERN and the line-mode browser

I remember when Mark took me aside to tell me about the project he was working on with CERN to restore the first ever website to its original URL. Needless to say, I was extremely pleased. After all, cool URIs don’t change.

Then, more recently, Mark told me about a follow-up project they were planning: to recreate the experience of using one of the first web browsers. He asked if I could help organise a hackday-style gathering to accomplish this. I jumped at the chance.

Together with Dan Noyes from the web team at CERN, we assembled a dozen people. Half of them were invited experts and half were chosen from applications. Because I was ostensibly involved in organising the event (although I didn’t really do much), I got a free pass.

And so we gathered in a war-room at CERN on the 18th and 19th of September to hack away at recreating the experience of using the line-mode browser in a modern browser—browserception!


Just to be clear, the line-mode browser wasn’t the world’s first web browser. That honour goes to Tim Berners-Lee’s WorldWideWeb programme. But whereas WorldWideWeb only ran on NeXT machines, the line-mode browser worked cross-platform and was, therefore, instrumental in demonstrating the power of the web as a universally-accessible medium.

Just being at CERN was amazing. It’s like double Disneyland for me: not only is it home to the greatest experiment conducted in the history of our species, it’s also the birthplace of the web itself. We all felt quite humbled to be there.

That feeling was amplified when we had a very special guest show up at the start of the event—Robert Cailliau, co-conspirator with Tim Berners-Lee in getting the web off the ground. He gave us a history lesson in the early days of the web; the ideas, the people, and the principles that drove it. At one point, he passed around his notarised copy of the document that put the web into the public domain twenty years ago. “Be careful with that,” he half-joked. “CERN don’t know where their copy is anymore.”


We had another guest from the early days of the web with us for the duration of our hacking: an IBM RS/6000 machine from the early nineties running the line-mode browser.

Jeremy Brian

I drew on my experience from hack farm and Science Hack Day to get the ball rolling. I was acutely aware that some of us felt pretty unsure about what we could contribute, so I suggested splitting into two teams: one to work on building the line-mode browser simulator, and the other to work on telling the story of its history. That seemed to work out pretty well.

Geeking out Planning Prepping Geeking out

Remy and Brian L. did the really hard work, implementing a simulation of the line-mode browser in Node.js. Lea, Kimberly and John made sure the output looked and felt right. Meanwhile Brian S. had the crazy idea of trying to recreate the font from the IBM machine …by taking a photo of the screen and drawing the glyphs from the photo! Of course Mark jumped on that.

Craig headed up the story-telling side of things with Martin and Angela. My contribution consisted of writing some explanatory words and doing a bit of image optimisation. It would be easy to feel inadequate in the company of such talented developers, but as the hacking went on, it was clear that all those little contributions really add up.

We made a thing

It will probably move from its current URL—line-mode.cern.ch—to a permanent home. In the meantime, why not grab the code and install a copy locally?

  1. Install Node.js.
  2. Clone the github repo to your machine.
  3. Open up the Terminal, navigate to your cloned copy, and type: node .
  4. Open localhost:8000 in a browser.

You can read more about the project but I’m guessing what you’ll really want to do is fire up the line-mode browser. By default it loads a copy of the first ever web page, but you can also navigate other websites by changing this query string:


Or, if you’re running it locally:


You can also grab a bookmarklet from the resources page. Drag it to your bookmarks bar, pull up whatever page you want to view, and hit the bookmarklet to see it line-mode style.

dConstruct Huffduffer Adactio Clearleft

All the little details—the font, the animation, the sound—add up to an experience that I find quite immersive. In some ways, it’s a silly little project, but it’s also trying to convey an important message. I really love the final result. I feel incredibly honoured to have been involved—in a small way—in its creation.

Oh, and we also got to go down into the heart of the Large Hadron Collider to see the LHCb experiment. That was, in the truest sense of the word, awesome.

Dan LHCb Amongst the machines LHCb

CERN dev days

I went to CERN last year. It was amazing.

Don’t you wish that you could go to the birthplace of the web and the home of the most ambitious science project in the history of humanity? Well now you can!

On September 19th and 20th, a small group of developers will get together at CERN to hack on a project to recreate the first line-mode web browser. You can be part of that group. Fill out this form to apply. You’ll get a bursary to cover travel and accommodation. What are you waiting for?

In case you’re thinking “but what could I possibly contribute?” …welcome to my world. Through some clerical error, I’ve managed to get myself on the roster, but I have no idea how I’ll be able to help. Perhaps I can provide some experience from Hack Farm, which was a similar kind of gathering. Although Hack Farm never had a Giant. Hadron. Collider!

Do you know CSS? JavaScript? Node? Anything web-related? Get your application in before Monday, July 15th.

See you in Geneva.


A funny thing happened when I was in Berlin two weekends ago. I was walking down the street that my AirBnB apartment was on when I heard someone say “Jeremy Keith?” It turned out it was Andre Jay Meissner, one of the founders of the excellent Open Device Lab website. We had emailed but never met before. Small world!

The Twitter account for the open device lab in Nuremburg pointed out that it’s been one year since I wrote a blog post about the open device lab I set up:

Much as I’d love to take credit for the idea of an open device lab, it simply isn’t true. Jason and Lyza had been working on setting up the open device lab in Portland for quite a while when I flung open the doors of the Clearleft test lab. But I will take credit for the “Ah, fuck it!” attitude that I introduced to the idea of sharing test devices with the community. Partly because I had seen how long it was taking the Portland device lab to get off the ground while they did everything by the book, I decided to just wait for the worst to happen instead of planning for it:

There are potential pitfalls to opening up a testing suite like this. What about the insurance? What about theft? What about breakage? But the thing about potential pitfalls is that they’re just that: potential. I’m treating all of them as YAGNI issues. I’ll address any problems if and when they occur rather than planning for worst-case scenarios.

It proved to be a great policy. So far, nothing has gone wrong. And it also served as an example to other people thinking about opening up device labs at their companies: “don’t sweat it; I didn’t!”

But as far as anniversaries go, the one-year birthday of the Clearleft device lab is not the most significant event of April 30th. Today is the twentieth anniversary of the publication of one of the most important documents in technological history: the document that officially put the World Wide Web into the public domain.

Open device labs are a small, small part of working on the web but I like to think that they represent the same kind of spirit of openness and sharing that Tim Berners-Lee and his colleagues demonstrated at CERN:

I really, really like the way that communal device labs have taken off. It’s like a physical manifestation of the sharing and openness that has imbued the practice of web design and development right from the start. View source, mailing lists, blog posts, Stack Overflow, and Github are made of bits; device labs are made of atoms. But they are all open for you to use and contribute to.

At UX London I had dinner with a Swiss entrepreneur who was showing off his proprietary native app on his phone and proudly declaring that he had been granted a patent. He seemed like a nice chap, but his attitude kind of made my skin crawl. It seemed so antithetical to the spirit of sharing and openness that I’m used to from the web.

James Gleick once described the web as the patent that never was:

Tim Berners-Lee invented the Web and the Web browser — that is, the world as we now know it — pretty much single-handedly, starting in about 1989, when he was working as a software engineer at CERN, the particle-physics laboratory in Geneva. He didn’t patent it, or any part of it. On the contrary, he has labored tirelessly to keep cyberspace open and nonproprietary.

We are all reaping the benefits of Sir Tim’s kindness and generosity.

To CERN with love

I went to Switzerland yesterday. More specifically, Geneva. More specifically, CERN. More specifically, ATLAS. Tireless Communications Officer Claudia Marcelloni went out of her way to make sure that I had a truly grand tour of life at CERN.

Claudia at the Globe Control room

CERN is the ultimate area of overlap in the Venn diagram of geek interests: the place where the World Wide Web was invented while people were working on cracking the secrets of the universe.

I saw the world’s first web server—Tim Berners-Lee’s NeXT machine. I saw the original proposal for the World Wide Web, complete with the note scribbled across the top “vague but exciting.”

The first web server Information Management: A Proposal

But I understand what James meant when he described the whole web thing as a sideshow to the main event:

Because, you know the web is cool and all, but when you’re trying to understand the fundamental building blocks of the universe and constructing the single greatest scientific instrument of ours and perhaps any civilisation, the whole modern internet is a happy side effect, it is a nice to have.

The highlight of my day was listening to Christoph Rembser geek out about his work: hunting for signs of elusive dark matter by measuring missing momentum when smashing particles together near the speed of light in a 27 kilometre wide massive structure 100 metres underneath France and Switzerland, resulting in incredible amounts of data being captured and stored within an unimaginably short timescale. Awesome. Literally, awesome.

Christoph geeking out Dr. Christoph Rembser

But what really surprised me at CERN wasn’t learning about the creation of the web or learning about the incredible scientific work being done there. As a true-blooded web/science nerd, I had already read plenty about both. No, what really took me by surprise was the social structure at CERN.

According to most established social and economic theory, nothing should ever get done at CERN. It’s a collection of thousands of physics nerds—a mixture of theorists (the ones with blackboards) and experimentalists (the ones with computers). When someone wants to get something done, they present their ideas and ask for help from anyone with specific fields of expertise. Those people, if they like the sound of the idea, say “Okay” and a new collaboration is born.

That’s it. That’s how stuff gets done. It’s like a massive multiplayer hackday. It’s like the ultimate open source project (and yes, everything, absolutely everything, done at CERN is realised publicly). It is the cathedral and it is the bazaar. It is also the tower of Babel: people from everywhere in the world come to this place and collaborate, communicating any way they can. In the canteen, where Nobel prize winners sit with students, you can hear a multitude of accents and languages.

CERN is an amazing place. These thousands of people might be working on completely different projects, but there’s a shared understanding and a shared ethos amongst every one of them. That might sound like a flimsy basis for any undertaking, but it works. It works really, really well. And this isn’t just any old undertaking—they’re not making apps or shipping consumer products—they’re working on the most important questions that humans have ever attempted to answer. And they’re doing it all within a framework that, according to conventional wisdom, just shouldn’t work. But it does work. And that, in its own way, is also literally awesome.

Christoph described what it was like for him to come to CERN from Bonn, the then-capital of West Germany. It was 1989, a momentous year (and not just because Tim Berners-Lee wrote Information Management: A Proposal). Students were demonstrating and dying in Tiananmen Square. The Berlin wall was coming down (only later did I realise that my visit to CERN took place on October 3rd, Tag der Deutschen Einheit). At CERN, Christoph met Chinese students, Russian scientists, people from all over the world transcending their political differences to collaborate on truly fundamental questions. And he said that when people returned to their own countries, they surely carried with them some of that spirit that they had experienced together at CERN.

Compared to the actual work going on at CERN, that idea is a small one. It may not be literally awesome …but it really resonated with me.

I think I understand a little better now where the web comes from.

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