Tags: devdays

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sparkline

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.

Clearleft

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)
//-->
</script>

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">
//<![CDATA[
(JavaScript goes here)
//]]>
</script>

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!

Hacking

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.”

Robert

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:

line-mode.cern.ch/www/proxy?url=http://adactio.com

Or, if you’re running it locally:

localhost:8000/www/proxy?url=http://adactio.com

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