In the end, March 12, 1989 is as good a date as any to mark the birth of the web. The date that Tim Berners-Lee shared his proposal. That’s when the work began.
Exactly thirty years later, myself, Martin, and Remy are registered and ready to attend the anniversay event in the very same room where the existence of the Higgs boson was announced. There’s coffee, and there are croissants, but despite the presence of Lou Montulli, there are no cookies.
The doors to the auditorium open and we find some seats together. The morning’s celebrations includes great panel discussions, and an interview with Tim Berners-Lee himself. In the middle of it all, they show a short film about our hack week recreating the very first web browser.
It was surreal. There we were, at CERN, in the same room as the people who made the web happen, and everyone’s watching a video of us talking about our fun project. It was very weird and very cool.
Afterwards, there was cake. And a NeXT machine—the same one we had in the room during our hack week. I feel a real attachment to that computer.
We chatted with lots of lovely people. I had the great pleasure of meeting Peggie Rimmer. It was her late husband, Mike Sendall, who gave Tim Berners-Lee the time (and budget) to pursue his networked hypertext project. Peggie found Mike’s copy of Tim’s proposal in a cupboard years later. This was the copy that Mike had annotated with his now-famous verdict, “vague but exciting”. Angela has those words tattooed on her arm—Peggie got a kick out of that.
Eventually, Remy and I had to say our goodbyes. We had to get to the airport to catch our flight back to London. Taxi, airport, plane, tube; we arrived at the Science Museum in time for the evening celebrations. We couldn’t have been far behind Tim Berners-Lee. He was making a 30 hour journey from Geneva to London to Lagos. We figured seeing him at two out of those three locations was plenty.
By the end of the day we were knackered but happy. The day wasn’t all sunshine and roses. There was a lot of discussion about the negative sides of the web, and what could be improved. A lot of that was from Sir Tim itself. But mostly it was a time to think about just how transformative the web has been in our lives. And a time to think about the next thirty years …and the web we want.
I’m back at CERN because tomorrow, March 12th, 2019, is exactly thirty years on from when Tim Berners-Lee submitted his original “vague but exciting” Information Management: A Proposal. Tomorrow morning, bright and early, there’s an event at CERN called Web@30.
Jean-François also told us that the WorldWideWeb browser/editor was kind of like an advanced prototype. The idea was to get something up and running as quickly as possible. Well, the NeXT operating system had a very robust Text Object, so the path of least resistance for Tim Berners-Lee was to take the existing word-processing software and build a hypertext component on top of it. Likewise, instead of creating a brand new format, he used the existing SGML format and added one new piece: linking with A tags.
So the WorldWideWeb application was kind of like a word processor and document viewer mashed up with hypertext. Ted Nelson complains to this day that the original sin of the web was that it borrowed this page-based metaphor. But Nelson’s Project Xanadu, originally proposed in 1974 wouldn’t become a working reality until 2014—a gap of forty years. Whereas Tim Berners-Lee proposed his system in March 1989 and had working code within a year. There’s something to be said for being pragmatic and working with what you’ve got.
The web was also a mashup of ideas. Hypertext existed long before the web—Ted Nelson coined the term in 1963. There were conferences and academic discussions devoted to hypertext and hypermedia. But almost all the existing hypertext systems—including Tim Berners-Lee’s own ENQUIRE system from the early 80s—were confined to a local machine. Meanwhile networked computers were changing everything. First there was the ARPANET, then the internet. Tim Berners-Lee’s ambitious plan was to mash up hypertext with networks.
The World Wide Web officially celebrates its 30th birthday in March of this year. It’s kind of an arbitrary date: it’s the anniversary of the publication of Information Management: A Proposal. Perhaps a more accurate date would be the day the first website—and first web server—went online. But still. Let’s roll with this date of March 12, 1989. I thought it would be interesting not only to look at what’s happened between 1989 and 2019, but also to look at what happened between 1959 and 1989.
So now I’ve got two time cones that converge in the middle: 1959 – 1989 and 1989 – 2019. For the first time period, I made categories of influences: formats, hypertext, networks, and computing. For the second time period, I catalogued notable results: browsers, servers, and the evolution of HTML.
I did a little bit of sketching and quickly realised that these converging timelines could be represented somewhat like particle collisions. Once I had that idea in my head, I knew how I would be spending my time during the hack week.
Rather than jumping straight into the collider visualisation, I took some time to make a solid foundation to build on. I wanted to be sure that the timeline itself would be understable even if it were, say, viewed in the first ever web browser.
I marked up each timeline as an ordered list of h-events:
With the markup in place, I could concentrate on making it look halfway decent. For small screens, the layout is very basic—just a series of lists. When the screen gets wide enough, I lay those lists out horzontally one on top of the other. In this view, you can more easily see when events coincide. For example, ENQUIRE, Usenet, and Smalltalk all happen in 1980. But the real beauty comes when the screen is wide enough to display everthing at once. You can see how an explosion of activity in the early 90s. In 1994 alone, we get the release of Netscape Navigator, the creation of HTTPS, and the launch of Amazon.com.
The whole thing is powered by CSS transforms and positioning. Each year on a timeline has its own class that gets moved to the correct chronological point using calc(). I wanted to use translateX() but I couldn’t get the maths to work for that, so I had use plain ol’ left and right:
1971: Unix man pages, one of the first instances of writing documents with a markup language that is interpreted live by a parser before being presented to the user.
1980: Usenet News, because it was THE everyday discussion medium by the time we created the web technology, and the Web first embraced
news as a built-in information resource, then various platforms built on the web rendered it obsolete.
1982: Literary Machines, Ted Nelson’s book which was on our desk at all times
I really, really enjoyed building this “collider” timeline. It was a chance for me to smash together my excitement for web history with my enjoyment of using the raw materials of the web; HTML and CSS in this case.
The timeline pales in comparison to the achievement of the rest of the team in recreating the WorldWideWeb application but I was just glad to be able to contribute a little something to the project.
Nine people came together at CERN for five days and made something amazing. I still can’t quite believe it.
Coming into this, I thought it was hugely ambitious to try to not only recreate the experience of using the first ever web browser (called WorldWideWeb, later Nexus), but to also try to document the historical context of the time. Now that it’s all done, I’m somewhat astounded that we managed to achieve both.
Behold! A simulation of using the first ever web browser, recreated inside your web browser.
Now you could try clicking around on the links on the opening doucment—remembering that you need to double-click on links to activate them—but you’ll quickly find that most of them don’t work. They’re long gone. So it’s probably going to be more fun to open a new page to use as your starting point. Here’s how you do that:
Select Document from the menu options on the left.
A new menu will pop open. Select Open from full document reference.
Type a URL, like, say https://adactio.com
Press that lovely chunky Open button.
You are now surfing the web through a decades-old interface. Double click on a link to open it. You’ll notice that it opens in a new window. You’ll also notice that there’s no way of seeing the current URL. Back then, the idea was that you would navigate primarily by clicking on links, creating your own “associative trails”, as first envisioned by Vannevar Bush.
But the WorldWideWeb application wasn’t just a browser. It was a Hypermedia Browser/Editor.
From that Document menu you opened, select New file…
Type the name of your file; something like test.html
Start editing the heading and the text.
In the main WorldWideWeb menu, select Links.
Now focus the window with the document you opened earlier (adactio.com).
With that window’s title bar in focus, choose Mark all from the Links menu.
Go back to your test.html document, and highlight a piece of text.
With that text highlighted, click on Link to marked from the Links menu.
If you want, you can even save the hypertext document you created. Under the Document menu there’s an option to Save a copy offline (this is the one place where the wording of the menu item isn’t exactly what was in the original WorldWideWeb application). Save the file so you can open it up in a text editor and see what the markup would’ve looked it.
I don’t know about you, but I find this utterly immersive and fascinating. Imagine what it must’ve been like to browse, create, and edit like this. Hypertext existed before the web, but it was confined to your local hard drive. Here, for the first time, you could create links across networks!
After five days time-travelling back thirty years, I have a new-found appreciation for what Tim Berners-Lee created. But equally, I’m in awe of what my friends created thirty years later.
Of course Mark wanted to make sure the font was as accurate as possible. He and Brian went down quite a rabbit hole, and with remote help from David Jonathan Ross, they ended up recreating entire families of fonts.
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.
In the run-up to the 30th anniversary of the original (vague but exciting) proposal for what would become the World Wide Web, we’ve been invited back to try to recreate the experience of using that first web browser, the one that one ever ran on NeXT machines.
I missed the first day due to travel madness—flying back from Interaction 19 in Seattle during snowmageddon to Heathrow and then to Geneva—but by the time I arrived, my hackmates had already made a great start in identifying the objectives:
Give people an understanding of the user experience of the WorldWideWeb browser.
Demonstrate that a read/write philosophy was there from the beginning.
Give context—what was going on at the time?
That second point is crucial. WorldWideWeb wasn’t just a web browser; it was a browser/editor. That’s by far the biggest change in terms of the original vision of the web and what we ended up getting from Mosaic onwards.
Remy is working hard on the first point. He documented the first day and now on the second day, he’s made enormous progress already.
I’m focusing on point number three. I want to show the historical context for the World Wide Web. Here’s my plan…
Seeing as we’re coming up on the thirtieth anniversary, I thought it would be interesting to take the year of the proposal (1989) and look back in a time cone of thirty years previous to that at the influences on Tim Berners-Lee. I also want to look at what has happened with the web in the thirty years since the proposal. So the date of the proposal will be a centre point, with the timespan of 1959-1989 converging on it from the past, and the timespan of 1989-2019 diverging from it into the future. I hope it could make for a nice visualisation. Maybe I could try to get it look like data from a particle collision.
We’re here till the weekend and everyone else has already made tremendous progress. Kimberly has been hacking the Gibson …well, that’s what it looked like when she was deep in the code of the NeXT machine we’ve borrowed from Musée Bolo (merci beaucoup!).
These unomentisable enthusiasms/side projects are what got me hooked on the web in the first place. Fray.com—back when it was a website for personal stories—was what really made the web click for me. I had seen brochure sites, I had seen e-commerce sites, but it was seeing something built purely for the love of it that caused that lightbulb moment for me.
I told Paul about another site I remembered from that time (we’re talking about the mid-to-late nineties here). It was called Private Art. It was the work of one family, the children of Private Art Pranger who served in World War Two and wrote letters from the front. Without any expectations, I did a quick search, and amazingly, the site is still up!
Yes, it’s got tiled background images, and the framesetted content is in a pop-up window, but it works. The site hasn’t been updated for fifteen years but it works perfectly in a web browser today. That’s kind of amazing. We really shouldn’t take the longevity of our materials for granted. Could you imagine trying to open a word processing document from the late nineties on your computer today? You’d have a bad time.
Essentially every single aspect of the web is terrible. It was designed as a static document presentation system with hyperlinks.
It appears to be a universally accepted truth. The web was designed for sharing documents, and was never meant for the kind of applications we can build these days.
I don’t think that’s quite right. I think it’s fairer to say that the first use case for the web was document retrieval. And yes, that initial use case certainly influenced the first iteration of HTML. But right from the start, the vision for the web wasn’t constrained by what it was being asked to do at the time. (I mean, if you need an example of vision, Tim Berners-Lee called it the World Wide Web when it was just on one computer!)
The original people working on the web—Tim Berners-Lee, Robert Cailliau, Jean-Francois Groff, etc.—didn’t to try define the edges of what the web would be capable of. Quite the opposite. All of them really wanted a more interactive read-write web where documents could not only be read, but also edited and updated.
As for the idea of having a programming language in browsers (as well as a markup language), Tim Berners-Lee was all for it …as long as it could be truly ubiquitous.
To say that the web was made for sharing documents is like saying that the internet was made for email. It’s true in the sense that it was the most popular use case, but that never defined the limits of the system.
The secret sauce of the internet lies in its flexibility—it’s a deliberately dumb network that doesn’t care about the specifics of what runs on it. This lesson was then passed on to the web—another deliberately simple system designed to be agnostic to use cases.
The web (like the internet upon which it runs) was designed to be flexible, and to adjust to future use-cases that couldn’t be predicted in advance. The best proof of this flexibility is the fact that we can and do now build rich interactive applications on the World Wide Web. If the web had truly been designed only for documents, that wouldn’t be possible.