Tags: worldwideweb

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Geneva Copenhagen Amsterdam

Back in the late 2000s, I used to go to Copenhagen every for an event called Reboot. It was a fun, eclectic mix of talks and discussions, but alas, the last one was over a decade ago.

It was organised by Thomas Madsen-Mygdal. I hadn’t seen Thomas in years, but then, earlier this year, our paths crossed when I was back at CERN for the 30th anniversary of the web. He got a real kick out of the browser recreation project I was part of.

I few months ago, I got an email from Thomas about the new event he’s running in Copenhagen called Techfestival. He was wondering if there was some way of making the WorldWideWeb project part of the event. We ended up settling on having a stand—a modern computer running a modern web browser running a recreation of the first ever web browser from almost three decades ago.

So I showed up at Techfestival and found that the computer had been set up in a Shoreditchian shipping container. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was supposed to do, so I just hung around nearby until someone wandering by would pause and start tentatively approaching the stand.

If you’re at Techfestival.co in Copenhagen, drop in to this shipping container where I’ll be demoing WorldWideWeb.cern.ch

“Would you like to try the time machine?” I asked. Nobody refused the offer. I explained that they were looking at a recreation of the world’s first web browser, and then showed them how they could enter a URL to see how the oldest web browser would render a modern website.

Lots of people entered facebook.com or google.com, but some people had their own websites, either personal or for their business. They enjoyed seeing how well (or not) their pages held up. They’d take photos of the screen.

People asked lots of questions, which I really enjoyed answering. After a while, I was able to spot the themes that came up frequently. Some people were confusing the origin story of the internet with the origin story of the web, so I was more than happy to go into detail on either or both.

The experience helped me clarify in my own mind what was exciting and interesting about the birth of the web—how much has changed, and how much and stayed the same.

All of this very useful fodder for a conference talk I’m putting together. This will be a joint talk with Remy at the Fronteers conference in Amsterdam in a couple of weeks. We’re calling the talk How We Built the World Wide Web in Five Days:

The World Wide Web turned 30 years old this year. To mark the occasion, a motley group of web nerds gathered at CERN, the birthplace of the web, to build a time machine. The first ever web browser was, confusingly, called WorldWideWeb. What if we could recreate the experience of using it …but within a modern browser! Join (Je)Remy on a journey through time and space and code as they excavate the foundations of Tim Berners-Lee’s gloriously ambitious and hacky hypertext system that went on to conquer the world.

Neither of us is under any illusions about the nature of a joint talk. It’s not half as much work; it’s more like twice the work. We’ve both seen enough uneven joint presentations to know what we want to avoid.

We’ve been honing the material and doing some run-throughs at the Clearleft HQ at 68 Middle Street this week. The talk has a somewhat unusual structure with two converging timelines. I think it’s going to work really well, but I won’t know until we actually deliver the talk in Amsterdam. I’m excited—and a bit nervous—about it.

Whether it’s in a shipping container in Copenhagen or on a stage in Amsterdam, I’m starting to realise just how much I enjoy talking about web history.

What a day that was

I woke up in Geneva. The celebrations to mark the 30th anniversary of the World Wide Web were set to begin early in the morning.

It must be said, March 12th 1989 is kind of an arbitrary date. Maybe the date that the first web page went online should mark the birth of the web (though the exact date might be hard to pin down). Or maybe it should be August 6th, 1991—the date that Tim Berners-Lee announced the web to the world (well, to the alt.hypertext mailing list at least). Or you could argue that it should be April 30th, 1993, the date when the technology of the web was officially put into the public domain.

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.

Happy birthday, World Wide Web! Love, One third of the https://worldwideweb.cern.ch team at CERN.

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.

A NeXT machine from 1989 running the WorldWideWeb browser and my laptop in 2019 running https://worldwideweb.cern.ch

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.

This guy again! I think I’m being followed.

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.

T minus one

I’m back at CERN.

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.

Thanks to my neglibable contribution to the recreation of the WorldWideWeb browser, I’ve wrangled an invitation to attend. Remy and Martin are here too, and I know that the rest of the team are with us in spirit.

I’m so excited about this! I’m such a nerd for web history, it’s going to be like Christmas for me.

If you’re up early enough, you can watch the event on a livestream. The whole thing will be over by mid-morning. Then, Remy and I will take an afternoon flight back to England …just in time for the evening event at London’s Science Museum.

Timelines of the web

Recreating the original WorldWideWeb browser was an exercise in digital archeology. With a working NeXT machine in the room, Kimberly was able to examine the source code for the first every browser and discover a treasure trove within. Like this gem in HTUtils.h:

#define TCP_PORT 80 /* Allocated to http by Jon Postel/ISI 24-Jan-92 */

Sure enough, by June of 1992 port 80 was documented as being officially assigned to the World Wide Web (Gopher got port 70). Jean-François Groff—who worked on the World Wide Web project with Tim Berners-Lee—told us that this was a moment they were very pleased about. It felt like this project of theirs was going places.

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.

Going into our recreation of WorldWideWeb at CERN, I knew I wanted to convey this historical context somehow.

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.

Progressive enhancement. Marking up (and styling) an interactive timeline that looks good in a modern browser and still works in the first ever web browser.

I marked up each timeline as an ordered list of h-events:

<li class="h-event y1968">
  <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NLS_%28computer_system%29" class="u-url">
    <time class="dt-start" datetime="1968-12-09">1968</time>
    <abbr class="p-name" title="oN-Line System">NLS</abbr>
  </a>
</li>

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:

.y1968 {
  left: calc((1968 - 1959) * (100%/30) - 5em);
}

For events before 1989, it’s the distance of the event from 1959. For events after 1989, it’s the distance of the event from 2019:

.y2014 {
  right: calc((2019 - 2014) * (100%/30) - 5em);
}

(Each h-event has a width of 5em so that’s where the extra bit at the end comes from.)

I had to do some tweaking for legibility: bunches of events happening around the same time period needed to be separated out so that they didn’t overlap too much.

As a finishing touch, I added a few little transitions when the page loaded so that the timeline fans out from its centre point.

Et voilà!

Progressive enhancement. Marking up (and styling) an interactive timeline that looks good in a modern browser and still works in the first ever web browser.

I fiddled with the content a bit after peppering Robert Cailliau with questions over lunch. And I got some very valuable feedback from Jean-François. Some examples he provided:

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.

Hello WorldWideWeb.

WorldWideWeb

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.

Want to see the final result? Here you go:

worldwideweb.cern.ch

That’s the website we built. The call to action is hard to miss:

Launch WorldWideWeb

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:

  1. Select Document from the menu options on the left.
  2. A new menu will pop open. Select Open from full document reference.
  3. Type a URL, like, say https://adactio.com
  4. 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.

  1. From that Document menu you opened, select New file…
  2. Type the name of your file; something like test.html
  3. Start editing the heading and the text.
  4. In the main WorldWideWeb menu, select Links.
  5. Now focus the window with the document you opened earlier (adactio.com).
  6. With that window’s title bar in focus, choose Mark all from the Links menu.
  7. Go back to your test.html document, and highlight a piece of text.
  8. 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.

Remy did all the JavaScript for the recreated browser …in just five days!

Kimberly was absolutely amazing, diving deep into the original source code of the application on the NeXT machine we borrowed. She uncovered some real gems.

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.

John exhaustively documented UI patterns that Angela turned into marvelous HTML and CSS.

Through it all, Craig and Martin put together the accomanying website. Personally, I think the website is freaking awesome—it’s packed with fascinating information! Check out the family tree of browsers that Craig made.

What a team!

Back at CERN

We got the band back together.

In September of 2013, I had the great pleasure and privilege of going to CERN with a bunch of very smart people. I’m not sure how I managed to slip by. We were there to recreate the experience of using the line-mode browser. As I wrote at the time:

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:

  1. Give people an understanding of the user experience of the WorldWideWeb browser.
  2. Demonstrate that a read/write philosophy was there from the beginning.
  3. 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!).

We took a little time out for a tour of the data centre. Oh, and at lunch time, we sat with Robert Cailliau and grilled him with questions about the birth of the web. Quite a day!

Now it’s time for me to hit the hay and prepare for another day of hacking in this extraordinary place.

Document

A little while back, I showed Paul what I was working on with The Gęsiówka Story. I value his opinion and I really like the Bradshaw’s Guide project that he’s been working on. We’re both in complete agreement with Russell Davies’ call for an internet of unmonetisable enthusiasms. Call them side projects if you like, but for me, these are the things that the World Wide Web excels at.

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.

Working on The Gęsiówka Story helped to remind me of some of the things that made me fall in love with the web in the first place. What I wrote about it is equally true of Private Art:

When we talk about documents on the web, we usually use the word “document” as a noun. But working on The Gęsiówka Story, I came to think of the word “document” as a verb.

The World Wide Web is a medium that’s works for quick, short-term lightweight bits of fun and also for long-term, deeper, slower, thoughtful archives of our collective culture.

The web is a many-splendoured thing.

Origin story

In an excellent piece called The First Web Apps: 5 Apps That Shaped the Internet as We Know It, Matthew Guay wrote:

The world wide web wasn’t supposed to be this fun. Berners-Lee imagined the internet as a place to collaborate around text, somewhere to share research data and thesis papers.

In his somewhat confused talk at FFConf this year, James Kyle said:

The web was designed to share documents.

Douglas Crockford said

The web was not designed to do any of things it is doing. It was intended to be a simple—even primitive—document retrieval system.

Some rando on Hacker News declared:

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.

It’s true that the web of today is very, very different to its initial incarnation. We got CSS; we got JavaScript; HTML has evolved; HTTP has evolved; URLs have …well, cool URIs don’t change, but you get the idea. The web is like the ship of Theseus—so much of it has been changed and added to over time. That doesn’t mean its initial design was flawed—just the opposite. It means that its initial design wasn’t unnecessarily rigid. The simplicity of the early web wasn’t a bug, it was a feature.

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.