Brian writes up his experience working on the line-mode browser hack event at CERN.
Wednesday, September 25th, 2013
The ghost of browsers past
We poked at the markup of the first ever website…
- What’s that
NEXTIDelement? Turns it out it’s something specific to the NeXT operating system.
- Why does the first iteration of HTML already contain
H6? It’s because they were lifted wholesale from a flavour of SGML—Standard Generalized Markup Language—that was already in use at CERN.
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!
script tags in the
head of the document—gets rendered to the screen.
<!-- is functionally equivalent to
--> 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.
type attribute of every
script element to
text/plain, effectively defusing them. Smart!
Monday, September 23rd, 2013
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Install Node.js.
- Clone the github repo to your machine.
- Open up the Terminal, navigate to your cloned copy, and type:
- 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.
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.
Thursday, September 19th, 2013
I took a little time out of the hacking here at CERN to answer a few questions about the line-mode browser project.
This is what I’m working on today (where by “working on”, I mean “watching other far more talented people work on”).
Tuesday, August 13th, 2013
These are the lovely and talented people who will be joining me at CERN for two days of historical hackery.