Tags: history

525

sparkline

Sunday, February 17th, 2019

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.

Saturday, February 16th, 2019

FOREVERYONE.NET

I linked to this a while back but now this great half hour documentary by Jessica Yu is ready and you can watch the whole thing online: Tim Berners-Lee, the birth of the web, and where the web has gone since.

In the scenes describing the early web, there’s footage of the recreated Line Mode Browser—how cool is that‽

Recreating the First Web Browser at CERN | U.S. Mission to International Organizations in Geneva

The US Mission to the UN in Geneva came by to visit us during our hackweek at CERN.

“Our hope is that over the next few days we are going to recreate the experience of what it would be like using that browser, but doing it in a way that anyone using a modern web browser can experience,” explains team member Jeremy Keith. The aim is to “give people the feeling of what it would have been like, in terms of how it looked, how it felt, the fonts, the rendering, the windows, how you navigated from link to link.”

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!

Friday, February 15th, 2019

Recreating the first web browser at CERN | Flickr

Photos from earlier this week:

In a small room in CERN’s Data Center, an international group of nine developers is taking a plunge back in time to the beginnings of the World Wide Web. Their aim is to enable the whole world to experience what the web looked like viewed within the very first browser developed by Tim Berners-Lee.

Recreating the First Web Browser at CERN

Thursday, February 14th, 2019

Public Affairs Office on Instagram

A little teaser from U.S. MIssion at the U.N. in Geneva:

This year marks the 30th Anniversary of the birth of the #WorldWideWeb. A team of #webdevelopers are working to make it possible for the public to experience the #FirstWebBrowser as it looked on #TimBernersLees’s computer @CERN…

Talk at Bush Symposium: Notes

On the 50th anniversary of Vannevar Bush’s As We May Think, Tim Berners-Lee delivered this address in 1995.

To a large part we have MEMEXes on our desks today. We have not yet seen the wide scale deployment of easy human interfaces for editing hypertext and making links. (I find this constantly frustrating, but always assume will be cured by cheap commercial products within the year.)

Monday, February 11th, 2019

A Simpler Web: I Concur

Tales of over-engineering, as experienced by Bridget. This resonates with me, and I think she’s right when she says that these things go in cycles. The pendulum always ends up swinging the other way eventually.

Thursday, February 7th, 2019

Transcript of Tim Berners-Lee’s talk to the LCS 35th Anniversary celebrations, Cambridge Massachusetts, 1999/April/14

Twenty years ago—when the web was just a decade old—Tim Berners-Lee gave this talk, looking backwards and forwards.

For me the fundamental Web is the Web of people. It’s not the Web of machines talking to each other; it’s not the network of machines talking to each other. It’s not the Web of documents. Remember when machines talked to each other over some protocol, two machines are talking on behalf of two people.

Sunday, February 3rd, 2019

How can we break the Brexit deadlock? Ask ancient Athens | James Bridle | Opinion | The Guardian

James describes an ancient Greek machine called the kleroterian:

The method of governance embodied in the kleroterion, which dates back to the very establishment of democracy, is called sortition, meaning selection by lot, as opposed to election by vote.

Saturday, February 2nd, 2019

1969 & 70 - Bell Labs

PIctures of computers (of the human and machine varieties).

Tools & Craft - Episode 03: Ted Nelson

A great interview with Ted Nelson at the Internet Archive where he reminisces about Doug Engelbart, Bob Taylor, Vannevar Bush, hypertext and Xanadu. Wind him and let him go!

There’s an interesting tidbit on what he’s up to next:

So, the first one I’m trying to build will just be a comment, but with two pages visibly connected. And the second bit will be several pages visibly connected. A nice example is Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire, which is a long poem by the fictitious author John Shade, connected to a large number of idiotic footnotes by the fictitious academic Charles Kinbote.

Ironically, back in the days of the Dark Brown Project, I actually got permission from the publishers of Pale Fire to demonstrate it on the Brown system. So now I hope to demonstrate it on the new Xanadu.

Pale Fire is the poem referenced in Blade Runner 2049:

Cells interlinked within cells interlinked…

Thursday, January 31st, 2019

Why isn’t the internet more fun and weird?

During the internet of 2006, consumer products let anyone edit CSS. It was a beautiful mess. As the internet grew up, consumer products stopped trusting their users, and the internet lost its soul.

The internet of 2019 is vital societal infrastructure. We depend on it to keep in touch with family, to pay for things, and so much more.

Just because it got serious doesn’t mean it can’t be fun and weird.

Sunday, January 27th, 2019

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2019

What would a world without pushbuttons look like? | Aeon Essays

A history of buttons …and the moral panic and outrage that accompanies them.

By looking at the subtexts behind complaints about buttons, whether historically or in the present moment, it becomes clear that manufacturers, designers and users alike must pay attention to why buttons persistently engender critiques. Such negativity tends to involve one of three primary themes: fears over deskilling; frustration about lack of user agency/control; or anger due to perceptions of unequal power relations.

Wednesday, January 16th, 2019

The World’s Writing Systems

What a lovely timeline of civilisation. This site makes for a nice companion piece to that database of dimensioned drawings—they’re both delightful to explore.

Monday, January 14th, 2019

djinn and juice : The Best Debugging Story I’ve Ever Heard

Cassie and I were swapping debugging stories. I shared the case of the 500 mile email with her. She shared this with me.

Monday, January 7th, 2019

HTML+ Discussion Document: Images

Back in 1993, David Raggett wrote up all the proposed extensions to HTML that were being discussed on the www-talk mailing list. It was called HTML+, which would’ve been a great way of describing HTML5.

Twenty five years later, I wish that the proposed IMAGE element had come to pass. Unlike the IMG element, it would’ve had a closing tag, allowing for fallback content between the tags:

The IMAGE element behaves in the same way as IMG but allows you to include descriptive text, which can be shown on text-only displays.

Yeah, I know we have the alt attribute, but that’s always felt like an inelegant bolt-on to me.

Thursday, January 3rd, 2019

History of the Web, Volume I by Jay Hoffmann [PDF/iPad/Kindle]

The first two years of the excellent History Of The Web newsletter is now available as a digital book. It’s volume one of …we’ll see how many.

Buried inside you’ll find fascinating narrative threads from the web’s history, starting all the way from the beginning and straight on through to the very first browsers, the emergence of web design, to the evolving landscape of our online world.