Tags: hype

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Friday, October 18th, 2019

Web talk

At the start of this month I was in Amsterdam for a series of back-to-back events: Indie Web Camp Amsterdam, View Source, and Fronteers. That last one was where Remy and I debuted talk we’d been working on.

The Fronteers folk have been quick off the mark so the video is already available. I’ve also published the text of the talk here:

How We Built The World Wide Web In Five Days

This was a fun talk to put together. The first challenge was figuring out the right format for a two-person talk. It quickly became clear that Remy’s focus would be on the events of the five days we spent at CERN, whereas my focus would be on the history of computing, hypertext, and networks leading up to the creation of the web.

Now, we could’ve just done everything chronologically, but that would mean I’d do the first half of the talk and Remy would do the second half. That didn’t appeal. And it sounded kind of boring. So then we come up with the idea of interweaving the two timelines.

That worked remarkably well. The talk starts with me describing the creation of CERN in the 1950s. Then Remy talks about the first day of the hack week. I then talk about events in the 1960s. Remy talks about the second day at CERN. This continues until we join up about half way through the talk: I’ve arrived at the moment that Tim Berners-Lee first published the proposal for the World Wide Web, and Remy has arrived at the point of having running code.

At this point, the presentation switches gears and turns into a demo. I do not have the fortitude to do a live demo, so this was all down to Remy. He did it flawlessly. I have so much respect for people brave enough to do live demos, and do them well.

But the talk doesn’t finish there. There’s a coda about our return to CERN a month after the initial hack week. This was an opportunity for both of us to close out the talk with our hopes and dreams for the World Wide Web.

I know I’m biased, but I thought the structure of the presentation worked really well: two interweaving timelines culminating in a demo and finishing with the big picture.

There was a forcing function on preparing this presentation: Remy was moving house, and I was already going to be away speaking at some other events. That limited the amount of time we could be in the same place to practice the talk. In the end, I think that might have helped us make the most of that time.

We were both feeling the pressure to tell this story well—it means so much to us. Personally, I found that presenting with Remy made me up my game. Like I said:

It’s been a real treat working with Remy on this. Don’t tell him I said this, but he’s kind of a web hero of mine, so this was a real honour and a privilege for me.

This talk could have easily turned into a boring slideshow of “what we did on our holidays”, but I think we managed to successfully avoid that trap. We’re both proud of this talk and we’d love to give it again some time. If you’d like it at your event, get in touch.

In the meantime, you can read the text, watch the video, or look at the slides (but the slides really don’t make much sense in isolation).

Wednesday, October 16th, 2019

How We Built The World Wide Web In Five Days

This talk about recreating the first ever web browser was a joint presentation with Remy Sharp, delivered at the Fronteers conference in Amsterdam in October 2019.

Jeremy

Our story begins with the Big Bang.

13.8 billion years ago

This sets a chain of events in motion that gives us elementary particles, then more complex particles like atoms, which form stars and planets, including our own, on which life evolves, which brings us to the recent past when this whole process results in the universe generating a way of looking at itself: physicists.

A physicist is the atom’s way of knowing about atoms.

—George Wald

By the end of World War Two, physicists in Europe were in short supply. If they hadn’t already fled during Hitler’s rise to power, they were now being actively wooed away to the United States.

64 years ago

To counteract this brain drain, a coalition of countries forms the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or to use its French acronym, CERN.

They get some land in a suburb of Geneva on the border between Switzerland and France, where they set about smashing particles together and recreating the conditions that existed at the birth of the universe.

The Syncrocyclotron.

Every year, CERN is host to thousands of scientists who come to run their experiments.

Remy

Fast forward to February 2019, a group of 9 of us were invited to CERN as an elite group of hackers to recreate a different experiment.

The group.

We are there to recreate a piece of software first published 30 years ago. Given this goal, we need to answer some important questions first:

  • How does this software look and feel?
  • How does it work?
  • How you interact with it?
  • How does it behave?

The software is so old that it doesn’t run on any modern machines, so we have a NeXT machine specially shipped from the nearby museum. This is no ordinary machine. It was one of the only two NeXT machines that existed at CERN in the late 80s.

Now we have the machine to run this special software.

By some fluke the good people of the web have captured several different versions of this software and published them on Github.

So we selected the oldest version we could find. We download it from Github to our computers. Now we have to transfer it to the NeXT machine.

Except there’s no USB drive. It didn’t exist. CD ROM? Floppy drive? The NeXT computer had a “floptical drive”—bespoke to NeXT computers—all very well, but in 2019 we don’t have those drives.

To transfer the software from our machine, to the NEXT machine, we needed to use the network.

Jeremy

62 years ago

In 1957, J.C.R. Licklider was the first person to publicly demonstrate the idea of time sharing: linking one computer to another.

56 years ago

Six years later, he expanded on the idea in a memo that described an Intergalactic Computer Network.

By this time, he was working at ARPA: the department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency. They were very interested in the idea of linking computers together, for very practical reasons.

America’s military communications had a top-down command-and-control structure. That was a single point of failure. One pre-emptive strike and it’s game over.

The solution was to create a decentralised network of computers that used Paul Baran’s brilliant idea of packet switching to move information around the network without any central authority.

This idea led to the creation of the ARPANET. Initially it connected a few universities. The ARPANET grew until it wasn’t just computers at each endpoint; it was entire networks. It was turning into a network of networks …an internetwork, or internet, for short. In order for these networks to play nicely with one another, they needed to agree on using the same set of protocols for packet switching.

Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf crafted the simplest possible set of low-level protocols: the Transmission Control Protocol and the Internet Protocol. TCP/IP.

TCP/IP is deliberately dumb. It doesn’t care about the contents of the packets of data being passed around the internet. People were then free to create more task-specific protocols to sit on top of TCP/IP.

There are protocols specifically for email, for example. Gopher is another example of a bespoke protocol. And there’s the File Transfer Protocol, or FTP.

Remy

Back in our war room in 2019, we finally work out that can use FTP to get the software across. FTP is an arcane protocol, but we can agree that it will work across the two eras.

Although we have to manually install FTP servers onto our machines. FTP doesn’t ship with new machines because it’s generally considered insecure.

Now we finally have the software installed on the NeXT computer and we’re able to run the application.

We double click the shading looking, partly hand drawn icon with a lightning bolt on it, and we wait…

Once the software’s finally running, we’re able to see that it looks a bit like an ancient word processor. We can read, edit and open documents. There’s some basic styles lots of heavy margins. There’s a super weird menu navigation in place.

But there’s something different about this software. Something that makes this more than just a word processor.

These documents, they have links…

Jeremy

Ted Nelson is fond of coining neologisms. You can thank him for words like “intertwingled” and “teledildonics”.

56 years ago

He also coined the word “hypertext” in 1963. It is defined by what it is not.

Hypertext is text which is not constrained to be linear.

Ever played a “choose your own adventure” book? That’s hypertext. You can jump from one point in the book to a different point that has its own unique identifier.

The idea of hypertext predates the word. In 1945, Vannevar Bush published a visionary article in The Atlantic Monthly called As We May Think.

He imagines a mechanical device built into a desk that can summon reams of information stored on microfilm, allowing the user to create “associative trails” as they make connections between different concepts. He calls it the Memex.

Memex

Also in 1945, a young American named Douglas Engelbart has been drafted into the navy and is shipping out to the Pacific to fight against Japan. Literally as the ship is leaving the harbour, word comes through that the war is over. He still gets shipped out to the Philippines, but now he’s spending his time lounging in a hut reading magazines. That’s how he comes to read Vannevar Bush’s Memex article, which lodges in his brain.

51 years ago

Douglas Engelbart decides to dedicate his life to building the computer equivalent of the Memex.

On December 9th, 1968, he unveils his oNLine System—NLS—in a public demonstration. Not only does he have a working implementation of hypertext, he also shows collaborative real-time editing, windows, graphics, and oh yeah—for this demo, he invents the mouse.

It truly is The Mother of All Demos.

Douglas Engelbart has a posse.

39 years ago

There were a number of other attempts at creating hypertext systems. In 1980, a young computer scientist named Tim Berners-Lee found himself working at CERN, where scientists were having a heck of time just keeping track of information.

He created a system somewhat like Apple’s Hypercard, but with clickable links. He named it ENQUIRE, after a Victorian book of manners called Enquire Within Upon Everything.

ENQUIRE didn’t work out, but Tim Berners-Lee didn’t give up on the problem of managing information at CERN. He thinks about all the work done before: Vannevar Bush’s Memex; Ted Nelson’s Xanadu project; Douglas Engelbart’s oNLine System.

A lot of hypertext ideas really are similar to a choose-your-own-adventure: jumping around from point to point within a book. But what if, instead of imagining a hypertext book, we could have a hypertext library? Then you could jump from one point in a book to a different point in a different book in a completely different part of the library.

The Library Of Babel

In other words, what if you took the world of hypertext and the world of networks, and you smashed them together?

30 years ago

On the 12th of March, 1989, Tim Berners-Lee circulates the first draft of a document titled Information Management: A Proposal.

The diagrams are incomprehensible. But his supervisor at CERN, Mike Sendall, sees the potential. He reads the proposal and scrawls these words across the top: “vague, but exciting.”

Tim Berners-Lee gets the go-ahead to spend some time on this project. And he gets the budget for a nice shiny NeXT machine. With the support of his colleague Robert Cailliau, Berners-Lee sets about making his theoretical project a reality. They kick around a few ideas for the name.

They thought of calling it The Mesh. They thought of calling it The Information Mine, but Tim rejected that, knowing that whatever they called it, the words would be abbreviated to letters, and The Information Mine would’ve seemed quite egotistical.

So, even though it’s only going to exist on one single computer to begin with, and even though the letters of the abbreviation take longer to say than the words being abbreviated, they call it …the World Wide Web.

As Robert Cailliau told us, they were thinking “Well, we can always change it later.”

Tim Berners-Lee brainstorms a new protocol for hypertext called the HyperText Transfer Protocol—HTTP.

He thinks about a format for hypertext called the Hypertext Markup Language—HTML.

He comes up with an addressing scheme that uses Unique Document Identifiers—UDIs, later renamed to URIs, and later renamed again to URLs.

But he needs to put it all together into running code. And so Tim Berners-Lee sets about writing a piece of software…

Remy

Tim Berners-Lee’s document is a proposal at that stage 30 years ago. It’s just theory. So he needs to build a prototype to actually demonstrate how the World Wide Web would work.

The NeXT computer is the perfect ground for rapid software development because the NeXT operating system ships with a program called NSBuilder.

NeXT

NSBuilder is software to build software. In fact, the “NS” (meaning NeXTSTEP) can be found in existing software today - you’ll find references to NSText in Safari and Mac developer documentation.

Tim Berners-Lee, using NSBuilder was able to create a working prototype of this software in just 6 weeks

He called it: WorldWideWeb.

We finally have the software working the way it ran 30 years ago.

But our project is to replicate this browser so that you can try it out, and see how web pages look through the lens of 1990.

So we enter some of our blog urls. https://remysharp.com, https://adactio.com

But HTTPS doesn’t work. There was no HTTPS. There’s no HTTP2. HTTP1.0 hadn’t even been invented.

So I make a proxy. Effectively a monster-in-the-middle attack on all web requests, stripping the SSL layer and then returning the HTML over the HTTP 0.9 protocol.

And finally, we see…

We see junk.

We can see the text content of the website, but there’s a lot of HTML junk tags being spat out onto the screen, particularly at the start of the document.

Jeremy

<h1> <h2> <h3> <h4> <h5> <h6> 
<ol> <ul> <li> <p>

These tags are probably very familiar to you. You recognise this language, right?

That’s right. It’s SGML.

SGML is the successor to GML, which supposedly stands for Generalised Markup Language. But that may well be a backronym. The format was created by Goldfarb, Mosher, and Lorie: G, M, L.

SGML is supposed to be short for Standard Generalised Markup Language.

A flavour of SGML was already being used at CERN when Tim Berners-Lee was working on his World Wide Web project. Rather than create a whole new format from scratch, he repurposed what people were already familiar with. This was his HyperText Markup Language, HTML.

One thing he did add was a tag called A for anchor.

Its href attribute is short for “hypertext reference”. Plop a URL in there and you’ve got a link.

The hypertext community thought this was a terrible way to make links.

They believed that two-way linking was vital. With two-way linking, the linked resource connects back to where the link originates. So if the linked resource moved, the link would stay intact.

That’s not the case with the World Wide Web. If the linked resource moves, the link is broken.

Perhaps you’ve experienced broken links?

When Tim Berners-Lee wrote the code for his WorldWideWeb browser, there was a grand total of 26 tags in HTML. I know that we’d refer to them as elements today, but that term wasn’t being used back then.

Now there are well over 100 elements in HTML. The reason why the language has been able to expand so much is down to the way web browsers today treat unknown elements: ignore any opening and closing tags you don’t recognise and only render the text in between them.

Remy

The parsing algorithm was brittle (when compared to modern parsers). There’s no DOM tree being built up. Indeed, the DOM didn’t exist.

Remember that the WorldWideWeb was a browser that effectively smooshed together a word processor and network requests, the styling method was based (mostly) around adding margins as the tags were parsed.

Kimberly Blessing was digging through the original 7344 lines of code for the WorldWideWeb source. She found the code that could explain why we were seeing junk.

<link rel="..."

In this case, when the parser encountered <link rel="…" it would see the <.

<

“Yes, a tag; let’s slurp it up”.

<li

Then it reads li and the parser is thinking, “This looks like a list item, good stuff.”

<lin

Then encounters the n (of link) and, excusing the paring algorithm because it was the first, would then abort the style it was about to apply and promptly spit out the rest of the content on screen, having already swallowed up the first four characters: <lin.

k rel="stylesheet" href="...">

With that, we decided to make the executive design decision that we would strip out any elements that were unknown to the original WorldWideWeb browser — link, script, video and img — which of course there was no image support in the world’s first browser.

This is the first little cheat we applied, so that the page would be more pleasing to you, the visitor of our emulator. Otherwise you’d be presented with a lot of scary looking junk.

So now we have all the reference we need to be able to replicate this browser:

  • The machine running the original operating system, which gives us colours, fonts, menus and so on.
  • The browser itself, how windows behave, what’s in the menus, what makes the experience unique to that period of time.
  • And finally how it looks when we visit URLs.

So off we go.

🤯

Jeremy

While Remy sets about recreating the functionality of the WorldWideWeb browser, Angela was recreating the user interface using CSS.

Inputs. Buttons. Icons. Menus. All with the exact borders, highlights and shadows used in the UI of the NeXT operating system, including having the scrollbar on the left side of windows.

Meanwhile the rest of us were putting together an explanatory website to give some backstory to what we were doing. I spent most of my time working on a timeline showing thirty years before and thirty years after the original proposal for the web.

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

The WorldWideWeb browser inherited fonts from the NeXTSTEP operating system. It mostly used Helvetica and a font called Ohlfs (created by Keith Ohlfs). Helvetica is ubiquitous but Ohlfs was never seen outside of a NeXT machine.

Our teammates Mark and Brian were obsessed with accurately recreating the typography. We couldn’t use modern fonts which are vector based. We need pixeliness.

So Mark and Brian took a screenshot of the NeXT machine’s alphabet. With help from afar from font designer David Jonathan Ross, they traced each square pixel in a vector program and then exported that as a web font. Now we’ve got a web font that deliberately isn’t anti-aliased. It’s a vector format that recreates the look of a bitmap.

Put the pixelly font together with the CSS interface elements and you’ve got something that really looks like the old WorldWideWeb programme.

Remy

This is the final product of our work at CERN that week. A fully working WorldWideWeb emulator giving a reasonable close experience of what it was like to surf the web as if it were 30 years ago.

This is entirely in the browser and was written using:

  • React,
  • React Draggable for the windows and menus,
  • React Hotkeys for keyboard combo shortcuts (we replicated the original OS as much as we could),
  • idb-keyval for some local storage,
  • Parcel for bundling.

These tools weren’t chosen particular because they were the best tools for the job, but rather because they were the tools I knew that well enough that would help speed up my development process.

We worked hard to replicate the look and feel as much as we could. We even replicated typos found throughout the WorldWideWeb app:

An excercise in global information availability

Why don’t we see how it looks…

Jeremy

There’s kind of irony in this in that it relies heavily on JavaScript. In fact, there’s nothing there other than JavaScript. But of course the WorldWideWeb browser couldn’t deal with JavaScript—JavaScript hadn’t been invented yet. So the one URL that definitely wouldn’t work in this emulator is …the emulator itself.

Remy

(Which Jeremy was blaming me for.)

This is what you see when you visit the WorldWideWeb browser for the first time. We can see we are welcomed by the universe of hypertext. We’ve got these menus over here that you can drag off and open panels (I always thought this was an ordering bug but the operating system actually works like this).

We’ll go ahead and open the Fronteers website. I go to “Document” and then I go to “Open from full document reference” (because the word URL didn’t exist). I’m going to pop the Fronteers URL in here. And there it is. We’ve got the Fronteers website. Looks pretty good. (One of my favourite UI bits is this scrollbar on the left hand side instead of the right.)

We can follow the links. Actually one of my favourite features that was in this original browser that we replicated was this “Navigate” menu. I’ve just opened the first link in the document, but I can click on “Next”, and “Next” a bunch of times and it will cycle through each one of the links on the page that I launched from and let me read all the pages that the Fronteers site links to (which I really like). I can go backwards and forwards, and so on.

One thing you might have already noticed is that there are no URLs here. And in fact, to view source, it was considered a kind of diagnostic option and it was very very tucked away. The reason for this is that URLs—and the source HTML or SGML—was considered ugly and potentially a bad user experience.

But there’s one thing about navigating here that’s different. To open this link, I had to double-click.

Jeremy

The WorldWideBrowser was more of a prototype than anything else. It demonstrated the potential of the World Wide Web project, but it only worked on NeXT machines.

To show how the World Wide Web could work on any computer, the second ever web browser was the Line Mode Browser, coded by Nicola Pellow. It had a very basic text interface—no clicking on links—but it could be installed anywhere.

Lots of other geeks and nerds were working on their own web browsers, but it was Marc Andreesen’s Mosaic browser that really blew the doors open for the web. It had a nice usable interface, and it (unilaterrally) introduced the innovation of images on the web.

Andreesen went on to found Netscape. The World Wide Web took off at an unprecedented rate. Microsoft brought out their Internet Explorer browser and started trying to catch up with Netscape. We had the browser wars. Later we got even more browsers, like Safari and Chrome, while Netscape morphed into Firefox and Internet Explorer morphed into Edge. And the rest is history.

But all of these browsers were missing something that was in the original WorldWideWeb browser.

Remy

The reason I have to double-click on these links is that, when I do a single click, it actually places the cursor. The cursor is blinking there on “Fronteers.” And the reason I can place the cursor is because I can edit the document.

I see Fronteers here is missing a heading. We want to welcome you all:

Welkom

We want to make that a heading. Let’s style that. It’s a heading.

So the browser was meant to edit documents. Let’s put a bit of text here:

Great talks from Remy and Jeremy

(forget about everyone else). Now if I want to create a link, I’ll go ahead and navigate to Jeremy’s site, https://adactio.com. I’m going to do “Link”, then “Mark all”, which is a way of copying the URL to that window. Then I go back to the Fronteers website, select “Jeremy”, and then do “Link to marked.” I can double-click on Jeremy’s name it will open up his website.

I can save this document as well. I’m going to call it fronteers.html.

Let’s do a hard reboot—a browser refresh. I come back to my machine a couple of days later, “Ah, the Fronteers page!”. I’m going to open that again, and it linked to that really handsome guy in the sprite shirt. And yes, the links still work.

In fact, this documentation that you see when the WorldWideWeb browser launches was written, styled, and linked using the WorldWideWeb browser. The WorldWideWeb browser was for a web that you could read and write.

But this didn’t survive. It was a hurdle that was too tricky to propose or implement across the different types servers that existed and for the upcoming browsers that were on the horizon.

And so it wasn’t standardised and doesn’t exist today.

But this is an important lesson from the time: reducing complexity increases the chances of mass adoption.

In the end, simplicity wins.

Jeremy

I think that’s a pattern we see over and over again, not just in the history of the web, but before the web. Simplicity wins.

Ted Nelson famously to this day thinks that the World Wide Web is weak sauce. It didn’t try to solve complex right out of the gate, like handling micro-payments.

As we saw, the hypertext community that one-way linking was ridiculous. But simplicity does win out.

Unfortunately that’s why browsers ended up just being browsers. We got some of the functionality back with wikis, content management systems, and social media to a certain extent. But I think it’s still a bit of a shame that when I want to browse a web page, I’m using one piece of software—the browser—but when I want to make a web page, I’m using another piece of software (or multiple pieces of software) to get something on to the web.

I feel like we lost something.

Remy

We head home after a week of hacking.

We were all invited back in March earlier this year for the Web@30 event that was taking place to celebrate the web but also Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

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

A few of us, Jeremy, Martin, and myself, went back to CERN for the the first leg of the event. There was even a video showing off our work as part of the main conference. Jeremy and I even chased Tim Berners-Lee back to London at the science museum like obsessive web fanboys. It was a lot of fun!

The night before I got a message from Jean-François Groff, pictured here on the right. JF Groff joined Tim Berners-Lee 30 years ago and created libwww (a precursor to libcurl).

The message read:

Sitting with Tim right now. He loves your browser!

Crushed it.

It’s amazing that we were able to pull this off in a week just with text editors and information that’s freely available. It’s mind boggling how much we can do today and how far it can reach. And it all started on that NeXTSTEP machine 30 years ago.

What I really loved about this project was working with this brilliantly old technology, digging around at the birth of browsers and the web.

I wouldn’t be stood here today, if it weren’t for the web.

I wouldn’t even know Jeremy, if it weren’t for the web.

I wouldn’t have a career, if it weren’t for the web.

I loved seeing how such old technology, the original WorldWideWeb browser was still able to render my blog. Because I put content first, delivered markup from the server. The page rendered because HTML really is backward compatible.

HTML and HTTP are just text. Nothing terribly fancy. Dare I say, beautifully simple, and as we said before, simplicity wins the day.

This same simplicity is what allows us all to have the chance for an equal voice. The web allows us to freely publish our thoughts and experiences. We have to fight to protect that kind of web.

And we’ve got to work at keeping it simple.

Jeremy

When we returned to CERN for the 30th anniversary celebrations, one of the other people there was the journalist Zeynep Tefepkçi.

When @Zeynep met NeXT.

Lou, Zeynep, Tim, Robert, and Jean-François. #Web30

She was on a panel along with Tim Berners-Lee, Robert Caillau, Jean-François Groff, and Lou Montoulli. At the end of the panel discussion, she was asked:

What would you tell the next generation about how to use this wonderful tool?

She replied:

If you have something wonderful, if you do not defend it, you will lose it.

If you do not defend the magic and the things that make it wonderful, it’s just not going to stay magical by itself.

Defend the simplicity and resilience that’s so central to the web.

I don’t know about you, but I often feel that just trying to make a web page has become far too complicated. But this is complexity that we have chosen with our tools, processes, and assumptions. We’ve buried the magic. The magic of linking web pages together. The magic of a working global hypertext system, where nobody needs to ask for permission to publish.

Tim Berners-Lee prototyped the first web browser, but the subsequent world wide web wasn’t created by any one person. It was created by everyone. That. Is. Magical.

I don’t want the web to become a place where only an elite priesthood get to experience the magic of creation. I’m going to fight to defend the openness of the world wide web. This is for everyone. Not just for everyone to use; it’s for everyone to create.

Tuesday, October 15th, 2019

Jeremy Keith & Remy Sharp - How We Built the World Wide Web in Five Days on Vimeo

Here’s the talk that Remy and I gave at Fronteers in Amsterdam, all about our hack week at CERN. We’re both really pleased with how this turned out and we’d love to give it again!

Tuesday, September 17th, 2019

A Love Letter to Net.Art - The History of the Web

Click around the site a bit and you’ll find yourself tied to an endless string of hyperlinks, hopping from one page to the next, with no real rhyme or reason to tie them altogether. It is almost pure web id, unleashed structurally to engage your curiosity and make use of the web’s most primal feature: the link.

Saturday, April 6th, 2019

How Google warped the hyperlink | WIRED UK

Ignore the ludicrously clickbaity title. This is a well-considered look at thirty years of linking on the World Wide Web.

Monday, March 25th, 2019

WWW:BTB — History (Overview)

This history of the World Wide Web from 1996 is interesting for the way it culminates with …Java. At that time, the language seemed like it would become the programmatic lingua franca for the web. Brendan Eich sure upset that apple cart.

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‽

Thursday, February 14th, 2019

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.)

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.

Saturday, February 2nd, 2019

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…

Tuesday, October 30th, 2018

Web 2.0 … The Machine is Us/ing Us - YouTube

Looking back on this classic explainer video from eleven years ago, I know exactly what’s meant by this comment:

its weird that when i first saw this video it made me think of the future, and now i watch it and it reminds me of the past..

Saturday, September 22nd, 2018

Hyperlight

Another great sci-fi short film from Dust.

Monday, August 6th, 2018

The Man Who Invented The Web - TIME

This seventeen year old profile of Tim Berners-Lee is fascinating to read from today’s perspective.

Wednesday, July 11th, 2018

Links, tags, and feeds

A little while back, I switched from using Chrome as my day-to-day browser to using Firefox. I could feel myself getting a bit too comfortable with one particular browser, and that’s not good. I reckon it’s good to shake things up a little every now and then. Besides, there really isn’t that much difference once you’ve transferred over bookmarks and cookies.

Unfortunately I’m being bitten by this little bug in Firefox. It causes some of my bookmarklets to fail on certain sites with strict Content Security Policies (and CSPs shouldn’t affect bookmarklets). I might have to switch back to Chrome because of this.

I use bookmarklets throughout the day. There’s the Huffduffer bookmarklet, of course, for whenever I come across a podcast episode or other piece of audio that I want to listen to later. But there’s also my own home-rolled bookmarklet for posting links to my site. It doesn’t do anything clever—it grabs the title and URL of the currently open page and pre-populates a form in a new window, leaving me to add a short description and some tags.

If you’re reading this, then you’re familiar with the “journal” section of adactio.com, but the “links” section is where I post the most. Here, for example, are all the links I posted yesterday. It varies from day to day, but there’s generally a handful.

Should you wish to keep track of everything I’m linking to, there’s a twitterbot you can follow called @adactioLinks. It uses a simple IFTTT recipe to poll my RSS feed of links and send out a tweet whenever there’s a new entry.

Or you can drink straight from the source and subscribe to the RSS feed itself, if you’re still rocking it old-school. But if RSS is your bag, then you might appreciate a way to filter those links…

All my links are tagged. Heavily. This is because all my links are “notes to future self”, and all my future self has to do is ask “what would past me have tagged that link with?” when I’m trying to find something I previously linked to. I end up using my site’s URLs as an interface:

At the front-end gatherings at Clearleft, I usually wrap up with a quick tour of whatever I’ve added that week to:

Well, each one of those tags also has a corresponding RSS feed:

…and so on.

That means you can subscribe to just the links tagged with something you’re interested in. Here’s the full list of tags if you’re interested in seeing the inside of my head.

This also works for my journal entries. If you’re only interested in my blog posts about frontend development, you might want to subscribe to:

Here are all the tags from my journal.

You can even mix them up. For everything I’ve tagged with “typography”—whether it’s links, journal entries, or articles—the URL is:

The corresponding RSS feed is:

You get the idea. Basically, if something on my site is a list of items, chances are there’s a corresponding RSS feeds. Sometimes there might even be a JSON feed. Hack some URLs to see.

Meanwhile, I’ll be linking, linking, linking…

Wednesday, April 18th, 2018

The Untold Story of Jaime Levy, Punk-Rock Cyber-Publishing Pioneer

This excerpt from Claire L. Evans’s new book Broad Band sounds like Halt and Catch Fire, but for real.

Many people saw the web for the first time in Jaime’s loft, on a Mac II her hacker friend Phiber Optik set up with a 28.8K internet connection. As avant-garde guitarist Elliott Sharp performed live, and another friend, DJ Spooky, played house tracks, Jaime’s guests gathered around the Mac’s small screen. At the top of 1994, there were fewer than 1,000 websites in the world, mostly personal home pages. These converts would call themselves the “early true believers,” counting the year of their arrival online as a mark of status, the way the first punks claimed 1977.

Tuesday, January 9th, 2018

Hypertext and Our Collective Destiny

The text of a fascinating talk given by Tim Berners-Lee back in 1995, at a gathering to mark the 50th anniversary of Vannevar Bush’s amazing article As We May Think. The event also drew together Ted Nelson, Alan Kay, Douglas Engelbart, and Bob Kahn!

Thanks to Teodara Petkova for pointing to this via the marvellous Web History Community Group.

Tuesday, December 5th, 2017

Welcome to Interactive Fiction: You’re a Wizard-Sniffing Pig - Atlas Obscura

The fascinating history of interactive fiction from adventure game to hypertext.

The split between parsers and hyperlinks reminds me of different approaches to chatbots: free text entry vs. constrained input.

Wednesday, November 29th, 2017

Answers for young people - Tim Berners-Lee

Many, many years ago, Tim Berners-Lee wrote this page of answers to (genuinely) frequently asked questions he got from school kids working on reports. I absolutely love the clear straightforward language he uses to describe concepts like hypertext, packet switching, and HTTP.

Monday, November 20th, 2017

An associative trail

Every now and then, I like to revisit Vannevar Bush’s classic article from the July 1945 edition of the Atlantic Monthly called As We May Think in which he describes a theoretical machine called the memex.

A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.

It consists of a desk, and while it can presumably be operated from a distance, it is primarily the piece of furniture at which he works. On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There is a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers. Otherwise it looks like an ordinary desk.

1945! Apart from its analogue rather than digital nature, it’s a remarkably prescient vision. In particular, there’s the idea of “associative trails”:

Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified. The lawyer has at his touch the associated opinions and decisions of his whole experience, and of the experience of friends and authorities.

Many decades later, Anne Washington ponders what a legal memex might look like:

My legal Memex builds a network of the people and laws available in the public records of politicians and organizations. The infrastructure for this vision relies on open data, free access to law, and instantaneously availability.

As John Sheridan from the UK’s National Archives points out, hypertext is the perfect medium for laws:

Despite the drafter’s best efforts to create a narrative structure that tells a story through the flow of provisions, legislation is intrinsically non-linear content. It positively lends itself to a hypertext based approach. The need for legislation to escape the confines of the printed form predates the all major innovators and innovations in hypertext, from Vannevar Bush’s vision in ” As We May Think“, to Ted Nelson’s coining of the term “hypertext”, through to and Berners-Lee’s breakthrough world wide web. I like to think that Nelson’s concept of transclusion was foreshadowed several decades earlier by the textual amendment (where one Act explicitly alters – inserts, omits or amends – the text of another Act, an approach introduced to UK legislation at the beginning of the 20th century).

That’s from a piece called Deeply Intertwingled Laws. The verb “to intertwingle” was another one of Ted Nelson’s neologisms.

There’s an associative trail from Vannevar Bush to Ted Nelson that takes some other interesting turns…

Picture a new American naval recruit in 1945, getting ready to ship out to the pacific to fight against the Japanese. Just as the ship as leaving the harbour, word comes through that the war is over. And so instead of fighting across the islands of the pacific, this young man finds himself in a hut on the Philippines, reading whatever is to hand. There’s a copy of The Atlantic Monthly, the one with an article called As We May Think. The sailor was Douglas Engelbart, and a few years later when he was deciding how he wanted to spend the rest of his life, that article led him to pursue the goal of augmenting human intellect. He gave the mother of all demos, featuring NLS, a working hypermedia system.

Later, thanks to Bill Atkinson, we’d get another system called Hypercard. It was advertised with the motto Freedom to Associate, in an advertising campaign that directly referenced Vannevar Bush.

And now I’m using the World Wide Web, a hypermedia system that takes in the whole planet, to create an associative trail. In this post, I’m linking (without asking anyone for permission) to six different sources, and in doing so, I’m creating a unique associative trail. And because this post has a URL (that won’t change), you are free to take it and make it part of your own associative trail on your digital memex.