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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…

Friday, February 1st, 2019

How do you figure? | CSS-Tricks

A good reminder from Chris—prompted by Scott O’Hara’s article—that the figcaption element and the alt attribute do different things. If you use an empty alt attribute on an img inside a figure, then your figcaption element is captioning nothing …and no, using the same text for both is not the solution.

Wednesday, January 30th, 2019

Programming Fonts - Test Drive

Monospaced fonts you can use in your text editor. Most of them are …not good. But then there are gems like Mark Simonson’s Anonymous Pro, David Jonathan Ross’s Input, and Erik Spiekerman’s Fira Mono. And there’s always good ol’ Droid Sans.

Tuesday, January 29th, 2019

Owltastic • Web design by Meagan Fisher Couldwell

My goodness, Meagan’s new site design is absolutely gorgeous! The colour palette, the typography, the texture, the motion design …it all communicates character and personality. Beautiful work!

Friday, January 18th, 2019

Creating distraction-free reading experiences — Adrian Zumbrunnen

It’s our job as designers to bring clarity back to the digital canvas by crafting reading experiences that put readers first.

Monday, January 7th, 2019

A Simple Note – Miscelanea

A short text file, imbued with meaning and memory.

Thursday, November 8th, 2018

What do you want to do when you grow up, kid? • Robin Rendle

Publishing on the web really is quite marvellous:

…an endless thrill, a sort of everlasting, punk-rock feeling and I hope it will never really go away.

Friday, November 2nd, 2018

Bruce Lawson’s personal site  : Screenreader support for text-level semantics

Bruce reveals that the theory and the reality are somewhat different when it comes to the accessibility of inline elements like em and strong.

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..

Web 2.0 ... The Machine is Us/ing Us

Monday, October 1st, 2018

Trix: A rich text editor for everyday writing

If you must add a rich text editor to an interface, this open source offering from Basecamp looks good.

Tuesday, September 11th, 2018

Brand New Roman

A font made of corporate logos.

Friday, August 10th, 2018

Accessible Comics - Axess Lab

Nice! It sounds like Lucy and Andy went above and beyond the call of duty when it came to the alt text for 100 Demon Dialogues.

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…

Monday, July 9th, 2018

ASCIIFlow Infinity

Is it a graphic design tool? Is it a text editor? Is it just good fun?

Sunday, July 8th, 2018

Brutalist Web Design

A website is not a magazine, though it might have magazine-like articles. A website is not an application, although you might use it to purchase products or interact with other people. A website is not a database, although it might be driven by one.