Thirty years ago today—on August 6, 1991—Tim Berners-Lee posted about his World Wide Web project on the alt.hypertext newsgroup, inviting the public to take a look at the world’s first website. The invitation eventually launched a billion websites. Let’s look back at the web’s genesis.
WWW: The NeXTSTEP in Internet Evolution
In 1989, a British software developer at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (commonly abbreviated “CERN”) named Tim Berners-Lee grew frustrated with how scientists shared research at his organization. With many different file formats, programming languages, and computer platforms, he found it frustrating and inefficient to locate electronic records and figure out how they should be used.
To solve this, Berners-Lee envisioned a network system using hypertext that would allow computers of different kinds to effortlessly share information over a computer network. That invention, first documented in 1989, became the World Wide Web, or WWW for short.
In 1990, Berners-Lee wrote the first web browser—called WorldWideWeb.app at first—and the first web server, httpd. They ran on Berners-Lee’s NeXTCube computer, which included advanced object-oriented development tools that shipped with the NeXTSTEP operating system.
On his personal website, Berners-Lee recalls how NeXT’s development platform, which allowed people to quickly design graphical interfaces, helped him develop the web quickly. “I could do in a couple of months what would take more like a year on other platforms, because on the NeXT, a lot of it was done for me already,” he wrote, referring to the ability to quickly create menus and display formatted text.
During its initial testing phase, the World Wide Web remained an internal project to CERN. According to CERN, Berners-Lee published the first website on December 20, 1990. Just 21 days later, on January 10, 1991, Berners-Lee invited the high-energy physics community to participate in his project, releasing his software outside of CERN for the first time.
Throughout 1991, Berners-Lee kept refining his browser and server code with feedback from others. On August 6, 1991, in a reply to a request on the alt.hypertext Usenet newsgroup, Berners-Lee described the web and mentioned a very public invitation for the wider community to participate: “The WWW project was started to allow high energy physicists to share data, news, and documentation. We are very interested in spreading the web to other areas, and having gateway servers for other data. Collaborators welcome!”
This seemingly mundane post is now seen as a key historical moment, mostly since it’s so clearly documented. Berners-Lee’s desire to “[spread] the web to other areas” followed his earlier realization that the web could be useful to everyone on Earth, not just scientific researchers. It was time to share his creation with the entire world.
In his next post on the same day, Berners-Lee provided an executive summary of the WorldWideWeb project at CERN, describing its purpose and how it worked. At the very end of the document, he included the now-famous first website URL:
http://info.cern.ch/hypertext/WWW/TheProject.html, which you can still visit today.
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The First Website: Simple and Informational
Titled “World Wide Web,” the world’s first public website served as a bare-bones introduction to the concept of the web itself for those outside of CERN who might have been interested in the technology. Amazingly, CERN still hosts a copy of the site that you can view in your modern browser, which reportedly dates to some time in 1992. Sadly, though, the original December 1990 version is lost to history.
Just like today, to use the first-ever website, you’d follow hyperlinks (underlined on the page) by double-clicking them in the original WorldWideWeb browser. Each link would take you to further sources of related information in a decentralized, non-hierarchical web model, where information could take its most convenient form without rigidly imposed restrictions.
It’s worth noting that Berners-Lee’s WorldWideWeb browser held the distinction of allowing editing source web documents as well as viewing them, which was part of his original vision for the web. Subsequent browsers lost this capability until many years later. For a time, the web was mostly a read-only medium, with authoring taking place using offline tools.
Try the First Web Browser Today
If you’d like to get a feel for what using the first browser was like, CERN hosts a simulation of the first web browser as it appeared in the NeXTSTEP operating system, and you can run it in your browser today. The menu on the side of the screen follows the conventions of NeXTSTEP at the time. It’s rendered in shades of gray because many NeXT computers shipped with high-resolution monochrome monitors.
The link that we’ve provided will take you directly to a recreation of the first website, but CERN also provides instructions on how to browse to other sites. And if the text looks blurry or choppy in Windows, we’ve found that zooming the text size in or out by holding down Ctrl and moving your mouse scroll wheel in either direction can clear it up.
The Rapid Growth of the Web
After Tim Berners-Lee opened the web to the public in 1991, the new medium grew rapidly. In particular, a few key milestones took place in 1993. On April 30, CERN released the fundamental technologies of the WWW into the public domain, paving the way for the web to become a royalty-free standard that anyone could use free of charge. That was huge.
Also in 1993, NCSA released Mosaic, the first web browser to display in-line graphics (images within text on the page instead of in a separate window), sparking a multimedia revolution on the web. Mosaic also integrated support for other internet protocols such as FTP, NNTP, and Gopher, bringing them conveniently under the web browser’s umbrella. And Mosaic was free to download, further encouraging the use of the WWW as an open platform.
In 1994, Tim Berners-Lee founded the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which was almost as important as inventing the web itself. Without the open guidance of the W3C, it’s possible that the web would have splintered into many incompatible technologies long ago, which would have hindered the web’s rapid adoption worldwide.
But that didn’t happen, and today, there are over 1.2 billion websites online, according to Netcraft, although they estimate that only about 126 million of those are “active” and not just parked domain names or other placeholders. Still, there’s no doubt that activity through web-based social media (which isn’t counted in those results) has grown astronomically over the past decade as well.
Will the web ever give way to a future technology? Only time will tell, but for now, the WWW is still an essential tool that links most of humanity’s information sources together, just like Tim Berners-Lee envisioned 30 years ago.
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