A Short History of the Web
Text of a speech delivered at the launching of the European
branch of the W3 Consortium
Paris, 2 November 1995
World-Wide Web Support
European Laboratory for Particle Physics
This is a more complete text of the presentation about the history of the Web
given in Paris at the launching ceremony of the World-Wide Web Consortium in
The author works at CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, where
the World-Wide Web was conceived. He has worked with the Web from the beginning,
and now runs the main CERN web service. He is also founding member and past
Chairman of the IW3C2, the International WWW Conference Committee. He devotes
part of his time to dissemination actions in the WWW Consortium.
CERN is the world's largest High-Energy Physics (HEP) laboratory. It is
funded by 19 European member states and is located near Geneva, with facilities
on both sides of the Swiss-French border.
Physicists at CERN investigate the nature of matter and energy in a pure
scientific research environment. CERN provides its users with large particle
accelerators, and runs the world's largest machine, the Large Electron-Positron
collider, LEP, built 100 meters underground, in a circular tunnel with a
circumference of 30km (about the same size as the Paris Boulevard Périphérique).
The name CERN stands for the 1953 body which founded the lab, the "Conseil
Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire", but the lab is not involved in
nuclear power or weapons.
The history of every great invention is based on a lot of pre-history. In the
case of the World-Wide Web, there are two lines to be traced: the development of
hypertext, or the computer-aided reading of electronic documents, and the
development of the Internet protocols which made the global network possible.
As early as 1945 Vannevar Bush, science adviser to President Roosevelt,
writes about the Memex, a device (based on microfilm) for storing vast amounts
of documents in a single desk, with mechanical aids for finding, organising and
adding to the repository. Note: the Vannevar Bush symposium was held on 12
October on the 50th anniversary of the publication of his article in the
196x Douglas Engelbart produces first hypertext system. These systems run on
the expensive and enormous machines of the sixties, with even more expensive
display systems. Engelbart is also the inventor of the mouse.
1968 Ted Nelson coins the term "Hypertext".
1972 DARPA starts research leading to the Internet. Originally conceived to
connect research centres for data exchange, it is later adopted for military
purposes. Its main characteristic is the automatic routing of information
packets, circumventing the problem of network vulnerability through failure of
single transmission nodes.
1979 Charles Goldfarb invents SGML. This idea separates content structure
from presentation. Thus the same document can be rendered in different ways.
HTML, the markup language of the Web, is an SGML application.
1975 Alan Kay produces the first personal computer (Xerox PARC). Many ideas
had been tried, Kay invented overlapping window technology to produce a
single-user personal machine driven by menu commands accessed by a mouse. This
is used in many workstations in the beginning of the 80's and was popularised in
the Apple Macintosh of 1984.
1981 "Literary Machines" (Ted Nelson) describes project Xanadu: a
networked, world-wide system for publication, including collection of royalties
and inclusion of existing material.
1987 CERN and the US laboratories connect to the Internet as the main means
of exchanging data beween the laboratories.
The HEP community is small but spread all over the world. The physics
research laboratories of the world have many collaborations, and the exchange of
data and documents is a primordial activity. This environment is naturally ready
to accept a system that facilitates such communication over networks. The
adoption of the Internet as the standard academic network by CERN and its fellow
laboratories in the US made the ground very fertile indeed.
Late in the year 1989, Tim Berners-Lee proposes a networked Hypertext system
Robert Cailliau independently proposes a hypertext project for documentation
handling inside the laboratory.
CERN: A Joint proposal for a hypertext system is presented to the management.
Mike Sendall buys a NeXT cube for evaluation, and gives it to Tim. Tim's
prototype implementation on NeXTStep is made in the space of a few months,
thanks to the qualities of the NeXTStep software development system. This
prototype offers WYSIWYG browsing/authoring! Current Web browsers used in
"surfing the Internet" are mere passive windows, depriving the user of
the possibility to contribute.
During some sessions in the CERN cafeteria, Tim and I try to find a catching
name for the system. I was determined that the name should not yet again be
taken from Greek mythology. Tim proposes "World-Wide Web". I like this
very much, except that it is difficult to pronounce in French...
The prototype is very impressive, but the NeXTStep system is not widely
spread. A simplified, stripped-down version (with no editing facilities) that
can be easily adapted to any computer is constructed: the Portable
SLAC, the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in California, becomes the first
Web server in USA. It serves the contents of an existing, large data base of
abstracts of physics papers.
Distribution of software over the Internet starts.
The Hypertext'91 conference (San Antonio) allows us a "poster"
presentation (but does not see any use of discussing large, networked hypertext
The portable browser is released by CERN as freeware.
Many HEP laboratories now join with servers: DESY (Hamburg), NIKHEF
(Amsterdam), FNAL (Chicago).
Interest in the Internet population picks up.
The Gopher system from the University of Minnesota, also networked, simpler
to install, but with no hypertext links, spreads rapidly.
We need to make a Web browser for the X system, but have no in-house
expertise. However, Viola (O'Reilly Assoc., California) and Midas (SLAC) are
wysiwyg implementations that create great interest.
The world has 50 Web servers!
Viola and Midas are shown at the Software Development Group of NCSA (the
National Center for Supercomputing Applications, Illinois). Marc Andreessen and
Eric Bina write Mosaic from NCSA. This is easy to install, robust, and allows
in-line colour images. This causes an explosion in the USA.
I regret the loss of a number of features from the original prototype, which
were not implemented in any of the browsers that followed from the Line Mode
Browser and the X implementations such as Viola and Mosaic. The absence of
wysiwyg editing of Web pages is particularly frustrating. I begin to search for
and find SGML technology: one day I force a meeting with the president of a
small but highly advanced company, Grif. During lunch I present my vision of
what the Web will do to the Internet and business publishing. It takes some time
to make get the points across: Europe is not ready for this revolution! However,
Grif now is a member of the consortium and has a suite of Web publishing
CERN produces Web server software with basic protection mechanisms.
The Web server with pictures from the Dinosaur Exhibition in Honolulu is the
showcase server for the Web.
The European Commission approves the first WWW based project:
"Wise", for dissemination of information to small and medium
enterprises (DGXIII, the Fraunhofer Gesellschaft (Darmstadt/Rostock) the CCG
(Portugal) and CERN).
I conceive and start organizing the First International WWW Conference.
We have 250 servers!
Jim Clark, during a period of reflection, is advised to look into the
Internet. He founds MCC (later Netscape). Netscape wisely hires the best young
Web programmers of the world.
The First International WWW Conference is held in Geneva, at CERN. It
attracts over 600 Web enthusiasts, only 400 of which can be admitted
("Woodstock of the Web").
A conference in the US is a necessity, we found the IW3C2 (International WWW
Conference Committee) to run the future conferences.
The success of the Web means that CERN as a physics lab cannot continue to
invest effort in an informatics project without help. We propose the WebCore
project to the European Commission, to obtain funding for continued development
of the core technology.
The Second WWW Conference is appropriately organized by NCSA, in Chicago. It
attracts 1800 people, of which only 1300 can be admitted.
Tim Berners-Lee and the Laboratory for Computer Science (LCS) of MIT
(Massachusetts Institute of Technology) start the W3C Consortium in the US. It
is modelled after the X consortium.
Tim Berners-Lee leaves CERN for MIT (December).
The CERN Council approves unanimously the construction of the LHC
accelerator. This Large Hadron Collider will be built in the existing LEP
tunnel, but with a tight budget. It is now impossible for CERN to continue deep
involvement in the Web technological development.
We have 2500 servers.
In January, CERN and the European Commission invite INRIA, the Institut
National de Recherche en Informatique et en Automatique, to continue the
European involvement. INRIA has five sites in France and is heavily involved in
European projects and collaborations with similar institutes in Europe and the
Sun Microsystems produces HotJava, a browser which incorporates interactive
The Third Conference is organised by the FhG, Darmstadt. There is no way for
individuals to become members of the Web Consortium. To give individuals a
voice, a user-group type organisation is needed. This leads to the founding of
the Web Society in Graz (Austria).
Regional conferences are being organised (Portugal, Sydney, ... ).
At one point we register 700 new servers per day!
During the summer, several big European companies, mainly users, join the
W3C. The European presence in the world-spanning Web Consortium is now large
enough to organise a special day devoted to the Consortium activities in Europe.
This meeting is attended by 1300 people and held in Paris (organised by INRIA).
The Fourth Conference will be held in December, organised by MIT, Boston. The
Fifth Conference is being oganised by INRIA to take place in May 1996, in Paris.
There are to date approximately 73'500 servers.
WWW is generally equated with the Internet.
Bodies of the Web:
- the World-Wide Web Consortium. Jointly run by INRIA in Europe and MIT in
the US. Members from all over the world. Members sign a three-year contract
and pay a fee, for which they get a variety of benefits such as access to
advance information, participation in the development of the standards and
protocols and so on. Members must be organisations or companies, there is no
- the International WWW Conference Committee. It organises the series of
academic-level conferences about Web technology and development. It endorses
local or regional conferences with the same goals.
- Web Society:
- A society for users of the Web as individuals. Companies and organisations
are not members. This is like an automobile club.
- Internet Society:
- Forum for issues concerning the Internet, its protocols, the Internet
Architecture Board, the Internet Engineering Task Force etc. Is not
web-specific and not related to the W3C.
It must be understood that these bodies are composed of individuals who often
serve on more than one body. Therefore there is a lot of synergy and
cooperation, but the goals of each body are quite well-defined, separate and not
to be confused.