The World Wide Web was originally developed in 1990 at CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics. The original idea came from a young computer scientist, Tim Berners-Lee. The Web is now managed by The World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C for short.
Dreaming Up the Web
In March of 1989 Tim Berners-Lee wrote a proposal that outlined the concept we know today as the World Wide Web. Encouraged by his boss, Berners-Lee began working on the technologies necessary to make the Web a reality. With access to a TCP/IP network by virtue of his position at CERN, by the end of 1990 Berners-Lee had developed the technologies needed to power the web:
- HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP)
- HyperText Markup Language (HTML)
- A browser called WorldWideWeb
- HTTP server software which grew to be known as CERN httpd
- The first web server on a machine at CERN
- The first web pages which were simply a description of the project
Originally, the WorldWideWeb browser could only be used on the NeXT computer system, a glaring barrier to wide adoption of the platform. Nicola Pellow, a math student intern working at CERN, with experience programming for other computer systems, was drafted to develop a simple browser that would work on the most popular computer systems of the time. The resulting software was called the Line Mode Browser, and it was used widely throughout the Internet community in the early 1990s.
Encouraging Growth & Adoption
To encourage further development and adoption of the Web at CERN, the organization’s telephone directory was uploaded to the Web, which forced regular use of the platform throughout the organization. In August of 1991, Berners-Lee began to push for collaboration beyond CERN within the wider Internet-research world by posting a short summary of the project and an invitation to collaborate on the Web. At the same time, public accessibility to the Web was granted to anyone with an Internet connection, providing other research facilities the opportunity to collaborate with the team at CERN.
In 1993 the Mosaic browser was developed by students at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It was released in Unix, Windows, and Apple formats, and grew rapidly in popularity due to it’s strong support for multimedia. Upon graduation, those same students formed the Mosaic Communications Corporation, and developed Netscape as a commercial software product. Netscape proved to be a huge success, and commanded as much as 90 percent of the browser market in the mid 1990s.
As a result of strong interest in the Web, and the broad accessibility afforded by browsers like Mosaic and Netscape, by the mid-to-late 1990s it was apparent that every large company needed a web presence. At the same time, easy financing fueled a boom of Dot-com startup companies. In combination, these factors drove rapid expansion of the Web, and solidified it’s position as an integral part of modern society.
Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
Berners-Lee wasn’t the first person to dream up the ideas and concepts that coalesce to form the Web we know and love today. The Web is an idea built on concepts dating all the way back to 1895.
- Mundaneum was founded in 1910, but the original concept was dreamed up in 1895 by a pair of Belgian lawyers and documentation scientists. The goal of the project was to gather all of the world’s knowledge, and classify it in what amounted to a massive index card system, creating a sort of physical Wikipedia before the Web. A few different efforts were made to create such a system, and some partial Mundaneum collections exist in museums to this day.
- Memex is the name given to a completely hypothetical knowledge storage and access system envisioned in 1945 by Vannevar Bush. It was conceptualized by Bush as a desk equipped with microfilm, viewing screens, and a complex indexing system to allow rapid retrieval of stored information. The memex system was always hypothetical, and no effort was every made to implement it, but many subsequent hypertext systems are believed to have drawn inspiration from memex.
- IBM Generalized Markup Language (GML) was developed in 1969 and 1970 by a team of developers working for IBM. GML is the markup language precursor to HTML. Just like HTML, it included tags to define things such as paragraphs, headers, lists, tables, and more.
- Project Xanadu represents the first hypertext project, albeit one conceptualized to look and function very differently from the Web. The project was founded in 1960, and it is still an active project to this day, with the team behind Xanadu declaring it a vast improvement over the Web.
Keeping the Dream Alive
In 1994 Berners-Lee left CERN to form the W3C. The goal of the W3C from it’s inception was to encourage development and adoption of standards across the Web. Berners-Lee decided to make the Web completely free, to minimize barriers to adoption of the technology. Berners-Lee continues to lead W3C today, and to work for consistent use of web standards, and the free exchange of information across the Web.
The W3C, is funded by a combination of member dues, research grants, sponsorships, and donations. The membership roster includes hundreds of well-known corporate members, such as AT&T, Adobe Systems, Microsoft Corporation, and Apple. Research grants from organizations such as the European Commission and the US Department of Education are used to support various research and standard development initiatives.
The W3C is administered by MIT in the United States, the European Research Consortium for Informatics and Mathematics (ERCIM) in France, Keoi University in Japan, and Beihang University in China. In addition, the W3C has offices in sixteen different world regions. For an exploration of this late 20th century marvel, visit A Little History of the World Wide Web.