Happy birthday to the WorldWideWeb! 27 today and you’ve come a long way, baby

6th August 2018

That www up there in the address bar, the one before the dot and the bigblu, the one that stands for WorldWideWeb (the “Web”). Well, today is the Web’s 27th birthday.

It’s a birthday worth commemorating as it means the Web is now entering the territory of the Forever 27 Club, made up of the great and good of the creative world who did not make it to their 28th birthday. It is a club that includes Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse.

From one to a billion
With over 1.5 billion websites on the Web today, although less than 200 million are active, it seems unlikely that the Web will be joining that particular club. But once upon a time, the Web was barely more than a twinkle in a British computer scientist’s eye.

The name WorldWideWeb was decided on a whim over lunch at CERN in the early summer of 1989

On 6 August 1991, the World Wide Web went live when Sir Tim Berners-Lee introduced the first ever website to the world at large. It was hosted on the web server info.cern.ch and was just a simple text page. The move marked the debut of the web as a publicly available service on the Internet.

A glimpse of genius
Berners-Lee marked the (with hindsight) momentous day with a short post on the alt.hypertext newsgroup. For posterity, and for a glimpse into the mind of far-sighted genius, the email exchange remains archived on Google Groups.

Berners-Lee was working at the time as consultant at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, more famous recently for its Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator. He had been developing a way for physicists to share information around the world without all needing to be using the same hardware and software.

What’s in a name?
The name WorldWideWeb was decided on a whim over lunch at CERN in the early summer of 1989. Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau had to submit a proposal for funding for their still unnamed project. Berners-Lee suggested, “Why don’t we call it World Wide Web?” and Robert said, “Sure, why not.” They both figured they could change it later if they needed to.

Berners-Lee’s work in the 1980s resulted in a 1989 research paper that proposed, “a large hypertext database with typed links”. As he stated in his ‘origin’ post, “the WorldWideWeb (WWW) project aims to allow links to be made to any information anywhere”.

Making links
And it is links that make the Web go around, because without other sites to link to, the web would be nothing. Berners-Lee knew that, which is why his initial post explained how to download the browser and suggested users begin by trying out his first public Web page, at http://info.cern.ch/hypertext/WWW/TheProject.html.

Berners-Lee’s breakthrough was to marry hypertext to the Internet, hypertext being the writing on computer displays that enables the easy-to-use publication of information over the Internet.

Spot the difference
At this point it’s worth trying to clarify the difference between the Web and the Internet. The Internet is a massive network of networks. It connects millions of computers across the globe, forming a network in which any computer can communicate with any other computer (if connected to the Internet). The Web is a way of accessing information over the medium of the Internet.

So when you type “www” into your browser address bar today, take a moment to pay quiet homage (and maybe even light a candle, or 27) to Sir Tim, for he’s a jolly good fellow.

Key dates in the life of the Web

March 1989: the original proposal
Berners-Lee wrote a proposal to develop a distributed information system for the laboratory. “Vague, but exciting” was the comment that his supervisor, Mike Sendall, wrote on the cover, and with those words, gave the green light to an information revolution.

December 1990: basic concepts defined
By Christmas 1990, Berners-Lee had defined the Web’s basic concepts, the URL, http and html, and he had written the first browser and server software.

January 1991: first Web release
An early WWW system was released to the high-energy-physics community via the CERN program library.

August 1991: the Web’s public debut
The WWW system is made generally available via the Internet, especially to the community of people working on hypertext systems. The move marked the debut of the web as a publicly available service on the Internet.

January 1992: the first browser
The line-mode browser was the world’s first readily accessible browser for what we now know as the world wide web. It was not the first web browser but most computers were not very powerful in 1991, certainly not as powerful as the NeXT machine on which Berners-Lee built the first browser.

September 1993: browsers go big
The National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois released its Mosaic browser, which was easy to run and install on ordinary PCs and Macintosh computers. Mosaic was the browser that popularised the Web and the Internet.

April 1993: Web software goes public
CERN put the Web software in the public domain. They made the next release available with an open licence, to maximise its dissemination. Through these actions, making the software required to run a web server freely available, along with a basic browser and a library of code, the Web was allowed to flourish.