WWW: Beyond the Basics

1. History of the World Wide Web

1.3. History of the Web

1.3.1 CERN WWW Research

It all began when Tim Berners-Lee, a graduate of Oxford University, got frustrated with the fact that his daily schedule planner, his list of phone numbers, and his documents were stored in different databases on different machines thus making it difficult to access them simultaneously. He set out to fix this problem. The year was 1980, and the place was CERN...

Tim Berners-Lee started working at CERN (Centre European pour la Recherche Nucleaire -or- European Laboratory for Particle Physics) as a consultant in 1980. At that time, several platform dependent and proprietary information storage and retrieval methods were being used at CERN. Additionally, several systems such as "CERNET" and "FOCUS" were developed in-house. In general, as with other institutions, data was stored and manipulated in isolated machines with practically no interaction or connectivity. Tim Berners-Lee's data was scattered over several such systems. He wished to develop a system that would allow him, for example, to summon quickly and automatically a mailing address for the receiver of a letter he might be composing. "I wanted a program that could store random associations between arbitrary pieces of information," he recounts. His first program to address this issue was "Enquire-Within-Upon-Everything", "Enquire" for short. The name for the program was based on an 1856 book "Enquire Within Upon Everything," a how-to book for the Victorian era. In a recent interview, Berners-Lee said that at the time of creation of "Enquire," he had only been marginally exposed to the ideas of Ted Nelson, and the concept of hypertext. At the time, he was simply concerned with solving a technical problem he was facing at CERN. [W3C]

Berners-Lee left CERN not too long after the completion of the "Enquire" system, which went mostly unused after his departure. He worked as a consultant in the area of networking, and made contributions to the RPC (Remote Procedure Call) system. In the mean time, the Internet and TCP/IP were introduced at CERN in 1984. By 1989 CERN had become the largest Internet site in Europe. In 1989 Tim Berners-Lee returned to CERN. The "computing culture" at CERN revolved around the then new ideas of distributed computing and object-oriented programming. Berners-Lee's background in network and socket programming was completely consistent with the new ways of computing at CERN. Additionally, with the advent of revolutionary object oriented technologies introduced by NeXT, rapid systems development and prototyping in a UNIX environment had become more feasible. The conditions were just right... [W3C , Gromov]

In March of 1989, Tim Berners-Lee submitted Information Management: A Proposal to his superiors at CERN. In a later paper ("World-Wide Web: An Information Infrastructure for High-Energy Physics"), he mentioned that the motivation for this system arose "from the geographical dispersion of large collaborations, and the fast turnover of fellows, students, and visiting scientists," who had to get "up to speed on projects and leave a lasting contribution before leaving." In his original "Information Management: A Proposal," Berners-Lee described the deficiencies of hierarchical information delivery systems such as UUCP, and outlined the advantages of a hypertext-based system. The proposal called for "a simple scheme to incorporate several different servers of machine-stored information already available at CERN." A distributed hypertext system was the mechanism to provide "a single user-interface to many large classes of stored information such as reports, notes, data-bases, computer documentation and on-line systems help." As discussed by Relihan, the proposal's main objectives were:

Berners-Lee envisioned a two-phase project. In the first phase CERN would "make use of existing software and hardware as well as implementing simple browsers for the user's workstations, based on an analysis of the requirements for information access needs by experiments." In the second phase of the project they would "extend the application area by also allowing the users to add new material." The proposal requested four software engineers and a programmer, and the development time for each phase was projected to be three months. Initially, the proposal did not receive complete support, but in 1990, Berners-Lee recirculated the proposal and received the needed support to begin work. In October of 1990, his project proposal was reformulated with help from Robert Cailliau and the name World Wide Web was selected. [Gromov , Zeltser]

As an aside, it is interesting to note that birth of the world wide web was a "side effect" of the research in the area of particle physics. CERN provided the type of environment in which scientists and researchers were given the opportunity to cultivate any new and creative ideas they may have. Ben Segal recalls in an interview: [Gromov]

Berners-Lee and others at CERN were impressed with some of the new paradigms of computing as implemented by NeXT Software, Inc. founded by the one of the architects of the desktop computer revolution Steve Jobs. The initial world wide web program was developed in November of 1990 using NeXT's object oriented technology. The program was a browser which also allowed WYSIWYG editing of world wide web documents. The first world wide web sever, was also developed and implemented on NEXTSTEP. The software was ported to other platforms in 1991 and released to the public. Berners-Lee and his team at CERN paved the way for the future development of the web by introducing their server and browser, the protocol used for communication between the clients and the server, Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), the language used in composeing web documents, Hyper Text Markup Language (HTML), and the Universal Resource Locator (URL).

So it began.

1.3.2 Mosaic and Netscape

Once the WWW concepts and the protocols were placed in the public domain, programmers and software developers around the world began intorducing their own modifications and improvements. Marc Andreesen was one such programmer. Andreesen, a graduate student at the University of Illinois' NCSA (National Center for Supercomputing Applications), led a team of graduate students (including Eric Bina) which, in February of 1993, released the first alpha version of his "Mosaic for X" point-and-click graphical browser for the Web implemented for UNIX. In August of 1993, Andreesen and his fellow programmers released free versions of their Mosaic for Macintosh and Windows operating systems. This was a significant event in the evolution of the world wide web in that, for the first time, a world wide web client, with a relatively consistent and easy to use point-and-click GUI (Graphical User Interface), was implemented on the three of the most popular operating systems available at the time. By September of 1993, world wide web taffic constituted 1% of all traffic on the NSF backbone.

Andreesen left NCSA in December of 1993 to move to California and accepted a position with a small software company. At that time, he had no intention of continuing work on Mosaic. Within four months, however, Andressen and Eric Bina (from the original Mosaic team at NCSA), along with the founder of SGI, Jim Clark, started "Mosaic Communications Corp" which is now known as Netscape. Andreesen recalls:

By May of 1994, practically all the members of the original Mosaic development team at NCSA had joined Netscape. The Marc Andreesen Interview Page provides an interesting view on the history of Mosaic and Netscape.

Creation of the world wide web by Tim Berners-Lee, followed by release of the Mosaic browser (and the eventual establishment of Netscape Inc.) can arguably be viewed as the two most significant contributing factors to the success and popularity of the web today. The list that follows contains links to other locations with additional information on the history of the web.

Shahrooz Feizabadi <shahrooz@vt.edu>