5 Things to Know About World Wide Web History

5 Things to Know About World Wide Web History

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Statista reports more than half of the global population is connected to the World Wide Web. But how did the web go from being a proposal to a network that changed the entire world? Let’s look at web history…

World Wide Web history (or “web history”) is a fascinating topic. Back in the day, when Tim Berners-Lee had spun up the first web server, a handwritten note in red ink ensured availability: “This machine is a server. DO NOT POWER IT DOWN!!” Today, we have large data centers across the globe that powers our virtual world. 

The World Wide Web has evolved into a huge mesh of interconnections — a web — that continues to grow and is used for various reasons. The World Wide Web is where you can do everything from ordering food online to lending voice to marginalized communities. Of course, with the evolution of the web, we’ve also seen the massive growth of spamming activities and cybercrimes. However, that’s a topic for a different day.

Today, we’re going to clear up a few common misconceptions about the web and share some interesting facts about the global network that we use on a daily basis. We’ll also answer your questions about who created the World Wide Web and provide a web history timeline of key events in the history of the web. But first, a bit of World Wide Web history!

The History of the Web (and the Internet It’s Built Upon)

A web history image of the first web server at CERN. Image source: Robert Scoble from Half Moon Bay, USA / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0). Used via the WikiMedia Commons.
A great piece of web history. This photo is of the world’s first web server. Image source: Robert Scoble from Half Moon Bay, USA / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0). Used via the WikiMedia Commons.

You can’t talk about the history of the web without first talking about the internet. In 1960, J. C. R. Licklider, a psychologist and computer scientist, anticipated advances in information systems. Licklider envisioned future libraries being interconnected via “wide-band communication lines,” a concept upon which the internet is built.

A couple of years later, he was appointed as the head of the Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO) at ARPA, the U.S. Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency. (ARPA was later renamed DARPA — the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — in 1972.) The Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) designed by ARPA was one of the first networks to implement the TCP/IP protocol suite.

In 1969, with the first ARPANET link getting established between the University of California and the Stanford Research Institute, the journey towards a decentralized interconnected system had begun. As the ARPANET system stabilized, more and more hosts were added to the network. By 1981, there were more than 200 connected systems.

But ARPANET wasn’t perfect — it was used by different types of computers that weren’t always interoperable due to differences in hardware, software, and operating systems. It’s like trying to have a conversation with a group of people who are speaking different languages.

A World Wide Web History Timeline

So, who created the World Wide Web? This honor goes to Sir Timothy John Berners-Lee, a then-consultant at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire).

Scientific American reports that Berners-Lee had stumbled upon the idea for hypertext after coming home from high school one day when his father was working on a speech. The topic of the speech was about how computers might intuitively make connections based on the hypertext principle, similar to a human brain. The idea stayed with him and became the inspiration for the creation of the World Wide Web as we know it today.

Web History — The 1980s

In 1980, when Berners-Lee was consulting for CERN, he wrote a program called Enquire to track the numerous scientists working there and their interrelated projects. The program checked for specific keywords, and if they were found, their locations in the documents were interlinked.

In 1984, Berners-Lee returned to work full-time at CERN after three years at John Poole’s Image Computer Systems Ltd., where he worked on computer networks, graphics, and communication software. By this time, Paul Mockapetris had already developed the domain name system (DNS). Lee’s vision was to create a global information space that would enable users across the world to access information stored on computers anywhere. The stage was set for the formation of the World Wide Web with HTML as its common publishing language.

In 1989, Berners-Lee circulated the first draft of the paper “Information Management: A Proposal” for comments at CERN. The document voiced concerns relating to information loss and talked about a distributed hypertext system-based solution. The proposal was reformulated the next year.

Web History — The 1990s

By the end of 1990, Berners-Lee, with the help of Robert Cailliau, had developed the first browser/editor called WorldWideWeb, along with a server and line-mode browser. The first client-server communication over the internet took place in December 1990. 

However, it was mainly popularized and made accessible to the masses after the release of the Mosaic web browser. ZDNet reports that the browser was developed by Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina on Jan. 23, 1993. Previously, the web was a collection of text pages linked together, but with Mosaic, the images were displayed alongside text. (However, the ZDNet article is quick to note that there are several other browsers that compete for the title of being the first graphical web browser. These include ViolaWWW, Erwise, and Cello.)

April 30, 1993 marks the date when the World Wide Web became public. History.com reports that this is when Berners-Lee “released the source code for the world’s first browser and editor.” 

In December 1993, JumpStation, created by Jonathon Fletcher, was released. It was the first web search engine that employed crawling, indexing, and searching.

In 1994, Berners-Lee founded the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), an international community that develops open standards for realizing the web’s long-term potential.

A graphical representation of the  web history timeline that showcases important parts of world wide web history.
A web history timeline for the evolution of the World Wide Web.

Did You Know the Following Web History?

  • Mosaic was the first popular web browser that was readily accessible to the public. Curious as to when other modern major browsers that we know and use today entered the scene?
    • Netscape Navigator, which was created by the same people who created Mosaic, was released in October 1994.
    • Internet Explorer was released in June 1995, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. (Wikipedia says that it was released Aug. 15, 1995.)
    • Firefox was released in 2002 under its previous incarnation named Phoenix. The officially named Firefox 1.0 came out in 2004.
  • In 1991, a livestream of a coffee pot at the University of Cambridge became the first webcam to be connected to the internet.
  • ShareYourWorld.com, founded in 1997, was the first internet video hosting site.
  • The Boston Computer Exchange was the world’s first online marketplace launched in 1982. After the invention of the web, Amazon.com became one of the first e-commerce platforms that was open for business in 1995.
  • In 1996, the 3-D animated dancing baby became the first video to go viral!

5 Key Facts to Know About World Wide Web History

There’s a lot to know about the history of the web, who invented www, and how it has evolved from its early days. Let’s take a look at five facts about the web that you might find interesting…

1. The World Wide Web is Not the Internet (But It Does Run on It)

As you may have heard, the internet and the world wide web are not the same thing (even though people use the two terms interchangeably). The internet already existed when the idea of the World Wide Web was conceived; it even served as the ideal infrastructure on which it could exist. The World Wide Web refers to the webpages and the sites we frequent every day and the interconnected network of links that takes us from one site to another.

However, the internet is more physical than we typically imagine. It involves the use of several material components like wires, hubs, or cables spread across the land and buried deep under the oceans. These cables connect one continent to another. These cables run underwater for more than 550,000 miles. This is in addition to the IT infrastructure that’s also required to run it, including networks, servers, and other equipment.

The internet has several services such as instant messaging, email, and FTP running on it. (If you want to learn more about the history of email security, check out our other article.) The World Wide Web is also one such service that’s commonly accessed by users on the internet. It’s a system that collects, stores, processes, organizes, and distributes information on the internet. It comprises of documents and web resources that are identified by uniform resource locators (URLs). The double slash used, that we see in URLs today, was inspired by Apollo workstation’s ‘domain’ file system.

2. HTTP Is the Underlying Protocol of the Web and It Was Developed by Tim Berners-Lee in 1991

The HTTPS protocol that we use today to access websites via secure communication channels is an evolution of the first instance of HTTP developed by Tim Berners-Lee. Over the years, the protocol was upgraded to add support for multiple media, error codes, SSL/TLS, etc.

3. The Web Proposal was Labeled “Vague, but exciting” by Lee’s Manager with “And now?” at the End

When the proposal was first submitted in 1989, Mike Sendall, Lee’s boss at CERN, considered the proposal “Vague, but exciting.” He went along with Lee’s idea to get one of the NeXT computers and encouraged him to continue working on the idea. The project continued developing on the side, and its name had three major nominees — The MESH, The Information Mine, or simply the Web.

Lee also created the WorldWideWeb browser, which was later rebranded to Nexus to avoid any confusion with the project itself. Along with the client browser, Tim Berners-Lee developed the first hypertext server software called “httpd.” The client browser would connect to it as it executed in the background to serve “pages” to the end-users.

4. CERN Bowed Out of Further Web Development Activity But Not Before Submitting a Proposal for Project “WebCore”

To ensure that the web remained open to all, CERN submitted a proposal to the European Union Commission under the ESPRIT program to form an international consortium in collaboration with MIT. However, CERN was on the verge of receiving approval for the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) project, and web development fell outside the purview of its primary mission.

Meanwhile, Berners-Lee left CERN to join MIT. While there, he founded the W3 consortium with CERN. A few months later, the French National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation (INRIA) took over CERN’s role.

5. CERN, in 2019, Recreated the First Web Browser Built by Tim Berners-Lee

In February 2019, to commemorate 30 years of the world wide web, developers at CERN recreated the first browser. The WorldWideWeb browser created by Lee could only run on the NeXT computer. Last year, programmers emulated the original browser within any modern browser eliminating the need to get your hands on an old-timey NeXT machine to indulge in an early web experience.

Wrapping Up on World Wide Web History

In 2004, Berners-Lee was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in recognition for his “services to the global development of the Internet.” Considering how fast the web has grown, and how accessible it is, it might come as a shock to know that as of July 2020, 41% of the world doesn’t have access to the internet.

Every year, on or around the web’s anniversary, Berners-Lee pens down a letter celebrating how far we’ve come. In these letters, he often also addresses the issues facing the web. Last year he spoke about making the web a reasonably secure space. One that drives constructive change, free from online harassment and poorly designed incentivized models that harm end-users. This year’s letter focuses on concerns around inequality gaps in our society and how the web further jeopardizes women’s safety.

About the author

Lumena is a cybersecurity consultant, tech writer, and regular columnist for InfoSec Insights. She is currently pursuing her masters in cybersecurity and has a passion for helping companies implement better security programs to protect their customers' data.