The World Wide Web celebrates its 20th birthday

April 30, 2013 // 11:10 a.m.

Tags: #cern #http #hypermedia #hypertext #sir-tim-berners-lee #tim-berners-lee #w3 #web #website #worldwideweb #world-wide-web

The World Wide Web is enjoying its twentieth birthday today, having been made available by its creators on a royalty-free basis on the 30th of April 1993 - a move without which the modern internet would look very, very different.

Although its origins trace back to the late 80s, when noted physicist Tim Berners-Lee - latterly Sir Tim Berners-Lee - developed a system for creating rich-format documents with interlinked sections and graphics, which he dubbed the WorldWideWeb Project. Combining previous technologies - hypertext and information retrieval systems - the WWW project sought to make browsing the vast archive of data from universities and scientific facilities as easy as possible.

'The WWW world consists of documents, and links. Indexes are special documents which, rather than being read, may be searched,' Berners-Lee explained in a Usenet posting from 1991. ' A simple
protocol ("HTTP") is used to allow a browser program to request a keyword search by a remote information server. The web contains documents in many formats. Those documents which are hypertext, (real or virtual) contain links to other documents, or places within documents. All documents, whether real, virtual or indexes, look similar to the reader and are contained within the same addressing scheme.

The language of the web may have shifted since then - Berners-Lee talks of individual sites being called simply 'a web' rather than 'a website,' describes URLs as 'coordinates' and envisions a world where webs would be accessed over the File Transfer Protocol (FTP) as well as the specially-designed HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP) - but the basics of what we now know as the modern web are present. 'The WWW model gets over the frustrating incompatibilities of data format between suppliers and reader by allowing negotiation of format between a smart browser and a smart server. This should provide a basis for extension into multimedia, and allow those who share application standards to make full use of them across the web.'

Prior to the invention of the World Wide Web, accessing data on the internet was a cumbersome affair. Protocols like Gopher attempted to compete with the World Wide Web for simplicity, but ultimately Berners-Lee's invention became the dominant force for accessing information on the internet - so much so, in fact, that in modern parlance the word 'web' has all but supplanted 'internet.'

Today's date is a special one for the WorldWideWeb Project: while Berners-Lee was publicly demonstrating the technology in 1991, it wasn't until 1993 that his employer, CERN (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire,) would release the technology into the public domain - allowing anyone to create their own websites and browsers. Abbreviated to W3 - a contraction that did not stick - CERN announced that it 'relinquishes all intellectual property rights to this code, both source and binary form and permission is granted for anyone to use, duplicate, modify and distribute it.'

Without that gift of intellectual property, the web would never have been born - and it's perfectly possible you'd be accessing this site through a Gopher browser instead, or even subscribing to the Usenet group. To celebrate, a team of volunteers is restoring, the world's first website, including putting the very first pages, detailing the W3 project itself, back on their original URL. For digital historians, it's a glimpse through time - and for others, a view of just how far the web has come in the last two decades.