Rewriting the history of the web

browser-new

I have alluded to this ‘story’ before but as it is 20 years ago that CERN gave the World Wide Web to the world, I thought it would be a good occasion tell it all.

In 1990 (yes, not 1993), I was doing a night shift at CERN. CERN’s nuclear accelerators run 24/7 and at night and in weekends there are always technicians, engineers and scientist on shift, making the most of these hugely expensive facilities. At some ungodly hour I got this email (rephrased):

Dear Colleagues, 

I would like to present you a new system I have been working on for the past few years. It is called the World Wide Web and it is essentially an information retrieval system. This will allow the global physics community to retrieve papers and other relevant information freely and easily.

Have a look and if you have any suggestions, please let me know.

Tim Berners-Lee.

I had met Tim at a few parties and remembered him as a quiet guy. Our common friend had introduced him to me as “This is Tim. He is working on a really cool information system”. Ok, so it was called the World Wide Web. A bit of  a mouthful.  As was URL: Uniform Resource Locator. Why these terrible names? When Tim presented his WWW to the scientific community they didn’t think it deserved names like “Global Address”or similar. After all, who did Tim think he was?

The first browser

I went to the directory where the system was stored and started it up. (No we didn’t have hyperlinks in emails) . On my screen came the first web browser.

browser

(not the original text, but very similar)

Now, CERN’s current historians will have you believe that the first web browser dates from 1992 and had a similar layout as today’s browsers but they are re-writing history: the first web browser was an ASCII browser in 1990 and was written by Tim Berners Lee himself.

Now put yourself in my shoes. 3AM, you have just become one of the first 100 or so web surfer’s on the planet and someone shows you an ASCII browser: is this cool?

No.

The WWW was not cool at all. It was boring. Who wants to surf the web for papers on physics when good old Anonymous FTP together with News Groups gave access to much more interesting information? Not me. Thanks Tim.

The first web porn policy

Browsers got better relatively soon and Mosaic was a big favorite. At that time all CERN employees automatically had their own web page. We used it post stuff on our hobbies: music, cars, gardening, cooking – whatever. At that time the web was pretty much limited to CERN so it was more of an intranet.

One day, jolly accelerator operators that we were, we got hold of the password of  one of our colleagues. When he went on holidays next day we made a new web page for him, entitled: My favourite hobby: Goat Splitting. It was decorated with mildly pornographic images. We were quite pleased with our good day’s work.

At roughly the same time the UK minister for science was visiting CERN and was shown around by the Director General. Keen to show the WWW, he stopped randomly in an office and proudly said that all staff had a web page. The secretary behind the desk showed her web page. Smiles all around. Then she clicked on “my friends” and landed on my home page. From there they were only one click away to Goat Splitting. Click…

Let me assure you, my friends, that my absent colleague nearly lost his job and within half an hour, an all staff email from the Director General, the first corporate web porn policy was born…! You may thank yours truly.

The first internet loser

It took me another 10 years to understand what the web was for: becoming rich. So I quit my job and joined a now defunct web shop called Viant. It was a truly amazing time and we had tremendous fun during the steamy heights of the internet bubble. I was too late of course to make the quick million but I met one guy there who did even worse.

During a 3 week corporate induction session in Boston we all shared our war stories. I recounted how I was one of the first people to ever see the web and how I had dismissed it as boring and not worth my time. Ha ha, everyone laughed, loser! Then another guy said, that is nothing.

He explained that when he was at university he and two room mates had been buying memory chips in bulk and were selling them at a small profit to other students. They started buying other components and soon they had a nice little business going. One day he realised it was taking too much time and he said to his room mates that he was going to stop this business and get on with studying.

‘Sure’, said Michael Dell, ‘but I will pursue this, if you don’t mind’. 

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19 thoughts on “Rewriting the history of the web

    1. Thanks! It’s amazing place but when you’re part of it, it seems as normal to create antimatter as it is to finally grow sweet peas from seed 🙂 Good source for stories though (just ask Dan Brown)

      1. Holy shit just the same. The closest I’ve gotten to antimatter was when a delegation from CERN came to do a lecture series at Science World in Vancouver. My company was hired to put on a magnificent party post lecture, can’t for the life of me remember his name but one of the speakers fainted, hitting his head on a table and smashing wine glasses on the way to the floor. I packed him off in an ambulance. 🙂

      2. Ha ha, looks like we haven’t got 6 degrees of separation between us. In those days I got a lot of TV crews interviewing me (us) about antimatter. One of the coolest crews were either from Vancouver or Seattle from a virtual science museum. I’ve never seen the footage but presumably I am famous out there, somewhere 🙂

      3. Sounds like it might of been the IMAX crew from Vancouver. Who knows, maybe we’ll run into each other one day at Science World. One of our clients is the TRIUMPH group from the University of B.C. If I may be so bold as to ask – what do you work at these days? 🙂

      4. Yes, TRIUMPH and CERN are two peas in a pod. I left CERN after 12 years and through internet and IT I ended up in air transport. A few years back I organized a big airline conference in Vancouver (so that I could visit a friend !). Right now I’m consulting in travel. I’m sure must have touched the travel business too.

    1. Good idea, although I have noticed that collective amnesia has already set in and I can already imagine an oil painting hanging in the London Society for Computer Sciences with Gates, Jobs and Berners Lee, hunched over a circuit board on a large oak desk, breathing life into the internet. Around the panelled walls there will be Andreesen, Branson (with a huge smile), Tony Blair and other mortals pondering over this breakthrough.

      But you will know the truth.

  1. Okay, now I know how the idea of packing up and moving anywhere is so easy. You have proper, interesting jobs and proper, interesting qualifications! (as opposed to ‘what can I do to pay the bills for a while here’) Enjoyed the post!

    1. Thanks violetwisp! I left out the dirty part about moving to London without a job, being laughed at by city bankers when I said: “Please Sir, may I have a job Sir?”. Living in a cheap hotel on savings with a wife who’s questioning whether the guy she married will manage or not and a 1 and 3 year old. Aside from that, it’s easy. Not. 🙂 🙂 There is a bit more info about the big picture here: https://geneticfractals.wordpress.com/2013/03/18/a-fractal-life/ You have given me an idea though. I have been at this moving on game for a while and it might be interesting to write about that part. Thanks for liking my post 🙂

  2. This is amazing! I had no idea it was like that. Also, the porn part made me laugh out loud. And the last one about Dell.
    And you met Tim Berners-Lee!!!
    You worked at CERN, saw the Web be born… what a fascinating experience. Please write more about it!

    1. Thanks David, yes with hindsight it was amazing and I was lucky to be there. I have other interesting stories from there and elsewhere and in time, if I keep this up, they will come out 🙂

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