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Commemorative plaque for the invention of the Web

How the web began

The first proposal for the World Wide Web (WWW) was made at CERN by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989, and further refined by him and Robert Cailliau in 1990.

By the end of that year, prototype software for a basic system was already being demonstrated. To encourage its adoption, an interface to the CERN Computer Centre's documentation, to the ‘help service’ and also to the familiar Usenet newsgroups was provided.

The first web servers were all located in European physics laboratories and only a few users had access to the NeXT platform on which the first browser ran. CERN soon provided a much simpler browser, which could be run on any system.

In 1991, an early WWW system was released to the high energy physics community via the CERN program library. It included the simple browser, web server software and a library, implementing the essential functions for developers to build their own software. A wide range of universities and research laboratories started to use it. A little later it was made generally available via the Internet, especially to the community of people working on hypertext systems.

Going global

The first web server in the United States came on-line in December 1991, once again in a pure research institute: the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) in California.

At this stage, there were essentially only two kinds of browser. One was the original development version, very sophisticated but only available on the NeXT machines. The other was the ‘line-mode’ browser, which was easy to install and run on any platform but limited in power and user-friendliness. It was clear that the small team at CERN could not do all the work needed to develop the system further, so Berners-Lee launched a plea via the Internet for other developers to join in.

Several individuals wrote browsers, mostly for the X-window system. The most notable from this era are MIDAS by Tony Johnson from SLAC, Viola by Pei Wei from O'Reilly, Erwise by the Finns from the Helsinki University of Technology.

Early in 1993, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois released a first version of their Mosaic browser. This software ran in the X Window System environment, popular in the research community, and offered friendly window-based interaction. Shortly afterwards the NCSA released versions also for the PC and Macintosh environments. The existence of reliable user-friendly browsers on these popular computers had an immediate impact on the spread of the WWW. The European Commission approved its first web project (WISE) at the end of the same year, with CERN as one of the partners. By late 1993 there were over 500 known web servers, and the WWW accounted for 1% of Internet traffic, which seemed a lot in those days! (The rest was remote access, e-mail and file transfer.) 1994 really was the ‘Year of the Web’. The world’s First International World Wide Web conference was held at CERN in May. It was attended by 400 users and developers, and was hailed as the ‘Woodstock of the Web’. As 1994 progressed, the Web stories got into all the media. A second conference, attended by 1300 people, was held in the US in October, organised by the NCSA and the already created the International WWW Conference Committee (IW3C2).

By the end of 1994, the Web had 10,000 servers, of which 2,000 were commercial, and 10 million users. Traffic was equivalent to shipping the entire collected works of Shakespeare every second. The technology was continually extended to cater for new needs. Security and tools for e-commerce were the most important features soon to be added.

Open standards

An essential point was that the Web should remain an open standard for all to use and that no-one should lock it up into a proprietary system.
In this spirit, CERN submitted a proposal to the Commission of the European Union under the ESPRIT programme: ‘WebCore’. The goal of the project was an International Consortium, in collaboration with the US Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Berners-Lee officially left CERN at the end of 1994 to work on the Consortium from the MIT base. But with approval of the LHC project clearly in sight, it was decided that further Web development was an activity beyond the Laboratory’s primary mission. A new home for basic Web work was needed.

The European Commission turned to the French National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Controls (INRIA), to take over the role of CERN.

In January 1995, the International World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) was founded ‘to lead the World Wide Web to its full potential by developing common protocols that promote its evolution and ensure its interoperability’.

By 2007 W3C, run jointly by MIT/LCS in the US, INRIA in France, and Keio University in Japan, had more than 430 member organizations from around the world.