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A Short History of the Web

Text of a speech delivered at the launching of the European branch of the W3 Consortium
Paris, 2 November 1995

Robert Cailliau
World-Wide Web Support
WebCore Dissemination

European Laboratory for Particle Physics


This is a more complete text of the presentation about the history of the Web given in Paris at the launching ceremony of the World-Wide Web Consortium in Europe.

The author works at CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, where the World-Wide Web was conceived. He has worked with the Web from the beginning, and now runs the main CERN web service. He is also founding member and past Chairman of the IW3C2, the International WWW Conference Committee. He devotes part of his time to dissemination actions in the WWW Consortium.

CERN is the world's largest High-Energy Physics (HEP) laboratory. It is funded by 19 European member states and is located near Geneva, with facilities on both sides of the Swiss-French border.

Physicists at CERN investigate the nature of matter and energy in a pure scientific research environment. CERN provides its users with large particle accelerators, and runs the world's largest machine, the Large Electron-Positron collider, LEP, built 100 meters underground, in a circular tunnel with a circumference of 30km (about the same size as the Paris Boulevard Périphérique). The name CERN stands for the 1953 body which founded the lab, the "Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire", but the lab is not involved in nuclear power or weapons.


The history of every great invention is based on a lot of pre-history. In the case of the World-Wide Web, there are two lines to be traced: the development of hypertext, or the computer-aided reading of electronic documents, and the development of the Internet protocols which made the global network possible.

As early as 1945 Vannevar Bush, science adviser to President Roosevelt, writes about the Memex, a device (based on microfilm) for storing vast amounts of documents in a single desk, with mechanical aids for finding, organising and adding to the repository. Note: the Vannevar Bush symposium was held on 12 October on the 50th anniversary of the publication of his article in the Atlantic Monthly.

196x Douglas Engelbart produces first hypertext system. These systems run on the expensive and enormous machines of the sixties, with even more expensive display systems. Engelbart is also the inventor of the mouse.

1968 Ted Nelson coins the term "Hypertext".

1972 DARPA starts research leading to the Internet. Originally conceived to connect research centres for data exchange, it is later adopted for military purposes. Its main characteristic is the automatic routing of information packets, circumventing the problem of network vulnerability through failure of single transmission nodes.

1979 Charles Goldfarb invents SGML. This idea separates content structure from presentation. Thus the same document can be rendered in different ways. HTML, the markup language of the Web, is an SGML application.

1975 Alan Kay produces the first personal computer (Xerox PARC). Many ideas had been tried, Kay invented overlapping window technology to produce a single-user personal machine driven by menu commands accessed by a mouse. This is used in many workstations in the beginning of the 80's and was popularised in the Apple Macintosh of 1984.

1981 "Literary Machines" (Ted Nelson) describes project Xanadu: a networked, world-wide system for publication, including collection of royalties and inclusion of existing material.

1987 CERN and the US laboratories connect to the Internet as the main means of exchanging data beween the laboratories.


The HEP community is small but spread all over the world. The physics research laboratories of the world have many collaborations, and the exchange of data and documents is a primordial activity. This environment is naturally ready to accept a system that facilitates such communication over networks. The adoption of the Internet as the standard academic network by CERN and its fellow laboratories in the US made the ground very fertile indeed.

Late in the year 1989, Tim Berners-Lee proposes a networked Hypertext system for CERN.

Robert Cailliau independently proposes a hypertext project for documentation handling inside the laboratory.


CERN: A Joint proposal for a hypertext system is presented to the management.

Mike Sendall buys a NeXT cube for evaluation, and gives it to Tim. Tim's prototype implementation on NeXTStep is made in the space of a few months, thanks to the qualities of the NeXTStep software development system. This prototype offers WYSIWYG browsing/authoring! Current Web browsers used in "surfing the Internet" are mere passive windows, depriving the user of the possibility to contribute.

During some sessions in the CERN cafeteria, Tim and I try to find a catching name for the system. I was determined that the name should not yet again be taken from Greek mythology. Tim proposes "World-Wide Web". I like this very much, except that it is difficult to pronounce in French...


The prototype is very impressive, but the NeXTStep system is not widely spread. A simplified, stripped-down version (with no editing facilities) that can be easily adapted to any computer is constructed: the Portable "Line-Mode Browser".

SLAC, the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in California, becomes the first Web server in USA. It serves the contents of an existing, large data base of abstracts of physics papers.

Distribution of software over the Internet starts.

The Hypertext'91 conference (San Antonio) allows us a "poster" presentation (but does not see any use of discussing large, networked hypertext systems...).


The portable browser is released by CERN as freeware.

Many HEP laboratories now join with servers: DESY (Hamburg), NIKHEF (Amsterdam), FNAL (Chicago).

Interest in the Internet population picks up.

The Gopher system from the University of Minnesota, also networked, simpler to install, but with no hypertext links, spreads rapidly.

We need to make a Web browser for the X system, but have no in-house expertise. However, Viola (O'Reilly Assoc., California) and Midas (SLAC) are wysiwyg implementations that create great interest.

The world has 50 Web servers!


Viola and Midas are shown at the Software Development Group of NCSA (the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, Illinois). Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina write Mosaic from NCSA. This is easy to install, robust, and allows in-line colour images. This causes an explosion in the USA.

I regret the loss of a number of features from the original prototype, which were not implemented in any of the browsers that followed from the Line Mode Browser and the X implementations such as Viola and Mosaic. The absence of wysiwyg editing of Web pages is particularly frustrating. I begin to search for and find SGML technology: one day I force a meeting with the president of a small but highly advanced company, Grif. During lunch I present my vision of what the Web will do to the Internet and business publishing. It takes some time to make get the points across: Europe is not ready for this revolution! However, Grif now is a member of the consortium and has a suite of Web publishing products (Symposia).

CERN produces Web server software with basic protection mechanisms.

The Web server with pictures from the Dinosaur Exhibition in Honolulu is the showcase server for the Web.

The European Commission approves the first WWW based project: "Wise", for dissemination of information to small and medium enterprises (DGXIII, the Fraunhofer Gesellschaft (Darmstadt/Rostock) the CCG (Portugal) and CERN).

I conceive and start organizing the First International WWW Conference.

We have 250 servers!


Jim Clark, during a period of reflection, is advised to look into the Internet. He founds MCC (later Netscape). Netscape wisely hires the best young Web programmers of the world.

The First International WWW Conference is held in Geneva, at CERN. It attracts over 600 Web enthusiasts, only 400 of which can be admitted ("Woodstock of the Web").

A conference in the US is a necessity, we found the IW3C2 (International WWW Conference Committee) to run the future conferences.

The success of the Web means that CERN as a physics lab cannot continue to invest effort in an informatics project without help. We propose the WebCore project to the European Commission, to obtain funding for continued development of the core technology.

The Second WWW Conference is appropriately organized by NCSA, in Chicago. It attracts 1800 people, of which only 1300 can be admitted.

Tim Berners-Lee and the Laboratory for Computer Science (LCS) of MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) start the W3C Consortium in the US. It is modelled after the X consortium.

Tim Berners-Lee leaves CERN for MIT (December).

The CERN Council approves unanimously the construction of the LHC accelerator. This Large Hadron Collider will be built in the existing LEP tunnel, but with a tight budget. It is now impossible for CERN to continue deep involvement in the Web technological development.

We have 2500 servers.


In January, CERN and the European Commission invite INRIA, the Institut National de Recherche en Informatique et en Automatique, to continue the European involvement. INRIA has five sites in France and is heavily involved in European projects and collaborations with similar institutes in Europe and the world.

Sun Microsystems produces HotJava, a browser which incorporates interactive objects.

The Third Conference is organised by the FhG, Darmstadt. There is no way for individuals to become members of the Web Consortium. To give individuals a voice, a user-group type organisation is needed. This leads to the founding of the Web Society in Graz (Austria).

Regional conferences are being organised (Portugal, Sydney, ... ).

At one point we register 700 new servers per day!

During the summer, several big European companies, mainly users, join the W3C. The European presence in the world-spanning Web Consortium is now large enough to organise a special day devoted to the Consortium activities in Europe. This meeting is attended by 1300 people and held in Paris (organised by INRIA).

The Fourth Conference will be held in December, organised by MIT, Boston. The Fifth Conference is being oganised by INRIA to take place in May 1996, in Paris.

There are to date approximately 73'500 servers.

WWW is generally equated with the Internet.

Bodies of the Web:

the World-Wide Web Consortium. Jointly run by INRIA in Europe and MIT in the US. Members from all over the world. Members sign a three-year contract and pay a fee, for which they get a variety of benefits such as access to advance information, participation in the development of the standards and protocols and so on. Members must be organisations or companies, there is no individual membership.

the International WWW Conference Committee. It organises the series of academic-level conferences about Web technology and development. It endorses local or regional conferences with the same goals.

Web Society:
A society for users of the Web as individuals. Companies and organisations are not members. This is like an automobile club.

Internet Society:
Forum for issues concerning the Internet, its protocols, the Internet Architecture Board, the Internet Engineering Task Force etc. Is not web-specific and not related to the W3C.

It must be understood that these bodies are composed of individuals who often serve on more than one body. Therefore there is a lot of synergy and cooperation, but the goals of each body are quite well-defined, separate and not to be confused.

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