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Brief History

In the Beginning

It all began with an old Victorian book called "Enquire Within upon Everything" which Tim Berners-Lee [TBL] read as a child at his parent's home. This book fascinated the young Berners-Lee as it appeared to be a single point of entry for solutions to all questions that needed to be asked - "a portal to a world of information". The idea of an electronic version of this book stayed with TBL throughout his undergraduate years at Queens College Oxford and was finally realised after taking a software consultancy at CERN (the European Particle Physics Laboratory in Geneva) in 1980. The computer program called Enquire was TBL's personal tool for storing information but it was the beginning of a much larger concept. Written in Pascal TBL left the original code at CERN and no versions of this program remain today.

Returning to CERN 1984 TBL wrote a new program called Tangle that had many of the features of the original Enquire program but included new ideas that TBL had been developing about connections between " information nodes". However, this work was abandoned in favour of a new version of Enquire, plus the interconnectivity of various decentralised computer systems and the concept of "hypertext" linking the information on these computer systems. TBL took the concept of "Hot Buttons" found on many computer "help" programs that took the user into a separate help service and used the text itself to link to the new information. In 1989 TBL started the task of getting CERN funding for his project proposal to offer CERN document integration system. In the meantime TBL had purchased a NeXT workstation and work began on the new hypertext system which needed a name: Mesh, Information Mesh, Mind of Information, The Information Mine but he finally settled for World Wide Web [or WWW].

During much of 1990 TBL and others wrote the Hypertext Transfer Protocol [HTTP] and the Universal Resource Identifier [UDI] (later to become Uniform Resource Locator [URL]) which is the scheme for document addressing, developing the Hypertext Mark-up Language [HTML] and the Web's client and server programs. The first system, went live on Christmas Day 1990.

Throughout the early 90's further work was done on integrating the support for other services into WWW clients and getting further support for the project from within CERN. The software was released to a global audience but the initial take-up was slow. The break through came when Marc Andreesen and Eric Bina, a student and a staff member at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), at the University of Illinois, wrote a Web browser for the Unix X environment called Mosaic. It was easy to download and to install and it this one "killer" applications that made the WWW as popular as it is today.

Although TBL is credited with the developments to do with the World Wide Web it is important to know that many others had already proposed a similar system. In particular:

  • Vannevar Bush wrote, in 1945, a ground-breaking article in Atlantic Monthly entitled "As We May Think" and proposed a mechanical machine, called Memex, which collated information and formed cross-reference links for the user.

  • Theodor (Ted) Holm Nelson wrote in 1965 of "Literary Machines" proposed a new way of writing and publishing in a non-linear format which he called "hypertext".


Further Reading