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The Web Turns 25…Sort of

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In March 1989, Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee proposed a way to link together documents on different computers that were connected to the Internet. He sent a brief proposal to his boss at CERN, the high-energy physics lab in Geneva, and it sat on a shelf for 14 months. Berners-Lee recirculated the pitch, got an okay to spend work time on the project, and after a flurry of programming, he and a few dedicated colleagues took the “world wide web” live on Dec. 25, 1990.

Despite that date, online media and the World Wide Web Consortium are trumpeting today as “the 25th birthday of the Web,” because it’s the date Berners-Lee filed his proposal. I guess that works, if you consider the moment of conception as your birthday, rather than the moment you came gasping out of the womb into the world.

>>see our In-Depth Report on the birth of the Web>>

It’s worth noting that the words “world wide web” do not appear anywhere in the proposal. Berners-Lee wrote the proposal as a way to organize his ideas, and to try to get some time and money to work them up. He didn’t hit upon the name until more than a year later. I’m familiar with the details because he and I wrote a book together in 1999, Weaving the Web, which tells the real story of how the Web was created.

Furthermore, the proposal is dated “March 1989.” There’s no day in the date. Ironically, five years ago CERN celebrated the 20th anniversary on March 13—yes, a Friday!

Regardless of the date, the thinking, cobbling together and evangelizing of the Web in the early years is a fascinating tale. After the Christmas 1990 launch, Berners-Lee spent two years trying to convince people to create browsers and to post Web pages. And no, Netscape did not invent the browser, a legend that the company’s founders are still trying to create today. Lots of people and places were building different browsers in the early 1990s, and Berners-Lee and his friends put the first one online.

If you’d like to learn more, Scientific American assembled a lot of original material in 2009 (upon the 20th anniversary) about the early Web days, including a profile of Berners-Lee that I had written earlier. All of it is still pertinent today.

If you’d like to take part in the birthday celebration, check out some fun being organized by the World Wide Web Consortium, which Berners-Lee started in 1994 and has run ever since. It has an official anniversary page, with a video from Berners-Lee. And it is encouraging people to post birthday wishes at the Twitter hashtag #web25.

Berners-Lee is also holding an “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit today at 3:00 p.m. EST—a typed Q&A, a kind of live global chat with people worldwide—which makes me smile. He’s still pushing the boundaries of how we can all communicate together over the Web.

Photo of Tim Berners-Lee © DONNA COVENEY


Mark Fischetti About the Author: Mark Fischetti is a senior editor at Scientific American who covers energy, environment and sustainability issues. Follow on Twitter @markfischetti.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. vagnry 2:48 pm 03/12/2014

    One brief proposal from Berners-Lee, one giant leap for mankind!

    The inventor of the superhighway, that has brought appx. 40% of all humans together in the global web village, easily deserves the real Nobel peace prize

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  2. 2. jtdwyer 3:25 pm 03/12/2014

    To repeat, IMO, attributing the invention of the world wide web to Tim Berners-Lee is to ignore the many shoulders upon which he stood. While he did develop the first web browser (called ‘The World Wide Web’), the necessary infrastructure – TCP/IP networks, domain name services, text markup languages and external document links – had already been ‘invented’ and widely implemented. His browser never became widely implemented – Netscape quickly accomplished that feat. See
    “I just had to take the hypertext idea and connect it to the Transmission Control Protocol and domain name system ideas and—ta-da!—the World Wide Web[21] … Creating the web was really an act of desperation, because the situation without it was very difficult when I was working at CERN later. Most of the technology involved in the web, like the hypertext, like the Internet, multifont text objects, had all been designed already. I just had to put them together. It was a step of generalising, going to a higher level of abstraction, thinking about all the documentation systems out there as being possibly part of a larger imaginary documentation system.”[22]
    Of course, with CERN promoting their weak link to Berners-Lee during that period – for their own benefit – no one else has the economic clout to present a more complete history…

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  3. 3. dadster 4:05 am 03/13/2014

    Its a fantastic achievement par excellence , the magnitude of which is earth shattering indeed! Its real worth and its implications cannot be judged from so close a period of 25 years . Its like being at 25 nano seconds from the Big Bang ! The creation of whole bubbles of universes is in the offing ! WWW has welded together the thoughts, ideas and innovations of humankind into one single fabric of mind . To where it will take us is beyond imagination! Crowd computing supported by cloud computing all of which are accessible through www has taken human- kind way beyond the expectation of anyone .The potential possibilities and promises are super rich . Hope one day interplanetary network for accessing and for dissipating information into outer planets and across cosmos at speeds that exceed that of light would become a reality. Its up to the next generation to achieve it.

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