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.
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