A Brief History of the World Wide Web


The web is a wonderful place. It connects people from across the globe, keeps us updated with our friends and family, and creates revolutions never before seen in our lifetime. It has certainly come a long way since its humble beginnings back in the early 1980's..

World Wide Web thumbnail Dribbbled by Zachary VanDeHey and featured in Smashing Magazine's “Redesign The Web” Poster Contest

In this article I'm going to look at the journey the World Wide Web's gone through to become the powerhouse that it is today and establish what we can learn from the past.

In order to understand the history of the World Wide Web it's important to understand the differences between the World Wide Web and The Internet. Many people refer to them as the same thing, but in fact, although the end result is the common perception of most everyday users, they are very different.

The internet is a series of huge computer networks that allows many computers to connect and communicate with each other globally. Upon the internet reside a series of languages which allow information to travel between computers. These are known as protocols. For instance, some common protocols for transferring emails are IMAP, POP3 and SMTP. Just as email is a layer on the internet, the World Wide Web is another layer which uses different protocols.

The World Wide Web uses three protocols:

  • HTML (Hypertext markup language) - The language that we write our web pages in.
  • HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol ) - Although other protocols can be used such as FTP, this is the most common protocol. It was developed specifically for the World Wide Web and favored for its simplicity and speed. This protocol requests the 'HTML' document from the server and serves it to the browser.
  • URLS (Uniform resource locator) - The last part of the puzzle required to allow the web to work is a URL. This is the address which indicates where any given document lives on the web. It can be defined as <protocol>://<node>/<location>

In the Beginning…

Ideas for the World Wide Web date back to as early as 1946 when Murray Leinster wrote a short story which described how computers (that he referred to as 'Logics') lived in every home, with each one having access to a central device where they could retrieve information. Although the story does have several differences to the way the web works today, it does capture the idea of a huge information network available to everyone in their homes.

The real vision and execution for the World Wide Web didn't come about until around 40 years later in 1980 when an English chap by the name of Tim Berners Lee was working on a project known as 'Enquire'. Enquire was a simple database of people and software who were working at the same place as Berners Lee. It was during this project that he experimented with hypertext. Hypertext is text that can be displayed on devices which utilize hyperlinks. The Berners Lee Enquire system used hyperlinks on each page of the database, each page referencing other relevant pages within the system.

Tim Berners Lee olympics
Tim Berners Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, at the London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony.

Berners Lee was a physicist and in his need to share information with other physicists around the world found out that there was no quick and easy solution for doing so. With this in mind, in 1989 he set about putting a proposal together for a centralized database which contained links to other documents. This would have been the perfect solution for Tim and his colleagues, but it turned out nobody was interested in it and nobody took any notice - except for one person. Tim's boss liked his idea and encouraged him to implement it in their next project. This new system was given a few different names such as TIM (The Information Mine) which was turned down as it abbreviated Tim's initials. After a few suggestions, there was only one name that stuck; the World Wide Web.

The First Browsers

By December 1990 Tim had joined forces with another physicist Robert Cailliau who rewrote Tim's original proposal. It was their vision to combine hypertext with the internet to create web pages, but no one at that time could appreciate how successful this idea could be.

Despite little interest, Berners Lee continued to develop three major components for the web; HTTP, HTML and the world first web browser. Funnily enough, this browser was also called "the World Wide Web" and it also doubled as an editor.

The worlds first web browser
A screenshot of the world's first web browser.

On June 8th 1991, the World Wide Web project was announced to the world where the man himself described it:

The WWW project was started to allow high energy physicists to share data, news, and documentation. We are very interested in spreading the web to other areas, and having gateway servers for other data.

On August 6, 1991 the world's first web page was launched. A copy of the site is still available.

Tim Berners Lee olympics
Boring, perhaps, but this is the world's first website.

The page outlined the plans for the World Wide Web. It was also this year that HTML was born and the first publicly available description of HTML was released. Some of these tags are still in use today, such as h1-h6 tags, paragraph tags and anchor tags. If we take a look at the source code from the world's first web page, we can see some of these in use.

<TITLE>The World Wide Web project</TITLE>
<NEXTID N="55">
<H1>World Wide Web</H1>The WorldWideWeb (W3) is a wide-area<A
NAME=0 HREF="WhatIs.html">
hypermedia</A> information retrieval
initiative aiming to give universal
access to a large universe of documents.<P>
Everything there is online about
W3 is linked directly or indirectly
to this document, including an <A
NAME=24 HREF="Summary.html">executive

Shortly afterwards other browsers were released, each bringing differences and improvements. Let's take a look at some of these browsers.

  • Line Mode Browser - feb 1992. This was also brought to us by Berners Lee. It was the first browser to support multiple platforms.
  • Viola WWW Browser released - march 1992. This is widely suggested to be the world's first popular browser. It brought with it a stylesheet and scripting language, long before JavaScript and CSS.
  • Mosaic Browser released - Jan 5th 1993. Mosaic was really highly rated when it first came out. It was developed at University of Illinois.
Mosaic web browser
Mosaic was a popular browser at the time of its launch in 1993.
  • Cello Browser released - June 8th, 1993. This was the first browser available for Windows.
  • Netscape Navigator 1.1 released - March 1995. This was the first browser to introduce tables to HTML.
  • Opera 1.0 released - April 1995. This was originally a research project for a Norwegian telephone company. The browser is still available today and is currently at version 12.
  • Internet Explorer 1.0 released - August 1995. Microsoft decided to get in on the act when its Windows operating system '95 was released. This was the browser that ran exclusively on that.

Hello JavaScript and CSS

When the World Wide Web first started, web pages were simply text documents. Nowadays web pages are much more than documents; they now have the ability to be full blown applications. Part of this ability is due to the additions of JavaScript and CSS. It was on August 19th 1995 that JavaScript was first announced, originally code named 'Mocha'. This addition to the World Wide Web was not fully supported by some people, including Robert Cailliau who had worked with Berners Lee on the WWW project. He described it as:

The most horrible kluge in the history of computing

This addition to the browser came along with Netscape Navigator 2 and was developed by Brendan Eich. Despite some people having reservations about it Javascript paved the way for the web to become less static and be more dynamic and interactive.

Brendan Eich (image courtesy of drewm)

JavaScript made way for websites to think, but it was CSS that introduced the style and look of the web. Stylesheets have been around in some way shape or form since the early 80's. Cascading style sheets were introduced as a way to create a consistent styling approach to the web. They allowed the separation of the document content (HTML) and the styling of it.

CSS1 was introduced in 1995 but had trouble being adopted due to the inconsistencies amongst browsers of the time. Internet Explorer 5 was released in March 2000 and was the first browser to support the almost complete CSS1 specification (it covered 99% of it). It was a year later in 1996 that CSS level one becomes an official recommendation of the W3C.

Dot Com Boom

With the World Wide Web becoming mainstream it was between the years of 1995–2000 that a group of businesses started to change their focus onto the web. Investors started throwing money at anything related to the web; in many cases, if a company was seen to be on the web, then their stock prices would shoot up. This was known as the internet boom which marked the commercial growth of the Internet since the advent of the World Wide Web.

However, as more and more money was pumped into these startups, lots of investors overlooked basic business fundamentals and instead focussed their confidence on the advancements in technology in the hope that they would one day see a return on their investments. Unfortunately this wasn't the case and the collapse of the dot com bubble between 2000-2001 was inevitable.

Nasdaq (image courtesy of

Although many companies were hit by this some are still around to tell the story today. Websites such as E-bay, Amazon and Google all survived the collapse of the dot com bubble.

Social Networks

The original form of anything resembling any type of social network that we know today was a bulletin board system (BBS). Its basic concept can described as:

Once logged in, a user can perform functions such as uploading and downloading software and data, reading news and bulletins, and exchanging messages with other users, either through email, public message boards, and sometimes via direct chatting. - Wikipedia

Social network history
By the turn of the millennium the race was on to become the world's most popular social network.

Social networks became especially popular on the web between the years of 1995-2000. More importantly, an internet company in the States paved the way for social networks as they are known today. AOL had features that you might see on many modern social networks today, such as member profiles and forums where users could chat about any kind of subject that they chose.

It wasn't until around 2002 that the race to become the worlds most popular social network began. Sites like Friendster, LinkedIn and myspace popped up. Friendster was arguably one of the most popular original sites boasting three million users just a year after its launch. However, competitors soon overtook Friendster, Myspace launched in 2003 and was soon gaining popularity as the world's most popular social networking site.

If any social networking website has revolutionised the way that we socially interact on the web, that accolade has to go to Facebook. Facebook managed to set itself apart from its competitors by coming up with innovative features and executing smart business decisions.

The Chronicles of Facebook’s Developer Platform [Infographic]
The Chronicles of Facebook’s Developer Platform [Infographic]

One of those smart business moves is one that is also shared by Twitter; that is the offering of an API which allows other developers to extend the sites' functionality and create apps that support the platforms. Decisions like this allowed the social web to become a major milestone in the history of the World Wide Web.

The Web Goes Mobile

the mobile web
In 2007 the iPhone was released which revolutionized the mobile web as we know it today.

One of the most recent milestones in the history of the World Wide Web is accessibility via mobile devices. Until this point accessing the web had fundamentally been from computers or laptops. Now the number of users accessing the web from mobile devices is growing rapidly and is set to overtake desktop access by 2015.

Of course, people have been connecting to the web from mobile devices since the mid 90's but this was in no way similar to the access that we are used to now. It was in 2007 that the iPhone first became available, revolutionizing the way that we access the web from our phones and introducing the concept of mobile apps. The World Wide Web was now able to understand where abouts on the planet we were, it allowed us to upload a photo that we have just taken straight onto our social networking profile. The mobile web has added another layer to the already useful web.

Learning from History

We've covered some of the major milestones in the history of Tim Berners Lee's creation. Milestones which have changed the way we conduct global communication. There are many lessons that we can learn from its history.

The web is constantly changing. Whatever the latest, greatest technology that currently defines the web, it will be superseded by something even greater, faster and better. The web doesn't stand still, nothing is set in stone and that is one of the greatest things about the web. Like any science it is constantly evolving.

The web doesn't and won't stay in its current format. We were so used to receiving the web through desktops that we didn't anticipate mobile, tablets and apps each of which take the information provided from the web and display it in their own unique way and format.

The web was created as a tool for us to share information with anyone, anywhere in the world. It started with the basics of sharing a document, but has gone on to create tools that now allow us to improve and share our lives. Tim Berners Lee created the web as open source and allowed the world to access it for free. He didn't patent it (from which he could have made billions) and allowed it be extended by anyone. In a similar way Facebook and Twitter released API's that allow anyone to extend their platforms, which is proving very popular. The future of the web lies in it being open and extendable to enable it to become the most valuable source of information and revolution. Berners Lee supports this:

If we want to track what government is doing, see what companies are doing, understand the true state of the planet, find a cure for Alzheimer's disease, not to mention easily share our photos with our friends, we the public, the scientific community and the press must make sure the Web's principles remain intact—not just to preserve what we have gained but to benefit from the great advances that are still to come. - Tim Berners Lee

In essence, the web is only scratching the surface of what can really be achieved and it's our jobs as designers and developers to understand the web's fundamental aim. I hope you've enjoyed reading this article and that you can take some of what has happened in the web's past and make it relevant to your projects today. By doing this you will be extending on the webs fundamental ethos and carrying it forward to the next generation.

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