There was a time before the Internet when messages were sent through the ‘post’ inside a rudimentary technology known as an ‘envelope,’ cats were safe from international ridicule and social media meant sitting in a coffee shop with a friend discussing a newspaper’s headlines.
For those of you who are old enough to remember those dark, unconnected days, you may remember the sound your computer’s first screaming modem with a pang of nostalgia, as it took an eternity to suck a two-line electronic-mail (a.k.a. “email”) through the telephone lines.
So today, it’s time to celebrate one component of the Internet that has crept its way into almost every facet of our daily lives: the World Wide Web.
In March 1989, a scientist working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, near Geneva, Switzerland, proposed an idea for sharing information between experiments via something called “hypertext” — a computer software language. Little did Tim Berners-Lee realize that he was about to start a revolution in how the world works, communicates and plays.
His now-historic document was titled “Information Management: A Proposal,” and it was an “attempt to persuade CERN management that a global hypertext system was in CERN’s interests,” writes Berners-Lee in an archive page maintained by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), an organization (co-led by Berners-Lee himself) committed to maintaining web standards. “Note that the only name I had for it at this time was ‘Mesh’ — I decided on ‘World Wide Web’ when writing the code in 1990.”
As the coding behind the World Wide Web protocols became more sophisticated, CERN released the basic World Wide Web software via an open license into the public domain where it was allowed to be developed and to flourish. The intent was to make the software as open as possible to maximize its dissemination.
“Beyond CERN’s role in helping us understand the universe, it was a great place to work in 1989,” said Tim Berners-Lee in a CERN news release on Wednesday. “CERN was an early adopter of Internet protocols, and their support for a Royalty-Free Web has been a key to its widespread adoption today.”
As noted by The Economist, it took just 7 years for “the web” to be used by a quarter of the American public after it was made commercially available in 1991. When compared with other technologies, that statistic is startling. It took 46 years for electricity to be used by a quarter of the American public after it became available on the commercial market in 1873; 31 years for the radio; 26 years for the television; and 13 years for the mobile phone. The Internet and, by extension, the web, is a transformative technology that has found its way into almost every device, ensuring we all remain connected 24/7, making “The Internet Of Things” a rapidly-growing phenomenon.
So the next time you’re giggling over pictures of Lolcats on your uber-powerful smartphone, remember that the technology is based on a physicist’s desire to distribute information fast and efficiently between the particle collider experiments managed at CERN and it’s success was down to the open access CERN allowed.