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03 August 2006

Web history

I was reading this article about the early days of the web and after a bit of searching found the original post from August 1991 when browser code was first made available on the net.

The BBC article also reports that in April 1993 the first browser to run on PCs was made available. Coincidentally, I'd just started my M.Sc at that point and was doing some research.

Without search engines and without even full Internet access (the University then only had email, no usenet) I still managed to write the following in a research report in June 1993:

The X based program xmosaic is an interface to the World Wide Web (WWW) started at CERN. Xmosaic allows a hypertext document to have links to files on machines across the world. This technology is very exciting and is based on the idea that setting up a connection to other computers is becoming cheap. Imagine hundreds of people on many continents collaborating on a single document. This is what WWW is aiming for and it works today.

You can read the full report here if you want a flavour of what the net was like back then.

What was I doing when Tim posted his note? I was drinking in pub of the year.

However, along with OWL in Edinburgh, who famously turned down Tim Berners-Lee when asked to build a browser, I was also thinking along similar hypertext lines at the time, having seen the help system in X-windows.

My boss at Digital was supportive of the idea and helped me draft a patent. However, there was then a reorganisation after the group manager died unexpectedly. The new manager thought my idea was too far fetched and withdrew support for the patent. It is probably just as well no patent was issued, the opennness and royalty-free nature of the web one one of the reasons it grew so quickly.

I don't suspect Digital would have known what to do with it anyway. In Digital's quest for money following the stock collapse of 1987 and the shift to PC's, the company was on the way out and would soon be bought by Compaq and then later merged into HP. The demise of the once leading altavista search engine, originally altavista.digital.com before they bought the domain for $3Million shows that the company might have had leading technology but lost the opportunity to use it effectively, especially once Google came along.

The pioneer of computing for the masses had lost its spirit by then and the users of the web were now leading the way.

The rest, of course, is history.
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