To old fogeys like me, it seems like only yesterday that the coolest way to go online was to dial up the AP wire service bulletin board on a 300-baud modem, but it was actually two decades ago that the web as we know it burst onto our world. On Tuesday, it was 20 years ago that the World Wide Web went public, when CERN made the technology behind it available on a royalty-free basis. To mark the occasion, the organization announced that it is recreating the world's very first website for posterity.
It wasn't much to look at – just text and hyperlinks – and the subject was the World Wide Web itself, so it wasn't exactly like finding a treasure trove of LOLcats or a Kirk vs Picard flame war, but the first website did mark a significant jump forward. Flash animation, Java plugins, apps, streaming video and even images and audio were still in the future, but that first site turned the internet from the domain of computer scientists and hobbyists into the information super system that modern society now depends upon.
Invented in 1989 at CERN by Tim Berners-Lee, the web was first designed as a way for physicists around the world to share information. It was by no means the first or only way to share information online, but by making the software to run a web server available for free and then throwing in a basic browser and code library, CERN was able to do for the internet what Henry Ford did for the motor car. It went from the plaything for the few to being the workhorse for the masses.
“There is no sector of society that has not been transformed by the invention, in a physics laboratory, of the web”, said Rolf Heuer, CERN Director-General. “From research to business and education, the web has been reshaping the way we communicate, work, innovate and live. The web is a powerful example of the way that basic research benefits humankind.”
Unfortunately, like many historic firsts, there wasn’t much incentive to preserve the first website that Berners-Lee hosted on a NeXT computer. After a few years, the site was retired and the URL merely redirected to another site. The NeXT machine that acted as the original web server was still at CERN, but it was a museum piece.
Now, to celebrate 20 years of people typing “WWW,” CERN is bringing the first website back to life. The NeXt machine has been refurbished and the URL has been reactivated as CERN starts a project to collect and preserve the information assets that made up that first foray into our modern digital world.