Nate Volker

A Brief History of Web Development

Part Zero: Before the Web

What we know of today as "The World Wide Web" did not come about as fully formed idea. It was one of many attempts to realize the potential of a globally-connected network of computers, and built on the advancements of many other pieces of computer history. Many people in many places working on solving completely different problems all came together to form the web as we know it today.

Early Computer Networks

In the mid 1960s, a man named Robert W. Taylor was tasked with connecting the various computer systems used by the Department of Defense. In a 1999 interview with the New York Times, he describes an important moment:

For each of these three terminals, I had three different sets of user commands. So if I was talking online with someone at S.D.C. and I wanted to talk to someone I knew at Berkeley or M.I.T. about this, I had to get up from the S.D.C. terminal, go over and log into the other terminal and get in touch with them.

I said, oh, man, it's obvious what to do: If you have these three terminals, there ought to be one terminal that goes anywhere you want to go where you have interactive computing. That idea is the ARPANET.

Robert W. Taylor

The initial ARPANET connected just four locations: The University of California in Los Angeles, The Augmentation Research Center at Stanford Research Institute, University of California in Santa Barbara, and The University of Utah School of Computing. By 1970, it extended to the East Coast. In 1975, the United States Department of Defense declared ARPANET "operational," and took control of the network.

Work on ARPANET led to the development of a number of data transmission technologies. One of these technologies was the "Transmission Control Program" (TCP) that was first published in 1974, which was in turn based on work done at Xerox PARC. In 1983, TCP/IP v4 (which is still in use today) replaced NCP as ARPANET's principal protocol, which connected ARPANET with a small number of other experimental networks. One of these networks connected to The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), where a young man named Tim Berners-Lee was working. If you don't already recognize Tim's name, you'll want to remember it. He's important later on.


Meanwhile, the same Robert W. Taylor, working at NASA and later DARPA, arranged financing for the research of Douglas C. Engelbart at the Stanford Research Institute. Engelbart's research eventually led to a demonstration in 1968 that has since been called "The Mother of All Demos." In 1968, computers were typically controlled by paper punch cards, and Engelbart's demo showed off things like copy/paste, video conferencing, and the computer mouse.

I don't know why we call it a mouse. Sometimes I apologize; it started that way, and we never did change it.

Douglas C. Engelbart

One concept was shown off during that same demo was relatively underwhelming, but has had just as significant of impact on the way we use compters today. Engelbert demostrated digital links from one piece of digital content to another: a feature now known as hyperlinks.

Bill English in 1968, sitting in an office between two CRT monitors, with a large keyboard and early computer mouse on his lap.

Bill English, directing the presentation of "The Mother of All Demos" in 1968

The idea behind hyperlinks, and content containing them (i.e. "hypertext" or "hypermedia") was not new in 1968. An essay titled "As We May Think" published in The Atlantic in 1945 described a theoretical machine that could navigate "trails" of linked microfilm documents and books. The term "hypertext" itself was coined a in around 1965 by Ted Nelson, who was working on something called "Project Xanadu." The ideas proposed in Project Xanadu were incredibly ambitious and innovative, but the software itself wasn't released publicly until 30 years later. Too little too late.

Markup Languages

In 1969, a team of three engineers named Charles Goldfarb, Edward Mosher, and Raymond Lorie were working for IBM. They were trying to figure out a single way to save text documents that could be automatically formatted correctly by the various devices that could read them. At the time, devices like CRT monitors, dot-matrix printers, and laser printers all had specialized and incompatible ways to format text, and you would need to create specific files for each device.

The three engineers came up with a solution where you could create a single file, "mark it up" with special tags that denote if something is a header, a paragraph, a list, a table, or one of a number of other options. That generalized file could then be transformed to work with any device by applying a "profile" that converted it to the format the device expected. Those file looked something like so:

:h1.Chapter 1:  Introduction
:p.GML supported hierarchical containers, such as
:li.Ordered lists (like this one),
:li.Unordered lists, and
:li.Definition lists
as well as simple structures.
:p.Markup minimization (later generalized and formalized in SGML),
allowed the end-tags to be omitted for the "h1" and "p" elements.
this code is published with no rights reserved

Goldfarb, who was leading the team, named these tags a "Generalized Markup Language," or "GML," which also (non-coincidentally) was the same as the first initial of each of the three engineers who developed it.

I gave GML its present name so that our initials would always prove where it had originated. One of the ugly truths of technology transfer is that developers tend to be grateful for research work when first received, and virtually oblivious to it by the end of a lengthy development cycle, which in those days could take years and years.

Charles F. Goldfarb

GML proved to be extremely versitile for IBM, and was so successful that Goldfarb was invited to be an editor at both the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the Inernation Organization for Standardization (ISO), where GML was developed into Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML). Early adopters of SGML included US Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the US Department of Defense, and The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).

The World Wide Web

By the early 1990s, the internet was growing pretty quickly, but was still limited to use-cases like email, FTP, and Usenet. In an attempt to bring a hypertext-like experience to life, Computer Scientists at the University of Minnesota developed a protocol called "Gopher," which behaved more like files and folders that contained hyperlinks to other files and folders than how the web works today. Due to the simplicity of the protocol and the widespread use of text-based operating systems at the time, Gopher became very popular.

Around the same time, Tim Berners-Lee (the young man from CERN mentioned earlier) was working on solving the same problem.

His solution was to add hyperlinks to SGML, and to serve those hyperlinked documents over the internet. By 1990, Berners-Lee had completed all the building blocks for what would become the Web we know today: the HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP), the HyperText Markup Language (HTML), a web browser (named WorldWideWeb), and a web server (CERN httpd). The first website, is still online today (although it was thought that it was lost to history until a colleague of Berners-Lee found a copy of it on a floppy disk in 2013).

In 1993, Gopher was the dominant way to browse information on the internet; the Web was small. The University of Minnesota decided to charge license fees for it's implementation of the Gopher server; CERN made the World Wide Web available on a royalty-free basis. Gopher disappeared, and the Web grew.

It hasn't stopped growing.

Next part coming soon