Before Psy and Gangnam Style and even before dancing cat GIFs, the web consisted of a single webpage. That website’s purpose? To explain, to an early 1990s audience what the “World Wide Web” was, and how to use it.
“The WorldWideWeb (W3) is a wide-area hypermedia information retrieval initiative aiming to give universal access to a large universe of documents,” the site explained in basic black Times New Roman text with blue hyperlinks.
But, as the Internet continued to evolve, that site eventually became dormant. That is, until earlier this week, when CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research, where the World Wide Web was born), in celebrating the 20th anniversary of the web being made free to the public, restored the world’s first website , putting it back online at its original URL.
The page consists of basic hyperlinked text, including a “bibliography,” a “frequently asked questions” page, and “subjects.” Absent of search engines like Google (which was only created in 1996), web users had to choose from 17 subjects to read up on, including aeronautics, mathematics and humanities.
Some of the code and even many of the footnotes on that first-ever website was written back in 1991 by a young software engineer named Jean-François Groff. “We didn’t have any ambitions to make it look pretty at all,” he said in an interview from Geneva. “The inspiration for the mockup – header one, header two, lists, bullet points – came from technical documents,” he said. “The fanciest design element at the time was a horizontal line to separate paragraphs. For us, that was fancy.”
CERN hopes that, in re-launching the first website, people will better appreciate the history of the Internet and how much it’s changed people’s lives, said Dan Noyes, a Canadian based in Geneva as CERN’s web manager. The restored version is what the page looked like in 1992, though Mr. Noyes said the website dates back to earlier than that, though the older version – saved to a NeXT optical disk – went missing at a conference years ago.
“The web has changed almost every aspect in modern life. I can’t conceive of living or working without the web now,” said Mr. Noyes. “I think that realization drives me to make sure we preserve it.” He said that the project is an ongoing one, and eventually aims to archive and document all of the systems related to the birth of the web.
But back in the early 1990s, when Mr. Groff was just one of two working alongside Tim Berners-Lee (who is credited as the web’s inventor) in a room building 513 at CERN, they didn’t know their project would take off the way it did. The Internet had already existed for several years, but was mainly only used by academics and researchers who connected through email or discussion forums. Mr. Berners-Lee’s idea was to create a single organizational structure – the World Wide Web – to make it easily accessible to everyone.
“Yes, we were totally conscious this could be massive,” said Mr. Groff, who went on to work with Steve Jobs at NeXT and is now CEO of Mobino, an app that allows people to make payments with mobile devices. “On the other hand, there’s no way we could have predicted the social impact it would have on the long term.”
Working for Mr. Berners-Lee “was very exciting, but very demanding,” Mr. Groff said. “This man has such a fast intellect, that the bandwith of his speech is not enough to carry all of what he would like to say.”
Though the web’s overarching goal – to enable people to share information for free – has been realized, Mr. Groff said that some of the original ideas have yet come to fruition. Part of the original vision, he said, was to have a built-in payment system so that as a user read, say, a newspaper or magazine online, they would be automatically billed for what they’d read.
As for the relaunch of the first website, Mr. Groff said he’s proud to have been part of history. “I’m very glad to be living through these times,” he said, referring to the evolution of technology over the past 20 years. “And it’s only the beginning.”