CIRCA:A General WWW History


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Based on a presentation by Domini Gee (Prezi presentation)

A general history of the WWW.


What is the World Wide Web?

The WWW is an information retrieval internet service that allows navigation between interlinked hypertext and hypermedia documents.

Conceptual Hypertext Roots

Paul Otlet's Monde

In 1895, Paul Otlet set out to create a master bibliography of all the world’s published knowledge. With colleagues he collected books, journal articles, photographs, posters, etc. and created a paper database of over twelve million individual entries. However, the sheer amount of information (not to mention choking amounts of paper) made traditional cataloguing methods impractical. He started sketching out alternative idea management methods ideas in the 1920s but realized the solution was to get replace paper with electronic storage.

Otlet's 1934 book, Monde, outlined his "vision of a 'mechanical, collective brain' that would house all the world’s information, made readily accessible over a global telecommunications network" (Wright, 2008). Through a network of computers, users be able to browse through interlinked documents, images, audio, and video files. Users would also be able to send, share, or receive files and even congregate online.

Unfortunately, before Otlet's vision could become concrete, the government cut the project's funding. A small number of staff continued to work on the project until the Nazi invasion. The Nazis cleared out thousands of boxes of index cards to make room for a Third Reich Art exhibition, destroying much of Otlet's work in the process.

Vannevar Bush's As We May Think

In 1945, Vannevar Bush wrote As We May Think, often cited as one of an early, if not the earliest, roots of hypertext. Bush describes the Memex as a “mechanized private file and library, […] mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility” (Bush, 1945). The Memex was never built but it was intended to be a photo-electrical-mechanical device capable of making and following links between documents on microfiche.

Bush conceived the Memex as a way to make accessible large amounts of knowledge. The Memex would imitate the human mind, capable of linking nonlinear ideas through a web of associations more quickly and efficiently than traditional hierarchical methods.

Murray Leinster’s A Logic Named Joe

A year after Bush's article, Murray Leinster released a A Logic Named Joe. Leinster's short story depicted a world where every home has a logic (aka a computer terminal) with the potential for massive networking and dissemination of information but also for the drawbacks of information explosion.

Execution of Hypertext

Ted Nelson's A File Structure for the Complex, the Changing, and the Indeterminate and Project Xanadu

Ted Nelson attempted one of the first hypertext projects, project Xanadu. He started Xanadu in 1960 with intentions of creating a machine that could store and display different versions. Xanadu wasn't released until 1998 (and was incomplete) but the ideas inspired others and were the basis behind Nelson's hypertext theories.

Ted Nelson coined the term 'hypertext' in his 1965 paper to refer to non-sequential writing - text that branches and allows choices in reading.

Douglas Engelbart's Mother of All Demos

Engelbart developed a hypertext system for browsing and editing information, in the process creating the computer mouse, in 1962. However, it wasn't until 1968 that these technologies were demonstrated to the public.

The demonstration was retroactively named the Mother of All Demos. It introduced many technologies common now, including the computer mouse, video conferencing, teleconferencing, hypertext, word processing, hypermedia, object addressing and dynamic file linking, bootstrapping, and a collaborative real-time editor. However, it would be a while before all these possibilities would become accessible to the public.

Apple's Hypercard

In 1987, Apple released the Hypercard. Hypercard was one of the first successful hypermedia programs, combining database features with a graphical, flexible, user-modifiable interface. It was an almost instant hit and popularized the idea of hypertext to a large base of users.

The Invention of the Web


Before the invention of the Web, hypertext/hypermedia ideas and technologies had been developed though few were successful. Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau with their World Wide Web proposal were the first to propose an open internet-based hypertext technology that was relatively simple to implement.

Berners-Lee first proposed the Web as a large hypertext database connected by links at a CERN conference in 1989. In 1990, he put together a revised proposal with Cailliau that described hypertext as a way to link and access information of various kinds as a web of nodes that the user could browse at will. Rather than attempting to store all the data in a single database, Berners-Lee and Cailliau came up with a method that could allows users to navigate and add onto data.


By December 1990, the two finished building the tools needed for a working web:

  • HTML (HyperText Markup Language): The Publishing Language.
  • HTTP (HyperText Transfer Protocol): The application protocol for distribution collaborative, hypermedia information systems.
  • UDI/URL (Universal Document Identifier/Uniform Resource Locator): A system of globally unique identifiers.
  • Browser: Navigation display
  • Web server: To host websites.

The first three - HTML, HTTP, and URL - have proven to be essential technologies to the Web and are still in use. The first web browser however, the World Web Web, is no longer in use.

Rapid Growth

The Web was introduced to the public on August 6, 1991. There was only one web server, one web browser, little to no images, one graphical browser exclusive to the most powerful computers, and a few webpages on the CERN server at the WWW's debut. However, interest and accessibility flourished.

Web servers and pages

Throughout 1991, web servers appeared in several institutions across Europe and the first server outside Europe was installed in December 1991. In November 1992 there were twenty six servers and the number jumped to over two hundred known web servers by October 1993.

During the same time, web sites went from fifty in 1992 to one hundred and fifty in 1993. By 2001, there were over twenty million web sites.


The first graphical web browser was built for CERN's NeXT computers, which were more powerful than what the general public had access to. Within a few years there were alternatives: the ViolaWWW [1] was the first to offer a popular and accessible alternative and Mosaic popularized the World Wide Web and several more have developed since then.

Organization of the Web

In April 1993, CERN announced that anyone could use the web protocol and code royalty-free. In 1994, Cailliau organized the first World Wide Web conference and Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web Consortium.

These steps were done to keep the Web accessible and royalty and patent free while maintaining the Web's standards. Guidelines and standards were created to maximize consensus about the content of the Web, to ensure the technical and editorial quality, and to earn the endorsement of the W3C and the general public.


Gregory Gromov: Roads and Crossroads of the Internet History
Murray Leinster: A Logic Named Joe
Wright, Alex. The Web time forgot
Zeltser, Lenny. The World-Wide Web: Origins and Beyond


World Wide Web Consortium:

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