Happy birthday, dear worldwide web

April 30, 2008, saw the fifteenth anniversary of an act which was to lead to the explosion in the popularity of the worldwide web.

The history of the web goes back before that but it was on that day that the idea and the underlying technology was put into the public domain by its originators, so that it could be used free by anyone who felt so inclined.

The internet had been around for quite a while when, in 1989, Tim Berners-Lee, a physicist working at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, came up with a proposal to use hypertext linking to transfer information over the Internet.

The idea was to allow CERN researchers to share information between themselves by accessing it on each other’s computers. The worldwide web was developed on two Next computers and, as one commentator put it, to see the worldwide web in those days, you’d have to have gone to Berners-Lee’s office.

The first website was info.cern.ch and it is still running today. It provides an overview of the web’s history and, although the first actual web page has been lost to history, the site does provide a link to an early web page from 1992.

The web is a brilliant but very simple concept and is made up of computers, known as servers, which store web pages. All anyone wanting to view one of those pages has to do is type the address of the page into their web browser. The browser obtains the page from the server and displays it on the user’s screen.

Of course there is some complexity involved in the process, including how the browser finds the server it wants among the many out there, but its comparatively simple nature has ensured its success. That and the fact that it was free while the main competing technology, known as Gopher, was not.

Web servers were established in other institutions in Europe in 1991 and, by the end of the year, the first one had appeared in the USA. There were 200 web servers in existence by 1993 and, although I don’t know how many there are currently, according to a recent Netcraft survey, there are now over 165 million actual web sites.

I have said before that I was shown the worldwide web sometime in 1993 or 1994 and am embarrassed to report that I didn’t see the potential at all. It wasn’t long afterwards that the whole thing took off, however, and I was making web pages with aid of a simple tutorial I found in a computer magazine.

Seeing that web pages are simple text files with formatting and other instructions written between right-angled brackets, I was using Windows Notepad and having a whale of a time. The browser followed the instructions but did not display the brackets and whatever lay between so, for example, when it encountered the code Title, it would display the word Title in bold.

As the web has evolved and been able to do more, coding for it has become more complex. As a result, we have seen the rise of programs which can used to lay out web pages without the user ever having to encounter any of that nasty code.

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