Is that a dial-up modem ringing in your ears, or are you just looking at today’s Google Doodle? It might be both, because March 12 marks a special moment in the history of the internet — the birthday of the World Wide Web.
The series of tubes we know and love as the web is now a sprightly 30 years old. The www you see in your browser’s address bar when you access a URL, a.k.a. the web, a.k.a. what helps keep you tethered to your screens, is barely a millennial; indeed, the web is 18 years younger than email, and two years younger than the GIF.
Wondering what the difference is between the world wide web and the internet? Rethinking your ability to explain what the web actually is? Strap in, because the answers are fun and inspiring, and there’s no time like a birthday to time travel through internet history.
Before there was the web, there was the internet — a.k.a. ARPANET
A quick refresher on the basics: The first person to invent anything like a modern computer was British mathematician Charles Babbage, who spent the 1820s and ‘30s developing the concept for a programming machine which contained the equivalent of a modern computer processing unit. About 110 years later, scientists finally built what would become the modern computer as we know it, and the first computer company, the Electronic Controls Company, was founded.
The internet, however, comes to us not from a computer company, but direct from the United States’ Cold War military strategy. In the 1960s, American intelligence officials were seeking ways to diversify their information caches, not only so that information would be easier to share among operatives, but so that, if foreign agents managed to destroy one cache, they wouldn’t be destroying all of the military’s intel. At the time, the military organization ARPA, short for the Advanced Research Projects Agency, was a pioneer in computer innovation.
Enter two young MIT grad students named Leonard Kleinrock and Larry Roberts. In 1961, Kleinrock developed his thesis around the idea that computers could talk to each other if they could carve up their information into tiny, easily transferrable packets. In 1966, Roberts took this idea to ARPA and used it to build something called the ARPANET. A US Defense project, it was the first working computer network, and formed the basis for the modern internet. A few years later, two more ARPANET architects, Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf, created the modern internet protocols for information-sharing between computers that are still in use today.
In a nutshell, the internet still runs on Kleinrock’s basic idea — the dissemination of information that’s split up into small amounts for easy transmittal. But these days, it’s a little more elaborate: Namely, it’s what connects our phones and laptops to servers full of information and puts content on our screens when we type in website addresses. It does this via the World Wide Web. And we have tech legend Sir Tim Berners-Lee to thank for it.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee basically jotted down the design of the World Wide Web for kicks, no big deal
The internet and the web are not the same thing, even though we frequently talk about them as if the two terms are interchangeable. The internet is a giant network of computers that are united by their ability to communicate and exchange information through the network. When you go “online,” you’re putting your computer in touch with all the millions of other computers that are connected to the network, a.k.a. the internet.
The World Wide Web is a universally accepted way of accessing the internet. If the internet is an invisible information superhighway, the web is the magic carpet that lets you travel along the highway, allowing you to comprehend everything you do and see along the way — almost as if you’re soaring, tumbling, free-wheeling through an endless diamond sky.
The web as we know it was first formalized as a plan by Tim Berners-Lee, when he was barely over 30 himself. The year was 1989, and Berners-Lee, a former trainspotter turned physicist turned self-taught computer scientist, was working at CERN, the famed particle physics lab in Switzerland, as a computer research fellow.
Computers had been talking to each other for decades by this point, ever since ARPANET really got things underway. Email and newsgroups were both well-established. The operating system Unix had been around since the ‘70s. Hell, video games had been around 1958. (The first video game looked like this.)
But there was no integrated system for how to easily write, transmit, and store interconnected information across computers in an organized way. There was no streamlined system for how to put information on a server and then allow all computer users in a network to easily access it.
So Berners-Lee sat down and wrote one.
On March 12, 1989, Berners-Lee submitted an information management proposal to his boss — astonishingly called “Information Management: A Proposal.” Within that proposal, as shown in the diagram below, he outlined his idea for a computerized system that would allow users to write, format, and interlink content (think: webpages) through hypertext (think: links you click on to get to webpages).
In the proposal, Berners-Lee modestly spoke of wanting to use hypertext, a.k.a. links, to help CERN deal with information storage issues. The ability to run a clean interface, e.g. your web browser, to present messy, complicated computer code to the user in a nice friendly, universally standardized format would, he noted, “be a boon for the world.”
This is how he first conceptualized the concept of a browser receiving information from a server:
His boss’s response? “Vague, but exciting.”
And just like that, the internet was born. Berners-Lee got permission to build his system-thingy, which he modestly named “the World Wide Web.” Throughout 1990 he would go on to write the world’s first web server and the world’s first browser client, and to dictate the way computers parse URLs, HTTP, and HTML. So basically, this guy invented the way that we access and consume information on the internet.
Wondering what the very first web address was? It was a CERN address, the modest http://info.cern.ch/. It’s still online today, and it’s a tiny Brutalist gem.
As for Berners-Lee, he went on to become a major internet thought leader, and an outspoken proponent of Net Neutrality. He was among the first people inducted to the Internet Hall of Fame in 2012. He was knighted for the feat of creating the World Wide Web, in what was surely the most justifiable knighting since Heath Ledger. And since we have him to thank for the fact that I can embed A Knight’s Tale jokes in an otherwise serious piece about the history of computing, I doff my cap and bells in your honor, Tim. Thanks for the last 30 years of connectivity and culture.