The Birth of the World Wide Web

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Inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee. Photo: Jonan Basterra

A quarter of a century ago, the World Wide Web was born, an invention that gave the world its first true glimpse of the awesome potential of the Internet.

Back in 1989, it wasn’t more than an idea and like most great ideas it was borne out of necessity. Tim Berners-Lee, then a computer scientist at CERN, was looking for a way for physicists around the world to share information, regardless of what software or hardware they were using.

His novel breakthrough would be the marriage of hypertext with the Internet—technologies that had been around for decades—culminating in his initial paper describing a “large hypertext database with typed links.” He’d clarify his intentions in a proposal the following year:

HyperText is a way to link and access information of various kinds as a web of nodes in which the user can browse at will. Potentially, HyperText provides a single user-interface to many large classes of stored information such as reports, notes, data-bases, computer documentation and on-line systems help. We propose the implementation of a simple scheme to incorporate several different servers of machine-stored information already available at CERN, including an analysis of the requirements for information access needs by experiments.

The implementation of this global information system would be comprised of three fundamental parts: a global identifier (the URL), a publishing language (HTML), and a protocol (HTTP). The rest, of course, is history. What started as an easy way to share research would revolutionize communication and pave the way for the digitization of our reality. But at first, it looked like this:

The First Browser

The first web browser. Photo: CERN

If the Web is the Internet-of-hypertext, it’s easy to see why a growing number of people view cryptocurrencies as the Internet-of-finance. Similarly, it’s a database of transactions that makes sending money to anyone anywhere that much easier. Cryptocurrencies, too, breakdown into three key parts: the identifying cryptographic keys, the decentralized public ledger, and the peer-to-peer payment protocol.

In fact, some sort of payment mechanism may have been originally considered for the Web, as evidenced by HTTP error code 402, labeled “Payment Required,” which was “reserved for future use,” though it was apparently never developed.

And much like the dawn of the Web, the rise of math-based currencies has understandably been met by a healthy dose of skepticism. But if the evolution of Web is any indication, the mere ability to conveniently exchange value with people around the world online could, in time, have profound implications, much of which likely remains impossible to imagine.