A View from Rachel Metz
For the Web's Birthday, a Look Back
MIT Technology Review’s first mention of the World Wide Web was five years after it was first invented in 1989.
The Web turned 25 this week, marking a quarter century since Tim Berners-Lee invented it while working at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (often referred to by its French acronym, CERN). He created the Web to make it easier for scientists to share their work, a worthy goal that has had many side effects, not least our easy access to cat videos. MIT Technology Review has been chronicling the tech world since 1899, so I did a little digging to find the first mentions of the World Wide Web and Berners-Lee.
The first time the term “World Wide Web” appears in our archives isn’t in a story, but in a paragraph on page 43 of the July 1994 issue of the magazine, in a section devoted to MIT alumni called ClassNotes:
“Also, by the time this article is published, the Class of ‘89 will have a World wide Web site.”
Apparently that didn’t happen on schedule; the same pronouncement is made in the August edition of ClassNotes and the site is only declared ready in November. The World Wide Web is also mentioned on page 77 of the July 1994, in an ad for a book called “The Whole Internet User’s Guide & Catalog” by Ed Krol. The ad copy says this of the book:
“The Guide pays close attention to several information servers (archie, wais, gopher) that are, essentially, databases of databases.There’s also coverage of the World-Wide Web, including the Web’s multimedia browser, Mosaic.”
Our cover story in that same issue, “Life on the Net,” written by Stephen Steinberg, explored the communities that had developed over the Internet. But it focused largely on Usenet, an online communication system created in 1980, and other ways that people communicated via the Internet early on, such as IRC. While never mentioning the World Wide Web explicitly, Steinberg does get into the topic by talking a bit about the Mosaic browser, which he describes as having “an attractive, graphical interface that allows the user to jump from one topic to another with a click of the mouse.”
The World Wide Web is mentioned in a January 1995 cover story about Dilbert creator Scott Adams, but the first story on our pages that I could find that truly tackles the topic appears on page 11 of the April 1995 edition of the magazine in an article called “Spinning a Better Web.”
Written by Wade Roush, the story describes the Web like this:
“The newest segment of the global Internet [which] lets users wander by clicks of a computer mouse among thousands of custom-designed multimedia documents stored in linked computers.”
Roush reports that the number of Web servers in use climbed from 130 in the middle of 1993 to north of 10,000 less than two years later. He explains how that speedy growth led to problems like slow data delivery times, security worries, and fears that the Web would become fragmented if different programs on the Web used different protocols.
Berners-Lee, at the time director of the newly-formed World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C, told Roush that those fears had led to him being swamped with demands to fix and protect the embryonic Web:
“People were arriving unannounced at my office at CERN demanding that we form the consortium. Companies investing larger and larger amounts of their own resources into the Web, or into work that relies on the Web, wanted to know that it would still be there, still interoperable, in 20 years.”
Twenty-five years later, some of the same fears remain. But the Web still works and it continues to grow and change incredibly quickly. Berners-Lee himself is still in the thick of things as director of W3C.