Chapter 17. The Web

Just what will inspire invention is infinitely variable.

Ted Nelson says that his notion of hypertext was inspired by Vannevar Bush's "As We May Think" [[first published in The Atlantic, January 1945]] and by S.T. Coleridge's poem "Kubla Khan" (1798, published in 1816).

Sir Timothy John Berners-Lee says that in his childhood home there was a book entitled Enquire Within upon Everything, a "musty old book of Victorian advice." What we now think of as the Web, was originally called "Enquire." [[Enquire Within... was one of the very many Victorian compendia. It was originally published in 1859 and went through over 100 printings and editions, the most recent of which was published in New York in 1978.]]

The son of two mathematicians, Tim Berners-Lee took a degree in physics from Queens College Oxford and then worked for Plessey Telecommunications and D.G. Nash, prior to going to CERN as an independent contractor in 1980.

At CERN, Berners-Lee felt a need for researchers to locate and share information. Having read Ted Nelson's work, he determined that hypertext was the appropriate model to use. With the aid of Robert Cailliau, he set out to build a prototype system -- Enquire. But Berners-Lee left CERN at the end of 1980 to work for Image Computing Systems.

In 1984, Berners-Lee returned to CERN as a fellow and immediately went to work on CERN's Internet site, which by 1989 was the largest single site in Europe. He jumped at the opportunity of "marrying" the notion of hypertext and the Internet.

In Chapter 5, I outlined Lesk's development of uucp (1976) and the evolution of Netnews and the search engines (Gopher, archie, WAIS). What Berners-Lee was creating was the logical product of this decade's work by a variety of people. "I just had to take the hypertext idea and connect it to the TCP and DNS ideas and -- ta-da! -- the World Wide Web." [[For a truly personal view of this history, see Berners-Lee, Weaving the Web (1999).]]

Berners-Lee envisaged knowledge as an immense reticulum, and so he named his creation the World Wide Web. To navigate within the Web, he designed and built the first browser (WorldWideWeb) and developed (on NextStep). The first server was called httpd (hyper text transfer protocol daemon). The new proposal for this was written on November 12, 1990; work was begun the next day. The tools were written over Christmas holiday 1990-91. The world learned about it on August 6, 1991, when Berners-Lee posted a summary of his project on alt.hypertext.

The Web is an information space in which items of interest ("resources") are tagged with global identifiers (Uniform Resource Identifiers [URIs]). The Web is not the Internet, it is a service operating on the Internet.

And on April 3, 1993, CERN announced that the code would be free, with no fee. This last was crucial, for the University of Minnesota had succeeded in dashing the enthusiasm for Gopher through the cold water of a fee.

The Internet was free. TCP/IP was free. UUCP was free. Gopher had no chance. The World Wide Web now did.

I'm certain that Vannevar Bush had no notion of the inspiration his 1945 article would provide: to Doug Englebart and Ted Nelson; to Tim Berners-Lee; to innumerable others. But what has been salient over these 60 years has been the notion of building on the previous constructs, which have been freely accessible.

Hypertext (in the sense most of us use it) has little to do with what Ted Nelson wrote about in the late 1960s and the 1970s. I asked Ted about the Web: "Berners-Lee came to my office in 1992 and showed me what he'd done," he told me. "I was polite, didn't say I thought it was stupid, and took him to lunch. That was the extent of our interaction."

He continued: "The web has nothing whatsoever to do with my notion of hypertext, and I am still fighting for what I believe in. Real Soon Now, I hope this month, I'll be announcing a new spec called Transliterature. Watch for it.

"What would I have to do with http?"

But hypertext was Ted's concept. It has been refashioned into something very different.

And I can't even buy a bar of soap that doesn't have a URL on it.