Happy Twenty-Fifth Birthday, WWW!

Along with Southwest Cyberport’s Twentieth Anniversary, there’s another important one this March, one which made our birthday and so much else possible: that of the Web itself.

The World Wide Web was first proposed in March of 1989. Tim Berners-Lee, a contractor at an atomic lab in Switzerland, put forth an idea how scientists around the world could share their results online across various different computer platforms. His proposal was pretty much ignored at first. It wasn’t until they actually set up a simple system (using a NeXT desktop computer as the server) and invented a primitive browser that people started paying attention. The rest is history.

Interestingly, the kind of results the scientists wanted to share is very familiar with science students and harried parents. Called “poster sessions” after the physical form these presentations often took at conferences, where scientists would pin posters to cork-boards and talk about their projects. The displays themselves often just consisted of a bold headline, a brief description with a few subheads, and a few graphs or pictures of the results.

These intellectuals only cared about describing their experiments: questions to be investigated, their carefully chosen procedures, and the results and their justification. They wanted simple, clear layouts that could support graphical information such as charts and graphs, pictures of experimental setups, and tables of data.  In other words, the geeks just wanted to share their science fair projects.

And in the grand tradition of science, they gave their method to the world for free – with no strings attached. It was a profound act of intellectual philanthropy second only to Ben Franklin giving away the lightning rod. And in its own way, the Web became a lightning rod, for it attracted floating ideas and energies, and grounded them so they could be used.

The Internet had already been around for twenty years. It too was invented by scientists to share data – in this case, immense amounts of data points from atomic weapons tests and rocket science calculations. What the Web did was give an easy way of sharing their conclusions as well as their data. And it did it in a simple, graphical way with hypertext links to other results and topics – a way that others would soon adapt to their own quite different ends.

So that’s why the Web looked as it did originally. The geeks settled on primitive layouts, highly limited font options, the ability to insert graphic elements such as tables, pictures, and most importantly, links. Because what they were interested in sharing was science and that’s all they needed. They weren’t concerned about looks but clarity.

It would take another twenty years before the Web 2.0 would arrive. It took a lot of work to expand that small set of tools to create the world of today, with interactive pages that assemble on the fly with ads, embedded video, and user-specific content.

But it all evolved from a way to show off science fair projects. Not bad for geeks. Thanks guys!

Who can imagine what the next 20 years will bring?

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