09/12/2021

079 – Worldwide ambitions – 1991

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Data is a precious thing and will last longer than the systems themselves.
Tim Berners-Lee

Nuclear research at CERN started just as mainframe computing was taking off in 1954.  A mishmash of computers and systems developed, each applied to the different highly specialised requirements of the research groups working there.  Various computer networks were tested at CERN through the 1970s and it pioneered ‘grid computing’, using many computers to share resources.

CERN developed Index, a system that networked hundreds of dumb terminals using RS232 connections.  In 1976 this was upgraded to CERNET with faster exchange of large files.  Similar in approach to ARPANET, it developed independently with no compatibility.

Tim Berners-Lee graduated in physics at Oxford; he designed and built his own PC from components.  He took jobs with Plessey and a printer manufacturer before working as an independent contractor at CERN for six months in 1980. 

At that time he developed a point-and-click approach that allowed users of a video console to call up specific areas of a schematic.  He also sought a way to organise often diverse thoughts and connections into a brain-like approach while he was programming.  He was drawn to hypertext.

For CERN’s Norsk Data computers he proposed a hypertext-based facility to allow sharing and collaborative updating of information.  He developed a prototype named Enquire after the reference book ‘Enquire Within’.  Written in Pascal, it accessed a database using hypertext.  It drew on Ted Nelson’s work in Project Xanadu and Doug Engelbart’s NLS system and was not written for general use.

Returning to the UK he soon applied to go back.  Initially CERN offered the role of developing databases for a civil engineering project, but he negotiated a position in the Online Computing Group.

He became involved in distributed computing and was drawn to the idea of remote procedure call, a means of distributing a program across several PCs.  He developed this as a means to link the stand-alone computers.

By now CERN was one of the biggest Internet nodes in Europe and Berners-Lee considered adding his Enquire notion to the Internet’s TCP and domain name approach but he realised that Enquire could not be expanded to achieve what he had in mind.

Robert Cailliau, a Belgian, was working on computer applications to be used by CERN administrators and secretaries who were not computer literate.  Using Apple’s HyperCard he developed something not dissimilar to Microsoft PowerPoint.  It allowed presentations to be simply prepared and displayed.  Cailliau presented his thinking to Mike Sendall who, being fully aware of Berners-Lee’s project, arranged for the two of them to get together to take a joint approach forward.

1989 – Berners-Lee and Cailliau published an internal paper entitled ‘Information Management: A Proposal’; this paper first introduced the term the ‘World Wide Web’.  Mike Sendall was impressed by the thinking and described the paper as ‘vague but exciting…’

With this doubtful accolade Berners-Lee set about developing it on a NeXT workstation.  It was the object-oriented programming system of the NeXTSTEP OS that attracted his attention; its object library proved invaluable.

He developed a server and a browser – the Nexus browser. 

It had an edge on most subsequent browsers – it was capable of writing web pages as well as reading them, something that subsequent browsers left out!

The Web as I envisaged it, we have not seen it yet.
The future is still so much bigger than the past.  Tim Berners-Lee

1960s – IBM developed the generalised markup language, GML, that used macros and tags to define a document’s elements, such as establishing the page set up, line spacing, font and so on and whether the item was a paragraph, a header, a list, a table…  GML influenced the industry standard SGML in 1986 and the later streamlined version XML, extensible markup language.

Berners-Lee took the version of SGML in use at CERN and from this developed hypertext markup language, HTML, as an application of SGML.  Berners-Lee and Cailliau presented their work as the ‘World Wide Web: Proposal for Hyper Text Project’ in 1990.

January 1991 – Berners-Lee’s browser was available on the CERN site; users with FTP software could download the code to their own systems.  It was a NeXT-based browser with few users.  However this is the date cited as when the World Wide Web went public.

The Berners-Lee browser spread through the research physics community.  During 1991 and 1992 Jean-Francois Groff and Berners-Lee ported it to the C language which gave it more currency.

Nicola Pellow, an intern at CERN, developed a browser able to work line-by-line on devices such as teletype terminals and this was ported to DOS and to UNIX.  Robert Cailliau and Pellow created Samba, the first browser for the Apple Macintosh in 1992.

6 August 1991 – Berners-Lee published details of the World Wide Web project on the alt.hypertext newsgroup – its first announcement, ‘The World Wide Web (WWW) project aims to allow all links to be made to any information anywhere.   … The WWW project was started to allow high energy physicists to share data, news, and documentation.  We are very interested in spreading the web to other areas, and having gateway servers for other data.  Collaborators welcome!’

Among the first to respond was Paul Kunz of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.  Visiting CERN he sent the software to his NeXT computer in California and was able to request and display material from the mainframe.

Kunz saw the CERN approach as a solution to providing rapid access to preprints, early academic-paper publications.  His team ported the WWW software to an IBM and in December 1991 launched the first US web server as www.slavcm.slac.stanford.edu

1993 – Berners-Lee’s definition of HTML became the lingua franca of the World Wide Web, defining it’s pages’ text and image formatting.

A group of students in Finland developed the Erwise browser using UNIX to give it broad appeal, but when the developers graduated the project halted.  At Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, Tony Johnson created Midas in UNIX.  The Arena browser was developed in Bristol UK by Dave Raggett at HP; this added new graphic facilities and tables for positioning text and images.

O’Reilly & Associates collated all the necessary software and launched Internet-in-a-Box in January 1994.  This user-friendly approach made the Internet more approachable.

Pei-Yuan Wei at University of California Berkeley ported HyperCard to his X-Window system and created Viola 0.8, visually interactive object-oriented language and applications.  It was very fast but limited to X-Window and was soon surpassed.

1994 – Berners-Lee established the W3C, World Wide Web Consortium, at MIT to create standards and improve the quality of the Web.  Any standards produced by W3C were to be released royalty-free.

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