Editor’s Note: Don Lincoln is a senior scientist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. He is the author of “The Large Hadron Collider: The Extraordinary Story of the Higgs Boson and Other Stuff That Will Blow Your Mind.” He also produces a series of science education videos. Follow him on Facebook. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his. View more opinion articles on CNN.
There are a few moments in the history of technology when everything changed, like when Alexander Graham Bell spoke into the mouthpiece of a device he had invented saying “Mr. Watson – come here – I want to see you.”
With that one success, the telephone was invented, allowing mothers the world over to nag that you never call. (By the way, she’s right. You really should call your mom if that’s a possibility.)
This month, we are celebrating the 30th anniversary of another such moment, albeit one that is not as well known to school children. It was in March of 1989 that an unpublished manuscript entitled “Information Management: A Proposal” was submitted to the publication office of CERN, which is Europe’s flagship particle physics research laboratory.
Tim Berners-Lee’s manuscript began, “This proposal concerns the management of general information about accelerators and experiments at CERN. It discusses the problems of loss of information about complex evolving systems and derives a solution based on a distributed hypertext system.” And, with those prosaic and lifeless words, the World Wide Web (WWW) was born.
Berners-Lee didn’t start out trying to change the world. Actually, what he was trying to do was to solve a technical problem, specifically communication among members of a large physics experiment with hundreds of collaborating scientists. The problem was common in the day. Individual scientists might be working on a Microsoft Windows computer or an Apple one. Or they could be working on one of half a dozen different variants of Unix.
It was frequently very difficult for scientists to communicate their findings, as the different computer brands used different files and sometimes entirely different programs were needed to read the files. Often, it was possible that a file written on one type of computer simply could not be read by a different one.
Another challenge Berners-Lee was trying to address was that large physics collaborations spanned the globe, with researchers often being on different continents. A way was needed for Pierre in Paris to easily exchange information with Mikhail in Moscow or Charlotte in Chicago. The inability to easily communicate was becoming a real impediment to scientific progress.
Berners-Lee’s memo was an attempt to solve these problems. Initially, the response was tepid. His supervisor wrote on his copy of the proposal the words, “Vague but exciting.”
Developing the WWW wasn’t Berners-Lee’s day job, but he was able to work on it as a side project. By October of 1990, he had developed the three core technologies that are still the basis of today’s web technology: HTML (HyperText Markup Language), which is a way to build web pages; URL (Uniform Resource Locator), which is essentially an address system for the WWW; and HTTP (HyperText Transfer Protocol), which is a set of instructions that tells computers how to move a file from one computer to the other.
And that was the start of the rollout of the World Wide Web. The first web page went live in late 1991. It was hosted at CERN, of course. (I should disclose that my current research uses data recorded at CERN.)
The web started slowly, first at universities and national laboratories. The Department of Energy’s Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (known as SLAC) in California was the first site in the United States. MIT and Fermilab, my own laboratory just west of Chicago, were the next ones in the United States.
The WWW started taking off in 1993. That’s about when I started using it, first as a curiosity and then as a valuable resource. By the end of that year, there were 623 websites worldwide. Some of the early corporate websites were Bloomberg.com, which provides financial news and numbers and IMDB.com, which gives a vast amount of information on movies. By January 1996, there were about 100,000 websites, and a year later, the number had risen to 650,000. And the rest, as they say, is history. The web had gone from an intellectual curiosity to the juggernaut we know today, with an unknown number of websites you can currently visit. Estimates vary, but the number of web pages accessible by Google are in the range of five to fifty billion. If you include the deep web, which are websites not accessible by Google, the number is many hundreds of times greater.
It is impossible for anyone under 35 or 40 years old to understand just how different the world was before the web. Phone, fax and face-to-face communication were pretty much the only ways to get things done. Email that didn’t rely on the web was a thing, but not ubiquitous like it is today. While many people and businesses had computers, they weren’t in every home.
The web has brought the world into our houses. It has revolutionized commerce. If I decided today I needed a pair of purple, fuzzy, bunny slippers, I could search for them on the web and have them delivered in a couple of days. Managing that before the web would have been a real pain. Commerce in a day of Amazon, Google, eBay, PayPal, and all of the others has changed the very nature of business.
We also have unprecedented access to information. I can effortlessly find facts and numbers that would have taken weeks or months to find 40 years ago, especially for people not in cities and far from big libraries. But today? Want to find the obituary of Franklin Pierce or the status of penguins last year? With the help of the web (and Google, of course), it’s a snap.
Even my ability to communicate with you would have been much harder back then. CNN began operations as a television channel back in 1980. But there was no chance that a guy like me could add his voice to the national conversation like I am doing here. There were op-ed pages at newspapers, but nearly all of those would only reach people within a given city, region or nation. Yet, with the web, it is possible for you to read my words, even though we are probably separated by hundreds, if not thousands of miles. And, unlike Carl Sagan, who had to rely on television, I can and do communicate directly with science enthusiasts via a YouTube channel and an active social media presence. Thanks for reading and watching, by the way.
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The web made it possible for everyone to have a voice and that comes with both positive and negative consequences. The democratization of information has made it harder for governments and media outlets to control the flow of information. But the dark side of that is that it is easy to disseminate dodgy information. Each of us may disagree on what constitutes “fake news,” but everyone would agree that disinformation is out there. Grappling with the problem of what information is real and what is not will be an ongoing process.
There are clearly pros and cons to the web, but there is no arguing with its impact.
In March of 1989, the World Wide Web was but a newborn, conceived and implemented by the particle physics research community. Thirty years later, it is an adult who has revolutionized the world. Nobody can really imagine what it will look like 30 years from now, but I’m sure it will be fascinating.
Happy Birthday WWW!
Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the computers used before the web was created. They were Unix computers.