25 years ago: Sir Tim Berners-Lee builds world's first website

Downhill from there


There are just under a billion web domains registered in the world today, and over four billion webpages, by some estimates.

We've come a long way: it all started to come together just 25 years ago in a small office at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).

On December 20, 1990, a Fellow at CERN, Tim Berners-Lee, had been noodling around with ideas for getting hypertext documents onto public networks so that researchers around the planet could share information. He called it the World Wide Web, and he was given a NeXT workstation to develop his system.

Berners-Lee – now Sir Tim – built a very basic website that had further details about his World Wide Web project plus some software for accessing it. The site is still hosted publicly here. (Although the website was built around Christmas 1990, Sir Tim didn’t hook the server up to a public network until 1991.)

To call the website basic is an understatement, but it did spread the word about the WWW's protocols. Crucially, the project's designs were published openly along with the source code for servers and browsers, allowing anyone to set up on the web without having to pay a penny in royalties or licenses.

It's probable that this was the biggest boost to mankind's ability to share information since the invention of moveable type. Now there are websites for everything and anything.

Any regrets? Well, Sir Tim has admitted that he shouldn't have bothered putting two slashes after the HTTP: in URLs.

Sir Tim was also focused on text; the initial proposal states: "Where facilities already exist, we aim to allow graphics interchange, but in this project, we concentrate on the universal readership for text, rather than on graphics." Marc Andreessen told your humble hack that Sir Tim called him while Andreessen was developing the Mosaic web browser, and castigated him for supporting images in the program – saying that adding more than words at this stage was pointless.

Security, or rather the lack of it in the original HTTP standard, is another area that Sir Tim admits to getting wrong. Now he'd like to see all web traffic and email encrypted, although he acknowledges that there are times when investigators legitimately need access to encrypted data for criminal prosecutions.

Sir Tim has been steering the development of the web since its inception, and has drawn flak from all sides for some of his views. He supports the adding of anti-piracy mechanisms, aka DRM, to HTML5, saying it is needed for high-value content, and some companies wish he would stop defending net neutrality so vociferously.

But as the web turns 25 there's one thing he never saw coming – the astounding popularity of cat websites. To this date he's never posted a cat picture online, although he did once send someone a picture of his dog. ®

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