A History of the Web

What follows is a rough transcript of my television appearance on The Breakfast Show Live (Channel 31), on the 20th of October 2006.

The next generation of web browsers are about to arrive. Firefox, Safari and Internet Explorer.Now, we’re always looking at new technology, so today I thought it would be a good idea to dip into the past and actually look at how far we’ve come. Because even though the web has only been with us for a little over 10 years, it’s really easy to take this technological marvel for granted.


When you look at the story of the web, it’s a story of incredible ingenuity, vision, and occasional complete amnesia. We have these small but important steps forward, followed by giant leaps backwards. It’s like a dance craze for masochists. Like a version of the chicken dance where you finish by stabbing yourself in the face.

The web can be traced back to 1945, and a man called Vannevar Bush, no relation to George, who was also a leading figure in the Manhattan Project to create the first Atomic Bomb. By 1945, he commented: “The summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate, [but] the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships.”

Bush described a theoretical machine called a “Memex”, which would have worked much like the modern world wide web. But his machine was never built.

Then, in 1968, an amazing thing happened. A man called Douglas Englebart gave what is referred to by many geeks as “The Mother of All Demos”.

This was the first time anybody had seen a mouse.

It was also the first time anyone had seen videoconferencing.

And the first time most people had seen a search engine. They also demonstrated remote document sharing, and essentially showed a networked system much like the modern web. Englebart presented the demo over a wireless link from Menlo Park in California to an auditorium of people in San Francisco. Englebart’s team invented almost all of modern computing in one hit. And here’s their version of Google.

And then, amazingly, Englebart was completely forgotten about.

It wasn’t until the late 70’s, when Xerox’s “Star” system came out, that we started seeing graphical interfaces that looked a bit like Englebart’s vision again [pic]. But there was none of the web type features he demonstrated, and none of the collaboration, none of the video. So computing took a fairly large step backwards.

Then in 1981, came another great leap backwards, with the arrival of MS-DOS.

As you can see, not only did they remove all the collaboration features, they also removed the mouse and nice graphics. In many ways, this was the biggest leap backwards of all.

Then, in 1987, people started to realise that they couldn’t go backwards any further without actually throwing the computer away and giving people a pen and paper, so Microsoft came out with Windows 2.0, the first proper graphical interface to run on common PCs.

So suddenly, a lot of computers had the ability to display graphical information, and the stage was set for the return of the web that we lost in 1968.

Tim Berners-Lee of CERN invented the modern World-Wide Web in 1989. This is a picture of Mosaic, the first web browser.

The World Wide Web runs on top of a thing called The Internet, and though it’s not what we’re talking about today, I just want to mention one thing: The fundamental structure of the entire Internet with its countless millions of connected computers was sketched on the back of an envelope in a hotel lobby in San Francisco, 1973 by a man called Vint Cerf, who now works at Google. But we won’t be talking about the Internet today – we’re talking about the World Wide Web.

Set off in 1989 by Tim Berners-Lee, the web quickly gained great popularity among Internet users. In 1992, thanks to a complex bunch of factors and coincidences, it really started to take off, with web traffic growing at an annual rate of 341,634%.

The amount of information available was growing quickly too. In December 1994 the amount of information available on the web was growing at roughly 1 per cent a day – a doubling period of less than 10 weeks.

In 1995, 16 million people had some kind of access to the Internet, which seems like a lot. But that number then doubled every year until 2001, when it hit about 500 million. It’s taken another 5 years to double once more. Around the beginning of this year, we passed the 1 billion user mark, or 1/6th of the population of the World.

So now, today, we have the modern web, built on the blood, sweat, tears and broken dreams of people like Vannevar Bush, Douglas Englebart, Vint Cerf, Bob Khan, and Tim Berners-Lee. It’s a vast universe of information, of which 99.999% is a wonderful, ludicrous waste of time. Like this.

These pictures are from a site called “Cats that look like Hitler”. There are thousands of them, with more being added every day. World Wide Web, I salute you!

One thought on “A History of the Web

  1. Pingback: Dan Walmsley » Blog Archive » A very very brief history of the Web

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