History of the Internet

Stumbling Around the Web - A Few More Languages and Protocols

By the 1980s, the Internet was a worldwide network, but it was still missing some essential parts that would enable non-technical people to use it. Before we get to the Web browser, there are a few more concepts that need to be understood.

The Web

The World Wide Web (WWW) and the Internet are technically different things, even though we use the terms interchangeably. The Internet was the quiet, hardworking stage hand that did all the hard work behind the scenes, while the WWW became the sexy, young thing that attracted all the audience’s attention.The Web could not exist without the Internet, so we often lump the two together historically. However, the Web is actually much younger. It traces its roots to 1980 and Tim Berners-Lee, who was working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) as a contractor. Frustrated with how his work was going, Berners-Lee essentially created the Web out of existing protocols and a working technology he had made earlier in order to make his job easier.

Berners-Lee had built a hypertext program in 1980 to help keep track of multiple projects and documentation. The system, called ENQUIRE, used hypertext to link project “cards” (we’d call them Web pages) to one another. He left CERN the same year, but returned in 1984 and played around with the program and the concept of hypertext until finally drafting a formal proposal for marrying the concept of hypertext to the Internet with the help of Robert Cailliau.

Berners-Lee pictured being able to navigate from document to document and across to different domains in the search of information. More importantly, he saw more than just textual information – the World Wide Web he envisioned would include colors and pictures, rather than just text. To do this, he needed to create the language of the documents (HTML), a system for addressing them (URL) and the protocols to reach them (HTTP).

URLs - www.yoursite.com

The Internet already had a system that Berners-Lee could build upon for his universal resource locator (URL). The domain name system (DNS) allowed computers to be reached by an easy-to-remember name rather than by a numerical IP address. In creating URLs, Berners-Lee used the domain names of the computers that hosted the hypertext files as the core address, and then used hierarchical slashes to separate the domain from specific files and folders.

So, someone looking for Berners-Lee’s original Web page can find it on the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web server by putting in the domain name (www.w3.org) and using slashes to get to the history folder (www.w3.org/History). From there, you can click on a graphical representation of a folder (199221103-hypertext/) and, by clicking more links, reach http://www.w3.org/History/19921103-hypertext/hypertext/WWW/TheProject.html - a reproduction of the original Web page.

Berners-Lee did not invent the idea of a link. Credit for that goes to Vannevar Bush’s Memex, Ted Nelson’s work in the ‘60s or Douglas Engelbart’s initial demonstration of the concept. Berners-Lee did, however, spread the concept further than other inventors at the time. As much as we think of it now as a basic concept, it truly is one of the most important innovations in modern technology. Prior to the ability to link, there was no way to join together information from different parts of the world. (Learn more about Bush, Engelbart and Nelson in The Pioneers of the World Wide Web.)

HTTP

HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP) is the language that allows your machine to talk with other computers on the Internet. HTTP is a high-level protocol, which means that it delivers whole Web pages to your computer’s browser. TCP/IP, on the other hand, delivers packets comprising the page’s contents. When you open a Web page and enter a URL, you are seeing the delivery that HTTP has provided in the form of the Web page that appears in your browser.

When you click a link in a browser, you are actually making an HTTP request to a Web server. It then replies in the form of an HTTP response – usually containing the content of a Web page. The design of HTTP is based on this request and response concept and, although this is a simple process, therein lies its beauty. HTTP worked on every network that followed the TCP/IP protocol, regardless of the type of machine being used to accesses it. In other words, a Windows box could access information on a Unix box. As with linking, we think of this as a fairly basic concept, but this is actually a huge breakthrough in the history of computing.

HTML

HyperText Markup Language (HTML) wasn’t a new idea anymore than a URL was. To his credit, Berners-Lee has always described his role as the father of the World Wide Web as one of pulling together what was already out there. Hypertext was being used in proprietary software by 1990, but it wasn’t being used to navigate beyond a single program. Berners-Lee designed HTML using Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML) for the structural formatting, but with the addition of an anchor to link text to another document. If SGML was the smart, big sister, HTML was the much simpler, smaller brother.

With HTTP to find URLs and load up documents written in HTML, Berners-Lee had a complete framework for his web of resources, which could be interlinked and navigated using hypertext. Berners-Lee used one of Steve Jobs’ Unix-based NeXT computers and turned it into a Web server, where he hosted his documents in HTML format. He also created a combination Web browser and editor (confusingly called WorldWideWeb) for people to access it.

The World Wide Web went live in 1991, and continued to be refined over time. Berners-Lee and CERN also made the decision on April 30, 1993, to make the World Wide Web free to anyone and everyone.

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