What It Was Like to Surf the Web in 1989

A copy of the first website ever built is still online. Here's how I found out what it was like to surf the net in the late 80s.

Mar 12 2014, 4:00pm
Berner-Lee's computer, where the web was born. Image: Wikimedia

The very first pages that formed the earliest World Wide Web are probably lost forever. When Tim Berners-Lee launched a network of linked hypertext documents from his NeXT computer in 1989, he wasn't thinking much about posterity. He was mostly thinking about the boon the system could prove for his particle physicist colleagues at CERN, who desperately needed a better system for sharing and storing the data from their experiments. 

The fact that the first website got deleted somewhere along the way is both remarkable and unsurprising. The web was never intended to be a permanent archive, and an average website in the 90s survived only 100 days. Still, given the historical import of the digital document, and the fact that there are some 48 copies of the Gutenberg Bible still out there, it feels strange, if somehow typical of the ever-ephemeral nature of wired progress. 

Nonetheless, two of the first WWW homepage's immediate and extremely-similar successors live on, and one of them is fully functional. So, to celebrate the WWW's 25th birthday, I spent an ungodly amount of time on this proto-Web, trying to get a feel for how it might have been experienced and interpreted by its early users. The earliest of these, I needed to remind myself, had logged onto the Web before the Berlin Wall came down. 

The first of the surviving iterations is a 1991 version of the World Wide Web that Berners-Lee carted with him to the Hypertext 91 conference in San Antonio, Texas. The paper he'd submitted proposing the Web was rejected, but he decided to go anyway, and to set up a demonstration in the conference hall. Even that was tough going. 

"The hypertext community were unimpressed with the web; it looked rather simple," Dan Noyes, CERN's current webmaster, recalls.  

But one early convert was Dr. Paul Jones, to whom Berners-Lee gave a personal demo—along with a copy of the early Web on a floppy disk. Jones uploaded the files to Ibiblio.org shortly after, where it has been online for over two decades now. 

The second is a copy of the 1992 version of the World Wide Web that Berners-Lee had stored on a floppy drive since the early days. Last year, it was re-uploaded onto CERN's servers, and now makes for an engrossing, hands-on tour through the Web-in-embryo. 

We can learn a lot about where the web was heading from this early skeleton. The hyperlinks, the navigation, the layout, the casual writing style that emanates from the sense that the web is perpetually a work in progress—all of that was essentially locked-in when the switch was flipped in Switzerland in 1990 (the proposal was made in 1989). 

That's probably why navigating the site is so intuitive in 2014: Clicking link after link and scanning for information is as mundane and second nature to our generation as channel surfing through a sea of cable channels was to the last. 

The website itself was built to explain the mission and utility of the web by example. And somewhat hurriedly so; Berners-Lee had built the system not to free information or enable social networking or to make the world's data searchable—he ultimately wanted to make his and his colleagues' lives easier. The physicists at CERN were loggng so many data on different computer systems that staying on top of it all, being able to cross-reference it all, was impossible. 

"Many of the discussions of the future at CERN and the LHC era end with the question - 'Yes, but how will we ever keep track of such a large project?' This proposal provides an answer to such questions," Berners-Lee wrote in his March 1989 internal proposal for getting CERN networked, which "introduces the idea of linked information systems."

In 2011, he would further detail the impetus behind building the World Wide Web.

"Creating the web was really an act of desperation, because the situation without it was very difficult when I was working at CERN later," Berners-Lee told the Academy of Achievement. "Most of the technology involved in the web, like the hypertext, like the Internet, multifont text objects, had all been designed already. I just had to put them together. It was a step of generalizing, going to a higher level of abstraction, thinking about all the documentation systems out there as being possibly part of a larger imaginary documentation system."

And that's why, maybe, Berners-Lee and his team didn't stop at building an architecture to house internal data. The early iteration of WWW already contained hints of its further potential—hyperlinks to government data already housed on ARPANET, some early uploaded files, like hypertext versions of the Bible and the Book of Mormon, song lyrics, and links to other research institutions.

Wading through the nascent web, I encountered a tantalizing maze of information, earnest calls to action, typos, hieroglyphs of coding jargon, unfinished pages, casual one-off remarks subsequently enshrined forever, subtle digs at competing network protocols—the WWW wasn't the first organizer of the internet, after all—and a code of conduct, of etiquette that more or less defines how we create and navigate on the web today. It was all there, in chrysalis, even if it was lacking video, GIFs, listicles, blogs, and lolcats. 

Clicking through the host of simple text pages felt effortless but a little alienating, like watching a classic black and white silent movie. Or, an early instructional movie about how to make a silent movie.

So, to celebrate the nature of the web, I've organized a few of the nuggets I uncovered during my travels through the WWW 1.0 according to its early principles. Feel free to click around as you'd like—the web is built on hypertext, after all, "which is not constrained to be linear."

Here's All the Knowledge You Could Access on the Internet 25 Years Ago

How the First Website's 'Etiquette' Page Still Defines the Internet Today

How the First Website Describes the Other Webs That Might Have Been

The 25-Year-Old Links That Still Work on the World's First Website