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

The architects of the first website ever built tried to gather all the information available online in 1989 onto a single page. It wasn't much, but it was still mind-blowing.

Mar 12 2014, 4:30pm
The computer that housed the first Web. Image: CERN

This hypertext document is part of a series about surfing the first website ever built, a quarter-century later.

After the world's first website was up and running, a demonstration of its abilities was surely in order. So its makers compiled a list of hyperlinks to everything accessible by the Internet at the time and showed it off on the Web's first homepage.

The original World Wide Web was evangelical, sure: a self-explanatory ecosystem designed to demonstrate how hypertext documents could be linked and shared. But it also harbored a vast, probably ineffable potential that Tim Berners-Lee and his fellow web architects could only hint at at the time. That's probably why they slotted the "What's Out There?" section right underneath the executive summary and the FAQ—first up, really. A hub of outbound links to all the information then available on the infantile Internet, the section entitled 'Information by Subject' is the earliest showcase for what the Web would one day be capable of.

Using it today, you get a snapshot of both the ARPANET at its tipping point into a public utility, and a portrait of the tastes and politics of the computer scientists cobbling the Web together. Spanning from Aeronautics to Law to Music to Social Sciences, this mini-encyclopedia mainly drew from the few government resources available on the Net and whatever Web pioneers took the time to upload. And that was pretty much everything that was online at the time, period.

So, you got a Geography section that included, in its entirety, the following list: "CIA World Fact Book , India: Miscellaneous information , Thai-Yunnan: Davis collection."

Here's the Humanities: "BMCR classical reviews , Poetry , Scifi reviews . See also electronic journals." Sci-fi. Of course. The Literature section is apt for a pioneering media technology, too: "Project Gutenberg : two classic books a month. See their explanations , the index and newsletter , books published in 1991 , 1992 , and reserved for the USA."

Three holy hypertexts were uploaded for the Religion section: "The Bible (King James version) , The Book of Mormon , The Holy Qur'an."

There was a fairly comprehenshive list of Bio Sciences resources, leading off with AI studies, plenty of Computing info, and a whole subsection devoted to Physics, of course. The only link under Law is also one of the only external links that remains live after over nearly two decades: US Copyright Law. The link takes you to a Cornell database.

Also interesting is the Politics & Economics page, which divulges, along with 1992 campaign speech transcripts, NIH grants and NSF awards, the architects' interest in alt drugs and the right to keep and bear arms:

Also of note was the early effort to log onto libraries—"Few libraries currently have servers - you have to log on to them. But you can find out how with Art St.George's list of library systems , about "Library" in the internet resource guide , and the hytelnet index ."

I'll forever be curious to know what song lyrics and MIDI files the first internauts deigned to upload (no doubt they had some Cernettes on there), and I'll probably never know exactly what the "Experimental English Dictionary" actually was. Those links remain forever broken. But I definitely saw shades of the libertarian-leaning ethos and sci-fi-influenced aesthetics that continues to color the web. The first website's 'Information by Subject' looks a lot like the topics featured on Reddit on a given day, for instance. 

It also had to be exhilarating. To see, for the first time, information stored around the world, gathered together on a simple list and made accessible by the click of a mouse—to anyone but a CERN physicist or a hypertext aficionado, it would have been mind-blowing. Even though it didn't look like much—something that turned even hypertext insiders off at the time—the power latent in those pages seems undeniable now.

Of course, hindsight is 20/20, and there was always a chance we'd end up with an entirely different way to navigate the Internet.