The Only Links That Still Work on the First-Ever Website

I tried to click every link on the first World Wide Web. Only two links, it turned out, have survived the 25 years of its existence.

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Mar 12 2014, 10:15pm
A sticker on Tim Berners-Lee's CERN server used for the first website. Image: Robert Scoble/Flickr

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

By now, I've spent many, many hours clicking around the pages that make up the early World Wide Web, which first went online twenty-five years ago. Like the internet itself, the experiment has proved alternatively fascinating, boring, surprising, and inexplicable.

I've tried to click on every link in that entire original ecosystem of pages that constitutes the WWW—the one that Tim Berners-Lee put online in 1989, and continuously updated through 1992. Thanks to the webmaster and the archivists at CERN, the particle physics laboratory where the Web was born, the inaugural website was re-uploaded last year and is now well maintained. And the vast majority of internal links still work. 

But, as you'd expect, most of the outbound links are long dead. Links to outside pages, to early ARPANET sites, to government databases and university archives, have all long since been updated or moved to more modern URLs. They're all kaput. Almost every single link on the Web's earliest encyclopedia—the one that gathered all of the information available online in the late 1980s and very early 1990s—is dead. All but two, that is. 

Which makes sense. What else was even online in 1989-91 that still would be 25 years later? The outbound links largely point to data stored on servers at universities. Many of those were using pre-Web systems to organize their data online, like Gopher protocol or WAIS. 

Here's the URL where you could find weather forecasts, "state by state" in 1989: gopher://mermaid.micro.umn.edu/11/Weather  

Here's the address of Project Gutenberg, which was uploading two classic books a month: http://mrcnext.cso.uiuc.edu/gutenberg

Other dead links point to pages uploaded by the early internet pioneers themselves. At one point, they'd stored reviews of science fiction books here: http://info.cern.ch:8001/turbo.bio.net:210/sf-reviews? And song lyrics here: http://info.cern.ch:8001/tsav.media.mit.edu:8000/LYRICS?

As time goes on, links get broken, pages get taken off of servers, URLs get changed. In the 90s, most webpages only survived for about three months—the very first World Wide Web page is long gone. So all the broken links on the OG W3 were to be expected.

In fact, I was pretty floored when I was finally transported off of info.CERN.ch and onto another page—colors flooded the screen, which, after hours of staring at black-and-white early web text, was pretty jarring. Even more jarring was what the link led to: FUNET, the state-run Finnish University's Research Network, which continues to maintain the internet between Scandinavian schools today. 

The second live outbound link on all of the original World Wide Web took me to Cornell Law School's compendium of copyright cases:

That's it. That's all I came up with—it's entirely possible that more are out there, but these are the only live outbound links on the copy of the first-ever web.

Now, there could be any number of reasons that these links are still live—that CERN's archivists, for whatever reason, decided to update them, or that the corresponding institution updated their own link to make sure they stayed live on the Web's oldest historical hyptertext document.

But I like to think the early web pioneers at Cornell and FUNET have simply and diligently kept their websites largely unchanged, tending to that URL like the piece of internet history it is. 

The deep dive into the first-ever website continues:

What It Was Like to Surf the Web in 1989

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

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