Today a team of highly talented web developers arrived at CERN. They travelled from as far as Australia, Kenya, Iceland and the US to join us. Their mission: to build a simulator of one of the earliest web browsers, the line-mode browser. Visitors to the first website will be able to use it to jump back in time, and experience the web as many of its first users did.
The line-mode browser, developed by CERN fellow Nicolla Pellow in 1991, was rather crude compared to today's browsers. It could not handle images, displayed a mere 80 by 24 characters of text and it was a bit cumbersome to use. So why are we working to bring it back to life?
When I first joined CERN I was handed 50 or so websites that I was to manage. One of them caught my eye: http://info.cern.ch. I was astonished to learn that this was the first website ever built, although sadly not in its original state. This led me to look around for the original files, records, code - anything that could be preserved. I was surprised by how little was left.
This April, on the twentieth anniversary of CERN making the web freely available to all, the Communications group launched a project to restore the original website, calling for help in finding these lost resources. We've had an overwhelming response, people all over the world getting in touch to share stories, send us code, and describing the bits of hardware that they have taken upon themselves to save. A huge number of people have visited the first website, which we put back live at its original URL.
Digital data is easy to generate and share, but it is not easy to manage and nearly impossible to preserve. As a consequence, the past two decades will no doubt puzzle future historians: in our rapid adoption of digital media - for the immediacy and collaboration that it offers - we have traded some of the endurance and permanence that the printed word offered. We have also lost more than data: do we really remember what life was like before the web, for instance? Do we still hold up the values of collaboration and universal access that were the foundation for the web?
There was much in the early vision for WorldWideWeb that has not made it to the modern web. The web wasn’t a commercial space, it was a human one, built to facilitate research and encourage the sharing of ideas. The early web was a read-write medium, for instance – the first browser had an editor mode that enabled the user to edit as well as read web pages. The idea of universal access to content was also baked into the technology: the WWW team set up a service that would allow those who didn’t have browsers or web technology to read web content via email. We believe that there is much in this early vision that it is worth preserving and looking back to.
It is against this sense of losing both some of the record of the early web and losing touch with its founding values that we are working to preserve the first website and to bring back the line-mode browser experience.
The line-mode browser emulator will be available via http://info.cern.ch in November. To follow progress on this project follow @thefirstwebsite and check in on the project blog. If you have stories, anecdotes or code from the early web at CERN the team would love to hear from you.