Ten Years Public Domain for the
Original Web Software


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From a 1997 hand-out for the general public:

World-Wide Web: Made at CERN

Everyone knows the World-Wide Web, but not everyone knows that it was invented at CERN. Conceived to give particle physicists easy access to their data wherever they happened to be, the Web has grown into a telecommunications revolution.

What is the Web?

But what is the Web? In short, it is a world of information at the click of a mouse. To use it, you need a computer, a connection to the Internet, and a browser programme. When you run your browser, it displays a page of information which might be held on your own computer or fetched from somewhere else, you needn't know or even care where it comes from. Certain words, phrases, or images are highlighted, and clicking on them causes the browser to go off and find another page, which probably contains more highlighted items, and so on. The Web knows no geographical boundaries. For example, starting from the CERN “Welcome page” in Switzerland, your next click might take you to the other side of the world. All the information seems to be in the little box in front of you, and in a sense it is. When you click on a piece of highlighted text your browser connects to another computer, asks it for the requested information, and displays it on your screen. You are then free to browse the new page at leisure; the computers have finished their ‘conversation’.

How did it start?

It all began in 1989, when Tim Berners-Lee proposed a distributed information system for CERN based on hypertext. By hiding network addresses behind highlighted items on the screen, information could be linked between several computers. This system became the Web, with the world as its library.

In 1990, Robert Cailliau joined Berners-Lee and Web development at CERN began in earnest. The first browser and server were produced, setting the standard for everything that has followed. The Web as we know it had arrived.

Why did it start at CERN?

CERN is the hub of a world-wide network of computer-literate scientists with a need to keep in touch. By the late 1980s, they were ready for a new communications idea. Because CERN's users come from institutions all over the world, with many different computer systems, they needed an open solution which would be easy to use and would not care about differences between computers. The Web was the answer. No matter what kind of computer you have, you can still read a Web page.

Where has it got to?

In 1991, two practical developments made the Web attractive to other laboratories, as well as to a wider audience at CERN. Technical student Nicola Pellow wrote a simple browser which could be used on many different computers, and Bernd Pollermann produced a server for CERN's main computing databases. Knock-on effects soon made it possible to consult a phone directory in Hamburg from a computer in Chicago, or to look up publications in California from a desk in Geneva.

The European Commission approved its first Web project in 1993 with CERN as a partner. In the same year, NCSA, the US National Center for Supercomputing Applications, produced the Mosaic browsers, opening up the Web to users of Apple Macintosh, Microsoft Windows, and X-Window systems. The rest, as they say, is history. By the end of 1997, the Web had 650 000 servers, of which over half are commercial, and 40 million users.

Where is it going?

CERN’s role is pure research and in 1994 the laboatory decided that a new home for basic Web work was needed. With CERN’s active encouragement, the W3 consortium, hosted by the French National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control, INRIA, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT, is now steering the Web through to maturity. With about 10 000 new servers appearing every month, the Web is set to become as familiar as toasters and television sets, whilst CERN's computer scientists concentrate on providing a service for the physics community.

The Web is an outstanding example of how basic research can generate progress in a completely unforseeable way: technology transfer at its best. Whilst there is no doubt that it would have appeared somewhere sometime, the driving force of high energy physics research and the productive working atmosphere of CERN made the Web happen here and now.

World-Wide Web Words

WWW, W3, the Web: alternative names for the World-Wide Web

The Internet: a world-wide communications network

Browser: a programme allowing mouse-click access to the Web

Server: a computer holding Web documents accessible to browsers

Hypertext: a way of linking related pieces of information on a computer

HTML: HyperText Mark-up Language, the language in which Web documents are structured

HTTP: HyperText Transfer Protocol, the rules for communication between browsers and servers

URL: Uniform Resource Locator, an address used by browsers to locate a document, “” is the URL for CERN's home page


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