Supported by the US Mission in Geneva via the CERN & Society Foundation a team of leading web specialists set to work on recreating the world’s first internet browser. The journey began with sourcing an original NeXTcube machine from a museum - the hardware Tim Berners-Lee used to write the code. The team then had to run the original code written on the NeXTstep operating system, in order to simulate the original computing experience. Aside from using code that was decades old, the team also had to deal with glitchy hardware and networking issues. Facing their first hurdle, developer Remy Sharp explained: ‘We have retrieved the code of the WorldWideWeb browser, but we haven’t been able to get it onto the NeXT machine so far.’
On cranking up the nearly 40 year old machine, the team found that the NeXTcube had a number of web-browsers and pages already loaded onto the machine, but none were the original WorldWideWeb. The first part of the team’s job was to strip back the code and tags that came later, such as IMG in Mosaic while retaining pieces of the jigsaw such as HTTP, FTP, Gopher and NNTP.
Remy Sharp continued: ‘The ‘highs’ of the project, for me, revolved around the digital archaeology and looking at the systems and code that Sir Tim Berners-Lee (and others) had to hand. Finding nuggets of 1990's code that explains things like what the <NEXTID> element meant or how the first browser parsed HTML. The project really allowed us to get down to the nitty gritty of what made the web available for the first time, and that's fascinating to me.’
After hardware issues on the first day, the team then had to run the software to experience the blocky fonts and mechanics of NeXTstep. The team soon discovered the original default font wasn’t a separate file, but part of the fabric of the operating system. Therefore, the text had to be photographed and recreated from scratch to replicate the look of the original browser.
The result is a fully functioning simulation of the WorldWideWeb, later called Nexus, available to use in modern browsers. Obviously, many of the original links created in 1989 are no longer there, however many of the team got a kick out of searching for current websites and seeing them appear in the inline text browser they’d just recreated.
Tim Berners-Lee, who was contracting at CERN when he invented the WorldWideWeb browser, explained on his website w3.org, why necessity was the driving force behind his creation:
‘I found it frustrating that in those days, there was different information on different computers, but you had to log on to different computers to get at it. Also, sometimes you had to learn a different program on each computer.
‘I actually wrote some programs to take information from one system and convert it so it could be inserted into another system. More than once. And when you are a programmer, and you solve one problem and then you solve one that's very similar, you often think, 'Isn't there a better way? Can't we just fix this problem for good?' That became 'Can't we convert every information system so that it looks like part of some imaginary information system which everyone can read?' And that became the WWW.’
The WorldWideWeb browser utilised a number of technologies that had been evolving over the previous 30 years, unifying them into one system that could link information on computers across the world. Vint Cerf had already created Internet Protocol and Transmission Control Protocol. Paul Mockapetris had created the Domain Name System that had then been used to create email.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee continues: ‘I didn't invent the hypertext link either. The idea of jumping from one document to another had been thought about by lots of people, including Vanevar Bush in 1945, and by Ted Nelson (who actually invented the word hypertext). Doug Engelbart in the 1960s made a great system just like WWW except that it just ran on one computer, as the internet hadn't been invented yet. Lots of hypertext systems had been made which just worked on one computer and didn't link all the way across the world. I just had to take the hypertext idea and connect it to the TCP and DNS ideas and - ta-da! - the WorldWideWeb.’
Also founded in 1989, the Computer Conservation Society (CCS) has long preserved the hardware that was pivotal in creating software that has digitally transformed the world. Roger Johnson of the CCS explains: ‘Most early websites have vanished as they evolved from early text only forms into the fast, highly interactive systems we have today. It is very important that software artefacts such as early internet browsers and the websites they accessed are preserved so that future generations will be able to understand how the interaction of software and communications supported by improved hardware has transformed the user experience over 30 years from a slow text based interface to the fast, cookie enabled, graphical websites of today.’
In summation, Remy Sharp of the CERN hackathon team adds: ‘I think there's a number of reasons to preserve these original applications, web pages and most importantly: ideas. The web has evolved over the last three decades and certainly in the web development world there's often talk about how complicated it is. This kind of project is a reminder that not only can websites be read perfectly well in the limited text only view that the WorldWideWeb browser offered, but it also worked on the original NeXT machine that was made some time in the late 80s.
‘The original ideas of the web were based around simplicity and accessibility for all, and by showing people what the browsing experience was like or showing them what the first web pages looked like, it helps refresh that message in the 21st century.’