Where did the Web come from?

History,University,Web.Posted January 9, 2015. 1544 words.

From an underground Swiss bunker to all around the world; the World Wide Web has transformed from an experiment in academic distribution to the massively interconnected strength that we know today. While the current Web is relatively new, it has not only revolutionised the world, but promises to continue as our society strives towards the Internet of Things.

This report will untangle not only the history of the World Wide Web, but its many predecessors: designed and implemented, successful and not. It shall be accomplished by studying some of the attempts at webs from the past century; starting with the Mundaneum and ending with the current Web.

As the report approaches the end, it will look at the future of Web. Devices are becoming connected with smart devices such as phones, televisions and even thermostats sharing data with themselves, and their manufacturers. Privacy has been and will continue to be an important issue as greater amounts of data is shared.


For millennia, libraries and educational institutions have provided people limited access to both culture and knowledge of the time 1. Until advent of the Chinese movable type, and more importantly, the mechanical Gutenberg printing press, duplicating and sharing knowledge was both laborious and time consuming. The press revolutionised the distribution of knowledge with 20 million books printed by the dawn of the 16th Century 2.

Knowledge was spreading faster than ever before, but the concept of near instant communication was still centuries away. Cooke’s and Wheatstone’s 1837 electric telegraph, the first working electric telegraph, spread from railways to postal offices 3. Finally, instant long distance communication was possible, ushering us into the age of connected webs.

In the past hundred years, at least a dozen different webs were designed. Once thriving, most have now fallen into disuse. While World Wide Web lives on, stronger than ever, the past clings to life. In most of the world, older technology is slowly phased out in favour of the new, often built as a service residing on the World Wide Web. 

Historical Attempts at Webs

The World Wide Web didn’t just appear out of nowhere. Like all great inventions it was inspired by what came before, building upon the shoulders of giants.


Created by Paul Otlet, a Belgian Lawyer, the Mundaneum was a collection of fifteen million library cards pointing towards their million documents 4. To use it, you called and asked about a topic. Next, they would go to the cards and relay to you information about the topic, and give you suggestions on what else to research next. The Mundaneum was both the Google, and the Wikipedia of the early 20th Century.


Memex was a hypothetical precursor to hypertext designed to “supplement […] one’s memory” 5. Vannevar Bush envisioned a mechanized microfilm bookmarked system allowing the user to easily find information. Unlike HTML, linking was never a focus of the design nor could you connect to any external source to obtain additional information.

CeeFax and TeleText

After 38 years of broadcasting, the UK digital switch-over ended the run of both Ceefax and Teletext 6. Primitive even by the late 1990’s, it utilised part of the channels bandwidth to display digital news on an analogue TV. In its peak, over a third of the UK entered page numbers to read split news stories, gaze at pixel art weather and check the sports 7.


Designed around a stack of cards 8, HyperCard allowed the user to navigate or search through them. Cards contained useful information retrieved from an inbuilt database and, depending on the card, be interactive (HyperCard was programmed with the HyperTalk language). Exclusive to classic Apple Macs, HyperCard never reached mass popularity.

CompuServ & America OnLine

In 1980s America, the dominant online service was CompuServe. For a monthly fee users could browse their “walled garden”, read newspapers 9, shop and send 60 emails a month 10. After Competing for a decade, AOL bought CompuServe in 1998.

A relic to most, AOL retains 2.3 million dialup customers 11. During the 1990’s the company bombarded the public with $300 Million worth of trial CDs 12, inviting them to join. Designed for novices, it included AOL services such as channels, email and games. Access to the World Wide Web and UseNet was eventually added to the service.

The World Wide Web

Built on top of TCP/IP and decentralised with a unique identifier for every resource to promote linking between pages. The World Wide Web was created by Sir Tim Berners-Lee whilst working at CERN to “record random associations between arbitrary objects”, and present them in an easy to understand, language and encoding independent way 13. Prior, incompatible technologies and lack of standardisation hindered geographically separate entities from collaborating.

Compared with today, the early Web consisted of mostly static web-sites. CERN httpd, the world’s first web-server 14, originally fetched static files to send to the receiver. These files consisted of HTML, images and assorted documents. Hyper Text Mark-up Language, an extension of SGML 15, defines the structure of web-pages. The anchor tag, not only links web-pages and files together, but does so in a scalable, distributed way; this design let the Web scale exponentially.

Over the next two decades, the usage of the internet skyrocketed - primarily in developed countries. While in more recent years adoption elsewhere is increasing, it continues to lag behind the developed world.

Advances in the Web, such as the development of JavaScript at Netscape, (Originally designed in 10 days) 16 has lead us to the interactive, dynamic Web we know today.

Present and Future

Today virtually every part of our society has both adopted and adapted the Web to fit their needs. The Web originally was a system designed purely for spreading academic information. Today users from nearly any corner of the globe browse online stores, news organisations, branches of the government, content producers - the list goes on and on.

The World Wide Web has changed, and it has changed us. Never before have we been able to effortlessly communicate with anyone on the planet. The internet connects us all, via switches, routers and buried wire. This connection is so powerful, that within a third of a second, a packet can be delivered from the United Kingdom to New Zealand 17.

This connectedness that the internet brings, continues to spread the Web and help to create the future. We are researching and developing concepts including the Internet of Things, today. Dreams including automated homes and self-driving cars; and concerns over privacy and redundancies continue to grow.

I don’t know what the future will bring, but I sure am looking forward to finding out.


  1. M. Harris, History of Libraries of the Western World, Scarecrow Press, 2012. 

  2. L. Febvre and H.-J. Martin, The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing 1450-1800, London: New Left Books, 1976. 

  3. G. Hubbard, Cooke and Wheatstone: And the Invention of the Electric Telegraph, Routledge, 1965. 

  4. P. L. Carr, Where did the Web come from?, Southampton University, 2014. 

  5. L. Manovich, “As We May Think,” The New Media Reader, p. 35, The MIT Press. 

  6. M. Brown, “Teletext Museum”: http://teletext.mb21.co.uk/ [Accessed 3 Jan 2015] 

  7. M. Engel, “Ceefax: A love letter,” 18 Apr 2012: http://bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-17745100 [Accessed 28 Dec 2014] 

  8. M. L. Sandra V. Turner, HyperCard: a tool for learning, Wadsworth Pub. Co., 1994. 

  9. S. Newman, “Steve Newman’s report on CompuServe’s newspaper addition,” 1981: https://youtube.com/watch?v=5WCTn4FljUQ [Accessed 4 Jan 2015] 

  10. L. Northrup, “CompuServe In 1994: Here, You’ll Never Outgrow 60 E-Mails Per Month,” Consumerist, 5 Sep 2014: http://consumerist.com/2014/09/05/compuserve-in-1994-here-youll-never-outgrow-60-e-mails-per-month/ [Accessed 6 Jan 2015] 

  11. V. Kopytoff, “For AOL dial-up subscribers, it’s life in the slow lane,” Fortune, 11 Dec 2014: http://fortune.com/2014/12/11/aol-dialup-subscribers/ [Accessed 6 Jan 2015] 

  12. J. Brant, “How much did it cost AOL to distribute all those CDs back in the 1990s?,” Quora, 28 Dec 2010: https://quora.com/How-much-did-it-cost-AOL-to-distribute-all-those-CDs-back-in-the-1990s/answer/Jan-Brandt [Accessed 6 Jan 2015] 

  13. S. T. B. Lee, “WWW - Past, Present and Future,” IEEE, vol. October, pp. 69-77, 1996. 

  14. CERN, “Change History for httpd,” CERN, 15 Jul 1996: http://w3.org/Daemon/Features.html [Accessed 7 Jan 2015] 

  15. A. W. Longman, “A History of HTML,” w3, 1998: http://w3.org/People/Raggett/book4/ch02.html [Accessed 7 Jan 2015] 

  16. C. Severance, “JavaScript: Designing a Language in 10 Days,” Computer, vol. 45, no. 2, pp. 7-8, 2012. 

  17. Verizon, “IP Latency Statistics,” Verizon, 2015: http://verizonenterprise.com/about/network/latency/ [Accessed 7 Jan 2015]