Special Report

How the World Wide Web Was Born

John Harrington

We take the “www” prefix for URL (uniform resource locator) code for granted as shorthand for the World Wide Web, but the online communication platform might have been called something different when it was created 30 years ago.

British software engineer Sir Tim Berners-Lee is credited with creating the system and the name World Wide Web, after rejecting the names “The Mesh,” “The Information Mine,” and “Mine of Information.” He chronicled the Web’s genesis in his book “Weaving the Web.”

Berners-Lee was working as a software engineer at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, in the late 1980s. He submitted a proposal to his boss, Mike Sendall, in late March 1989 that involved a new way to manage information that could be shared with universities and scientists around the world. Specifically, he wanted to share experiments and accelerators data at CERN — where the world’s biggest particle collider is located. Sendall was skeptical of the idea, calling it vague, but he was intrigued by the concept.

Berners-Lee’s proposal was approved the following May, and he started to develop the Web platform on Steve Jobs’s new computer system, NeXT. By late 1990, Berners-Lee had completed three of the World Wide Web’s features: HyperText Markup Language, or HTML, which includes the formatting tags and codes that pull information together and create links; Hypertext Transfer Protocol, or HTTP, an agreed-upon system of linking information with other resources and how that information is delivered to a user; Universal Resource Identifier, or URI, the discrete address used to identify the location of resources online. The term URL is a form of URI.

Berners-Lee originally called the system “The Mesh,” but the name sounded too much like mess.Other names considered were “The Information Mine” and “Mine of Information” but were rejected because the abbreviation of “The Information Mine” is TIM (Berners-Lee’s first name), and “Mine of Information” abbreviates to MOI, the French word for me. Berners-Lee eventually called the system the World Wide Web in 1990 because it emphasized the “decentralized form allowing anything to link to anything.” Click here to see 49 other famous things that, like the World Wide Web, almost had other names.

The first website was called info.cern.ch and was hosted by CERN — it was up and running on Christmas Day 1990. That website provided instructions on how to use the Web. CERN restored the original URL in 2013.

The concept of hypertext systems goes back to at least 1963, when philosopher and sociologist Ted Nelson was credited with coining the term hypertext. He popularized the concept in his book “Literary Machines.” While he was a student at Harvard University, Nelson took a course in computer programming using an IBM computer and conceived of a document management system to organize notes. It was not until the NeXT programming platform was developed years later that Nelson’s organization method could be fully utilized.

Berners-Lee, who was knighted in 2004 by Queen Elizabeth II, has been acknowledged for his achievement in launching the World Wide Web. In 2017, he was awarded the prestigious ACM A.M. Turing Prize — named for computing pioneer Alan Turing — for inventing the World Wide Web, the first Web browser, and the protocols and algorithms that make the platform work.

He is a director of the World Wide Web Foundation that coordinates efforts to extend the Web’s potential to benefit humanity. Berners-Lee has been a staunch advocate for open government data globally and believes in net neutrality, privacy, and the openness of the Web.