Before November 12, 1990, there was no WWW. But on this date twenty two years ago, Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau published a document called WorldWideWeb: Proposal for a HyperText Project, coining the term and basic operations of the Web as we know it today.
Sure, all the technologies of the web were in place before it had a name, built by an array of people whom Berners-Lee credits: Vint Cerf figured out Internet Protocol (IP) and Transmission Control Protocol (TCP), Paul Mockapetris was responsible for the Domain Name System (DNS), and email was already being sent using TCP/IP and DNS. And the hypertext idea—Vannevar Bush thought of it abstractly in 1945, and Doug Engelbart made the Internet for “one [big] computer,” and then Ted Nelson coined the word hypertext.
But it was Berners-Lee, while working at CERN (home of the Large Hadron Collider, and birthplace, of among other webby things, the network’s first photograph) who put hypertext and IC/TCP and DNS together. Frustrated with the difficulty of accessing files from different computers, he thought, “Can’t we convert every information system so that it looks like part of some imaginary information system which everyone can read,” the system, called “Mesh” before World Wide Web was the answer.
“We had been trying to find a good name for the thing for a while,” the Belgian engineer Robert Cailliau, who was working with Berners-Lee then, told the Times in 2010. “CERN’s experiments and projects were usually given names of Greek or Egyptian mythological figures, and I specifically did not want that because I wanted something for the future and different. I had looked at Nordic mythology but not found anything suitable.”
Some other names Berners-Lee considered were “Mine of information” (“Moi”, c’est un peu egoiste), “The Information Mine” (“Tim”, even more egocentric!), and “Information Mesh.”
But none of the names they came up with were quite as nice as “World Wide Web” as a title for the global hypertext system Berners-Lee had designed (MOI, TIM, IM all just couldn’t compare to the WWW in a URL). And yet, there were early problems with “WWW” in particular. (W3 was another possible abbreviation, but it never caught on, except as the acronym for the World Wide Web Consortium.) “Friends at CERN gave me a hard time, saying it would never take off,” Berners-Lee wrote in his memoir, “especially since it yielded an acronym that was nine syllables long when spoken”: double-u, double-u, double-u. But for Cailliau, who is Dutch, and others who spoke Northern European languages, WWW is simply pronounced weh-weh-weh.
At the outset, the name was thought of “as a temporary measure," said Cailliau. But they couldn’t delay their paper any longer. “If the proposal was accepted,” he said, “we would find a better name.”
They didn’t. The stopgap name stuck. And here we are today.
What’s the difference between the Internet and the Web? The Web, writes Berners-Lee,
is an abstract (imaginary) space of information. On the Net, you find computers — on the Web, you find document, sounds, videos,…. information. On the Net, the connections are cables between computers; on the Web, connections are hypertext links. The Web exists because of programs which communicate between computers on the Net. The Web could not be without the Net. The Web made the net useful because people are really interested in information (not to mention knowledge and wisdom!) and don’t really want to have know about computers and cables.
Curiously, “world wide web” didn’t begin with Berners-Lee. It was used widely in journalism to designate international spy rings: in 1853, the London-based Weekly News and Chronicle warned of Russia’s “world-wide web of espionage” under Czar Nicholas; in November 1914, the front of The Boston Globe blared about a “World-Wide Web of German Spies.”
But it was also previously used to describe complex communication networks. In an 1867 lecture, Charles Kingsley, the English clergyman and novelist, warned that the technological advances of the era could be twisted into mechanisms for centralized control.
“I can conceive — may God avert the omen! — centuries hence, some future world-ruler sitting at the junction of all railroads, at the centre of all telegraph-wires — a world-spider in the omphalos of his world-wide web.”
Because Berners-Lee and his collaborators designed the web to be highly decentralized, and because they were doing so in the interest of publicly-funded science research, with non-commercial terms, there would be no centralization and no control. One of the first pages on it was a table of contents of sorts, published towards the end of 1990. It begins with a single sentence description: “The WorldWideWeb (W3) is a wide-area hypermedia information retrieval initiative aiming to give universal access to a large universe of documents.”
Unlike other privately-owned “webs” (like Facebook, for instance), the Web (and its name) has flourished as a result of its decentralized nature and universal access. The terms of the web’s design and architecture are shifting, of course. Next month, a conference in Dubai will attempt to mete out more precise rules for the governance of the web – the American organization currently in charge of URLs, ICANN, is not invited – while governments and other entities around the world contemplate ways for deploying their own “world-spiders” on the network. For now, the Web lives, with a design like its name: temporary, functional, and everywhere.