A glimpse at the early days of the WWW.

In the early days of the WWW, it was big news when a new home page appeared. The National Center for Supercomputing Applications (then famed for Mosaic, the first graphical web browser) maintained a what’s new web page, where we all found out what new home pages had appeared that month.

Mosaic Screenshot
Screenshot of NSCA Mosaic v0.6 for Windows, the first version to achieve beta status, released September 28, 1993.

In September 1993, for instance, the NIH established an experimental WWW server, the U.C. Berkeley Museum of Paleontology created a hypermedia exhibit (“hypermedia” was a home page that had links and graphics), and a couple of guys created a web page about “all the available, up-to-date information about Australia.” They continued to provide this service until June 1996 (which saw the establishment of home page about Jennifer Aniston, “San Diego’s hottest rock band,” and “a library of original textures that can be used for Web page backgrounds”), when the task had clearly become overwhelming.

I was very reluctant to use the WWW, and actually used it as little as possible up until August of 1995, when it started to become unavoidable. Not only was I quite sure that Gopher was a superior technology, but the WWW struck me as an enormous waste of bandwidth. There was no information being presented that I couldn’t get through a telnet or FTP (text-only) server. I was a 15-year-old fuddy duddy, certain that this newfangled WWW was too fancy for me.

What I did really like was the quilting bee mentality of the WWW. I taught classes to groups of early internet users, back in 1994-5, and many of those folks were retirees with a passionate interest in one particular topic, and they wanted to make a home page to share it. One guy was all about a particular Civil War battle that a great-etc-grandfather had fought in. Another literally saw it as a quilting bee — she wanted to make a home page where she could share images of quilts and some of the patterns she’d designed. It was ultimately that urge that convinced me that the WWW was well worth using. It was so easy to contribute information, such a snap to create a webpage to share some bit of knowledge, that I couldn’t resist.

That spirit infused the WWW for years. The .com boom killed it. Everybody figured that their little web page might be worth millions, and we all became greedy. Why give away my mincemeat pie recipe when I could sell it for millions? Corporations ruled the internet, and all of the big names offline were the big names online. It was Wikipedia, to my surprise, that pulled the internet back out of the muck and brought back the original spirit, the desire to share one’s knowledge out of a pure interest of enriching others’ knowledge. And it was blogs that brought back the concept of the personal home page, but improved.

I get a kick out of looking at all of those What’s New pages. There are sites listed that I haven’t thought about in years, even one site that I made. The web is more useful now, but I think it may have been better then.

Welcome to the World Wide Web!

Published by Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith (JAKE-with) is an open government technologist who lives near Char­lottes­­ville, VA, USA. more »

7 replies on “A glimpse at the early days of the WWW.”

  1. I love the time capsule quality of the internet. What a joy it is to stumble upon a well-preserved website that hasn’t been updated in a decade. For example. (“…honored with 20 wonderful awards.”)

  2. Man, I remember those early days so clearly even though I was a few years younger than you. I remember as a 12 year old spending hours in the “RockWeb” chat rooms talking to other kids. I thought it was the coolest thing ever. The idea that I could meet someone hundreds or thousands of miles away was incredible. It’s kind of interesting thinking of it actually. The internet really got going around the time I was really starting to notice the wider world outside of my little life- so even though the internet was miniscule by comparison to today- it was eye-openingly massive from my early-adolescent perspective.

  3. Viva la Gopher! Viva la Bulletin Boards!

    I remember having to sneak into our basement at night to dial into a bulletin board. It was not allowed because my parents thought some hackers would be able to access their bank accounts. Bulletin boards back then are not a thing like they used to be back then.

    When I first started college back in ’96, using Gopher to jump from different universities sites was amazing. It was pretty much dead, but it was still readily accesible. I think it was the University of Iowa where I found a list of emoticons which made my emails the envy of all. Funny how I can’t stand the things now. And then a friend showed me Yahoo on Netscape. Too much. Too much.

  4. I created my first Web pages sometime in late 1994 if I recall. I had set up a Linux server (by trial and error; self-taught Unix user) and must have installed whatever HTTP server was current at the time. I had previously created a gopher site, which was not too difficult, but I remember how hard it was to figure out on my own how to build a basic Web page based on the information I could retrieve–I think it must have been an early draft of the HTML 2.0 specs. Which is about as far from a howto document as it gets.

  5. QuantumLink! 1986! At 300 baud. Both ways!


    Oh, you’re talking about the internet. I still remember, for some reason, the June 1993 night when a guy at the GSU computer lab* handed me a disk with the HTML standard working draft on it. I’d never met him before, but we’d gotten to talking, and he told me how he was going to start a business teaching teachers how to use HTML to improve lesson plans. I thought he was a little delusional, and took the disk as a courtesy.

    He’s probably living on a yacht off the coast of Belize, right now.

    *where you could only get access to the internet and an email address if you were a member of the GSU chapter of the ACM (Association of Computing Machinery). $25 and a promise to attend at least one meeting got me my first ever email address: acmmeb@gsusgi2.gsu.edu.

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