3. Welcome to the web - the development of www as we know it

Like lots of people, you might think the Internet and the World Wide Web are the same thing. Wrong! So, what’s the difference?

Put simply, the Internet is a network of computer networks, linked together by copper wires, fibre optic cables and wireless connections. These connections let the Internet deliver packets of information between computers on the network.

The Internet was around a long time before the World Wide Web was invented. In fact, the Web was just one of the many ways that information got passed around over the Internet – others included email, bulletin boards and Internet Relay Chat.

Unlike the Internet’s ‘physical’ network of computers and cables, the Web is a ‘virtual’ space of information. You can’t see it or touch it. The Web only works because the Internet allows computers on the network to communicate with each other. So without the Internet, the Web couldn’t exist.

Tim Berners-Lee developed the World Wide Web at the end of the 1980s, while he was working as a scientist at CERN, a physics laboratory, in Switzerland. He wanted a way for information on different computers to be linked together, to mimic the way a human brain stores and recalls information.

Tim happily admits on his website that the development of the World Wide Web was only possible because of special communication protocols, designed by Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn to make the Internet work. Tim’s vision for the Web was to use an idea called ‘hypertext’ and the Internet, to build a huge information network.

Hypertext lets you browse between different texts and web pages, using links. ‘Hyperlinks’ are the bits you ‘click through’ to get from one webpage to another. You might be surprised to know that the idea of jumping between pieces of information had been around for decades before the Web was invented.

Way back in July 1945, an article was published, describing a futuristic information management system called ‘Memex’. If the Memex had ever been built, it could have worked in a similar way to how the Internet works now.

Having successfully combined the Internet and hypertext to create the World Wide Web, Tim was keen to share his new technology with as many people as possible.

As the CERN website points out ‘a website is like a telephone; if there’s just one it’s not much use’! So Tim and his team sent out software and instructions to other people who were interested in the World Wide Web project, to create their own websites.

The address of the first ever website and web server was ‘info.cern.ch’. Tim’s original browser was called ‘WorldWideWeb’ (which was written as one long word). It was introduced in February 1991 and at the time was the only way to view the Web. It let people use a mouse to click on a link, which would take them to the next chunk of information. The browser was later renamed ‘Nexus’, to avoid the obvious confusion with the World Wide Web.

The first graphical web browser that could work on any system was launched in 1993 and was called ‘Mosaic’. According to the CERN Website, this ‘point and click’ browser had a huge impact on the spread of the World Wide Web, because it was so reliable and so easy to use.

Way before the birth of the World Wide Web, the Domain Name System had been launched in 1984. A really useful explanation I found in the Columbia University Press Encyclopedia said that every computer that’s directly connected to the Internet has its own unique address made up of a 32-digit number. Because human beings, unlike computers, find it hard to remember long sequences of numbers, the Domain Name System was developed so that computers could have Internet addresses made up of words, like ‘.com’ and ‘.gov’, which are much easier to remember.

And so the Web had been born. The rest, as they say, is history.