The World Wide Web grows up: Happy 20th birthday

You'll be forgiven if you can't remember the fanfare with which the web was brought into the world, an event of importance mainly to high energy physicists. Twenty years later, it's hard to imagine a world without it.

As I sit at my desk, listening to a French radio station, chatting with a friend in Switzerland, reading an article from China and watching Tweets from around the world flowing past, it's hard to believe that the technology which makes all this possible, the World Wide Web, is only 20 years old.

On August 6, 1991, Sir Tim Berners-Lee published the very first web page, having first invented the technology that made it possible. Berners-Lee worked at CERN in the Swiss Alps and wanted an easy way to share information with his colleagues.

"The WWW project was started to allow high energy physicists to share data, news, and documentation," wrote Berners-Lee in an email to the alt-hypertext newsgroup.

"We are very interested in spreading the web to other areas and having gateway servers for other data. Collaborators welcome."

Little did he know that his invention would change the world.

Berners-Lee had discussed the possibility of creating a web of information two years earlier in 1989. He was concerned about the problems caused by the high turnover of staff: "If a CERN experiment were a static once-only development, all the information could be written in a big book," he wrote. "As it is, CERN is constantly changing as new ideas are produced, as new technology becomes available, and in order to get around unforeseen technical problems."

His solution was to create a "a 'web' of notes with links (like references) between them." The new system would allow anyone to enter information, and anyone else to find that information, "sometimes without knowing what he is looking for."

To achieve this new "web", Berners-Lee had to first invent three key technologies:

 The World Wide Web grows up: Happy 20th birthday

Time Berners-Lee, founder of the World Wide Web. Noah Seelam/AFP Photo

• The Uniform Resource Locator, or URL: The URL describes where a piece of information is.
• HyperText Mark-up Language, or HTML: The language used to make that information readable by humans, not just computers.
• HypterText Transfer Protocol, or HTTP: The protocol that allows computers to ferry bits of information around the web.

Once Berners-Lee had these in place, and once he had written a browser to translate that HTML into a readable page, the web was born.

Although the very first web page is lost to history, a later copy from 1992 is still available. (Funnily enough, Berners-Lee's habit of updating a single page every day with new developments presaged the invention of the blog some eight years later.)

You'll be forgiven if you can't remember the fanfare or plaudits from the time. In reality, this was a small project that was of importance to mainly high energy physicists. It wasn't until the release of the first publicly available web browser, Mosaic, early in 1993 that things really began to take off as scientists and the public began to realise how useful the web was.

Written by Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina, who were students at the University of Illinois at the time, Mosaic was a key turning point, as the New York Times' John Markoff wrote at the time:

Mosaic's many passionate proponents hail it as the first "killer app" of network computing - an applications program so different and so obviously useful that it can create a new industry from scratch.

Before Mosaic, finding information on the Internet "required knowing - and accurately typing - arcane addresses and commands like 'Telnet'." But once there were browsers, all you needed was to click a link and bingo, you could see whether the Trojan Room coffee pot in Cambridge University's comp-sci lab was empty or full.

Mosaic really shaped our experience of the web. Andreessen and Bina developed the ideas behind Mosaic and created Netscape Navigator, an open source version of which became Mozilla, which itself eventually morphed into Firefox. Mosaic even underpinned early versions of Internet Explorer.

The web, of course, holds a mirror to society, so it has its own dark underbelly of surveillance, bullying, hacking, porn, spam and fraud. Ironically, it is the poor quality of Internet Explorer's code which has often helped the hackers and their ilk do their misdeeds.

Looking now at the history of the web, it's clear that the flurry of innovation in the mid-90s which bequeathed us sites like Amazon and eBay, then PayPal and Google, would not have been possible without the web or Mosaic. The Internet itself is just a network of computers and using it was tedious and time-consuming. It is the web, which sits atop that network and translates the language of machines into something that humans can understand, that has made so much possible.

Remote medicine, shopping, activism, publishing, collaboration and education - all depend upon the innovations of a single physicist labouring away underneath a mountain near Geneva. It's hard now to imagine a world without the World Wide Web.

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