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Why CERN is Recreating the First Web Page

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By Peter Weber

Tuesday was, for all intents and purposes, the 20th birthday of the World Wide Web. Sir Tim Berners-Lee developed the web and its peculiar language — HTML, HTTP, URL — at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) between 1989 and 1991, but on April 30, 1993, CERN made the bold and crucial step of releasing the web to the world, free of charge. (Read the key document below.)

To mark the occasion, a group at CERN is working diligently to re-create the first web page. It isn't much to look at, visually — visit it here, once again at its original URL: http://info.cern.ch/hypertext/WWW/TheProject.html, or just look here:

And the page isn't, technically, the first web page, just a version of the original. But the project is more ambitious than just hunting down the original code. "The aim is to preserve the original hardware and software associated with the birth of the web," including the two NeXT computers Berners-Lee used to develop the web and host the first web pages on, says Pallab Ghosh at BBC News.

The project is partly about preserving history, with a dash of nostalgia. At the end of 1993, there were more than 500 websites, CERN says. This year, the World Wide Web has about 630 million websites, and it has changed how we communicate, shop, research, and interact with the world.

"I want my children to be able to understand the significance of this point in time: The web is already so ubiquitous — so, well, normal — that one risks failing to see how fundamentally it has changed," CERN's communications web manager Dan Noyes tells BBC News. "We are in a unique moment where we can still switch on the first web server and experience it. We want to document and preserve that."

James Gilles, CERN's head of communications, agrees. "One of my dreams is to enable people to see what that early web experience was like," he tells the BBC, and he should know: Gilles was a researcher at CERN when Berners-Lee worked there. "You might have thought that the first browser would be very primitive but it was not. It had graphical capabilities. You could edit into it straightaway. It was an amazing thing. It was a very sophisticated thing." Here's what the first web browser looked like, circa 1993:

Berners-Lee/CERN

But CERN also wants to use the first web page to try and preserve the free-and-open ethos that convinced the organization to give the web away, without charging royalties. "The web has not brought about the degree of social change some had envisaged 20 years ago," says the BBC's Ghosh. The early web was a two-way information street, almost subversive in its goal to make information and web access universal and free. Now, the web is "dominated by a handful of powerful online companies."

Re-creating the first web page might help us "go back in time and somehow preserve that experience," says Noyes. "Present-day browsers offer gorgeous experiences but when we go back and look at the early browsers I think we have lost some of the features that Tim Berners-Lee had in mind."

While the idea of reliving the early days of a revolution is always pretty unrealistic, celebrating CERN's monumental decision to gift the world the web is a worthwhile endeavor. That choice "was the birth of the Internet as we know it today," Dan Olds at The Gabriel Consulting Group tells Computerworld. "Before this, the internet was mainly used by academics to communicate with each other and exchange data. But after this code was released? Everything changed."

That makes it all the more amazing that we don't have an original copy of the first web page, posted on Aug. 6, 1991, says Jon Brodkin at Ars Technica. He flags this comment from a CERN fan:

It's crazy that 48 copies of the 600 year-old Gutenberg bible exist, yet not one copy of a website made just twenty-odd years ago survives. History will look back at us and roll its eyes. [CERN]

CERN

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‘American Gothic’ Became Famous Because Many People Saw It as a Joke
Original image
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1930, Iowan artist Grant Wood painted a simple portrait of a farmer and his wife (really his dentist and sister) standing solemnly in front of an all-American farmhouse. American Gothic has since inspired endless parodies and is regarded as one of the country’s most iconic works of art. But when it first came out, few people would have guessed it would become the classic it is today. Vox explains the painting’s unexpected path to fame in the latest installment of the new video series Overrated.

According to host Phil Edwards, American Gothic made a muted splash when it first hit the art scene. The work was awarded a third-place bronze medal in a contest at the Chicago Art Institute. When Wood sold the painting to the museum later on, he received just $300 for it. But the piece’s momentum didn’t stop there. It turned out that American Gothic’s debut at a time when urban and rural ideals were clashing helped it become the defining image of the era. The painting had something for everyone: Metropolitans like Gertrude Stein saw it as a satire of simple farm life in Middle America. Actual farmers and their families, on the other hand, welcomed it as celebration of their lifestyle and work ethic at a time when the Great Depression made it hard to take pride in anything.

Wood didn’t do much to clear up the work’s true meaning. He stated, "There is satire in it, but only as there is satire in any realistic statement. These are types of people I have known all my life. I tried to characterize them truthfully—to make them more like themselves than they were in actual life."

Rather than suffering from its ambiguity, American Gothic has been immortalized by it. The country has changed a lot in the past century, but the painting’s dual roles as a straight masterpiece and a format for skewering American culture still endure today.

Get the full story from Vox below.

[h/t Vox]

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“Dissension” by Tobias Rothe. Original image courtesy Fondazione Federico Zeri/Università di Bologna // CC-BY 3.0
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Get Your GIFs Ready for This International Public Domain GIF-Making Competition
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“Dissension” by Tobias Rothe. Original image courtesy Fondazione Federico Zeri/Università di Bologna // CC-BY 3.0

Excellent GIF-making skills can serve you beyond material for your clever tweets. Each year, a group of four digital libraries from across the world hosts GIF IT UP, a competition to find the best animated image sourced from public domain images from their archives.

The competition is sponsored by Europeana, the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), New Zealand’s DigitalNZ, and the National Library of Australia’s Trove, all of which host millions of public domain works. The requirements are that the source material must be in the public domain, have a 'no known copyright restrictions' statement, or have a Creative Commons license that allows its reuse. The material must also come from one of the sponsored sources. Oh, and judging by the past winners, it helps if it’s a little whimsical.

The image above won the grand prize in 2015. And this was a runner-up in 2016:

via GIPHY

This year’s prizes haven’t been announced yet (although Europeana says there will be a new one for first-time GIF makers), but last year’s grand prize winner got their own Giphoscope, and runners-up got $20 gift cards. (Turns out, there’s not a lot of money in public domain art.)

Not an expert GIFer yet? You can always revisit the audio version of DPLA’s advanced GIF-making tutorial from last year.

The fourth-annual GIF IT UP contest opens to submissions October 1.

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