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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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Museum of the City of New York
New York City Exhibition Celebrates the Rebellious Victorian-Era Women Who Made History
Museum of the City of New York
Museum of the City of New York

At a time when women wore corsets and hooped skirts, the American Jewish actress Adah Isaacs Menken caused quite a stir when she appeared onstage in men’s clothing. It was the early 1860s, and her portrayal of a man in the play Mazeppa saw her ride into the theater on a horse while wearing a flesh-colored body stocking. Critics were shocked, but Menken paid no mind. Both on stage and in her daily life, she continued to disregard the norms of that era by cutting her hair short and smoking cigarettes in public.

Menken is just one of the daring women featured in a new exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York. Rebel Women: Defying Victorianism celebrates the New York women who challenged the rigid expectations of the Victorian era, and includes a collection of photographs, clothes, and prints from the period.

A caricatures of the "Grecian bend"
Museum of the City of New York

The 19th century was a period of constraints for women. "During this era, a woman could be considered a rebel simply by speaking in public, working outside the home, or disregarding middle‐class morality or decorum," according to a museum statement. “Yet 19th‐century New York City was full of women who defied those expectations in both overt and subtle ways.”

The exhibit highlights the accomplishments of historic figures who contributed to the advancement of women’s rights, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, but it also casts a light on lesser-known figures—many of whom history was unkind to.

A photo of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony
Museum of the City of New York

An illustration of women voting
Museum of the City of New York

There’s Ann Trow Lohman, also known as “Madame Restell,” who was dubbed “The Wickedest Woman in New York” for providing birth control to women. Similarly, Hetty Green earned the moniker “The Witch of Wall Street” for her successful career as a stock broker.

Visitors will also learn about a predecessor to Rosa Parks: Elizabeth Jennings Graham, a black New Yorker who refused to get off of a segregated street car in 1854.

Not all of the women had such noble goals, though, and the exhibition shows that men didn’t have a monopoly on crime. Notorious pickpocket and con-woman Sophie Lyons used her smarts and beauty to steal from wealthy men and earned a reputation as "the most notorious confidence woman America has ever produced."

The exhibition will be on view until January 6, 2019, and tickets can be purchased online.

Marshall McLuhan, the Man Who Predicted the Internet in 1962

Futurists of the 20th century were prone to some highly optimistic predictions. Theorists thought we might be extending our life spans to 150, working fewer hours, and operating private aircrafts from our homes. No one seemed to imagine we’d be communicating with smiley faces and poop emojis in place of words.

Marshall McLuhan didn’t call that either, but he did come closer than most to imagining our current technology-led environment. In 1962, the author and media theorist, predicted we’d have an internet.

That was the year McLuhan, a professor of English born in Edmonton, Canada on this day in 1911, wrote a book called The Gutenberg Galaxy. In it, he observed that human history could be partitioned into four distinct chapters: The acoustic age, the literary age, the print age, and the then-emerging electronic age. McLuhan believed this new frontier would be home to what he dubbed a “global village”—a space where technology spread information to anyone and everyone.

Computers, McLuhan said, “could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization,” and offer “speedily tailored data.”

McLuhan elaborated on the idea in his 1962 book, Understanding Media, writing:

"Since the inception of the telegraph and radio, the globe has contracted, spatially, into a single large village. Tribalism is our only resource since the electro-magnetic discovery. Moving from print to electronic media we have given up an eye for an ear."

But McLuhan didn’t concern himself solely with the advantages of a network. He cautioned that a surrender to “private manipulation” would limit the scope of our information based on what advertisers and others choose for users to see.

Marshall McLuhan died on December 31, 1980, several years before he was able to witness first-hand how his predictions were coming to fruition.

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