Timelines of the web
Recreating the original WorldWideWeb browser was an exercise in digital archeology. With a working NeXT machine in the room, Kimberly was able to examine the source code for the first every browser and discover a treasure trove within. Like this gem in
#define TCP_PORT 80 /* Allocated to http by Jon Postel/ISI 24-Jan-92 */
Sure enough, by June of 1992 port 80 was documented as being officially assigned to the World Wide Web (Gopher got port 70). Jean-François Groff — who worked on the World Wide Web project with Tim Berners-Lee — told us that this was a moment they were very pleased about. It felt like this project of theirs was going places.
Jean-François also told us that the WorldWideWeb browser/editor was kind of like an advanced prototype. The idea was to get something up and running as quickly as possible. Well, the NeXT operating system had a very robust Text Object, so the path of least resistance for Tim Berners-Lee was to take the existing word-processing software and build a hypertext component on top of it. Likewise, instead of creating a brand new format, he used the existing SGML format and added one new piece: linking with
So the WorldWideWeb application was kind of like a word processor and document viewer mashed up with hypertext. Ted Nelson complains to this day that the original sin of the web was that it borrowed this page-based metaphor. But Nelson’s Project Xanadu, originally proposed in 1974 wouldn’t become a working reality until 2014 — a gap of forty years. Whereas Tim Berners-Lee proposed his system in March 1989 and had working code within a year. There’s something to be said for being pragmatic and working with what you’ve got.
The web was also a mashup of ideas. Hypertext existed long before the web — Ted Nelson coined the term in 1963. There were conferences and academic discussions devoted to hypertext and hypermedia. But almost all the existing hypertext systems — including Tim Berners-Lee’s own ENQUIRE system from the early 80s — were confined to a local machine. Meanwhile networked computers were changing everything. First there was the ARPANET, then the internet. Tim Berners-Lee’s ambitious plan was to mash up hypertext with networks.
Going into our recreation of WorldWideWeb at CERN, I knew I wanted to convey this historical context somehow.
The World Wide Web officially celebrates its 30th birthday in March of this year. It’s kind of an arbitrary date: it’s the anniversary of the publication of Information Management: A Proposal. Perhaps a more accurate date would be the day the first website — and first web server — went online. But still. Let’s roll with this date of March 12, 1989. I thought it would be interesting not only to look at what’s happened between 1989 and 2019, but also to look at what happened between 1959 and 1989.
So now I’ve got two time cones that converge in the middle: 1959–1989 and 1989–2019. For the first time period, I made categories of influences: formats, hypertext, networks, and computing. For the second time period, I catalogued notable results: browsers, servers, and the evolution of HTML.
I did a little bit of sketching and quickly realised that these converging timelines could be represented somewhat like particle collisions. Once I had that idea in my head, I knew how I would be spending my time during the hack week.
Rather than jumping straight into the collider visualisation, I took some time to make a solid foundation to build on. I wanted to be sure that the timeline itself would be understable even if it were, say, viewed in the first ever web browser.
I marked up each timeline as an ordered list of
<li class="h-event y1968">
<a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NLS_%28computer_system%29" class="u-url">
<time class="dt-start" datetime="1968-12-09">1968</time>
<abbr class="p-name" title="oN-Line System">NLS</abbr>
With the markup in place, I could concentrate on making it look halfway decent. For small screens, the layout is very basic — just a series of lists. When the screen gets wide enough, I lay those lists out horzontally one on top of the other. In this view, you can more easily see when events coincide. For example, ENQUIRE, Usenet, and Smalltalk all happen in 1980. But the real beauty comes when the screen is wide enough to display everthing at once. You can see how an explosion of activity in the early 90s. In 1994 alone, we get the release of Netscape Navigator, the creation of HTTPS, and the launch of Amazon.com.
The whole thing is powered by CSS transforms and positioning. Each year on a timeline has its own class that gets moved to the correct chronological point using
calc(). I wanted to use
translateX() but I couldn’t get the maths to work for that, so I had use plain ol’
left: calc((1968 - 1959) * (100%/30) - 5em);
For events before 1989, it’s the distance of the event from 1959. For events after 1989, it’s the distance of the event from 2019:
right: calc((2019 - 2014) * (100%/30) - 5em);
h-event has a width of
5em so that’s where the extra bit at the end comes from.)
I had to do some tweaking for legibility: bunches of events happening around the same time period needed to be separated out so that they didn’t overlap too much.
As a finishing touch, I added a few little transitions when the page loaded so that the timeline fans out from its centre point.
I fiddled with the content a bit after peppering Robert Cailliau with questions over lunch. And I got some very valuable feedback from Jean-François. Some examples he provided:
1971: Unix man pages, one of the first instances of writing documents with a markup language that is interpreted live by a parser before being presented to the user.
1980: Usenet News, because it was THE everyday discussion medium by the time we created the web technology, and the Web first embraced news as a built-in information resource, then various platforms built on the web rendered it obsolete.
1982: Literary Machines, Ted Nelson’s book which was on our desk at all times
I really, really enjoyed building this “collider” timeline. It was a chance for me to smash together my excitement for web history with my enjoyment of using the raw materials of the web; HTML and CSS in this case.
The timeline pales in comparison to the achievement of the rest of the team in recreating the WorldWideWeb application but I was just glad to be able to contribute a little something to the project.
This was originally posted on my own site.