You’re reading this on the Internet that’s currently home to an estimated 1.9 billion websites. That’s a billion with a ‘B’. Weirdly enough, though, it’s not all that long since the whole Internet had only one solitary website. This was the first website ever created, launched on August 6, 1991.
It may have been a simple, text-based site with information about the World Wide Web project, but that web page held the seed of all the websites that would rapidly populate the digital landscape over the next three short decades. We are fascinated to tell the story of that first website on the Internet.
The World Wide Web Project
Cyberpunks might have fantasies about the Internet being a radically decentralized, peer-to-peer, non-hierarchical space, but the truth is we have the government to thank for the World Wide Web. More accurately, we have the collaboration between multiple European governments at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) to thank.
The World Wide Web (WWW) Project at CERN was a project led by British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee. He was trying to solve the problem of how to share information, data, and resources between different devices in various locations.
Berners-Lee proposed a solution that used hypertext to connect (or ‘link’) documents stored on separate computers, provided both machines were connected to a newish network called the Internet. Though his first proposal was rejected, his second shot got the backing of his managers and went into production.
In order to turn his vision into a reality, Berner-Lee had first to develop HyperText Markup Language (or HTML, the language used to code web pages), Hypertext Transfer Protocol (or HTTP, the protocol used to fetch HTML files), and Uniform Resource Locators (or URLs, the addresses used to navigate to a web page).
Over 30 years later, HTML, HTTP, and URLs still form the backbone of the Internet we use today.
What Was the First Website
Despite the literally unlimited choice of domain names, Berners-Lee chose to launch the world’s first website at the wildly forgettable address, info.cern.ch. While that main domain is now home to information about the first website ever, versions of that website are still available to view.
If someone were to navigate to that address in 1991, they would have found a wonderfully retro-looking line-mode version of the website:
Since the green-on-black computer output of the early 90s is likely to make modern Internet users’ heads spin, CERN has kindly also created an updated version of the website suitable for today’s browsers:
But what was actually contained in the world’s first website? Well, since the website was intended to be the starting point for a huge network of interconnected websites – ie the Internet we know today – the first site featured instructions about building other websites.
It provided resources for developers to understand HTML, HTTP, and URLs and explained how hyperlinks could be used to link to the content.
There were no ads, no images, nothing to sell, and nothing to distract you. Berners-Lee simply wanted to inspire others to use the technology he’d built to create digital spaces for themselves and to become more interconnected. His only call to action was to learn and create.
Growth of the Web and the Loss of the First Website
Berners-Lee launched the first website in the middle of 1991, and by 1992 there had been a 1,000% increase in the number of websites. That is to say, by 1992 there were ten web pages live.
By 1994, the World Wide Web had really got some momentum going, with over 3,000 websites accessible on the Internet. At this point, it was possible to list all websites in published directory books, like a phone book.
Physical directories became obsolete and inconvenient in just a couple of years, though. By 1996, more than 2 million websites had been published, which is when Google was launched to help the growing base of Internet users find their way around cyberspace.
This is where we have to come clean: the screenshot of the ‘first website’ above is not the original site Berners-Lee built. In all the excitement around the success and growth of his project, the first website was lost off the Internet.
We only have the example above, thanks to the work of Internet historians, who in 2013 launched a project to recover and revive the first-ever website. Luckily, it turned out that Berners-Lee himself had made a copy of his entire original website onto a floppy disc, which was later tracked down and used to relaunch the site.
It now exists as a kind of online exhibit anyone can visit to gaze into the digital past.
Steve Jobs Helped Create the World Wide Web
Okay, this last subheading might be a little misleading since Steve Jobs never worked at CERN, let alone on the WWW Project. However, the Apple creator did have a small hand in its success.
That’s because the Berners-Lee computer used to build and host the first website ever was a NeXT computer designed by Steve Jobs.
While it might be surprising to hear such a familiar name pop up in this story, it’s worth bearing in mind that the early computing community was relatively small.
We might all spend our lives online today, but back when the first website launched, Internet users were part of a tightly-knit club. Berners-Lee and his contemporaries envisioned a future unimaginable to most.