Dec 02 2012

The World Wide Web Consortium Dec. 18, 1994

Published by at 1:19 pm under history of computers

I have been following the World Wide Web since there were only 150 web sites, and I’d get a breathless email each time someone put up a new on.  18 years ago this month, I was fortunate to attend the inaugural meeting of the World Wide Web Consortium at MIT.  I wrote about this meeting in a column I wrote for the San Diego Daily Transcript called “Web Watch.” It’s kind of amazing what has happened in the intervening years.  Here is a copy of the column:

The World Wide Web Consortium Dec. 18, 1994

Cambridge, Ma.  There are times when you know that you are in the right place at the right time.  This happened to me last week in Boston.  I attended the first meeting of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) at the Laboratory of Computer Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  The meeting was a small gathering (by Internet standards) of  about 50 companies interested in the standardization and growth of the World Wide Web (WWW).

Tim Berners-Lee is the technical director of the consortium.  While he was at  CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics in Geneva, he invented a technology to allow physicists around the world to share scientific information.  As the WWW grew far beyond its roots in Physics, he moved to MIT, where he is directing the international consortium.

WWW data communications traffic is now growing at the rate of one percent PER DAY. This is an amazing growth rate, and all indications are that we are still in the early stages of growth:

  • The designer of one of the largest on-line services providers announced that they were halting further development of their proprietary user interface.  They will convert to publicly available web browsers, such as Mosaic or Netscape.  The 350 computers which are currently running their proprietary network are being transformed into a secure World Wide Web system.
  • One of the world’s largest scientific publishers said that they were working on a way of distributing their information to libraries directly on the World Wide Web.  On line readers of material could follow citations by a simple click of a mouse.  Readers could communicate with the authors or other readers through on-line discussion groups.
  • Several companies were working on electronic marketing systems, for the creation of virtual shopping malls.  Others were working on electronic book technology.
  • MIT demonstrated a research project called Galaxy, which allows the user to speak questions in English, Japanese, or other languages, and receive spoken responses.  It is not unreasonable to imagine a future when we can communicate with the WWW with spoken commands instead of a keyboard.

This late breaking technology traces back to an article first written by Vannevar Bush.  In “As We May Think,” published in the April 11, 1945 issue of Atlantic Monthly, he discussed a system called Memex:

“Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready-made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified.  The lawyer has at his touch the associated opinions and decisions of his whole experience, and of the experience of friends and authorities.  The patent attorney has on call the millions of issued patents, with familiar trails to every point of his client’s interest.  The physician, puzzled by its patient’s reactions, strikes the trail established in studying an earlier similar case, and runs rapidly through analogous case histories, with side references to the classics for the pertinent anatomy and histology.”

Replace Bush’s “mesh” with “web”, “associative trails” with “links”, “memex” with “browser” and we have a fairly current description of what the WWW can do.

I wanted to verify what I had heard about Bush’s paper.  From my home computer I connected via telephone to the Internet.  (60 seconds).  I clicked on the Netscape “Search” button, and found the Lycos index supported by Carnegie Mellon University (15 seconds).  I typed in “Vannevar Bush”, and Lycos searched an index of over 1 million pages (20 seconds).  I clicked on the first item on the list, and a photo of Bush followed by the text of his article appeared on my screen.  Vannevar would have been proud.

Tim Berners-Lee is an appropriate heir to this vision.  A visionary in his own right, he responds with quick wit and intuition on matters of the web.  The difference between Bush and Berners-Lee, however, is that Berners-Lee has the technology and the engineering ability to make his vision a reality.

He has the respect of the consortium, which he will be able to influence using the “raised eyebrow” method of management.  Issues which violate his sense of conceptual integrity will be met with a skeptical raised eyebrow.

The information age is causing dramatic changes in the fabric of our society.  The World Wide Web is the right technology in the right place at the right time to lead the way.


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