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Stanford Report, December 12, 2001

Tech pioneer recalls how he brought the World Wide Web, now 10, to America

BY DAWN LEVY

The World Wide Web came to America 10 years ago today [Dec. 12], followed by revolutions in commerce and community. "Today, if you don't have access to the web, you're considered disadvantaged," says physicist Paul Kunz, who on Dec. 12, 1991, installed the first web server in America on an IBM mainframe computer at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC). Kunz recounts how a project initiated to support fundamental research evolved into what is now, more or less, an archive of humanity's collective memory.

In the late 1960s, the U.S. Department of Defense sponsored research at American universities aimed at building a communications network that could survive a nuclear attack. Computers were linked through phone lines to form networks, and the research goal was to calculate the next-best path for routing packets of information if a node in the most efficient pathway were obliterated.

The first website in America consisted of links to the SPIRES-HEP database of physics information and a directory of phone numbers and e-mail addresses. The original website no longer exists because current browsers do not support it. Image courtesy of SLAC


On Labor Day weekend of 1969, the first packets blazed a pioneering path through the packet-switching Arpanet (for Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), providing a thoroughfare for electronic mail, file transfer, remote computer access and postings to bulletin boards and newsgroups. Arpanet paved the way for other networks, such as the National Science Foundation's NSFNet. These networks collectively became known as the Internet.

Information trickled over the Internet in its early years, as only academicians were allowed to use it. (Open commercial and public use was not allowed until the late 1980s.) In 1990, physicist-turned-programmer Tim Berners-Lee and colleague Robert Cailliau at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN) in Switzerland began to collaborate on something that eventually opened the floodgates to mass use by turning the Internet into an ocean navigable by anyone able to point and click a mouse.

"It's too easy to say that by some accident some guy in a high-energy physics lab happened to invent the web," Kunz says. "Or to say, 'Eh, collaborative work -- it was something that was about to happen anyway.' If you really look at the whole history of networking, you can see that the academic research community continuously played a role in building up all the stuff that was needed for this final coup."

In September 1990 at CERN, Berners-Lee bought a NeXT computer, manufactured by the company Steve Jobs started when he left Apple. Touted as the next great thing in desktop publishing, it was desirable for two reasons. First, its underlying operating system was UNIX, and the academic community had developed UNIX with the Internet in mind. It came with a full suite of Internet protocols and could send windows of information to remote machines. Second, it featured excellent tools for building an application with a graphical user interface, which launched commands by clicking on objects instead of by entering text.

"The ease with which one could develop applications on the NeXT was remarkable," Kunz says. "Any mere mortal with a good idea could program up his application in a reasonable amount of time, try it out and see if it really worked and then show it off to others. Using the Internet to distribute the software freely, the programmer could get other people to use it."

Berners-Lee's NeXT computer would become the world's first web server. By Christmas, Berners-Lee and Cailliau had set it up to store information and transmit it upon request. They also had developed software and protocols to link information from remote computers and allow it to be located and retrieved over the Internet by programs called browsers. Berners-Lee created the first browser. Later, physicist Tony Johnson at SLAC, a national laboratory operated by Stanford University for the Department of Energy, created another important early browser, named Midas.

The magic wand enabling information retrieval over the Internet was a set of instructions that transmitted hypertext, the language through which computers "talk" to each other. Called hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP), it enabled electronic linkage of one part of a document to another part of the same document; the user just clicks on the link, and the screen jumps to that section. While hypertext was not a new idea, transmitting it was. Berners-Lee expanded its application to allow links to fetch documents on other computers in a network. "All he had to do to do that was add yet another protocol to the Internet," Kunz says. "But since the Internet was open, he could do that without asking anybody, without going through a central committee." The ability to transfer hypertext transformed the arcane Internet into the accessible World Wide Web, which literally put the world at one's fingertips.

This was all well and good, but in 1990 the World Wide Web had all the reach of a hairnet. All the world's web servers were at CERN; information traveled no farther than a few buildings.

SLAC physicist and software developer Paul Kunz had no idea that he was about to make history when, on Aug. 20, 1991, he read an announcement that Berners-Lee had posted to a newsgroup for users of NeXT's operating system, NeXTStep. It told of a way to use the Internet to cross-reference and distribute documents around the world. Kunz's eyes glazed with boredom at the topic of document distribution. He recalls: "I kind of shrugged: 'What are these crazy CERN people up to now?' I didn't even fetch the free software to try it out." Plus he was busy preparing to leave for Sweden to give lectures on object-oriented programming.

Physicist Paul Kunz
Photo: L.A. Cicero


After Sweden, Kunz took the occasion to go to Switzerland to visit CERN, where every day was a whirlwind of meetings. Finally, on Sept. 13, Kunz's last day there, Berners-Lee insisted that he visit his office for a demonstration. Kunz also had a NeXT computer, one he bought in February 1989 to create a much easier system for physics analyses. There are so few of us in high-energy physics using these machines, Kunz thought. How can I say no?

When Berners-Lee demonstrated information retrieval via the Internet between NeXT computers, Kunz was unimpressed. But when Berners-Lee showed that he could send a query to CERN's IBM mainframe computer and retrieve results based on that query, Kunz started to get interested.

Platform-independent communication opened up a world of possibilities. But could it work between computers half a world apart?

"Tim couldn't demonstrate how well this is going to work over the Internet because all the world's web servers were at CERN," Kunz says. "In fact, it could have been that all of them were in the same building. It's not a very exciting demo."

So they used the Internet to upload Kunz's computer at SLAC with the browser software. A click at CERN got the browser running at SLAC. The SLAC machine sent a request for information to a server at CERN. The CERN server sent a web page to SLAC. And the SLAC browser sent the page's window to CERN. To accomplish all this, information had to make four transatlantic crossings.

"We were both shocked at how well it worked," Kunz recalls.

Kunz and Berners-Lee discussed making available a meaty bibliographic database of 300,000 physics references called SPIRES-HEP, for Stanford Public Information Retrieval System -- High Energy Physics, maintained since 1974 by SLAC librarians.

Kunz left CERN the next day and demonstrated the web to SLAC's associate head librarian, Louise Addis, and others by connecting to the only web servers that existed at that time, the CERN computers. Everyone was impressed with the speed of the connection, which was as fast as today's connections.

When Kunz asked Addis if she wanted him to install a web server connected to the library SPIRES database, her answer was an emphatic yes. She instantly saw the value of making SLAC's substantial catalog of online documents available to physicists worldwide.

On Dec. 12, 1991, Kunz sent an e-mail to Berners-Lee asking him to try out SLAC's newly installed web server.

"Good job!" Berners-Lee e-mailed back. "Congratulations to all involved. It seems to work well."

The next month Berners-Lee demonstrated his World Wide Web application to more than 200 physicists from around the world who were meeting in Southern France. For his grand finale, he connected to the SLAC server and did a SPIRES-HEP search.

"People went home from this meeting telling their colleagues of a new way to access SPIRES-HEP," Kunz says. "It was called the World Wide Web, and it was great."

At SLAC, computer systems specialist George Crane, physicist Tony Johnson, Kunz and Addis completed the work necessary to make SPIRES-HEP's deluge of data and documents instantly available. Addis coordinated what would become the first U.S. website, which featured a search interface she created. For publish-or-perish physicists, Berners-Lee has said, information retrieval from SPIRES-HEP became the web's so-called "killer app" -- the application that compelled that community to start using the technology.

Other killer apps -- from e-mail to eBay, Medline to Match.com, ways to share every type of information from music to stock prices -- drove other communities to the web. Today the web is a global marketplace of goods and ideas, a major economic driver, a place to connect unconstrained by geography or society. A spaceship no longer has to land for us to know that we are not alone.

Academicians had no idea their networking project would change the world. Having pushed technology to the limit to meet their specific needs, they were truly amazed when the technology in turn pushed the rest of the world toward a heady future. "But that's how things blossomed," Kunz concludes. "Very low-level, fundamental protocols that we use today were invented in these earlier days as ad hoc ways of satisfying needs amongst the research community that happened to be on this network."

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