Few inventions are as indispensable to modern life as the World Wide Web. Created by British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee in 1989, this now-ubiquitous application consists of interconnected hyperlinks that connect information located on servers around the world. After sending a request to a server for a particular webpage, a web browser interprets that information and displays it on computers, tablets, phones, or even watches. Today, there are nearly three times as many connected devices as there are people living on Earth, and the web forms the backbone of human communication and commerce around the globe. These eight fascinating World Wide Web facts show how one of modern life’s most pivotal inventions came to be — and what its future might look like.
The Web and the Internet Are Two Different Things
Every time someone uses the words “internet” and “web” interchangeably, a computer scientist sheds a tear. All jokes aside, the internet, first conceived in 1969, refers to the system of networked computers which makes things like web browsers, web pages, and other applications possible. In other words, the internet is the mostly invisible infrastructure that supports all the wonders of the World Wide Web.
A popular analogy to describe the difference between the two is to picture the internet as a system of highways and the web as the objects you see on those highways, such as buildings, gas stations, or billboards. All the vehicles that travel those highways, stop at stores, and drive to other locations are the data packets zooming around the network and, by extension, the entire world. So while you are technically using the web when you’re watching YouTube, for example, it’s really the internet that makes it possible.
The Very First Website Belongs to CERN
Today, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, is best known for its Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest particle accelerator which is currently exploring the frontiers of physics. But few know that it’s also where the World Wide Web got its start.
Much like in 1969 — when the first internet connection was established between Stanford University and the University of California, Los Angeles — the web was created for the primary purpose of sharing information between scientists working at universities and institutes around the world. As a computer scientist at CERN, Berners-Lee submitted an early proposal for information management outlining what would eventually become the web, but after reading the paper, his supervisor wrote in the margins “vague, but exciting.” Berners-Lee continued working on the project until finally launching the world’s first website on August 6, 1991. Less than two years later, CERN released the software into the public domain, and the World Wide Web took off. In 2013, CERN launched a program dedicated to preserving the world’s very first website: info.cern.ch.
The Web Was Almost Called the “Mesh”
Although the name “web” is a surprisingly accurate descriptor for how the technology works, it wasn’t the original moniker. Berners-Lee threw around a few ideas, such as the “Information Mine” or the slight variation “Mine of Information,” but in its early stages, he referred to his creation simply as “mesh.” It wasn’t until sometime in 1990, when Berners-Lee was writing the code, that he opted for the name “World Wide Web,” since “mesh” sounded too similar to “mess.” Today, the word “mesh” commonly describes a local network of nodes, usually in reference to a Wi-Fi network, in which each node connects seamlessly with a central node instead of using various extenders to repeat a signal.
The First Web Server Was a Steve Jobs Creation
In the history of computing, Steve Jobs tends to show up in the most unlikely of places. When Jobs left Apple in 1985, the famous tech guru formed NeXT, Inc., the company responsible for building the NeXTcube. CERN approved the purchase of a NeXTcube so Berners-Lee could flesh out his idea for the web. When the web finally launched, the NeXTcube became the world’s first web server. Strangely, it also meant that if the computer were turned off — the entire web went down with it. Maybe that’s why the original NeXTcube, now housed in the London’s Science Museum, has a handwritten note warning: “This machine is a server. DO NOT POWER DOWN!!”
The Dreaded “404 Error” Is Immensely Important
Most people groan when met with a pesky “404 not found” error message on a website, but the web itself couldn’t exist without it. The web’s major innovation was its ability to connect various information with hyperlinks — and also its ability not to. In the proto-web days, hyperlinks were added to a central database to make sure they always supplied the correct information; if the link changed in any way, it was updated in the database. This worked for small computer networks, but as the internet grew, it became nearly impossible to keep an accurate register of all hyperlinks simultaneously.
Berners-Lee came up with a simple yet groundbreaking solution: just don’t keep track of them. Similar to how the concept of zerorevolutionized mathematics, so too did the idea that a hypertext link could just lead to an error message. Although this led to an increased rate of “link rot” (half of all online links cease to work in five to 10 years), it untethered the web from the restrictions of a centralized register.
A New York Librarian Coined the Phrase “Surfing the Net”
In 1981, Jean Armour Polly convinced the Liverpool Public Library near Syracuse, New York, to purchase an Apple II Plus for public use. At the time, the small library was one of only two libraries in the U.S. with a computer. While her colleagues argued that computers weren’t a “core mission” of the library, Polly forged ahead and became one of the internet’s earliest pioneers.
In 1992, Polly used her newfound knowledge to write a guide about how to use the internet called Surfing the Internet: An Introduction. Although gaining little attention at the time, Polly shared the article again when working at nonprofit research group NYSERnet, one of New York’s first internet providers. This time, it went “viral” so to speak — Polly’s “surfing” terminology stuck, and in 2019, the small-town New York librarian, known to history as the “net-mom,” was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame.
Today, There Are Nearly 2 Billion Websites
It all started with just one small website in 1991, but in the decades since, the web has blossomed into nearly 2 billion websites, as of 2022. The number of registered websites hit the 1 billion mark in 2014, as commemorated by Berners-Lee himself, but the amount nearly doubled in only eight years.
Estimated projections show that in 2050, the World Wide Web will contain 37 petabytes (a petabyte is a massive unit of data equal to 1 million gigabytes). To put that in perspective, the Wayback Machine — a digital collection of past web pages maintained by the Internet Archive — contains over 700 billion pages and only clocks in at about 70 petabytes (as of 2020). And when it comes to global traffic, the numbers are even more astounding. According to the networking company Cisco, web traffic will reach 1 zettabyte in 2022 — that’s 1 trillion gigabytes if you’re keeping count.
The Web’s Creator Has Mixed Feelings About It
When Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, his vision was purely utopian — to create a place where anyone could access the best and most reliable information in the world at any time. Of course, over the past three decades, the web has evolved in other directions since then, from scammers and hackers to the spread of misinformation. Although disappointed, Berners-Lee hasn’t given up on that original utopian dream. For the web’s 30th anniversary in 2019, Sir Tim (he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2004) called for companies and governments to safeguard the web, saying, “It’s no longer a simple, star-spangled, unicorn-sky world…[but] it’ll be worth the effort to make sure the web is a nice and constructive place, because it’ll be so wonderful to be in.”