Near-Sighted Foresight (Part 1)

When I was in college, I think this was sometime in ’92 or ’93, I used to spend my spare time in the computer lab, which should come as no shock to regular readers. Our lab was equipped with Sun equipment (some form of Sparcs, I think), with nice (huge at the time) monitors (probably 17″). When I grew bored with programming class assignments, newsgroups, gopher, etc, I would sometimes poke around in other users’ home directories, looking for interesting stuff. I was looking for applications, not documents; I wanted to try out every app I could find, not pry into other people’s stuff. This got me in trouble once- I tried running a script I found in one of the lab assistant’s directories, and it turned out to be a password cracking program. That was unfun.

But this is the story of another occasion. While looking for interesting things to play with, I ran an X windows app that displayed a page of text in a graphical layout. Some of the words were blue and underlined, clicking them took you to another page. All of the text was seemed to be stored on some research server in Europe. I played with it for a while, but didn’t really get the point. As I seem to recall, there was the indication that these documents could link to others all over the network, but I could only find my way to documents on two or three servers, max. The information was mostly on the European server, and was uniformly uninteresting. After 15 or 20 minutes of playing with it, I moved on. Sure, it was graphical, but at least with gopher you could find stuff.

By now, most readers know that I was using a web browser. Possibly NCSA Mosaic, which would put this story in 1993. However, I’m pretty sure this was in 1992, I think the program was probably WorldWideWeb, Tim Berners-Lee’s original browser. The ‘European research server’ I remember is almost certainly the original web site of CERN.

Now, at this time, nobody knew what the web was. Version 1.0 of Mosaic was developed between December 1992 and April 1993. It would be a couple more years until the explosive growth of the web, and transformation of the web from academic curiosity to household name. I stumbled upon what would become one of the greatest revolutions in information technology in the history of the world, and I didn’t get it. Instead of inventing Amazon or Yahoo! (or even just envisioning them), I couldn’t see beyond the handful of pages I could access at the time. Instead, it would be 1996 before I had Internet access at home, and 1998 before I learned how to write a web page.

In my own defense, hind sight is always 20/20, and I really didn’t have much context to judge within. I had read no papers or newsgroup postings about what this was or what it aimed to do. On the other hand, I was a big BBS user back then, spending most of my time on a large, multiuser system, so I probably should have recognized at least the idea that this could be a platform for all kinds of communiction.

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