Time cover featuring Marc Andresseen

The Netscape Mosaic Coup

In mid-April of 1994, Netscape co-founders Marc Andreessen and Jim Clark boarded a plane from Silicon Valley to Illinois, held a meeting, then flew back a few days later with a full engineering team in tow. And that’s pretty much how Netscape got started.

A year before that, Andreessen had been a student at the University of Illinois. While there, he worked at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), a government funded research lab that occupied a wing at the University. His day to day work involved creating scientific visualizations. But on the side, he and Eric Bina developed and released Mosaic, an impressive technological breakthrough and the first browser with inline images.

Andreessen shared what he was working on with a few of his colleagues at NCSA, and they began to pitch in on the development. One NCSA programmer took the browser, originally built for Unix machines, and ported it to the Mac. Another did the same for Windows. And little by little, Mosaic became a cross-platform browser with server tools and all sorts of never-done features. Working late and when they could, the group bounced ideas off one another and raced to go implement them first. But by most accounts, it was Andreessen who more or less guided the development of Mosaic and was a constant source of encouragement for the project.

At the end of 1993, Andreessen graduated and moved out west. While working at this first and only day job, he received an email from Jim Clark, a programmer and entrepreneur who co-founded SGI (Silicon Graphics, Inc.) in the 80’s. The email was simple and to the point ending with “I plan to form a new company. I would like to discuss the possibility of your joining me.”

So Andreessen, excited at the idea of working with a Silicon Valley legend, met with Clark. They hit it off, and began brainstorming ideas for a new company. But the idea they kept returning back to was a top-class web browser, a “Mosaic killer,” as it would later be called. It was decided. They would build the first commercial web browser.

There was no way they could pull that off alone. Andreessen suggested that when some of his fellow NCSA programmers graduated, they would be a perfect fit. Clark, however, wanted to move quicker than that. A lot quicker. So in April of 1994, not too long after meeting Clark, Andreessen sent around an email to a few of his NCSA colleagues. It read:

Something is going down here – be prepared to leave.

The following week, in mid-April, Andreessen and Clark hopped a plane headed for Illinois. But there was one more engineer to wrangle. Just before they left, they got in contact with Lou Montulli, the creator of the browser Lynx (and later credited with the blink tag), who was in a different state at the time. Intrigued by the offer, Montulli almost immediately turned around and took a plane to Illinois (making sure, of course, that his expensive last minute plane ticket would be reimbursed).

Once in Illinois, Andreessen and Clark gathered together a group of NCSA employees in secret, right in their hotel lobby. Clark made the pitch. They wanted to bring together the hardest working web folks they knew to work on a browser that would blow the competition out of the water. Clark typed out six offer letters in his room, one for each engineer in attendance, and faxed them to himself.

Every single one of them accepted the offer on the spot.

The next day, Rob McCool, Eric Bina, Aleks Totic, Chris Houck, and John Mittelhauser walked into NCSA together and quit all at once. They went home, packed their bags, and headed on a plane to Silicon Valley. Clustering in small apartments adjacent to what would soon be their office, they threw their stuff down and started working.

Andreessen wanted to call this new company Mosaic Communications. It was, after all, formed from the fabric of Mosaic’s team with the explicit goal of creating an even better browser. It didn’t appear to strike Andreessen as odd that this name would be derived from the very company he had deceived. For better or worse, the tech scene at the time was extremely competitive. Even so, NCSA threatened to sue, and it was enough to change the name to Netscape.

In just six months, this group would change the web’s landscape and have the first version of their new browser ready to go. It would be called Netscape Navigator.