Tim Berners-Lee has said, on multiple occasions, the the first website in the US was one of the major reasons the web took off. But what did it do and why was it so important?
In January of 1991, Tim Berners-Lee demoed the web for a small audience at a physics workshop in France. That might sound like a strange venue for the web, but his presence there was spectacularly unremarkable. The web, after all, had been developed at CERN, a research institute largely focused on studying the physics behind the tiniest particles in the universe and though its primary focus was quite a bit different than hypertext documents traveling across the Internet, the researchers at CERN had found the web particularly useful in its earliest iterations. They used it to trade knowledge and share research across a worldwide network of physicists. As a result, Berners-Lee would find himself, from time to time, at a conference or workshop demoing the capabilities of the World Wide Web to a group of particle physicists.
This particular presentation, the one in France in 1991, earns a distinction not because of the group that was being presented to, but because of the way it ended. To conclude his demonstration, Berners-Lee pulled up a website that was still very much in its infancy and the very first website that had ever launched in the United States. The website belonged to the Stanford Linear Accelerator Laboratory, or SLAC. Berners-Lee navigated to a search bar at the top of the SLAC site, entered in a bit of text about physics, and clicked enter. Moments later on screen, an ordered list of research papers on particle physics appeared on screen. They came complete with bibliographic information and next to each one was a special hyperlink Berners-Lee could use to download the entire paper as a PDF right to his computer.
Suddenly, a few dozen physicists found themselves interested in the World Wide Web.
To understand why such a simple list could get a room full of researchers so excited you have to go back a bit, decades before Berners-Lee first got an idea for a distributed network to pass around research notes and, later, cat memes. In the late 1950’s SLAC was simply an idea that had been labeled Project M (or colloquially, Project Monster). It was basically the pipe dream of a group of physicists at Stanford that hoped to one day built a two mile long particle accelerator at the university. Its backing by President Eisenhower led to a bizarre partisan blowback that went back in forth in Washington for months before members of the SLAC team were whisked in front of Congress to testify on matters of national security and the advancement of US research. It is a long and arduous story, but after a bit of back and forth dealing in Congress the project was approved and funded in 1960.
A chunk of that funding went towards setting up an extensive research library in a repurposed warehouse on the Stanford campus. The library tracked the bibliographic information and research from particle physics papers all over the world. Louise Addis was one of the earliest librarians to come on board in the early 1970’s. While there, she was responsible for extending existing database management software at Stanford to build the SPIRES-HEP database, an IBM mainframe that stored the library’s reference information in a digital format that could be accessed from anywhere with a (pre-web) Internet connection. In those days, SLAC librarians spent a good amount of their time making sure that researchers could connect and retrieve what they needed from the database.
At first, accessing the SPIRES-HEP was a bit of a nightmare. You had two options. The first was to remotely log in and query the database directly using a scripting language. The second was to use an early form of instant messaging developed specifically for the purpose of contacting SLAC librarians by researcher and software engineer Paul Kunz. Using his messaging program, you could ping a librarian and they could go and retrieve what was needed from the database and pass it along. This might feel cumbersome, but the SPIRES-HEP was among the most comprehensive archives of research on particle physics in the world. It grounded research in that community for decades.
Kunz, a physicist himself, made frequent trips to CERN for meetings and conferences. On one such trip in September of 1991, Berners-Lee pulled Kunz into his office to show him this new project he was working on to help researchers share notes across continents and with computers with different operating systems. He had just recently decided to call it the World Wide Web, figuring if the name was too clunky, he could always change it. Anyway, he showed Kunz a webpage or two and left him thoroughly underwhelmed. That is, until he pulled up one that allowed for queries to a help desk database. An idea began to form.
Kunz returned to Stanford and shared what he had seen with Addis and a few other staffers at SLAC. They realized the potential immediately. If they could bolt a web interface on top of their SPIRES-HEP database, researchers could visit their website, type in the search, and pull the information they needed. No more messaging librarians. No more complex database languages. Just a single, clean search box.
Kunz got to work with programmer Terry Hung setting up the web server. Addis paired herself with George Crane to make sure the SPIRES-HEP database could talk in HTML, the language of the web. The final piece of the puzzle, the code for the webpage itself was built by another SLAC physicist, Tony Johnson. It was hosted at slac.stanford.edu.
The webpage itself was pretty simple. It had a bit of text about SLAC generally, and the SPIRES-HEP database specifically. The star of the show, however, was the “Search” page. It presented users with a text box. In there you could type a bit about a reference, something like find title Particle Paper (it wasn’t yet sophisticated to query all fields without a bit of a hint like that, but this was a few years before Yahoo or Google). Once entered, the site would return a list of papers that matched your reference in an ordered, HTML list.
The real breakthrough, however, came later that year. Over at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, Paul Ginsparg created a digital repository of what’s known as preprints, that is, research papers that had been approved for moderation but not yet published to a peer reviewed journal. Ginsparg uploaded thousands of these preprints to his digital database, available in PDF format. Users could connect via FTP and download a digital copy.
Addis reached out with an idea. What if she took her new SPIRES-HEP web interface, and connected it up with Ginsparg’s preprint repository. So not only could you search for a reference paper with a simple text query, you could download a full copy of that paper directly from the website. Within a few months, they had it up and running.
Here’s how things worked before the SLAC website. Physicists would send a message to a SLAC librarian via email or instant message with a request for a bibliographic reference (or in some cases access the database remotely if they knew the right programming language and the right commands). Once there, they could open up their FTP program and log on to the Los Alamos drive, then cross reference their bibliographic reference against the collection to find the right preprint, and finally, download it to their machine.
Here’s how things worked after the SLAC website. You typed in the article you wanted then downloaded the preprint PDF directly from the search results.
And that, right there, that massive ease of use with distributed and easy access to tens of thousands of research papers with the click of button, that is what got physicists excited when Berners-Lee showed off the SLAC website at his demo in France. Everyone got it right away, they understood that the potential for the web went well beyond sharing research notes. The web was about information. It was about discovering knowledge and democratizing access.
After the conference, when those physicists got back to their universities and labs, they started to spread word of the web around. Little by little, more people picked it up. They, in turn, told their colleagues about it. And so on and so forth until experimentation and word of mouth burst the web outside the halls of academia and into the heads of everyday people. It’s very unlikely that the web would have gotten any traction at all in those early years and months without the folks at SLAC and their humble little website.
There was, however, one last hurdle to get over. The browser market was still in it’s pre-Mosaic days, and most were the passion projects of a few web pioneers. None were any good at displaying Postscript files, what we now know as PDFs. You could download them just fine in most cases, but there was no way to read them in the browser. The preprints available for download on the SLAC site were all in PDF, so that made browsing the site a bit cumbersome.
So Tony Johnson built a browser that could run on Unix machines and display PDFs natively. It was an entire browser created to optimize the viewing of a single website, which is the kind of thing you could get away with doing back then. He called it MidasWWW, and it was a major hit among physicists.
Addis maintained the SLAC site, acting as its webmaster, until she retired in 1994. Though her tenure with the web was brief, she was deeply engaged in its future. She created the WWW Wizards, a group of individuals at SLAC that helped maintain not only the SLAC website, but aided in the development of the web, and helped out other researchers and academics coming online for the first time. They were active on message boards and contributed back whenever they could. Tim Berners-Lee may have created the web, but the folks at SLAC get their fair share of the credit for growing it.