Web History 101: A Brief History of the World Wide Web

The Birth of the Web: How Did The World Wide Web Get Started?

Going online....the Web....getting on the Internet....these are all terms that we're quite familiar with. Entire generations now have grown up with the Web as a ubiquitous presence in our lives, from using it to find information on any subject you can possibly think of, to getting directions via GPS delivered via geolocation to our smartphones, finding people we've lost touch with, even shopping online and getting anything we want to be delivered to our front door. It's amazing to look back just a few short decades to see how far we've come, but as much we're enjoying the Web as we know it now, it's equally important to keep in mind the technology and pioneers that got us to where we are today. In this article, we'll take a brief look at this fascinating journey. 

The Web, officially launched as an offshoot of the Internet in 1989, has not been around that long. However, it has become a huge part of many people’s lives; enabling them to communicate, work, and play in a global context. The Web is all about relationships and has made these relationships possible between individuals, groups, and communities where they wouldn’t have been otherwise. This Web is a community without borders, limits, or even rules; and has become a true world of its own.

One of the world's most successful experiments

The Web is a giant experiment, a global theory, that has, amazingly enough, worked pretty well. Its history illustrates the ways that technological advancement and innovation can move along unintended paths. Originally, the Web and the Internet were created to be part of a military strategy, and not meant for private use. However, as in many experiments, theories, and plans, this didn’t actually happen.


More than any technical definition, the Web is a way that people communicate. The Internet, which is what the Web is laid down upon, started in the 1950’s as an experiment by the Department of Defense. They wanted to come up with something that would enable secure communications between various military units. However, once this technology was out, there was no stopping it. Universities such as Harvard and Berkeley caught wind of this revolutionary technology and made important modifications to it, such as addressing the individual computers from which communications originated (otherwise known as IP addressing).

Instant access to people around the world

More than anything else, the Internet made people realize that communicating just by snail mail was less effective (not to mention much slower) than free email on the Web. The possibilities of worldwide communication were mind-boggling to people when the Web was just getting started. Nowadays, we think nothing of emailing our aunts in Germany (and getting an answer back within minutes) or seeing the latest streaming music video. The Internet and the Web have revolutionized the way we communicate; not only with individuals but with the world as well.

Are there rules on the Web? 

All the systems on the Web work together, some better than others, but while there are many different systems on the Web, none of them are governed by any special rules. This system, as large and wonderful as it might be, has no specific oversight; which gives some users an unfair advantage. Access to it is not necessarily distributed democratically throughout the world at large.

The Web has united people all over the world, but what happens when some folks have access to this technology and others don’t? Right now, all over the world, approximately 605 million people have access to the Web. Even though this technology has already united so many people and has the potential to unite so much more, it’s not a catch-all utopian solution to making the world a better place. Social changes and improvements, such as making technology more accessible to people, have to happen before the Web can make any kind of progress.

Does everyone have access to the Web?

Someone without a computer can’t “google it”; someone without access to the Web can’t download the latest ring tones for their PDA; but most of all, someone without Web access is not able to compete in the global marketplace of ideas or commerce. The Web is a revolutionary technology, but not everyone can access it. As the Web continues to grow, more and more people are gaining access to this information.It’s up to each one of us to learn how to harness this power and use it effectively in our own lives and enable those who do not have access to it in order for them to be able to compete on a more level playing field.

How Did The Web Get Started? An Early History

In the late 1980’s, a CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) scientist named Tim Berners-Lee came up with the idea of hypertext, information that was “linked” to another set of information.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee's idea was more of convenience than anything else; he just wanted the researchers at CERN to be able to communicate more easily via a single informational network, instead of many smaller networks that were not linked with one another in any sort of universal way. The idea was completely born out of necessity. 

Here’s the original announcement of the technology that changed the world from Tim Berners-Lee to the alt.hypertext newsgroup he chose to debut it in. At the time, no one had any idea how much this seemingly small idea would go on to change the world we live in:

"The WorldWideWeb (WWW) project aims to allow links to be made to any information anywhere. [...] The WWW project was started to allow high energy physicists to share data, news, and documentation. We are very interested in spreading the web to other areas and having gateway servers, Google Groups, for other data. Collaborators welcome!" - source


One of Tim Berners-Lee's idea includes hypertext technology. This hypertext technology included hyperlinks, which enabled users to peruse information from any linked network merely by clicking on a link. These links make up the superstructure of the Web; without them, the Web simply would not exist. 

How did the Web grow so fast?

One of the biggest reasons that the Web grew as fast as it did was the freely distributed technology behind it. Tim Berners-Lee managed to persuade CERN to provide the web technology and program code absolutely for free so that anyone could use it, improve it, tweak it, innovate it – you name it.

Obviously, this concept took off in a big way. From CERN’s hallowed research halls, the idea of hyperlinked information went first to other institutions in Europe, then to Stanford University, then Web servers began popping up all over the place. According to the BBC’s write up of Web history at Fifteen Years of the Web, the growth of the Web in 1993 annual growth was at an utterly staggering 341,634% as compared to the previous year.

Are the Web and the Internet the same thing?

The Internet and the World Wide Web (WWW) are terms that to most people mean about the same thing. While they are related, their definitions are different.

What is the Internet?

The Internet is at its most basic definition an electronic communications network. It is the structure on which the World Wide Web is based.

What is the World Wide Web?

The World Wide Web is a part of the Internet "designed to allow easier navigation through the use of graphical user interfaces and hypertext links between different addresses" (source: Websters).

The World Wide Web was created in 1989 by Tim Berners-Lee and continues to change and expand rapidly. The Web is the user part of the Internet. People use the Web to communicate and access information for business and recreational purposes.

The Internet and the Web work together, but they are not the same thing. The Internet provides the underlying structure, and the Web utilizes that structure to offer content, documents, multimedia, etc.

Did Al Gore really create the Internet?

One of the most persistent urban myths in the last ten years has been that of former Vice President Al Gore being part of the invention of the Internet as we know it today. The reality is not necessarily as cut and dried as this; it's much less exciting. 

Here are his exact words: “During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet.” Taken out of context, it certainly does appear that he’s taking credit for inventing something that he really didn’t; however, it’s just awkward phrasing that coupled with the rest of his statement (mostly focused on economic growth) actually does make sense. If you want to read what was said (along with background information) in its' entirety, you'll want to check out this resource: Al Gore "invented the Internet" - resources.

It’s interesting to speculate on how things would be different had Berners-Lee and CERN decided NOT to be so magnanimous! The idea of information – all kinds of information – being instantly accessible from anywhere on Earth was an idea too captivating not to experience the intensely viral growth that the Web has experienced since its inception, and there seems to be no stopping it anytime soon.

Early Web history: Timeline

The World Wide Web was officially introduced to the world on August 6, 1991, by Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Here are some Web history highlights as originally referenced from the BBC.

  • 1957: The United States Department of Defense formed a small agency called ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency) to develop military science and technology.
  • 1961-1965: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) started to research sharing information in small, phone-linked networks. ARPA is one of their main sponsors.
  • 1966: The first ARPANET plan is unveiled by Larry Roberts of MIT. Packet switching technology is getting off the ground, and small university networks are beginning to be developed.
  • 1969: The Department of Defense commissions the fledgling ARPAnet for network research. The first official network nodes were UCLA, Standford Research Institute, UCSB, and the University of Utah. The first node to node message was sent from UCLA to SRI.
  • 1971: more nodes join the network, bringing the total to 15. These new nodes include Harvard and NASA.
  • 1973: ARPAnet goes global when the University College of London and Norway's Royal Radar Establishment join up.
  • 1974: Network intercommunication is becoming more sophisticated; data is now transmitted more quickly and efficiently with the design of TCP (Transmission Control Program).
  • 1976: Unix is developed at AT and T; Queen Elizabeth sends out her first email message.
  • 1979: USENET, the mother of all networked discussion groups, is developed.
  • 1982: Internet technology protocols are developed, commonly known as TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol). This leads to one of the first definitions of an "internet" being a connected set of networks.
  • 1984: Number of hosts is now up to 1000, with more being added every day.
  • 1985: The first registered domain is Symbolics.com.
  • 1987: Number of hosts breaks the 10,000 mark.
  • 1988: First large-scale Internet worm affects thousands of Internet hosts.
  • 1991: Tim Berners-Lee develops the World Wide WebTim Berners-Lee formally introduced his project to the world on the alt.hypertext newsgroup. In the post, he said the project "aims to allow links to be made to any information anywhere". It did this by using hypertext a method for linking between different documents. Although invented many years earlier Mr. Berners-Lee's invention married hypertext with the internet. He also made available all of the files necessary for people to replicate his invention.
  • 1993: The World Wide Web's annual growth is now at a staggering 341,634%. Tim Berners-Lee managed to persuade CERN to provide the web technology and program code for free so that anyone could use and improve it. The decision is credited as one of the key reasons the web grew so quickly. The HTML markup language used to create webpages is released.
  • 1994: ARPAnet celebrates the 25th anniversary. Yahoo was started by Stanford University students David Filo and Jerry Yang. It was originally called "Jerry's Guide to the World Wide Web" a site featuring a hierarchical directory of other sites. It was renamed Yahoo soon after. The name stands for Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle. Some net ranking firms say that Yahoo is the most visited site on the web today. President Bill Clinton puts whitehouse.gov on the web.
  • 1995-1997: RealAudio introduces Internet streaming technology, dial-up systems emerge (America Online, Compuserve), the Internet backbone continues to be strengthened with the addition of MCI, Microsoft and Netscape fight for WWW browser supremacy, and there are now more than 70,000 mailing lists. The online bookstore was originally founded as Cadabra.com by Jeff Bezos in 1994. It was one of the first major companies to sell goods on the web. Although it started as an online bookstore it now sells music, electronics, furniture, and even food. Microsoft's Internet Explorer is released as part of Windows 95.
  • 1998: Google opens its first office in a garage in California. MySpace was originally an online storage and file sharing firm but was shut down in 2001. The social networking site in its present form launched in July 2003. It was set up 2003 by Tom Anderson, Chris DeWolfe, and a small team of programmers. MySpace now has close to 100 million users. The site lets users build a personalized home page, blogs, photos, music, and a messaging system. In 2005, media tycoon Rupert Murdoch paid 580m for the site. MySpace paved the way for other social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.
  • 1998-2000: The dot-com bubble had been growing since 1997. The excitement surrounding the web caused share prices to soar. In January 2000 it reached its peak when the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at a record level never reached before or since. On March 10 the NASDAQ Composite Index also reached an all-time high. Soon after, the markets began to crash and with it went many of the start-up companies bankrolled during the dot-com boom. Nearly 20 million websites online at this point.
  • 2000-2014: The "Wardrobe Malfunction" Becomes the Most Searched For Image in Web History: January 5, 2004. During a halftime show with Justin Timberlake at the Superbowl pop star, Janet Jackson had a "wardrobe malfunction". Following the event search engines reported a surge in searches for terms such as Janet Jackson and Super Bowl as people looked for images of the event. There are now 92615362 websites online.
  • 2016-future: According to Internet statistics, after reaching 1 billion websites in September of 2014, a milestone confirmed by NetCraft in its October 2014 Web Server Survey and that Internet Live Stats was the first to announce (see the tweet from the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee) the number of websites in the world has subsequently declined, reverting back to a level below 1 billion. This is due to the monthly fluctuations in the count of inactive websites. We do expect, however, to exceed 1 billion websites again sometime in 2016/2017, and to stabilize the count above this historic milestone in 2017/2018 (credit: InternetLiveStats.com). 

    The Web is part of our everyday lives

    Could you imagine your life without using the Web - no email, no access to breaking news, no up to the minute weather reports, no way to shop online, etc.? Probably you can't. We have grown to be dependent on this technology - it has transformed the way that we conduct out lives. Try to go one day without using the Web in some fashion-you'll probably be surprised at how much you depend on it.

    Always evolving and growing

    The Web can’t actually be tracked down, you can’t point at it and say “there it is!” The Web is a continual, ongoing process. It has never stopped replicating itself or progressing since the day it began, and it probably will keep evolving as long as people are around to keep developing it. It’s made up of personal relationships, business partnerships, and global associations. If the Web didn’t have these interpersonal relationships, it wouldn’t exist.

    The Growth of the Web

    The growth of the Web has been explosive, to say the very least. There are more people online than at any other point in history, and more people use the Web to shop than at any other time in history. This growth shows no sign of slowing down as more people are able to access the Web's seemingly limitless resources.