Hunt for world’s oldest WWW page leads to UNC Chapel Hill

jmurawski@newsobserver.comMay 24, 2013 

A global quest to find the first World Wide Web page has led to an antique computer at UNC-Chapel Hill.

A primitive iteration of that World Wide Web home page, created about a year after the birth of the web, has been preserved on a NeXT computer at UNC-CH.

It contains no graphics, no sounds, no variety of fonts. The page features explanatory text, typed on a paper-white background. It’s embedded with the characteristic hyperlinks that would allow for multidimensional travel through the universe of digital data.

And it has been diligently preserved by UNC professor Paul Jones, who got a copy from the Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the scientist credited with inventing the World Wide Web.

Jones came forward this week to say he had the artifact after hearing an NPR story about the search.

The World Wide Web was created between 1989 and 1991 in Switzerland at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, to facilitate information exchanges between scientists and researchers. In 1993, CERN released it for public use without charging royalties. It was a utopian declaration of collaboration, universal access and decentralized control that made all competitors obsolete.

For the 20th anniversary of its decision to promote unfettered access, CERN is collecting hardware and software from the era. That’s when it became apparent that the original virtual document had been lost.

The beta page, it seems, was wiped out of existence as soon as the first revision was typed in. Dozens of early versions of the page vanished with each subsequent keystroke.

The news flabbergasted the online digerati. One commenter lamented that the world has preserved multiple copies of the six-century-old Gutenberg Bible but can’t find the maiden image of the World Wide Web.

“We don’t really know what the first one looked like,” said Dan Noyes, a web manager at CERN. “It may be impossible to get it back – it may be overwritten.”

For a technology that mocks the past and reveres the future, the obsession with a relic website is unabashed nostalgia.

“We have a fetishism for the original,” Jones declared. The “totemic value” of the archetype cannot be underestimated in an industry that moves at the speed of light, he said.

“It shows us where we came from and how far we’ve come,” he said.

The very first version is believed to date to 1990, Noyes said. That makes UNC-CH’s the closest known version to the original.

Jones got a copy the next year from Berners-Lee, a CERN physicist, who came to North Carolina to demonstrate his creation. At the time, Jones was helping UNC-CH to develop its own network, SunSITE.

Jones made a copy of Berners-Lee’s dummy page, which was stored on an optical floppy disc – called a “floptical” – and duplicated it on his NeXT computer. He made other duplicates to work on but left the original copy intact, he said. Within two years he realized he was in the possession of a historic artifact.

“The thing is, I’m a hoarder,” Jones said. “The nice way of saying this is, I’ve always had an interest in digital archiving.”

Another witness to the Berners-Lee demo, Judd Knott, said the demo didn’t make a particularly strong impression on him, but UNC-CH embraced the new technology.

“I remember he was a nice gentleman with a British accent,” said Knott, now UNC-CH’s information security manager. “He helped us put up the sixth web server in the world.”

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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