Online appeal unearths historic web page

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Copy of early web page
Image caption,
The word is misspelt because Sir Tim demonstrated the web's editing functions

A search to recover the very first web page has unearthed a relic from 1991.

The page turned up after Cern launched a public appeal for files, hardware and software from the web's earliest days.

The original page is missing because the web's creators did not preserve the early work they did on what has become a historic document.

Unfortunately, other potential finds on the computer the data was recovered from remain hidden because a password for it has been forgotten.

Demo mode

Cern, where web creators Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau carried out their early work, launched its project to recover artefacts and documents from those earliest days in late April. The information it discovers will be used to create an online exhibit that lets people experience what the web used to be like.

The files and data for those first pages have been lost because of the way the men worked as they were developing the technology.

"When they updated they just replaced and over-wrote the file," said Dan Noyes, web manager at Cern's communications group. In addition, he said, the pair had no idea that what they were doing would be so influential and saw no need to keep copies.

Work on the web began in 1989 and the first webpage was put together in 1990 but, said Mr Noyes, there is no copy of that page at Cern. The oldest copies it has date from 1992.

The public appeal to recover it has borne fruit, he said, as it has unearthed a copy of the webpage demonstrated by Sir Tim in 1991 as he was trying to drum up support for the idea of the world wide web.

Image caption,
Early development work on the web was done on a Next computer

In those days, said Mr Noyes, Sir Tim carried round a disk on which he had built a demonstration of how the web would work. He had to do it that way because back then net connections were not as ubiquitous as they are now.

Thankfully one of the people he showed it to while in the US for the Hypertext 91 conference kept a copy. This was largely because, said Mr Noyes, he had one of the same types of machine, a Next computer, that Sir Tim used for the demo.

One of the words in the opening lines of the demo page is scrambled because Sir Tim demonstrated the live editing capabilities of the web to Paul Jones - owner of the Next computer on which the page was preserved.

There might well be more relics from the web's earliest days on Mr Jones' machine, he said, but for the moment they remain hidden because the password for the computer's hard drive has been forgotten.

However, he said, work was underway to recover the password and get at the files on the drive.

In addition, said Mr Noyes, Cern staff are now going through the huge mass of material and offers gathered from the public appeal.

"It's a little bit overwhelming," he said. "We have so much stuff to look at."

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