The birth of the Web as seen by a Staff Association delegate

As you certainly know by now, the web (WWW) was invented at CERN in 1989 by Tim Berners-Lee.

Tony Cass has been a member of the Staff Association since he came to CERN in 1987, appreciating its role in defending staff rights and its contributions to the running and development of CERN. Tony got elected in 2017 as a staff delegate and we are happy to count him in our ranks in the Staff Council.

After working for some time in the program library and supporting the CERNVM system, Tony contributed to the introduction of desktop-based interactive computer systems, for which he later became responsible. His responsibilities gradually extended to all interactive, batch and storage systems, and he was also responsible for the modernization and upgrading of the data center.

After leading the Database Services Group, Tony is now responsible for CERN's network, telephony and digital radio services as Head of the IT Communications Systems Group.

Today, he gives us a very personal testimony of this great era of the birth of the World-Wide Web.

As a youngish young CERN staff member in 1989, the dawn of the Web passed me by. I was too busy making sure Federico Carminati’s never-ending stream of GEANT3 updates and fixes compiled on all platforms under the sun. Or worrying that I’d be woken up by a failure of the IBM backup system in the middle of the night. There was no easy remote access then. If the problem wasn’t trivial enough to fix via using the Minitel’s terminal emulator there was no alternative but the drive to CERN. Frequently, the drive to CERN was quicker.

Even when WWW first came to my attention, it was with the line mode browser. I doubt even Nicola Pellow would call that attractive and it was even more unprepossessing on a fixed size IBM 3270 display. Here, I have to give a quick mention to Rainer Többicke who produced the wizardry that delivered virtual 3270 displays in the mid 80’s—why did it take so long for Windows to support virtual desktops?

One person who did spot the potential was Bernd Pollermann. Bernd was responsible for the help system on the IBM and was forever trying to figure out why people couldn’t find the information they wanted and then adding the necessary keywords to the help files. A bit like Google including results for “cheap Adelaide” when you search for “CHEP Adelaide”. Bernd quickly spotted the web’s potential for making information findable and enabling people to explore topics in more detail. Bernd also, like Google, valued speed. I was responsible for an assembler I/O package and, at his request, wrote a stripped down version with an unfriendly but efficient interface and no error checking. A task-specific API it’d be called now but we didn’t have such terms back then.

My next recollection is of a presentation by Tim himself in 1992 or 1993. I was sitting at the back of the IT auditorium as usual. This was before Frédéric Hemmer and I started vying for the precious aisle seat by the left-hand entrance, though. In those days that seat was reserved for the ever-active Tony Osborne—he somehow managed to juggle roles as Deputy Division Leader, account & accounting overlord and CPLear software expert. Anyway, back to the story. I don’t much remember the presentation but I do remember Harry Renshall suggesting at the end that Tim should develop a browser for the X Window system. Tim wasn’t interested, explaining, I think, that there would be no possibility to author content. Personally, I think the complexity of X Window was reason enough. Even in an era when I had a wall full, the metre-long set of X Windows manuals was scary. I kept my programming studies to, and I’m sure it will surprise members of my current group to hear this, the works of Richard Stevens.

Over at NCSA, though, there was a bunch of people who didn’t have Tim’s purity of vision (or *blink*taste*/blink*) and weren’t scared by complexity. The rest, as they say, is history.

Or almost. Tim was in the same group as me in his last years at CERN. I was at a conference with his then Section Leader, Judy Richards, when she was astounded to find she had a secret person in her team. It was, of course, Arthur Secret, but it seems, with hindsight, to have been a harbinger of the separation between the Web and the place it was born.

by Staff Association