Birth Of The Cool

Every so often, a ClickZ reader comes across Greg’s bio and sends an email inquiring about a specific line item: his involvement with the first web site in the U.S.

One reader, confusing the Internet for the web, protested that the first web sites were launched 30 years ago ( But the rest are just curious about the web’s origins in the New World circa 1991.

Back then, Greg was working as a software engineer (who were about as in-demand as Lyme disease at the time) at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, or SLAC.

This Stanford University, high-energy physics research facility is home to many moped-riding physicists who sport gravity-defying hairstyles and play with anti-matter and other sub-atomic particles that haven’t been found in nature since the Big Bang — or at least since Senator Strom Thurmond was in junior high.

At SLAC, Greg collaborated with particle and accelerator physicists from all over the world on projects hosted at SLAC’s facilities. This is an important point: While there are particle physicists located at academic centers throughout the world, the facilities where they can test their theories are few and far between.

In 1990 at a Swiss sister facility — called the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, or CERN — a certain Tim Berners-Lee invented what we know as the web. The World Wide Web Project, as it was initially called, was funded to facilitate international collaboration among physicists who wanted to more easily share papers and research over the Internet.

Check, One-Two. Is This Thing On?

In that spirit, SLAC launched the first U.S. web site in May of 1991 — running the CERN web server on an IBM mainframe. The pioneers responsible included the unheralded likes of Bebo White, arguably America’s first webmaster, and Tony Johnson, a pony-tailed, sandal-wearing researcher who invented the Midas browser months before NCSA’s Mosaic appeared.

While Mosaic propelled Marc Andreesen to the status of web poster boy with the founding of Mosaic Communications Corporation (later renamed “Netscape”), today Mr. White and Mr. Johnson continue to happily collide particles at SLAC – free and clear of the Internet’s IPO arms race.

These early web pioneers were a humble lot, but then they had reason to be. The launch of the first U.S. web site was even more of a non-event than Geraldo Rivera’s live embarrassment over Al Capone’s vault. By today’s standards, the web’s first sites were unrecognizably primitive.

As Tim Bray, co-editor of the XML specification, put it in a 1998 interview, “The web is essentially FTP with pictures today.”

Except that in 1991, you could forget about pictures. Web pages with inline images were still two years off, and (originally titled “WIRED Magazine’s Rest Stop on the Infobahn”) wouldn’t feature the first ad banner until four years later.

It wouldn’t be until 1993 — when Yahoo was simply known as “Jerry Yang’s Guide to WWW” [sic] — that people started to recognize the web for its true potential.

And This Affects Me… How?

There are a few lessons to this brief history. For one, being first isn’t everything. The pioneering work and technology of 1991 are irrelevant to today’s web. Another eight years from now, we may be saying the same things about the web of 1999.

The web is already littered with many examples of bold, first-mover advantages that succumbed to superior vision, resources, and execution. Netscape couldn’t hold off Microsoft. CDnow sold out to Columbia House.

Many online businesses are currently experiencing transitional, but non-sustainable, market advantages. So as the brick and mortar businesses stumble online, today’s market leaders will do well to take their threats seriously.

Another lesson is best illustrated in a story told by Martin Perl, SLACker and winner of the 1995 Nobel Prize in physics. Addressing fellow coworkers about the road to scientific discovery, he showed various magazine covers of Popular Mechanics and Popular Science from the 30’s and 40’s. While many featured the coming of the home robot, Dr. Perl pointed out that nowhere was a mention of the semiconductor, the computer, or the Internet.

For all the changes brought by the Internet thus far, the greatest are yet to come.

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