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1991: Tim Berners-Lee Tries to Convert the Hypertext Faithful

Posted On 7/5/2022

After a year and a half of stalling from CERN management, followed by a flurry of development activity over the final quarter of 1990, Tim Berners-Lee and his close colleague Robert Cailliau must’ve hoped the momentum they’d gathered at the end of 1990 would continue into the new year. They were sadly mistaken. This passage from Berners-Lee’s book,Weaving the Web, shows his growing frustration with CERN:

“As the new year unfolded, Robert and I encouraged people in the Computing and Networking division to try the system. They didn’t seem to see how it would be useful.”

Despite the lack of interest from the rest of CERN, Berners-Lee and his small group of disciples continued to iterate on the fledgling World Wide Web. As noted in the previous post, CERN intern Nicola Pellow had begun developing a Web client for a non-NeXT platform by the end of 1990. It was a plain text ASCII browser, which they termed “line-mode,” and it was designed to even work on a Teletype machine. This was ready for testing “by spring 1991” (between March and May) according to a book published in 2000 by Cailliau and James Gillies.

What the Web looked like in the line-mode browser; source: CERN Computer Newsletter, Oct-Nov 91

Over the next eight months, wrote Berners-Lee in his book, “Robert, Nicola and I refined the basic pieces of the Web and tried to promote what we were creating.”

He eventually managed to convince one CERN staffer,Bernd Pollermann, to put the organisation’s phone book onto the Web.Pollermann, in fact, produced a new web server to connect to other computing databases at CERN.

In August, Nicola Pellow left CERN to return to college. She was replaced by Jean-Francois Groff, who did various technical and promotional tasks for the Web. In an oral history by the Computer History Museum, Groff said that his main task “was porting all the software libraries, I mean the software components that were on the NeXT system, into a universal code library that was written in C.”

Tim Berners-Lee with Nicola Pellow, developer of the line-mode browser; Source: CERN

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