Before Netscape: The forgotten Web browsers of the early 1990s
8 - 10 minutes
Update: It's Memorial Day weekend here in the US, and the Ars staff has a long weekend accordingly. 2019 marks 30 years since Tim Berners-Lee worked at CERN and came up with a little idea known as the World Wide Web. As all of us do a little Web browsing this weekend, we thought resurfacing this piece outlining those early browsers might make all of us even appreciate Internet Explorer today. This story originally ran on Oct 11, 2011, and it appears unchanged below.
When Tim Berners-Lee arrived at CERN, Geneva's celebrated European Particle Physics Laboratory in 1980, the enterprise had hired him to upgrade the control systems for several of the lab's particle accelerators. But almost immediately, the inventor of the modern webpage noticed a problem: thousands of people were floating in and out of the famous research institute, many of them temporary hires.
"The big challenge for contract programmers was to try to understand the systems, both human and computer, that ran this fantastic playground," Berners-Lee later wrote. "Much of the crucial information existed only in people's heads."
So in his spare time, he wrote up some software to address this shortfall: a little program he named Enquire. It allowed users to create "nodes"—information-packed index card-style pages that linked to other pages. Unfortunately, the PASCAL application ran on CERN's proprietary operating system. "The few people who saw it thought it was a nice idea, but no one used it. Eventually, the disk was lost, and with it, the original Enquire."
Some years later Berners-Lee returned to CERN. This time he relaunched his "World Wide Web" project in a way that would more likely secure its success. On August 6, 1991, he published an explanation of WWW on the alt.hypertext usegroup. He also released a code library, libWWW, which he wrote with his assistant Jean-François Groff. The library allowed participants to create their own Web browsers.
"Their efforts—over half a dozen browsers within 18 months—saved the poorly funded Web project and kicked off the Web development community," notes a commemoration of this project by the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. The best known early browser was Mosaic, produced by Marc Andreesen and Eric Bina at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA).
Mosaic was soon spun into Netscape, but it was not the first browser. A map assembled by the Museum offers a sense of the global scope of the early project. What's striking about these early applications is that they had already worked out many of the features we associate with later browsers. Here is a tour of World Wide Web viewing applications, before they became famous.
The CERN browsers
Tim Berners-Lee's original 1990 WorldWideWeb browser was both a browser and an editor. That was the direction he hoped future browser projects would go. CERN has put together a reproduction of its formative content. As you can see in the screenshot below, by 1993 it offered many of the characteristics of modern browsers.
The software's biggest limitation was that it ran on the NeXTStep operating system. But shortly after WorldWideWeb, CERN mathematics intern Nicola Pellow wrote a line mode browser that could function elsewhere, including on UNIX and MS-DOS networks. Thus "anyone could access the web," explains Internet historian Bill Stewart, "at that point consisting primarily of the CERN phone book."
Erwise came next. It was written by four Finnish college students in 1991 and released in 1992. Erwise is credited as the first browser that offered a graphical interface. It could also search for words on pages.
Berners-Lee wrote a review of Erwise in 1992. He noted its ability to handle various fonts, underline hyperlinks, let users double-click them to jump to other pages, and to host multiple windows.
"Erwise looks very smart," he declared, albeit puzzling over a "strange box which is around one word in the document, a little like a selection box or a button. It is neither of these—perhaps a handle for something to come."
So why didn't the application take off? In a later interview, one of Erwise's creators noted that Finland was mired in a deep recession at the time. The country was devoid of angel investors.
"We could not have created a business around Erwise in Finland then," he explained. "The only way we could have made money would have been to continue our developing it so that Netscape might have finally bought us. Still, the big thing is, we could have reached the initial Mosaic level with relatively small extra work. We should have just finalized Erwise and published it on several platforms."
ViolaWWW was released in April of 1992. Developer Pei-Yuan Wei wrote it at the University of California at Berkeley via his UNIX-based Viola programming/scripting language. No, Pei Wei didn't play the viola, "it just happened to make a snappy abbreviation" of Visually Interactive Object-oriented Language and Application, write James Gillies and Robert Cailliau in their history of the World Wide Web.
Wei appears to have gotten his inspiration from the early Mac program HyperCard, which allowed users to build matrices of formatted hyper-linked documents. "HyperCard was very compelling back then, you know graphically, this hyperlink thing," he later recalled. But the program was "not very global and it only worked on Mac. And I didn't even have a Mac."
But he did have access to UNIX X-terminals at UC Berkeley's Experimental Computing Facility. "I got a HyperCard manual and looked at it and just basically took the concepts and implemented them in X-windows." Except, most impressively, he created them via his Viola language.
One of the most significant and innovative features of ViolaWWW was that it allowed a developer to embed scripts and "applets" in the browser page. This anticipated the huge wave of Java-based applet features that appeared on websites in the later 1990s.
In his documentation, Wei also noted various "misfeatures" of ViolaWWW, most notably its inaccessibility to PCs.
Not ported to PC platform.
HTML Printing is not supported.
HTTP is not interruptable, and not multi-threaded.
Proxy is still not supported.
Language interpreter is not multi-threaded.
"The author is working on these problems... etc," Wei acknowledged at the time. Still, "a very neat browser useable by anyone: very intuitive and straightforward," Berners-Lee concluded in his review of ViolaWWW. "The extra features are probably more than 90% of 'real' users will actually use, but just the things which an experienced user will want."
In September of 1991, Stanford Linear Accelerator physicist Paul Kunz visited CERN. He returned with the code necessary to set up the first North American Web server at SLAC. "I've just been to CERN," Kunz told SLAC's head librarian Louise Addis, "and I found this wonderful thing that a guy named Tim Berners-Lee is developing. It's just the ticket for what you guys need for your database."
Addis agreed. The site's head librarian put the research center's key database over the Web. Fermilab physicists set up a server shortly after.
Then over the summer of 1992 SLAC physicist Tony Johnson wrote Midas, a graphical browser for the Stanford physics community. The big draw for Midas users was that it could display postscript documents, favored by physicists because of their ability to accurately reproduce paper-scribbled scientific formulas.
"With these key advances, Web use surged in the high energy physics community," concluded a 2001 Department of Energy assessment of SLAC's progress.
Meanwhile, CERN associates Pellow and Robert Cailliau released the first Web browser for the Macintosh computer. Gillies and Cailliau narrate Samba's development.
For Pellow, progress in getting Samba up and running was slow, because after every few links it would crash and nobody could work out why. "The Mac browser was still in a buggy form,' lamented Tim [Berners-Lee] in a September '92 newsletter. 'A W3 T-shirt to the first one to bring it up and running!" he announced. The T shirt duly went to Fermilab's John Streets, who tracked down the bug, allowing Nicola Pellow to get on with producing a usable version of Samba.
Samba "was an attempt to port the design of the original WWW browser, which I wrote on the NeXT machine, onto the Mac platform," Berners-Lee adds, "but was not ready before NCSA [National Center for Supercomputing Applications] brought out the Mac version of Mosaic, which eclipsed it."
Mosaic was "the spark that lit the Web's explosive growth in 1993," historians Gillies and Cailliau explain. But it could not have been developed without forerunners and the NCSA's University of Illinois offices, which were equipped with the best UNIX machines. NCSA also had Dr. Ping Fu, a PhD computer graphics wizard who had worked on morphing effects for Terminator 2. She had recently hired an assistant named Marc Andreesen.
"How about you write a graphical interface for a browser?" Fu suggested to her new helper. "What's a browser?" Andreesen asked. But several days later NCSA staff member Dave Thompson gave a demonstration of Nicola Pellow's early line browser and Pei Wei's ViolaWWW. And just before this demo, Tony Johnson posted the first public release of Midas.
The latter software set Andreesen back on his heels. "Superb! Fantastic! Stunning! Impressive as hell!" he wrote to Johnson. Then Andreesen got NCSA Unix expert Eric Bina to help him write their own X-browser.
Mosaic offered many new web features, including support for video clips, sound, forms, bookmarks, and history files. "The striking thing about it was that unlike all the earlier X-browsers, it was all contained in a single file," Gillies and Cailliau explain:
Installing it was as simple as pulling it across the network and running it. Later on Mosaic would rise to fame because of the <IMG> tag that allowed you to put images inline for the first time, rather than having them pop up in a different window like Tim's original NeXT browser did. That made it easier for people to make Web pages look more like the familiar print media they were use to; not everyone's idea of a brave new world, but it certainly got Mosaic noticed.
"What I think Marc did really well," Tim Berners-Lee later wrote, "is make it very easy to install, and he supported it by fixing bugs via e-mail any time night or day. You'd send him a bug report and then two hours later he'd mail you a fix."
Perhaps Mosaic's biggest breakthrough, in retrospect, was that it was a cross-platform browser. "By the power vested in me by nobody in particular, X-Mosaic is hereby released," Andreeson proudly declared on the www-talk group on January 23, 1993. Aleks Totic unveiled his Mac version a few months later. A PC version came from the hands of Chris Wilson and Jon Mittelhauser.
The Mosaic browser was based on Viola and Midas, the Computer History museum's exhibit notes. And it used the CERN code library. "But unlike others, it was reliable, could be installed by amateurs, and soon added colorful graphics within Web pages instead of as separate windows."
A guy from Japan
But Mosaic wasn't the only innovation to show up on the scene around that same time. University of Kansas student Lou Montulli adapted a campus information hypertext browser for the Internet and Web. It launched in March, 1993. "Lynx quickly became the preferred web browser for character mode terminals without graphics, and remains in use today," historian Stewart explains.
And at Cornell University's Law School, Tom Bruce was writing a Web application for PCs, "since those were the computers that lawyers tended to use," Gillies and Cailliau observe. Bruce unveiled his browser Cello on June 8, 1993, "which was soon being downloaded at a rate of 500 copies a day."
Six months later, Andreesen was in Mountain View, California, his team poised to release Mosaic Netscape on October 13, 1994. He, Totic, and Mittelhauser nervously put the application up on an FTP server. The latter developer later recalled the moment. "And it was five minutes and we're sitting there. Nothing has happened. And all of a sudden the first download happened. It was a guy from Japan. We swore we'd send him a T shirt!"
But what this complex story reminds is that is that no innovation is created by one person. The Web browser was propelled into our lives by visionaries around the world, people who often didn't quite understand what they were doing, but were motivated by curiosity, practical concerns, or even playfulness. Their separate sparks of genius kept the process going. So did Tim Berners-Lee's insistence that the project stay collaborative and, most importantly, open.
"The early days of the web were very hand-to-mouth," he writes. "So many things to do, such a delicate flame to keep alive."
Tim Berners-Lee, Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web
James Gillies and R. Cailliau, How the web was born