My World Wide Web Adventure

On this day, August 6, in 1991, Tim Berners-Lee first posted, on Usenet, a public invitation for collaboration with the WorldWideWeb project. WorldWideWeb is the first web browser and web page editor. The post started something that revolutionized modern life. You are using it right now.

Tim published the first website, which described the project itself, in December 1990. It was available on the Internet from the CERN network. Berners-Lee worked for CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) and he invented his service so that scientists could easily share and access information via the Internet.

The infrastructure of the Internet had been around for some years but it was a highly technical system known mostly to academics and scientists. Tim’s idea was to use the Net to connect documents with clickable links (hypertext) and make them searchable.

His August 6, 1991 post gave an explanation of the project, how people could use a browser and set up a web server, and get started with their own website. It had the simple but encouraging headline “Try it.”WorldWideWeb – the browser was later renamed Nexus to avoid confusion between the software and the World Wide Web itself.

The World Wide Web, which became known simply as the Web, is that www that used to be common to web addresses. It is what allows documents and other web resources to be accessed over the Internet. The first Web server was CERN HTTPd. We still see HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol) in addresses, more often now with an “s” at the end to show the site is secure – as in https://ronkowitzllc.com.

I met Tim Berners-Lee in 1997. My friend Steve Smith and I acted as advisors for a team of high school students in a website design competition sponsored by ThinkQuest. ThinkQuest was a global competition to create an educational website that was a collection of student-built educational sites. I never met the three students in person until we were given a first-place award and attended the awards ceremony in Washington, DC. Tim Berners-Lee was one of the speakers and presenters. I was quite awestruck to meet Tim and totally intimidated to ask any kind of technical question. It was only that year that I created my own first few websites.

The coaches and kids there from around the world had a pretty good idea of how important he was to the history of the world. Years later, a panel of eminent scientists, academics, writers, and world leaders were asked to make a list of 80 cultural moments that shaped the world. The invention of the World Wide Web was ranked number one. They said, “The fastest growing communications medium of all time, the Internet has changed the shape of modern life forever. We can connect with each other instantly, all over the world.”

The time we spent in DC was very interesting. Our website was called “The Motion Picture Industry: Behind-the-Scenes” and it contained sections on film history, the filmmaking process, interviews with film producers, several self-made short films, their production diary, a movie production simulation game, and a scriptwriting tool. Steve and I played no part in writing the code. That was the point of the competition. We acted as soundingboards and occasionally as “voices of reason.” The kids built the site. In fact, one member was much more advanced than either Steve or me.

The presenter for our category was supposed to be James L. Brooks, the director, producer, screenwriter, and co-founder of Gracie Films. His television and film work includes The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Roda, Taxi, The Simpsons, Broadcast News, As Good as It Gets, and Terms of Endearment. Unfortunately, he never made it there. Soccer great Mia Hamm and Berners-Lee filled in with the presenting part. Both of them were very nice to us.

But Brooks’ wife at the time, Holly, was there and we ended up hanging out with her. She had a brand new not-available-to-consumers digital video camera she was using. I pitched several ideas for The Simpsons (that never got on air) to that camera. Her friend for the weekend was Patty Smyth who was married to tennis bad boy John MacEnroe – but Steve and I knew her as the singer in the rock band Scandal. They were fun to hang out with. Probably more fun than James and John would have been.

We also got a special after-hours tour of the new Star Wars exhibit at the Smithsonian. In our tour group were Sonny Bono and his son. This was not the Sonny of Sonny & Cher days but the Sonny who had been mayor of Palm Springs and was then a Republican congressman from California. He made sure we knew that by wearing a leather bomber jacket with the seal of Congress embroidered on the back. Sonny corrected me on a comment I made about Boba Fett who was his son’s favorite character. Sonny died the following year in a skiing accident.

ThinkQuest was created in 1996 and in 2002 it was taken over by the Oracle Education Foundation and was known as Oracle ThinkQuest. I did several more teams including another winning team in ThinkQuest Jr. for middle school students that was comprised of one of my sons, two of his friends, and a student from the school where I was teaching. I believe the competition itself ended in 2008. The sites seem to have been taken down but I found an archive of parts of ThinkQuest on the Wayback Machine at archive.org and also some other references, including this one from Japan referencing our 1997 winner.

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Ken

A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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