Where the Web Was Born

We visit graves to remember the past, but where do you go when we want to remember the future?

Well . . . Switzerland.

I always say that travel is very personal and that our most cherished travel dreams often lead us to very remote places with personal meaning. Birdwatchers go to the ends of the earth for that one elusive bird, history buffs travel to famous battlefields, and grandmothers will go almost anywhere as long as there’s a grandchild at the end of the road.

As National Geographic’s Digital Nomad, I longed to visit the place where it all began, that land where the internet was born: Switzerland. (Yes, Switzerland!)

Now hold it, wait—hold on a second. Before all the computer geeks and IT pedants start ripping me to pieces (in the comments, please), let me explain: I am fully aware that “the internet” evolved slowly from the 1960’s and we Americans (who love saying how we invented everything) can legitimately take lots of credit for inventing the intricate computer networks that became the internet (thank you UCLA and so on)—

However . . . none of that really meant anything to the rest of us until the World Wide Web came along. Without the web and its use of hypertext (HTML, URL’s, and http://) there would be no internet for 99.9% of us. There would be no websites (as we know them) and heaven forbid—there would be no blogs (gasp!).

The fact is, the World Wide Web was born at CERN (European Organization
for Nuclear Research), just outside of Geneva, spanning the very casual French-Swiss border.

It was Sir Tim Berners-Lee who first had the idea to use hypertext transfer protocol (http) to communicate between different servers on the internet. In March 1989 (when I was just a lad), CERN scientist Tim Berners-Lee submitted a proposal for the World Wide Web to his boss, who returned it with this brief comment: “Vague but exciting . . . ”

On Christmas Day, 1990, Tim and his colleague Robert Cailliau breathed life into the World Wide Web by sending a “page” from CERN via the internet. Few know that the web only came to America the following year, when Paul Kunz brought the software from Switzerland to Stanford. The rest is history—a history that all of us share, especially if you are reading this on a computer.

The web has changed humanity more than any invention I know. We are connected in ways that none of us thought possible twenty years ago. Knowledge is more universal than ever before and every day billions of people connect online.

That such a tool was ever invented is worthy of a pilgrimage, which is why I went straight from the Geneva airport to nearby CERN. The world’s largest center for nuclear research is comprised of several different campuses scattered across a patchwork of farmers’ fields. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but CERN actually looks like a hospital (inside and out): grey, clean, and circumspect.

I was led through the standard visitor’s tour, beginning with lunch in the cafeteria where I mingled with some of the thousands of students who spend their summers analyzing the nanosecond plotlines of shattered atomic particles.

I knew about CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LRC)—I had read about the world’s largest particle accelerator that shoots protons around a 27 km underground ring and then destroys them. I’d heard the recent buzz about the Higg’s field and how at CERN they’ve found a way to produce anti-matter. It is all quite interesting, but it did not change the fact that all I really wanted to see what where the internet started.

After several hours of supercollider saturation, I discovered that the monument to the World Wide Web is not part of the standard tour—or any tour! That’s because there is no monument to the birth of the World Wide Web. It’s shocking—I am still shocked.

I live in Washington, DC where we have monuments to just about every war, person, cause and obscure movement that’s ever existed—but here in Switzerland, at the very place where an idea changed the universe and all humanity—there is no monument.

“Really, you guys don’t have any monument to the web?” I asked my guide. “Because you should.”

“We have a plaque!” he replied, which I guess is better than nothing. I was lucky, too, because my guide turned out to be Mick Storr, a British physicist who was working in the same office with Tim Berners-Lee when the web was first launched way back in 1990. Even though he had another group to take around, he sensed my discontent and kindly offered to show me the office where it all began.

I followed him into CERN Building One through bare, fluorescent-lit hallways that looked like some Sci-Fi bunker—and then there we were, standing in front of a plaque that read: “Where the Web Was Born”.

As if I was standing inside some hallowed cathedral, I whispered the first line of the plague: In the offices of this corridor, all the fundamental technologies of the World Wide Web were developed.

Mick walked past me and tapped on one of the doors. “This was Tim’s office, right here. This is where the web began. I was sharing it with him at the time, working on system support. We had three black NeXT cubes, and Tim was using one of them as the first server for the web.”

I stood in awe at the doorway of Office 005. A poster of Yosemite National Park was taped across the glass and when I opened it up, I saw three scientists, all tapping away at their computers, in the dark.

They looked up from their work and stared at me as I took a picture of the most non-descript room on earth—a room where an idea was born that changed everything.

“Did you know that the web was invented here?” Mick asked the visiting scientists.

“What, in this room?” one of them asked.

“Yes, right where you’re sitting,” he answered. And like that, the scientist got up, walked out the door and took a picture just like I had done.

We all listened to Mick as he recounted how he remembered it happening—how it was just a way for scientists to share research really, connecting computers to one another.

“The real beauty of what Tim did was sticking it in the public domain. All kinds of people were figuring out ways to charge people for access to something like the web, but he said it should be free. So he built it and by the time the business people got around to it, it was too late. The web was already out there for everyone.”

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Yes, indeed it was, and today it still is. The web is out there for everyone and it all began in this little office in this boring building in the middle of a Swiss field.

Today, Tim’s original proposal for the World Wide Web is behind glass at CERN’s visitors’ center, along with the web’s first server, with the sticker label still attached that reads, “This is a server! Do not power down.”

This is where I take issue with particle physicists—they are just too darn understated and modest. They go to work and build anti-matter and collide protons and unravel the universe for us, but most of the folks I met at CERN were very ho-hum about it.

And when I talked about a monument to the web—a place that all humanity can come and visit in Switzerland, where they can celebrate the digital age and the way it has brought us together more than any kind of United Nations or League of Nations (also invented in Geneva)—the scientists looked at me as if to say, why?

Because the web is monumental and it was born at CERN, that’s why.

I’m not sure what such a memorial would look like—perhaps a gigantic sculpture fashioned from several thousand discarded laptops, or perhaps some kind of digital monument that’s housed at CERN but allows everyone everywhere to visit online. Either way, I would like to propose that such a monument be built—a monument to the birth of the web—in Switzerland (I’ll bring flowers).

Perhaps CERN doesn’t need any more visitors. They are very busy there, doing important things and unlocking the secrets of life. Most of us have no clue what they’re actually doing there, and yet we use their technology every single day. Think about that next time you get online—that if it was not for a scientist in a dark room in a long hallway in Switzerland, you wouldn’t be reading this, about to click to something else.

So consider this post as my semi-official proposal for a physical monument to the internet we use and where it all began—at CERN. It’s just an idea, but as Sir Tim Berners-Lee intended, I am using the internet to spread the idea.

Meanwhile, I have one more definition to add to my Swiss dictionary:

Switzerland 1. (noun) Vague but exciting. 2. Where the web was born.

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