Field of Science

The birth of the web

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Tim Berners-Lee In Italy we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the web. Internet was born in the early years of the 20th century at the end of 1980s at CERN. On 13rd March of 20 years ago Tim Berners-Lee (list of publications) with Robert Caillau and others propose a project to construct a scientific world network: the world-wide web.
Berners-Lee is a computer scientist, in particular expert in text editors, real-time software and communications. He is considered the most influencal scientists alive today, and he started to work on hypertextual systems in 1980 developing Enquire, and in 1989 he started the World-Wide Iniziative. Robert Caillau joined it in 1990 and in the next year arrived also Jean-Fran├žois Groff and Bernd Pollerman. The team laid the basis of the modern web with three papers: World-Wide Web: The information universe(6), World-Wide Web: An information infrastructure for high-energy physics(7), World-Wide Web(8).
In the first paper, published in a referred journal, the researchers begin in The Dream section with the following words:
Pick up your pen, mouse, or favorite pointing device and press it on a reference in this document —perhaps to the author's name, or organization, or some related work. Suppose you are then directly presented with the background material —other papers, the author's coordinates, the organization's address, and its entire telephone directory. Suppose each of these documents has the same property of being linked to other original documents all over the world. You would have at your fingertips all you need to know about electronic publishing, highenergy physics, or for that matter, Asian culture. If you are reading this article on paper, you can only dream, but read on.
The construction of Berners-Lee's group dream start in 1945 with the historical paper of Vannevar Bush, As we may think(1) where the american inventor laid the basis to construct a scientists' network through hypertexts. The way towards this system had another founding father, Douglas Engelbart(2). He is also an american inventor, with scandinavian origin, pioneer in the development of graphical user interfaces. And after Bush and Engelbart we arrive to Berners-Lee, Caillau and collegues.
The structure developed by Berners-Lee team is outlined by the following diagram:
From the first definition of the W3 model I would extract the following two points:
  • Indexes are documents, and so may themselves be found by searches and/or following links. An index is represented to the user by a "cover page" that describes the data indexed and the properties of the search engine.
  • The documents in the web do not have to exist as files; they can be "virtual" documents generated by a server in response to a query or document name. They can therefore represent views of databases, or snapshots of changing data (such as the weather forecasts, financial information, etc.).
In some way this structure is the good tools for scientists in order to write and share our papers and discussions in a most simple and complete way. In order to construct an architecture like it it is need develop three key points:
  • a common naming scheme for documents
  • common network access protocols
  • common data formats for hypertext
And these are the three elements that developers try to upgrade in present day.
At the other hand the social networks represent today the first sharing idea in Berners-Lee project (we must remember Berners-Lee's criticisms about social networks in general):
These architectures have assumed that users share a common application program running on computers (often of the same type) that share a common file system.
This architecture is based on two protocols: FTP (File Transfer Protocol), that allows access to web archives, and uploading and downloading documents(3, 6); NNTP (Network News Transfer Protocol), which is the protocol for access to newsgroups and reading the news(4, 6). Another important protocol is HTTP (HyperText Transfer Protocol), that needs to retrieve any information, not necessarily like hypertext, with the speed of a hyperlink(5, 7).
Others nonstandard protocols are WAIS (Wide Area Information Server) and Internet Gopher, the first to perform searches on servers(7), the second provides an information service distributed constituted by interconnected menu and files(7).
After the construction of the network, it's need to define documents in order to writing, indexing, searching, classifying in a very simple way. Starting from SGML it was developed HTML (HyperText Markup Language), a tagging scheme. In this way every part of the document is boxed between some tag that define the visible and invisible parts of the documents. So, with the same TeX's phylosophy(8), a web document is divided in a preambol, with all information about the html doc useful for viewing and indexing, and the visible part, with formatting tag, that defines paragraphs, tables, lists, menu, and so on.
Writing an hypertextual documents is more advantage than writing usual documents, not only for his power, that is evident when readers have the ability to create links, but also for the following benefits(7):
  • One never needs to write something twice, or copy it, as a reference will do just as well;
  • Because data is not copied, it is less likely to be out of date;
  • One can represent one's own view of the world, and connect it to other people's data.
The starting point of the proposal is the idea to simplify the scientific comunication and ideas' circulation, in particular in high-energy physics, a world in which
Authors can create documents by simply typing files (in plain text, using hypertext SGML markup or a W3 editor) and linking them into the Web.(8)
The system was tested at CERN using the NEXT machine with NEXT-Step OS(6), the project developed by Steve Jobs when he didn't work at Apple.
(1) On Wikipedia (1945)
(2) Douglas Engelbart. Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework (1962)
(3) J. Postel, J. Reynolds. File Transfer Protocol (1985)
(4) Kantor, Brian e Phil Lapsley. Network News Transfer Protocol: A Proposed Standard for the Stream-Based Transmission of News (1986)
(5) Tim Berners-Lee. The Original HTTP as defined in 1991
(6) Berners-Lee, T., Cailliau, R., Groff, J., & Pollermann, B. (1992). World-Wide Web: The Information Universe Internet Research, 2 (1), 52-58 DOI: 10.1108/eb047254 (pdf)
(7) T.J. Berners-Lee, R. Cailliau, J.-F. Groff, B. Pollermann (1992). World-Wide Web: An Information Infrastructure for High-Energy Physics. New Computing Techniques in Physics Research, 157-164
(8) Tim Berners-Lee, Robert Cailliau (1992). World-Wide Web. Computing in High Energy Physics

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