How the Irish helped weave the web

Back in the day, most websites were based in academic institutions or university departments

Mon, Mar 17, 2014, 01:10

If you need information, the world wide web has it, offering trillions of pages available from millions of websites that turns the globe into a single mega network. Yet it was not always so.

Once upon a time, the number of sites providing hypertext over the internet stood at 100.

Most of the sites were based in academic institutions or university departments. There was very little there to attract an ordinary user looking for something, let alone attempting to “surf” what little was there.

Ireland had a surprisingly early involvement in the world wide web and can count at least three Irish sites that land in the elite first 100.

Two were academic sites but the third was one of the very first run by a commercial company hoping to find a more innovative way to attract and service customers.

Then one lucky summer, a Trinity student ended up working for three months at Cern, the European nuclear research centre. He occupied an office two doors down from Tim Berners-Lee, the man who proposed the world wide web (www) back in 1989.

One of the earliest sites was opened up in 1990 at University College Cork by Peter Flynn.

He was acting head of computing there in the years before the web but in that year moved back into research computing. This in turn brought him into contact with Berners-Lee.

“I was the Irish representative on working group three of an organisation known as RARE, the Association of European Research Networks,” says Flynn.

“They were hired by the EC and DG 13 to develop proposals to establish a research network, a way to connect the universities together. It was to have been the equivalent of the internet. Tim was the rep from Cern and we used to meet, 20 or so of us from around Europe, a kind of think-tank,” he says.

Hypertext project
They were at a RARE meeting in Zurich in 1990 when Berners-Lee demonstrated his new hypertext project. (Hypertext is text on a computer screen that connects or hyperlinks instantly to other related hypertext documents, what makes the web work.)

“We were at the meeting and on the side Tim said, ‘have you seen this latest thing I am working on?’ He showed us what he was doing, developing a way to allow physicists to share their lab research with one another.”

It meant a report could be read on any work station without formating problems. “It allowed you to bring it up on the screen and read it. Tim said it was this thing http and ‘if you want to try it, here is the address’.”

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