Good old Bitnet, and the rise of the World Wide Web

Senior physicist Richard Jacobsson remembers the early days of the World Wide Web at CERN


Though I presented my PhD thesis a mere 17 years ago, the last backup of my thesis, programs and data were saved on a 7-inch magnetic tape reel. This of course meant that I did my graduate studies at the time when the word "network" was most often used in the plural. Each and every network was endowed with its own set of applications and accessibility for email, document exchange, remote interactivity, and even chatting.

Yes, computer-mediated social interaction came long before the World Wide Web. In the late 1980s, connectivity exploded at universities and research laboratories around the world. One noticeable side-product was that young academics could start dating each other from across the globe!

All of this was a heterogeneous mess, of course. But at the same time, it was pleasurably low-level, and it was awesome. You knew what was happening behind the scenes when retrieving data and documents, you knew the hops that your “Relay” instant messaging made on the Bitnet, because you simply had to know. Data, documents, social interaction – it was all there. It was cool and in some ways efficient, but not practical, and it scaled very poorly.

And so the World Wide Web arrived on the internet. With the web came an immediate sense of need: You needed a fancy personal home page, complete with graphical interface and colour. The personal home page was quickly perceived as a way of asserting one's very existence. I was on a text-based, black-on-orange remote terminal, and I still remember putting together my first home page late at night in early 1993 while one of the graphical stations was free in the research group.

The web was practical and universal, and the other networks quickly withered away in a form of Darwinian selection. The web quickly drove the quest for desktop computer stations with screens with graphics capability. I still opted for size and sharpness staying with black and white for several years, while all of my colleagues seemed to be rubbing their sandy eyes after only a few hours of 15-inch color experience.

The web brought a singular revolution that quickly changed every aspect of our screen work: a global, all-topic search possibility. Computer code, a formula, a result, a cooking recipe, a person, a phone number; everything was at hand in little more than an instant with no physical displacement. We immediately started setting up analysis team pages to share progress more efficiently. I was in the DELPHI experiment Team 5, the "Higgs hunters" team. It was mostly pages with some expert documentation and links to plots, programs and data but we also all invented countless ways to make information on the web dynamic. It took time and pain before it deserved the word interactive.

Today I sometimes have the impression that no development is ever without constantly interrogating the web for advice, before even thinking through the problem: "Someone will surely have solved the problem in a better way, no?" is an all-too common approach.

In those early days I rarely discussed my networked profession and life with friends and family - the web was just a new tool of my trade. After another long stay at CERN in 1993-1994, I went back to Stockholm, Sweden, in February 1994. Sitting quietly reading on the subway, it was with an indescribable surprise and awe for what was to come that I discovered an http-address on a regular advertisement!  Within months, commercial web address were all over our billboards in Sweden.

Back then the good old Bitnet chat had a rule. The Dutch Master Operators insisted that "Relay is a *privilege*, NOT a right, and Relay abuse will NOT be tolerated!" I often wish the web had it too, including commercial boundaries under the same heading.