Chm Blog Curatorial Insights , Internet History Program

“Woodstock of the Web” at 25

By Marc Weber | May 24, 2019

Editor's Note: This is part of an ongoing series dedicated to the web anniversaries of 2019, including the 50th anniversary of general purpose computer networks connected over the ARPANET, the 30th anniversary of the web’s conception, and shorter anniversaries for everything from mass Wi-Fi to familiar giants like Amazon and Facebook.

Pioneers reflect on the past and future of the conference series and the web.


2019 is a year of many web and networking anniversaries, or “netiversaries” to continue using an awful word. This year marks the 50th anniversary of general purpose computer networks. That first connection was over the ARPANET, between Douglas Engelbart’s laboratory at SRI and another node at UCLA. Such networks were built as transport for online systems like Engelbart’s oNLine System, famously demo'ed in late 1968, which is a key ancestor of the Web. Another blog article in @CHM remembers Engelbart and his work.

On the web side it has been 30 years since the first web proposal and 25 since its popular explosion and the rise of web commerce, including the launch of Netscape, Amazon, Yahoo!, and many others. It has also been 25 since the so-called “Woodstock of the Web,” the vastly oversubscribed first web conference in 1994. The series is still going strong, with The Web Conference coming in May to San Francisco. The piece below recounts some of the flavor of that first coming together. At the end we've included links to the original conference site and video from the conference itself, courtesy of CERN.

For the story of the web's conception and birth, see this article from the 25th anniversary.

For exhibits on the evolution of the web and the online world, visit the Web, Mobile, and Networking galleries of our exhibition Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing, either in person or online.

“Woodstock of the Web”

May 25−27, 1994: First International WWW Conference, CERN, Geneva.

Robert Cailliau, Tim Berners-Lee's partner in the early web project, had wanted to host a web conference for a long time. The Wizard's Workshop the summer before at tech publisher O'Reilly had been a kind of trial run. By the spring of 1994 every one of the few thousand people who had been involved with the infant web or its hypertext ancestors knew he, or in a few cases she, was part of something BIG. Once giddy comparisons with great media of the past from the telephone to print to TV suddenly looked sober. The public fireworks between NCSA and Mosaic Communications (later Netscape) in the first “Browser War,” while painful to those directly involved, only served to underline the Web's importance—and raise interest further.

But behind this sense of imminent grandeur, the actual web development community was still a small one and spread over two or three continents. It had never had a proper town meeting. This community would come joyfully together in the summer of 1994 on a wave of hope and excitement; first with conferences—Geneva and soon after Prague—and then with the coalescing of Tim Berners-Lee's World Wide Web Organization. But there were bumps along the way.

As soon as plans were firm, Robert mailed Joseph Hardin, head of the Mosaic effort at NCSA, to invite him and the remaining Mosaic team to come and speak. The reply was something like “Ah! Funny you should say that . . .” Joseph was planning to have a conference on Mosaic at NCSA that very same week and invite many of the same speakers. He had already committed resources. Robert and Tim were flabbergasted. Tim wrote to the effect that “I think it would be extremely unfortunate if you held a conference that week.” Joseph finally backed off at the 11th hour and agreed to hold the conference in November, six months later. It was an uneasy compromise, but it would set the pattern for the next five web conferences—one every six months. The web was imply moving too fast to wait a full year in between.

Once people began arriving in Geneva there was the odd sensation of meeting long-time email colleagues in the flesh, as at the O’Reilly conference of the summer before. But multiplied. Soon everyone was milling about the lobby, electrified by the same sensation of meeting face-to-face actual people who had been just names on an email or on the mailing list. Most had met Tim, but very few had met each other except online. There was something raw, even slightly obscene in seeing the actual person behind such correspondence, like meat after a long vegetarian interlude. This very physically real person who may have pockmarks on his skin, expound belligerently, or quietly dampen one's palm with nervous sweat, was the source behind an online voice one had bitterly debated, or staunchly supported, or come to feel a genuine affection for over the last year or more.

Where O'Reilly had been 20 something developers, the Geneva conference had 380. Even more had been turned away because the space at CERN was fixed—an unexpected 800 had applied. The trickle, then stream of folks arrived in Geneva from all over the world. Many of the Americans had never been in Europe before. The web had also grown to the point where many crucial new pioneers had never met Tim, Robert, or the CERN team.

But despite NCSA's agreement not to hold a competing conference, virtually none of the NCSA Mosaic folk showed, and, less surprisingly, none of the Mosaic Communications splinter group who were hard at work on their first products, and would soon be known as Netscape. While partly this may have been because the two groups of former colleagues were locked in battle with each other, it marked a further step in the division of the web’s movers and shakers into two overlapping worlds. There was the public, American one of Mosaic and the media, and the more international one of researchers, academic collaborations and technical arguments among purists. Many Geneva participants were in the latter camp, from institutions like the World Meteorological Organization, the International Center for Theoretical Physics, the University of Iceland and so on.

* * *

The program itself unfolded like an unending parade of pleasant technical surprises. It seemed everybody there had been secretly beavering away at some radical new expansion of the web and was just revealing it now: a Christmas of unexpected presents, as well as a rapidly cohering vision of a better future.

The main leader of the HTML effort, Dave Raggett, showed off the Arena browser he'd been working away at on the family dining room table at home, because his employer HP Labs still didn't see the web as worth investing in. Along with Haukon Lee and Henrik Nielsen of the CERN web team Dave used Arena to give a glimpse into what they hoped would be the future of HTML and browsers: text that flowed around images, resizable tables, image backgrounds, math, and more.

Despite their absence, Marc Andreessen, Eric Bina, and Lou Montulli were ceremonially inducted into the first “World Wide Web Hall of Fame” along with Rob Hartill, Tim Berners-Lee, and Kevin Hughes of the Hawaii site.

Dan Connolly made a strong pitch for the unity of HTML with his talk on “Interoperability: Why Everyone Wins,” which warned of the dangers of corporations and browser makers setting their own standards. Dan's effort gained him the questionable reward of being handed the torch of HTML Chief Architect, from Dave Raggett.

Part of the closing panel, from left to right: Dr. Joseph Hardin, NCSA; Robert Cailliau, CERN; Tim Berners-Lee, CERN; Dan Connolly, HaL Software. 
CERN Photo, copyright CERN

Part of the closing panel, from left to right: Dr. Joseph Hardin, NCSA; Robert Cailliau, CERN; Tim Berners-Lee, CERN; Dan Connolly, HaL Software. CERN Photo, copyright CERN

The biggest surprise for nearly all attendees was Mark Pesce with Labyrinth. The vague concept of virtual reality over the web had occurred to many of them, but usually as a late-night idea for what might be feasible in the middle future. Suddenly, here was this intense, charismatic American with a working spec for just such a late-night idea. Technically it was nothing special, even crude to some of the purists. But it showed the sheer scope of creative brilliance the web was attracting. It was as if a meeting of missile hobbyists in the 1920s was visited by someone with a detailed blueprint for a moon rocket. Everyone knew it was possible, but assumed specific plans were a ways down the road. Dave Raggett suggested the name for Labyrinth, which stuck: VRML, for Virtual Reality Markup Language. The feeling of delicious possibility was immense. How many other late-night ideas were already being secretly followed up, or soon would be?

Nights, the attendees descended on the Geneva nightlife in loose, changing groups; youngish tech wizards from every culture getting progressively more drunk and idealistic together.

The urgent discussions continued through elaborate meals and pints of imported Guinness in the Old Town, as Russians and Peruvians tried to communicate in second languages on pub and disco crawls across the same cobblestones where unfortunates accused of witchcraft had marched to the pyre. Here, buffeted in the wake of another information revolution, printers had turned out works banned in Catholic countries, and Calvin himself had burned a heretic or two.

The young coders of 1994 had no wild plans to build a bricks and mortar World City of knowledge on the Geneva plain as had information visionary Paul Otlet and architect Le Corbusier in the pause between world wars. Rather, they were building an invisible city that also reached out from here to circle the globe, one both broader and shallower but with the cardinal advantage that it was real. Robert Cailliau had a small group for dinner at his home in the French countryside a few miles from Voltaire's old redoubt of Ferney-Voltaire, the writer and philosopher's refuge when banned from Paris by the King.

The lake cruise on the final night was guaranteed to be memorable for its sheer local color, despite some rain. The craft was one of the giant Mississippi-style paddle-wheelers that carry dining and dancing groups far out onto Lake Geneva's calm waters, where jagged Alpine peaks stick up behind the low mountains which ring the lake. As night falls, the cities and towns on the shore surround a boat with distant, twinkling lights. The band for the cruise was Wolfgang and the Werewolves, a jazz band with a name which could only come from polyglot Switzerland. The lake cruise was a curiously romantic end to this most exciting of technical conferences. Original Web programmer Jean-François Groff among others would christen it the “Woodstock of the Web.”

Links to original video, at CERN in Geneva

Photos of speakers at the closing panel:

Web Hall of Fame

Note that Marc Andreessen, Eric Bina, and Lou Montulli received the award in absentia:

Additional links

More from Our “Netiversaries” Series

About The Author

Marc is the curatorial director of CHM’s Internet History Program and developed the Web, Networking, and Mobile galleries of the Museum's permanent exhibit. He pioneered Web history as a topic starting in 1995, with crucial help from the Web's main inventor Sir Tim Berners Lee and other pioneers. He co-founded two of the first organizations in the field. He presents and consults to companies, journalists, filmmakers, patent firms, and museums on the history of the online world.

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