After trying to remember when I used the Internet for the first time in my previous article on Gopher and the early World Wide Web, and coming to the conclusion that it was in 1994, I’ve then taken the next step and tried to remember when I actually published my first website. So here’s the story.
While I was not quite sure at first about the exact date or year, I still remembered very well what my first two websites I put online where about: One was about the solar car association I chaired at the time and the other one was about my experiences when I spent some time away from Germany in California in 1996 for an internship as part of my studies.
Back in 1996 the world was a different place. Calls from Germany to the US cost several Euros a minute and the Internet was still mostly in academic hands. A nice place! Today, one would find all information for an internship on the other side of the world by going online and ‘googling’ the place. Not so back in 1996, only few companies were online at that time. So from today’s perspective it was an adventure I stumbled into blindly. But the Internet started to take-off in 1996 and I still remember that even while having been in the US, I started using the web on a daily basis. So even before coming back to Germany in August 1996 I decided to put my experiences and tips and tricks on a website of my own. Blogs didn’t exist then by the way.
Once back in my college in the fall of 1996, I started putting the two web sites together and I’m not really sure anymore if the solar car website or the website on my American internship went online first. At the time, I saved both websites in ZIP files and file dates inside the archive point to a launch date in October 1996. Let’s step back for a second and put this into perspective: Google was founded only two years later on 4. September 1998, Wikipedia only saw the light of day in January 2001 and Youtube was founded only eight years later in February 2005. According to Jonathan Gray, there were around 257.000 websites in 1996, compared to the 1.5 billion websites in 2019. The Internet was a radically different place at the time. A bit like the early universe perhaps, not a lot of light yet, but also not a lot of shadow like today either.
But back to the websites now. As I wanted to know if anybody would actually be interested in what I had to tell about my internship and if my sites could be found in the first place, I included a CGI script to deliver one of the images on the main page that logged the access request. I still have some of the log files today and they reveal an interesting mix of operating systems and browsers. Mostly, my web pages were accessed from Windows 3.1/3.11 (Win16) computers. Also, I can see a few Windows 95 machines in the logs at the end of 1996, a few Macs, Sun workstations and a tiny tiny few HP-UX, Irix and Alpha machines. At the time most people coming to my web page used Netscape’s Mozilla 3.0, some were still on the older 2.0 version and I saw a few http requests from Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. And indeed, my web page was frequented several dozen times a day, mostly from people at universities or via dial-up to modem banks at universities. I only found very few IP addresses that were translated to commercial ISPs. Not too many people were online back in 1996/97, so I thought and still do think that a couple of dozen people coming to my websites every day back then were a real success.
So where did I actually host my webpage? On a Sun server at the college of course, running the NCSA web server in its final version, 1.5.1. Today’s Apache web server was derived from the NCSA web server code, and was, for many years, and perhaps still is today, the dominant web server on the Internet. Yes, Apache is really that old!!! Both web pages remained on that server even after I left college in the late 1990s. Eventually the server was retired and my two websites with it. But the Internet Archive still has a copy of both and if you want to see how web sites looked like 25 years ago, have a look there. The pages still render correctly in modern browsers despite being decades old. I don’t think a lot of things in computing have such a long life. And as far as the pages are concerned, I’m pretty certain I made them by hand as they are quite straight forward and no marks are inside that would indicate the use of a tool such as Frontpage which became popular a bit later.
So that was 1996. And now it’s 2019, two decades later. What a ride!