In the early days when the Internet was about to get popular, i.e. in the early to mid-1990s, there were several novel approaches to search and find information. The first to reach a wider audience in the early-1990s was ‘Gopher‘, a program and protocol to ‘surf the Internet’ and the accompanying ‘Veronica‘ search-engine. It was in the mid-1990s when I used the Internet for the first time but I only vaguely remember Gopher and Veronica. When I recently saw this toot on Mastodon that lead to a great article on Gopher and this video on Youtube from 1995, it started to dawn on me how narrowly I missed the Gopher hype at the time and sailed right past it to the World Wide Web.
As a freshman in college in autumn of 1993 I had probably heard of the Internet before but never actually used it. At the time, modem based mailboxes and the Fidonet were the domain of home users while the Internet was still something for people at universities and in industry. My first contact with the Internet must have been Email to communicate with other students and Telnet to use Sun machines on campus. My college campus was connected to the wider Internet over a 9.6 kbit/s leased line which was already considered slow at the time but a 2 Mbit/s leased line was on the horizon. Long story short, the Internet had few practical uses for me during the first two semesters and I’m not even sure if I used it at all. So no Gopher there and no World Wide Web either. I had all programs I needed on my PC and I could get books for the course work from the local library. The information horizon was still near…
Things changed when I went to Stuttgart for an internship at the Fraunhofer institute for production technology and automation (IPA) in autumn of 1994. They had unbelievable stuff there, the latest Silicon graphics machines, transputers and of course high speed access to the Internet. It was there that I saw and used an Internet browser for the first time, most likely NCSA mosaic, as I still remember the rotating globe icon while web pages loaded. By that time this browser was less than 2 years old and I think I mostly used it on Windows PCs at work and also on Silicon Graphics machines, while I continued to mostly use my Microsoft Windows based Compaq sub-notebook for offline activities and Fidonet newsgroups and messaging.
On my trip back through history I came across a semester report I wrote at the beginning of 1995 about my first experiences with the Internet in the fourth quarter of 1994. I’ll quote myself and translate from German to English:
It is unfortunately not possible to work with a WWW browser in a meaningful way at the FH in Weingarten [my college at the time], as the size of the documents and [embedded] graphics requires a faster connection to the Internet than what is currently available.
Within a year, more than one hundred thousand copies of Mosaic have been registered at the NCSA, the number of WWW-servers has risen to 1265 (19. March 1994) and new ones are constantly added.
In terms of the number of transmitted bytes, the WWW has by now surpassed Gopher, which was developed earlier.
The WWW Browser ‘Mosaic’ was, after NetNews [UseNet] the most often used Internet tool during my internship. With Mosaic it is possible to show information in a graphical way and to get to additional information quickly via the links embedded in the text on the same or on another server.
The image at the beginning of this post shows one of those early web pages, in this case the website of the Fraunhofer institue at which I spent my internship. Note that ftp was used as protocol and not http. The institute still exists and if you go to this very web page today, 25 years later, it’s still there but looks slightly different…
But back to Gopher now. I didn’t connect to the Internet with my private computer until at least in 1996 and when I really made use of the Internet in 1994, the World Wide Web and NCSA Mosaic had already been well established to search and consume information. When you compare Mosaic to Gopher, I think it is quite logical why. While Gopher and Veronica were tools to search for documents and created a hierarchical tree structure to lead users to a leaf document that could then be read, the World Wide Web mostly lead to documents that again contained links that lead to other documents with potentially relevant information. Gopher on the other hand always ended up with a single text based document and did not contain ‘clickable’ references to other relevant information. So while both the Web and Gopher helped to find information on the Internet, the web’s ability to create links between documents, to format text in an appealing way and to also include pictures and (later) also other multimedia content in documents was what made the big difference.
So there you go, this is the story of how the Internet in general and the World Wide Web in particular began for me in 1994.