Alex Sidorenko

Archeology of HTML

June 25, 2022

What led to the creation of HTML? The answer to this question includes the short story about a German spy, a mechanical device called Memex, the first-ever recorded demo video, and the creation of the World Wide Web.

History of ideas that led to HTML

Ready to dive in? Let’s track the history of ideas that led to the invention of the HyperText Markdown Language.

The Garden of Forking Paths

In 1941, Jorge Luis Borges published the short story “The Garden of Forking Paths.” In this story, Borges describes a novel written by the character of Ts’ui Pen. Ordinary, a plot of a novel goes linearly following the decisions of the hero. In Ts’ui Pen’s novel, the plot includes multiple alternative storylines. When heroes choose between A and B, they choose both, and the story splits into multiple alternative branches. Like an RPG in which every potential scenario is written down.

Borges

“The Garden of Forking Paths” inspired many future ideas in writing, philosophy, and science including “many-worlds interpretation” in quantum mechanics. It’s also paved a way for the concept of Hypertext.

As We May Think

In 1945, Vannevar Bush wrote a visionary article As We May Think. In this article, Bush highlighted the inefficiency of data storage at the time.

When data of any sort are placed in storage, they are filed alphabetically or numerically, and information is found by tracing it down from subclass to subclass

The human mind does not work that way. It operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts.

Vannevar Bush

To make this process more efficient, Bush envisioned a device that will store your books records, and communications in an associative manner. He called it Memex.

Memex

The Memex was never built, but the article inspired two Americans who later created Hypertext.

Hypertext

Those two Americans were Ted Nelson and Douglas Engelbart.

Hypertext

Ted Nelson came up with the term “hypertext” in 1963. In 1965 he and Andries van Dam made a Hypertext Editing System (HES) which ran on IBM 2250. The whole technology was worth a couple of million dollars and worked by organizing data into links and branching text. NASA used HES to create documentation for the Apollo space program 🚀

HES

In parallel to that, Douglas Engelbart was working on his computer collaboration system called oN-Line. And in 1968 he demonstrated his own hypertext interface in a video that went down in history as a “Mother of all demoes”. Yes, he actually recorded a video demo in 1968 🤯. Here is a clip.

World Wide Web

In 1989 CERN engineer Tim Berners-Lee proposed a simple information-sharing project for his organization. This project was based on hypertext and was called World Wide Web (WWW). Yes, it’s the same web we are using today.

HyperText is a way to link and access information of various kinds as a web of nodes in which the user can browse at will. Potentially, HyperText provides a single user-interface to many large classes of stored information, such as reports, notes, data-bases, computer documentation and on-line systems help.

Tim Berners-Lee

WWW

In 1990, he specified HTML and created the world’s first web browser, which he called… WorldWideWeb 🤔 (he later renamed it to Nexus to avoid confusion). Here is the first-ever publicly available description of HTML - HTML tags (1991)

That was the evolution of ideas that led to the creation of Hypertext Markdown Language. The first HTML standard was HTML 2 published in 1995 and since then we had a couple more iterations. But that’s a whole other story.