See - and hear - what it was like to surf the web 20 years ago

CERN launches a line mode browser emulator to recreate the experience of the first cross-platform browser

line-mode-browser-600x450_2.jpgImage credit: ITworld/Phil Johnson
My blog's home page rendered by the line mode browser emulator

Just last week I wrote about the efforts at CERN to preserve the world’s first website and all of the accompanying technology. Those efforts included preserving the experience of surfing those first web sites using one of the earliest browsers, the line mode browser. A couple of days after I wrote my piece, CERN officially launched a line mode browser emulator.

The line mode browser was not the world’s first web browser. That distinction belongs to WorldWideWeb, which was a browser that Tim Berners-Lee created to run on his NeXT computer that had a graphical user interface and a mouse. Since most people in the early 1990s didn’t have access to such a cutting edge computer, CERN graduate student Nicola Pellow developed a browser that could run on the more common computers of the day, with simple, text-only displays and no mouse.

Recently, CERN assembled a dozen developers to create a line mode browser emulator that would run in current browsers. They have done so, and written all about the process of bringing this historic piece of technology back to life, including interviews with the people responsible for making it happen. It’s interesting to learn about how they made it work.

One of their main goals were to recreate the look of the browser, via colors and fonts, and how the old, dumb terminals would draw one character at a time on the screen. They recreate that effect by covering the page in black and then revealing each character by erasing a character-sized rectangle from that cover, one-by-one, line-by-line. Clever!

They also recreated the sound of typing on older keyboards, specifically an IBM RS/6000 keyboard, by using HTML5 audio elements. Even more clever!

You can use the emulator to view that first website, and really experience it as many of those first web surfers did. You can also use it to view any current website, interestingly enough. When you do view a current site through the emulator, you’ll see a lot of code on the screen, because the original line mode browser would simply display the content between unknown tags inline.

The code has also been open-sourced, so you can download it yourself and play with it to your heart’s content.

I encourage you to try the emulator and step back in time to an era when the web was lacking Vines, animated GIFs and cat videos. Good times...

Read more of Phil Johnson's #Tech blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Phil on Twitter at @itwphiljohnson. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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