Last week, NPR's All Things Considered featured a story called "The First Web Page, Amazingly, Is Lost." The piece ended with a plea: Perhaps someone out there, someone listening to their radio, picked up an old optical disk drive that was lost at a conference in 1990. Check your bookshelves. Check your basement. The early web might still be out there.
Soon, a comment appeared on the NPR story. "I have a copy of the page that Tim [Berners-Lee] used as a demo at Hypertext 91 in San Antonio," Paul Jones wrote. He also tweeted, ".@thefirstwebsite I have a copy of the page that @timberners_lee used to present at Hypertext 91 http://www.ibiblio.org/pjones/old.page.html ... others on my cube [an early '90s computer]."
"Amazing!" tweeted back The First Website, a project at CERN devoted to reconstructing the web's infancy. "We'll be in touch," they promised.
Jones's file -- uploaded to ibiblio.org more than two decades ago and sitting there "almost continually" ever since -- wasn't that 1990 disk drive that NPR sought, but, dating from just one year later, it is believed to be the closest copy of the original pages of the World Wide Web.
Here's what it looks like (head to the page for the full interactive experience):
On his site, Jones, a professor a UNC-Chapel Hill and a published poet, tells the story of how he got this copy, and how "demonstration" became "demonfdgfgstration" in the process.
The story begins, as you would expect, in the early '90s, when Jones colleague Jim Fullton got an email from Berners-Lee (they had been in touch about a related project) saying that he was submitting a paper to a conference, Hypertext 91, that would be taking place in San Antonio that December. Berners-Lee was interested in stopping by UNC during his trip.
Berners-Lee's paper was rejected ("The hypertext community were unimpressed with the web; it looked rather simple," CERN's Dan Noyes explains in a post) but he was offered a table where he could demonstrate his World Wide Web to conference attendees. "Only a couple of catches," Jones writes. "There was to be no Internet connectivity at the conference. And as Tim's demonstration required a NeXT computer, he would have to bring his from Europe."
Jones, it turns out, also owned a NeXT, one just like Berners-Lee's. When Berners-Lee arrived in North Carolina, he stopped by to talk shop. Jones writes:
We talked about WAIS [Wide Area Information Servers] and WWW and beer and he pulled out a floptical drive (NeXT pioneered a read-write optical disk in a case. No one followed). I installed Tim's graphical browser on my NeXT. Tim talked me through using WWW by using a copy of his Hypertext 91 demonstration page.
There was, as you see now, a link to the WWW< >WAIS gateway for searching a database in the next room. When I clicked on the link, my information request first went to CERN in Switzerland then back to UNC to search the database. The results then left UNC for Switzerland where html was added and then the results sent back to my NeXT.
Tim showed me how simple and easy editing and creating a WWW page could be. First he showed how straightforward editing was by changing"demonstration" to "demonfdgfgstration." I created my own page and added a link to an FTP site in Denmark that hosted a sound collection among other things. I wanted to see if the NeXT and Tim's WWW browser would be able to pass the sound to a player. I think it did, but I really can't remember if it did.
Jones still has his NeXT and it may be full of other cool early web artifacts. Just one problem: He can't remember the password.
Jones says on Twitter that he thinks of himself "not as a hoarder but as a digital curator." Whatever name you want to put on it, it's a habit that has paid off.