The Web Before the Web

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A few months ago, I was reading an early draft of Benjamin Gross’s story on the history of human test-patterns (the women whose complexions calibrated early color television sets) when I came across a familiar term in a confounding context. Benjamin had quoted a short article that appeared in the October 27, 1951, issue of Billboard magazine. Here’s the item on page 11:

Minor repercussion of Washington’s ban on color telecasting is that Columbia Broadcasting Company’s “girl rainbow,” Patti Painter is out of a job. Fem has been CBS’s top tint tester for several years now, chiefly in a demonstration capacity.

Tradesters wonder if gal will land a berth in CBS black and white. One thing’s for sure, tho, no matter which web takes custody, the telegenic blonde is bound to lead a colorless existence from now on.

Catch that reference?

Yep, in 1951, “the web” was a well-known term in tech circles—but it referred to TV networks, not computers. (For clarity, I ended up swapping out the term for “networks” in the final version of Benjamin’s story.)

But I’ve been thinking about that other “web” ever since. I’m still trying to get a better sense of exactly how the term was used in the mid-20th century—and how widely. Most of the references I’m finding to “the web” of the 1940s and 1950s are in old issues of Billboard. (Examples here and here.) It seems, from references in Jim Cox’s history of American radio networks, to have been a holdover from an even earlier broadcast era. (I checked back with Benjamin, who pointed out that the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “web” from 1933 includes, “a radio or television broadcasting network.” The OED cites references beyond Billboard, too—among them: Collier’s, Newsweek, and Variety.)

So when and why did it go away?

Language constantly evolves with technology, and it can be revealing to take stock of how “selfies” turn into “groupies,” or how “computers” went from describing people to describing machines. There’s often a weird symmetry to how concepts and terms get recycled. “Horseless carriages” give way to “cars,” which eventually become “driverless cars,” then, probably, just “cars” again. One web, it seems, made way for another.