Broadband history: what were the first websites ever launched?

The very earliest websites illustrate how much the internet has changed since the mid-1980s

Thursday, 28 October, 2021

There’s a good chance that a TV quiz show will one day ask a contestant to name the year when the world’s first website was launched.

Anyone familiar with Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s pioneering World Wide Web would probably cite either 1991 or 1992.

People with memories stretching back to Prestel and the ARPANET might suggest a date in the late 1970s.

However, few people would correctly guess 1985 – six years before the www part of modern worldwide web addresses had been publicly released.

The internet was a very different place back then…

A symbolic act

The internet had been around in one form or another since the late 1960s, as we explained last year.

In March 1985, a Massachusetts company called Symbolics Computer Corporation registered the world’s first website.

It’s safe to say it received little traffic.

Indeed, the first domain name ever registered (by Scandinavian research organisation, at the start of 1985) hadn’t even been launched by this point.

In an age before screengrab technology, pocket cameras or smartphones, no visual record exists of what the Symbolics website contained.

We do know it would have been monochrome, text-only, aimed at highly technical audiences and visited by pretty much nobody.

There would have been no external hyperlinks to other sites (since none existed), though email had been around since 1980 and may have been offered as a communication method.

There was no cybersecurity at this stage – no secure connections and no malware scanning, even though viruses had been in circulation for almost 15 years.

The pitifully slow connections of the time would have made loading a page a tedious process. This was still the age of software cassettes, with RAM measured in kilobytes.

Slow connections, slow progression

At the time, consumers were deeply sceptical of online communications. In the UK, the Post Office’s internet precursor Prestel never took off, despite being heavily promoted.

The situation was much the same in America, barring a handful of digitally-savvy experts and computing companies.

Nonetheless, Symbolics had started a trend among other computing companies.

As the Buzz Aldrin to Symbolics’ Neil Armstrong, BBN Technologies understandably faced no challenges choosing and registering the domain name a month later.

By the end of 1985, there were six domain names in existence. Among the first websites ever launched was a site belonging to computing giant Northrop.

The fact that Northrop no longer exists is typical of the frenetic pace of computing progress – also evidenced by the long-forgotten Lisp programming language used by Symbolics.

Symbolics themselves faded from view decades ago, after failing to keep pace with hardware developments in a rapidly changing digital world.

Viewed through the prism of HTML5 and ultrafast home broadband, it would be easy to scoff at the clumsy and slow nature of the first websites ever launched, with their negligible global audience.

Yet without them, the internet might not be the place we know (and rely on) today.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!