Did anything exist before the World Wide Web?

It’s increasingly hard to remember life before the World Wide Web, but contrary to popular opinion, the internet wasn’t born in 1991

Friday, 10 July, 2020

If you’re over the age of 35, you’ll be able to remember life before the World Wide Web.

However, it’s increasingly hard to remember what life was like without search engines, email and social media.

These are just three of the society-changing breakthroughs ushered in by Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s decentralised computer networking masterplan.

Today, we’re blasé about having limitless information, entertainment and communication available on demand.

And while it’s tempting to assume we all lived in a Dark Age before the mid-1990s, that’s simply not the case.

Although life before the World Wide Web was undoubtedly simpler, less informed and far less divisive than nowadays, there were still precursors to the internet.

In fact, the internet itself was around long before Sir Tim’s communications brainwave…

War (what is it good for)?

Well, the internet, for one thing.

If it hadn’t been for the Cold War, the American military wouldn’t have spent most of the 1960s trying to develop bomb-proof communications systems between missile bases.

A 1963 proposal for an Intergalactic Computer Network evolved into 1969’s Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, connecting four computers in different locations.

By the early 1970s, ARPANET also encompassed a radar base in Norway and UCL’s main campus in London, both linked via satellite.

Despite being hacked in 1980, ARPANET continued to expand and was enhanced by the development of the Transmission Control Protocol in 1983.

That same year, experts established a global Domain Name System. Like TCP, DNS still plays a crucial role in the functioning of today’s internet.

By 1985, forward-thinking computing companies were beginning to launch their own websites.

Fittingly, the first web address ever registered – symbolics.com – is now an online museum.

Mid-Eighties websites were rudimentary by today’s standards, but they operated on the same principles.

Plus, they were accessed using a dial-up modem and a telephone line, just like domestic internet connections in the Nineties.

Pres’ to talk

While ARPANET and the early internet required specialist equipment and a comprehensive knowledge of computing, Prestel was always intended for ease of use.

Developed by the UK Post Office in the 1970s, this interactive platform involved consumer terminals, which plugged into a phone line and interrogated remote databases.

In many respects, Prestel was identical to the modern internet.

By its launch in 1979, there were 100,000 pages of information – more than anyone could ever hope to view.

Indexes of content could be searched for relevant results, while individual sites (many set up by private companies) comprised main pages with sub-pages covering specific topics.

It was possible to receive electronic mail, manage your banking transactions, order goods to be delivered to your home or debate the issues of the day on bulletin boards.

Had its cost been less prohibitive (and the marketing more effective), we might have been booking holidays and ordering groceries via Prestel years before the World Wide Web.

Just the ‘fax, ma’am

Sadly for a nation which prides itself on being at the cutting edge of progress, the wonders of Prestel were only ever embraced by 90,000 subscribers at any one time.

By contrast, millions of households relied on the Ceefax and ORACLE (Optional Reception of Announcements by Coded Line Electronics) text services available through TV sets.

Both debuted in 1974 and enjoyed a peak of popularity in the late 1980s, though ORACLE was replaced by Teletext in 1993.

There was little interactivity beyond basic page requests, but these two platforms provided further examples of British innovation moving us all towards a more informed future.

Both had homepages with dedicated sections for news and sport, while individual pages displayed TV schedules, weather reports, job vacancies and even lonely-hearts ads.

Teletext Holidays became so successful the brand is still trading, while Ceefax evolved into today’s BBC Red Button service.

Like Prestel, these interactive TV services were ultimately rendered obsolete by the rise of the internet.

Today, they look comically dated, as old technology often does.

Yet they prove that life before the World Wide Web wasn’t an information Dark Age after all…

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!