The Story Behind the WWW Hypertext 91 Demo Page and UNC and me

In 2013, we got a lot of nice coverage of my rediscovery of perhaps the earliest World Wide Web pages. In honor of Internaught Day August 23, 2016 — the 25th aniversary of Tim Berners-Lee making the WWW code publicly available, I’m reposting the story behind that oldest page here.

Fact is that those pages — Tim Berners-Lee’s Demonstration Page for Hypertext 91 and my own personal page — have been on the net almost continually since they were developed and/or modified on my NeXT cube during Tim’s visit to UNC in the late Fall of 1991 on his way to San Antonio and the ACM conference in December 1991. While the pages have moved from server to server as we upgraded, the pages mostly worked just fine even in modern web browsers without modification. True, there are HTML tags that are strange to us now: DD, DT, DL, NEXTID, and a requirement that each A link have a NAME field. (place view-source: and view-source: in Chrome to see the old school html unrendered).

But how did those pages get created and how did they end up in Chapel Hill on my NeXT in first place?

Wide Area Information Servers and the WWW gateway

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Judd Knott and I led a network services research group at UNC in the Office for Information Technologies. Among the projects we developed was an internet bulletin board service that allowed access to all kinds of software for information sharing, Free software (as in Freedom), USENET News, Gopher, etc — even email. LaUNChpad quickly had hundreds of users and allowed us experiment in a living world and in the process contribute to information access in a small way.

We were often implementers of access protocols and very early software releases. One particular project really caught our interest; Wide Area Information Servers (WAIS), a Z39.50 database searching software suite, was being developed at Thinking Machines, Inc (a company mostly out of MIT that included Brewster Kahle who would later found Internet Archive). We, Jim Fullton in particular, quickly became a participant in development of a free and robust version of WAIS (wais-8-b2) in the spring of 1991.

Not long after, Jim made contact (via one of the hypertext newgroups) with Tim Berners-Lee of CERN who was interested in developing a gateway between WAIS servers and his project modestly called The WorldWideWeb. By about September, Jim and Tim had something working although not ready for general use. By October, Tim announced the gateway.

On The Way to Hypertext 91

Not long after, Jim got email from Tim saying that he was submitting a paper on what was now called more briefly WWW at the upcoming Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) conference Hypertext 91 in San Antonio in December. Tim made plans to stop by UNC and visit with us before going on to Texas. He was confident given the immediate acceptance of WWW on newsgroups and as seen in his logs that he would get a good speaking slot at the conference.

A few weeks later, we learned differently. Tim’s paper had been rejected. But he had been offered a spot to demonstrate the WWW. Only a couple of catches. 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. Tim was intrepid and soldiered on.

A Call to an Expert

Anticipating Tim’s arrival, I called a nearby Computer Science department. The voice at the other end had heard of Tim’s project but was not impressed. He immediately recited what he saw as deadly problems with the WWW:

  1. Links in hypertext must be bidirectional. WWW’s are one way only.
  2. WWW servers aren’t aware of each other and there is no inter-server communication.
  3. All WWW servers are equal. There should be a concept of hubs.
  4. WWW servers don’t keep state. They are completely unaware of their previous interactions.
  5. It’s obvious that whoever wrote the hypertext engine doesn’t understand SGML. This HTML is done all wrong.
  6. Finally, he’s giving this away for free. That means it has no value at all. We have our own version and a strong licensing partner.

I didn’t take Tim to meet with the person who owned that voice.

Tim Berners-Lee’s visit to Chapel Hill

When Tim did come to visit, he already knew that I too had a NeXT just like his. He stopped by. We talked about WAIS 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 WWWWAIS 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.

Beers near English Scholars

That night, I invited Tim, Jim, Judd and others working on our project to my home. My wife, Sally Greene, was having a bunch of her friends, all PhD students in English over as well.

The geeks and literature folks didn’t really mix. The geeks were out on the deck in the warm North Carolina fall night. The scholars were in the kitchen. I think some of the talk inside was of “Afternoon, a Story” a hypertext composition by Michael Joyce. Someone was interested in how current theory impacted (yes that word) and was impacted by hypertext. No one had actually experienced hypertext other than Apple’s Hypercard though. Yet just a few feet and a few drinks away…

My NeXT, Proceedings from Hypertext 91, The NeXT Book

Apollo Guidance Computer on ibiblio

Screenshot of AGC

I got the idea while watching the movie Apollo 13. The instant in the movie where the AGC is powered up on Earth approach is the instant when the viewer suddenly feels that survival of the astronauts has changed from “highly unlikely” to “very probable”. It gives me a chill whenever I see it. Anyhow, on watching this one day, it struck me that it was a shame nobody knew any longer how to operate the AGC—let alone write the programs for it. (As it happens, that thought was a bit premature: only 35 years had passed since the AGC software was written, thus many of the original software developers were still reasonably young. Nevertheless, the principle is correct, since very few people could use or program the AGC.)

It had been a long journey for the AGC from the original mission computer in 1970 to the movie release in 1995 to the film inspiring Ron Burkey as he viewed it in 2003. Then not long after, Ron began recreate a simulation and later a physical version of the AGC.

Along the way, Ron collected documentation, scanned and transcribed code, and built a space for collaboration and dissemination at ibiblio/apollo.

The site and collection greater than a decade in the making recently received more attention as the code was placed for download in a github repository.

But to experience the technical complexity and to work on the project yourself, you’ll want to visit Ron’s site. You might want to begin with the ”Kinder Gentler Introduction” to the AGC unless you know a bit about the period and the Apollo already.

Like code today, the comments are as amusing as the coding. My favorite is a misattributed Shakespeare quote:



Good quote for programmers of that era, but from Henry 6 – Part 2, Act 4, Scene 7. Obviously a slight typo from past times.

Project Gutenberg has it as: “It will be prooued to thy Face, that thou hast men about thee, that vsually talke of a Nowne and a Verbe, and such abhominable wordes, as no Christian eare can endure to heare.”

Luckily an error in a comment in an attribution wasn’t fatal to the flight or to the project.

Read, learn and prepare for lift off!

Apollo patch

Walker Percy Project

CONTACT: Henry P. Mills, Director, The Walker Percy Project (email) (web)

Literary Website Celebrates Walker Percy Centennial (1916–2016) on May 28

The Walker Percy Project launches mission to provide access to the author’s work for all audiences.

Asheville, NC, May 23 — Walker Percy (1916–1990), the acclaimed late-20th century Louisiana novelist and philosopher, published six novels and three nonfiction books, as well as many social commentaries. His first novel, The Moviegoer, won the National Book Award in 1962.

The 100th anniversary of his birth arrives Saturday, May 28, 2016, and numerous regional events are being held in honor of the Percy Centennial, notably:

  • Dedication of the “Walker Percy Serenity Circle” — featuring a life-sized sculpture of Percy — and Reading Room at the St. Tammany Parish Library in Madisonville, La.
  • Publication of the new essay collection, Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer at Fifty, by LSU Press
  • A special 3-day “Walker Percy Weekend” festival in St. Francisville, La. (June 3–5)
  • Publication of a book of previously unreleased photographs: Walker Percy: Daylight and Dark
  • The Conference on Christianity & Literature, Southeast Region, on the Walker Percy Centennial
  • The launch of The Walker Percy Project website and its expanded educational resources and services

Details about these Centennial events — and much more — are accessible on The Walker Percy Project interactive website at <>.

The Network of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (whose libraries house the “Walker Percy Papers”) hosts the online resource, although the website is not formally affiliated with the university.

The Project is officially launching its website, a non-profit educational resource, in time to coincide with the Centennial. The Project’s volunteer director Henry P. Mills says,

“The exciting aspect of the website is that it combines the best features of an encyclopedia with the ongoing activities of a conference. Visitors — from curious readers to serious scholars — can actively engage in ideas and discussions related to Walker Percy.”

As a free clearinghouse of centralized resources on the author’s work and life, the website provides visitors with opportunities for personal sharing and collaboration through discussion forums, as well as access to wide-ranging materials, including:

  • Current news on public and scholarly activities and publications related to Walker Percy
  • Remembrances and Memorials from Eudora Welty, Shelby Foote, and Robert Coles, M.D.
  • Critical essays for novice and advanced readers from Percy biographers and literary scholars
  • Multimedia, including video and photograph galleries
  • Book descriptions for books on and by Walker Percy
  • Interactive features, such as Exhibits, Quizzes, and Curated web links
  • Bibliographies and archive collections
  • Educational resources and student projects

With the tagline “Access, Community, Discovery,” The Walker Percy Project encourages active exploration into Percy’s writings, life, and thought. Through its integration with an email-based interest group (the Percy-L listserv), the website lets readers and students participate in discussions and research. Mark Bloom, President of The Walker Percy Project, offers,

“The in-depth resources I discovered on the website greatly expanded my appreciation for Percy as a writer, so much so I felt compelled to get involved to learn more about him and help the Project grow.”

The Walker Percy Project website has received recognition from influential publications such as: New Orleans Magazine, Austin American-Statesman, Texas Monthly, The Southern Quarterly, Modern Language Association, and The Southern Register. The Project is dedicated to keeping Walker Percy’s work and critical thought on the “human predicament” and his concern with our comparable “displacement in the modern world” in the mainstream.

For more information on this story, please contact Henry P. Mills, the volunteer director and editor of The Walker Percy Project, at .
Please refer to the Project’s website at <>.