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The History of HTML

written by: johnford•edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 2/12/2010

HTML, or hypertext markup language, has been around longer than you might think. The idea of linking documents together, linking them in a web of amplified information, has been around since the early ‘50s.

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    HTML: The Early Years

    As strange as it may seem, the history of HTML, or hypertext markup language, dates back years before the inception of the Internet and modern computing. In 1954, President Roosevelt’s science advisor, Dr. Vannevar Bush, published an article in Atlantic Monthly proposing a concept he called “Memex." The central theme of Memex states that textural and graphic information can be arbitrarily linked to one another. The concept caught on among a select group of futuristic thinkers, but it wasn’t until 1963, almost 20 years later, that the first working model of Memex was attempted. Sociologist Ted Nelson proposed “Project Xanadu," which represented the first attempt to see the Memex concept materialize. Nelson coined the term “hypertext." Other notable early computing pioneers, such as Doug Engelbart, who invented the computer mouse, were inspired by Nelson’s hypertext ideas. Yet despite the work of these computing visionaries, hypertext languished only in concept until the mid ‘80s.

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    Hypertext Links Turn Into Real-World Use

    In 1985, Janet Walker's “Symbolics Document Examiner" became the first hypertext-based system to gain acceptance and usage along with Xerox’s LISP-based hypertext system, NoteCards. But it wasn’t until the early Apple Macintosh Operating Systems gained acceptance that Hypertext started to gain momentum. In 1986, Office Workstations Ltd released “OWL-Guide," a hypertext system for the Mac. In 1987, Apple Computer debuted “HyperCard," considered by many to be the first hypertext application to gain mass adoption. Even though Apple no longer supports HyperCard, it is still in use by many users worldwide.

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    Enter Hypertext and the World Wide Web

    Despite what Al Gore may have said, the Internet as we know it came into being on September 5th 1990. Tim Berners-Lee, a CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) researcher, proposed his hypertext protocol in 1980 while working as an engineer in Switzerland. The program, “Esquire," became the backbone of his later work on the “httpd" web server and his first hypertext client known as “WorldWideWeb." The code was written entirely on the NeXTStep computing environment, the basis for today’s Mac OS X computing system. Berners-Lee’s specifications of URI's, HTTP and HTML became the standard for the modern “WWW" environment.

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    Early HTML on the World Wide Web

    Tim Burners-Lee wrote the original Web hypertext file on September 25th 1990. Early HTML was partially based on the SGML tag-set language that was already being used at CERN. In 1991 and 1992, HTML started to mature and see some standardization, becoming a common language between computing platforms. It wasn’t until the introduction of the HTML 2.0 in 1994 and the formation of Netscape/Mosaic that cross-platform standardization and true stability could be found in the real-world application of the language.

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    HTML 3.0

    1995 saw HTML gain new tags, including “BODY" and “FONT FACE" elements along with the first draft of HTML 3. The HTML 3 specification made use of tables, tabs, footnotes and forms along with “STYLE" and “CLASS" attributes and style sheets. 1995 also debuted the first release of Microsoft Explorer with ActiveX and vendors calling for a unified HTML standard. IN 1995 and 1996, Internet Explorer became available for the Mac and the next version of HTML, “Cougar," was begun. HTML 4.0 would be released just before the turn of the new century.

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    HTML in the New Millennium

    With a new century, comes a new standard proposal from the WC3, XHTML or eXtensible HyperText Markup Language. XHTML is a subset of XML in which HTML 4.01 tags and attributes are used as the vocabulary, with XML providing the rules of how the two are used together. XHTML is an entirely new branch of HTML, with ideas and concepts being borrowed from XML. HTML 4.01, with its eXtensible markup, use of style sheets and extensions, along with today’s modern browsers, allow programmers and designers to create feature-rich web design that would have been an impossible task just a few short years ago.

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    Historic HTML Pictures

    Vannevar BushTed Nelson keynote at the ACM Hypertext 03 conference in NottinghamThe Worlds First Web Server. Tim Berners-Lee's NeXt Cube