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The Origins of the Web

Returning to reality and the recent past, the web started as a static text based medium that allowed researchers to easily share information around the world. The key feature that set the web apart from preceding and now largely obsolete technologies such as gopher was the hypertext link. This is a marked area of text, that when the user selected it and pressed enter or clicked on it with a mouse in graphical environments caused another web page to be retrieved.

The document to be retrieved was and still is identified by a Uniform Resource Locator or URL. A URL allows any document, located on any computer in the world connected to the Internet and running web server software, to be uniquely identified and retrieved directly from the computer on which it is located.

Actually a URL can be even more specific than that. It can identify any location within a specific document provided the author has entered the appropriate codes. Thus, in a large document, the author can mark specific important locations with a code and then refer to these locations from anywhere else in the document. These references are visible and when selected, the web browser displays that part of the document. It's this jumping around ability from which hypertext gets its name.

Until the invention of the hypertext link, the navigation of text documents was limited to sequential methods. You could start reading at the beginning and proceed to the end. You could also go the front and find the table of contents or the back and find the index. If the document was well organized and had a detailed table of contents or was extensively and intelligently indexed you could likely find a reference to what you wanted. Page numbers provide an approximate location of the referenced information. Then you sequentially scan forwards or backwards until you find what you were looking for.

With the invention of hypertext links, for the first time since the invention of writing, an author could provide a non linear way of navigating a text document. If an author used hypertext links well and liberally, you might read an entire document but in an order quite different than its sequential organization. It's not often that you find a document that is comprehensively organized this way but when you do, the result can be impressive.

Much more important for the development of the web than internal hypertext links were external ones. These allowed an author to identify supporting or related documents that might be located anywhere in the world (on the Internet). With a click of the mouse, readers could have these documents on the screen in front of them in seconds. Such a retrieved document might have links to other relevant documents. In a minute or so you might be reading a document on a computer in New York, then jump to one in Switzerland and then to one in Japan. The web provided the first human communication in which physical location no longer mattered.

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Copyright © 2000 - 2014 by George Shaffer. This material may be distributed only subject to the terms and conditions set forth in (or These terms are subject to change. Distribution is subject to the current terms, or at the choice of the distributor, those in an earlier, digitally signed electronic copy of (or cgi-bin/ from the time of the distribution. Distribution of substantively modified versions of GeodSoft content is prohibited without the explicit written permission of George Shaffer. Distribution of the work or derivatives of the work, in whole or in part, for commercial purposes is prohibited unless prior written permission is obtained from George Shaffer. Distribution in accordance with these terms, for unrestricted and uncompensated public access, non profit, or internal company use is allowed.

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