Browsing the ancient Web with an ancient browser

December 9, 2015
Nicholas Taylor
logo graphic appearing on the "WorldWideWeb SLAC Home Page" in 1993

The world's first websites were built for very different rendering and navigation interfaces than the comparatively advanced browsers available today. Thanks to the work of web archivists (e.g., CERN, SLAC), we can celebrate the incongruity of accessing some of these ancient websites using modern browsers. While a traditional goal of web archiving has been to preserve the "canonical" user experience of a website, this has been persistently impaired by (among other challenges) accessing web archives using software other than would've been available at the time content was archived.

Emulation of legacy browsers would seem to provide the ideal solution. Along these lines, CERN notably developed a JavaScript-based emulator of the line-mode WorldWideWeb browser for use with the first website. Anyone can download the open-source code, improve, and/or run it, though few are likely to given the specificity of the emulator and the limited number of websites that it was ever historically used to access. What's exciting about the more recent development that is the subject of this post is that it provides a generic platform for accessing any Memento-addressable resource using a variety of pre-configured browsers. The concisely-descriptive service is called oldweb.today.

I naturally used oldweb.today to revisit some of the noteworthy discoveries we previously made while exploring the SLAC earliest websites. A SLAC webpage from December 1993 conveniently indicates that NCSA Mosaic was one possible browser with which users could've accessed the site. A February 1994 e-mail from Eric Bina meanwhile announced the availability of NCSA Mosaic 2.2, fortuitously the oldest configured browser on oldweb.today.

Having established that the pre-configured version of NCSA Mosaic would've been in use for some of the date range covered by the archive, I explored around starting at the SLAC home page from late 1993. I had a couple of neat findings. One concerns the X-BitMap file at the top-left of that page, that doesn't render in contemporary versions of Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, or Safari. It renders without issue in NCSA Mosaic 2.2, serving as a rare exception to the general durability of web formats over time. It was also interesting to note that webpage backgrounds were gray rather than white; there is some indication that this was a default setting in NCSA Mosaic.

Thanks to oldweb.today, I invite you also to browse the SLAC earliest websites with an era-appropriate browser.