Exploring History on the Web
When the Web was Young
s historians, we begin with a little history. The first web pages emerged in that faraway era of the early 1990s. Email and the Internet were already becoming well known, but the web, which like email uses the Internet’s global computer network to share information in commonly agreed-upon ways, had its start among physicists only in 1991. It moved into the mainstream in 1993 when the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois released Mosaic, an easy-to-use graphical web browser that ran on most standard computers. Between mid-1993 and mid-1995, the number of web servers—the computers that house websites—jumped from 130 to 22,000.
Even with the user-friendly Mosaic encouraging a major expansion of this new medium, only a few historians ventured out on the web frontier. Many of the pioneers already had some technical interests or background. In November 1994, Morris Pierce, an engineer who had recently earned a history Ph.D., created one of the first departmental websites for the University of Rochester. It “seemed like a natural thing to do,” he recalls. George Welling already worked in a department of humanities computing, which the University of Groningen (Netherlands) had created in 1986. In the fall of 1994, Welling developed a course in computer skills for American history students and asked them to construct an American Revolution website. Welling’s site, From Revolution to Reconstruction, quickly became one of first popular history websites, although he observes, “it took quite some time before my colleagues accepted this as an academic venture.”1
Other History Web pioneers came to the medium out of experience with earlier Internet applications, particularly email. In the late 1980s, Joni Makivirta, a student at the University of Jyvaskyla, Finland, started an online history discussion list because he noticed lists on other topics and thought a history list would allow him “to get ideas from professional historians around the world” for his master’s thesis. The participants included George Welling; Thomas Zielke, who later took over the list; Richard Jensen, who went on to found H-Net in 1993; Donald Mabry, a Latin American historian at Mississippi State University; and Lynn Nelson, a medievalist at the University of Kansas. In 1991, Mabry—responding to the difficulty of circulating large documents via email—began to make available primary sources and other materials of interest to historians via “anonymous FTP”—a “file transfer protocol” that allows anyone with an Internet connection to download the files to his or her own computer. Nelson created his own site and then had the idea of linking the emerging set of history FTP sites into HNSource using Gopher, a hierarchical, menu-driven system for navigating the Internet that was much more popular than the web in the early 1990s. In September 1993, just after Mosaic was released, Nelson made HNSource available through the new web protocols, and it became one of the first historical sites on the web—perhaps the very first.2
In the 1980s and early 1990s, the most intense energy in digital history centered not on the possibilities of online networks but rather on fixed-media products like laserdiscs and CD-ROMs. In 1982, the Library of Congress began its Optical Disk Pilot Project, which placed text and images from its massive collections on laserdiscs and later CD-ROMs. With a large amount of material already in digital form, the library could quickly take advantage of the newly emerging web. In 1992, it started to offer its exhibits through FTP sites. Two years later, the library posted its first web-based collection, Selected Civil War Photographs.3