Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

Happy 20th Anniversary to Silicon Valley’s First Web Site

Where were you 20 years ago today? Paul Kunz remembers vividly.

On Dec. 12, 1991, Kunz set up a Web interface based on a Web server to search a popular database of particle physics literature at Stanford, and sent an email to Tim Berners-Lee about it. It was the first Web site in North America and one of the first dozen in the world.

Berners-Lee called Kunz’s site “the killer app” for the Web, because it helped bring the Web’s value home to a larger audience — in this case, physicists.

The nice folks at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center connected me with the now-retired Kunz to take a walk down memory lane.

Kunz was a physicist at SLAC who was a NeXT computer enthusiast, which is how he connected to Tim Berners-Lee, who was based at SLAC counterpart CERN in Switzerland.

Kunz didn’t realize at the time just how interesting the World Wide Web was. Berners-Lee begged Kunz to come visit him, and even after Kunz realized the potential of accessing the SLAC physics database (called SPIRES) in the fall of 1991, he took three months to make it happen. And then after the site was up, Kunz moved onto other projects and left maintenance of the site to a group at SLAC that called themselves the WWW Wizards.

But Kunz does remember when he first saw the potential of the Web, on that 1991 visit to Berners-Lee in Switzerland.

“Physicists from all of the world wanted to access SPIRES to do reference searches, and we’d have to physically log into the mainframe, which was a foreign operating system to most people, and then issue commands,” Kunz said. “You’d have to send us an email. And if you got a search term wrong, do it again to get it right. I saw the Web would make a much easier interface.”

At the time, Kunz asked Berners-Lee if such a thing would work well over the Internet, and Berners-Lee said sure, “but he couldn’t demonstrate because all the world’s Web servers were in the same building that his office was in,” Kunz recalled.

Kunz said that the 10-year anniversary of the SPIRES site back in 2001 was a much bigger deal. There was a reunion conference at SLAC and articles about SPIRES in some 25 newspapers across the world. This year, I was the only one who came calling, after a PR person from SLAC suggested it.

Twenty years later, Silicon Valley keeps making world-famous Web sites. It’s getting harder to remember a time before that was so.

Kunz, who bought a smartphone a couple years ago and joined Facebook last year, said his favorite Web innovation is online airline reservations.

Here are some more resources about the SPIRES site, put together by SLAC.

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