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Scientists' search for 1st Web page leads them to N.C. prof

| Saturday, June 15, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

For the European physicists who developed the World Wide Web, preserving its history is as elusive as unlocking the mysteries of how the universe began.

The scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known by its French acronym CERN, are searching for the first Web page. It was at CERN that Tim Berners-Lee invented the Web in 1990 as an unsanctioned project, using a NeXT computer that Apple co-founder Steve Jobs designed in the late 80s during his 12-year exile from the company.

Dan Noyes oversees CERN's website and has taken on the project to uncover the world's first Web page. He says that no matter how much data they sort through, researchers might never make a clear-cut discovery of the original Web page because of the nature of how data is shared.

“The concept of the earliest Web page is kind of strange,” Noyes said. “It's not like a book. A book exists through time. Data gets overwritten and looped around. To some extent, it is futile.”

In April, CERN restored a 1992 copy of the first website that Berners-Lee made to arrange CERN-related information. It was the earliest copy CERN could find at the time, and Noyes promised to keep looking.

Once National Public Radio did a story on the search, a professor at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill came forward with a 1991 version. Paul Jones met Berners-Lee during the British scientist's visit to the United States for a conference in 1991, just a year after Berners-Lee invented the Web. Jones said Berners-Lee shared the page with the professor, who has transferred it from server to server through the years. A version remains on the Internet at an archive Jones runs, ibiblio.

The Web page Jones preserved is familiar and quaint. There are no flashy graphics or video clips. Instead, it is a page of text on a white background with 19 hyperlinks. Some of the links, such as ones leading to information about CERN, have been updated and still work. On the other hand, a link to the phone numbers for CERN staffers is dead.

Noyes said he'll keep searching for earlier versions of the page, noting that he has to sort through plenty of old disks and other data submitted after NPR's story was released.

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