When you think about the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, you probably think about all of their excellent particle smashing work, which recently culminated in the supposed discovery of the so-called ‘god’ particle, the Higgs Boson.
But twenty years ago this July, the researchers at CERN were responsible for another watershed moment, not in the history of physics, but in the history of the web: they put up the first ever image on the Internet. And they used a Macintosh to do it.
Over at Motherboard, they’ve got a fantastic write-up about how the first ever GIF was put up on the Internet, and it’s a totally weird story, involving a musical group of doo-wop loving CERN scientists known as Les Horribles Cernettes, who sang very funny pastiche songs about super-colliders.
It was an image of this group that became the first image ever uploaded to the Internet. Here’s how it went:
Lucky for him, de Gennaro had been toying around with a scanned .gif version of the July 18th photo, using version one of Photoshop on his color Macintosh. The .gif format was only five years old at the time, but its efficient compression had made it the best way to edit color images without slowing PCs to a crawl.
“The Web, back in ’92 and ’93, was exclusively used by physicists,” de Gennaro recalled. “I was like, ‘Why do you want to put the Cernettes on that? It’s only text!’ And he said, ‘No, it’s gonna be fun!’”
Berners-Lee handed the file off to Jean-François Groff, a programmer on the Web project. He was only too happy to work with it.
“Sex sells!” Groff said with a laugh. “It’s media. You put a pretty girl in the media, people will notice the media. And whatever is around the pretty girl? Sure.”
…The upload was simple and uneventful — uploads of anything on the early Web were more like saving a word-processing doc than anything else, Groff recalled. It popped up on a page about musical acts at CERN.
A microscopic percentage of the world saw the online version. “I had many more people seeing that photo on the posters around CERN,” de Gennaro posited. But in an almost imperceptible way, the world changed.
The image passed into obscurity, soon eclipsed by larger photographic projects (an effort to scan images from the Vatican archives was perhaps the most famous). The Mac on which the .gif was made died around 1998, de Gennaro recalled, and with it went the original version of the file.
You should definitely read the whole thing. It’s amazing how many things we take for granted that originated on a Mac.