Ancient Web Browsers
Last updated: 23 Jul 2022
This is an archive of the very earliest Web browsers -- the true pioneers, the Old Gods, the Ancients:
WorldWideWeb, LineMode, Viola, Erwise, Midas, TkWWW, Samba, Lynx, w3, FineWWW
What makes a browser ancient ? Since Mosaic popularized the Web (or as another source puts it, "set the Web free"), it makes a good benchmark. Mosaic for X 1.2, which appears to be the most widely-distributed early version, was released in June 1993. Mosaic for X 2.0, along with the first versions for Macintosh and Windows, was released in November 1993. So, I'd say anything from before mid-1993 clearly qualifies, arguably extending into early 1994.
Why search for and collect the earliest versions? For the same reasons we keep physical objects in museums. Source code is an artifact. Artifacts are history. Let's preserve these artifacts.
Below are links to everything I've been able to find. Please help me locate missing browsers and versions.
Also included are some notes on my attempts to build and run these programs and screenshots of the browsers in action. At least one early version of almost every browser archived here will build on NeXTStep 3.3 in Previous with (where necessary) CubXWindow and LessTif.
- Missing browsers
- X Mosaic
- Sean Palmer's "Earliest Web Screenshots" and "Proto HTML"
- Richard McManus's Web Development History blog
- Alfie Knight's detailed (but not 100% accurate) "Timeline of Web Browsers"
- CERN's "The Birth of the World Wide Web (Timeline)"
- Robert Cailliau's "A Little History of the World Wide Web (1995)"
These browsers may be lost. (They are mentioned by TimBL in various places.) Please let me know if you have sources or binaries for any of these browsers:
The very first browser, written by the person who invented the Web.
This project is experimental and of course comes without any warranty whatsoever. However, it could start a revolution in information access.
-- TimBL, 20 August 1991
Tim Berners-Lee's WorldWideWeb/Nexus is more readily available still than most other ancient browsers. Even so, very early versions are difficult to come by. I've archived available versions up to 1.0 here.
These archives all include M68K NeXTStep binaries, so they run, but I can't get them to successfully make GET requests to the outside world.
- Pre-0.12 - missing
- Version 0.12 (August 1991)
- Version 0.15 (January 1993)
- Version 0.16 (February 1993)
- Version 1.0 (June 1993)
Nicola Pellow's original portable browser.
Version 0.11 builds but does not GET. Version 2.11 builds and works. A complete dated version history is available.
- Pre-0.9 - internal CERN versions; missing
- Version 0.9 - (June 1991) first publicly announced release; now seems to be missing
- Version 0.11a (August 1991)
- Version 1.0 alpha (December 1991; seems to be missing files)
- Version 2.11 (September 1993)
- Version 2.15 (September 1994)
Pei Wei's adaptation of his Viola language application for HTML; also the recommended browser within CERN for a time.
I have been able to find three versions of Viola: one from 1992, one from 1994, and a third (final?) version from 1995. I've only been able to build the 1994 version.
There's also a Sun binary I have not been able to test -- please let me know if you're able to run it!
- Viola (July 1992; see here)
- Viola 3.1 Beta (March 1994; see here)
- Viola 3.3 (April 1995; see here)
- Sun/SPARC binary
The work of Finnish students Kim Nyberg, Teemu Rantanen, Kati Suominen, and Kari Sydänmaanlakka.
Erwise was distributed as source and as binaries for Sun and Ultrix. The binaries show "Version 0.1 Alpha" in their info panels, whereas the compiled source's info panel shows "Version 1.0 Alpha." The binaries are from late March 1992, and the source is from July 25, making version progression plausible. On the other hand, the source directory unpacks to
erwise-0.1, and the www-talk message announcing the only release is dated July 26 -- one day after the source code -- and refers to version 0.1.
This builds most easily (in my experience) of all the truly ancient browsers besides LineMode, but it actually runs successfully on very few platforms (due possibly to Motif implementation issues that were reportedly a problem at the time).
Thanks to Roy at RT’s Free Soft we have source and a binary that (I can confirm) runs on Ubuntu 9.10 (2009) with Lesstif2 installed.
- Version 0.1/1.0 source (July 1992)
- Version 0.1 binary (Sun)
- Version 0.1 binary (Ultrix)
- Ubuntu 9.10 source
[Ubuntu runs GCC 4.4.1, and Roy's changes to the original source code are minimal, so I suspect that this will build on any system that has GCC 4.x.]
Tony Johnson of SLAC's Motif browser, notable for its ability to display postscript files.
Here is Johnson writing presciently about the Web in late 1994 in SLAC's Beam Line quarterly magazine:
At worst [the World Wide Web] may just become a glorified video delivery system and integrated home shopping network with a built-in method of tracking your purchases and sending you personalized junk e-mail. At its best such as system could provide truly interactive capabilities, allowing not only large corporations and publishers but also individuals and communities to publish information and interact through the network, while maintaining individual privacy. The outcome will have a major impact on the quality of life in the 21st century, influencing the way we work, play, shop, and even how we are governed.
The source for version 1.0 was recovered and posted to Github in 2015 by Dan Connolly. It was patched to (partially) run on (some) modern (32 bit) systems by Kostas Michalopoulos, as detailed on Reddit.
Unfortunately, MidasWWW (1.0) displays rather than ignores HTML tags it doesn't recognize, making it completely unsuitable for browsing even basic modern pages.
- Version 1.0 (November 1992)
- Version 1.0 KM Patches (1992/2018)
- Version 2.0 pre1 (November 1993; Chinese language support fork? See the supplementary README)
- Version 2.1 (incomplete?) (April 1994)
- Version 2.2 - missing
Joseph Wang's excellent Tcl/Tk browser/editor.
TkWWW 0.12 builds on NeXTStep 3.3 with CubXWindow and Tcl7.4/Tk4.0; earlier versions of TkWWW seem to require earlier Tcl/TK versions. Here are my build notes for version 0.12.
- Version 0.8 and prior - missing
- Version 0.8 alpha (May 1993)
- Version 0.9 (September 1993)
- Version 0.10 (December 1993)
- Version 0.11 pre 3 (DEC) (April 1994)
- Version 0.11 pre 3 (Linux) (April 1994)
- Version 0.11 (April 1994)
- Version 0.12 pre 1 (June 1994)
- Version 0.12 beta (June/July 1994)
Nicola Pellow and Robert Cailliau's browser for the Macintosh. No sources, although apparently source code was distributed at one point. (This was reportedly released as a commercial product by CERN, costing 50 ₠.)
- Sources - missing
- Version 1.00 - missing
- Version 1.02 - missing
- Version 1.03
Lou Montulli, Michael Grobe, and Charles Rezac's famous terminal browser. Like ViolaWWW, Lynx was initially developed as an independent hypertext system; WWW capabilities were added later. Lynx now has the distinction of being the oldest continuously-maintained web browser.
Change logs indicate that the ability to read HTML documents was added to Lynx in a revision dated March 9th, 1993. The earliest version I can find came nine months later: version 2.1.1.
- Version 2.0.12 and prior - missing
- Version 2.1.1 (December 1993) - compiles on NeXT with no changes
- Version 2.2 (February 1994)
- Version 2.3 (May 1994)
Since I define "ancient" by reference to predating Mosaic, I only archive versions of it up to 1.0 here.