Ada Lovelace Day: Nicola Pellow

Ada Lovelace day is every 15th of October, and an opportunity to create content about amazing women in science, technology, engineering and maths.

By now we all know the story about how Tim Berners-Lee invented the world wide web (not “the internet“, which was the US military) using an expensive NeXT computer in CERN in 1990. But one of the most mind-blowing things about the web, and the reason that it became such a global and lasting phenomenon, is because it is cross-platform. You can view (or could, until the comparatively recent and hopefully transitory rise of mobile browsers requesting mobile-friendly pages) the same world wide web on every flavour of device. How did that happen?

The first cross-platform browser was developed by Nicola Pellow, a mathematics student on placement in CERN from Leicester Polytechnic (now De Montfort University). It was the deliberately simple “Line Mode Browser“, which ran on just about every major computer platform at the time and offered access HTTP, FTP and TELNET protocols amongst others.  She worked on the project with Berners-Lee and Henrik Nielssen.  It was so simple that a terminal with a screen only capable of showing 24 rows of 80 characters, and with no mouse, could run it.

In those days the web was a much simpler place, with smaller pages far more reliant on plaintext, simply marked up in HTML. To see how the increased complexity of webpages has made cross platform compatibility harder, you can use a HTML5 version of the Line Mode Browser to view the web as it would have looked in 1992. Or hack this link to go to a web page of your choice. And here’s a lovely blog post on the joys of re-creating the experience at a CERN hack day, and the code and resources are available to play with at home.

Other than the origination of the web itself, it is difficult to think of anything  that spurred the spread of near-universal access to information as much as Nicola Pellow’s placement year project, and for that reason alone I think that she deserves some FindingAda recognition.

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