The Victorian Internet…

Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web – which is the operating system upon which the internet runs – but what is less well known is that his invention was inspired by a forgotten Victorian bestseller.

Enquire Within upon Everything was a ‘how-to’ miscellany that was first published in 1856, and designed to provide important information on all domestic matters for the Victorian home. Within the first six years of publication it had sold nearly 200,000 copies, and it continued to be reprinted and updated for over a hundred years, until the final edition in 1976. By then, it had been through 126 editions and had sold 1.5 million copies.

The book contained information on a variety of topics: laundry tips, cake recipes, parlour games, first aid, and even (so the editor’s introduction proudly informed readers) how to get married and bury a relative (though presumably not on the same day). Other pearls of domestic wisdom included the best way to restore rancid butter (by melting it in a water bath, with some coarsely powdered animal charcoal, before straining it through a flannel, in case you were wondering) and advice to wives (never let your husband find a shirt button missing when he gets dressed for work). The way to avoid a headache, the book recommends, is to keep your feet warm. Gloves, we learn, are always worn by a gentleman while he is out walking, as it’s a sign of good breeding. The book’s bold claim to contain something about ‘everything’ was hyperbole, of course, but it cannot be denied that it contained all sorts of things designed to be of use to the average household.

Which brings us to the World Wide Web. In 1980, Tim Berners-Lee was working at CERN in Switzerland. He was looking into ways of sharing information on local networks and developed a software project which would make this possible. He’d heard of Enquire Within upon Everything as a child – which shows how recently it was still to be found in British households – and named his program ‘Enquire’ in homage to the book, whose title he admired. The ‘Enquire’ program eventually became the World Wide Web, after Berners-Lee realized that his program could be used to share information more widely than Enquire allowed. Berners-Lee could have made himself a very rich man from his invention, but instead he gave the World Wide Web to the world for free.

The name ‘World Wide Web’, by the way, provides us with another Victorian link. Berners-Lee wasn’t the first to use the term, and the Oxford English Dictionary provides an example from 1965: it was used in a biography of Charles Darwin to refer to the network of contacts shared by the Victorian naturalist. So, in a weird way, the ‘World Wide Web’ was always destined to take us back to the Victorians.

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