A light has been shone on one of the great mysteries of the internet. What is the point of the two forward slashes that sit directly infront of the “www” in every internet website address?
The answer, according to the British scientist who created the world wide web, is that there isn’t one.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who wrote the code that transformed a private computer network into the web two decades ago, has finally come clean about the about the infuriating // that internet surfers have cursed so frequently.
The physicist admitted that if he had his time again, he might have made a change, or more specifically, two.
“Really, if you think about it, it doesn’t need the //. I could have designed it not to have the //”, he said, speaking at a symposium on the future of technology in Washington DC last week.
Sir Tim ruefully explained that when he started devising the network almost 30 years ago he could not have predicted the hassle that has been caused by his small error in thinking about the way a web address is written.
“Boy, now people on the radio are calling it ‘backslash backslash’,” Sir Tim told his audience, even though he knows they are, in fact, forward slashes.
Showing them his index finger he added: “People are having to use that finger so much.”
He knows that no one has calculated the number of exasperated groans emitted at the sight of a “syntax error” message generated by the grave omission of a single slash.
Nor is there a figure on the number of occupational therapists kept in work treating repetitive strain injury caused by prodding the far right-hand button on the bottom row of a standard keyboard.
Nowadays web browsers such as Explorer usually fill in the slashes if you start the address with “www”.
But Sir Tim still laments the amount of additional printing that those two strokes have created over the years — an unimaginable legacy of printer ink and paper that has been wasted on those unnecessary characters.
The physicist is credited with being the architect of the world wide web, which was to transform the internet into something usable and understandable by more than just computer programmers.
“Suppose all the information stored on computers everywhere else were linked,” he mused in his book, Weaving the Web. “Suppose I could program my computer to create a space in which anything could be linked to anything.”
Today the URLs — better known as web addresses — that Sir Tim created, beginning Protected content , are familiar to anyone navigating their way around the internet.
Many have argued that he would have been awarded the Nobel prize had his discoveries had been spun out of traditional sciences.
Today, he is the director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which oversees the web’s continued development.
Considering his achievements, maybe Sir Tim can be forgiven his double-slash mistake. How was he to know that his interesting idea would cause the biggest revolution in communications since the creation of the printing press?
The error is characteristic of a restless man with big ideas that he wanted to implement quickly. Colleagues at the CERN institute in Geneva where he developed his ideas asked him to speak in French instead of English in the hope of slowing down his torrent of words.
If he had eased up a little, maybe he would have spotted his error in thinking.
Although he acknowledges the mistake, he addresses it with a shrug of the shoulders.
“There you go, it seemed like a good idea at the time.” he said.