Friday, 19 September 2014

Happy 20th birthday to YorkWeb!

Mike Brudenell looks back to the birth of the University website...

It's 11:55am on Monday, 19 September 1994. Several members of the Computing Service are gathered in our D/104 high performance workstation room in Derwent College, anxiously looking at our watches. Radio York said they'd be here for noon but there's still no sign…

We're about to launch the University's first ever website: the culmination of an accidental discovery and a year of hard work.

I joined the Systems Group within the Computing Service (now IT Services) in July 1988. The following year, our group were lucky enough to receive money from our departmental Innovation Fund to buy a computer, write some software, and create our Information Server. Recognising how useful it would be for people to see information and reference material online, we’d put in a bid to devise something to meet this need.

Computing, sometime in the '80s...
Over the next five years the Information Server was expanded as more and more departments started putting their reading lists, academic and administrative information onto it so they could be viewed 24 hours a day from anywhere on campus.

One of my own responsibilities was to keep an eye on mailing lists and newsletters to look for new technologies that might be of interest. And so, in late 1993, I spotted an interesting article describing work by Tim Berners-Lee: something called the 'World Wide Web', and along with it the first ever graphical 'web browser'.

Curious as to what this might be I had downloaded, built and played with the software and was fascinated: it let you organise and view information much like our own Information Server, but in a much more usable and easy to browse way. You could even include pictures, change fonts and colours. Wow!

I showed my mini test website to the Head of Systems, Dave Atkin, who recognised its potential. So we started planning to retire the Information Server and move all of its content over to this new-fangled Web-thing.

I was charged with setting up the web server software and storage that would hold all the information, whilst Dave wrote conversion programs to extract the menus and pages of data out of the Information Server and convert them into the HTML markup language used for the Web. He even managed to maintain the organisation of all the data, creating index pages corresponding to each of the Information Server’s selection menus.

The Birth of YorkWeb

The University's new website was to be called 'YorkWeb' and, as the new Academic Year fast approached, its launch was set for 19 September. We planned a small event to celebrate, there in D/104, with the Great and the Good of the University (and cheesy nibbles too!).

This was a big thing: there were very few websites in the whole world, let alone the UK! And ours would be unusual in containing lots of information right from Day One, thanks to our prior use of our Information Server.

Somehow the local Press and Radio York heard about the event and Radio York told us they wanted to cover the launch and would be there for noon.

John Byrne (left) talks to radio York.
Our author is lurking in the background (right)
11:56am …
11:57am …

Sudden commotion downstairs! A Radio York radio car screeched to a halt outside and a reporter came hurtling up the stairs, dragging a vastly long training cable behind him! He clipped on the microphone, adjusted his headphones, and smoothly launched into describing the scene to listeners. From his voice they’d never have guessed his mad flight up the stairwell and the cable dangling precariously down through the atrium!

At noon my colleague back in the department threw the metaphorical switch and YorkWeb, with the University's first ever home page, sprang into life. 

From left: Dave Atkin, Anne Worden, Mike Brudenell, Julian Richards.

As the years have passed web servers, web browsers and websites have become ever more capable. Way back at the start every page had a grey background: there wasn't a way of changing it. There were no animations, no embeddable fancy fonts, no way of wrapping text around a photo… and no advertising, no pop-up windows, no browser hijacking malware to take you to dodgy compromised websites!

As new features have been introduced to the Web so the design and content on web pages have evolved. The grey backgrounds are long-gone, and information is now organised not in an "aren't we clever having a website? Here are some links to take you to other companies' sites" but instead to draw you in - helping you to find the information you want, but also keeping you within the site.

Our own University home page has changed and evolved over the years too. Although that first web page sadly no longer exists it is possible to view many from 1997 onwards at the Internet Wayback Machine: a website devoted to taking snapshots of websites over the years. You can use it to view our homepage as the years go by:

And back to today…

So now, on 19 September 2014, we can take a moment to look back and remember. As part of its growing up, the University's website may have been renamed back in 2010 but, having been there at its birth, I'm afraid I’ll always think of it with its original name - so...

Happy 20th Birthday, YorkWeb!

And may you have many more of them.


  1. We also put together a summary of the changes to the homepage when it had a massive update last year: all the highlights of 20 years in one place :)

  2. Excellent - thanks for reminding us of that!

  3. A great read and lovely memories - thanks Mike


Anybody can comment on this blog, provided that your comment is constructive and relevant. Comments represent the view of the individual and do not represent those of The University of York Information Directorate. All comments are moderated and the Information Directorate reserves the right to decline, edit or remove any unsuitable comments.