Les Horribles Cernettes

The image above is, from left to right, Angela Higney, Michele de Gennaro, Colette Marx-Neilsen, Lynn Veronneau, from 1992. Individually, they were administrative assistants and/or spouses of researchers at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (which is now home to the Higgs boson-researching Large Hadron Collider). Collectively, they’re part of a musical group of sorts called Los Horribles Cernettes, a joke band from CERN, with “hits” such as “My Sweetheart is a Nobel Prize” and “Daddy’s Lab.” The image is a photoshopped version of this photograph and was originally intended to become a CD cover for the Cernettes’ 1992 album. And if that was all that happened, the image would be not worth mentioning.

But as it turns out, that photoshopped picture of a half-joke musical act is special. About twenty years ago, it became the first photograph ever used on the World Wide Web.

When we think about the multimedia experience that the web is now today, we lose sight of its more humble beginnings. Originally conceived by British computer scientist and CERN researcher Tim Berners-Lee in 1989, the web made its debut on December 25, 1990. But that rudimentary system consisted of (and was defined as) a web browser, a single web server, and a few web pages — and, more importantly, they were not publicly accessible. It would not be unveiled to the public until August of the following year when Berners-Lee and his student, Robert Cailliau, announced their “World Wide Web” project on an online newsgroup. And even then, the existing web pages were text documents (or more accurately, hypertext documents) which users could navigate through via links. There were no images.

That changed on July 18, 1992 or thereabouts. According to Silvano de Gennaro, the photographer of the picture above (and later, the husband of one of the Cernettes), Berners-Lee asked him “for a few scanned photos of ‘the CERN girls’ to publish on some sort of information system he had just invented, called the ‘World Wide Web.'” Not knowing the future levity of this “World Wide Web” thing, he happily obliged, scanning the photos in and sending them to Berners-Lee’s machine. (And via FTP at that — email attachments were only a few months old then.) Berners-Lee put the photograph on a web server and the rest is history.

The photograph is probably not the first picture uploaded to the web, as Berners-Lee was almost certainly testing before making this request of de Gennaro, but as de Gennaro originally noted, it was a “historical milestone” — “the first picture ever to be clicked on in a web browser.” (De Genarro updated his page on the topic after a blog asserted that Berners-Lee was a cross-dresser and wanted the photo in question because it somehow served that purpose; De Genarro also addressed that issue in this forcefully worded disclaimer.)  Most if not all of the test images were vector graphics, not photographs, so the above-displayed photoshopped picture is the web’s first photograph.

Today, the Cernettes are still performing — and, of course, using the web to do what most artists are doing: selling their music online.

Bonus fact: The first web server, seen here, was a NeXT Computer which cost $6,500,in the late 1980s, or about $12,000 in today’s dollars. Because turning it off would, in effect, turn off the entire web, Berners-Lee adorned it with with a sticker which read “This machine is a server. DO NOT POWER IT DOWN!!”

Double bonus!: The first email attachments were sent on March 11, 1992, by Nathaniel Borenstein, an American IT researcher. The attachments, sent to 100 recipients? Again, one was a photo of a half-joke IT musical act, seen here, called the Telephone Chords, of which Borenstein was a member. The other was of the Telephone Chords singing a parody of “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” which one can listen to here.

From the ArchivesThe Oldest Emoticon: The parenthesis-colon smiley faces which adorn our emails and text messages predate the web — and maybe by more than a century.

Related: “Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web” by Tim Berners-Lee, from November of 2000. 55 reviews, 4 stars, and somewhat surprisingly, not available on Kindle.

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