What is the smallest form that a genuinely world-changing idea can take? If you had to organize the truly disruptive ideas by how well they compressed as data, what would that ranking look like? No doubt, the canonical equations of physics and geometry and algebra would be at the top of the list. But somewhere close behind would be this unlikely sequence of text that a 23-year-old programmer named Lou Montulli wrote, sometime in the fall of 1994:
The text was the opening salvo of a short standards document that Montulli was working on as one of the first employees at the pathbreaking dot-com startup Netscape. Montulli was already a pioneer in those early days of the Web; he’d programmed one of the first hypertext browsers, Lynx, and taken the lead on several important additions to the HTML standard. But this little snippet of code—its file size limited to 4K—would go on to have a momentous impact on the world, one that in many ways ran counter to Montulli’s original motivation for writing it. Variations of that code are almost certainly installed on the computer you are using to read this essay, and billions of dollars in advertising revenue depend on it.
Lou Montulli was inventing with that sequence a new way of sharing identity on the Web, one that would become arguably the most important—and ultimately controversial—new standard introduced since the very early years of HTML: the cookie.
Born in 1970 to a military family, Montulli shuffled from army base to army base as a child, before settling in Kansas for his teenage years. Personal computers were just becoming a reality in those days, but they were not an early passion for Montulli.
“I took a computer science course in high school,” he recalls now with a smile, “which I mostly took because I heard that the teacher didn't really like to do anything except let you play video games. It wasn't because I was obsessed with computers—it just sounded like more fun than some of the other things that I could do in high school. But I did learn a little bit of Pascal programming in there, which made me think, okay, I can program.”
A few years later, he found himself at the University Of Kansas, working a side job doing tech support and other odds and ends for the university’s computing center. “We had this project at the university that had been kind of back-burnered for a while,” he says, “where we wanted to start what we called the ‘campus wide information system,’ which in today's world we would call a website.”
Unwittingly, Montulli had stumbled into a fascinating—and mostly forgotten—transitional period in digital communications. In the late 80s and early 90s, a critical mass of network-connected computers—some of them PCs attached to dial-up modems, some of them institutional mainframes—had emerged, particularly on university campuses. What had seemed like the stuff of science fiction just a few years before—ordinary people sitting at their home computers pulling down information from other computers around the world—now seemed within reach. But there was no standardized way of exploring that information space. A university could put some documents online, and you could use applications like Gopher to see a list of those documents and retrieve the ones that looked promising. But there was no way to search the documents, no way to connect them. It was like exploring a library exclusively by walking through the stacks, scanning the titles on each book’s spine.
It’s important to remember just how fragmented the network experience was in the early 90s, before the mass adoption of the Web. “Going online” could mean anything from visiting a small, dial-up bulletin board service maintained by a private group or a school, to using a proprietary commercial network like Compuserve or Delphi, to using an Internet-connected computer—most likely at a university or large corporation—where you could send email to other users much as we do today. Because the digital world had not settled on a common standard for sharing pages of information, interacting with many of these services was like living on a remote island with its own limited population, cut off from the rest of the global village.
Montulli had no way of knowing it at the time, but he was about to embark on an exceptionally productive period where he would help develop some of the core elements that ultimately defined the way people represent themselves—sharing ideas and identity—online. At some point in 1991, Montulli found a demo of a new application called HyperRez, which used a different model for exploring information space, one that computer scientists and experimental fiction writers had been experimenting with for the previous decade or two: hypertext. Instead of browsing static files, pulling them down one at a time, and reading through them in a linear fashion, hypertext let you jump from page to page, following hyperlinked words.
Before long, Montulli began tinkering with the idea of connecting the Gopher file system with a hypertext frontend. “I figured, well, how hard could it be to just glue the two together?” Looking back on the project, he chuckles at how little he understood about the underlying code at the time. “I have no idea how I actually did it,” he says. “I think one of my one of my skills is that I'm able to just understand things just enough to get them to work together.”
HyperRez was one of the early precursors of modern web browsers. Developed by Neil Larson, this DOS file browser program was built on the capabilities of Houdini, a knowledge network program that supported 2,500 topics cross-connected with 7,500 links in each file along with hypertext links. HyperRez’s hypertext engine played a crucial role in the creation of Lynx which gave momentum to the invention of the Web.
The program Montulli hacked together with a few other students turned out to have wider utility beyond just the “campus-wide information system” at the University of Kansas. Other universities adopted it to share their own data archives. Eventually, he gave it a name: Lynx. It was one of the world’s first hypertext browsers, though in its early days it wasn’t connected to the World Wide Web, which had just been officially announced by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN in Geneva. As Michael Grober, one of the Lynx co-creators, later recalled, “I like to say that we invented a Web. Rather than the Web, of course.”
“The momentum behind hypertext network hypertext was there—it was in the air,” Montulli says. “I didn't know it, but Tim Berners-Lee had already started working on HTML before I wrote the first version of Lynx. It's just that nobody knew about it because it was stuck in a little corner of Europe.”
Lynx turned 30 in 2022, making it the oldest web browser still being maintained. Currently, a group of volunteers led by Thomas Dickey make sure the latest version is up to date.
When HTML started to pick up steam, Montulli adapted Lynx to be able to read files in that format. Not long after that, Marc Andreessen launched Mosaic out of the University of Illinois in Urbana–Champaign. (Most people associate the Web revolution with Silicon Valley, but in many ways its true geographic roots were Geneva and the American Midwest.) Montulli found himself a central participant in an international conversation, happening through USENET, wrestling with the technical specs for a genuinely new medium. “It was the Wild West for releasing stuff and trying to make it all work together. It's amazing that we were able to have such agreement, but none of us had a lot of ego about things and nor did we have any corporate vested interest in a particular direction,” he says now. “By the time it got to 1993, the small group of people who were working on this were really convinced that we were building the information superhighway that Al Gore was talking about. We wanted the Web to be that thing.”
While the dot-com boom of the late 90s and the social media revolution would all be driven by tech juggernauts based on the West Coast—mostly in Seattle and the Bay Area—the initial roots of the online revolution were more diverse geographically: Berners-Lee devising HTML and HTTP at CERN in Geneva, Andreesen writing Mosaic in Illinois, Montulli building Lynx in Kansas. Even the then-giant proprietary network AOL was based in northern Virginia. Some of the tech titans on the West Coast underestimated the significance of the coming Web revolution. In his 1995 book on the future of technology, The Road Ahead, Bill Gates famously only mentioned the Internet a few times—though to his credit, he soon recognized his oversight and made the web browser Internet Explorer a major priority for Microsoft in the next few years.