NCSA Mosaic and the Truly Vintage Web

Note: This post is the second part in a two-part “comprehensive history of computing” series, begun here.

These folks offer us “the Vintage Web”, websites that look like they haven’t noticed the last ten years. That’s great.

But 1998 is late-on in internet World Wide Web history. What if you wanted to re-experience the truly vintage www? Even if we’ve forgotten it, a central tenet of HTML is that the display of content should be decided principally by the browser, not by the author. And there was a time, the truly vintage time, when that was still regarded as a feature of the web and not a bug. To really see the vintage web, you would need a truly vintage web browser.

Like, say NCSA Mosaic. You’ll recall that NCSA was the first browser for the World Wide Web to feature a Graphical User Interface (well, the first one not for lawyers). It opened the web to tens of thousands of newcomers in 1993, back before the browser wars had even begun. Netscape? Yet to be built on the bones of Mosaic. Internet Explorer? Isn’t “Explorer” the name Microsoft uses for both their file browser and their interface shell? Surely they aren’t using that name for a third application? Using Mosaic was a learning process: you weren’t just learning the interface of another browser, you were learning that a program could fetch hypertext markup language-encoded text pages from other computers on the Internet network, and display them on your own computer screen.

Well hey, here it is to download and install.

A caveat: only a version updated somewhat in 1997 is available for download, you can’t get v2.0 from 1993. But there’s plenty of 1993 to be felt here. For instance, the download is available as a 3MB file, or as smaller “DISKS”. It will install by default to C:\mosaic\; an entirely sensible place. When you try to connect to a site, it will first advise you that it is “looking up Domain Name Server” (true enough, so it is). The top item in the drop-down selection box of recommended Web sites is “Gopher Servers”, followed by “Home Pages”. “World Wide Web Info” is 5th down. And this line in the user’s manual I downloaded:

“For full functionality, you need access to the Internet. If you do not have access, see Appendix D, “Access Providers” for information.”

Sadly, the one thing it won’t do is load a remote web page for me. I’m not sure why not, and I couldn’t find an active Mosaic user’s forum to help me with my technical issue.

It will load local web pages. Here’s what one of those looks like, albeit with with a modernized “bgcolor” tag set:

But I remember the way the web first looked through that grey window. Square 16bit beveled icons, black serif text on a grey background, and the promise of universal access to the all the geographically dispersed information in the world.

(Here’s a genuine Mosaic screen cap that has survived from almost that far back. Novell’s service and support web site, circa early 1995, held on to by Nathan Zeldes.)


[…] part in a two-part “comprehensive history of computing” series, begun here and then here. […]


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