How holes make websites14 November 2007
Okay, so lets go back to the beginning. Even the spear and the wheel were groundbreaking inventions at some point! Sometimes it seems like computers are magic but it’s really just lots of little bits coming together – little bits that are no different in functionality to wheels and spears.
In order to communicate with the very first computers you had to twist knobs and feed them paper with carefully positioned perforations. They didn’t have monitors, but could print out simple dots on paper. Being able to communicate with characters – keyboards, monitors, text documents, networks and all that is something we now very much take for granted. And now it’s completely normal to communicate through video, colourful graphics and stereo sound. Yet all these various stages were essential to where we are now.
The basis of a web page is something called HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language) , it is nothing other than a text document made up of the standard set of characters we find on an average keyboard. It’s a way of using text to format text, a bit like when you see a superscript number or an asterisk in an article indicating that a certain word has some other information* associated with it that you can usually discover by looking at the bottom of the page or at the back of the book. In HTML you’d do it something like this –
(Starting indicator)Special Text Here(Ending indicator)
well actually it’s like this –
<special>Special Text Here</special>
But you get the idea. The things with enclosing marks (the <blah> things) are called tags and the starting one has no “/” character and the ending one has to have one at the beginning as shown. Tags are never seen by the viewer, they just tell the computer how and where to display text. That’s it! That’s how all internet pages work, that’s how the world wide web works!
But then how are the individual characters represented inside the computer? Well they are represented by carefully positioned perforations, very much like the perforations punched into the input cards of the first computers. Except that the perforations are no longer made in card or paper but made in microscopic sheets of metal. The ‘holes’ are now hinged, so they are not permanent anymore like they used to be – a ‘hole’ can be opened and a ‘hole’ can be closed without a problem, in fact millions are opened and closed every second! So for every possible thing that a computer does its insides take on an utterly unique physical form.
So the crude technology of those first perforated cards is still used to this day, albeit on a microscopic level. And the basic manipulation and interpretation of text is what drives HTML and is what drives the internet – even all that flashy animated stuff.
*Like this you see!