In the history of printing, there is no more famous location than Mainz, Germany -- where Johannes Gutenberg developed movable type some 550 years ago.

The equivalent in the Internet world is Champaign, Illinois, where the World Wide Web was born 10 years ago.

Gutenberg's invention led to mass production of books, magazines, and newspapers -- and to huge improvements in education.

The invention of the first Internet browser, Mosaic, at the National Science Foundation's Supercomputer Centers (NSFSC) program at the University of Illinois 10 years ago may not be of the magnitude of Gutenberg's invention.

But then again, maybe it is.

Gutenberg's invention made printing presses available to a relatively low number of publishers.

"It (Mosaic) has put the power of the printing press into everyone's hands," said Don Reed, director of the NSFSC.

Some statistics that illustrate the phenomenal growth of the World Wide Web in the last decade:

  • In just 10 years, 581 million people across the world have become regular Internet users, and that number is projected by Nua.com to grow to 1 billion by 2005.
  • According to the Harris poll, 67 percent of Americans 18 or older now have access to the Internet -- up from just 9 percent in 1995 when Harris first began tracking such data.
  • High-speed Internet access is available in most schools and business, and 22 percent of American households are served by broadband Internet connectivity.
  • Netcraft Web Surver estimates that there are more than 38 million websites, and the number of emails is in the trillions every month.
  • Consumers spent some $74 billion shopping online in 2002 -- up 39 percent over 2001.
  • Forrester Research estimates the value of the dot-com sector of the world economy to be worth $6.8 trillion -- virtually all created in just the last decade!

What is the watershed that occurred 10 years ago in Champaign?

The foundation of the Internet was laid in the 1960s when the federal government -- mostly the Defense Department -- created the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). This agency created ARPANET to focus on the military's use of computer networking and communications technology -- advances that help lead to the great weaponry that was so profoundly demonstrated in the recent war in Iraq.

In 1985, the National Science Foundation created the NSFNET, a network that connected the five ARPA supercomputer centers (including the one in Champaign) to provide a computer network for research and education.

The Internet was text-based until a team of researchers based in Champaign developed the first popular graphic Web browser, Mosaic. Thousands of early adapters downloaded Mosaic for free from the NCSA's web site.

With this tool, text and graphics and video and audio could be included and seen on web sites. Shortly after these developments, the federal government allowed the first commercial use of the Internet, and the World Wide Web was born.

Marc Andreessen and other developers of Mosaic left NCSA to form Netscape, the first major commercial web browser.

Then came Microsoft, one of more than 100 companies to license Mosaic software, which developed Internet Explorer, now the most popular browser.

Reed's comment that the World Wide Web "has put the power of the printing press in everyone's hands" accurately sums up the problems facing traditional publishers.

Newspapers and magazines that had a corner on publishing and advertising -- especially employment, real estate, auto and classifieds -- face a strange world where potentially everyone owns a virtual printing press.

Governments -- especially repressive dictatorial regimes -- have much more difficulty containing the flow of information now that everyone in the world has assess to "the power of the press."

Few inventions so radically changed people's lives of so many as did those developed in Mainz Germany 550 years ago and in Champaign, Illinois, 10 years ago.

(Marc Wilson is General Manager/CEO of TownNews.com. He's reachable at 800-293-9576.)