The Humble Origins of the HTML Blink Tag

Lou Montulli was one of the first people to work on the Netscape web browser, which gave birth to many of the venerable (and likely deprecated) web standards some of us grew up with. And if not for him, the much despised (or maybe loved) HTML Blink tag may never have existed. This is his story.

I am widely credited as the inventor of the Blink tag. For those of you who are relatively new to the Web, the Blink tag is an HTML command that causes text to blink, and many, many people find its behavior to be extremely annoying. I won't deny the invention, but there is a bit more to the story than is widely known.

Back in 1994 I was a founding engineer at Netscape, prior to that I had written the Lynx browser, which predated all of the other popular browsers at that time. Lynx had been and still is a text only browser and is commonly used in a console window on UNIX machines. At Netscape we were building software that used a graphical user interface and could express vastly more text styles and layouts as well as images and other media. We spent a lot of time thinking about the future of the web and new technologies that would enable new classes of documents, applications and uses. A few examples of those thoughts were, HTML Tables, SSL for secure communications, Plugins for extensions, and JavaScript to enable dynamic HTML.

Sometime in late summer I took a break with some of the other engineers and went to a local bar on Castro street in Mountain View. The bar was the St. James Infirmary and it had a 30 foot wonder woman statue inside among other interesting things. At some point in the evening I mentioned that it was sad that Lynx was not going to be able to display many of the HTML extensions that we were proposing, I also pointed out that the only text style that Lynx could exploit given its environment was blinking text. We had a pretty good laugh at the thought of blinking text, and talked about blinking this and that and how absurd the whole thing would be. The evening progressed pretty normally from there, with a fair amount more drinking and me meeting the girl who would later become my first wife.

Saturday morning rolled around and I headed into the office only to find what else but, blinking text. It was on the screen blinking in all its glory, and in the browser. How could this be, you might ask? It turns out that one of the engineers liked my idea so much that he left the bar sometime past midnight, returned to the office and implemented the blink tag overnight. He was still there in the morning and quite proud of it.

At the time there were 3 versions of the browser that ran on UNIX, Windows and Mac operating systems. For a short 12 hours the blinking was constrained only to the UNIX version, but it didn't take long for the blinking to spread to Windows and then the Mac version. I remember thinking that this would be a pretty harmless easter egg, that no one would really use it, but I was very wrong. When we released Netscape Navigator 1.0 we did not document the blink functionality in any way, and for a while all was quiet. Then somewhere, somehow the arcane knowledge of blinking leaked into the real world and suddenly everything was blinking. "Look here", "buy this", "check this out", all blinking. Large advertisements blinking in all their glory. It was a lot like Las Vegas, except it was on my screen, with no way of turning it off.

In the end, much was said, most of it in the form of flaming posts to various discussion boards, and the Blink tag will probably be remembered as the most hated of all HTML tags. I would like to publicly state that at no time did I actually write code or even seriously advocate for the Blink tag. It is true that I put forth the initial inspiration, but it really was merely a thought experiment. I am not going to name any names of the people who coded the dastardly deed, if they wish to step forward, they will need to do it themselves. In the end, the thing that I am truly sad about, is that Lynx never did get to blink. I am also sad to report that the St James Infirmary burned to the ground in 1997, it was a great place to hang out and will be missed.

/blink on,

:lou

Republished with permission from Lou Montulli.