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The Story of the First Photo on the Web

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CERN, the world's most awe-inspiring physics research facility, is pimping some images of its newly renovated Large Hadron Collider today. It reminds me of the very first time CERN pimped some images on the web nearly a quarter century ago. Let's just say they were not entirely scientific in nature.

That's the photo above—or at least, that's what we've been led to believe. The composite image is a promotional shot for Les Horribles Cernettes, a particle physics parody pop band led by Michele de Gennaro, a 3D graphics artist at CERN. The photo part was taken backstage at the 1992 Hadronic Music Festival by Silvano de Gennaro, Michele's then-boyfriend and an IT developer at CERN, with a Canon EOS 650. He later tricked out the image with those pink Cernettes graphics on the very first version of Photoshop. The comedic, nerd-girl, doo-wop band was a bit of an inside joke at the time. So de Gennaro never expected his janky album cover to change the world.


A Bit of Web History

In order to understand why the first photo on the web was such a big deal, it helps to understand how and why the web was built. It all started on December 20, 1990, when Tim Berners Lee first proposed the project while working as a software consultant at CERN. The web's initial ambitions were simple: helping scientists connect to the laboratory's servers more easily. In the beginning, that's exactly what it did.


The first website ever (pictured above) was all about the World Wide Web project. The site offered information about everything from technical details—namely how the HTML format worked—to the team involved in the project. Everything was hosted on Berners Lee's NeXT desktop computer. Check out the warning on the half-destroyed white sticker:

While there are no screenshots of the original page, the early web would've looked something like this on Berners Lee's computer:


For the first couple years of its existence, the web was primarily a medium for exchanging information about physics research. That all started to change when the technology started to support more than plain text.

Tim Berners Lee Was a Fan

De Genarro took that Cernettes photo on July 18, 1992. That was around the same time that Berners Lee was developing software that would enable the web to handle GIF images. Apparently, Berners Lee was just bumming around the office, working on his web project, when he asked Silvio de Gennaro, who sat nearby, for a few scanned photos that he could upload.


You might expect that the first photo on the web would've something historical, maybe a picture taken by a famous photographer. But instead, de Gennaro handed off that album cover he'd done for the Cernettes. Tim Berners Lee was a fan of the band, so when it came time to upload the first photo to the web, the Cernettes got the honor of being the first photo on the web:


Or at least that's what's been reported in recent years. Motherboard marked the 20th anniversary of the photo in 2012 by claiming that the Cernettes photo was the first on the web. The site also claimed that Berners Lee was a crossdresser. This sort of pissed off de Genarro, the original photographer and Photoshopper. On the Cernettes' website—which is still hosted on CERN's servers—he offered his version of the story. De Genarro explains how Berners Lee wanted "a few scanned photos of 'the CERN girls' to publish them on some sort of information system he had just invented, called the 'World Wide Web.'" Some sort of information system.

On a separate page that appears to have been added after the Motherboard story, he clarifies what happened and explains the photo's place in history:

One word about the press tornado that is happening right now around us, concerning the alleged "first photo on the web". If you read well our website, it says that it was, to our knowledge, the "first photo of a band". Dozens of media are totally distorting our words for the sake of cheap sensationalism. Nobody knows which was the first photo on the web. But our photo was one of those that changed the web, from a platform for physics documentation, to a media for our lives. It was the portal that opened the Web to music and arts, and to anything fun!

We never said that Tim Berners-Lee was a cross-dresser. This is pure nonsense.


Indeed, it's probably pretty difficult to know which was the very first photo uploaded to the web, as it sounds like Berners Lee was flying by the seat of his pants. Wired reported in 1999 that Cernettes photos "was among the first five pictures published on the web." Perhaps, it was the first! But we can't be sure.

A Sign of What Was to Come

What we do know is that this is the photo that changed how people used the web. It turns out that this choice of an image—pretty girls, looking pretty—was prescient.


Up until that point, the web had been a very serious place, where physicists exchanged very serious data. However, after seeing how wildly popular the tool was in the physics community, Berners Lee realized that this application could be used for much more than research. That's why he was experimenting with photos in the first place.

Berners Lee wanted to make the web fun. What's the best way to do that? Pictures of pretty girls, looking pretty, evidently. "Sex sells!" Jean-François Groff reportedly told Berners Lee about which image to upload at the time. "It's media. You put a pretty girl in the media, people will notice the media. And whatever is around the pretty girl? Sure."


It doesn't recently sound like Groff was much of a feminist, but he sort of had the sex part right. However, it's worth considering that the Cernettes image became more lasting because scientists thought it was cute and funny. So maybe the Cernettes image was the very first photo uploaded to the web or maybe it was the fifth. But it was almost certainly the web's original meme, the first cultural artifact that got passed around. ("Hamster Dance" is sometimes credited with being the web's first meme, but it didn't show up for another five years.)

So the Cernettes succeeded in doing what they always wanted to do: make scientists laugh. Sure, some of their songs were sort of melancholy—like "Collider", a ballad about physicists working too much and not spending enough time with their girlfriends. A lot of them were just silly inside jokes, just like the memes we pass around the web today. Whether they knew it or not, the Cernettes realized how the web would change the world. They even accidentally wrote a song about it, just like their album cover accidentally became a piece of web history.

Images via W3 / Wikipedia / Silvio de Gennaro