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HTML history: Milestones in the web markup language

html history
By Drazen Vujovic. Last Updated February 2, 2024

Hypertext Markup Language is the fundamental fabric of the Internet. Though it works quietly in the background, this program constantly reshapes the World Wide Web with new HTML tags and advanced features.

These features make it possible to create web pages with lots of interactive elements, but it wasn’t always like that. The early days of HTML were modest, which makes its 30-year evolution even more fascinating. 

In this post, we’ll show you a quick rundown of the HTML history. Let’s dive in!

Key takeaways

  • HTML was first designed as a science project at CERN by Tim Berners-Lee
  • This markup language was the single greatest contributor to the rapid expansion of the Internet during the 1990s
  • Modern HTML is a flexible language that powers advanced semantic elements, responsiveness, and rich multimedia content

The ideation phase

html ideation

The first version of HTML was published in 1993, but the actual work on building this markup language took several years in the late 1980s and early 1990s. HTML’s foundations were laid out in CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. 

The initial idea behind Hypertext Markup Language was to help CERN researchers organize scientific information. That’s why the earliest iterations of HTML were rudimentary and utilitarian. 

In this period, computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee introduced the first set of HTML tags. These could form a basic structure that allows documents to link to each other through a nascent system of hypertext. It’s important to point out that these pioneering steps still had nothing to do with web browsers or interactive web applications we know today. 

However, it soon became evident that HTML is able to transcend its scientific origins to completely change the way information is presented online. 

The first version of HTML

html first version

The history of HTML officially started in 1993 when Berners-Lee published the inaugural version of this markup language. This was the first attempt to organize the burgeoning expanse of information on the Internet. HTML 1.0 introduced a basic yet groundbreaking set of tags for structuring digital documents.

The original contained only 18 HTML tags, but this was enough to organize a simple web page in a user-friendly manner. Some of the main HTML elements included:

  • Headings
  • Paragraphs
  • Basic text formatting (bold/italic)
  • Lists
  • Hyperlinks
  • Images

This was a revolutionary moment in the history of the Internet, but the initial version of HTML had many practical issues. For instance, it focused on static content that left little room for interactive web page elements. In addition, it was difficult to organize the layout of web pages because the language lacked the corresponding HTML elements. 

On the other hand, the sheer simplicity of HTML ensured quick adoption that led to the quick expansion of the Internet. 

HTML 2.0 was a leap forward

html 2.0

The second version of HTML — released in 1995 — marked a significant leap forward in the evolution of the Hypertext Markup Language. The main goal of HTML 2.0 was to standardize the markup language as the Web rapidly expanded.

That’s why the Internet Engineering Task Force formed a special HTML working group in 1994 to deal with the standardization of HTML.

IETF in a nutshellThe Internet Engineering Task Force is a community of stakeholders concerned with the overall functioning of the Web architecture. As an open community, IETF gathers international organizations, browser vendors, scientists, developers, designers, and other web development professionals.

This HTML specification added new elements to the program to refine the structure and functionality of web documents. For example, it introduced the table tag to support tabular data presentation, but dozens of other elements were also added to the system.

At about the same time, Microsoft launched its Internet Explorer on August 16, 1995. This operating system played a big role in the early popularization of the World Wide Web, which consequently contributed to the further adoption of HTML.

The World Wide Web Consortium

In the meantime, Tim Berners-Lee launched the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) in 1994 with the idea of standardizing HTML protocols. The W3C had huge support from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and CERN. 

The W3C became an open platform where industry stakeholders could collaborate to develop and maintain web standards. Some of its primary goals were to:

  • Facilitate the growth of the Internet 
  • Establishing common protocols and guidelines
  • Foster innovation
  • Promote a decentralized web, accessible to everyone

HTML 3 (1997)

hmtl 3

The W3C soon launched its first HTML version officially labeled 3.2. This one added new elements to the extending HTML features list to make the system even more powerful. For instance, HTML 3.2 improved the table tag and introduced the form tag for designing interactive web forms.

It also focused on multimedia elements. With this release, HTML was capable of supporting audio and video files. It also supported embedding for external objects such as documents or interactive media.

The growing influence of CSS

HTML proved to be a great markup language, but it couldn’t handle the entire Internet on its own. It needed help from other programs. 

Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) stepped in by introducing a clear separation between the structure and presentation of web documents. Before CSS, HTML was responsible for both content and formatting. The system was working, but it led to complex and convoluted code. 

That’s why web designers started using CSS in the late 1990s to control the visual presentation of HTML documents independently. CSS provided a flexible styling mechanism that ensured consistent design. This separation made codes more readable and much easier to maintain.

HTML 4 (1999)

html 4

The fourth iteration had a much more profound impact on web development than its predecessor. Apart from embracing CSS as a standard in web page creation, HTML 4 added a range of new features to enrich the code. 

For instance, the alt tag made the system more accessible by helping persons with impaired vision understand the content of a web page through text descriptions. In addition, HTML 4 started supporting scripting languages (most notably JavaScript) to make web content even more dynamic.  

HTML 5: The latest iteration

html 5

HTML 5 was officially introduced by the W3C in October 2014. This version of the markup language was a big step forward compared to all of its predecessors because it brought forth a host of new features to enrich the web experience:

  • A strong focus on multimedia files
  • Advanced semantic elements
  • A simpler syntax 
  • Responsive markup practices

The last entry was particularly important for the growing number of users who accessed the Web through different types of devices. Though fairly old from the tech perspective, HTML 5 is still the most commonly used markup language among web developers. 

The XHTML phase

Back in 1999, the W3C also launched the Extensible Hypertext Markup Language (XHTML) that follows the rules and syntax of the Extensible Markup Language (XML). Simply put, this is a redesigned HTML document that complies with XML standards.

XHTML was built to combine the flexibility of HTML with the strict syntax of XML, which made the system more interoperable across different platforms. However, the language turned out to be a tad too rigid for many web developers — as you’ll see in the next section.

W3C vs. WHATWG

The W3C used to manage the evolution of web protocols, but the monopoly ended in 2004 when a group of highly influential stakeholders established the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group (WHATWG).

Members of WHATWG stated that they “were becoming increasingly concerned about the W3C’s direction with XHTML and its lack of interest in HTML.” They took a more pragmatic approach to satisfy the needs of browser vendors in real time without waiting for a lengthy standardization process.

The struggle between the two organizations was full of ups and downs, but WHATWG eventually prevailed. They convinced the W3C to return to the standardization of traditional HTML and recommend the then new version called HTML 5. 

This practically turned WHATWG into the leading authority in the field, so it officially became the sole moderator of contemporary markup protocols in 2019. Their HTML 5 version is still active, but most developers know it by the name HTML Living Standard. 

What’s next for HTML?

Now that HTML is in the living standard mode we shouldn’t expect huge leaps in the future. On the contrary, this markup language will likely see lots of small improvements that will further enhance its functionality. Most importantly, all of these changes will remain backward compatible to ensure the functionality of the existing sites and web infrastructures.

Drazen Vujovic

Dražen Vujović is a journalist and content writer. More importantly, he is a father of two and a long-distance runner.

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