Christian Chadd Taylor and the Search for the World Wide Web

August 31, 2012

One warm summer afternoon in 2000, Christian Chadd Taylor, a young lawyer in his sixth year as an attorney at a prominent law firms, Kirkland & Ellis, found himself driving a rental car up a long, narrow and steep road in the Alpine foothills outside Geneva, Switzerland. Taylor, a lean, broad shouldered, wiry individual who enjoyed rock-climbing, had humble beginnings—a workingman’s family in the tiny community of Shoals in southern Indiana, population 807. A decade earlier he had earned a degree in electrical engineering at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, where he had been president of the student government. He then earned a JD degree from the Indiana University Law School, where he had served as editor-in-chief of the law review. He was now on a quest for evidence in a patent infringement case, evidence that he felt certain would tilt the case in favor of his clients, his firm, and he hoped, his career.

Christian Chadd Taylor as an undergraduate. Photo from “To Be The Best: Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, 1974-1999”

His quest already had taken him from Chicago, the firm’s home office, to California, France, the Netherlands, and now, for a third time, to Switzerland and this time to the mountain residence of one of the individuals who had helped write the code for the World Wide Web. His host met him at a prearranged spot halfway up the mountain. The road, his host had said, was “such a maze it would not be possible to find his house easily.” The house turned out to be “a fairly nondescript concrete structure.” It had “a small, flat, open front yard, no houses nearby, and a grand view of the Alps.” Taylor recalled that his host, Jean-Francois Groff, “took me up there; we parked…  His wife had prepared lunch and was preparing a picnic table in the yard, with the vista backdrop.” Jean-Francois, then in his mid-twenties, was handsome with a scraggly beard and long hair. He spoke excellent English and was working as a programmer for a small technology company. The picnic table was arranged in such a way that they could watch soccer (“football” in Switzerland) on television.

The Groffs asked Taylor to join them. So, putting aside his preoccupation with time, he relaxed and accepted their hospitality. An hour and a half had passed before Taylor’s host seemed ready for the business at hand. Taylor then explained that Groff’s supervisor at his former job at the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) — Tim Berners-Lee — and Berners-Lee’s CERN colleague — Robert Cailliau — both had said they thought Groff might know the whereabouts of the evidence he was seeking.

Taylor’s memories of this afternoon remain vivid. Before leaving his hotel, he had spoken with Jean-Francois by telephone. “Basically, the drama was this,” he later recalled. I was looking for digital files that might reveal the origin of the World Wide Web and “which Groff assured me he had (‘everything you need’) . . . . It sounded too good to be true, as all previous efforts had been only somewhat fruitful.” It had become “increasingly clear,” he said, “that the founders of the [World Wide] Web [Berners-Lee and Cailliau] had been much less concerned with preserving the original work than they were with developing and promoting it, albeit not for pecuniary gain. In fact, a laser disc that was transported to the United States in December 1990, with the files I likely needed, had been misplaced, and never recovered. Bits and pieces of various files had been collected by me through many interviews, and there was a small assortment available on-line through Tim’s group at MIT (The Massachusetts Institute of Technology), the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) standards group, and a little from SLAC (The Stanford Linear Accelerator Center). But it was apparent that much of the work had not been kept.”

“I was trying at times,” as Taylor recalled his increasingly late afternoon at Groff’s home, “to subtly turn a pleasant conversation about our backgrounds, travel, and a little philosophy, into some focus on what I was there for” as an attorney defending the owners of the patent for database-search on the World Wide Web. He needed, if possible, to invalidate the contested patent “by finding prior art that would show that the feature the patent was asserted against had been made public in the United States a year prior to the filing of the patent. Still, Jean Francois steered the conversation away repeatedly, assuring me that he had everything I needed, in the barn, next to the house, and that I should have more wine; and we would get to the computer files whenever we got to them. Jean-Francois certainly impressed upon this southern-Indiana-blue-collar kid a European sensibility of priorities — of which work, on a beautiful weekend afternoon in a beautiful place with happy conversation and company, placed a distant second or third. And so I did have more wine, cheese and discourse; and we had a great afternoon, leading into the European football championship that evening, but always with a section of my brain reserved, preserved, and focused on that barn that was connected to the house. I believe that only at halftime did we go to the barn and turn on the computer.”

After several minutes of downloading digital folders, Groff said: “I think this is it.” Taylor later would characterize what he saw. It was, he said, “the mother lode, a cornucopia of Web material.” The discs that Groff had downloaded contained no less than the World Wide Web’s code as it had had flowed from Berners-Lee’s finger tips. Groff, it turned out, almost immediately after Berners-Lee’s departure for a new position as director of the World Wide Web consortium in the United States, had had the good sense to download it from the hard drive of the NeXT computer (property of CERN) that Berners-Lee had used.

Taylor recalled that “Once he had drilled down into the Tim Berners-Lee’s folders, it became apparent to me that Jean Francois had another sensibility” that he prized that day. “He was an electronic packrat. He had pulled up hundreds of files from the 1989-91 timeframe. He had not only saved everything he did for Tim, but had talked Tim [into allowing him to take] a forensic snapshot of his NeXT computer and the files it contained.   We spent the next half hour or so downloading these files, extracting those that Jean Francois had deemed personal to Tim.”

The files, Taylor quickly saw, contained the hypertext mark-up language (HTML), hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP), uniform resource identifiers (URI) (including the now well-known uniform resource locator, URL) and accompanying browser/editor, gateway interfaces, servers, and associated devices that Berners-Lee, with Groff’s assistance, had made publicly available on the Internet on August 6, 1991. It was the code with which by the year 2000, after augmentations and refinements, several million Web developers, organizations, and corporations had created Web sites and tens of thousands of applications, many of which were commercially interesting and a few of which were already profitable. Groff, at Taylor’s request, proceeded to download the code from these files onto a single compact disc.

Taylor, smiling, said that unless Jean-Francois objected, he would take the disc to the United States for analysis. Groff was agreeable. “I drove back to Geneva,” Taylor recalled, “only to meet mobs of people in the street. The soccer game had concluded, and someone had won and someone had lost. Geneva is a very international city, and even though it wasn’t the Swiss who were playing, there was plenty of celebration in the streets, which were filling up, as I slowly made my way through and back to the hotel. It was a European end to my own very European and, in my mind, successful day. There was a parallel celebration occurring in my own head over retrieving what seemed like a complete archive of the World Wide Web.”

In the next few days the compact disc containing the World Wide Web archive traveled in Taylor’s briefcase across the Atlantic and on to the American Midwest. Reaching Terre Haute, Indiana, Taylor handed it to a young professor, Dr. J.P. Mellor, in the Computer Science Department at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. Within a short time, using the NeXT computer in his office, Mellor certified that Berners-Lee’s code contained a browser with database search capability. This was the first of two things Taylor needed to know, and in the next several weeks additional investigations told him the other thing — that in December 1991 Berners-Lee had used his Web browser in the United States for searching the scientific database at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in Palo Alto, California.

Taylor had accomplished his mission. His trip to Switzerland had been his assignment as part of a team of Kirkland & Elllis lawyers defending General Motors and thirty-two other large companies — including hotel chains — who were using the popular Netscape Web browser by then owned by America Online (along with, interestingly, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser, since it also was vulnerable if the plaintiff won) from a patent infringement suit.

Specifically, Taylor had needed to find out whether a Web browser with database search capability had existed prior to one invented by the plaintiff, a University of California professor named Alan Konrad. He claimed that the database search functions of the Netscape and later browsers had infringed a patent he had filed in January 1993. He said companies using them therefore owed him many millions of dollars in damages. Taylor, because he now had in his possession the authenticated contents of Berners-Lee’s hard drive, was able to show that the world’s original Web browser contained such functions and had demonstrated them in the United States before January 1992 — a year prior to Konrad’s patent application — and thus “prior art.”

Taylor’s accomplishment, thanks to his ingenuity and persistence and Groff’s history-mindedness, brought a successful outcome for Kirkland & Ellis. In the following years, as a result of this and the excellence of his work, Taylor became a capital partner of the firm. He helped it establish its San Francisco office in 2004 and, four years later, became founder and senior partner of the intellectual property practice at the firm’s Palo Alto office. Meanwhile, also that year, he helped Rose-Hulman faculty and Robert Cailliau arrange an international conference at Rose-Hulman entitled: “The World Wide Web at Ten.” This event gathered European and American Web pioneers to commemorate the origins of Web at the end of its first decade of commercial use. Finally, in 2006, Taylor became founding president of the Web History Center, a non-profit educational corporation chartered in Indiana. The disc containing Berners-Lee’s code remains at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, where it is available for viewing and research at the Institute’s Logan library.

The Web History Center, for its part — with the assistance of Rose-Hulman students, faculty, and staff and the Center’s member institutions — is building a secure, interactive digital archive/library/user interface that will let anyone with an Internet link to have quick access both to Berners-Lee’s original code and to the many other files and objects that depict the advent and development of the tool that the interested individual at that very moment is using to connect and learn. By this device, in other words, the Center will be using the Web to preserve and make available to posterity its own history.

©2012 William B. Pickett. All Rights reserved.