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Posted 5 Sep 2015
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JavaScript: A Brief History - Part I

, 5 Sep 2015
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JavaScript is 20 years old. Shall we look back and take some snapshots of the milestones?


In 1995, looked like this:

msn 1995

In 1996, Google search looked like this:

google at 1996

In 1997, looked like this:

(Ok, front-end developers, rejoice! You should feel giddy how great your website(s) look(s) now compared to the Google/MSN/Apple sites then).

However laughably inelegant and rudimentary the earliest websites are, they have a whole army of unsung and sung heroes to thank for. Of them, Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web; Marc Anderseen, the co-creator of Mosaic and co-author of Netscape and many more.

And this guy named Brendan Eich, the creator of JavaScript:

In 1995, after spending 10 sleep-deprived, caffeine-infused glorious/hellish days, Eich created the little brother of Java, and named it humbly as JavaScript (though in reality JavaScript has little to do with Java) and pictured himself as the victorous Bruce Campbell.

The rest is history.

The Search for History

I have a bit of history training in me; I try to string together the beginning, development, milestones of everything.

Unfortunately, as much as JavaScript has taken over the programming world, the people behind JavaScript are a bunch of (most likely) self-effacing, chain-joking developers about whom I cannot unearth many stories; as much as this world is obsessed with everything about Steve Jobs, we pretty much know nothing about the JavaScript who-is-whos.

Still …, it does not hurt to try?

The Beginning of JavaScript

In 1995, girls are trying to have Jennifer Aniston’s hair and secretly pine for Brad Pitt; Larry Page and Sergey Brin meet at Stanford. Larry, 22, a U Michigan grad, is considering the school; Sergey, 21, is assigned to show him around;

Mark Zuckerberg is only 11!

Anyway in 1995, there is neither Chrome nor Firefox. The browser of the day is Netscape Navigator. Brendan Eich is hired to implement something called Scheme for the browser (Scheme is a special version of Lisp. In my barely there understanding, Scheme to Lisp then is probably like JavaScript to Ecma script).

As is typical of software development cycle, Eich was under a tight deadline. As legend has it, he cranked out the woefully inadequate yet sufficiently working JavaScript in 10 days. Yeah, as a bit of history, JavaScript was initially named as Mocha, then LiveScript.

(Don't we all love Coffee? The name Mocha lives on though, there is now a JavaScript test framework called Mocha.)

Along Came JScript

In 1995, Windows 95 is the hottest (in sales) and coolest (in coolness factor) product on earth.

In 1995, Bill Gates sent the "Internet Tidal Wave" memorandum to Microsoft executives, which steered Microsoft towards web.

In 1996, Microsoft delivered JScript. According to Doug Crawford, Microsoft reverse-engineered JavaScript, kept all of the good and bad parts of JavaScript, and named it JScript to avoid any trademark issues.

The First Browser War and ECMA Script

It is a bit of a mess (still is to this day) that different browsers (Internet Explorer and Netscape then) work differently. Back then, JavaScript and JScript are implemented so differently that it is a pipe dream for a website to work cross browser. Back then, developers had the freedom and total lack of embarrassment to add beautiful logos as the following to their site:

Hence, there is the first open browser war between Internet Explorer and the long-demised Netscape.

A little fun story I found on Wiki.

In October 1997, Internet Explorer 4.0 was released. The release party in San Francisco featured a ten-foot-tall letter "e" logo. Netscape employees showing up to work the following morning found the giant logo on their front lawn, with a sign attached that read "From the IE team ... We Love You". The Netscape employees promptly knocked it over and set a giant figure of their Mozilla dinosaur mascot atop it, holding a sign reading "Netscape 72, Microsoft 18" representing the market distribution.

Internet Explorer 4 changed the tides of the browser wars. It was integrated into Microsoft Windows, which gave it a large installation base.

Anyway, the good and sensible people from Netscape and Microsoft decided to call it a truce by submitting JavaScript to Ecma International for standardization. Soon, we have had this funny named-ECMA script (Eich commented that "ECMAScript was always an unwanted trade name that sounds like a skin disease.").

If you search the web as of today, the word ECMA 6 will be sculpted to your brain.

Douglas Crockford, the Good Parts of JavaScript and JSON

If you are keen on JavaScript, you sure know Doug Crockford. Even if the name does not ring a bell, you still have deeply benefited from his ideas and his advocacy of JavaScript. Sure you know most (if not all) of the good parts of JavaScript, sure you have been using JSON day in and day out.

JavaScript once was a very unpopular and much despised language. To be fair, for a long time, JavaScript did not do much beyond form validation anyway. There were few standards and plenty of misuse and abuse.

Earlier on, Mr. Crockford “discovered” the simplicity and fundamental goodness and beauty in JavaScript. He started to promote the good parts of Javascript through speeches, writing, conferences, and his work for the YUI library. His book JavaScript: The Good Parts has become the must-read for every JavaScript developer.

Mr. Crockford is a key player in the standardization in JavaScript. Moreover, he is the first to specify and popularize the JSON format. Together with his co-founders at State Software, they coined the acronym JSON and started to build application for it in 2001. JSON became the default data communication format in web client-server communications.

Ajax: The XML http Thing

In 2005, the web has become the cheapest and most exciting platform for everything under the sun. Yet, doing JavaScript was still a pain, browsing on the web was not the fast, sleek and mostly real-time experience that nowadays users have grown accustomed to. Instead, user interactions often trigger a whole page refresh even when the intent is only to update a small section of the page content.

Then some Microsoft guys created XMLHttp controls for server-client communication, then all browsers started to support it; then a bunch of Google applications (Gmail, Google maps) became so phenomenal it opened up a new world for JavaScript developers. The secret source for those large-scale Google applications is AJAX, at that time, developers called it the XML http thing.

From Wiki:

The term "Ajax" was publicly stated on 18 February 2005 by Jesse James Garrett in an article titled "Ajax: A New Approach to Web Applications", based on techniques used on Google pages.

On 5 April 2006, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) released the first draft specification for the XMLHttpRequest object in an attempt to create an official Web standard.

John Resig and jQuery

After Ajax, entered the JavaScript brightest star John Resig, the creator of jQuery, a library that needs no introduction. jQuery is the most popular JavaScript library in use today, with installation on 65% of the top 10 million highest-trafficked sites on the Web.

I cannot find any story about how jQuery is created, or any jokes John cracked. I know he loves Japanese wood work, works for Khan Academy and has a million admirers. I went through his blog, found this charmingly low-key announcement of jQuery blog in January, 2006.

The Many Other JavaScript Libraries

Before, after and around the time jQuery was released, there had been many libraries, each touting their own incomparable qualities. The most prominent ones are Mootools, Prototype, YUI library, Dojo, Ext js. In the meantime, web applications keep snowballing.

Oh, the so-many JavaScript Frameworks

Yes, there have been many, many JavaScript Frameworks. Shall we continue till next time?

Happy JavaScripting!



This article, along with any associated source code and files, is licensed under The Code Project Open License (CPOL)


About the Author

Xun Ding
United States United States
A web developer who swims in the stream of ideas, fight it, enjoy it, and thrive. Hopefully!

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