JavaScript's surprising rise from the ashes of the browser wars on Command Line Heroes

A single Netscape employee wrote JavaScript in 10 days. It's now the most pervasive programming language in the world. Here's the unlikely story of how it happened.
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160 readers like this
Listen to the Command Line Heroes Podcast

The third season of the Command Line Heroes podcast continues its look at the history of the programming languages we depend on every day. Episode 3, released today, investigates the origin of JavaScript. Here's the unlikely story of how it happened.

A look back at the browser wars

1995 was a year full of competition over a new frontier. The web browser created by Netscape had been out for a full year already, and the competition was heating up. Clive Thompson recollects the intensity and the excitement in the air during that time. Today we talk about the velocity of technology being faster than ever, and I wonder if it's our recency bias tricking our minds from remembering the buzz in 1995.

"Things were moving so rapidly back then."

—Clive Thompson

The story goes of a single person being "locked in a room" (I hope that's an exaggeration) and creating what is now the most prevalent language of the web. That was 34-year-old Netscape employee Brendan Eich, who chained himself to his desk for 10 days. At the end of those 10 days in 1995, he delivered JavaScript.

Eich's efforts to deliver value to his company also sound like a fulfillment of his passion to write a widely used programming language. This story hits home, especially after hearing about the history of BASIC on episode 2.

The programming community of 1995 did not accept JavaScript with open arms. (I believe the word "derision" was used in the episode.) But it was unpretentious, secretly elegant, based on the best in language design, and sacrificed some bugginess for speed to market. It worked.

"The origins of Firefox can be traced directly to Netscape, a compan­y whose web browser, Netscape Navigator, was the dominant browser before Microsoft developed Internet Explorer. The internal company name for the browser was Mozilla. Eventually, Netscape released the source code for Navigator under an open source license, meaning anyone could see and use the code. A non­profit group was set up to direct the development of browsers using this code. This group became the Mozilla Foundation in 2003."

—Sayak Sarkar, From Netscape To Firefox: The Story Of Mozilla Firefox

This story makes me think about what my 18-year-old niece studying computer science might take away from all of this. A long time ago, very few people were on the internet. One person made a difference for his company. Even though that company wouldn't survive its time, ultimately, he made a difference for all of us. It's a fun story to explore.

A look back at waterfall development

There's a subtle element in the conversation around JavaScript that looks at software lifecycles in 1995. Netscape was far ahead of the curve with three-month development cycles at a time when the most dominant force in technology was releasing updates every four years. It was well before Agile and its Manifesto, before the hyper-scale mantra of "move fast and break things" (which hasn't aged well) and the brilliance of Toyota Kata. That boldness absolutely blows my mind.

Give it a listen

Command Line Heroes' combination of history and present time creates a great story. Give it a listen.

Command Line Heroes will cover programming languages for all of season 3. Subscribe to learn everything you want to know about the origin of programming languages. I would love to hear your thoughts about it in the comments below.

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Matt is an advocate for open source software and currently the Managing Editor of Enable Architect. He specializes in designing technology communities that develop products and content in a way that tells a powerful story.

5 Comments

Having started in computing in the nineteen ninties this sort of look back brings up memories, not all of them good. The syntax of JavaScript was hard to get to grips with, array indices starting at zero was (and is) a pain plus during the browser wars it was tempting to sit back and wait for a winner to emerge (while hoping that it would not be Internet Explorer).

Wow. Amazing history, it's really anecdotical... I never used JavaScript as my main language, but for sure I have been exposed to it.

Never forget those that joined the JS team to prevent it working better. I had JavaScript 2.0 from Netscape (IIRC) which involved easy to do classes and inheritance and with just those simple improvements allowed me to write a full blown web GUI in about 2 weeks. It never got ratified as an extension - some of those on the board realised you could ditch the OS when the browser was this capable.

Simply amazing ! It's been 10 years I am working on JavaScript but was not aware of this history. In fact never thought so..

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