the secret history of
the about:jwz url.
© 2011 Jamie Zawinski <firstname.lastname@example.org>
I realized recently that while I have written about the history of the about:authors URL, I have never explained the history of the about:jwz easter egg. Well, I guess it's been long enough, so now it can be told.
The about: URL had been in the Netscape browser from the beginning; it displayed the splash screen with a logo and a copyright notice and so on. There was a secret place you could click that would take you to about:authors, as noted.
Some late night just before the release of Netscape 1.1, which was March or April 1995, Lou added about:montulli as a redirect to his home page at http://people.netscape.com/montulli/. I saw that checkin, so I jumped on that bandwagon and added my URL too, and so did the rest of the team.
Now, let's back up a little...
There had been a lawsuit from UIUC which resulted in the company having to change its name from "Mosaic Communications" to "Netscape" and to rename "Mosaic Netscape" to "Netscape Navigator". In the 0.93 version, named "Mosaic Netscape", the throbber animation was this:
But due to a last-minute firedrill the night before the release, the throbber animation in 0.94 (now named "Netscape Navigator") was changed to this embarassment:
It was truly appalling. But, it was intended to be temporary, as we then held a public contest to design a new logo, and we got quite a few submissions. Several hundred, I think? The winner was this:
which our in-house graphics people tweaked into the one you probably know and remember:
Though my favorite was this one:
I thought a compass made sense, because the product was called Navigator now, right? Well, I lost the argument, and we went with the meteors. But I really liked that compass, so I changed the code on the Unix version of the browser so that when you went to any URL that contained the string /jwz/, it would change the throbber to be the compass instead of the globe! Click a link to another site, and you were back to the meteor shower, but my pages all got the compass. To throw people off the track, my home page contained this HTML:
That did absolutely nothing at all, but as we had also just released SSL, people spent a long time trying to figure it out, assuming it had something to do with the new crypto libraries built into the browser. Despite the comment, I got a lot of mail about it!
Eventually people figured that out, though, leading to a plethora of web sites whose URLs contained /jwz/ in them (despite containing no jwz-related content) just to get the compass.
In that same release, we made about:mozilla do a similar trick. It would display this page, written by Dan Mosedale, and obsessively documented at Wikipedia:
A side-effect of visiting that page was that for the rest of your browser session, the throbber would change to this one:
Most of these hacks only existed in the Unix and Windows versions of the browser, not the Mac version, and I don't think any of these tricks survived into the 4.0-vintage browsers. In March of 2000, I changed my top-level page to be the hex dump that it is today. There's a trick there too, but that's a story for another year. No spoilers!
And finally... I'll remind you that if you're interested in running any of these old browsers to play around with this stuff, you still can!