First Photo on Internet Marks 20-Year Anniversary

PHOTO: Les Horribles Cernettes, a comedic musical group at CERN, strike a pose in the first photo ever to be uploaded to the Internet.
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Two decades before scientists at CERN announced they had likely found the Higgs boson, the Geneva-based particle physics lab made history with a little less fanfare.

That's when a promotional photo of Les Horribles Cernettes, a comedic musical group composed of girlfriends and secretaries of CERN scientists, became the first photo ever to appear on the Internet. It was posted 20 years ago this week. While only a handful of people saw it then, the photo is now having something of a revival.

Silvano de Gennaro, an I.T. developer at CERN who was also manager of the Cernettes, snapped the photo while backstage at a music festival organized by the lab's administrators. He edited it using the first version of Adobe Photoshop, and saved it as a GIF file on his Macintosh.

After Internet pioneer Tim Berners-Lee, also working at CERN at the time, developed a new version of the World Wide Web that supported photos, he uploaded the Cernettes photo to what might be called the first ever band website — a page on the CERN website devoted to its musical acts.

"Tim passed by my office and said, 'Can I have it? I want to put it on the Web,'" de Gennaro said. "I hardly knew what the Web was. I knew it was an information exchange system used by physicists."

The exact date of the photo's publication is a bit murky, de Gennaro said. Berners-Lee was working on the code that would allow photos to render online when he got the photo from de Gennaro's floppy disk, so the photo likely appeared on the Web and came on several times before the code was finalized.

De Gennaro, now married to original Cernette Michele de Gennaro, wrote the group's songs, which include "My Sweetheart is a Nobel Prize" and "Every Proton of You." The photo was intended as a CD cover for an album the group was producing, he said.

Michele de Gennaro said she had forgotten about the photo when her husband told her, years after it was taken, that it had made history.

"We were just racing to get onstage, and Silvano said to strike a pose, so we did," she said.

Berners-Lee became a fan of the group after befriending former member Colette Marx-Nielson, who told Vice that Berners-Lee was known to dress as a woman in an "amateur operatic society" at CERN.

"I kinda put it out sometimes and say, 'Well, I'm in the first photograph on the World Wide Web,'" she told Vice. "People don't really care. I suppose it had to be somebody, and it just happened to be us."

While the Cernettes began as a joke, they were so successful that they kept performing, with various personnel changes, for more than 20 years, Silvano de Gennaro said. But with his recent retirement and imminent move from Switzerland, the band is bidding the lab farewell.

The Cernettes will play a final concert at CERN on July 21.

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