The slash first came to light as part of a distinctly Spartan twelfth century system of punctuation. Invented by a twelfth-century man of letters named Buoncompagno da Signa, the “upright virgule,” or slash (/), represented a short pause, while a “level virgule,” or dash (—) represented a longer one. Over time the slash dropped to the baseline to form the comma (which, in French, is still called la virgule), though its original form soldiers on to this day—and in doing so, it gives us a unique insight into the earliest days of the World Wide Web.
In 1996, when Tim Berners-Lee was laying down the ground rules for his new computer network, he declared that website addresses should begin after a double slash, thus: “http://”. He explained that the double slash represented a sort of “root” for all addresses; google.com and time.com are top-level children of that root address, with other levels below them separated by single slashes (“http://time.com/us”). Taking his concept one step further, Berners-Lee gave the example of an imagined interplanetary telephone network—if all Earthly telephone numbers began with a double slash, he said, interplanetary numbers would begin with a triple slash, with the dialing code for Earth or Mars placed between “///” and “//”.
Physics notwithstanding, there is as yet no interplanetary internet: choosing your preferred planetary edition of Time.com with a bevy of slashes (“http:///earth//time.com/us”) is still a pipe dream.
Next Ampersand: &