Key Points

  • Charles Goldfarb was a Harvard-educated attorney who developed the first markup language, Generalized Markup Language, or GML, in 1969.
  • A newer, more efficient version, Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML) was created in 1974 by several individuals and was used at IBM for document processing.
  • HTML which was created in the late 1980s was based on this second incarnation of GML. Although less powerful than SGML, its simplicity contributed to the explosive growth of the Web.

Charles Goldfarb

Charles Goldfarb—the Godfather of Markup Languages

The idea of markup languages was apparently first publicly presented by the engineer William W. Tunnicliffe (1922-1996) from Washington, D.C. In September of 1967, during a meeting at the Canadian Government Printing Office, Tunnicliffe gave a presentation on the separation of information content of documents from their format. In the 1970s, Tunnicliffe led the development of a standard called GenCode for the publishing industry and later was the first chair of the International Organization for Standardization. At almost the same time, the book designer Stanley Rice published vague speculation along similar lines in the late 1960s. Rice, as an editor at a Major Publishing House was writing about “Standardized Editorial Structures”. This was the beginning of a movement to separate the formatting of a document from its content.

In 1969 Charles F. Goldfarb, a graduate of Harvard Law School and Columbia College, hit upon the basic idea of markup languages while working on a primitive document management system intended for law firms, and at the end if the same 1969, leading a small team at IBM, developed the first markup language, called Generalized Markup Language, or GML. Later on however Goldfarb explains that he actually coined the term GML to be an anagram for the three researchers, Charles oldfarb, Ed osher and Ray orie, who worked also on the project. Goldfarb was also the man, who coined the term “markup language.”

Goldfarb felt that GML should both describe the documents structure and be structured in a way, such that it could be both human-readable and machine-readable. In the beginning of 1970s he continued his work at IBM as GML began to grow in popularity. Several years later, in 1974, and with the influence of hundreds of people, the next version of the language, called (surprise:-) Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML) was born. SGML added additional concepts that were not part of the GML project such as link processing, concurrent document types and most importantly the concept of a validating parser (called ARCSGML), that could read and check the accuracy of the Markup code.

As Markup languages go, SGML was powerful, flexible and complex, and was used extensively in the document processing of the huge IBM documentation. It’s widely known that when at the end of 1980s Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Caillau created HTML, they based their hypertext publishing language namely on SGML. HTML as a subset of SGML is on the other hand easy to learn, but not nearly as powerful. Their system used a NeXT computer and incorporated the concept of hyperlinks. Tim realized the need for a Markup language that was easy to use and implement into their system. In 1991 the Web debuted on the Internet and it was the simplicity of HTML that made the Web grow at a feverish pace.

As remembered later Goldfarb in an interview:

We were trying to do an automated law-office application. I had been a lawyer (in fact, I still am). Lawyers must do research on existing case law, decisions of court, and so on, to find out which ones are applicable to a given situation, find out what the previous legal rulings have been, and then merge that with text that the lawyer has written himself. Eventually, if it’s, say, a brief for the court, he must then compose it and print it. At the time, which was 1969 or 1970, there weren’t any systems available that did these three things. So in order to get the systems to share the data we had to come up with a way to represent it that was independent of any of those applications.

It was a very small research project. There was initially myself and another researcher, Ed Mosher, working on it full time. Then, we had part-time consulting from a very brilliant fellow named Ray Lorie who is also one of the pioneers of relational databases. Ray had the most brilliant insight into the whole thing, which is that all the elements that are tagged the same way should be processed the same way. Our manager, Andy Symonds, contributed technically as well…

In 1975, Goldfarb moved from Cambridge, Massachusetts to Silicon Valley and became a product planner at the IBM Almaden Research Center. There, he convinced IBM’s executives to deploy GML commercially in 1978 as part of IBM’s Document Composition Facility product. Development informally began that year on what ultimately became the SGML standard, and Goldfarb eventually became chair of the SGML committee. SGML was standardized and released by ISO in 1986.

Up Next…

Interested in finding out about other influential individuals who changed our world forever? Read the following articles below:

  • Paul Baran ‚Complete Biography, History, and Inventions:  He worked on the world’s first computer and designed the first metal detector. He is also known for being one of the creators of packet switched networks. Read all about this multi-faceted inventor, here.
  • Leonard Kleinrock: Along with Donald Davies and Paul Baran he was responsible for creating packet-switched networks and indirectly ensuring the creation of the Web. Here is how he did just that.
  • Donald Davies:  This Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society is credited with creating packet-switched networks, alongside Paul Baran and Leonard Kleinrock. Read all about him here.


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