The notorious 404 error, “Not Found,” is often, not totally erroneously, referred to as “the last page of the internet.” It’s an obligatory heads-up with an outsize reputation; it is a meme and a punch line. Bad puns abound. The error has been printed in comics and on T-shirts, an accessible and relatable facet of what was once relegated to nerd humor and is now a fact of digital life.
That the 404 should have crossover appeal seems fitting. It is near-universal and inherently emotional: pure disappointment, the announcement of an unanticipated problem. It’s also a reminder that technology, and the web in particular, is made by humans, and therefore fallible. The internet, after all, is hardly a well-oiled machine; it’s more like a version of The Garden of Earthly Delights built by unidirectional hypertext and populated by broken links, corrupted image files, and incomplete information.
Not long after it appeared, the error code began to enjoy, or endure, its share of lore. In the early 2000s, the idea bubbled up that the 404 came from, well, room 404; that this room housed the web’s first servers, at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research, in Switzerland); that World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee had his office there; that he frequently could not be found.