Error 404 – the Urban Legend

Error 404 — where did it come from?

Error 404 occurs when a web browser requests a web page or other Internet resource that cannot be found. It is a HTTP status code indicating that the server either could not find the requested page or is unwilling to provide it.

The urban legend — spread widely, but unconfirmed by Sir Tim Berners-LeeRoy T. Fielding, or Henrik Frystyk Nielsen, the authors of RFC1945 which defines the HTTP protocol and its errors — is that 404 was the number of a room at Cern where Sir Tim was working with others. They were designing and defining the World Wide Web.

It is said that room 404 was where either the World Wide Web team was working or in other stories it was a filing room. The story goes on to claim that people would send requests to room 404 and if the file was not found or they were too busy, the people in room 404 would answer with “Room 404: file not found”. Many who worked at Cern state emphatically that there was no room 404.

What is for certain is that the error number 404 standing for “Client Error — Not Found” appeared around 1992 in .9 version of the Internet Draft for Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) and stayed in place in the standard RFC1945 published in May of 1996.

The other “Client Errors” listed in the standard are:

  • 400 — “Bad Request”
  • 401 — “Unauthorized”
  • 402 — There is no 402???
  • 403 — “Forbidden”
  • 404 — “Not Found”

So why is there no 402 and why was “Not Found” left for last and why 404???

Back in 1958, long before the irritating browser error number, China built it’s first nuclear military base. The sole purpose of this base was to develop a nuclear bomb. This city was a part of China‘s nuclear program. The name of this secret city:


City 404

The city is located in the Gobi desert in the Gansu province and at it’s height was home to nearly 100,000 people — mostly nuclear scientists, technicians and professionals. It is about 4 square kilometers and was built with a huge underground complex in case of nuclear war, but these tunnels would be part of the city’s demise. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s the existence of the Secret City 404 became known to the outside world — interestingly around the same time that the HTTP standards document was being written.

Was error code 404 a node to the secret China nuclear city? Were the three authors of the document making a statement — “404 not found” or was it just some interesting coincidence. It is interesting that Sir Tim has not confirmed nor denied the Room 404 speculation.

Perhaps he or one of the other RFC 1945 authors will comment on my theory.

Wither City 404

With large scale cave-ins causing danger to the residents the city was closed around 2006 and is long abandoned — “404: City Not Found”