The first ever website, Tim Berners-Lee’s original home page for the World Wide Web, was static. A website back then was a folder of HTML documents that consisted of just 18 tags. Browsers were simple document navigators that would fetch HTML from a server and allow the end user to navigate them by following hyperlinks. The web was fundamentally static.
As browsers evolved, so did HTML, and gradually the limitations of purely static websites started to show.
Initially, websites were just plain unstyled documents, but soon they grew into carefully designed objects, with graphical headers and complex navigation. By that point, managing each page of a website as its own document stopped making sense, and templating languages entered the picture.
It also quickly became evident that reserving HTML for structure and CSS for style was not enough of an abstraction to keep the content of a website (the stories, products, gallery items, etc.) separate from the design.
Around the same time, SQL-based relational databases started going mainstream, and for many online companies, the database became the almost-holy resting place of all of their content, guarded by vigilant, long-bearded database administrators.
Desktop applications such as Dreamweaver and FrontPage offered solutions for building content-driven websites through WYSIWYG editors, where pages could be separated into reusable parts, such as navigation, headers and footers, and where content to some degree could be put in a database. In some ways, fatally flawed as they were, these were the original static website generators: building websites from templates, partials, media libraries and sometimes even SQL databases, and publishing them via FTP as static files. As late as 2004, I had the unique experience of working on a major content-driven website, with tens of thousands of pages spread across different editorial groups, all managed via Dreamweaver!
Even if Dreamweaver could, to some degree, integrate with a database, it had no content model, offering no sense of content being separate from design, each half being editable independently with the appropriate tools.
The most mainstream answer to these problems was the LAMP stack and CMS’ such as WordPress, Drupal and Joomla. All of these played an incredibly important role in moving the web forward, enabling the Web 2.0 phenomenon, in which user-generated content became a driving factor for a lot of websites. Users went from following hyperlinks to ordering products, participating in communities and creating content.