The World Wide Web

In the complex history of innovation flowing to and from the Internet, one major achievement is uncontested:  Between 1989 and 1991, Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. 

Tim Berners-Lee was born in 1955 in London, England.  His parents were both mathematicians, who worked on the Ferranti Mark I, the first computer to be sold commercially.  Berners-Lee’s childhood hobby was electronics.  When he entered Queen’s College at Oxford University in 1972, Berners-Lee chose to major in Physics, hoping to utilize his native talents in both scientific theory and practical application. 

While at Oxford, Berners-Lee built his first computer.  Soon after graduating in 1976, he became an independent software consultant.  In this capacity, he spent the latter half of 1980 in Geneva, Switzerland, at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory.  While off-duty at CERN, Berners-Lee was pursuing a personal project: an information-storage program that encompassed random associations (“links”) between generally unrelated items.  This program, called “Enquire,” was the conceptual groundwork for what became the Web. 

After some further commercial work in graphics and communications software, Berners-Lee returned to CERN as a Fellow in 1984.  Five years later, having gained experience in real-time data acquisition systems, he proposed that a global hypertext database be constructed in which every package of data would have a distinct “Universal Document Identifier” (UDI), which any network user could use to retrieve that data.  Berners-Lee dubbed his project “the World Wide Web.” 

The Internet had been designed in 1973 and was up and running by 1983.  As developed by Vinton Cerf and others, the Internet is basically an international network of computers that delivers “packets” of information from one “address” to another – the most familiar example being e-mail.  Berners-Lee’s vision was to create a comprehensive collection of information in word, sound, and image, each discretely identified by UDIs and interconnected by hypertext links, and to use the Internet to provide universal access to that collection of information. 

Berners-Lee made his vision a reality within two years of his proposal.  At CERN, working on a NeXT machine, he composed the first server, “httpd,” and hypertext browser/editor, “WorldWideWeb,” in late 1990.  In the summer of 1991, Berners-Lee made the Web available on the Internet.  By giving the specifications for HyperText Markup Language (HTML: the code in which Web sites are written), HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP: the code by which sites are moved into and out of the Web), and UDIs (now known as URLs), Berners-Lee made it fairly easy for anyone with Internet access to contribute and collect information. 

Over the years, openness of information has remained Berners-Lee’s guiding principle.  That is why he never took steps to gain intellectual property or other commercial rights over the Web as the international computing community came to realize its immense potential.  In 1994, after academia and industry had begun to use the Web – thanks mainly to the first easy-to-use browser, Marc Andreessen’s and Eric Bina’s Mosaic – Berners-Lee formed the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) at the Laboratory for Computer Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  

Today, Tim Berners-Lee continues to lead W3C and to promote the Web as an open, accessible, interactive, and universal community.  He also wrote a book about his past, present, and future visions of his creation, entitled “Weaving the Web.”