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The man who spun the World Wide Web

April 2019

March 2019 marks thirty years since the publication of an academic proposal that led directly to the extraordinary growth of online wizardry that surrounds us today.

Tim Berners-Lee was 33; he had read physics at Oxford and was working at CERN, the Swiss research organisation.  They had an unwieldy network of computers holding all their data, and he proposed a means of making the information available in a way that made it easy both to find and retreive.  He created the Word Wide Web, which makes sense of the Internet.

The Internet has roots in 1962, when Joseph Licklider was head of computer research at ARPA, a body created by the U.S. Defence Department to fund implausible projects.   Licklider dreamt of somehow linking everyone on the planet so that knowledge could be shared more easily; he commissioned research from several universities.

Progress was slow.  In 1965 they managed to connect two computers by telephone, and it was  not until 1973 that University College London became the first overseas link in the chain.  Meanwhile, other similar academic networks had been created and so a protocol was written that allowed them to communicate, creating one big network; the designers of that protocol called it ‘Internetting’ and hence ‘the Internet’ was born.

Email was invented in 1972 to send messages around the network, in fact, in 1976 HRH The Queen sent an email.  Incidentally, the inventor, Ray Tomlinson, also arbitrarily picked the @ symbol we use in our e-mail addresses, and we have been stuck with it ever since. 

The Internet would have remained a club for public institutions but for Tim Berners-Lee.  He was born with digital blood in his veins as both his parents were mathematicians.  He had been thinking about linking computers for many years; in 1980 he wrote a computer programme presciently called ‘Enquire-with-upon-everything’ which allowed a primitive connection.

He saw the Internet as a delivery system, not just a link.  His innovation allowed users to see the information other computers had and arrange for the delivery of it to themselves. 

He was ignored at first; it took him over a year to persuade CERN that he had something worth pursuing.  In May 1990 they funded some more work, and he gave the name ‘WorldWideWeb’ (www) to the browser he was developing; this browser would be the means of viewing the information in a way we could understand, like Internet Explorer today.

It was obvious that he was on to something, and rival browsers were developed by other organisations.  Then, in 1993, two major events took place.  First, the internet of the time was opened up for commercial use, and second, CERN announced that www technology could be freely used by anyone, with no royalties being paid.  This generous act allowed many software designers (like Bill Gates) to make their fortunes, and the floodgates opened.

If Berners-Lee gave birth to the www in 1989, it’s fair to say that CERN brought it to adulthood.

This may mean that Berners-Lee is not be the billionaire he perhaps might have been if matters had gone a different way.  However, he has been showered with less tangible, but probably more valuable honours; he is now Sir Tim Berners-Lee, OM, KBE and has received many academic prizes, Honorary Doctorates, Fellowships and other awards.

Joseph Licklider, the undisputed father of the Internet, died in 1990, aged 75.  Happily, Tim Berners Lee, father of the World Wide Web, is only 63 and remains very busy; he is currently a professor at both the University of Oxford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

From the original two computers linked in 1965, there are billions connected now, and only because of his work, which is also why you can read his original proposal below.

 

Further reading:

 

You can download Berners-Lee’s original proposal here:

https://cds.cern.ch/record/369245/files/dd-89-001.pdf

Or read it as a website here:
https://www.w3.org/History/1989/proposal.html

On 12th March 2019, CERN will be holding an event to celebrate the anniversary which will be webcast – more details here:
https://web30.web.cern.ch

Tim Berners-Lee’s own website:
https://www.w3.org/People/Berners-Lee/

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