November 4, 2012 12:22 am by

Eureka People: How Tim Berners-Lee invented the Web

Our lives are so mediated by the web today that it’s hard to recall life in the pre-digital era. I faintly recall hearing URLs read out on the radio in the mid-nineties, and puzzling over whether I ought to spell out the word ‘dot’– but just try explaining that to the kids! This year the Web celebrates its 21st birthday. In honor of it finally growing up, we’ve taken a look at the story of its conception and the man who made it all happen, Tim Berners-Lee.

A computer genius family 

A Londoner by birth, and the son of a pair of computer geeks – Conway Berners-Lee and Mary Lee Woods, who themselves worked on the first commercially available computer, the Ferranti Mark 1 – Berners-Lee studied physics at Queen’s College, Oxford, in the late 1970s. While he was there, he built his own first computer using little other than a soldering iron, an M6800 processor, and an old television.

Enquiring mind

It all must have paid off, because in 1980, within four years of graduation, he was taken on as a contractor at CERN – the European Particle Physics Laboratory in Geneva that’s more recently hit the news because of its Large Hadron Collider and investigations into the Higgs Boson particle. Well, CERN’s always been cutting-edge; while Berners-Lee was there, he kept himself busy writing a hypertext program called Enquire – a method for storing information using random associations – which was just for personal use, and never published, but which formed the conceptual basis for the behemoth we now call the World Wide Web.

“An act of desperation”

After a few years away – developing his networking skills by working on a real-time remote procedure calls project in Bournemouth, England – Berners-Lee came back to CERN on a fellowship, and this time, it went stellar. He took his earlier hypertext work and the existing nuts and bolts of the internet and jammed them together in what he called ‘an act of desperation’ to create a ‘larger documentation system’. Although the internet, in its most basic form, had been knocking around since the late 1960s Berners-Lee’s innovations now allowed any document to be linked to any other document.

It’s alive!

He wrote the hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP ring any bells?) that made that possible, and he came up with HTML, the language in which hypertext pages were (and are) written. Voila: the Web! The first website went live in 1991. Sadly, there are no available screenshots of the original content, but here’s a scree shot taken from a NeXT computer running Tim Berners-Lee’s original World Wide Web browser.

Free and democratic

Berners-Lee – who’s now Sir Tim Berners-Lee – went on, in 1994, to form the Worldwide Web Consortium, or W3C, at MIT, in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, or CSAIL. This was set up to create standards and recommendations to improve everybody’s web experience. Berners-Lee made his idea, the web, freely available, with no royalties due, so that we can all easily use it, and today he’s co-director of the Open Data Institute. Smart and democratic – that’s what we like in an inventor!

The next 21 years?

In twenty one years, Berners- Lee’s creation has transformed our lives beyond belief, but what about the next couple of decades? While predicting the future is always a risky business, one thing we can say for certain is the web will be ever more mobile. In fact, according to Gartner, already in 2013, mobile phones will overtake PCs as the most common web access devices worldwide. Pretty impressive for something that started off as a hobby.

Image credits: Silvio Tanaka

Updated October 1, 2015 7:28 am

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