Tim Berners Lee – The Mind behind the World Wide Web
Of all the inventions of the 20th century the one that has impacted our lives most could be said to be the World Wide Web. It was invented by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, a scientist, an academic and a visionary.
The World Wide Web had one very important mission at its heart; it was created for and continues to be built by everyone.
Timothy John Berners Lee was born on 8 June 1955 and grew up in London.
He is the son of two computing pioneers who were part of a Manchester University team that developed the first commercial electronic computer; that was sold by Ferranti Ltd.
Tim studied Physics at Oxford University and became a software engineer.
In 1980, while working at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory in Geneva, he first described the concept of a global system that would allow researchers anywhere to share information.
His work at CERN at that time involved writing an application to keep track of CERN’s many scientists and their projects. Thousands of researchers would travel to CERN to do their experiments using their own computers which they brought with them (a not insubstantial task as there were no neat iPads or small laptops then).
This caused two major problems for CERN; how do they physically accommodate these incompatible computers and how would they share the researchers’ data between them. Tim set about trying to solve those.
On 12 March 1989, he published a paper simply called ‘Information Management: A Proposal’ in which he married up hypertext with the Internet, to create a system for sharing and distributing information not just within a company, but globally.
He named it the World Wide Web.
In the Proposal he wrote “In providing a system for manipulating this sort of information, the hope would be to allow a pool of information to develop which could grow and evolve with the organisation and the projects it describes. For this to be possible, the method of storage must not place its own restraints on the information. This, is why, a “web” of notes with links (like references) between them is far more useful than a fixed hierarchical system.”
The Proposal was reviewed by Mike Sendall, Tim’s manager at the time and he commented “Vague, but exciting.” Fortunately, Mike Sendall thought enough of the proposal to allow Tim Berners-Lee to work on it on the side.
By 1990, Tim had a fully formed vision – his thoughts were to “suppose all the information stored on computers everywhere were linked. All the bits of every computer at CERN, and on the planet, would be available to me and to anyone else. There would be a single global information space.”
By Christmas 1990, they had a version of a web page, a web server that holds the web pages and a web browser, a program to view and find the pages.
The world’s first website, http://info.cern.ch, was launched on 6 August 1991. The website explained the World Wide Web concept and gave users an introduction to getting started with their own websites.
Over the next couple of years Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau worked on improving the software and on encouraging CERN to release the source code so that anyone could create their own web page; he believed strongly that this was not just his but for everyone.
He wanted a free and accessible World Wide Web.
World Wide Web Consortium
On 30 April 1993, CERN put the World Wide Web in the public domain, a critical milestone in enabling broad adoption of the Web.
Very quickly interest in the Web was gathering pace and increasingly of commercial interest.
To ensure the independence of the Web, in 1994, Tim founded the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) at the Laboratory of Computer Science (LCS) in MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in Boston. Tim has served as director of the Consortium since then. This Consortium would bring together people from government, business and universities so that all web creations were compatible. He wanted to ensure that no-one could take it for proprietary purposes.
Tim Berners-Lee has been the one constant throughout the immense and wild growth of the web since its inception, he is the anchor.
He is a private person and has never sought fame or money for his work, his dream is to continue to make the web a place for all, something that is getting harder as each year passes.
At this stage, it is probably best to make clear that the web is not the same thing as the Internet, they are entirely independent yet inexorably linked.
The first Internet protocols were formally defined in 1969 and describe how to send packets of information between pieces of software. The World Wide Web is a vast system of interlinked hypertext documents accessed on the internet.
Since 1969, many applications have used the Internet protocols in different ways, including Email, FTP, and the Web.
The Web is any information that is identified with a URL (Universal Resource Locator). This makes the URL the most fundamental piece of Web technology.
The Evolution of the Internet
Unlike many technologies, the Internet has no single “inventor.” Instead, it has evolved over time. The Internet got its start in the United States more than 50 years ago as a government weapon in the Cold War.
For years, scientists and researchers used it to communicate and share data with one another. Today, we use the Internet for almost everything, and for many people it would be impossible to imagine life without it.
On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the world’s first manmade satellite into orbit. (I explored this in an earlier episode of the Wonder Podcast called July 20. For more information on that visit www.injustoneday.com/july20).
The satellite, known as Sputnik 1, moved around in outer space, sending signals from its radio transmitters as it circled the Earth.
The Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik satellite gave concern to the U.S. Defense Department about what would happen in the event of an attack.
Scientists and military experts were especially concerned about what might happen in the event of a Soviet attack on the US nation’s telephone system. Just one missile, they feared, could destroy the whole network of lines and wires that made efficient long-distance communication possible.
In 1962, a scientist called JCR Licklider from M.I.T. and ARPA (the Advanced Research Projects Agency) proposed a solution to this problem: a “galactic network” of computers that could talk to one another. Such a network would enable government leaders to communicate even if the Soviets destroyed the telephone system.
In the previous year, Leonard Kleinrock submitted a doctoral dissertation to MIT called “Information Flow in Large Communication Nets.” This work is considered the first paper on packet-switching theory.
Packet switching breaks data down into blocks, or packets, before sending it to its destination. That way, each packet can take its own route from place to place. Without packet switching, the government’s computer network would have been just as vulnerable to enemy attacks as the phone system.
The importance of Kleinrock’s theory quickly became evident. Indeed, the Internet as we know it today could not function without packet switching.
The concept was then developed by RAND Corporation researcher Paul Baran in 1964 for the Air Force.
In 1965, a British Researcher Donald Davies of the National Physical Laboratory, inspired by Licklider’s theories separately designed a store-and-forward packet switching system. In a June 1966 proposal, he coined the term “packet” to describe the 128-byte data blocks that would flow through the system.
All this work eventually led to the formation of ARPANET (the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), the network that ultimately evolved into what we now know as the Internet.
ARPANET was a great success but membership was limited to certain academic and research organizations who had contracts with the US Defense Department. In response to this, other networks were created to provide information sharing.
By the end of 1969, just four computers were connected to the ARPAnet, but the network grew steadily during the 1970s. In 1971, it added the University of Hawaii’s ALOHAnet, and two years later it added networks at London’s University College and the Royal Radar Establishment in Norway. As packet-switched computer networks multiplied, however, it became more difficult for them to integrate into a single worldwide “Internet.”
By the end of the 1970s, a computer scientist named Vinton Cerf had begun to solve this problem by developing a way for all the computers on the world’s mini-networks to communicate with one another.
He called his invention “Transmission Control Protocol,” or TCP. (Later, he added an additional protocol, known as “Internet Protocol or IP.” ). Following this invention, this revolutionised the use and accessibility of the internet.
As a result, January 1, 1983 is considered the official birthday of the Internet.
However, in 1991 the year that the World Wide Web was widely introduced changed the Internet again: the Internet was now not simply a way to send files from one place to another but was itself a “web” of information that anyone on the Internet could retrieve.
This is the Internet that we know today.
The creation of the World Wide Web opened these possibilities to the world, allowed people to share, create and communicate like never before.
The web is no longer just an information sharing conduit but a place to do business, to share stories, connect with others, easily reach loved ones across the world and collaborate in research and science.
Humans are social animals and the world-wide web allows us to do what we do best; share, learn, collaborate, innovate and create.
In 2017, in a world with a population of over 7.3 billion people, there are 3.7 billion internet users (almost half the population of the world), 2.8 billion social media users, 4.9 billion unique mobile users, and 1.6 billion e-commerce users.
But with this fantastic opportunity also comes considerable responsibility.
Tim Berners-Lee’s guiding principle for the Web is that it is by everyone and for everyone and that this principle should always be protected.
The open, free, trusting and safe web that Time Berners-Lee envisioned in 1989 is a gift to us all, we should use it with care and continue to create the world we want to see.
Tim Berners-Lee continues to dedicate his time to enhancing and protecting the web’s future.
Deservedly, Tim Berners-Lee has received numerous awards and accolades over the years.
He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2004. He has received over 10 honorary doctorates and was awarded the Finland Millennium Prize in 2004. He was elected as Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Science in 2009 and is a member of the Internet Hall of Fame. He was given the A.M. Turing Award — often called ‘computing’s Nobel Prize’ — in 2016.
Without his proposal on 13 March 1989 being submitted, being read and then being given the freedom to explore the idea further, would we have the web we have today?
We will never know because on that day in 1989, Tim Berners-Lee had the courage, conviction and belief to put his idea out there.
It was read, it was given the space to be explored and it became one of THE innovations of the 20th century.
So, Sir Tim – to the message “this is for everyone” that you sent to us during the London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony and that was viewed by 900 million people worldwide, we salute you and we say thank you”.
To listen to the Podcast episode from Season 1 of Wonder, it is Episode 3 called For Everyone
Until Next Time – Have a great day!