Meet the man behind the World Wide Web


1st Jan 2015 Technology

Meet the man behind the World Wide Web

For decades the internet was used exclusively by top-level scientists or US defence researchers—not you and I. But the World Wide Web, created 25 years ago by one man, Tim Berners-Lee, changed everything.

Meet Tim Berners-Lee

While he was studying physics at Oxford, Tim built his own computer terminal using a television set for the screen and a discarded adding machine for the keyboard. Using an early microprocessor chip for his terminal to work, he took it into the college physics laboratory to test it out.

"The lab technician," Berners-Lee recalls, "was so suspicious of it, he didn't want to connect my electronics to his computer in case his computer blew up. So I built an optical isolating device, where the signal is transmitted by light between the two, so there was no actual [wired] connection, and I could try out my terminal."

By 1980, Berners-Lee was a 25-year-old computer consultant posted at the giant European organisation for nuclear research known as CERN. While at CERN, he went on to develop software to archive and link his own notes and documents, calling it 'Enquire'.

Berners-Lee expanded on Enquire for a solution, using random links to easily access all information stored in CERN's computers.

In 1989, Berners-Lee linked information on computers across the world by creating a virtual mesh. It was the killer app the internet badly needed.


'The Mesh' vs 'World Wide Web'?

Sounding too much like 'mess', Tim was reluctant to name his invention the mesh. He even considered TIM, short for The Information Mine. But TIM seemed too self-important for the soft-spoken, unassuming Tim. It was finally christened the 'World Wide Web'.

In 1990, he came up with the first 'World Wide Web' browser and the first ever website.

The 'World Wide Web' took off partly because its inventor never sought any patent rights or royalty in order to ensure its free expansion—something he's still striving to achieve through the World Wide Web Foundation he launched in 2009.

The Foundation's website has also become a forum for human rights, online privacy issues and for the openness and neutrality of the internet.


An interview with Tim:

What really made you create the web?

Frustration. I was frustrated that it didn't exist. I needed it. The internet had been there for 20 years, so computers were connected to each other. Many documents sitting on disks were going round and round and round between computers, which were connected to the internet, but it was impossible to get at them. I put these things together.


When you put the first website online, how many people did you imagine would use the internet in a day?

Oh, there was no time for science fiction. I just spent a lot of time trying to make sure the system didn't break. I wanted to get people involved. I'd written a web browser editor, which ran on the NeXT machine, a black magnesium-alloy machine made by Steve Jobs, which was very cool but not very many people had them.

So I needed to persuade people to write them for other computers. I had to persuade people to put information on the internet, I had to go to conferences, I had to write documentation, teach people about how to use it and I had to write software.

NeXT computer


When you see Facebook or Wikipedia today, what do you think?

Actually, to a certain extent, the original idea I had for the web was that it would be a very read-write medium [like Facebook or Wikipedia].

Imagine that you are in a working group designing something, whether it's a bridge or writing a book, or an article, that you could share all your ideas in a web of hypertext*, which is read-write. So whenever you think, 'Oh, this connects that,' you can make a link.

The original browser I wrote allowed you to edit. I thought that it was very important that everybody could edit. But for many years before the Wikis were invented, most browsers did not allow you to edit.

But why?

I think that was partly because the initial growth of the internet was fuelled by the adaptation of lots of existing documentation systems. They were read-only, so most people imagined that's what the internet should be.


How exactly will your WWW Foundation's work help people?

I've been pushing for people and governments to put data on the internet. When the Indian government, for example, puts its data on the internet, people in India and the outside world can see the state of India. They can see where the buses run, they can see what's the state of the roads, the state of its education, and so on.

Having data out there is in fact important for disaster preparedness. When the Haiti earthquake struck in 2010, there weren't really any good online maps about Port-au-Prince, but then something very interesting happened. A satellite company released high-resolution photographs and amateur mapmakers all over the world went to openstreetmap.org, which is like Wikipedia for maps, where anybody can go and edit a map.

They just flocked to the map of Haiti and it's amazing how they filled in the roads, they filled in the earthquake damage, they marked blocked roads, hospitals and refugee camps, even a floating hospital which had been brought in.

So, within a very short time there was a very reliable map and there was a testimonial from some member of the Red Cross saying that when he downloaded it onto his GPS device, it was invaluable for getting around the damaged city.


So your Foundation wants to promote this kind of work?

While not specifically into crisis management, the Foundation wants to get involved in trying to accelerate people's getting on the internet. For example, most of the internet started off in English. Now there is a lot of Chinese but what if somebody in a rural village, who only speaks the local dialect, needs to use the internet to try to understand why their crops have got a disease, for example?

So we have a duty to make sure that we include people who at the moment speak languages that are not very well represented or may not be represented on the internet. We want to make sure that the internet actually extends to people in rural communities, even to urban poor communities.

At the moment, because the internet is very much text-based, the Foundation is looking at what we can do to involve people who are illiterate and also help with their literacy.

The internet has changed the world but has popularised pornography, hacking, etc. Does that trouble you?

If you look at the internet—what you see is humanity connected. When you look at humanity, you see good and bad, you see all kinds. You see ups and downs, you see wonderful things and boring things. Humanity is very rich and very diverse. But for me today, when it comes to humanity, I'm an optimist.

Find out more about the iconic inventor with Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web, which is available on Amazon.

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