How Tim Berners-Lee Developed the World Wide Web

History Hit

3 mins

12 Jun 2019

In 1990 British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee published a proposal for a revolutionary idea which would connect other computer scientists as they went about their work.

As he realised the potential of this creation, he decided to give it to the world for free – making him perhaps the greatest unsung hero of his time.

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Early life and career

Born to two early computer scientists in London in 1955, his interest in technology started early on.

Like many boys of his age, he owned a train set, but unlike the others he devised gadgets for making the trains move without him touching them.

A few years later the young prodigy graduated from Oxford, where he had enjoyed practising converting TVs into primitive computers.

After graduating, Berners-Lee’s rapid ascent continued as he became a software engineer at CERN – a large particle physics laboratory in Switzerland.

NeXTcube used by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN. Image Credit Geni / Commons.

There he observed and mingled with the best scientists and engineers from all over the world and consolidated his own knowledge, but as he did so he noticed a problem.

Looking back later, he observed that “In those days, there was different information on different computers, but you had to log on to different computers to get at it…you had to learn a different program on each computer. Often it was just easier to go and ask people when they were having coffee…”.

An idea

Though the internet existed already and was somewhat used, the young scientist devised a bold new idea to expand its scope infinitely by using a new technology called hypertext.

With this he devised the three fundamental technologies which still provide the basis for today’s web:

1.HTML: HyperText Markup Language. The formatting language for the Web.

2. URI: Uniform Resource Identifier. An address that is unique and used to identify each resource on the Web. It is also commonly called a URL

3. HTTP: Hypertext Transfer Protocol, which allows for the retrieval of linked resources from across the Web.

No longer would individual computers hold specific data, for with these innovations any information could be shared instantly to anywhere in the world.

Understandably excited, Berners-Lee drafted a proposal for his new idea, and put it on the desk of his boss Mike Sendall in March 1989.

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Despite getting it back with the less than effusive words “vague but exciting” scrawled across it, the Londoner persevered and finally in October 1990 Sendall gave him approval for the pursuit of his new project.

Over the next few weeks, the world’s first web browser was created and the official proposal for what had been christened the World Wide Web (hence www.) had been published.

Initially the new technology was confined to the scientists associated with CERN, but as its usefulness quickly became apparent Berners-Lee began to press the company to release it free into the wider world.

Explaining that “had the technology been proprietary, and in my total control, it would probably not have taken off. You can’t propose that something be a universal space and at the same time keep control of it.”

Success

Eventually, in 1993, they agreed and the web was given to the world for absolutely nothing. What happened next was beyond revolutionary.

The CERN data centre housing some WWW servers. Image credit Hugovanmeijeren / Commons.

It took the world by storm and lead to thousands of new innovations from YouTube to Social Media to darker facets of human nature such as propaganda videos. Life would never be the same again.

But what of the pioneering man responsible?

Berners-Lee, having never earned any money off the web, never became a billionaire like Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

However, he appears to have lead a comfortable and happy life, and now heads the World Wide Web Foundation, dedicated to encouraging the use of the internet for encouraging positive change.

During the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games in his home city, his achievement was formally celebrated. In response he tweeted “This is for everyone”.

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