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The man who spun the World Wide Web

Pursuits | By Matthew Webster | April 2019

Only connect: Tim Berners-Lee in 1996

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the internet 30 years ago this month, has said that governments must "translate" laws for the digital age. Matthew Webster investigates

March 2019 marks 30 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. It had an unwieldy network of computers holding all its data, and he proposed a means of making the information available in a way that made it easy both to send and retrieve. And so he created the World Wide Web.

The internet has its roots in 1962, when Joseph Licklider was head of computer research at the US Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency to fund implausible projects. Licklider dreamed of linking everyone on the planet so that knowledge could be shared more easily.

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’. Email was invented in 1972 to send messages around the network; in 1976 the Queen made news by sending an email.

The internet would have remained a club for public institutions but for 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 called ENQUIRE 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 rst; it took him over a year to persuade CERN that he had something worth pursuing. In May 1990, it funded 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. In 1993, the internet of the time was opened up for commercial use; and CERN announced that www technology could be freely used by anyone. This generous act allowed many software designers (such as Bill Gates) to make their fortunes.

If Berners-Lee gave birth to the www in 1989, it’s fair to say that CERN brought it to adulthood. As a result, Berners-Lee isn’t the billionaire he might have been if matters had gone a di erent way. However, he has been showered with honours.

Licklider, the undisputed father of the internet, died in 1990, aged 75. Happily, Berners-Lee, father of the World Wide Web, is only 63 and remains busy. He is a professor at 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 on my website.


This story was from April 2019 issue. Subscribe Now