Try to imagine life without the World Wide Web. For one, you would not have access to the information you are now reading. To gather information, you have to ‘hit the books’ and spend half of the day in the library cross–checking information and going through catalogues. Since you cannot write all the information down, you have to photocopy every relevant page. The Librarian is, as usual, her grumpy self and the last thing she wants to do is her job. So you stay out of her way as much as you could. This is only a light analogy of what it would be like to live without the World Wide Web.
If for a normal person—whose purpose for browsing the Internet is just to get few data—going back to the archaic means of procuring information is enough of a challenge. How much more for the global community which heavily depends on the unfailing support of technology? Since data transfer became easier, we have begun to live a much fuller life. In more ways than one, we owe this luxury of time to Tim Berners-Lee who did not hesitate to share to others what he has created.
Time flies. It has only been around 20 years since the World Wide Web has come to be, but the impact it made in our lives is almost unbelievable—we can no longer live without it. We do not know much about how the cyberspace works; let’s leave that to software wizards. However, let’s go back in time when the computer was nothing but an upgraded version of the typewriter. It’s about time we get to know the person who showed us how things should be done in the most efficient way.
Tim Berners Lee’s Family and Education Profile
On 8 June 1955, Conway Berners-Lee and Mary Lee Woods of London, England became proud parents to Timothy John. Conway and Mary were both scientists. In fact, the first commercially built, stored–program computer, the Ferranti Mark 1, ran on programs developed by his parents and their team. They say parents have profound influence over their kids. This proved to be very true in the Berners-Lee home. It must be cool to have programmers for parents. Children are by nature curious about everything around them. Timothy John, who was then fondly called Tim, grew up in a household where curiosity was not only encouraged but stimulated.
Conway and Mary involved their four kids when they talk about mathematics. Suffice it to say that Tim was genetically driven to invent. Tinkering with his toys became a hobby. Instead of playing with them, Tim would open up his toys and try to examine how they worked. There was probably no one as curious as Tim among his peers.
While other kids were playing, Tim closely studied transistor technology. His interest was piqued by how ingeniously–designed mechanisms got objects working. Trains particularly fascinated him. Tim became a trainspotter at a very young age. He diligently worked on the improvement of his miniature trains and by the time electricity became a household utility, Tim was able to get his trains running on electronic devices.
He completed his elementary studies at Sheen Mount Primary School. In 1969, he began attending secondary school at Emanuel School where he graduated in 1973. Physics was the perfect course for him to take due to his passion for creating mobile machines. He went to Queens College at Oxford and after three years, he was able to hold a first–class degree in Physics.
Tim never really outgrew his curiosity. He was banned from using the school’s laboratory after he got caught tinkering with the university equipment. Tim was then working on his indigenous computer and needed contraptions to perhaps solder a wire or something. The school must have felt relieved when Tim graduated early.
His first job was in a telecommunications company called Plessey. It was then one of the biggest telecommunications company in Great Britain. He spent two years in Plessey Telecommunications as one of their computer engineers. Tim worked on the company’s barcode systems. After two years, he left Plessey and worked another two years for D.G. Nash Limited. Fed–up with barcodes, Tim now tried his hands at developing typesetting software and a multi–functional operating system.
Although Tim spent his first four years in the industry he really loves, he felt restricted working only on the things that get assigned to him. Knowing he could do more than take orders, he decided to work as a freelance consultant instead. Doing so enabled him to choose assignments.
He knew where to go next. Tim flew to Switzerland to join the European Organization for Nuclear Research, more commonly known as CERN, in 1980. His new company happened to be one of the most technologically advanced establishments in the world. It frustrated the 25–year–old software engineer to see a place so packed with brilliant people slowed down by poor data management.
He faced the daunting task of having to dig information from a plethora of documents and put them all together using a more organized system. The computers then were used to encode data and send e-mails. Even though the Internet already existed, it did very little help in easing research work. E-mails tend to get lost in the endless chain of correspondence and Tim found it really frustrating to work in that kind of chaos.
He once read “Enquire Within Upon Everything,” a Victorian classic book that resembled an encyclopedia, save its unique way of presenting information. “Enquire Within Upon Everything” arranged the contents in a way that interrelated everything it defined. It also included topics that we might consider taboo, like “How to Bury a Relative.” That book left in Tim a lasting impression about how data could be managed by way of linking them based on their relevance.
He promptly went to work and came up with “Enquire”—basically, a prototype of the World Wide Web which was yet to be created. Enquire enabled Tim to use HyperText Transfer Protocol to save the information in a server to make it easier for tracking and retrieving. The excited Tim wrote a proposal to the CERN director explaining the potential of the system he created. To his dismay, he never heard from the director up to the time he left CERN six months after he joined their software team.
Leaving Switzerland for England, Tim worked for John Poole's Image Computer Systems, Limited. The company saw his potential and assigned him a managerial task. For three years, he headed the technical operations of John Poole. His work in his fourth company exposed him to computer networking. One of the projects he developed was a real–time remote procedure call. It was the closest thing they had to what we now call Voice–Over–Internet Protocol or VOIP.
Getting more convinced of the unleashed potential that the Internet seemed to have, Tim went back to CERN in 1984. Now older and wiser, Tim was given a regular position as a CERN Fellow. Four years later, CERN was considered the biggest Internet user in the whole of Europe. However, the Internet then was hardly useful apart from sending and receiving emails. In short, the Internet did not really evolve that much. But one thing did—computers.
Tim Praises Steve Jobs’ NeXT Computers
When the NeXTSTEP arrived in the CERN office, it had the multi–tasking operating system Tim knew was compatible with Enquire. With that sort of advancement, his Enquire days were relived. He began drafting another proposal; now with the help of his colleague, Robert Cailliau. According to a report by The Guardian, the World Wide Web creator said of Steve Jobs' NeXT computers: "it had automatically set up for me as a naive user a unix mail account, which staggered the local unix gurus who normally had to help users of new unix [machines] struggle with sendmail configuration files."
Tim knew that data can be easily managed once a system gets created to take care of determining the type of information that could be used along with other collated data. It was mind boggling. Even at CERN, his colleagues were not prepared to embrace such advancement. They didn’t see how something impossible, like data being saved in a computer then retrieved in a matter of seconds, could happen.
Colleague Robert Cailliau Supports Tim
Robert provided the kind of support Tim needed that time. Someone had to believe that it could be done, or at least, that they could try to do it. It has been almost a decade since Tim submitted his Enquire proposal. His new boss, Mike Sendall, was more accommodating to Tim and allowed him to explore the system’s possibilities. It turned out to be the best decision Mike Sendall had ever made in his life.
Tim was his curious self again. He knew that he could use existing computer programs and codes to create what he envisioned to be the answer to everyone’s needs as far as information is concerned. Taking Enquire out of the drawer, he studied it once more, finding ways how to make the HyperText Protocol Transfer do what he wanted it to do.
He first needed to create standard locations for the documents, so that when a document is retrieved, the system would not get inundated by the same information coming from different locations. For that, he had to create a non-pre-existing system. The Universal Resource Indicator was developed to address that concern.
What he needed to do next was to create commands that would be recognized by the system in order to display the texts in readable format. Without the HyperText Markup Language, it would be impossible to create documents in legible form. The very website you are reading this article from was able to publish inspirational stories like this one with the help of HyperText Markup Language also referred to as HTML.
Locations ready, texts readable, and transfer possible, the upgraded Enquire was renamed “World Wide Web”—all set to take over the cyberspace. And what a big empty space it was, having no data yet to share. Tim launched the World Wide Web in 1989 at CERN using the first server that was ever created: the CERN HTTPd. Tim and Richard expected that their colleagues would be ecstatic to try the new system and revel at what it could do. That did not happen. What they anticipated to become a rave at CERN was almost ignored. Only very few people were interested to try it out.
After months of waiting for takers at CERN to pick up, Tim finally gave up hopes of ever getting his colleagues interested in the World Wide Web. He thought that others who were as crazy about computers as he was might be more supportive. Not caring about getting his invention patented, Tim made the World Wide Web a public property when he sent emails to different company groups informing everyone of how they could start their own webpages.
WWW Takes the World by Storm
In the world's first-ever web server website, anyone who wanted to give webpage creation a try could get all the information they need by visiting the one and only website that went live on 6 August 1991.
The email containing an explicit set of instructions went viral. Tim received a lot of emails from appreciative recipients telling him of their own progress in terms of creating their own websites. The data soon grew bigger and bigger until the World Wide Web became host to all information.
One man’s vision of how the world could be a better place by making data easily accessible to whoever needs it, gave rise to a new wave of belief, culture, system, language… everything was not the same since the Word Wide Web.
Tim knew that with data now being easily widely available, a governing body must be organized to oversee cyberspace. Along with other concerned individuals, Tim established the World Wide Web Consortium or W3C. To avoid web designers and consumers to abuse their access, W3C put together a set of regulations and standard procedures everyone using the World Wide Web must adhere to. Massachusetts Institute of Technology housed W3C in 1994.
Realizing the propensity of the World Wide Web in influencing society, several entrepreneurs arranged a meeting with Tim hoping that they would be able to convince him to leverage the profitability of his creation. Tim vehemently turned them all down as he found it ridiculous to milk money from World Wide Web users when all they were using the system for was to merely find data. Data, according to him, is for everyone. He despises what he calls “data huggers,” those who hold on to their data so tightly for fear of losing authority.
Not After Increasing His Net Worth
Tim might not have profited from this breakthrough, but what he earned was the respect and esteem from people who did not believe him before. It was the beginning of Tim’s involvement in the academe. He was offered Fellowship at prestigious universities. Tim was also awarded by well–known bodies and organizations for his contribution to the Internet. After a decade of establishing W3C, Queen Elizabeth II in vested Tim the rank of Officer of the Order of the British Empire. To put it simply, Tim became a Knight.
What is really amazing is that considering what Tim has done in the development of browsing, very few people know who he is. This noble inventor was so absorbed in creating more safeguards in web usage that he had no time for other mundane things such as facing the press and attracting more attention. He knew that his niche is in the cyberspace so he focused on giving talks and seminars, especially to the young people, about the responsibility that goes along with having access to information.
Seeing his earnestness in promoting open data, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown asked Tim to be part of The Public Sector Transparency Board in 2009. Tim’s home country is extending him its all–out support in his crusade for open and free information.
Quotes from Weaving the Web
In 1999, Tim published his first book “Weaving the Web” where he shared his journey towards the creation of the World Wide Web. The book also contained commentaries on how the birth of the Web acts as a pivotal event in the lives of all humanity. Perhaps it’s best to take a peek at the contents of the book in order to pay homage to Tim’s advocacy: Raw Data Now. (So we “made it pretty,” Sir Tim, “but included the raw data”—your very own account of what inspired you to create the Web.) This is taken from Book Browse:
"When I first began tinkering with a software program that eventually gave rise to the idea of the World Wide Web, I named it Enquire, short for Enquire Within upon Everything, a musty old book of Victorian advice I noticed as a child in my parents' house outside London. With its title suggestive of magic, the book served as a portal to a world of information, everything from how to remove clothing stains to tips on investing money. Not a perfect analogy for the Web, but a primitive starting point.
What that first bit of Enquire code led me to was something much larger, a vision encompassing the decentralized, organic growth of ideas, technology, and society. The vision I have for the Web is about anything being potentially connected with anything. It is a vision that provides us with new freedom, and allows us to grow faster than we ever could when we were fettered by the hierarchical classification systems into which we bound ourselves. It leaves the entirety of our previous ways of working as just one tool among many. It leaves our previous fears for the future as one set among many. And it brings the workings of society closer to the workings of our minds.
Unlike Enquire Within upon Everything, the Web that I have tried to foster is not merely a vein of information to be mined, nor is it just a reference or research tool. Despite the fact that the ubiquitous www and .com now fuel electronic commerce and stock markets all over the world, this is a large, but just one, part of the Web. Buying books from Amazon.com and stocks from E-trade is not all there is to the Web. Neither is the Web some idealized space where we must remove our shoes, eat only fallen fruit, and eschew commercialization.
The irony is that in all its various guises - commerce, research, and surfing - the Web is already so much a part of our lives that familiarity has clouded our perception of the Web itself. To understand the Web in the broadest and deepest sense, to fully partake of the vision that I and my colleagues share, one must understand how the Web came to be.
The story of how the Web was created has been told in various books and magazines. Many accounts I've read have been distorted or just plain wrong. The Web resulted from many influences on my mind, half-formed thoughts, disparate conversations, and seemingly disconnected experiments. I pieced it together as I pursued my regular work and personal life. I articulated the vision, wrote the first Web programs, and came up with the now pervasive acronyms URL (then UDI), HTTP, HTML, and, of course, World Wide Web. But many other people, most of them unknown, contributed essential ingredients, in much the same almost random fashion. A group of individuals holding a common dream and working together at a distance brought about a great change.
My telling of the real story will show how the Web's evolution and its essence are inextricably linked. Only by understanding the Web at this deeper level will people ever truly grasp what its full potential can be.
Journalists have always asked me what the crucial idea was, or what the singular event was, that allowed the Web to exist one day when it hadn't the day before. They are frustrated when I tell them there was no "Eureka!" moment. It was not like the legendary apple falling on Newton's head to demonstrate the concept of gravity. Inventing the World Wide Web involved my growing realization that there was a power in arranging ideas in an unconstrained, weblike way. And that awareness came to me through precisely that kind of process. The Web arose as the answer to an open challenge, through the swirling together of influences, ideas, and realizations from many sides, until, by the wondrous offices of the human mind, a new concept jelled. It was a process of accretion, not the linear solving of one well-defined problem after another.
I am the son of mathematicians. My mother and father were part of the team that programmed the world's first commercial, stored-program computer, the Manchester University 'Mark I,' which was sold by Ferranti Ltd. in the early 1950s. They were full of excitement over the idea that, in principle, a person could program a computer to do most anything. They also knew, however, that computers were good at logical organizing and processing, but not random associations. A computer typically keeps information in rigid hierarchies and matrices, whereas the human mind has the special ability to link random bits of data. When I smell coffee, strong and stale, I may find myself again in a small room over a corner coffeehouse in Oxford. My brain makes a link, and instantly transports me there.
One day when I came home from high school, I found my father working on a speech for Basil de Ferranti. He was reading books on the brain, looking for clues about how to make a computer intuitive, able to complete connections as the brain did. We discussed the point; then my father went on to his speech and I went on to my homework. But the idea stayed with me that computers could become much more powerful if they could be programmed to link otherwise unconnected information.
This challenge stayed on my mind throughout my studies at Queen's College at Oxford University, where I graduated in 1976 with a degree in physics. It remained in the background when I built my own computer with an early microprocessor, an old television, and a soldering iron, as well as during the few years I spent as a software engineer with Plessey Telecommunications and with D.G. Nash Ltd.
Then, in 1980, 1 took a brief software consulting job with CERN the famous European Particle Physics Laboratory in Geneva. That's where I wrote Enquire, my first weblike program. I wrote it in my spare time and for my personal use, and for no loftier reason than to help me remember the connections among the various people, computers, and projects at the lab. Still, the larger vision had taken firm root in my consciousness."
If Tim did not create the World Wide Web, to put that excerpt in there would require buying the book and reading every page of it. Not that it’s not worth it, but the point is, the World Wide Web changed how things are done. Plus, it did all that free of charge.
The least we could do is pay it forward by handling data responsibly and using it for something good—just the way its creator intended it to be.
Organisations and Campaigns Supported
- World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)
- World Wide Web Foundation
- MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory
- Web Science Research Initiative
- MIT Center for Collective Intelligence
- East Dorset Heritage Trust
- Power of Information Task Force
- Net Neutrality
- Open Data Institute
- American Philosophical Society
- Guglielmo Marconi Foundation
- Institution of Electrical Engineers
- The Society for Technical Communications
- American Academy of Arts and Sciences
- Royal Society
- National Academy of Engineering
- 3Com Founders
- Decentralized Information Group
- The Public Sector Transparency Board
- Ford Foundation Trustee
- 1989: Drafted the World Wide Web proposal
- 1991: Launched the first website
- 1994: Founded the MIT W3C
- 1994: Became a member of World Wide Web Hall of Fame
- 1995: Became a distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society
- 1995: Received the "Young Innovator of the Year" Award
- 1995: Received the Software System Award (Association for Computing Machinery)
- 1995: Honored by the Prix Ars Electronica
- 1997: Appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire
- 1997: Received the MCI Computerworld/Smithsonian Award
- 1997: Awarded with the International Communication Institute's Columbus Prize
- 1998: Received the Mountbatten Medal of the National Electronics Council
- 1998: Received the Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran Prize from the Foundation for Science and Technology
- 1998: Received the PC Magazine Lifetime Achievement Award in Technical Excellence
- 1998: Received the Charles Babbage Award
- 1998: Received MacArthur Fellowship
- 1998: Received the Eduard Rhein Technology Award
- 1998: Became an Honorary Fellow at the Institution of Electrical Engineers
- 1999: Named by Time Magazine as one of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th century
- 1999: Received the World Technology Award for Communication Technology
- 1999: Became an Honorary Fellow at the Society for Technical Communications
- 1999: Became chair of 3Com Founders
- 1999: Released his book Weaving the Web
- 2000: Received the Paul Evan Peters Award of ARL, Educause and CNI
- 2000: Received the Electronic Freedom Foundation's Pioneer Award
- 2000: Received the George R Stibitz Computer Pioneer Award from the American Computer Museum
- 2000: Received the Special Award for Outstanding Contribution of the World Television Forum
- 2001: Became a patron of the East Dorset Heritage Trust
- 2001: Became a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
- 2001: Became a Fellow at the Royal Society
- 2002: Named by BBC as one of the 100 Greatest Britons
- 2002: Received the Japan Prize from the Science and Technology Foundation of Japan
- 2002: Received the Prince of Asturias Foundation Prize for Scientific and Technical Research (along with Larry Roberts, Rob Kahn and Vint Cerf)
- 2002: Became a Fellow at the Guglielmo Marconi Foundation
- 2002: Received the Albert Medal of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Art, Manufactures, and Commerce
- 2003: Received The Royal Photographic Society's Progress Medal and Honorary Fellowship
- 2003: Received the Computer History Museum's Fellow Award
- 2004: Knighted by Queen Elizabeth II
- 2004: Became the chair of University of Southampton's Computer Science at the School of Electronics and Computer Science
- 2004: Won the Finland's Millennium Technology Prize
- 2004: Received Special Award of the American Society for Information Science and Technology
- 2004: Became a member of the American Philosophical Society
- 2005: Named Greatest Briton of 2004
- 2005: Received the Common Wealth Award for Distinguished Service for Mass Communications
- 2005: Received the Die Quadriga Award
- 2005: Recipient of the Financial Times Lifetime Achievement Award
- 2006: Awarded with the President's Medal by the Institute of Physics
- 2007: Received the Academy of Achievement's Golden Plate Award
- 2007: Included in The Telegraph's list of 100 greatest living geniuses
- 2007: Received the Order of Merit
- 2007: Received the Charles Stark Draper Prize from the National Academy of Engineering
- 2007: Received the Lovelace Medal from the British Computer Society
- 2007: Received the D&AD President's Award for Innovation and Creativity
- 2007: Received the MITX (Massachusetts Innovation & Technology Exchange) Leadership Award
- 2007: Became Foreign Associate of the National Academy of Engineering
- 2008: Received the BITC Award for Excellence
- 2008: Became a Fellow at the IEEE
- 2008: Received the Pathfinder Award from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government
- 2008: Received the IEEE/RSE Wolfson James Clerk Maxwell Award
- 2009: Named of Royal Designer by the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufacture, and Commerce
- 2009: Elected in the United States National Academy of Sciences as a Foreign Associate
- 2009: Commissioned by Gordon Brown to work for the UK Government to head the Power of Information Task Force
- 2009: Received the Webby Award for Lifetime Achievement
- 2009: Founded the World Wide Web Foundation
- 2010: Received the UNESCO Niels Bohr Gold Medal Award
- 2011: Named as "The Man Who Changed the World" (Mikhail Gorbachev Award)
- 2011: Inducted into the IEEE Intelligent Systems' AI's Hall of Fame
- 2011: Received the DAMA Web Awards during the Bilbao Web Summit
- 2012: Honored in the opening ceremony in Summer Olympics
- 2012: Inducted into Internet Hall of Fame
- 2012: Vested by the Sultan of Oman with the Sultan Qaboos Order for Culture, Science and Arts (First Class)
- 1995: Honorary Doctorate, Parsons School of Design
- 1995: Honorary Doctorate, Southampton University
- 1998: Honorary Doctorate, University of Essex
- 1998: Honorary Doctorate, Southern Cross University
- 2000: Doctor of University, The Open University
- 2001: Doctor of Law, Columbia University
- 2001: Doctor of Science, Oxford University
- 2002: Doctor of Science, University of Port Elizabeth
- 2004: Doctor of Science, Lancaster University
- 2008: Honorary Doctorate, University of Manchester
- 2008: Honorary Doctorate, Universitat Oberta de Catalunya
- 2009: Honorary Doctorate, Universidad Politécnica de Madrid
- 2009: Honorary Doctorate, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
- 2009: Honorary Doctorate, UniversitÃ de LiÃ¨ge
- 2011: Doctor of Science, Harvard University