All achievers

Sir Tim Berners-Lee

Father of the World Wide Web

The web is not a network of computers, the web is a network of people.

Timothy Berners-Lee was born in London, England. His mathematician parents, who had worked on the revolutionary Mark I computer, frequently discussed mathematics at home, and encouraged Timothy’s scientific interests. From an early age, he was fascinated by both mathematics and electronics. As a schoolboy, he closely followed the emerging field of transistor technology and built electronic devices to control his model trains.

As a physics student at Oxford, Berners-Lee continued to tinker with electronic devices. In his spare time, he painstakingly soldered together his own computer terminal from a discarded calculator, broken television sets and a car battery. His unauthorized use of the nuclear physics laboratory’s mainframe led to his being barred from the system. He had already begun devising his own computer languages, and after graduating with a degree in physics in 1976, he found his services as a computer programmer in immediate demand.

Sir Timothy Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts where he now teaches. (© Louie Psihoyos/CORBIS)
Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he now teaches.

After graduation, Berners-Lee worked for two years with Plessey Telecommunications, one of Britain’s major telecommunications firms. Berners-Lee’s work there included the refinement of bar code technology. The following two years were spent with D.G. Nash Ltd., where he designed typesetting software and a multi-tasking operating system. After working for Nash, Berners-Lee was ready to try his wings as a freelance consultant software engineer, a period that culminated in a six-month stint at CERN, the European particle physics laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland.

Timothy Berners-Lee speaks at a press conference in Helsinki, Finland after receiving the first ever Millennium Technology Prize. (Jaakko Avikainen/AFP/Getty Images)
2004: Berners-Lee speaks at a press conference in Helsinki after receiving the Millennium Technology Prize. (Getty)

At CERN, Berners-Lee was faced with the daunting task of correlating the sprawling body of research carried out by separate teams, all documenting their work on disparate, incompatible systems. For his own convenience, he devised a software application he called Enquire, based on the concept of “hypertext,” which allowed him to link documents on the basis of single-word associations, rather than through the branching hierarchies of existing systems. Berners-Lee urged his associates at CERN to try Enquire, but found few takers.

When his assignment at CERN ended in 1981, Berners-Lee took a job at Image Computer Systems, developing graphics and communications software and a generic macro language. Although CERN had abandoned Berners-Lee’s Enquire program, the young software engineer had made a lasting impression, and in 1984 CERN offered him a fellowship to work on distributed real-time systems for data acquisition and system control.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and Timothy Berners-Lee meet with schoolchildren during the UN Summit on the Information Society, in Geneva, Switzerland, 2003. (Jean-Philippe Ksiazek/AFP/Getty Images)
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and Timothy Berners-Lee meet with schoolchildren during the UN Summit on the Information Society, in Geneva, Switzerland, December 10, 2003. (Jean-Philippe Ksiazek/AFP/Getty Images)

On returning to Geneva, Berners-Lee found a more challenging situation than before. The lab had even greater need for a flexible system of sharing research documents. At the time, the Internet, a rudimentary network developed by the Pentagon, was gradually being adopted by researchers around the world for exchanging plain text messages through mail groups. By 1989, CERN was already home to the largest Internet node in Europe, but finding information over the Internet was no easy task. Requests for information had to be sent from one user to another, and replied to individually. Distributing messages to a group, and collecting their feedback, created long documents, with relevant information buried under a blizzard of queries, addresses and replies.

Berners-Lee imagined combining the Internet with linked hypertext documents, to provide access to an open-ended body of interactive information. In March 1989, Berners-Lee proposed a global hypertext project, one that would permit researchers all over the world to share work-in-progress, transmitted instantaneously, without the delays associated with traditional scholarly publication or cumbersome mail groups. With collaborators at CERN, Berners-Lee wrote the “hypertext transfer protocol” (HTTP) for transmitting documents over the Internet. HTTP standardizes communication between web servers, where documents are stored, and the client programs, or browsers, used to view them. He also originated a system of identifying documents, originally known as the universal resource indicator, now known as the universal resource locator (URL).

Sir Timothy Berners-Lee, receiving the Quadriga award in Berlin on October 3, 2005. The Quadriga awards are bestowed every year, on the anniversary of German reunification, to reward individuals for their vision, courage and sense of social responsibility. (Marcus Brandt/AFP/Getty Images)
2005: Sir Tim Berners-Lee, receiving the Quadriga award in Berlin. The Quadriga awards are bestowed on the anniversary of German reunification, to individuals for their vision, courage and sense of social responsibility.

He devised the hypertext markup language (HTML) for formatting web documents, and programmed the first web server to store and transmit them. To make the proposed network visible to the end user, he created the first web browser, an application for both viewing and editing the documents online, which he named WorldWideWeb. He made the entire system available within CERN in October 1990.

At first, his invention attracted little notice. On August 6, 1991, he opened his web site (info.cern.ch) to public access over the Internet. He posted instructions for how to set up web servers and create sites, providing all the software he had created, free of charge. He announced his creation through a few Internet mail groups. Word of his invention spread quickly through the international community of computer enthusiasts, who soon set up servers and built web sites of their own. When they sent word of their work to Berners-Lee, he quickly provided links to their sites on his own. With input from an ad hoc army of volunteer collaborators around the world, he continually refined his specifications. The World Wide Web made it possible, not only to link text documents, but to download software and provide access to artwork, photography, audio and video files.

Sir Tim arriving at the Guildhall to receive the Honorary Freedom of the City of London (Paul Clarke)
Sir Tim Berners-Lee arriving at the Guildhall to receive the Honorary Freedom of the City of London. (Paul Clarke)

As web sites serving every possible interest proliferated, use of the web spread beyond the specialized audience of computer specialists to the public at large, and a need arose for browsers that would function on a variety of platforms and operating systems. Software companies created their own applications for browsing the burgeoning web: Mosaic, Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer. Web users soon found that the competing browsers did not all support the same functions, and Internet service providers looked for ways to control the public’s access to the web.

Entrepreneurs approached Berners-Lee with schemes for making a profit on his invention, but from the beginning, Berners-Lee declined all offers. He has always insisted that the web remain an open space, equally accessible to all computer users, without collecting fees for the use of patented software. In 1994, he joined the Laboratory for Computer Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he founded the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), an international governing body for the web. The Consortium, with teams in the United States, Europe and Japan, coordinates development of web technology among participating companies. It enforces standards based on royalty-free technology, with the goal of keeping the web open and accessible to all, free of domination by any one company or interest. Berners-Lee also holds an endowed chair at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). As a senior research scientist, he heads CSAIL’s Decentralized Information Group.

Sir Timothy Berners-Lee receives the Golden Plate Award of the Academy of Achievement from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Thomas L. Friedman during the 2007 International Achievement Summit in Washington, D.C. (© Academy of Achievement)
Sir Timothy Berners-Lee receives the Golden Plate Award of the Academy of Achievement from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Thomas L. Friedman during the 2007 International Achievement Summit in Washington, D.C.

Timothy Berners-Lee recounted the story of the birth of the web, along with his thoughts on its future, in his 1999 book, Weaving the Web. He has received numerous awards and honors for his contribution to civilization. In 2004, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. That same year, he received the first Millennium Technology Prize from the government of Finland, an award of over a million euros. At the end of the year, he also accepted a chair in Computer Science at the University of Southampton, England. Southampton’s School of Electronics and Computer Science is now a major center for the development of Berners-Lee’s vision of the Semantic Web, an extension of the web that will permit search agents to identify links based not only on verbal expressions in written language, but in computer languages as well.

Tim Berners-Lee's tweet "This is for everyone" at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games opening ceremony in London, July 27, 2012 (Nick Webb)
Tim Berners-Lee’s tweet “This is for Everyone” at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games opening ceremony in London.

Sir Timothy Berners-Lee remains a leading international advocate of “net neutrality,” preserving the open nature of the World Wide Web.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 2007

For young people today, life without the World Wide Web may seem unimaginable, yet the Web is less than 25 years old, and its inventor is still among us, still in the prime of his working life, still guiding the destiny of his revolutionary creation.

As a student at Oxford, Tim Berners-Lee built his own computer with a soldering iron from spare parts and an old television set. He was working at CERN, the European nuclear laboratory in Geneva, when he first devised the prototype of a hypertext browser to thread his way through CERN’s labyrinth of information systems. Although the fledgling Internet of the early ’90s already allowed computer users to exchange plain text documents over telephone lines, Berners-Lee saw the possibility of giving users around the world equal access to a shared body of information, including formatted documents, graphics, photos, audio and video.

He created the software for formatting, transmitting and browsing linked documents over the Internet. He named his creation World Wide Web. In the summer of 1991, Berners-Lee made all of these tools available to the public for free over the Internet. Berners-Lee has always believed the benefits to society of a universally free and accessible system of information exchange outweighed any personal interest. The impact of Berners-Lee’s creation on business, scholarship, entertainment, news and politics is incalculable. Time magazine hailed him as one of the “100 Great Minds of the Century,” and Queen Elizabeth honored him with a knighthood.

Watch full interview

What inspired you to create the World Wide Web?

Keys to success — Vision

Timothy Berners-Lee: Creating the web was really an act of desperation, because the situation without it was very difficult when I was working at CERN later. Most of the technology involved in the web, like the hypertext, like the Internet, multifont text objects, had all been designed already. I just had to put them together. It was a step of generalizing, going to a higher level of abstraction, thinking about all the documentation systems out there as being possibly part of a larger imaginary documentation system. But then the engineering was fairly straightforward. It was designed in order to make it possible to get at documentation and in order to be able to get people — students working with me, contributing to the project, for example — to be able to come in and link in their ideas, so that we wouldn’t lose it all if we didn’t debrief them before they left. Really, it was designed to be a collaborative workspace for people to design on a system together. That was the exciting thing about it.

Early in your career, you created a software program called Enquire. Was that the first step on the way to the web? How and why did you do that?

Timothy Berners-Lee: Enquire was a program I made mainly for my own benefit.

When I left Oxford, I didn’t have any role models for doing a second degree. I didn’t know anybody who’d done one. I didn’t know how to go about doing it. What I probably should have done is go to Berkeley and do a master’s or Ph.D. in computer science, but I didn’t know about that. So I went and joined a telecommunications company down on the south coast of England, and I used the fact that I knew about microprocessors, and I was one of the few people that did. So I was in demand, and I was in demand as a consultant.

At one point, CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) brought people in as consultants to do some programming on a project, just for six months. So for the second half of 1980, a bunch of colleagues and I parachuted into CERN to fix things. We had to figure out what happened, what was wrong, what needed to be done, and we needed to build pieces of software. These pieces of software were part of a very large system, so they had to interact with pieces of machinery and interfaces and other pieces of software. It turned out that the best way to find out about all these things that you needed to connect was to talk to their designers over coffee. So the coffee center where the designers met in the morning was a crucial place. This meant names and faces are part of the loop, and I have a terrible memory for names and faces. I had to remember who to ask about each thing. I needed to be able to track this.

Now, the interesting thing about computer programs at that point is they were good at storing things in tree structures and in matrices, but what they couldn’t store well was the random association. That, “Oh, by the way, this hardware module is right next to the coffee machine, so when you fix it, go get a coffee.” In real life, often we come across random associations which can turn out to be really important: the fact that you have something in common with somebody which allowed you to talk to them; the fact that the smell of the coffee as you go past the coffee machine takes you back and makes you remember that module and then helps your mind bring all those things back.

Sir Timothy Berners-Lee smiles after planting a cherry tree in the gardens at Sans Souci Palace in Potsdam, Germany. The tree-planting was part of the ceremony surrounding the Quadriga Award, given to Berners-Lee in Berlin on October 3, 2005 (Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)
2005: Sir Timothy Berners-Lee smiles after planting a cherry tree in the gardens at Sans Souci Palace in Potsdam, Germany. The tree-planting was part of the ceremony surrounding the Quadriga Award, given to Berners-Lee.

So I wrote a program which allowed me to write a little bit of text about something. But the only way I could introduce a new thing was by saying how it related to something else. “This is a module that is used by this one, and that’s used by this one.” So I tracked the dependencies through the system. I tracked where the documentation was for things, and “this person created that.” So I could find out the people who were responsible. I stored the delightfully tangled and interesting and exciting state of the project in this program which I just had for my own benefit. I tried to suggest to other people to use it. When I left, I left them with an eight-inch floppy disk with the program on it. I gave it to Brian Carpenter, who was the assistant manager there. He later became, among other things, chair of the Internet Activities Board. But he lost it, or somebody lost it. So that program is gone, but it had random associations, and that was an important step.

Was necessity the mother of invention? You had other problems to solve.

Timothy Berners-Lee: Yes. It was definitely done on the side. I was building a vacuum control system or a vacuum control state visualization program or something. So yes. Enquire was a side project, done out of fun, to play a little bit with being able to store random associations. But it was always driven by — and tested by — whether it would actually help me to store them.  That was in 1980. I rewrote the Enquire program maybe one or two times and pulled it around with me.

July 9, 2004: Sir Tim Berners-Lee developed much of the programming language that made the Internet accessible to the general public.
2004: Sir Tim Berners-Lee developed the programming language that made the Internet accessible to the public.

How did that lead you to the World Wide Web?

Timothy Berners-Lee: Then as time went on, over the next decade…

Keys to success — Vision

Computers changed. They had graphics. They had things like folders and “point and click,” and people started to use word processors. When they used word processors, they stored their data. They typed into the word processor on a disk somewhere on a machine, which generally wasn’t accessible. So there was then a new frustration that data about these systems was available, but you had to log onto a special particular machine. You had to learn a particular program to access it. To find your way through the library was totally different from finding your way through the documentation system of an experiment. So the data was there, somewhere, going around and around on a disk, but it was really difficult to get at. So there was a mixture, a confluence of ideas, I suppose — the frustration that we didn’t have access to the data that existed, even though it was there — the need for a collaborative environment. I wanted something like Enquire, but where everybody could play, so that people working together could design something in a common shared space.

There was work that I had done in between — working for Image Computer Systems — work that I had done with communications protocols and text processing, text formatting, and macro languages and so on, which are very like mark-up languages. At that point…

The computers at CERN, which had been on various networks, including an IBM one called Bitnet and a digital one called Decnet and a CERN one called CERNnet, started to be connected together by the Internet, the master network that connected to other networks, even though, politically, it wasn’t proper to use the Internet early on at CERN. You were supposed to wait until the International Standards Organization had produced a set of protocols to use. In practice, the Internet was creeping across. It had become available, and Ben Siegel was a mentor there who took me aside and encouraged me to use UNIX as an open system, and use TCPIP, told me about TCPIP, told me what was happening, encouraged people to adopt the Internet. So there I had the Internet, I had the problem, I had all the tools, I just needed to be given some spare time to do it.