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Sir Timothy Berners-Lee
Sir Timothy Berners-Lee
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Sir Timothy Berners-Lee Interview (page: 2 / 8)

Father of the World Wide Web

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  Sir Timothy Berners-Lee

There's a story that's been told about you, that you built your first computer out of spare parts with a soldering iron. Is that true?

Timothy Berners-Lee: Yeah. In those days, the computer and the terminal that you used to talk to your computer were separate boxes. So, during Oxford, I started with building a terminal.

I got a job working in a sawmill over the vacation to get money to go around Europe. And in the sawmill, there was a big dumpster, an empty dumpster, empty except for an old calculator which had these rows of buttons. I had this dream of putting together a computer terminal. So I heaved it out and took it home and removed those buttons and then relabeled them with a QWERTY keyboard and then put sort of diode matrices on the back to produce the right code, binary code for each number. So that gave me the keyboard. Then I went down to the TV store and asked the guy whether he had any TVs which he could give me for cheap which had a working monitor, but where the radio frequency tuner had broken. He rolled his eyes and said yeah, he sure did have lots like that. I could take my pick. I actually got two.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

So I bought those, five pounds at a time. One of my friends at Oxford had explained to me how all this valve circuitry in the black-and-white television worked, and how to find the video point where the 1-volt peak-to-peak video could be injected, so that you could use it as a computer monitor. The rest of the computer monitor, the thing which put all the dots on the screen, and the shape of characters, is logic, hardware logic, which I bought piece by piece and sewed it up. So by the time I got to the end of my career at Oxford, on the side I'd also put together a computer monitor with 64 characters across and 16 lines down, because that would use exactly one kilobyte of memory. So then I needed a computer. I think, actually, to be born in 1955 was, in a way, very special because...

There I was in elementary school, winding relays, making solenoids and relays out of wire, which is something you can do when you're in elementary school. Now, you can actually build something which does a certain amount of logic. You can build a gate out of relays made out of pieces of baked bean can torn up and made into switches, and then the switches are operated by the electromagnets that you made out of nails and wire. So you could actually build a gate, and therefore, you could build a register, and you could build the CPU of a computer, and you can build memory units. So in fact, if you have enough time and enough power and enough nails, you could actually build a whole computer out of nails.

But in fact, when my friends and I got into secondary school, transistors came out. Transistors had already been invented, but when we were in secondary school, it got to the point where you could buy a bag of 500, untested. That is, rejects, untested transistors. So we'd take them home, find out which of them had been incorrectly tested and in fact worked, and then we used to grade them by what sort of amplifying gain they had, put them in different boxes, and then use them to make circuits. So we could use those to make much smaller circuits, and we made flip-flops which remembered whether the model train was going or not, or which would stay in one state or the other, or which would stay in one state long enough for the train whistle to blow and then flip back to turn the train off.

Sir Timothy Berners-Lee Interview Photo
So we had the ability to make logic in transistors. We could have made huge amounts of logic out of that, but it would have been really tedious. In practice, we would never have been able to do it, but as it happened, just when we needed it in our self-education, these little black chips came out. These chips had hundreds of transistors on each shift. So we could buy a shift register, and we knew how a shift register worked because we built the first one out of a few transistors one Saturday. Then we could buy the whole thing all prepackaged, so we could make things out of lots of shift registers. So there were lots of shift registers, each of which was just one of these little black bugs soldered into the terminal.

So riding that wave, in 1976, I've got the experience with logic, I know how to build a computer, and I know what it takes. I could have sat down and hard-wired the whole thing out of that, but at that point, miraculously, you could buy a slightly larger chip which actually had the whole processor on board, the M6800. So I bought an evaluation chip, designed as an evaluation, set for 6800. I still had to solder a bunch of stuff, put a clock circuitry around it and connect it up to memory circuitry. I had them on little cards -- I guess 3U-high cards, for anyone who is interested. A little back plane with an M6800 bus and I plugged it in. I think I had 256 bytes of memory when I started, and that was a lot of fun. So I think we were really lucky. Now that you have learned how to make a computer, to save you the bother, here it is. So I spent the next few years designing computer languages to run. All these very simple computer little languages, a bit like Forth. A friend of mine pointed me at a very simple language called Forth. I made one called 10PL, which was like Forth, but had parentheses in it. So there was continuing education.

I was really lucky to know how a computer worked, 'cause I'd built one. I built it. I had my terminal with its 64-character lines, and I had it connected to my computer, which was in a crate this big with a big car battery at the bottom in case the power failed. I knew how it worked because I knew how I could have built the chip out of gates, and I knew how I could have built the gates out of transistors. I didn't really know how transistors worked, but I knew I could have made the equivalents of a transistor. I learned a certain amount from the physics course about how solid-state systems work, and I knew how I could emulate each of those out of nails. So now, when I look at a laptop, I see all those pixels and see the windows moving. I know that I could build the operating systems, and I have built little operating systems since. I don't know how well anybody nowadays, without going through that historical phase, could ever feel that they really know how a computer works.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

Were there books around on how to make a computer or did you discover all of this for yourself?

Timothy Berners-Lee: There were all kinds of things around. There wasn't the web, of course, but the TTL chips from Texas Instruments came with the Orange Book, which described how each of these things would work. They'd have just these two rows of pins that you have to solder in, and you needed the book to tell you which pin connected to what. I remember my friend Nick and I would look at another page of the book, and there would be some long, complicated description of a circuit. We didn't really know what it did. We couldn't figure out what it did. There were magazine articles about transistors. Nick was a great reader, but mainly -- we just figured it out by connecting things together.

Is it true that while you were at Oxford, you were caught hacking?

Timothy Berners-Lee: I was caught misusing computer equipment. Yeah. It was the line printer, in fact. Yeah. So I got thrown off. That was another incentive to make my own computer is I was thrown off the nuclear physics lab computer by a system manager, Joyce Clark, who fortunately knew my parents pretty well, worked with them.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

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