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Sir Timothy Berners-Lee
 
Sir Timothy Berners-Lee
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Sir Timothy Berners-Lee Interview (page: 3 / 8)

Father of the World Wide Web

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  Sir Timothy Berners-Lee

You were interested in computers from such an early age. How would you describe your childhood growing up in London in the 1950's and '60s?

Timothy Berners-Lee: I suppose the most significant is "happy." "Fun." I had a happy childhood.


My parents were both mathematicians. They obviously had a lot of fun with math. I was the eldest. I am the eldest of four. We all grew up in an atmosphere where math was sort of interesting, it was everywhere. So making pudding or making a pie involved some calculations and things. I suppose when I was little, I had two friends in elementary school, and we would discuss science. We weren't very athletic. We would walk around the playground and talk about chemistry and biology and physics, and we would wind electromagnets by taking transformer wire and wrap it around a nail. I remember those electromagnets didn't work very well. The book said you should put the nail in the hearth, in the embers of the fire, and let it cool, so that it got the right temper -- but we didn't have a fire with embers, so that never happened. The nail would become a permanent magnet. That was the first sort of interest in, I suppose, what was to become later electronics.

[ Key to Success ] Passion


How old were you?

Timothy Berners-Lee: I suppose that was in primary school.

Were those early indications of where you were headed in your life's work?

Sir Timothy Berners-Lee Interview Photo
Timothy Berners-Lee: Oh, I think definitely. The three of us wanted to write a book about science. Then we decided to dig a hole in the backyard to make an underground lab in which to write the book. So the book made slow progress, but I think we were definitely heading in that direction. In secondary school, I commuted by rail, on the trains to Emanuel School in Wandsworth. That school actually was between two train tracks. It was very difficult to escape from. You were surrounded by trains. So a lot of kids train spotted, and I joined the train spotters. I had model trains. But halfway through that, I progressively moved my interest from the trains to the electronics that would control them, and making things, so that the train would stop at the station. I remember I had a mobius loop-type train track where you could switch the points, so that the train would go around one track completely and then switch to the other side and go around it completely and then switch back. Then electronics became more interesting.

What were the early influences in your life? Family? Teachers? Books?

Timothy Berners-Lee: I think family. My parents were both mathematicians, but also excited about it, interested in it and, of course, they encouraged reading. Probably, the absence of television for most of my upbringing must have had all good effects. I become more and more convinced that it drains. As I tell my children, watching television drains your brain out with a small plug.


Later on, as I went through high school, then I came across a couple of teachers who were also great: Daffy Pernell, who taught chemistry; Frank Grundy, who taught math. Both excited, just bubbling over with enthusiasm, just so excited about the idea. So you could talk to them. Just after class, the class would all leave, and they'd continue to talk excitedly about something, maybe going out from the curriculum to something that they were actually personally more interested in. And Frank was great. When he would put a problem on the board for the class, he would say, "Okay. Work this out, for N equals 2," and then for anybody who was interested, he sort of thought, "Is that true for all N?" or "Is there a quick, better way of doing this?" Just these little teasers. Or he'd end up with having got through the algebraic with a sum, the difference between two numbers to the power of 3.5 or something, and he'd then write it down to three decimal places straight off. We thought that was magic, or he cheated, and then he'd explain how he'd use the binomial theorem or whatever it is, and have an approximation. So he was full of -- I guess it's the passion is the main thing, and just letting it radiate. So both of those were good mentors, role models.

[ Key to Success ] Passion


How do you explain your early interest in computers?

Timothy Berners-Lee: My parents met on the team that was designing the first computer in the UK. Manchester University had produced a booster computer. Ferranti took it over for commercial production and they called it the Mark I. It was built at Ferranti in a little tin shed attached to the main building. It wasn't in a normal department.


My mother was one of the earliest programmers. My father, he worked in London, but he took the train up to Manchester a whole lot, increasingly as he got to know my mother. Then they moved down to London, and then they had me. Ferranti's had an office in Putney, which later became International Computers and Tabulators and then International Computers Limited. So they started off when there was all of the excitement when the second register was added to the computer, a second accumulator. So I think when they started, all of these mathematicians were full of the idea that what you could do with the computer was limited only by your imagination, and you could prove that. If somebody else built another computer which was fancier, you could program your computer to emulate that computer, and therefore, your computer could do whatever their computer could do. So it's just a question of the imagination you can put into the program, and that is quite a challenge. I think later on, with network information systems, people felt the same thing, this "Wow! We can build huge systems!" Now on the web, what you can do with building a web site, what you can do building a new web application, is limited only by your imagination. That's the challenge that's out there for people today.

[ Key to Success ] Vision


Do you recall your first encounter with the computer?

Timothy Berners-Lee: I think I was taken to see them.


When I was very small, maybe five or six, I was taken in to Daddy's work, to see a computer. I remember it as being a big cabinet with a clock on it, and with a desk with a paper tape reader. One box which was a paper tape reader and one box which was a paper tape punch. So I came home and put a clock on my cupboard, and put a desk in front of it, and I put one cardboard box, which you pushed the paper tape into, and one cardboard box that you pulled the paper tape out of. So that was my first computer.


I didn't get to really use computers until I got to Oxford.

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