In less than two decades, the World Wide Web has transformed the lives of millions of people by giving us free and instant access to online information. Designed by the British software engineer TIM BERNERS-LEE (1955-) the web is a democratic medium which is equally available to us all.
It is testimony to the power of the World Wide Web that, less than two decades after its invention, hundreds of millions of people all over the world could not imagine their daily lives without it. Even if they could, life without access to the web would be less enjoyable and efficient. By giving us free and instant access to online information and enabling us to communicate our ideas and knowledge to other people in the same instantly accessible way, the web has also transformed the way that we think and behave.
The World Wide Web was designed by the British software engineer Tim Berners-Lee. Simply constructing an online information network programmed to enable computers to replicate some of the intuitive abilities of the human brain is a remarkable achievement in itself, but Berners-Lee went on to ensure that his invention would be freely accessible to everyone and to eradicate the risk of the web being controlled by commercial forces.
Determined to prevent this, Berners-Lee designed the web as a democratic medium in which everything was equally accessible, regardless of size or quality. “The dream of the web is of a common information space in which we communicate by sharing information,” he wrote. “Its universality is essential: the fact that a hypertext link can point to anything, be it personal, local or global.” This is why the smallest and least sophisticated websites are as easy to locate as the most expensive ones owned by powerful multinationals. In 1994, three years after the launch of the web, Berners-Lee founded the World Wide Web Consortium to regulate its future development and to protect its democratic spirit.
Born in London in 1955, Berners-Lee is the son of the mathematicians Conway Berners-Lee and Mary Lee Woods, who worked on the development of the pioneering Manchester Mark 1 computer. By the time he enrolled at Queens College, Oxford in 1973, Berners-Lee was a keen inventor and built his first computer there with such makeshift materials as a soldering iron, an M6800 processor and an old television set. While at Oxford he and a friend were caught hacking and banned from using the university computer.
After graduating in 1976, Berners-Lee worked for the telecommunications equipment manufacturer Plessey Telecommunications at Poole in Dorset and then worked for various companies as a freelance software engineer. One of his goals was to find a way of combining the processing power of the computer with the intuitive qualities of the human brain. “There have always been things which people are good at and things computers have been good at, and little overlap between the two,” he wrote. “I was brought up to understand this distinction in the 1950s and 1960s, and that intuition and understanding were human characteristics, and that computers worked mechanically in tables and hierarchies.”
He set about developing a software programme to address this by enabling computers to make – and to store – random associations between disparate pieces of information. Berners-Lee wrote the first such programme, Enquire – full name Enquire-Within-Upon-Everything – in 1980 while working at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory in Geneva. Intended only for his private use, he never published Enquire, but continued to develop similar programmes throughout the 1980s.
After returning to CERN in 1984, Berners-Lee was encouraged to continue his experiments by his manager Mike Sendall, who ordered the software and hardware he needed to do so. CERN was then the largest internet node in Europe, and Berners-Lee worked on ways of combining the internet and hypertext. In 1989 he published a paper entitled Information Management: A Proposal and started work on the development of the first web browser and editor. Named the WorlDwidEweb, the result of his research was a global hypertext project designed to enable people to work together by exchanging and combining knowledge in a web of hypertext documents. By the end of 1990 Berners-Lee circulated his work on the World Wide Web within CERN and then made it more widely available, together with the first web server, named httpd, in the research and scientific communities. On 6 August 1991 the first website went online at http://info.cern.ch. Designed by Berners-Lee, it explained what the World Wide Web was, how to own a web browser and to set up a web server. From the start Berners-Lee made sure that his work and the thinking behind it was freely accessible to as many people as possible.
For the next three years Berners-Lee and his colleagues refined the design of the web and encouraged other people to use it. As more people learnt about his invention they aired their own views on how it should evolve. From the beginning, Berners-Lee waived his right to patent his design or to earn royalties from its use thereby establishing the web as a non-commercial medium. By 1994 the usage of http://info.cern.ch was a thousand times higher than three years before. At first Berners-Lee’s fellow academics had used it, followed by early adopters in the information technology industry.
The growing popularity of the web intensified the threat of a powerful information technology company finding a way to dominate it or of supplanting it with a commercial alternative. In September 1994 Berners-Lee founded the World Wide Web Consortium to regulate its future. He described the consortium, which is based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US with off-shoots at INRIA in France and Keio University in Japan, as: “a neutral open forum where companies and organisations to whom the future of the web is important come to discuss and agree on common computer protocols. It has been a centre for issue raising, design and decision by consensus.”
Now based at MIT in Boston as director of the World Wide Web Consortium, Tim Berners-Lee has been able to safeguard the spirit of his original invention and to plan the next phase of the web’s development which, he argues, will be even more exciting. “The great need for information about information, to help us categorise, sort, pay for and own information is driving the design of languages for the web designed for processing by machines, rather than people,” he observed. “The web of human-readable document is being merged with a web of machine understandable data. The potential of the mixture of humans and machines working together and communication through the web could be immense.”
1955 Tim Berners-Lee is born in London, the son of mathematicians who worked on the development of the Manchester Mark 1 computer.
1973 Becomes a student at Queens College, Oxford, where he and a friend are caught by the authorities hacking into the university computer.
1976 Joins Plessey Telecommunications at Poole in Dorset to develop distributed transaction systems, message relays and bar code technology.
1978 Leaves Plessey for D. G. Nash at Ferndown in Dorset where he writes typesetting software for intelligent printers and a multitask operating system.
1980 While working as a consultant software engineer at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory in Geneva, he designs Enquire, a software programme for his personal use to recognise and store random associations of information.
1981 Joins Image Control Systems to develop real-time control firmware and graphics and communications software.
1984 Becomes a fellow at CERN to work on distributed real-time systems for scientific data acquisition and system control.
1989 Begins the development of the World Wide Web, a global hypertext project, as well as of the first web server and browser.
1990 The World Wide Web is made available to colleagues at CERN.
1991 Berners-Lee publishes his development work on the World Wide Web on the first website at http://info.cern.ch as well as explaining how other people can use the web.
1992 Usage of the web spreads within the academic community.
1993 Early adopters in the information technology industry start to use the web.
1994 Berners-Lee founds the World Wide Web Consortium based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US to regulate the development of the web by consensus.
1996 The consortium collaborates with Hakon Wium Lee to announce the Cascading Style Sheets standard, which is adopted by popular browsers in 2000 and 2001.
1999 Time magazine names Tim Berners-Lee as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century.
2000 Publication of Weaving the Web, Berners-Lee’s book on his invention.
2005 Berners-Lee publishes the book Spinning the Semantic Web: Bringing the Worldwide Web to Its Full Potential.
Tim Berners-Lee with Mark Fischetti, Weaving the Web: Origins and Future of the World Wide Web, Texere Publishing, 2000
Robert Caillau, James Gillies, How the Web was Born: The Story of the World Wide Web, Oxford University Press, 2000
Ann Gaines, Tim Berners-Lee and the Development of the World Wide Web, Mitchell Gaines Publishers, 2001
Melissa Stewart, Tim Berners-Lee: Inventor of the World Wide Web, Ferguson Publishing Company, 2001
Tim Berners-Lee, The Unfinished Revolution: How to Make Technology Work for Us Instead of the Other Way Around, HarperCollins, 2002
Tim Berners-Lee, Spinning the Semantic Web: Bringing the Worldwide Web to Its Full Potential, The MIT Press, 2005
Visit the World Wide Web Consortium’s website at w3.org and read Tim Berners-Lee’s account of the web’s development at w3.org/People/Berners-Lee/ShortHistory
For more information on British design and architecture go to Design in Britain, the online archive run in collaboration by the Design Museum and the British Council, at designmuseum.org/designinbritain