Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the software program known as the World Wide Web in 1989, is a scientist in the true sense of the word—idealistic, interested in the pure pursuit of knowledge, and uncomfortable in the media spotlight. Yet his invention, which provides an easy way to access the Internet, has made a huge impact on modern business and communications. Some experts claim that the World Wide Web has revolutionized the ability of computer users around the world to connect to each other.
Simply put, the Web provides a way to retrieve and access documents on the Internet, the bare-bones network devised by the Pentagon that links computers around the world. On the original Internet, there were no easy ways to retrieve data. But Berners-Lee developed software that contained processes for encoding documents (HTML, hypertext markup language), linking them (HTTP, hypertext transfer protocol), and addressing them (URL, universal resource locator). Documents could then be linked worldwide. He posted this software, free of charge to anyone who wanted it, on the Internet.
The Web has become a way for many businesses to sell themselves or their products and has made money for some computer scientists. Berners-Lee, however, refused to cash in on his invention. He remained a conscientious scientist, and an advocate for using the Web as a way to link the world for the benefit of all. To that end, he heads the World Wide Web Consortium, a group of 120 companies that set standards and guide the growth of the Web.
Berners-Lee developed a hunger for knowledge and a fascination with computers early in his life. His English parents helped design the first computer that was commercially available worldwide, the Ferranti Mark I. As a boy, he spent his time making toy computers out of boxes. He remembers conversations at the dinner table as centering around mathematics; it was more likely to be about the square root of four than the neighbors down the block.
As a teenager, Berners-Lee read science fiction voraciously and was fascinated with Arthur C. Clarke's short story "Dial F for Frankenstein," in which computers are networked together to form a living, breathing human brain. It was only a short step from this type of fiction to his study of physics and computers at Oxford University's Queen's College. There he built his first computer with a soldering iron, an M6800 processor (the "brain" that runs the computer), and an old television.
After graduating from Queens College in 1976, with a degree in physics, Berners-Lee got his first job with Plessey Telecommunications, Ltd., in Dorset. In 1980, after working at D.G. Nast Ltd. in Dorset, he served a six-month stint as an independent consultant at the European particle physics laboratory, CERN, which sits on the French-Swiss border. When he realized that he had to master the lab's huge and confusing information system in six months, he created a software program called Enquire. It allowed him to put words in a document that, when clicked, would send the user on to other documents with a fuller explanation. This device, which Berners-Lee used to assist his memory, is now known as "hypertext." It was not a new concept but, like most hypertext software of the 1980s, it needed a centralized database to eliminate links that went nowhere. In such a system, if one document was deleted all the links to it would be deleted. Because of this need for a centralized clearinghouse, hypertext documents couldn't be linked worldwide.
It was not until the birth of the Internet in 1989, that Berners-Lee proposed that CERN's computer resources— whether graphics, text, or video—could be linked with software based on Enquire. Eventually the system could go worldwide, he proposed.
It wasn't long before it did. After developing a language to encode documents, a way to link documents, and a way to address documents (the www.whatever address seen on Web pages), Berners-Lee posted his property on the Internet. The software, accompanied by a simple browser (a device that helps the user cruise the Web, looking for subject matter) was put on the Internet.
Over the next several years, Berners-Lee continued working on his design for the Web, accepting feedback from people who used the system. In 1994, as the popularity of the Web really began growing, he joined the Laboratory for Computer Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There he became director of the W3 Consortium. His dream is to ensure the stability of the Web by making sure it remains a tool that can evolve with the times.
Berners-Lee is most proud of the achievements of his W3 Consortium over the last few years. It has made the encoding language HTML 3.2 a widely used standard, which helps make traveling the Web easy for the average computer user. It has also proposed a chip that would let parents keep offending Web sites from their computers— and their children's eyes. Individual parents could use the chip and get ratings of Web sites by subscribing to a rating service of their choice.
The growing lack of intimacy and the increasing number of companies who charge for access to their Web sites, are two developments that disappointed Berners-Lee. "The Web was supposed to be a creative tool, an expressive tool," he said. Berners-Lee remains an avid campaigner for keeping the Web open, for making sure no one company dominates it. "He has a real commitment to keep the Web open as a public good, in economic terms," the director of the MIT computer science lab, Michael Dertouzos, explained in a 1995 New York Times article. Berners-Lee considered trying to commercialize the Web as he was designing it and was approached by several software companies who wanted to buy it. But in the end, he remained an idealist and refused all offers, instead making the Web available to all.
One of his biggest fears about the Internet is that various competing browsers or competing programming languages could all set up their own turf, so that users would need several types of browsers or languages to access the entire Web. "The navigation of the Web has to be open," he insists. "If the day comes when you need six browsers on your machine, the World Wide Web will no longer be the World Wide Web."
Berners-Lee has his own Web site (www.W3.org/People/Berners-Lee). He is continually bombarded by requests from the press for interviews and gets many questions from inveterate Web users. Berners-Lee has received numerous awards for his work on the Web, including the Kilby Foundation's "Young Innovator of the Year Award" in 1995. He has honorary degrees from the Parsons School of Design and Southhampton University and is a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society. Yet in public he remains a diffident man, who reveals very little personal information in interviews. He is married to Nancy Carlson, an American. They met in Europe while both were taking an acting class; she was then working for the World Health Organization. They have two children, one born in 1991, the other in 1994. Despite his diffidence with the press, he is a warm, artistic man who can be the life of a party, his friends say.
Forbes ASAP, April 8, 1996.
New York Times, February 18, 1995.
Time, May 19, 1997.
"Tim Berners-Lee." http://www.w3.org/People/Berners-Lee (7 October 1997). □