For many of us, the web is a huge part of our lives, enabling us to communicate and access knowledge that would have been unobtainable just a few decades ago. And it all started with one man – Sir Tim Berners-Lee, a British computer scientist born in London.
After graduating from Oxford University, Berners-Lee became a software engineer at CERN, the large particle physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland. Scientists come from all over the world to use its accelerators, but Berners-Lee noticed that they were having difficulty sharing information.
'In those days, there was different information on different computers, but you had to log on to different computers to get at it. Also, sometimes you had to learn a different program on each computer. Often it was just easier to go and ask people when they were having coffee,' Berners-Lee explained in a World Wide Web Consortium interview (W3C).
Berners-Lee saw a solution to this problem – one that he thought could have broader applications. Already, millions of computers were being connected together through the fast-developing internet, and Berners-Lee realised these computers could share information by using an emerging technology called hypertext.
In March 1989, Berners-Lee laid out his vision for what would become the web in a document called Information Management: A Proposal. But Berners-Lee’s initial proposal was not immediately accepted. In fact, his boss at the time, Mike Sendall, wrote 'vague but exciting' on its cover. The web was never an official CERN project, but Sendall managed to give Berners-Lee time to work on it in September 1990. Berners-Lee started the work on a NeXT computer, one of Steve Jobs’ early products.
The early web community produced some revolutionary ideas that have spread far beyond the technology sector
- Decentralisation: No permission is needed from a central authority to post anything on the web; there is no central controlling node, and so no single point of failure and no 'kill switch'! This implies freedom from censorship and surveillance.
- Non-discrimination: The principle that internet service providers should be impartial, treating all transmission of data on the internet equally, without discrimination based on the user, content, website or any other characteristic. This is also known as net neutrality.
- Bottom-up design: Instead of its code being written and controlled by a small group of experts, the web was developed in full view of everyone, encouraging maximum participation, experimentation and innovation.
- Universality: If anyone is to be able to publish anything on the web, all the computers involved must speak the same languages to each other, no matter what different hardware people are using, where they live or what cultural and political beliefs they have. In this way, the web breaks down silos while still allowing diversity to flourish.
- Consensus: For universal standards to work, everyone had to agree to use them. Berners-Lee and others achieved this consensus by giving everyone a say in creating the standards, through a transparent, participatory process at W3C.
By October 1990, Berners-Lee had written the three fundamental technologies that remain the foundations of the web today:
- HTML (HyperText Markup Language) – the formatting language for the web.
- URI (Uniform Resource Identifier) – a kind of 'address' that is unique and used to identify each resource on the web. It is also commonly called a URL.
- HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol) – allows for the retrieval of linked resources from across the web.
Berners-Lee also coded the first web page editor and browser ('WorldWideWeb.app') and the first web server ('httpd'). By the end of 1990, the first web page was available on the open internet, and, in 1991, people outside of CERN were invited to join this new community online.
As the web began to grow, Berners-Lee realised that its potential would only be fully achieved if anyone, anywhere could use it without paying a fee or having to ask for permission.
'Had the technology been proprietary, and in my total control, it would probably not have taken off,' Berners-Lee has said. 'You can’t propose that something be a universal space and at the same time keep control of it.'
So, Berners-Lee and others worked to ensure that CERN would make the underlying code available on a royalty-free basis, forever. This decision was announced in April 1993, and sparked a global wave of creativity, collaboration and innovation.
These ideas are still giving rise to exciting new approaches in fields as diverse as information, politics, scientific research, education and culture. Berners-Lee believes we have only scratched the surface of how these principles could change society and politics for the better, and that’s why, since 1994, he has been the director of the W3C, an international community devoted to developing open web standards, intended to work as guidelines to help define aspects of the web.
In 2009, Berners-Lee established the World Wide Web Foundation as part of his ongoing work to protect his invention. The foundation seeks to advance the open web as a means to build a just and thriving society by connecting everyone. Now, on the web’s 30th birthday, Berners-Lee’s Web Foundation is still at the heart of the fight to keep it open and free for everyone – it recently launched a new campaign hoping to unite the users of the web in one voice to ask governments, companies and the public to stand up for a free, open and safe web that benefits everyone.
This article is a derivative of World Wide Web Foundation content licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. The original can be found here.