Like all baby boomers, Sir Tim Berners-Lee has seen many changes in the world since his childhood in London. However, few can take as much credit for having caused those changes. As the creator of the World Wide Web, Berners-Lee began revolutions in the way we work, talk, research, date and shop. And at 56 he shows no sign of stopping.
The rich, dense Web we use to check mail, read newspapers, track down old school friends and order groceries was imagined in 1989 as a solution to a specific problem. The high energy physicists working with CERN, Europe’s Nuclear Research Centre, were scattered around the world, and their research was scattered with them. They could accelerate particles to near the speed of light, but they couldn’t keep their communications straight.
Berners-Lee had experimented with hypertext – links within documents to other information – in his first stint at CERN in 1980. Since then, CERN had connected its systems to a new global network called the internet.
He looked at those two technologies and asked if they could work together. Could you make a document accessible across the world through the internet, with connections to other information built in? Could a scientist in Switzerland and another in America look at, discuss and edit the same document at the same time?
The initial proposal was submitted in 1989. Ten years later, it was found in his former supervisor’s office with a note scribbled in pencil: “Vague, but interesting”. That was the first solid proof that he had read it.
By the time that note was found, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer was spending $100 million a year and employing over 1,000 people to fight the browser wars. But in 1990, Tim Berners-Lee created the first Web browser and editor as a spare-time project. On Christmas Day 1990, he uploaded the world’s first Web pages to a server at CERN. Then, to get people to use them, he loaded the internal telephone directory on to the site. Suddenly, it was a must-have.
His first web browser went public in August 1991. In 1992, he added the first ever picture to the Web – an image of CERN’s in-house doo-wop band, Les Horribles Cernettes. Google’s count of individual Web pages passed one trillion in 2008, and there are a lot of pictures – although you might not want to look at some of them.
So why, 20 years on, is Sir Tim still winning polls like this one? Because he has never stopped working to make the Web better. As the leader of the World Wide Web Consortium, he has ensured that the standards of the Web – the common tools used to build and read websites – have stayed open and based on royalty-free technology.
With less of a commitment to openness, Berners-Lee could have used the Web to become a very rich man. Instead, he has used every accolade – Fellow of the Royal Society, Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire, one of only 22 holders of the Order of Merit and recipient of enough honorary doctorates to fill a skip – as a lever, opening doors for his mission to keep the channels of communication open, accessible and affordable.
Looking to the future, he has championed the idea of the Semantic Web – a system of data tagging to help search engines to understand questions as well as find words. Closer to home, he has advised data.gov.uk, and pushed governments past and present to make their data available for free. If you’ve looked at an OS map online recently, you have him to thank.
It’s a long way from atom smashers to Ordnance Survey, but that’s the beauty of the Web. Having begun as a service for élite scientists, it has become probably the most democratic tool of the 21st century – and, as the Arab Spring has demonstrated, an incredible tool for democracy as well.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee didn’t just start the ball rolling, then relax into a circuit of conferences and highly paid consultancies. He stayed at the cyberspace coalface, guiding the development of the Web throughout its 20 years of public life, and his commitment to free expression, free exchange of knowledge and free access to data is reflected in every page. Like the one you’re just read here.