Electronic Design

Tim Berners-Lee: The Internet's Creator Looks To The Next Evolution

Berners-Lee (2004)

Prior to the 1990s, the Internet was primarily the domain of scientists, government employees, academicians, and a few corporate users. The Internet started from the Department of Defense ARPANET project, a communications network of the Advanced Research Projects Agency, designed to help administer DoD grants to corporations and universities for defense-related research.

Though effective, its use was limited. That suddenly changed, though, when Timothy Berners-Lee, knighted this past spring by Queen Elizabeth II, invented the World Wide Web. He coined the name to describe the web of network-accessible information, based on the universe of interconnected computers and servers. As part of this system, he invented both the HyperText Markup Language (HTML) to create graphical Web pages and the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) used to request and transmit Web pages between Web servers and Web browsers.

It all started in 1989 when Berners-Lee proposed a global hypertext project while working as a consultant software engineer at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland. He sought a way to record random associations between objects, a system that could view information regardless of the format or platform it was on, and was easy to use without merging link databases.

This quickly lead to the first version of the document-formatting language with the capability to link to other information via words called hypertext, a concept termed in 1965 by Ted Nelson in his self-published paper called "Literary Machines." Berners-Lee called his program HTML. With the "hypertext" program, you could select a word and immediately connect to other related information through a numbered link. Up until then, users had to perform a separate search by keying in information.

But this program worked on a single computer. By October of 1990, Berners-Lee envisioned a global web of interconnected information on computers that anyone could use, not just scientists, government employees, and the defense department. So Berners-Lee created a system for giving every computer a numbered address called a universal resource identifier, now known as a universal resource locator, or URL. He also developed rules for linking them called HTTP for HyperText Transfer Protocol. He coined the name "World Wide Web," wrote software for the first World Wide Web server, "httpd," and the first client program—a graphical Web browser and editor.

In December 1990, the program "WorldWideWeb" ran within CERN in the NeXTStep environment. It was the first successful demonstration of Web clients and servers working over the Internet. All of his code was made available for free on the Internet at large in the summer of 1991.

Subsequently, his initial specifications for URLs, HTTP, and HTML were refined and discussed in larger circles as Web technology spread. From 1991 to 1993, Berners-Lee continued working on the design of the Web, coordinating feedback from users across the Internet.

Berners-Lee's commitment to universal access and open standards for the Web was a driving force behind his founding of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) in 1994, which was at MIT's Laboratory for Computer Science (LCS), together with support from the late Michael Dertouzos, then LCS director. Today, the W3C is known as the international organization that establishes technical standards for Web infrastructure and applications.

Thanks to Berners-Lee, people now don't need to be experts in searching for information using only text-based systems requiring permission from the computer's owner. It is handled instead through Web servers.

Cited by Time magazine as one of the 100 greatest minds of the twentieth century, Berners-Lee also documented the Web's birth and evolution in his book Weaving The Web (HarperCollins, 1999).

In June 2004, Berners-Lee received the inaugural Millennium Technology Prize in Helsinki, Finland. The honor is bestowed by the Finnish Technology Award Foundation for "an outstanding innovation that directly promotes people's quality of life, is based on humane values, and encourages sustainable economic development." The Finnish prize committee acknowledged the importance of his decision not to commercialize or patent the technologies he developed.

In July 2004, he was dubbed Sir Timothy Berners-Lee, a Knight Commander, Order of the British Empire (KBE) by Queen Elizabeth II. It was in recognition for his "services to the global development of the Internet" through his invention of the World Wide Web. He was previously honored in 2002 by Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, who awarded him the Albert Medal of the Royal Society of the Arts.

True to form, Berners-Lee commented following the Investiture ceremony, "The Web must remain a universal medium, open to all and not biasing the information it conveys. As the technology becomes ever more powerful and available, using more kinds of devices, I hope we learn how to use it as a medium for working together and resolving misunderstandings on every scale."

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