Sentimental journey for inventor of the Internet

Feature

Sentimental journey for inventor of the Internet

His creation of the World Wide Web was the original Internet start-up. Roisin Woolnough reminisces with Tim Berners-Lee

It is one thing to have a vision and achieve it. It is quite another to do so without compromising your ideals.

Tim Berners-Lee managed both. The founder of the World Wide Web, his vision of the Web as it is today first started taking form in 1980. Frustrated by what he saw as the unnecessary incompatibility of computers, he made it his mission to enable people to share information through technology. This became a reality in 1991, when the general public logged onto the Web and became hooked.

Berners-Lee's interest in technology can be traced back to his childhood. His parents were mathematicians and had a deep interest in science and technology. Indeed, they have their own place in IT history, having met while working on the world's first commercial computer, the Ferranti Mark 1. His mother then acquired the title of the "first commercial computer programmer", after accompanying the Ferranti to its installation site.

Berners-Lee, now 45, says his parents were fascinated and excited by the idea that people could program computers to do almost anything. This enthusiasm spilt over into family life. "Around the house, it was clear that maths was exciting and fun," says Berners-Lee. "The curious properties of things were a source of delight and definitely not boring."

When Berners-Lee was still in secondary school, he came home one day to find his father immersed in books on the brain, trying to establish how to make computers act intuitively and make the connections that a person's brain can make. This thought stayed with Berners-Lee throughout school and university.

After school, Berners-Lee studied physics at Oxford University. Although he enjoyed the subject and says many of the concepts were useful to him later on when he was devising his global system, he felt electronics was a more exciting field at the time. It was at university that he built his first computer, using a soldering iron, TTL gates, a M6800 processor and an old television.

The telecom company Plessey Data Systems was doing the milk round at universities when Berners-Lee was close to graduation. He liked the look of what the company was offering and so he landed his first IT job. It wasn't until 1980, when Berners-Lee started a six-month placement as a software consultant at the European Particle Physics Laboratory in Switzerland, known as CERN, that his ideas of a global network began to bear fruition.

In the beginning

It all began with a program that he wrote in his spare time and for his own use, to help himself remember all the people, computers and projects he came across at CERN. He called it Enquire, short for Enquire Within upon Everything, the title of a Victorian book of advice that his parents had owned. Enquire was a Web-like program, storing information by using random associations. Berners-Lee would type in a page of information and each page was a node in the program. To create a new node, he would simply make a link from the old node. The computer could then make associations between different pieces of information, rather like a Web. Enquire was written in Pascal and ran on the proprietary Norsk Data Syntran-III operating system. One of the real benefits of Enquire was that the program stored information without using structures like matrices or trees.

Much to Berners-Lee's regret, Enquire is no longer in existence. When his time was up at CERN, he gave the entire Enquire source code to a systems manager on a floppy disk, and it was subsequently lost. "I feel very sentimental about that," says Berners-Lee. "It's a shame when you lose information that exists and it's good to look back and see which ideas have been there in the first place. I have developed a paranoia about losing things now and take lots of photographs and record everything."

Even though Enquire was lost and his work at CERN was at an end, it had set things in motion for Berners-Lee. It was about this time that the Internet and hypertext were becoming big news and Berners-Lee decided that he wanted to marry the two together to form his worldwide connectivity vision.

Many people find it difficult to separate their concept of the Internet from their concept of the Web. The Internet is, in basic terms, a network of networks. It is a series of cables that run between computers, enabling people to use applications such as email. The Web is a much more abstract creation, a means for finding and disseminating information. This time, the connections are hypertext links. Another misconception is that the Net and the Web were created at the same time. The Internet was formed in the 1970s, but was only used by a very small community and for specific functions at first. It only really became something of use and interest to the general public in 1991, when the Web arrived.

"Before the Web there was the Internet and there were computers all over the place," explains Berners-Lee. "But they were all incompatible and you needed different hardware to get at them, and sometimes different software. There were huge barriers to getting at information. In fact, you had to be a technological whizz on the Internet and at using a particular computer and system. If you went to a library to use a machine, you had to learn the particular program that that library used."

In 1984, Berners-Lee returned to the CERN on a fellowship program. His vision was still to generalise computers, but a big obstacle was convincing people at CERN, and the world at large, of his ideas. "People were very sceptical and it felt like there were so many mountains to move," says Berners-Lee. Fortunately, his boss at CERN game him the freedom to pursue his ideas, even though they were not strictly within the remit of his job.

Berners-Lee wanted to use the idea of Enquire, but make it into a global system.

His aim was to combine Enquire's external links with hypertext and a remote procedure call system he had invented to enable communication between all the CERN computers and networks.

Then, in 1990, he was given a NeXT computer, the new PC designed by Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple Computer. The NeXT provided the platform Berners-Lee needed to program his hypertext ideas. It was at this point that he decided he needed to give his project a name. He wanted a name that expressed his vision of a global, decentralised network. Mine of Information was one idea, but Berners-Lee thought the acronym MOI, French for me, looked too egocentric. The Information Mine was another possibility, but that acronym was even worse - TIM! The World Wide Web, however, summed up what Berners-Lee was trying to do, and so it was called. It was on this NeXT computer that Berners-Lee wrote the first Web client, browser-editor, and server.

Visionaries and a routemaster

Berners-Lee had a lot of support from people who believed in his vision. Several other IT visionaries were also creating connective systems. But if the Web had been created by someone else, it is unlikely that it would exist in the form that it does now. "Someone would have got at the Web via a different route, but it would have been taken up by a publisher and it would have been a proprietary system," explains Berners-Lee. "You would only be published by going to a mammoth organisation and asking for some space and they would have agreed a certain consistency. I don't think it would have taken off so well."

Inventing the Web could have made Berners-Lee a very rich man, but he refused to patent his inventions. He wanted to keep the Web open to everyone in a creative format. And by no means are his Web-labours finished. In 1994, Berners-Lee joined the Laboratory for Computer Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is also the director of the World Wide Web Consortium, a forum of companies and organisations that is proactive in developing the Web.

Berners-Lee thinks the Web is soon to enter a new phase. His vision now is of a semantic Web where machines are able to analyse the information that is on the Web. Berners-Lee envisages programs acting as intelligent agents and helping humans to organise their lives. It goes right back to the early days when he first started thinking of intuitive computers. "It's so exciting it's got me writing code again," he says.

Just as the mark-up languages XML and HTML have been so important in the Web world, so Berners-Lee says new technologies are emerging with the creation of the semantic Web. For the next level, the new models will be Resource Description Framework and Scalable Vector Graphics.

And it won't be long.


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This was first published in January 2001

 

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