TechMan: Physicist's ideas catch the wide world in a web

Written by Ced Kurtz on .


Welcome to another episode of TechMan's Giants of Technology: Important People You Probably Never Heard Of.

Today's subject is Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web.Tim Berners-Lee

If there were geek trading cards, he would be one of the most valuable.

In 1989, Mr. Berners-Lee, a physics graduate of The Queen's College, Oxford, where he played table tennis, was working as a physicist at the world-renowned CERN.

CERN, in the suburbs of Geneva, Switzerland, is the world's largest particle physics laboratory and was the largest European node on the youthful Internet.

In a previous stint at CERN in 1980, he had come up with the idea of linking CERN researchers' information using hypertext, an early form of what we now call a "link" on a Web page. It allowed you to go from one place in a document to another or even to a spot in another document. He called his little hack Enquire, inspired by "Enquire Within Upon Everything," a Victorian encyclopedia he remembered from childhood.

During his second CERN term, Mr. Berners-Lee got the idea of combining Enquire with the Internet.

"I just had to take the hypertext idea and connect it to the Transmission Control Protocol and domain name system ideas (two of the building blocks of the Internet) and -- ta-da! -- the World Wide Web," he said.

Ta-da indeed.

It wasn't quite so simple.

First he had to write an easy-to-learn coding system -- HTML (HyperText Mark-up Language) -- that allowed a Web page to be "written." Then he had to come up with a way to find each Web page, called a URL (Universal Resource Locator). And then he had to devise a set of rules, called HTTP (HyperText Transfer Protocol), that permitted Web pages to be linked together on computers across the Internet.

And if that weren't enough, he wrote the first World Wide Web server and a what-you-see-is-what-you-get browser, which ran in the NEXTSTEP operating system, a product of the now-defunct computer company started by Steve Jobs after he was forced out of Apple in 1985.

In December 1990, the program "WorldWideWeb" was first made available within CERN.

But it was two things that Mr. Berners-Lee didn't do that made all the difference: He didn't patent his work and didn't sell it to a major corporation.

In 1991, he put his work out on the Internet and invited people to start making Web pages. And the World Wide Web exploded onto the scene.

Within five years, the number of people using the World Wide Web grew from 60,000 to 40 million. By June of this year, the Netcraft Web Server Survey (, which tries to contact every active Web site, received responses from more than 172 million Web sites with growth estimated at 3.9 million sites for the month.

And it all began with a little hack that Tim Bedrners=Lee decided to share with the world. Ta-Da! indeed. 

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