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Tim Berners-Lee, Robert Cailliau, and the World Wide Web

Tim Berners-Lee, Developer of the World Wide Web (WWW)
Tim Berners-Lee

Robert Cailliau, Helped develop the World Wide Web (WWW)
Robert Cailliau


During some sessions in the CERN cafeteria, Tim and I try to find a catching name for the system. I was determined that the name should not yet again be taken from Greek mythology. Tim proposes 'World-Wide Web'. I like this very much, except that it is difficult to pronounce in French.

- Robert Cailliau, A Short History of the Web, 2 November 1995.

Tim Berners-Lee invented the web with help from Robert Cailliau and others at the nuclear physics laboratory Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucleaire (CERN).

The development of the web was the key technology that popularized the Internet around the world. The subsections below provide more information on Berners-Lee, CERN, Cailliau, web development, and resources.

Berners-Lee. Tim Berners-Lee's mother and father were both mathematicians who were part of the team that programmed Manchester University's Mark I, the world's first commercial, stored program computer, sold by Ferranti Ltd. One day when he was in high school Berners-Lee found his dad writing a speech on computers for Basil de Ferranti. Father and son talked about how the human brain has a unique advantage over computers, since it can connect concepts that aren't already associated. For example, if you are walking and see a nice tree, you might think about how cool the park is under the trees, and then think of your backyard, and then decide to plant a tree for shade behind your house. Young Berners-Lee was left with a powerful impression of the potential for computers to be able to link any two pieces of previously unrelated information.

Berners-Lee graduated from Queen's College at Oxford University in 1976 with a degree in physics. He then worked for two years as a software engineer with Plessey Telecommunications on distributed systems, message relays, and bar coding. He then joined D.G. Nash, where he developed a multi-tasking operating system, and typesetting software for intelligent printers.

CERN. In 1980, Berners-Lee first started work as a consultant at CERN, originally called the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucleaire, and now the European Particle Physics Laboratory, but still called CERN for old time's sake. The organization consists of many facilities located in a beautiful area in the Jura mountains on the border between France and Switzerland. It was because CERN was so large and complex, with thousands of researchers and hundreds of systems, that Berners-Lee developed his first hypertext system to keep track of who worked on which project, what software was associated with which program, and which software ran on which computers. Like the development of packet switching, hyperlinks are an idea that seemed to want to be found, with Berners-Lee independently developing his ideas within five years of Ted Nelson and Douglas Engelbart.

Berners-Lee named his first hypertext system Enquire, after an old book he found as a child in his parents house called Enquire Within upon Everything which provided a range of household tips and advice. The book fascinated young Tim with the suggestion that it magically contained the answer to any problem in the world. With the building of the Enquire system in 1980, and then the Web ten years later, Berners-Lee has pretty much successfully dedicated his life to making that childhood book real.

From 1981 to 1984, Berners-Lee left CERN and worked at Image Computer Systems as Technical Design Lead, with responsibility for real-time, graphics, and communications software for an innovative software program that enabled older dot-matrix printers to print a wide range of advanced graphics. He then rejoined CERN full-time in 1984, and almost immediately started trying to get a hypertext project approved for official funding. In March, 1989, he completed a project proposal for a system to communicate information among researchers in the CERN High Energy Physics department, intended to help those having problems sharing information across a wide range of different networks, computers, and countries. The project had two main goals:

  • Open design. Like Robert Kahn's design for TCP/IP, the hypertext system should have an open architecture, and be able to run on any computer being used at CERN including Unix, VMS, Macintosh, NextStep, and Windows.
  • Network distribution. The system should be distributed over a communications network. However, Berners-Lee thought that there might be an intermediary period when most of the research material was carried on individual CDROM's, which never became necessary.

Cailliau. Robert Cailliau had independently proposed a project to develop a hypertext system at CERN, and joined Berners-Lee as a partner in his efforts to get the web off the ground. He rewrote the project proposal, lobbied management for funding, rounded up programmers, collaborated with Berners-Lee on papers and presentations, and helped run the first WWW conference. Cailliau later became President of the International World Wide Web Conference Committee (IW3C2).

Web development. In the fall of 1990, Berners-Lee took about a month to develop the first web browser on a NeXT computer, including an integrated editor that could create hypertext documents. He deployed the program on his and Cailliau's computers, and they were both communicating with the world's first web server at info.cern.ch on December 25, 1990.

The first project Berners-Lee and Cailliau tackled was to put the CERN telephone book on the web site, making the project immediately useful and gaining it rapid acceptance. Some CERN staff started keeping one window open on their computer at all times just to access the telephone web page.

Luckily, CERN had been connected to the ARPANET through the EUnet in 1990. In August, 1991, Tim posted a notice on the alt.hypertext newsgroup about where to download their web server and line mode browser, making it available around the world. Web servers started popping up around the globe almost immediately. An official Usenet 8 newsgroup called comp.infosystems.www was soon established to share info.

Berners-Lee then added support for the FTP protocol to the server, making a wide range of existing FTP directories and Usenet newsgroups immediately accessible through a web page. He also added a telnet server on info.cern.ch, making a simple line browser available to anyone with a telnet client. The first public demonstration of the web server was given at the Hypertext 91 conference. Development of this web server, which came to be called CERN httpd, would continue until July, 1996.

In June, 1992, CERN sent Berners-Lee on a three month trip through the United States. First he visited MIT's Laboratory for Computer Science, then went to an IETF conference in Boston, then visited Xerox-Parc in Palo Alto, California. At the end of this trip he visited Ted Nelson, then living on a houseboat in Sausalito. Interestingly, Nelson had experience with film making, Berners-Lee had experience working with lighting and audiovisual equipment in the amateur theater, and Tom Bruce, who created the first PC web browser called Cello, also worked professionally as a stage manager in the theater. Maybe these Internet techies are all really just artists at heart...

In a fateful decision that significantly helped the web to grow, Berners-Lee managed to get CERN to provide a certification on April 30, 1993, that the web technology and program code was in the public domain so that anyone could use and improve it.

In 1994, Berners-Lee joined the Laboratory for Computer Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he currently holds the 3Com Founders Chair, and has served as Director of the W3C Consortium since it was founded. Berners-Lee has also authored a number of web related documents, including those in the HTML and HTTP sections.

Among other awards and honours, in December, 1993, Berners-Lee and Cailliau shared the ACM Software System Award with Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina of NCSA for their efforts in developing the Web.

He was awarded the Albert Medal of the Royal Society of the Arts in 2002 by Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, and dubbed a Knight Commander, Order of the British Empire (KBE) by Queen Elizabeth II on July 16, 2004, using the sword that had belonged to her father, King George VI.

Also in 2004, he was awarded the inaugural Millennium Technology Prize in in Helsinki, Finland.

Resources. Some of Berners-Lee's online publications are listed below:

Online publications by Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau:

  • With Jean­François Groff, Bernd Pollermann; World-Wide Web: An Information Infrastructure for High­Energy Physics (select www-for-hep-.ps); CERN, 1211 Geneva 23, Switzerland; Presented at conference "Software Engineering, Artificial Intelligence and Expert Systems for High Energy and Nuclear Physics" at La Londe­les­Maures, France, January 1992.
  • World­Wide Web; CERN; Invited talk at conference: Computing in High Energy Physics 92, Annecy, France, 23­27 Sep 1992.
  • With Jean­François Groff, Bernd Pollermann; World­Wide Web: The Information Universe (select Article_9202.pdf); CERN, 1211 Geneva 23, Switzerland; Preprint of: Berners­Lee, T., et al., (1992) ``World­Wide Web: The Information; Universe'' , Electronic Networking: Research, Applications and Policy, Vol 1; No 2, Meckler, Westport CT, Spring 1992; Also here.

Online publication by Robert Cailliau:

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