WEB WEAVER: While working at CERN in 1989, Tim Berners-Lee came up with an idea for managing information using a network of interconnected computers that created a web of resources available to all. Image: © DONNA COVENEY
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Twenty years ago this month, a software consultant named Tim Berners-Lee at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (better known as CERN) hatched a plan for an open computer network to keep track of research at the particle physics laboratory in the suburbs of Geneva, Switzerland. Berners-Lee's modestly titled "Information Management: A Proposal," which he submitted to get a CERN grant, would become the blueprint for the World Wide Web.
The Web was not an overnight success. In fact, it took nearly two years before Berners-Lee—with help from CERN computer scientist Robert Cailliau and others—on Christmas Day 1990 set up the first successful communication between a Web browser and server via the Internet. This demonstration was followed by several more years of tireless lobbying by Berners-Lee, now 53, to convince professors, students, programmers and Internet enthusiasts to create more Web browsers and servers that would soon forever change the world of human communication.
On Friday March 13, Berners-Lee, Cailliau and other Web pioneers will gather at CERN to celebrate the 20th anniversary of that original proposal. To get the inside story on how the Web came to be, not to mention the man behind the idea, SciAm.com spoke with Scientific American editor Mark Fischetti, who in 1999 collaborated with Berners-Lee to write Weaving the Web: The Past, Present and Future of the World Wide Web by its Inventor, a seminal work that analyzed and commemorated Berners-Lee's achievement a decade after the Web's birth.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
Why was the Web invented at CERN?
Tim Berners-Lee was a software consultant at CERN in the 1980s when he began writing Tangle, an application to help him keep track of CERN's many scientists, projects and incompatible computers. Thousands of researchers would travel to CERN, do their experiments using their own computers (which they brought with them), and then go home to crunch the data. It was a major pain at CERN to accommodate the many incompatible computers, which also had to work with the CERN mainframe that actually ran the mammoth particle accelerators. Tim was responsible for helping everything and everyone work together. He thought it would be a whole lot simpler if the computers could swap their information directly, even though, at that time, computers didn't communicate with one another.
March 2009 marks 20 years since Tim Berners-Lee first proposed a project that would become the World Wide Web. What inspired the larger vision?
He made the proposal to CERN management in March 1989 for funding and an official okay to use some of his time to work on this project. But in thinking about solving the incompatibility problem, he realized that it would be even more cool if the scientists, after they went back to their labs, could still share their data. They might even be able to run some of their experiments at CERN over a network from wherever they were located, if the distant CERN computers could talk over the Internet. The Internet itself is just a set of wires and a protocol for sending information over those wires. The Web would be an application that ran on the Internet. It just so happens that the Web turned out to be the killer app of all time. (Other Internet applications already existed, including File Transfer Protocol, or FTP, and e-mail.)
What were the key innovations that formed the Web? Who created them?
The three main innovations are HTTP (hypertext transfer protocol); URLs (universal resource locators, which Tim originally referred to as URIs, for universal resource indicators); and HTML (hypertext markup language). HTTP allows you to click on a link and be brought to that document or Web page. URLs serve as an address for finding that document or page. And HTML gives you the ability to put links in documents and pages so they connect. Tim created all three of these pieces of software code from October to December of 1990.