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Editor's note: Mark Fischetti wrote the following article in 2000, shortly after completing his book, Weaving the Web, with Tim Berners-Lee. Scientific American.com is posting the article (unpublished until now) as CERN on March 13 celebrates the 20th anniversary of Berners-Lee's original proposal for the World Wide Web.
It is a cool morning in April 1999, and 1,500 computer scientists, university faculty, and industry CEOs are streaming into a vast fieldhouse at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, outside Boston. They grab coffee and seat themselves for a keynote speech that will cap the 35th anniversary celebration of M.I.T.'s Laboratory for Computer Science, the fount of so many creations that have driven the computer revolution.
From a makeshift stage, lab director Michael Dertouzos calls out, "We've had a great party! Now the man you've been waiting for: Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web." The crowd hushes and arches forward, for they know the name but not the man. Out from the shadows strides a sprightly 43-year-old Briton, smiling beneath a short crop of blond hair.
The large audience is excited, anticipating a breathless account of how the Web came to be. But they don't get it. Berners-Lee steps to the podium and delivers a sobering warning: The Web is not done. In fact, he says in measured words, it could self-destruct if the immense forces now buffeting it are not coordinated. Patents could prevent users from moving freely around the Web, killing the universal access to information the world now enjoys. Proprietary products could fragment the one big Web into smaller, rival webs, making it impossible to link information globally.
Furthermore, the crusader says, now in inspiring tones, he has a much grander vision. If advanced properly, the Web could powerfully bind people across geographic, ethnic, economic and political bounds, leading to a society in which cooperation, rather than conflict, is the agent of change. But it will require much more work.
The crowd is a bit bewildered. They wanted to revel in a finished Web. But its parent is telling them the Web is only in adolescence, and an unruly one at that. It needs concerted guidance if it is to reach its full potential.
Berners-Lee reverently walks to the steps at the left side of the stage. Suddenly, Dertouzos bounds up the stairs and puts a body-block on him, effective since Dertouzos is a robust 6-foot-4 and Berners-Lee a trim 5-foot-10. Berners-Lee stands paralyzed in disbelief. Bob Metcalfe, himself a computing pioneer and founder of 3Com Corp., appears at a microphone at stage right. He announces that 3Com has committed $2 million to fund the 3Com Founder's Chair, the first chair at M.I.T. for a researcher rather than a professor. Berners-Lee will be the first to hold it.
Several 3Com board members carry forward a black mahogany chair and place it front and center before the crowd. Berners-Lee, with a blush of embarrassment, walks toward the chair. He circles it slowly, silently, peering at it like a curious mime inspecting an odd, fallen object. He gingerly sits down. Still silent, Berners-Lee looks up at the audience with wide-open eyes, throws his arms wide, and loudly proclaims, "It's a chair!" The place erupts with glee. In two minutes Berners-Lee has leapt from the deadly serious to the deadpan. His mischievous antic is meant to convey, in his wry way, that even when honored one shouldn't take oneself too seriously.
Berners-Lee leaves the stage happy and talkative. He shakes hands with well-wishers. Yet he has an anxious eye toward the exit. He wants to get back to the World Wide Web Consortium at the lab, a group of 55 staffers who coordinate 345 member companies and government bodies from around the world, ranging from Microsoft to the Department of Defense. It is there, as director, that Berners-Lee brings his personal vision to bear on recommended technical standards to improve the Web. Important issues are being resolved, and today there is contention. Throughout the Web's wild growth, Berners-Lee has been the one constant, the one anchor in a storm of activity.
Tim Berners-Lee has remained unknown to the public because he has never gotten rich or famous from the Web. He likes money just fine, but is driven by his larger dream. Every dot.com millionaire, every person who's found a nugget of information searching the Web, owes a debt to Berners-Lee, but he's not looking to collect or be lionized. "I'm happy to let others play the role of royalty," the ego-free inventor says. "Just as long as they don't try to control the Web."
Berners-Lee is the son of two computing pioneers who were part of a Manchester University team that developed the first commercial electronic computer, sold by Ferranti Ltd. At their London dinner table, father and mother showed the joy of solving mathematical problems to young Tim. He built his own mock computer out of cardboard boxes. When coming home from high school one day, he found his father writing a speech on how computers, eventually, might make intuitive connections the way the human brain does. The challenge stayed rooted in Berners-Lee's own brain.
After obtaining a physics degree, and several stints as a software engineer, in 1984 Berners-Lee took a programming job at CERN, the mammoth high-energy physics lab in Geneva that straddles the Franco-Swiss border. It was difficult for him to keep track of CERN's 5,000 scientists from far-flung countries, their interrelated projects, and their incompatible computers. So in his spare time he wrote experimental programs to help him remember the connections. He learned about hypertext, a programming scheme that allows readers to jump between documents on a computer. He also learned about the Internet, a vast matrix of telephone and networking wires that linked computers. It had become popular among academics and researchers for sending e-mail, but was difficult for non-computer experts to use.