By 1990 Berners-Lee had a fully formed vision: "Suppose all the information stored on computers everywhere were linked," he thought. "All the bits of information in every computer at CERN, and on the planet, would be available to me and to anyone else. There would be a single, global information space," a natural resource like air and water. The task left to him was to marry hypertext and the Internet.
That task took only three months to realize. By Christmas 1990, Berners-Lee, with help from colleague Robert Cailliau and intern Nicola Pellow, had a rough version of a Web page, a Web server (a computer program that holds Web pages), and a Web browser (a program to find and view pages). He devised three protocols for creating, addressing, and sending Web pages. Together, they provided a simple, visual way to link computer documents of any format using hypertext over the Internet.
Berners-Lee and Cailliau spent the next three years parsing their time between evangelizing the newborn Web and improving the actual software for it. Berners-Lee asked CERN to release his source-code—all the original software—so that anyone could create their own Web pages and browsers, and use the Web, without having to obtain rights or pay fees. He didn't want the Web to be his, but everyone's. And it was the only way enthusiasts the world over could help develop the Web in grassroots fashion. Physics researchers, hypertext programmers, and Internet aficionados dove in.
As the commercial world got involved Berners-Lee could no longer oversee the Web as a personal project. He left CERN and joined M.I.T.'s Laboratory for Computer Science to start the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which would bring together company, university and government developers so that all their Web creations would be compatible. The humanist wanted to assure that the Web would remain a public medium for everyone from rabbis to rappers, that no one company would commandeer it for proprietary purposes. Today the Web is revolutionizing not just commerce, but the definition of society itself. People with common hobbies, illnesses, professions, or political bents can instantly form communities with no regard to physical boundaries, wealth, education, or time zones. One person's simple invention really can change the world.
I was to first meet Berners-Lee one morning late in 1997 at the consortium in Cambridge to discuss writing a book about the creation and future of the Web. I'm waiting in an interior hallway that is quiet as a library. Cramped offices along the wall are cluttered with computers glowing under dim ceiling lights, piles of software journals, electronic gadgets and bicycle parts. In each bungalow two or three staffers sit back-to-back, speaking softly as they write code. There's nothing really glamorous here, which is part of the point. The Web is for everyman, and is developed on garden-variety computers. The brilliance lies in creating simplicity. The Web consists of a few basic building blocks, a few fundamental philosophies, and Berners-Lee's insistence that improvements be usable with ease.
The calm is broken when Berners-Lee bursts into the hall from the stairwell. He sports a worn green polo shirt, khaki pants and a wireless telephone headset. He's talking energetically, waving his hands, finishing a conversation he started while riding his bike to work, a 12-mile jaunt along a paved-over train track. He laughs at a comment from the other end as I follow him into his office.
The office is utilitarian, with a standard-issue desk and a table with two huge monitors on it, side by side. Numerous windows are open on the screens: one with his calendar; one with the W3C Web site; one streaming out lines of text being typed in an online chat between staff members scattered around the U.S. and Europe. There are no pictures of the inventor's wife or children—on purpose, so visiting journalists can't write comments about them.
"Ah yes, the book," he says in his clipped English accent. He races between disparate thoughts at break-neck speed. All the while, his mind's eye keeps a wayward glance at the screens, wondering, "Has this already been described? Is there information out there about it?" With every point he swivels in his chair toward the screens and calls out Web addresses that I should examine for background. I have a sinking feeling in my stomach. "There is absolutely nothing linear about his thoughts," I fret. "And a book must be linear from the first word to the last."
We nonetheless persist. Nine months into the work we meet at his home office to plot how the many Web programs could evolve to fulfill his vision, an exercise he has never completed. I arrive at his house expecting something unusual and find it in the driveway—a 13-year-old Volkswagen Rabbit with a green canoe on top. Otherwise, the house is typical, middle-class suburban Boston. Berners-Lee appears in the doorway in his faded green polo shirt, this time with khaki shorts. We walk upstairs to a narrow, second-floor porch perched over the street. Heat rises from a half-dozen computers strewn around the room, buried in documents, books, and clutter.
At one end, two large screens that mirror those at W3C sit on an old door that serves as an impromptu table, held up by file cabinets and an occasional table leg. "My brother-in-law is a builder and he says that's probably not safe," Berners-Lee notes, but he hasn't bothered to change it in the four years he's lived in the States. A high-speed connection to the W3C Web servers remains on 24 hours a day. With an extended arm he sweeps away the rubble alongside the screens.