How Did Tim Berners-Lee Change the World With the World Wide Web?

Tim Berners-Lee gave the world the greatest invention since the printing press. Here we explore what he created, and why it has been so revolutionary.
Christopher McFadden

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, a name that will be remembered down the ages as one of the greatest inventors of all time. He, almost single-handily, developed one of the greatest tools for mankind since the invention of the printing press.

Tim Berners-Lee is the man who created the World Wide Web. To give him his full official name, Sir Timothy John Berners-Lee, OM, KBE, FRS, FREng, FRSA, DFBCS. That's a lot of post-nominals.

He is a British Computer Scientist who enabled a system to be able to view web pages, known as hypertext documents, through the Internet.

He also serves as a Director of the World Wide Web Consortium, W3C.

W3C oversees the standards of the web. He, amongst other things, is very concerned with maintaining freedom of information and restricting censorship on the Internet.

Today the world has never been so interconnected, and it has never been easier to access and share information. The World Wide Web has revolutionized the way we communicate, work, and play to even a few decades ago. 

Without Tim's groundbreaking work, all websites, including our own, simply could not exist.

Tim Berners-Lee WWW
Source: CERN

Early years of the World Wide Web creator

Tim Berners-Lee was born on the 8th of June 1955 in London. He completed his A-levels at Emanuel School, after which he went to Queens College, Oxford. At Oxford, he successfully completed his physics degree, gaining a first-class degree in 1976. After his time at Oxford, he started working for a printing firm in Plessy, Poole.

In 1980, He began working at CERN in Switzerland. His time at CERN required him to share information between researchers across the world. It soon became clear that they needed a means of sharing information electronically.

He suggested using hypertext, a language used for sharing text electronically, to do the job. With this in mind, he began to create his first prototype called ENQUIRE.

The birth of the Internet

Tim Berners-Lee is often cited as creating the Internet, but the technology involved in it has been in development since the 1960s. His contribution was to build the World Wide Web. He introduced the concept of nodes and hypertext as well as the idea of domains to the mix. These are critical elements of the World Wide Web that we know today.

Tim Berners-Lee himself has said of these early days, that all the technology involved in the Internet was already in place. His, not insignificant contribution, was to bring these elements all together in a coherent system. And so it was in 1990, with the help of Robert Cailliau, that the first version of the World Wide Web was launched. It came complete with the very first web page, web browser, and server.

This all ran on a NeXT computer at CERN.

Building the web

As we have already seen, Berners-Lee is widely acknowledged as the creator of the World Wide Web, as we know it today. Berners-Lee, a British computer scientist, was working at CERN in Switzerland at the time, and in August of 1991, his first version of what would become the World Wide Web was born.

At that time in order for scientists at CERN to share and access information they needed to physically move between computers. Berners-Lee realized this was far from efficient and it might be better to form a network using the existing Internet infrastructure of the time to do so. 

He realized that information could easily be shared using a 1960s technology called hypertext. This was created by Ted Nelson in 1965.

Berners-Lee proposed the idea to his boss in March of 1989 but, surprisingly, he wasn't that impressed. He even wrote, famously, that it was "vague but exciting" on Berners-Lee's proposal. 

Yet despite this minor setback, Tim Berners-Lee pressed ahead with his plan. Scrounging time from his main duties at CERN, Berners-Lee had managed, by 1990, to develop a prototype for his vision.

At this point in time, he had created three elements that are vital to the WWW today.

The prime elements of the World Wide Web were to make it easier for people to view hypertext web pages anywhere in the world. This required a universal system for recognizing the location of web pages (URI (uniform resource identifier, which we now call URLUniform Resource Locator ))

The system also needed to have a standard language for published web pages (Hypertext Markup Language - HTML). Lastly, a method of "serving up" web pages on request was required (Hypertext transfer protocol - HTTP). As Tim Berners-Lee himself says on the matter:-

"I just had to take the hypertext idea and connect it to the TCP and DNS ideas and — ta-da!— the World Wide Web."

Tim Berners-Lee helped found the W3C in 1994 at the Laboratory of Computer Science (LCS) at MIT, Boston.

W3C had one simple, if not critically important role, to try to improve the quality and standard of the World Wide Web. Such a groundbreaking creation could easily have made him a very rich man. Seeing the potential for the future of humanity he offered it to the world with no patent or royalties of any kind.

That's incredibly generous.


Tim Berners-Lee proposal
Source: CERN

Soon after, the world's very first web page had been created, and by 1991 it was public to anyone with an Internet connection. This event would kick-start an explosion in websites around the world. 

By 1993, 130 websites were in existence, and by 1993 this had increased 5-fold to over 620. By 1994, according to MIT, this had grown exponentially to around 2,700 sites including Yahoo! and Amazon. 

Not long after this had grown to around 650,000, and today there are millions, if not billions of websites around the world. 

How did Berners-Lee impact the world?

Berners-Lee, by developing the World Wide Web as we know it today, revolutionized the way humans communicate and share information with each other.

It is arguable that this development has been the most significant to mankind since the invention of the printing press in the 15th Century.

Just like the printing press centuries before it, the World Wide Web has provided an unprecedented platform for individuals to share their thoughts, build businesses, and access the entire back catalog of human knowledge - all at their fingertips.

It, in no small part, has set mankind on a path to the next phase in our technological development. Many consider the World Wide Web to be the catalyst for the current phases of the Information Age and so-called 4th Industrial Revolution

This really can't be emphasized enough. Never before in human history has it been so easy to get information, communicate with other people around the world, and/or start a business of your very own. 

For artisans, the World Wide Web has provided a means for them to share their own work and bypass traditional roadblocks like publishers, record labels and art galleries/dealers.

As an artist you can know freely share your creations on whatever platform you wish and, if desired, monetize it. 

Just as the printing press wrenched the control of information from the state and church, so too has the World Wide Web provided a vehicle for the people to control what they see and share. Often to the frustration of those who would prefer it otherwise.

The printing press opened the door for some of the greatest developments in thought in the world. For example, the Protestant Reformation, and, in its wake, the Scientific Enlightenment that followed. 

Without the printing press, the modern world would be a very different place indeed. It is exciting to think what the development of the World Wide Web will foster in the near and distant future. 

So long as it remains free of authoritarian interference of course. For this reason, leading thinkers like Tim Berners-Lee have long argued for an Internet Bill of Rights to preserve the Internet and World Wide Web as a public space free from censorship and state control. 

Such a bill, if it could be passed, would strive to protect and provide: 

- Accessibility,

- Affordability,

- Privacy,

- Freedom of expression,

- A diverse, decentralized and open platform and,

- Net neutrality for users and content alike.

Berners-Lee has emphasized the need for Internet users to drive its [the Internet] direction. He is no stranger to voicing his concern over governments increasingly deny Internet users’ rights to privacy and freedom; they must engage in debate, action, and protest.

“I believe we can build a Web that is truly for everyone: one that is accessible to all, from any device, and one that empowers all of us to achieve our dignity, rights, and potential as humans.” - Tim Berners-Lee

What the future has in store for the World Wide Web is anyone's guess, but there is no doubt it has been one of mankind's greatest inventions

Why was the invention of the World Wide Web important?

As we have already seen, the World Wide Web has freed up information exchange between people around the world. It has enabled anyone with an Internet connection the ability to access a wealth of information, to freely communicate within anyone else on the web, and, if they desired, start their own business or platform.

Tim Berners-Lee IoT
The Internet of Things will play a major part in the 4th Industrial Revolution. Source: Pixabay

It has revolutionized many aspects of human lives and opened up entirely new industries never before dreamed off. You can video call your friends and family the other side of the world in real-time, play co-operative games with other people you've never met, and send messages and e-mails to recipients within seconds.

Any and all of this would seem like 'magic' to generations past. For many, the WWW was just the start of something much bigger to come.

If claims about the 4th Industrial Revolution have any real weight, then the future of work (and everything) will become unrecognizable to even a few decades ago. For better or worse, the world of work will probably never be the same again. 

But like any revolution in technology throughout history, and as the adage goes "when one door closes, another opens", many jobs will become obsolete, but in their wake, new opportunities will rise. 

Called 'Creative Destruction' by some economists, the advent of things like IoT, AI, and Machine Learning promises to give mankind more free time to pursue their hopes and dreams, and hopefully, make some money out of it. 

But like all predictions of the future, only time will tell. 

A gift for us all

Tim Berners-Lee believes if he hadn't, someone else would have come up with it further down the line. It is not unusual to find him referencing others who were involved in the creation of the World Wide Web.

There can be no doubt, however, that Tim Berners-Lee's work was instrumental in giving the world a free, open source information sharing service that we all love and cherish today.

Marc Andreessen, who helped him create his vision, sheds some more light on Tim's objectives with the web.

"Only smart people could use the Internet, was the theory, so we needed to keep it hard to use. We fundamentally disagreed with that: we thought it should be easy to use.” Marc told The Guardian.

Tim Berners-Lee's net worth is reportedly $50M by 2019.

Net neutrality must be defended at all costs

Tim Berners-Lee has often been very vocal and aggressive in his defense of freedom of information and net neutrality. Rightfully so, he is adamant that governments must not be involved in censorship on the web. He is very concerned with the US's seeming attempt to produce a two-tier Internet system.

"When I invented the web, I didn’t have to ask anyone’s permission. Now, hundreds of millions of people are using it freely. I am worried that that is going end in the USA." - Tim Berners-Lee

In 2009, Tim Berners-Lee worked with the then UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown to help make UK data publically available. He has often stated the importance of improving communication between people around the world.

“The web is more a social creation than a technical one. I designed it for a social effect — to help people work together — and not as a technical toy.” - Weaving the Web, 1999.

Honoring the creator of the World Wide Web

Tim Berners-Lee's achievements have been recognized both officially and unofficially over the years. He has received many honors in the UK including an OBE, Knighthood and Order Merit. This makes him one of only 24 living members with this honor. He was knighted in 2004 “for services to the global development of the Internet.”

He became one of the first three recipients of the Mikhail Gorbachev Award for "The Man Who Changed the World". The inaugural ceremony was held in 2011 in London. Time Magazine even listed Tim Berners-Lee as one of the top 100 influential people on the 20th Century.

“He wove the World Wide Web and created a mass medium for the 21st century. The World Wide Web is Berners-Lee’s alone. He designed it. He loosed it the world. And he more than anyone else has fought to keep it open, nonproprietary and free.” - Time Magazine

What does Berners-Lee do now?

You might well wonder what Berners-Lee has been up to since his great invention back in the 1990s. Well, as it turns out, he hasn't been idle.

Since the dawn of the web, Berners-Lee has been the Director of the World Wide Web Consortium, W3C.

Berners-Lee is also the Director of the World Wide Web Foundation which was launched in 2009 to coordinate efforts to further the potential of the Web to benefit humanity. He is a founding Director of the Web Science Trust (WST), also launched in 2009, to promote research and education in Web Science, the multidisciplinary study of humanity connected by technology. 

In 2001 Berners-Lee also became a Fellow of the Royal Society. He is also the recipient of several international awards including a knighthood in 2004 by H.M. Queen Elizabeth, and in 2007 he was awarded the Order of Merit.

Tim Berners-Lee is also currently a professor of computer science at the University of Oxford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). 

In 2012, Tim Berners-Lee was recognized as the inventor of the web at the Summer Olympics opening ceremony. His modesty was rampant even then tweeting that "this is for everyone".

His invention has changed the world as we know it. He could so easily have monetised it but chose instead to gift it to all of us. You could argue that this act of incredible philanthropy has paid dividends in the long run for him.

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