Network Designer Tim Berners-Lee

From the thousands of interconnected threads of the Internet, he wove the World Wide Web and created a mass medium for the 21st century

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But what if he wanted to add stuff that resided on someone else's computer? First he would need that person's permission, and then he would have to do the dreary work of adding the new material to a central database. An even better solution would be to open up his document--and his computer--to everyone and allow them to link their stuff to his. He could limit access to his colleagues at CERN, but why stop there? Open it up to scientists everywhere! Let it span the networks! In Berners-Lee's scheme there would be no central manager, no central database and no scaling problems. The thing could grow like the Internet itself, open-ended and infinite. "One had to be able to jump," he later wrote, "from software documentation to a list of people to a phone book to an organizational chart to whatever."

So he cobbled together a relatively easy-to-learn coding system--HTML (HyperText Mark-up Language)--that has come to be the lingua franca of the Web; it's the way Web-content creators put those little colored, underlined links in their text, add images and so on. He designed an addressing scheme that gave each Web page a unique location, or url (universal resource locator). And he hacked a set of rules that permitted these documents to be linked together on computers across the Internet. He called that set of rules HTTP (HyperText Transfer Protocol).

And on the seventh day, Berners-Lee cobbled together the World Wide Web's first (but not the last) browser, which allowed users anywhere to view his creation on their computer screen. In 1991 the World Wide Web debuted, instantly bringing order and clarity to the chaos that was cyberspace. From that moment on, the Web and the Internet grew as one, often at exponential rates. Within five years, the number of Internet users jumped from 600,000 to 40 million. At one point, it was doubling every 53 days.

Raised in London in the 1960s, Berners-Lee was the quintessential child of the computer age. His parents met while working on the Ferranti Mark I, the first computer sold commercially. They taught him to think unconventionally; he'd play games over the breakfast table with imaginary numbers (what's the square root of minus 4?). He made pretend computers out of cardboard boxes and five-hole paper tape and fell in love with electronics. Later, at Oxford, he built his own working electronic computer out of spare parts and a TV set. He also studied physics, which he thought would be a lovely compromise between math and electronics. "Physics was fun," he recalls. "And in fact a good preparation for creating a global system."

It's hard to overstate the impact of the global system he created. It's almost Gutenbergian. He took a powerful communications system that only the elite could use and turned it into a mass medium. "If this were a traditional science, Berners-Lee would win a Nobel Prize," Eric Schmidt, CEO of Novell, once told the New York Times. "What he's done is that significant."

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