Want to see how much the world has changed in the past decade? Log on to the Internet, launch a search engine and type in the word enquire (British spelling, please). You'll get about 30,000 hits. It turns out you can "enquire" about nearly anything online these days, from used Harley Davidsons for sale in Sydney, Australia ("Enquire about touring bikes. Click here!"), to computer-training-by-e-mail courses in India ("Where excellence is not an act but a habit"). Click once to go to a site in Nairobi and enquire about booking shuttle reservations there. Click again, and zip off to Singapore, to a company that specializes in "pet moving." Enquire about buying industrial-age nuts and bolts from "the Bolt Boys" in South Africa, or teddy bears in upstate New York. Exotic cigar labels! Tantric sex guides! Four-poster beds for dogs!
So what, you say? Everybody knows that with a mouse, a modem and access to the Internet, these days you can point-and-click anywhere on the planet, unencumbered by time or space or long-distance phone tariffs.
Ah, but scroll down the list far enough, hundreds of entries deep, and you'll find this hidden Rosebud of cyberspace: "Enquire Within Upon Everything"--a nifty little computer program written nearly 20 years ago by a lowly software consultant named Tim Berners-Lee. Who knew then that from this modest hack would flow the civilization-altering, millionaire-spawning, information suckhole known as the World Wide Web?
Unlike so many of the inventions that have moved the world, this one truly was the work of one man. Thomas Edison got credit for the light bulb, but he had dozens of people in his lab working on it. William Shockley may have fathered the transistor, but two of his research scientists actually built it. And if there ever was a thing that was made by committee, the Internet--with its protocols and packet switching--is it. But the World Wide Web is Berners-Lee's alone. He designed it. He loosed it on the world. And he more than anyone else has fought to keep it open, nonproprietary and free.
It started, of all places, in the Swiss Alps. The year was 1980. Berners-Lee, doing a six-month stint as a software engineer at CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, in Geneva, was noodling around with a way to organize his far-flung notes. He had always been interested in programs that dealt with information in a "brain-like way" but that could improve upon that occasionally memory-constrained organ. So he devised a piece of software that could, as he put it, keep "track of all the random associations one comes across in real life and brains are supposed to be so good at remembering but sometimes mine wouldn't." He called it Enquire, short for Enquire Within Upon Everything, a Victorian-era encyclopedia he remembered from childhood.
Building on ideas that were current in software design at the time, Berners-Lee fashioned a kind of "hypertext" notebook. Words in a document could be "linked" to other files on Berners-Lee's computer; he could follow a link by number (there was no mouse to click back then) and automatically pull up its related document. It worked splendidly in its solipsistic, Only-On-My-Computer way.