Somewhere in the list of the Top 10 things most people don't know about the World Wide Web is this: its inventor is English. Tim Berners- Lee graduated with a First from The Queen's College, Oxford, in 1976. His three years there studying physics led to jobs at Plessey and DG Nash; these were followed by a six-month stint as a consultant at the nuclear physics research laboratory Cern in 1980. It was then that he wrote a program called Enquire (short for "enquire within upon everything"), which was a precursor to the Web. Essentially, he says, it was a database of notes that you could link together without imposing any structure. It ran on a Norsk Data machine, then the only European minicomputer.
In 1981, he helped to found a company called Image Computer Systems, and ran its technical side for three years. Returning to Cern, he moved Enquire across to a Dec Vax computer. "I found it so useful that I put all the information on all the projects I was working on on it. It saved me having to tell people things, and allowed the people joining the project to get up to speed and do their own delving into it."
Berners-Lee speaks so fast that tape recorders have trouble keeping up with him. He is personable, but does not like talking about himself. He is, however, happy to discuss the Web at any length.
He came by his life-long interest in programming naturally: his mother was the first commercial computer programmer, working on what he says was the first commercially sold computer, the Ferranti Mark I, shortly before he was born. As a child, he built his first computer out of cardboard boxes and fed it with punched paper tape.
It was at Cern in 1989 that he proposed the Web in a memo he circulated. It took a year to get approval from his boss, Robert Caillou, to write the program. And once the nascent Web was set up, it grew slowly - at first, anyway.
Here is the second thing most people don't know about the Web: it was designed to be interactive. Not like it is now, where "interactive" means running the mouse equivalent of a TV remote control, but with an integral editor, so that you could pull whatever you were looking at into whatever document you were creating. If, for example, you were reading an article in one window, you could start writing your own in a second window, and automatically insert links across to the original. You still can't do this on today's Web. "It ran on NeXTStep," Berners-Lee offers as a partial explanation as to why not, "so not many people saw it."
Most people saw instead the line-mode browser he produced as a second effort, and were on the receiving end of his campaign to produce a graphical browser. This is what we now think of as the Web: at first Cello, Viola, Mosaic, and eventually Netscape. But all these programs were just browsers - not as sophisticated as his original idea.
Even Marc Andreesen, now starring on magazine covers for Netscape, said that building what Berners-Lee had in mind was just too hard. "He'd never seen the NeXT thing," says Berners-Lee, "and people just thought that was what the Web was, it was a browsing thing. …