The Guy Who Did the WWW Thing at the Place Where He Did It

By Kaser, Dick | Information Today, February 2004 | Go to article overview

The Guy Who Did the WWW Thing at the Place Where He Did It


Kaser, Dick, Information Today


It was a wired Tim Berners-Lee, his flight to Switzerland delayed a day by snow, who spoke recently to a group of scientists gathered at CERN, just in advance of the World Summit on the Information Society.

The CERN where the World Wide Web was born, said Berners-Lee, was not this one, where he was speaking now. It was not the one with blue drapes and red carpets. No. It was the CERN with blackboards.

"I am tempted to get a piece of chalk," he mused, "and draw the curtains aside and use the blackboard, just to get back into things."

Berners-Lee professed (perhaps too much) that he was glad to be back. The stories he would soon tell about the Web's inception seemed to imply that his time there was not without friction.

Off the Wall

For nearly 50 years, CERN has been a magnet for scientists who are engaged in unraveling the most minute pieces of the universe. It's a laboratory where scientists gather to study the building blocks of matter.

If you're seriously into nuclear particle research (and who isn't?), you'll do some time at CERN. And who knows? You might even discover something so cosmic that it alters the human understanding of the nature of things. Dark matter. Neutrinos. Quarks.

There's no more perfect place for the Web to have been invented. And yet, it's odd that the idea came from here, for it has more to do with computer science than high-energy physics.

Back in the '80s, Berners-Lee recalled, he was not at CERN to fool around with computers, except as necessary to complete his nuclear particle research. So when he put his idea for the Web forward, it was met with somewhat of a brick wall.

"This is not a software tools organization," he explained quickly. In his ensuing remarks, he seemed to overly excuse CERN's management for not immediately seeing the genius of his idea to get all the researchers at CERN connected in a way that would permit them to share information, regardless of the software or computer they were using.

"This is primarily a physics lab," he said. "So very properly, it has got all sorts of traps set up to stop people who are supposed to be doing physics from having a great time programming just whatever they like.

"And this is very necessary," he rapidly continued, "because the programming environment is extremely fun for anybody who's got any creativity and just got their computer, and certainly that applies to almost all the people at CERN. Everybody would be trying all types of things.

"I wrote a memo in 1989 suggesting the idea of the Web," he said. He then paused and added: "Really! It was CERN. If you wanted something, you wrote a memo.

"And the very proper response to the idea was: 'It is a good idea. You should be able to get it shrink-wrapped. Go buy it off the shelf. And if it's not available off the shelf, it must be a stupid idea.'"

And thus the idea for a hypertext-enabled Web at CERN was initially canned. But in time, CERN's management would come around to believing that the idea of the Web was really not all that off the wall.

Outside the Box

Management sometimes works in mysterious ways. Though Berners-Lee's original memo appeared to fall on deaf ears, only a few months later his immediate boss found a way around the bureaucratic roadblock he had encountered.

"In 1990," said Berners-Lee, "my boss at the time, Mike Sendall, suggested I get a NeXT computer--those are the computers, which are, on the outside, kind of a square of black, but on the inside are very much like what an OS-X Mac looks like at the moment. And he suggested that we play around with this new kind of computer, and at the same time why not do some kind of experimental project just to test it out? Why not do that hypertext thing?"

Berners-Lee immediately started programming, and the first version of his software was dated Christmas Day 1990. …

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