The Man Who Wove the Web

By Naughton, John | The Spectator, October 16, 1999 | Go to article overview

The Man Who Wove the Web


Naughton, John, The Spectator


FOR a man who has invented the future, Tim Berners-Lee does not look like a charismatic figure. He is a youthful fortysomething who dresses neatly but casually, drives a Volkswagen and has none of the vices traditionally associated with great men. Yet an aura clings to him, generated not just by what he has achieved, but even more so by what he has chosen not to do. For this is a man who has created something that will one day be bigger than all the other industries on earth.

His intellectual property rights could have made him richer than Croesus, yet he turned his back on all that to work for the common good. Berners-Lee now works from a spartan office at MIT's computer-science lab, where he draws a modest salary as head of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the body which tries to maintain technical order in the burgeoning technology of the Web. Until recently, he wasn't even a professor, though MIT has now put that right and given him an endowed Chair. No wonder that whenever he appears in public the images that come to mind are not those from Kubrick's film 2001, but from `The Road Not Taken', Robert Frost's poem about the choices we make in life:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -- I took the one less travelled by, And that has made all the difference.

Berners-Lee has software in his blood. Both his parents were programmers who worked for. the British company Ferranti on one of the first commercial computers. He read physics at Queen's College, Oxford, where he built his first computer with a soldering iron, a microprocessor chip and an old television set. Graduating in 1976, he worked for Plessey and later for a firm writing typesetting software.

In many respects, he looks like an Englishman from central casting - quiet, courteous, reserved. Ask him about his family life (he has an American wife and two children) and you hit a polite but blank wall. Ask him about the Web, however, and he is suddenly transformed into an Italian: words tumble out and he gesticulates wildly. There's a deep, deep passion here. And why not? It is, after all, his baby.

The strange thing is that it all happened because he has a terrible memory. Names and faces often elude him. 'I needed something to organise myself,' he says. 'I needed to be able to keep track of things, and nothing out there - none of the computer programs that you could get, the spreadsheets and the databases - would really let you make this random association between absolutely anything and absolutely anything.'

So in the end he wrote such a program himself while on a six-month consultancy at Cern - the European centre for research in particle physics - in 1980. He called the program Enquire (for `enquire within about everything') and describes it as a ,memory substitute', which enabled him to fill a document with words that, when highlighted, would lead to other documents for elaboration.

When his attachment ended, Berners-Lee returned to Britain and helped found a startup company doing computer graphics. But the lure of Cern endured and he returned there in the late 1980s charged with supporting the lab's retrieval and handling of information. What struck him was how, at an institutional level, the laboratory suffered from the same memory problems as himself. …

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