Berners-Lee, Timothy

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Tim Berners-Lee is founder and director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). His greatest invention draws numerous comparisons to Gutenberg's printing press because it brings information and tools, formerly reserved for a select few, to the masses. Sitting at a tiny cubicle in a physics laboratory in Switzerland, the reclusive, soft-spoken Berners-Lee gave birth to the World Wide Web and helped transform the economic, cultural, and social realms of the modern world. Moreover, he insists that the Web is still a child. "The glorified television channel you see today," Berners-Lee proclaims, "is just part of the plan."

Born in London in 1955, Timothy J. Berners-Lee is the son of two mathematicians who worked on the first commercially sold computers. A physicist by training, he did his pioneering work at the Centre Eur-open de Recherche Nucleaire (European Laboratory for Particle Physics, or CERN), the Geneva-based physics laboratory, as a contract programmer. His proposal to develop an interactive, universal interface for use on the Internetthe project that would become the World Wide Webwas twice rejected at CERN until he put the lab's 10,000-name phone book into his programming language as a prototype to show the Web's possibilities. His prototype, designed to function in a "brain-like way" but also to track and connect all the random associations that are often buried in the brain, was called Enquire Within Upon Everything. In just two months, he gave the Pentagon-funded, technical-user-oriented communications program known as the Internet a human face, ready for global use. Bypassing the need for large centralized registries, he developed uniform resource locators (URLs), as well as hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP) for transferring data to and from any connected computer. He also designed the lingua franca of the Web: Hypertext Markup Language (HTML). Thus, the World Wide Web was born in 1991, at which point he simply gave it all away for free, only promoting its wider use.

In 1994 Berners-Lee left CERN for a position at the Laboratory for Computer Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he founded the World Wide Web Consortium, a loose-knit collection of Web, hardware, and software firms as well as other interested parties. The W3C's primary mission simply was to oversee the Web's development (although it is not a governing body), and in large part the consortium worked to stave off proprietary battles over standards and protocols. The W3C and Berners-Lee were both instrumental in the fight to keep the Web free and nonproprietary.

Berners-Lee continued to push the Web's development forward, particularly through his pioneering work on Extensible Markup Language (XML), a meta-language that focuses on the conceptual meaning of Web content, rather than simply on page formatting. XML allows for two-way communication between Web servers so as to facilitate more comprehensive treatment of content and transactions. According to Berners-Lee, XML would be the driving force in creating the next step in the Web's evolutionthe Semantic Web.

Broadly, the Semantic Web is Berners-Lee's vision for a system that will perform the more mundane tasks of human interactions and transactions, leaving the actual thinking to humans. With dramatically enhanced ability to define objects in cyberspace, the XML-driven Semantic Web promises vastly more powerful and accurate search engines that will make the Web more navigable and a less dizzying mess of information. True to its name, the Semantic Web is intended to make reading and interpreting Web content easier for computers by increasing their recognition of context and their ability to make logical inferences. It also is supposed to allow more direct communication between machines and will free individuals to concentrate on more involved and creative thinking. This is a crucial step in the development of what Berners-Lee sees as the development of cells within a global brain.

While Berners-Lee may not himself show much interest in capitalizing on the profit-making potential of the Web, his invention nonetheless radically transformed traditional business models and helped to redefine the relationship between business and customer. E-commerce is only one small element of his concern, however. Pushing openness and decentralization of knowledge and resources, his vision of the Web is of an all-encompassing democratic force for global civilization, in which business issues are dominated by their social implications. While his claim that the Web will serve as the vehicle for the next stage of human civilization may at first sound grandiose, few seem ready to dismiss the possibility.


Berners-Lee, Tim, and Mark Fischetti. Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web by Its Inventor. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1999.

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Woolnough, Roisin. "Meet the Man Who Invented the Web." Computer Weekly. November 30, 2000.

SEE ALSO: HTML (Hypertext Markup Language); Internet and WWW, History of the; World Wide Web Consortium(W3C); XML (Extensible Markup Language)