In 1989, Tim Berners-Lee, a British computer scientist and engineer working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland, thought up an ingenious solution to a frustrating office communications problem. We know that solution as the World Wide Web.
Berners-Lee and his fellow scientists felt stymied because while CERN researchers each had computers, there was no good way to share their research on them. The problem of sharing information was made doubly tiresome by the fact that scientists from around the world would visit CERN to do research but not stay long. Once they returned home, there was no swift way to show the results of their experiments to their CERN counterparts. Researchers felt the communications shortfalls were impeding the pace of their work.
Berners-Lee, whose parents were early computer scientists, was aware of a new system connecting computers to each other through a vast network called the internet. He wrote a proposal to his bosses suggesting that they leverage this network by adding on a series of programs that would go one step further and directly connect the information on those computers through hyperlinks, electronic markers that can be embedded in text or other media.
As he would later write in his book Weaving the Web, Berners-Lee had repeatedly suggested to computer scientists working on each of the separate technologies that the emerging hyperlink capability could be paired with the internet. No one took up his idea, which is why he finally assumed the project himself.
In March 1989, his proposal to merge the two was rejected one last time. However, his boss at CERN scrawled “vague but exciting” on the cover of the proposal.
It was just enough encouragement for Berners-Lee to go back to the drawing board and develop three fundamental programs that would become the foundation of the World Wide Web: HTML, the formatting language of the web; URL, the unique addresses that could be used to find text, and HTTP, which allows for the retrieval of linked resources from across the web. When he returned to his boss with specific programs for moving forward, the project was approved, and Berners-Lee dug in to perfect his programs.
The birth of the web includes the coincidental overlap of computer-age pioneers. While in exile from Apple, Steve Jobs founded NeXT, and Berners-Lee used a NeXT computer to write his proposal. That computer eventually became the web’s first server, which Berners-Lee posted to explain the web for his CERN colleagues at the end of 1990.
On August 6, 1991, Berners-Lee, with the approval of his bosses, posted the first page to the public -- an explanation of what the World Wide Web was and how it would work. That page, which has been updated repeatedly, is still active and reachable today. Berners-Lee’s invention almost immediately took off with scientists across the globe. But a real turning point for the general public came in 1993 with the creation of Mosaic, the first web browser that was graphically sophisticated and user-friendly. As people from across the globe suddenly flooded the system, CERN declared the technology would be available to everyone at no cost.
In 1994, Berners-Lee founded the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to ensure that the general public would continue to have access to the web and all of the things that go with it. As of mid-2017, about half of the world’s population connects online through the web. As a result, Berners-Lee became the recipient of numerous awards and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2004 for his pioneering work.
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