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Sir Timothy Berners-Lee
Sir Timothy Berners-Lee
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Sir Timothy Berners-Lee Interview

Father of the World Wide Web

June 22, 2007
Washington, D.C.

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  Sir Timothy Berners-Lee

We understand you were building computers out of spare parts when you were a student at Oxford. When did you first get your inspiration to create the World Wide Web?

Timothy Berners-Lee: Creating the web was really an act of desperation, because the situation without it was very difficult when I was working at CERN later. Most of the technology involved in the web, like the hypertext, like the Internet, multifont text objects, had all been designed already. I just had to put them together. It was a step of generalizing, going to a higher level of abstraction, thinking about all the documentation systems out there as being possibly part of a larger imaginary documentation system. But then the engineering was fairly straightforward. It was designed in order to make it possible to get at documentation and in order to be able to get people -- students working with me, contributing to the project, for example -- to be able to come in and link in their ideas, so that we wouldn't lose it all if we didn't debrief them before they left. Really, it was designed to be a collaborative workspace for people to design on a system together. That was the exciting thing about it.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

Early in your career, you created a software program called Enquire. Was that the first step on the way to the web? How and why did you do that?

Timothy Berners-Lee: Enquire was a program I made mainly for my own benefit.

When I left Oxford, I didn't have any role models for doing a second degree. I didn't know anybody who'd done one. I didn't know how to go about doing it. What I probably should have done is go to Berkeley and do a Master's or Ph.D. in computer science, but I didn't know about that. So I went and joined a telecommunications company down on the south coast of England, and I used the fact that I knew about microprocessors, and I was one of the few people that did. So I was in demand, and I was in demand as a consultant.

At one point, CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) brought people in as consultants to do some programming on a project, just for six months. So for the second half of 1980, a bunch of colleagues and I parachuted into CERN to fix things. We had to figure out what happened, what was wrong, what needed to be done, and we needed to build pieces of software. These pieces of software were part of a very large system, so they had to interact with pieces of machinery and interfaces and other pieces of software. It turned out that the best way to find out about all these things that you needed to connect was to talk to their designers over coffee. So the coffee center where the designers met in the morning was a crucial place. This meant names and faces are part of the loop, and I have a terrible memory for names and faces. I had to remember who to ask about each thing. I needed to be able to track this.

Sir Timothy Berners-Lee Interview Photo
Now, the interesting thing about computer programs at that point is they were good at storing things in tree structures and in matrices, but what they couldn't store well was the random association. That, "Oh, by the way, this hardware module is right next to the coffee machine, so when you fix it, go get a coffee." In real life, often we come across random associations which can turn out to be really important: the fact that you have something in common with somebody which allowed you to talk to them; the fact that the smell of the coffee as you go past the coffee machine takes you back and makes you remember that module and then helps your mind bring all those things back.

So I wrote a program which allowed me to write a little bit of text about something. But the only way I could introduce a new thing was by saying how it related to something else. "This is a module that is used by this one, and that's used by this one." So I tracked the dependencies through the system. I tracked where the documentation was for things, and "this person created that." So I could find out the people who were responsible. I stored the delightfully tangled and interesting and exciting state of the project in this program which I just had for my own benefit. I tried to suggest to other people to use it. When I left, I left them with an eight-inch floppy disk with the program on it. I gave it to Brian Carpenter, who was the assistant manager there. He later became, among other things, chair of the Internet Activities Board. But he lost it, or somebody lost it. So that program is gone, but it had random associations, and that was an important step.

Was necessity the mother of invention? You had other problems to solve.

Timothy Berners-Lee: Yes. It was definitely done on the side. I was building a vacuum control system or a vacuum control state visualization program or something. So yes. Enquire was a side project, done out of fun, to play a little bit with being able to store random associations. But it was always driven by -- and tested by -- whether it would actually help me to store them. That was in 1980. I rewrote the Enquire program maybe one or two times and pulled it around with me.

How did that lead you to the World Wide Web?

Timothy Berners-Lee: Then as time went on, over the next decade...

Computers changed. They had graphics. They had things like folders and "point and click," and people started to use word processors. When they used word processors, they stored their data. They typed into the word processor on a disk somewhere on a machine, which generally wasn't accessible. So there was then a new frustration that data about these systems was available, but you had to log onto a special particular machine. You had to learn a particular program to access it. To find your way through the library was totally different from finding your way through the documentation system of an experiment. So the data was there, somewhere, going around and around on a disk, but it was really difficult to get at. So there was a mixture, a confluence of ideas, I suppose -- the frustration that we didn't have access to the data that existed, even though it was there -- the need for a collaborative environment. I wanted something like Enquire, but where everybody could play, so that people working together could design something in a common shared space.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

There was work that I had done in between -- working for Image Computer Systems -- work that I had done with communications protocols and text processing, text formatting, and macro languages and so on, which are very like mark-up languages. At that point...

The computers at CERN, which had been on various networks, including an IBM one called Bitnet and a digital one called Decnet and a CERN one called CERNnet, started to be connected together by the Internet, the master network that connected to other networks, even though, politically, it wasn't proper to use the Internet early on at CERN. You were supposed to wait until the International Standards Organization had produced a set of protocols to use. In practice, the Internet was creeping across. It had become available, and Ben Siegel was a mentor there who took me aside and encouraged me to use UNIX as an open system, and use TCPIP, told me about TCPIP, told me what was happening, encouraged people to adopt the Internet. So there I had the Internet, I had the problem, I had all the tools, I just needed to be given some spare time to do it.

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