Web revolution began 10 years ago tomorrow

In a mere decade, 'global nervous system' has grown to link tens of millions of addresses

The Ottawa Citizen; With files from AP
December 24, 2000

It is perhaps the greatest invention in communication since the telephone.

And when it arrived on Christmas Day in 1990 -- as an eye-glazing list of phone numbers that could be viewed on the computer screens of only a few hundred scientists around the world -- the World Wide Web gave a nod to the past but marked a revolutionary leap toward the "global nervous system" once envisioned by Canadian media guru Marshall McLuhan.

In a mere decade, strands of "The Web" have been spun out from a handful of obscure physics labs into seven million Web sites and tens of millions of workplaces and homes around the world. It has catapulted the high-technology industry to unimagined heights, given meteoric rise to electronic commerce, revolutionized research, and made phrases such as "download" and "home page" part of everyday conversation.

During the U.S. presidential election, George W. Bush mocked Al Gore's infamous claim to having invented the Internet by noting that every cyberspace address on Earth started with "Dubya" -- "three of them!" -- as a tribute to his own middle initial.

And the surest sign that the World Wide Web has infiltrated every possible corner of North American culture was provided recently by country singer Alan Jackson, whose latest chart-topping hurtin' song urges a lost lover to "click on me at www.memory."

Remarkably, even as his invention lends populist power to its Internet backbone and continues to reshape the lives and jobs of people around the planet, the unassuming British physicist credited with creating the World Wide Web is hardly a household name and the story of his achievement barely known.

"The Web is an abstract, imaginary space of information," says Tim Berners-Lee, a 35-year-old theoretical physicist and self-described computer "geek" in December 1990 when he developed the prototype Web at CERN, the Geneva-based European nuclear research centre.

"On the Internet, you find computers. On the Web, you find document, sounds, videos, information," says Mr. Berners-Lee, who today directs the World Wide Web Consortium, a non-profit co-ordinating body for Web development based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "The Web made the Net useful because people are really interested in information ... and don't really want to have to know about computers and cables."

Born to mathematician parents in London and educated at Oxford, Mr. Berners-Lee had been passively toying for years with expanding the neural pathways between computers.

He recalls a day during his high school years when his father was researching the human brain, "looking for clues about how to make a computer intuitive, able to complete connections as the brain did. ... This challenge stayed with me throughout my studies."

In the early 1980s, Mr. Berners-Lee devised a software program to act as his personal organizer, keeping track of appointments, random thoughts and information.

He insists there wasn't an identifiable instant when he snapped his fingers and imagined the World Wide Web. "People are constantly disappointed that there was no 'Eureka' moment where the Web just came to me. It really was an evolutionary process," he says in his book Weaving the Web.

He first proposed the Web in 1989 while developing ways to control computers remotely at CERN.

Essentially, the Web combines two concepts that date to the 1960s: the Internet and hypertext, which is a way of presenting information from a multitude of sources in a non-sequential way. Though the two concepts were well known among engineers, Mr. Berners-Lee saw the value of marrying them.

He never got the project formally approved, but his boss suggested he quietly tinker with it anyway.

Using a NeXTStep computer, Mr. Berners-Lee began writing the software in October 1990, got his browser working by mid-November and added editing features in December. He made the program available at CERN on Christmas Day.

At the time, he and colleague Robert Cailliau were the Web's only users. Mr. Berners-Lee wanted to show off his browser, but with only one Web site initially, there wasn't much to browse.

"The whole development of the browser was very exciting," he said. "The difficulty was in knowing what to do next."

To encourage use, he worked on getting colleagues at CERN to put up a phone book and other resources on the Web.

"Initially, the first thing we put on the Web was the CERN phone book which was already running on the mainframe," he recalls. "For the people at CERN there was a time when WWW was a rather strange phone book program."

He found interns and research fellows through backdoor channels to work on adapting the browser to other computer systems. He balanced advocacy with keeping things quiet so that upper management wouldn't question the time he spent developing something he hadn't been hired to do.

The first public browser, released in 1991, didn't have the friendly graphical interfaces of today. Rather than click links, users typed in commands.

Michael Dertouzos, director of the Laboratory of Computer Science at MIT, says the Web might not have grown at all had someone other than Mr. Berners-Lee invented it.

"While everybody wanted to make the Web theirs," Mr. Dertouzos says, "he wanted to make the Web belong to everybody."

Mr. Berners-Lee says that upon reflection, there was little he would have done differently -- except perhaps to craft simpler Web addresses known as uniform resource locators, or URLs.

"I wouldn't have put the double slashes in," he said. "I didn't realize how much people would be writing these URLs out and reading them out and how much time it takes for people to say 'slash slash.' "