This week in history: Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, was born

Tim Berners-Lee speaking at 2012 conference. © Shutterstock

Tim Berners-Lee speaking at 2012 conference. © Shutterstock

The Internet is a bewildering place, filled with bizarre cat videos, obscure Twitter hashtags, and other cultural artifacts our ancestors could not have dreamed up. But before the 1990’s, the Internet was bewildering in a very different way: almost nobody knew how to use it. Even if you had access to an Internet-connected computer, you practically needed to be a computer scientist to make use of the Internet. That changed in 1991, when a British computer scientist named Tim Berners-Lee introduced the World Wide Web.

The Web is not the same as the Internet. The Internet consists of a network of computers linked together with wires and radio waves. Electronic files, e-mails, and other data move from computer to computer according to a system of rules called protocols. But before 1991, there was no such thing as a “website.” To find information on the Internet, you needed to hunt for files on another Internet-connected computer and download them, or you needed to know someone who could e-mail them to you.

Berners-Lee came up with the idea of hypertext—a word or an image that acts like a magic portal to computer files on the Internet. Instead of hunting for files one by one, Internet users could link files to one another and just click their way from file to file. This “web” of interlinked files is the World Wide Web. The files are web pages, organized into larger structures called websites.

Berners-Lee created a system of rules called hypertext markup language, or HTML for short. HTML determines how web pages appear when viewed on a computer. A program called a web browser acts like a gateway into the World Wide Web, enabling users to find and interact with HTML-based web pages. With web browser and a meaningfully connected structure of web pages, one did not need to be a computer scientist to explore the Internet. During the 1990’s, ordinary people began “surfing the Web,” and Internet use exploded.

Just as the Internet laid the foundation for the World Wide Web, the Web laid the foundation for many other innovations—such as Amazon’s online store, Google’s Web-based search engine, and social networking websites such as Facebook, to name a few.

Berners-Lee was born on June 8, 1955, in London. He earned a degree in physics from Oxford University in 1976. In 1980, he worked at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) near Geneva, Switzerland. Berners-Lee originally conceived the Web as a means for physicists around the world to link their own computer files with those at CERN. In 2004, he became Sir Tim Berners-Lee when Queen Elizabeth II knighted him.

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