Thirty years ago, in March 1989, a young computer expert working at CERN came up with a proposal for an internet-based hypertext system to link and access information across different computers.
In the interview below, Tim Berners-Lee describes how his early requests to experiment with his idea were ignored. CERN was set up for physics experiments, not for experiments with software and computers.
However, in 1989, CERN was the perfect petri dish for such an experiment. CERN’s staff, who came from around the world, brought documents and other information in different formats. This muddle of different formats was a problem that a young Tim Berners-Lee thought he could fix. In addition, physicists needed and had the best computers available at the time and they were networked because of the global nature of their community.
After colleagues encouraged him to persist, an unofficial opportunity to experiment eventually arrived. In September 1990, his manager Mike Sendall gave him two NeXT computers to test, with the suggestion he experiment with his hypertext system as a way to test the new machines.
In the early years, Berners-Lee was concerned use of the web might peak and decline. Putting the web into the public domain free of royalties was absolutely critical to its success, he said. He describes how the Gopher protocol, a competitor to his Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), went into decline in 1993 after the University of Minnesota announced that it would charge licensing fees. Without CERN’s agreement to forgo royalties the web would have splintered into many proprietary incompatible webs, reckons Berners-Lee.
- CERN tours – go on, expand your universe (Le News)
On 30 April 1993, CERN released the latest version of the WWW software into the public domain and made it freely available for anyone to use and improve. In addition to being free, the WWW architecture doesn’t assume what will be built on top of it, because we can never imagine what will be developed. This is another of its key strengths, says Berners-Lee.
Today, half of the world’s population is now online, and around 1.8 billion websites exist. Openness has been endemic to CERN’s culture ever since its Convention was signed in 1953. CERN promotes the distribution and open sharing of software, technology, publications and data, through initiatives such as open source software, open hardware, open access publishing and the CERN Open Data Portal.
On 12 March 2019, CERN will kick off 30-year anniversary celebrations around the world via a webcast. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Robert Cailliau and other Web pioneers and experts will share their views on the challenges and opportunities brought by the Web. The event will be opened by Fabiola Gianotti, CERN’s Director-General, and is being organised by CERN in collaboration with two organisations founded by Berners-Lee: the World Wide Web Foundation and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).
“It is a great honour and a source of pride for CERN to host an event to mark the 30th anniversary of Tim Berners-Lee’s proposal for what would become the World Wide Web, and I am delighted that Sir Tim will be with us on the day,” said CERN Director-General, Fabiola Gianotti. “The Web’s invention has transformed our world, and continues to show how fundamental research fuels innovation. CERN’s culture of openness was a key factor in the Laboratory’s decision in 1993 to make the web available free to everybody, a key step in its development and subsequent spread.”