Timothy John “Tim” Berners-Lee

I basically wrote the code and the specs and documentation for how the client and server talked to each other.” Tim Berners-Lee.

During some sessions in the CERN cafeteria, Tim and I try to find a catching name for the system. I was determined that the name should not yet again be taken from Greek mythology. Tim proposes 'World-Wide Web'. I like this very much, except that it is difficult to pronounce in French.” Robert Cailliau – co-developer of the World Wide Web – in his speech titled A Short History of the Web, given on November 2, 1995, during the launch of the European branch of W3C.

Tim Berners-Lee is the scientist who introduced URLs, HTML and HTTP and in 1990 created the World Wide Web.

Timothy John Berners-Lee, better known as Tim or TimBL, was born on June 8, 1955, in London, England. He was the eldest son of Conway Berners-Lee and Mary Lee Woods. His mother was a mathematician who worked as a computer programmer for Ferranti in Manchester. She wrote programs in machine code – high-level languages were not yet available in the early fifties – for the Ferranti Mark1 and Ferranti Mark Star computer. Tim’s father also worked for Ferranti which he had joined after marrying Mary in 1954. He was a computer scientist who was schooled in mathematics and electronics.

With two computer scientists for parents, it comes as no surprise that young Tim was encouraged to think innovatively. He later recalls how, when he was at high school, his father once explained to him how the thinking of the human brain differed from the computer’s ability to “think”. The human brain can connect concepts that are not associated. For example, when you see a tree, you might think of its shade, then think of the lack of shade in your backyard and decide to plant a tree there so you can enjoy its shade in summer. It showed Tim the potential for growth computers had, if they could be made to link two pieces of previously unrelated information.

Education and career

After completing his schooling at Sheen Mount primary school in London, Tim Berners-Lee attended Emanuel School in London from 1969 to 1973. In 1973 he started his studies at The Queen’s College in Oxford where he received his B.A. Honours in Physics in 1976. During his stay at Queen’s College he managed to built his own computer using a soldering iron, a Motorola M6800 processor, TTL gates (TTL: transistor-transistor logic, a type of integrated circuit) and an old television set. But when he – together with a friend – was caught hacking into the university’s computer, he was banned from further use of its computer facilities.

In 1976 Berners-Lee joined Plessey Telecommunications Limited as a programmer where he worked on message relays and bar coding software. In 1978 he started at D.G. Nash Limited working on typesetting software for printers and a multi-tasking operating system.


In June 1980 Berners-Lee spent six-months as an independent contractor at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland – CERN is the Conseil Européenne pour la Recherche Nucleaire – the European Council for Nuclear Research. Although today it’s called the European High-Energy Particle Physics lab, it is still referred to by most as CERN.

During his stay he proposed a project based on the concept of hypertext – a term coined originally in 1968 by Ted Nelson. His project, which he co-developed with his colleague Robert Cailliau, would enable thousands of scientists at CERN to keep track of who worked on which project, which program was held on which computer, and which software could operate on which computer. He defined a new language called HyperText Mark-up Language or HTML which would later become the lingua franca for the Web. He named his prototype system Enquire after the title of a book containing household tips he had seen at home Enquire Within upon Everything. Although Enquire's use was restricted to scientists within CERN, it formed the conceptual and embryonic basis for his future World Wide Web.

Upon completion of his six-months stay he left CERN and started at Image Computer Systems in 1981 as a Technical Design Lead responsible for the technical development of communication and graphics software for printers.

Tim Berners-Lee creates the World Wide Web. A common information space where everyone can communicate. 1991.

World Wide Web

In 1984 Berners-Lee returned to CERN to work on distributed real-time systems. In 1989 he defined a system whereby network-accessible information within CERN could be retrieved by CERN scientist using a Universal Document Identifier (UDI). He drafted a proposal for his system which was subsequently refined by Robert Cailliau. The system proposed made use of HTML for writing the web pages, HTTP (HyperText Transfer Protocol) for transmitting the pages and a web browser program to receive the data, interpret it and display the results. The browser was platform-independent, i.e. the software could run on more than one type of computer. He called his new system “WorldWideWeb”. The data for this system was to be located on a single dedicated computer within CERN – this was called the server. Berners-Lee and Cailliau decided to start their website with the CERN telephone directory, which ensured a rapid acceptance of their system within CERN. On August 6, 1991, their Worldwideweb (or www) system became operational on the net with the first website “http://info.cern.ch”. This site has since been archived for historical purposes. Tim announced the system on the internet that same month by posting a notice on the alt.hypertext newsgroup. In 1992 CERN released the system worldwide for free. In 1993 CERN provided certification that their web technology and software was in the public domain and available to anyone. By the end of 1992 the number of servers worldwide had grown to more than 50. By 2001 this had increased to more than 25 million. By 2007 the web had more than 500 million hosts.

Berners-Lee continued to work at CERN monitoring, managing and improving the World Wide Web. His UDI later became the URI (Uniform Resource Identifier) to become today’s URL (Uniform Resource Locator). The two forward slashes he introduced after the http-part of the URL, he now considers as a mistake. In a 2009 interview he stated: “Really, if you think about it, it doesn’t need the //. I could have designed it not to have the //.” Today’s modern browsers, such as Explorer and Mozilla Firefox simply insert the slashes if one starts the web address with “www.”.

In 1994 Tim Berners-Lee left CERN and joined the Laboratory for Computer Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he founded the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) that same year and became its Director. W3C’s purpose is to lead the World Wide Web to its full potential by developing protocols, standards and guidelines that ensure its long-term growth. W3C’s technology standards are based on royalty free technology.

In 1999 Berners-Lee became 3COM Founders Professor of Engineering at the School of Engineering at MIT. In December 2004 he accepted the post of Professor in the Computer Science Department at the University of Southampton in England.

In 1999, his book Weaving the Web was published. It describes how the World Wide Web was born, its original design and Tim’s vision and the ultimate destiny of the Web.

In 2005 he participated in the United Nations World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis where he communicated with 80 schools worldwide using the Internet. The purpose of this summit was to establish the foundation for an Information Society, to bring 50% of the world's population online by 2015 and to reduce the digital divide.

Tim Berners-Lee resides in Cambridge, MA, in the United States and still leads W3C.

It is remarkable that today, twenty years after the birth of the World Wide Web, a large variety of web browsers is available, making the Web easily accessible to the average computer user by a simple point-and-click of the ubiquitous mouse. On the other hand, web-publishing tools have not made such strides despite a large number of special purpose applications like blogs, wikis and a growing list of social networking sites. Tools for building a website must be considered fairly primitive at this stage as anyone who has tried to build his own website, can attest to.

Great Britain issued a set of six self-adhesive stamps titled “World of Invention” on March 1, 2007.
One of the stamps features Tim Berners-Lee’s invention: the World Wide Web. The reverse
of the self-adhesive backing paper carries a short explanatory text as shown above.
The cartoon picture was designed by Peter Willberg. The six stamps were also issued
in a separate miniature sheet and also formed part of two panes in the prestige booklet “World of Invention”.

Berners-Lee honoured

Tim Berners-Lee, KBE, OM, FRS, has received numerous honorary doctorates from universities worldwide. In addition he has received many prestigious awards, such as:

1993 – Awarded, together with Robert Cilliau, Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina, the Software Systems Award by the Association for Computing Machinery for their endeavours in developing the Web.
1994 – Inducted in the World Wide Web Hall of Fame.
1995 – Received the “Young Innovator of the Year” Award from the Kilby Foundation.
1999 – Time magazine named him one of the 100 Most Influential People of the 20th Century.
2001 – Was made a Fellow of The Royal Society in London; hence the letters FRS behind his name.
2003 – Received the Computer History Museum’s Fellow Award.
2004 – Becomes the first recipient of Finland’s Millennium Technology Prize for inventing the World Wide Web. With the prize came a cash amount of US$1.3million.
2004 – Knighted by Queen Elizabeth II and awarded the rank of Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire for services to the global development of the Internet. With it came his postnomial title KBE. Sir Tim Berners-Lee stated he felt honoured by the accolade and that it proved what can happen to “ordinary people” who work on things that “happen to work out”, like the Web.
2005 – Was named “Greatest Briton of 2004” for his achievements as well as displaying the key British characteristics of “diffidence, determination, a sharp sense of humour and adaptability.”
2007 – Received the “Order of Merit” from Queen Elizabeth II. It gave him the postnomial OM.
2008 – Was awarded the Wolfson James Clerk Maxwell Award by the IEEE for conceiving and further developing the World Wide Web.
2009 – Received the Webby Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Philatelically speaking: Berners-Lee was portrayed on a stamp issued by the Marshall Islands on May 2, 2001, as part of their 20th Century issue (sheet X, 1990-1999). He also is shown on a 2009 Guinea-Bissau stamp and on a 2011 sheetlet and a souvenir sheet of Mozambique.

On February 25, 2010, Great Britain commemorated the 350th anniversary of The Royal Society
by issuing a prestige booklet The Royal Society, dedicating a full page to its Fellow since 2001, Tim Berners-Lee.

© Wobbe Vegter, 2010

[ Back ]