The World Wide Web at Twenty: The Birth of the World Wide Web

August 2, 2011

“Suppose all the information stored on computers everywhere were linked. . . .Suppose I could program my computer to create a space in which anything could be linked to anything. All the bits of information in every computer at CERN [Conseil Europeen pour la Recherche Nucleaire – the European particle physics laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland] and on the planet would be available to me and to anyone else. There would be a single, global information space.”[1]

This vision, which would be the basis for what he later would name “The World Wide Web,” was that of Tim Berners-Lee – a young, British, Oxford-educated physicist. It came to him in 1980. Just fourteen years later, by 1994, an approximation of his initial vision – though not all information stored on computers everywhere – was becoming a reality. Some observers were calling it the most important technological breakthrough since Johannes Gutenberg’s moveable-type printing press of the 1450s. His invention, the World Wide Web, was a nexus through which, within the next decade, by 2004 – without the intervention of any publisher, studio, or government (at least in large portions of the world) – anyone with a computer and a connection to the Internet could interact with anyone else so-connected. Such individuals could receive and/or send material of any sort – written or graphical, audible or animated – from or to an estimated two million people.  (In July 2008, Google estimated that the number of Web pages had reached one trillion.)[2]

The Internet, Berners-Lee’s means of communicating with the world by computer, sprang from a project that began in the late 1950s. The United States department of defense and private-sector researchers had begun working together to find a way, through secure communications, to prevent or respond to a nuclear surprise attack. The World Wide Web – of documents linked via the Internet by hypertext language – for its part, sprang from both a document-linking method devised years earlier by Ted Nelson and Berners-Lee’s awareness in the late 1980s of the need for on-line communication among physicists at CERN and other parts of the world who were seeking to understand the laws of the universe–an effort that involved researchers from twenty countries including Japan, Turkey, Israel, the Russian Federation, and the United States.

By 2004 Tim Berners-Lee had become a Knight of the British Empire, held numerous honorary degrees from prestigious institutions around the world, and was winner of Finland’s first national award for technology (and a prize of $1.2 million). But his accomplishment, he well knew, was a synthesis of the work of others. A skilled computer programmer, he was alert to happenings in his field (the evolving art of computer and communications technology), was able quickly to analyze problems, and perhaps most importantly, desired to benefit society. This urge, his colleague at CERN, Robert Cailliau, has suggested, perhaps stemmed from his Unitarian Universalist creed. He “accepts the notion of divinity but in an abstract way,” not requiring, for example, that “you believe six impossible things before breakfast.” “He believes in the inherent dignity of people and in working together to achieve harmony and understanding.”[3]

Indeed, it is possible that what allowed the breakthrough – the moment in late 1988 or early 1989 (at the age of 34) when he saw how it could be done – was both a generosity of spirit and an accompanying prudence, an understanding that his vision would become real only if the mechanism for bringing it about remained the property of no one and, therefore, everyone – like the Internet which underlay it (and the national highways, public schools, and the Constitutional system), a public commons.[4]

In 1980, he took a job at CERN, working on the control systems for one of the colliding machines. This fortuitous position gave him an opportunity to think again about connections, his “growing realization that there was power in arranging ideas in an unconstrained, web-like way.”[5] This thought pattern started for him in a very practical fashion. The complexity of CERN was a challenge for the brightest of individuals. Like any young person arriving at a new job, Berners-Lee faced the problem of how to keep it all straight. “We learned the most in conversations at coffee at tables strategically placed at the intersection of two corridors,” he recalled. “I would be introduced to people plucked out of the flow of unknown faces, and I would have to remember who they were and which piece of equipment or software they had designed. The structure of CERN, itself web-like, made the job even harder. Of the ten thousand people in the phone book, only five thousand or so were at CERN at any given time (rather than back at their home institutions), and only three thousand or so were actually salaried staff.”[6] He needed to keep track of who was working on which projects and who used which computers, computer programs, operating systems, and software.

To solve this quite practical problem, he decided to write a program for a CERN local area network, which he called Enquire, in which he devoted one page – like an index card – to each person, device, program, or project. “The only way to create a new node was to make a link from an old node. The links from and to a node would show up in a numbered list at the bottom of each page, much like the list of references at the end of an academic paper.”[7]

It was while writing this program that he had his idea for a something much larger–a vast web. He realized it might be possible to “program my computer to create a space in which anything could be linked to anything. All the bits of information in every computer at CERN, and if he could find a way, in every computer on the planet, would be available to me and to anyone else. There would be a single, global information space. Once a bit of information in that space was labeled with an address, I could tell my computer to get it. By being able to reference anything with equal ease, a computer could represent associations between things that might seem unrelated but somehow did, in fact, share a relationship. A web of information would form.”[8]

“I wanted the act of adding a new link to be trivial; if it was, then a web of links could spread evenly across the globe,” he said. “The system had to be completely decentralized. That would be the only way a new person somewhere could start to use it without asking for access from anyone else. And that would be the only way the system could scale, so that as more people used it, it wouldn’t get bogged down.”[9]

In the early 1980s the work at CERN was increasing. It involved more activities than its administrators could track and its researchers could follow. By 1984 Berners-Lee could see that by expanding his program he could help the institute track the relationships between people, experiments, and machines and also provide access to different kinds of information, such as “researchers’ technical papers, manuals for different software modules, minutes of meetings, hastily scribbled notes, and so on.”[10] A dynamic institutional handbook would enhance efficiency and allow everyone to remain abreast of and therefore contribute to the common enterprise. But since there was such a diversity of equipment, programs, and operating systems, he needed a system “with common rules acceptable to everyone; in other words, one as close as possible to no rules at all.”[11]

He began to look for and discover the various tools then in existence. He wrote a program called a “remote procedure call” (RPC) to help all the computers and networks – regardless of their operating systems or computer languages – communicate. He then inserted, with hypertext, CERN’s interconnection schemes and Enquire’s external links.

It was at this point that Ben Segal, one of Berners-Lee’s mentors, introduced him to an increasingly important means of reaching outside the laboratory: the Internet. This, Tim discovered, was an excellent means of bridging different operating systems and networks. He immediately saw the advantage of its protocols (the tags around message parts that enabled them to travel in digital packets from place to place) labeled TCP/IP and added them to the RPC system.[12]

But it was the advent of Steve Jobs’ new personal computer, NeXT, that brought Berners-Lee’s breakthrough – his sense that it might be possible to approach his vision of a universal web. The NeXT desk-top personal computer had all the features of the MacIntosh, including its intuitive point-and-click folders – the graphical user interface of today’s universally-used (as part of Microsoft Windows) but then little known, operating software. The NeXT, Berners-Lee recognized, was nothing less than a stream-lined software “development environment.” He persuaded his boss, Mike Sendal, to let him buy one. Sendal, in what can only be referred to as a stroke of genius, decided not only to authorize the purchase but also to give the young computer whiz free reign. “Once you get the machine,” he said, “why not try programming your hypertext thing on it?”[13] Within months Tim had produced a system that used such acronyms as HTTP – for hypertext transfer protocol, HTML – markup language, URL – uniform resource locator, and, finally: WWW – World Wide Web.   (He came up with the latter after first experimenting with such acronyms as MESH, for Information Mesh, which he decided sounded too much like “mess;” MOI, for Mine of Information, which he discarded because it spelled “me” in French and was thus egocentric; and TIM, for The Information Mine – “even more egocentric.” The term, “World Wide Web,” he decided, reflected the nature of the system, a global system of distributed nodes and links in which every node can be linked to every other.)[14] What he had done was to combine hypertext, the Internet, and a simple addressing scheme “to create a common base for communication while allowing each system to maintain its individuality.” “All you have to do,” he said, “is make up an address for each document or screen in your system and the rest is easy.”[15]

Mike Sendall, who was responsible for the work of Berners-Lee and his colleagues, realized that his charges, now more than ever, were doing things only peripherally related to physics research. The upper echelon of management was interested, recalled Cailliau, Berners-Lee’s collaborator, not in the problems of scientific communication, which they considered “no more than an interesting curiosity,” but rather in persuading the member countries that Europe needed “another billion-dollar atom smasher.”[16] Sendall knew how short-sighted his bosses were. “Neither hypertext nor networks were new ideas,” he would later exclaim. “But nobody had put them together to make a global hypertext system before.” “Ted Nelson had thought about it forty years ago,” he said, “but it was Tim Berners-Lee who went and did it!”[17]

Robert Cailliau held various administrative positions and by 1984 was head of one of the divisions of the CERN’s office of Management Information Systems. He had known Berners-Lee since 1980 and now liked his ideas about what would be possible using the NeXT computer. “Creating a [linked] page was as easy as making three simple keystrokes, ‘command-shift-n,’ which would create a fresh page with a link to the page you had just come from.”[18] In 1989, Mike Sendall, brought Cailliau together with Berners-Lee after discovering that the latter was working on an information system very similar to that which Cailliau, himself, now as a new member of the Electronics & Computing for Physics division, was attempting to develop using Hypercard. “I dropped my proposal,” he recalled, “because Tim’s was a lot more detailed and further ahead than mine, and he already had some code running.”[19]

Sendall, acting on his own, asked Tim and Cailliau – who both Sendall and Berners-Lee later called the “best man at the marriage of hypertext and the Internet” – to submit a proposal for the released time and other resources they would need to create the new system.[20] Cailliau “assigned himself the task of taking Tim’s evolving project and turning it into a reliable service.” He became “the evangelist. He fought for resources; set up the first ever welcome page for CERN; and made sure that when the Web was offered as a service for physicists, it was reliable and well run.”[21] As Berners-Lee recalled, “A CERN veteran since 1973, Cailliau lobbied among his wide network of friends throughout the organization. He looked for student helpers, money, machines, and office space.”[22]

Tim, for his part, was free to develop the software. It was Robert who knew how to frame proposals, to tell the administrators “what they stood to gain” and “what it would cost them.” So with Tim looking over his shoulder, Robert drafted a document entitled: “The World Wide Web: Proposal for a HyperText Project.” It called for six months, five staff members including themselves, and 80,000 Swiss francs. “For that, CERN would get a single information management system giving access to all the computer-stored information at the laboratory through a single easy-to-use interface.”[23] Instead of the full staff being proposed, management – considering this just another tool like e-mail and Usenet news – cut the budget to just two full-time and two part-time staff. Still, the visionaries, Tim and Robert, now had the “breathing space” to bring Tim’s dream to fruition.[24]

Tim and Robert thus in 1990 undertook to provide a means whereby others could access information and at the same time encourage still others to make information available. Berners-Lee’s emphasis was “on building a sort of tool-kit that would allow others to build [browsers]” for popular computer systems such as the X-Window, the Macintosh, and the PC rather than on developing the browsers themselves. He then persuaded his superiors to let him release the tool-kits for free. The CERN server,, went public just before Christmas, 1990. The idea was to “give people access to information they couldn’t live without.”[25]   Within a year there were a dozen servers for the Web at physics labs around the world. But the first two Web surfers, to use the ocean beach analogy, were Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau using the NeXT system. Their offices were now in separate buildings, but each of them had a NeXT, so they were able to stay in touch as they managed their project.[26]

This was a start, but much remained to be done. In the months that followed, their first employee, Nicola Pellow, wrote and released on-line a simple line-mode (using commands typed on the keyboard) browser that would enable anyone with a Telnet (computers connected via telephone wires) connection to gain access to the CERN archives, “the Web’s first tentative step onto the world stage.”[27] Pellow’s browser and a gateway – a program that transfers messages from one network to another – that Berners-Lee and a colleague wrote gave the physicists, wherever they were, information such as “program write-ups and explanations of the often-cryptic error messages.”[28] Another employee, Jean-Francois Groff wrote an interface allowing users easy access to the help system, another popular source of information at CERN, on Digital Electric Corporation [DEC] VAX computers.

Berners-Lee and Cailliau were still far from realizing Tim’s dream. But in the next three years the approach they used – including the way they framed the problem and elicited support from both the code-writing, “hacker,” community and the individuals and institutions that stood to gain from easy access to large quantities of information – brought the final result. In the end, it was Silicon Valley entrepreneur Jim Clark, founder of Silicon Graphics Corporation who – by bringing a group of university computer science graduate-student hackers into the world of commerce and business – would cause the Web to both take off and become a source of riches. It would be the beginning of the Web’s wide-spread dissemination and what within six years would be known as the “” stock-market boom.

The CERN team was aware that someone – perhaps a lot of people – would become wealthy. They, however, had no personal interest in such an outcome. Indeed, in 1992, Berners-Lee and Cailliau, still strapped for the resources necessary to complete their project, briefly considered setting up a company called Websoft to supplement the funds they were getting from CERN. Berners-Lee, however, quickly put the idea to rest. Such a step, he said, could stand in the way of the development of a “free and open standard.” And without such a standard he felt his dream would die. The effort to make money, he believed, would have caused the Web to become “stuck in a world in which you needed ten different pieces of software to browse instead of a single browser.” As Berners-Lee put it, “I was still looking after it, because it was my baby. I’m not sure anybody else had that much attachment to it to actually hold the technology together.”[29]

Berners-Lee’s outlook, although in hindsight as common sense, stemmed also from his admiration for one of the Internet’s cultural icons, Richard Stallman, who with his long-hair and bushy beard, visited CERN about this time. Stallman was convinced that software should be free. Proprietary software, he said, had destroyed the atmosphere of cooperation and innovation that had brought about the digital age. He and his followers, accordingly, had set about writing and distributing free an operating system to replace the UNIX system on large computers. UNIX had originated in 1969 as a simple, reliable, free, and “easily transportable” means by which a single user might operate a DEC (Digital Electric Corporation) mini-computer and, by 1990, was ubiquitous throughout the academic and corporate world. Unfortunately, in Stallman’s view, it had been altered and made proprietary by companies such as Sun Microsystems.[30] Stallman called his replacement system GNU, which meant “GNU’s not Unix,” as a free operating system that was just as good. He founded the Free Software Foundation to grant a GNU General Public License – meaning a license that bound its holders not to exploit it commercially. Linus Torvalds, a student at Helsinki University, became the most famous member of the free software movement when, at about the same time, he wrote the now-widely-used Linux operating system and also made it available free.[31]

Berners-Lee had seen that GNU software outperformed much of what was commercially available.[32] Stallman, as it turned out, by giving it away, had harnessed the power of the hackers to both write and improve. In similar fashion, Berners-Lee decided to work with Groff to make available and thus improve the core Web software. Cailliau later described how they “broke down the code into individual bricks that could be bundled together into a software library for others to use as the foundations of Web browsers and severs. They called it “libwww” and made it available, also for free, by downloading it from the CERN public library on August 6, 1991.[33] The Web, Berners-Lee told everyone, should promote the free exchange of information. He asked CERN management to make it available under the GNU General Public License. Deciding that any price they could charge would not be worth the paperwork. Management agreed; and Tim announced its availability to the world by posting it to news groups and a new mailing list that Groff had set up called[34]

These initial efforts, while essential to what happened later, used a browser/editor (a program that allowed one to both view and create pages) that was a number of steps removed from what computer users would take for granted by 2007. The most popular computer systems at the time were the PC (the IBM-style personal computer), MacIntosh (the Apple advanced personal computer) and X-Windows (the basis for Windows-like user interfaces on the Unix operating system developed by Bell Laboratories in 1969 that had become the standard for industrial and government computing networks). Berners-Lee’s invention could be used on a NeXT computer but not a PC, a MacIntosh, or an X-Windows computer. It could transmit words, but not pictures, color, video, or music. Finally, the user had to use keys to move the cursor, not a mouse.   Berners-Lee’s appeal reached its target audience, and by the end of 1991 X-browsers were being developed around the world to provide access to the Web.[35] The geeks had responded as Tim had hoped.

By May, 1992 Tim was pleased with the technical progress. He wrote a review calling the browser: “Very intuitive and straightforward,” with many extra features; and, in 1993, Sun Microsystems, after seeing what they could do, introduced Java language with applets.[36]

Paul Kunz was the computer scientist at the Stanford Linear Accelerator (SLAC) charged with finding ways physicists from around the world could gain access to SLAC’s scientific preprint database, by the late 1980s the most valuable source published papers in the world of particle physics. Kunz had used BITNET – a means by which individuals by signing into the system and using the proper written commands could communicate by electronic mail via computers linked by subscriber telephone lines anywhere in the world – until he obtained a NeXT computer in 1989. He then moved to the Internet.

He happened to be in Berners-Lee’s office at CERN in the late summer of 1991 when Tim showed him what he could do with the Web interface on his NeXT. The Web’s inventor, by punching some keys, quickly accessed the help system on the IBM mainframe computer at CERN. Kunz, who had invented a system to retrieve information from the SLAC library, now wondered out loud if he could make it work across the Atlantic. Tim responded immediately, putting his fingers back on the keyboard. He thereupon sent a copy of his browser software to Paul’s NeXT machine at Stanford and viewed a remote display of that screen on his own computer at CERN. The coded information had moved in packets from Switzerland to California and back in the speed of light—186,000 miles per second. On December 12, 1991 http://slacvm.slac. thus became the first Web server in the United States.[37]

Three days later, Tim and Robert demonstrated the Web at the Hypertext ’91 conference in San Antonio, Texas. They had submitted a paper about their new system, but it had been rejected; so they resorted to demonstrating the Web in a poster session. The crowd was not impressed. As Cailliau put it, “The Web was just too simple for the academics at Hypertext ’91.” One of the delegates two years later exclaimed that the conference program committee must have felt “like the guys who rejected the Beatles!”[38]

With little support at CERN and hardly any recognition elsewhere, Tim and Robert pressed on. By the end of 1992, as a result of a campaign in which Tim toured academic conferences in the United States and Cailliau and Groff attended them in Europe, they had made headway. Robert recalled a high point at the Computing and High Energy Physics conference in Annecy, France, when they distributed their first Web T-shirts featuring the first particle physics websites such as CERN, SLAC, and so forth. One of the closing speakers remarked that “if there is one thing everyone should carry away from the conference, it is the World Wide Web.” He urged everyone to install it.[39]

But by the end of 1992 even more encouraging activity had occurred. Tony Johnson, a colleague of Paul Kunz at SLAC, created and distributed MidasWWW, “the first browser to make use of plug-ins: programs that literally could be plugged into a browser for dealing with formats that the browser couldn’t understand on its own.” He then arranged a plug-in for the program known as Ghostscript, which allowed physicists who logged into the SPIRES pre-print database at SLAC to display the whole pre-print inside the browser. This feature and the interactive Web access it helped to facilitate by 1999 made SPIRES the world’s foremost electronic database for physics researchers and “sold the Web to the particle physics community.”[40] Meanwhile, Robert traveled to the University of Leeds, and it was through his influence that this university became the first in the United Kingdom to have “an officially sanctioned Web presence.”[41]   That same year the governing bodies of the Internet assigned port number 80 to the World Wide Web URL. This was the first official recognition. Cailliau thought it was time to celebrate. Berners-Lee, for his part, took it in stride, as though he had expected it all along.[42]

By the end of 1992, the University of Kansas had released Lynx, a system that allowed the direction keys on the computer to position the cursor on the screen, then to use the carriage return as a means of clicking (a precursor to the mouse), for its campus-wide information system. A programmer named Lou Montulli had written the code for the university’s campus information system using a version of hypertext different from HTTP and HTML and introduced it to the campus in July. But in October one of Montulli’s colleagues attended a conference and learned that Berners-Lee’s libwww was available for free and suggested that Montulli add it to Lynx. Within one week Lynx had abandoned its earlier version, accepted HTTP and HTML and become a Web browser. A million websites were in existence by the end of 1992, with about fifty Web servers.[43]

By this time the commercial potential of the Web was becoming evident. Pei Wei at O’Reilly and Associates was improving Viola. These and other developments meant that 1993 was the year the Web started to be noticed. Nicola Pella was working with Cailliau to write a browser for the MacIntosh. Two other important servers also had come on line. One was at the Cornell Law School, where the librarian, Tom Bruce, began putting legal documents on the Web. He had promoted the Cornell server and realized that lawyers tended to use personal computers, so he wrote a PC browser known as Cello. Released on June 8, 1993, users began downloading it at the rate of 500 copies a day.[44]

But the truly momentous development occurred at the National Center for Supercomputer Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana in 1994. Discovering that NCSA had released the Mosaic browser, created by Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina, for “X” (part of the Unix operating system) in January. In the words of Jim Clark, who would hire this team for his new company, Netscape, Mosaic by “adding graphics and tools to turn a text-only medium into a kind of vid populi, thus made the Web simple, intuitive and entertaining.”[45] Tim added Mosaic to his browser for people to download and to the Viola browser (which also had a graphical interface) on Other releases in the summer (and officially to the world in November) made the Web accessible to anyone using a Macintosh or a PC with Microsoft Windows and with its ease of installation, clean interface, ability to display color and moving images on the page as the text, in the words, of Cailliau, “it took off like a rocket . . . driving the Web’s expansion at the breathtaking rate of 341,634 per cent in 1994.”[46] The World Wide Web was revolutionizing the way the world communicates, creates, does business, and to some extent, governs itself. Tim Berners-Lee’s dream of a “single, global information space” did not yet exist but by 2010 with over 1.8 billion Internet users, 120 million active Websites, and one trillion indexed Web pages, with the help of companies such as Yahoo and Google and the telecommunication industry something like it seemed to be coming.[47]

Cailliau, meanwhile, continued his work as Web evangelist. He organized the first international World Wide Web developers’ conference at CERN in 1994, was founder and first chair of the International World Wide Web Conference series held for Web developers annually in a different countries around the globe since then, assisted with the move of the Web standards setting and development activity from CERN to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1995, and together with Tim that year, for his work in creating the World Wide Web, received the Software System Award of the Association of Computing Machinery, the premier professional organization for computer science. In 2004, King Albert II of Belgium conferred on him the award of commander in the order of King Leopold. By 2009, he had received honorary doctorates from Southern Cross, Ghent, and, with Tim Berners-Lee, from the University of Liege.[48]


[1] Tim Berners-Lee. Weaving the Web: the Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of The World Wide Web. New York: HarperBusiness, 2000. 4.

[2] www faq’s: “How many web sites are there?, 6-4-07;;

[3]James Gillies and Robert Cailliau. How the Web was Born: The Story of the World Wide Web. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. 151

[4] Berners-Lee, 21.

[5] Berners-Lee, 3.

[6] Berners-Lee, 9.

[7] Berners-Lee, 10.

[8] Berners-Lee, 4.

[9]Berners-Lee, 16.

[10]Berners-Lee, 15.

[11] Berners-Lee, 15.

[12]Berners-Lee, 17.

[13] Berners-Lee, 23.

[14] Berners-Lee, 23.

[15] Berners-Lee, 20.

[16] Gillies and Cailliau, 200.

[17] Gillies and Cailliau, 201.

[18] Gillies and Cailliau, 193.

[19]Gillies and Cailliau, 197-199; Berners-Lee, 26;

[20] Gillies and Cailliau, 196.

[21] Gillies and Cailliau, 198.

[22]Berners-Lee, 26.

[23] Gillies and Cailliau, 199.

[24] Gillies and Cailliau, 201.

[25] Gillies and Cailliau, 204.

[26] Gillies and Cailliau, 202-203.

[27]Gillies and Cailliau, 203.

[28]Gillies and Cailliau, 204.

[29]Gillies and Cailliau, 234.

[30] Martin Campbell-Kelly. From Airline Reservations to Sonic the Hedgehog: A History of the Software Industry. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004, 144.

[31] Gillies and Cailliau, 210.

[32] Gillies and Cailliau, 209.

[33]Gillies and Cailliau, 209.

[34] Gillies and Cailliau, 210.

[35] Gillies and Cailliau, 202, 208, 210.

[36]Gillies and Cailliau, 215, 217.

[37]Gillies and Cailliau, 219.

[38] Gillies and Cailliau, 219.

[39]Gillies and Cailliau, 223.

[40] Gillies and Cailliau, 226.

[41] Gillies and Cailliau, 229.

[42] Gillies and Cailliau, 230.

[43]Gillies and Cailliau, 232.

[44] Gillies and Cailliau, 234.

[45] Jim Clark. Netscape Time: The Making of the Billion Dollar Start-up That Took on Microsoft. New York: St. Martin Griffin, 1999, 38.

[46] Gillies and Cailliau, 236, 241.



©2011 William B. Pickett. All Rights Reserved.