Our networked world: How the Web began at CERN

Ramya Ramalingam

“It’s not the amount of knowledge that makes a brain. It’s not even the distribution of knowledge. It is the interconnectedness.” – James Gleick (In his book The Information)

Here’s a puzzle for you. Can you name an invention that contains, within itself, its entire history? Not just its history from its birth, but the history preceding its birth and its genealogy? An invention that will let you travel back in time? I will leave you to think about that puzzle …, or perhaps, you can try to find the answer to the puzzle on the Internet. The WorldWide Web is very convenient, isn’t it? Can you imagine what life would be without the Web (or the Internet)? It seems like a necessity to many of us, but it is a relatively new invention. It was born in 1990 at CERN.

CERN is a European organization that was founded in 1954 with the aim of conducting nuclear research. Physicists and engineers at CERN study the fundamental structure of the universe. The CERN laboratory is located at the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva.

During the 1980s, a software consultant named Tim Berners-Lee was working at CERN. He had been hired to write an application that would help CERN keep track of its many scientists, projects as well as the data for the projects, all of which existed on the individual computers of the scientists. The idea was to help CERN scientists collaborate by keeping track of all relevant information by using the application. Berners-Lee not only had to manage the CERN scientists’ projects but also the work of hundreds of other scientists who sometimes visited CERN in order to conduct experiments. The difficult part was that all these thousands of scientists and researchers had their own computers which stored the data about their experiments as well as the reports about the research they were undertaking. Lee thought it would be simpler if the computers could talk to each other directly to swap or share information, in much the same way as people talk to each other.

So, in 1989, Lee submitted a proposal for a plan involving an open computer network to keep track of the research to the CERN management. While working on his original idea, Lee thought, instead of restricting this application to a network of computers within CERN, it would be even better if the visiting scientists could share their information with the CERN network from wherever they were located. Thus, the World Wide Web was born.

Tim Berners-Lee with the NeXT computer that he used to invent the World Wide Web.
Tim Berners-Lee with the NeXT computer that he used to invent the
World Wide Web.
Tim Berners-Lee, who at that point, was a software consultant at CERN, decided to take this further. He intended to make it possible for anyone to view information created across the whole world. So in the process of solving the one major problem at CERN, Tim Berners-Lee ended up creating what we now call the Web.

Lee created three very important parts of the Web: HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP), Universal Resource Locators (URL) and HTML (hypertext markup language).

The foundation on which Berners-Lee built his edifice, the World-Wide Web, is the concept of hypertext and hyperlink, which pre-date the invention of the Web. Hypertext and hyperlink are computerized analogues of a much older idea, the idea of a reference inside a book. The table-of-contents in this magazine is a simple example: the entries in this table tell the reader where they can find what information. The index at the end of a textbook is another example. A footnote is yet another example.

Hypertext is simply computer-readable text that contains computer-readable cross-references called hyperlinks. The fact that it is computer-readable means that a computer can do the job of navigation for you. You don’t need to manually flip the pages to a particular page to read a particular article you are interested in. You click the hyperlink and the computer transports you instantly to where you want to go.

Berners-Lee’s genius was in generalizing this idea and applying it to a collection of documents around the world, interlinking them in such a fashion that allowed readers to seamlessly and effortlessly navigate from one document to another.

HTML is the language in which these documents are written. URLs are the unique addresses used to include cross-references in this world. It is not sufficient to say “page 78”, as in the table-of-contents of a book. We need a standardized language that allows one document to reference a specific part of a specific document residing at a particular location (computer).

A browser is simply a program that understands this language (of HTML). It also understands hyperlinks (the URLs mentioned inside a HTML document). A hyperlink tells the browser where in the world it can find some desired document. But the browser needs a partner, a program running in the other computer (usually called a server) that can send a copy of the document that the browser requests. HTTP is the language that the browser and the server use to communicate with each other.

Tim Berners-Lee’s main aim in all this was to make the Internet a freer, user-compatible and social environment. He wanted people across the world to share information and interact with each other. A little over two years after he created the Web, it took its first steps to making his dream come true. Websites like Netscape and AOL came up and people became more aware of the choices that had been opened to them. In the 2000s, the Web really took off – sites like Wikipedia, YouTube and blog sites made it possible for ordinary people to share their views and be heard. Social media sites also became a big hit.

The best part about the Web is that anyone can mould it and use it for what they desire. Without sounding too clichéd, the Internet really is the birth of a global mind.

Acknowledgement: Dr. G Ramalingam (Principal Researcher, Microsoft Research)


The author is a student of National Public School, HSR Layout in Bangalore. Reading, writing, math and music are very important to her. She can be reached at ramalingam.ramya@gmail.com.

In Berners-Lee’s own words, “I just had to take the hypertext idea and connect it to the Transmission Control Protocol and domain name system ideas and – ta-da! – the World Wide Web … Creating the web was really an act of desperation, because the situation without it was very difficult when I was working at CERN later. Most of the technology involved in the web, like the hypertext, like the Internet, multifont text objects, had all been designed already. I just had to put them together. It was a step of generalising, going to a higher level of abstraction, thinking about all the documentation systems out there as being possibly part of a larger imaginary documentation system.”

The difference between Berners-Lee and the other IT whiz kids like Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page is that Berners-Lee did not capitalize on his invention. Berners-Lee made his idea available freely, with no patent and no royalties due. The World Wide Web Consortium decided that its standards should be based on royalty-free technology, so that they could easily be adopted by anyone. Berners-Lee is one of the pioneer voices in favour of Net Neutrality, and has expressed the view that ISPs should supply “connectivity with no strings attached”, and should neither control nor monitor customers’ browsing activities without their expressed consent.


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