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20 years ago, the World Wide Web was born

20 years ago, the World Wide Web was born –

By Elise Ackerman

Mercury News
Posted: 03/12/2009 01:24:59 PM PDT

It all began 20 years ago today with a frustrated 29-year-old programmer who had a passion for order.

Tim Berners-Lee, now famous as the founder of the World Wide Web, was working as an obscure consultant at Cern, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, in the suburbs of Geneva. Berners-Lee loved the laboratory. It was full of stimulating projects and creative people, but his work, and the work of his colleagues, was stymied by the lack of institutional knowledge.

So Berners-Lee proposed adding “hypertext” to the Cern network, basically embedding software in documents that would point to other related documents. And thus was born the Web, a global communications network that has shaken up industries, created enormous wealth and transformed the way ordinary people live their lives.

“When two years is a typical length of stay, information is constantly being lost,” Berners-Lee wrote in his paper proposing a new system for information management. “The technical details of past projects are sometimes lost forever, or only recovered after a detective investigation in an emergency.”

Today, Cern will celebrate the 20th anniversary of Berners-Lee’s proposal in its trademark wooden sphere called “the globe,” which it touts as a symbol of the Earth’s future. In Silicon Valley, where there is less appetite for pomp, the celebration will take the form of hundreds of thousands of workers using the Web to build the future.

En route
to Cern, Berners-Lee declined a request for an interview.

What lies ahead? “The only thing that you can predict about the Internet is that there are going to be surprising applications that come along that you did not predict,” said Len Kleinrock, a professor of computer science at UCLA who developed the mathematical theory of packet switching, the technology that drives the Internet, while he was a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the early 1960s.

Like other fathers of the Internet, Kleinrock was stunned by the power of Berners-Lee’s idea. “This was a fantastic application,” Kleinrock recalls thinking.

Still, it took a while for the word to spread. Berners-Lee wrote his software in 1990 and put up the first Web site in 1991.

“I was trying to tell people how — explain to people what it was going to do and what it was going to be like and why it was going to be interesting, and they’d look at me with blank stares,” Berners-Lee recalled in an interview in 2002.

Then in January 1993, Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina, students at the University of Illinois, released the first graphical browser for the Web. Berners-Lee forwarded a message announcing their software to some news groups, and soon technically inclined people all over the world were downloading the browser.

Craig Partridge, the chief scientist at BBN Technologies, the company that built the Internet in the late 1960s, recalls a colleague giving him his first tour of the Web later in 1993. Though there were only 200 Web sites, “it was clear that this was going to blow away competing information services,” he recalled. “Tim got it right.”

Right, but not perfect. All Web pages got names, called uniform resource locators, or URLs. It was like naming the books in the library by the shelves they were on.

“You can’t move books around; you can’t add new shelves,” said David Clark, a senior research scientist at MIT who has been leading the development of the Internet since the mid-1970s.

And neither the Internet nor the protocols that Berners-Lee added to it were built with security in mind.

“We trusted everybody, made it very easy to get access to the network and made it anonymous,” Kleinrock said. “The way we set it up was almost a perfect formula for the dark side.”

But that won’t stop its continued development, including plans to extend the network to outer space.

“You have to imagine, there is a whole lot more that can be done,” said David Smith, an analyst with Gartner.

Contact Elise Ackerman at or (408) 271-3774.