A Short History of the Invention of the World Wide Web

Sir Tim Berners-Lee

In the last few weeks there has been coverage in the media of the 30th birthday of the World Wide Web, one of the most influential inventions of the twentieth century.  

The invention and deployment of the infrastructure to support the Web involved many people including some living in Berkshire and the Lambourn Valley.  This article has been contributed by Alistair Mills, who worked at CERN in Geneva for five years in the building where Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the web.  

Here he tells the story …

Most people know that there is something called the World Wide Web, and something called the Internet, but what is the difference?  In short, the Web is a service, and the Internet is hardware.  Let me elaborate with an analogy.  Suppose you wish to establish a bus service from Lambourn to London.  That would not seem like a big project provided someone had already built the M4 and all the connecting roads.  In this analogy, the Web is the the bus service, and the Internet is the motorway.

Today, there are many services on the Internet.  The Web is the most used service, and email is next.  Many of the services which people use today, such as viewing films on television, are implemented using the Web.

Why did the web happen in Geneva in 1989?

The Web did not suddenly appear from nowhere.  It was built on work which had been going on for twenty years.  Here I identify three projects, one in the United States, one in France, and one in Europe; all three had a lot of influence on the invention of the Web.

In the United States, one of the government agencies is called the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, DARPA.  DARPA has carried out many large projects for defence, but it has also delivered many projects in computing and some led to many of the products which we all use today, such as Windows and Networking.  In the 1970s, DARPA had the task of connecting computers together into networks so that data could be exchanged, and shared, to ensure continuity in the event of a national emergency.  What emerged from this work were products which we now call Networking.

In France in the 1970s, France Telecom decided that it could no longer afford to create and distribute telephone directories.  The number of telephone subscribers had increased, and the directories were very expensive to print and distribute.  Once they were distributed, they were quickly out of date.  The solution was to create a system called Minitel which provided a small screen and a keyboard which connected via a telephone line to a central system which contained the telephone directory.  The system also provided pages of information on many other subjects such as bus timetables, opening hours of leisure facilities and so on.  You could even view and pay your taxes.  This system had an appearance rather like Teletext in the UK.  However, the information which Minitel displayed to the user was personalised.  Teletext could not do this.  Many telecoms companies in many countries were interested in Minitel, then decided not to deploy it as it was too expensive.  The French government however paid for every telephone subscriber in France to have a Minitel at home.  The Minitel service was started in 1978 and continued until 2012.

Science is a subject which everyone studies at school and many people go on to study science or engineering at University.  Some scientific research can be carried out with modest resources, but much science today takes place in large laboratories employing thousands of people.  The CERN laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland is one of the biggest laboratories in Europe.  It is the home of the Large Hadron Collider, Europe’s largest scientific research project.  Although the experimental facilities are in Geneva, most of the research happens in universities all over Europe.  The scientific mission of the work is to study atomic particles in order to understand the universe.  However, there are other reasons for this work including bringing people together from all over Europe to work on a single project which is too big for any one country to afford.  Another reason is to challenge what is possible with present technology.  One of the areas in which CERN has been prominent is the use of Information Technology.

So, what happened?

Thirty years ago, a young man called Tim Berners-Lee was working at CERN. At that time, it was common for researchers visiting CERN to arrive with data on two reels of magnetic tape in their baggage, then leave with ten reels.  On arrival they usually needed help to read the tapes, and before leaving, they needed help to write the tapes.  This took up a lot of Tim’s time.

At this time, CERN was well connected to the Internet, and Tim was familiar with Minitel, as he had one at home.  He had the idea to create a service to allow visiting scientists to send their data to CERN before travelling, and to collect their data from CERN on return.  No heavy baggage; good news for the baggage handlers in Geneva Airport!  He conceived of something which was quite general, and he called it the World Wide Web.


Sir Tim Berners-Lee
Sir Tim Berners-Lee

One of Tim’s colleagues, Bob, was working on the Web project.  Bob went to visit his mother in Sheffield.  While leaving the station in Sheffield, he was amazed to see  www.welcometosheffield.co.uk on the side of a bus.  At that point, he realised that the Web was going to be a success!

Within a few years, the Web had taken off.  For a short time, huge amounts of money were invested in businesses which claimed they could make profits from selling things on the Web.  This became known as the Internet bubble.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee is now one of the most famous engineers in the world.  He has received many awards, prizes and honours from all over the world, including the computing equivalent of a Nobel Prize, the Turing Award.  He is a Professor of Computer Science at the University of Oxford and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

In Building 513 at CERN, there is a plaque which records the pioneering work of Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

The text on the plaque reads as follows:

“In the offices of this corridor, all the fundamental technologies of the World Wide Web were developed.

“Started in 1990 from a proposal made by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989, the effort was first divided between an office in building 31 of the Computing and Network Division and one in building 2 of the Electronics and Computing for Physics Division.

“In 1991 the team came together in these offices, then belonging to ECP.  It was composed of two CERN staff members, Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau, aided by a number of Fellows, Technical Students, a Coopérant and Summer Students.

Web Plaque
Web Plaque

“At the end of 1994 Tim Berners-Lee left CERN to direct the WWW Consortium, a world-wide organization devoted to leading the Web to its full potential. The Consortium was founded with the help of CERN, the European Commission, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Institut National pour la Recherche en Informatique et en Automatique, and the Advanced Research Projects Agency.

“In 1995 Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau received the ACM Software System Award for the World Wide Web. In 2004, Tim Berners-Lee was awarded the first Millenium Technology Prize by the Finnish Technology Award Foundation.”

The ‘Cloud’

By the time that I started work at CERN in 2004, the web was a very well-established service, and CERN had moved on to new challenges.  CERN was preparing to start the operation of the Large Hadron Collider, and had decided to use Networking to do the data processing for the project in laboratories around Europe.  The technology to do this was in its infancy.  Today, we call it the Cloud.  The development and deployment of the technology was a challenging task.  I could tell you a lot about it but that, as they say, is another story.

Glossary of terms (in alphabetic order with reference to the links)

Cloud is a set of Internet services which provide computing resources and data storage. [03]

Internet, usually called the Net, is a global network for computing resources. [07]

Minitel was a service which provided access to information for customers of France Telecom. [09]

Networking is a collective noun for the infrastructure which allows computers to collaborate.

Teletext – was a data distribution service provided by Independent Television in the UK. [10]

World Wide Web, usually called the Web is an Internet service to allow data to be shared. [13]

Glossary of acronyms (in alphabetical order with references to the links)

ACM – Association for Computer Machinery.  [01]

CERN – Centre European for Research Nuclear. [02]

DARPA – Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency. [04]

LHC – Large Hadron Collider. [08]

WWW – World Wide Web. [13]

Links (in alphabetical order)

[01] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Association_for_Computing_Machinery

[02] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CERN

[03] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cloud

[04] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DARPA

[05] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Email

[06] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grid_computing

[07] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet

[08] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Large_Hadron_Collider

[09] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minitel

[10] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teletext

[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tim_Berners-Lee

[12] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Wide_Web

[13] https://flickr.com/photos/maxbraun/58054501

[14] https://welcometosheffield.co.uk


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