World wide web

The two silent weavers of a web without a spider

Tim Berners-Lee (London, June 8, 1955)
Robert Cailliau (Tongeren, January 26, 1947)

One day in May 1990, two men were drinking a beer on a terrace of their institute in Geneva. One was a Brit, Tim Berners-Lee; the other a Belgian, a Fleming with the French-sounding name Robert Cailliau.

They both worked at the CERN, the European center for particle physics on the French-Swiss border. Separately, they had devised a new kind of database. The Brit had seen the bank very broadly from the start and the Belgian had given him his full support.

Now they were all set to get started with a global database that would be accessible to everyone in the world via the internet. Few understood what they meant, and those who understood thought it was nonsense. Either way, they still had to come up with a name for their invention.

At first they thought of 'Mine of Information', abbreviated MOI, 'me', 'I' in French. They thought that was a bit too pretentious. As good scientists, they were too modest for that. The Information Mine, abbreviated to TIM?

But that was also Berners-Lee's first name, and there were just the two of them. The system was going to be global – world wide – sort of a web. After a few more beers they ended up at 'world wide web'. They both thought that was wonderful.

Although you could barely pronounce those three W's in French (double vee, double vee, double vee) or in English (double joe, double joe, double joe). Robert

Cailliau thought this was funny, in Dutch those three w's ran like a piece of cake. And so the World Wide Web was born in Geneva twenty years ago. Admittedly without much commotion, because in Europe they did not lose their idea of the paving stones.

Imagine a place on the globe where 6500 scientists are researching elementary particles, electrons, neutrinos and quarks: 3000 of them are permanently employed here in Geneva; more than 3000 others come from 500 universities from 80 countries and stay there only temporarily, they change all the time.

We are somewhere in the eighties. Everyone has different computers that are not compatible; everyone works with different software. Everyone is always looking for the work of others, or for a study of his own that he has lost.

Those who have returned to their university remain curious about the evolution of research on their theme. A Babel computer confusion, that was the Cern.

Robert Cailliau had been working in Geneva since 1974 to 'improve data acquisition techniques' and 'process control'.

In another department, minutes from his office, worked British physicist Tim Berners-Lee, who had worked intermittently as a software consultant at CERN since 1980.

Separately, they came up with the idea of working with hypertext, a system for linking texts with key words. The system had been around for years, but had only been applied to local computers, with no way out.

The Internet, a network of computers that can talk to each other via a protocol (a set of agreements), from person to person, has also existed for decades.

If you now put that linking system of texts via computers in the world, and made it accessible from the internet, then you definitely had a world wide web. That was the principle.

Does this web now have one or two inventors? BernersLee in his book The World of the World Wide Web: 'Robert Cailliau was the master of ceremonies at the marriage of hypertext and the Internet. Robert's real gift was his enthusiasm, translated into a genius way of spreading the gospel.

When I started writing the program for the web, Robert devoted his energy to making the www project at CERN succeed. He rewrote the old proposal in such a way that he thought it would have more effect.

He was a veteran of the CERN and he lobbied his extensive network of friends in the organization. He looked for students who could help, for money, computers and office space.'

Cailliau: 'A friend put us in touch, I dropped my design and we started working on Tim's together. As partners and not as competitors. That was our strength. Tim therefore deserves to be considered the sole inventor.

See Tim as the father and me as the godfather.' Or: 'Tim was more technical, he wrote the codes. And he has since made the development of the web his life's work. I helped Tim with that, got more involved with management.

Among other things, by working hard to ensure that the worldwide web is not lost to Europe. As a result, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) – which sets the standards for the web – has been able to remain reasonably independent.'

Vague but exciting

The first proposal was made in March 1989. It is on display in the CERN museum. At the top, the chef of Berners-Lee has written: 'vague but exciting.' That was all that a creative mind needed for encouragement.

The innovative software that Tim Berners-Lee wrote between October and December 1990 includes: HTTP (hypertext transfer protocol), URL (universal resource locator), and HTML (hypertext markup language). HTTP allows you to click on a link to be taken to that document on a web page.

URL is the address for that document or page. HTML allows you to put links in documents that connect them.

Cailliau: 'Think of it as an international phone number. The 00 is equal to http. The 31 of the Netherlands or 32 of Belgium can be compared with the name of the server.

And the rest must be interpreted locally: simply genius.' The first, very modest goal was to make CERN's internal phone book available to everyone.
To make all this work, Berners-Lee built the first web browser, the first web server and later, on August 6, 1991, also the first website: explaining what the www was and how to use it.

On Christmas Day 1990, Berners-Lee and Cailliau communicated for the first time on their NeXT computers – also on display in the Cern Museum – via the Internet with the address:

Berners-Lee: 'I wasn't very good at it at the time because my wife and I were expecting our first child.'

Expand and curb

For months, Cailliau worked with Cern's legal department on a document stating that Cern gave the entire project to the public. That was an effort to ensure that no one else could walk with it.
Cailliau: "Making sure that the Cern leadership approved that the base code was made public, put out into the world for free, that was really my credit."

Then the two computer experts had to let the whole world know that their web existed. An activity that did not fall within the European mission of CERN. Their chiefs let the two computer experts work. It was difficult to explain what the web actually was.

Tim Berners-Lee: 'It's just a space, there's nothing behind it. There is no computer that controls the Web, no separate network on which the protocols run, no organization that runs the Web. The web is not something physical that resides in a particular place.

It is a space in which information can be exchanged. And in principle the capacity is unlimited.' Not everyone could follow.

Some said: 'Nice, but so what?' Berners-Lee and Cailliau wanted to create enthusiasm in Europe to begin with, but the European computer industry barely existed.

As they refined their programs based on the reactions of the first users, American universities started using the system internally.

In 1993 the American former student Marc Andreessen suddenly appeared with the commercial program Mosaic, the first commercial 'browser', a browsing program, later Netscape. And then Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau panicked.

Were they now to watch as their web fell into merchant hands despite all efforts?

Together they then worked on the W3C, the consortium that ensures that the standards for compatibility are respected. Cailliau: 'The real innovative guys in the computer world don't do it for the money. Tim certainly isn't.

Most of the people I've seen who have actually accomplished something, they're not motivated by money. The men who have made the big bucks haven't produced a single innovative idea. I won't name them.'
Tim Berners-Lee left in 1994 for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology near Boston, to continue working on the web from there. From Geneva, within an organization that had to study elementary particles, this had become impossible.

Robert Cailliau still can't bear it today that the Americans ran away with everything. He doesn't care that others have made a lot of money with it.

But the fact that Europe has remained a kind of American colony in the computer field – a third world country, he says – bothers him. Because the brains that invented the web were in Europe after all.

Cailliau was born in Tongeren in Belgium-Limburg in 1947.

His father was director of direct taxation, his grandfather – from Vlamertinge in West Flanders – director of customs and excise duties. 'The Cailliaus have been Dutch-speaking for four hundred years,' he says at every opportunity.

He studied engineering at the State University of Ghent and ended up for a short study at the CERN in Geneva. In 1974 he got a permanent job there.

As co-inventor of the world wide web, he is not enthusiastic about the multimedia direction that his web is taking today. 'They don't offer my life any extra quality,' he says. 'All those images, you have to use them like salt, they are indispensable, but you have to use them sparingly.

A person learns through abstraction. Science and technology depend entirely on it. If you are now only bombarded by images, you no longer have the time or inclination to work on abstraction, and so you learn nothing more.

I recently heard on a French TV channel that a working person goes home in the evening, tired but satisfied watching the stream of images on TV and then gets into bed: his brainpan completely wiped clean by images. That's what I'm talking about. '
He refuses to buy a mobile phone: 'A thing like that only penetrates your life undesirably. What is the added value then? That is the overriding question that you must teach children to ask: what is the added value? '
In 2007 he retired from Cern 'for personal reasons'. Was he tired of it?

Cailliau: 'In our world you either sell your soul to Microsoft, or you fight against it all your life. I didn't really feel like doing either. '

He also maintains a generous website ( where you can see what he thinks about religion; or about the world economy; how he managed to lose ten kilograms; calls for an ecological housing project; where you learn that he sees himself politically as a Neureopean and that he loves building with Lego bricks.

Hundreds and one subjects are discussed, sometimes with humor and a bit of self-mockery. But you can also find out on his site that he is a synesthesist. He is someone whose brain automatically connects specific colors to specific letters. For example, the letter w is green.

The Web? Three times green.

Tim Berners-Lee

Cailliau once said of Tim Berners-Lee, 'You know the web is so disorganized because it's a copy of Tim's brain. Tim speaks in hypertext.

He never finishes his sentences and switches to something else halfway through.' Tim Berners-Lee is one of the first second-generation computer specialists. Both his father (Conway Berners-Lee) and his mother were mathematicians and computer experts.

His mother worked from 1951 in Manchester as a programmer on the famous Ferranti Mark I computer, the first commercial computer in the world. A gigantic machine for which none other than Alan Turing, the spiritual father of all computers, wrote the manual.

Or how an invisible thread runs from the great theorist to the world wide web.

As a boy, Tim played with cardboard boxes representing computers.

He vividly remembers that math problems were discussed at his home at the table: 'A square root was easier to discuss than the neighbors around the corner.' And how he saw the lights in his parents' eyes, the sparkles he also saw in the eyes of his math teacher.

He enjoyed reading science fiction and was carried away by Arthur C. Clarke's 1964 story Dial F for Frankenstein, in which the world's telephone network becomes independent and begins to think for itself. Tim grew up in London.

Everything British in the 1960s was hot, from the Beatles to Twiggy. But Tim was too young for it.

He still raves today when he thinks about how transistors became dirt cheap during his high school, so you could buy them for a bargain in the shop around the corner.

He studied physics and computer science at Oxford, where he welded together his first computer in the early 1970s using an early microprocessor and an old television.

From 1976 he worked as a computer expert, as a software consultant, for several companies until he ended up with a scholarship at Cern in 1984 and afterwards joined.

He has answered all the classic questions he receives from journalists on his site ( Anyone who asks a standard question will therefore immediately receive a reference to his site.

Asking about the big money that others have made with his web also irritates him: 'If earning a lot of money is your starting point, then your choices in life are rather limited.' Or: 'The terrible notion that a person's worth depends on how important and financially successful he is is maddening to me.

That suggests contempt for the researchers who devote themselves to further developing science and technology.'

Berners-Lee: 'We deliberately didn't patent the www and we insisted that the idea be distributed free of charge, precisely so that as many people as possible would use the web.

It took me and Robert Cailliau 18 months to convince the CERN board not to charge royalties for the use of the web. If we hadn't succeeded, the web would never have been what it means now.'

Berners-Lee has always remained very humble. 'To the point of getting bored', critics say.

He also likes to refer – 'perpetually' – to all those who have helped him. "I think I was very lucky," he says. "See me as an ordinary person who was in the right place at the right time." He is undoubtedly the most acclaimed scientist of recent years.

Between 1995 and 2010 he was awarded sixty times. With twelve honorary degrees, for example, or the Finnish Millennium Prize of one million euros and by the British Queen with the title of Knight Commander, the second highest rank in the Order of the British Empire.

From the United States, Berners-Lee has been working intensively for many years on the elaboration of his 'semantic web', a deepening of the existing web.

By adding meanings – relationships – to data, by putting them in a field of meanings, the machines in the future will be able to search much smarter than with the web now. Then they can, as it were, 'understand' what the user means.

When asked 'I want to fly to Paris next weekend. What flights are there left?' the computer no longer searches for stupid keywords, but makes intelligent connections itself. "But that idea is hard to explain," he says. "Sometimes I feel like I was in 1989 again."

As a boy, Tim Berners-Lee was fascinated by the idea that a piece of information is determined by what it is linked to. Together with his father, he would muse about a computer that could also make connections intuitively, just as the human brain can freely associate.

Undoubtedly, in addition to the right place (the CERN) and the right time (1989), the creation of the world wide web also required the right person.

(See also: computer)