Imagine a Bigger Better World: An Innovative Leap by Sir Tim Berners-Lee

Sir Tim Berners-Lee is known as the inventor of the World Wide Web. He created its three fundamental components: the formatting language HTML, the address system URL, and the HTTP system for linking sites. He was born in 1955 and grew up in London. As a schoolboy he was an avid trainspotter. He learnt about electronics from tinkering with a model railway. He gained a first-class honours degree in physics at Oxford University and became a software engineer.

In 1980, while working at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory in Geneva, he first described the concept of a global information system based on the idea of ‘hypertext’. This would allow researchers anywhere to share information. He also built a prototype called ‘Enquire’.

In 1989 Berners-Lee published a paper called ‘Information Management: A Proposal’ in which he suggested combining hypertext with the Internet, to create a system for sharing and distributing information not just within a company, but globally. He named it the World Wide Web.

Before his flash of inspiration, internet information transfer protocols had been around for many years but the internet remained just a platform for computer geeks.

He said, “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, multi-font 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.”

He created the first web browser and editor. The world’s first website, http://info.cern.ch, was launched in 1991. It explained the World Wide Web concept and freely shared information on hypertext, technical details for creating webpages and an explanation on how to search the Web for information.

In 1994, Berners-Lee founded the World Wide Web Consortium at the Laboratory of Computer Science (LCS) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. He has served as director of the consortium since then. He also works as a senior research scientist at LCS which has now become the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

In 2004, Berners-Lee was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his pioneering work. He is currently a Professor of Computer Science at the University of Oxford.

In a list of 80 cultural moments that shaped the world, chosen by a panel of 25 eminent experts, the invention of the World Wide Web was ranked number one. It stated, “The fastest growing communications medium of all time, the internet has changed the shape of modern life forever. We can connect with each other instantly, all over the world”.

Insights for Innovators

Imagine a bigger better world. Berners-Lee conceived the idea of a massive documentation system that any researcher anywhere in the world could easily access. He was a computer geek who was frustrated at how difficult it was to search for and find information but unlike other geeks he could imagine a solution at a much higher level.
Build a platform for others. He was not an entrepreneur trying to make a fortune. He put together something for others to build on.

Combine the tools. It is the combination of a number of elements including the hypertext concept with the web browser, URL system and HTTP which made the Web such a transformation in human communication. He had the vision and the know-how to put together the basic tools and make them freely available.

About the author

Paul Sloane is the author of The Leader’s Guide to Lateral Thinking Skills and The Innovative Leader. He writes, talks and runs workshops on lateral thinking, creativity and the leadership of innovation. Find more information at destination-innovation.com.

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