One of My Heroes

Most of you probably never heard of Tim Berners-Lee. Who is he? Well if it wasn't for him you would probably not be reading this right now. He is a graduate of Oxford University and 25 years ago he wrote a modest hack that would flow the civilization-altering, millionaire-spawning, information suckhole known as the World Wide Web.

Unlike so many of the inventions that have moved the world, this one truly was the work of one man. Thomas Edison got credit for the light bulb, but he had dozens of people in his lab working on it. William Shockley may have fathered the transistor, but two of his research scientists actually built it. And if there ever was a thing that was made by committee, the Internet - with its protocols and packet switching - is it. But the World Wide Web is Berners-Lee's alone. He designed it. He loosed it on the world. And he more than anyone else has fought to keep it open, nonproprietary and free.

It started, of all places, in the Swiss Alps. The year was 1980. Berners-Lee, doing a six-month stint as a software engineer at CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, in Geneva, was noodling around with a way to organize his far-flung notes. He had always been interested in programs that dealt with information in a "brain-like way" but that could improve upon that occasionally memory-constrained organ. So he devised a piece of software that could, as he put it, keep "track of all the random associations one comes across in real life and brains are supposed to be so good at remembering but sometimes mine wouldn't.

In 1991, due to his work, the World Wide Web debuted, instantly bringing order and clarity to the chaos that was cyberspace. From that moment on, the Web and the Internet grew as one, often at exponential rates. Within five years, the number of Internet users jumped from 600,000 to 40 million. At one point, it was doubling every 53 days. It's hard to overstate the impact of the global system he created. He took a powerful communications system that only the elite could use and turned it into a mass medium. "If this were a traditional science,

Raised in London in the 1960s, Berners-Lee was the quintessential child of the computer age. His parents met while working on the Ferranti Mark I, the first computer sold commercially. They taught him to think unconventionally; he'd play games over the breakfast table with imaginary numbers (what's the square root of minus 4?). He made pretend computers out of cardboard boxes and five-hole paper tape and fell in love with electronics. Later, at Oxford, he built his own working electronic computer out of spare parts and a TV set. He also studied physics, which he thought would be a lovely compromise between math and electronic.

He Never Took Financial Advantage of His Invention

You'd think he would have at least gotten rich; he had plenty of opportunities. But at every juncture, Berners-Lee chose the nonprofit road, both for himself and his creation. He could easily have been richer than Bill Gates for giving us what he did. I get irritated when I look at Amazon.com when they patented one-click technology and made millions of dollars on a piece of nonsense. Berners-Lee, by contrast, headed off in 1994 to an administrative and academic life at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. From a sparse office at M.I.T., he directs the W3 Consortium, the standard-setting body that helps Netscape, Microsoft and anyone else agree on openly published protocols rather than hold one another back with proprietary technology. The rest of the world may be trying to cash in on the Web's phenomenal growth, but Berners-Lee is content to labor quietly in the background, ensuring that all of us can continue.

Fortunately, yesterday he received a $1.2-million cash prize for creating the World Wide Web. He says he would never have succeeded if he had charged money for his inventions.

USA Today June 16, 2004

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