How Did The World Wide Web Start? | St. Louis Public Radio

How Did The World Wide Web Start?

Originally published on March 17, 2017 8:07 am

Part 1 of the TED Radio Hour episode Open Source World

About Sir Tim Berners-Lee's TED Talk

In the 1980s, scientists at a nuclear research lab in Switzerland were asking how they could share and collaborate on massive, complex projects. Tim Berners-Lee, then a contractor, answered by inventing the World Wide Web.

About Sir Tim Berners-Lee

Sir Tim Berners-Lee is the director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which maintains standards for the Web and continues to refine its design. He's the 3Com Founders Professor of Engineering at MIT, with a joint appointment in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). He is also a professor in the Electronics and Computer Science Department at the University of Southampton, UK.

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It's the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. So here's a story. It starts in 1989, and it's about how the Internet as we know it almost didn't exist.

TIM BERNERS-LEE: We didn't have, really, the words anyway. People didn't have click and web page.

RAZ: This is Tim Berners-Lee.

BERNERS-LEE: So I could show them clicking on a link, and they would say, big deal. I've got links on my online documentation. But they'd all lead within same CD-ROM. And you'd say well, imagine if that link could have gone anywhere in the world to any document anywhere. And then they'd say yeah - yeah, right - you know, yeah sure.

RAZ: Yeah, right.

BERNERS-LEE: So they couldn't imagine it.

RAZ: By the way, Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, which is different from...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The Internet, the INET, the Net - you've heard of it, but what is it?

RAZ: By 1989, the Internet had already been around for about two decades.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Think of the Internet as a network of communication networks.

RAZ: Email existed, but not much else. And there wasn't a universal way for computers to access information on other computers. So cut to Tim who was getting really tired of this problem. He was a programmer at the time with CERN, the European physics lab.

BERNERS-LEE: The frustration that - you know what? - actually, every time I get a piece of paper on my desk, there is a disk somewhere that's going round and round with that file on it.

RAZ: Yeah.

BERNERS-LEE: So there was this realization that life could be - that it would be very, very cool if, in fact, all of these documents appeared to be part of one big interconnected mesh.

RAZ: So Tim and some colleagues at CERN went to work building a system that would do that - that would make office life easier and data sharing on the Internet possible for anyone, and they called it the World Wide Web. But around the same time - again, this is the early '90s - a similar system was already gaining in popularity, and that system was called Gopher.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: In Gopher space, as it's called, you literally burrow through hierarchies of menus with increasing specificity until you reach your level of interest.

RAZ: This is some of the only audio we could find.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Gopher is easy to navigate and easy to browse.

RAZ: That even proves gopher was ever a thing. It's a U.S. government training video about the Internet from the early '90s.

BERNERS-LEE: Gopher was a campuswide information system from the University of Minnesota.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Watch as we burrow through the BTS gopher site.

RAZ: In the early '90s, Gopher was actually taking off faster...

BERNERS-LEE: ...Faster...

RAZ: ...Than the World Wide Web...

BERNERS-LEE: ...If you looked at the traffic on the Internet...

RAZ: ...Until the University of Minnesota announced...

BERNERS-LEE: Just in some cases, if you were running the server - not the client - then maybe, just a very, very small fee.

RAZ: The University wanted to charge people to use its system to navigate the Internet. And by charging money, the University had signaled that Gopher would be proprietary, a completely closed system. And this was fundamentally different from Tim's idea for the World Wide Web.

BERNERS-LEE: The crucial thing about the World Wide Web actually is the URLs. So for the thing to work, anybody anywhere who ran a computer that had some information which should be available to other people should make up one of these URLs for each document. That is a massive ask. You can't ask that and also ask other things. You can't say, you must use my particular type of computer. You can't say, you must use my particular browser. You can't say, and you must pay me 0.001 cents per click when everybody clicks on it.

RAZ: Which is why the moment the University of Minnesota announced it would charge money for Gopher...

BERNERS-LEE: At that point, the Gopher traffic on the Internet dropped off.

RAZ: Wow.

BERNERS-LEE: People came to me and said, Tim, what is the story with the Web? Can we - is this going to happen - is CERN going to do this?

RAZ: They wanted to know as the Web was coming into wider use, what assurances did they have that Tim wouldn't do the same thing with the web as the University of Minnesota did with Gopher? So a few weeks later, Tim convinced his bosses at CERN to draft an official announcement. It was signed on April 30, 1993, and the crucial part reads, CERN relinquishes all intellectual property rights to this code for anyone to use.

BERNERS-LEE: We will not charge royalties for this basically.

RAZ: Wow.

BERNERS-LEE: It will be royalty-free.

RAZ: You could have decided that you were going to just be proprietary. This is going to make you an incredible fortune, and that was that. And you decided not to do that.

BERNERS-LEE: Well, you're making a bit of an assumption there. You're making the assumption that if I had turned around and said, I want the patents on this, and I'll see you later, then you're making the assumption that then it would have taken off to be the huge thing that it is now.

RAZ: Yeah.

BERNERS-LEE: But that's obviously wrong. There were lots and lots and lots of people doing really cool things on the Internet.

RAZ: Yeah.

BERNERS-LEE: If it hadn't been open...

RAZ: It wouldn't have worked.

BERNERS-LEE: It wouldn't have taken off. That's the idea.

RAZ: Today, we have a phrase for this idea - the idea that creating things freely and in the open sometimes leads to results you never thought possible, and we call it open-source.

BERNERS-LEE: And it has to be open. If it hadn't been open, it would have been a walled garden, and the moment you start a walled garden, people look at it, and they say oh, that looks lucrative. We can do that better. And we would have had all these independent system, and those programs wouldn't work together. You wouldn't have been able to follow a link from one to the other. So basically, the Web would never - I don't think it would have got the critical mass.

RAZ: On the show today, TED speakers put the idea of open-source to work in the worlds of technology, design, robotics and democracy. And they make the case for why an open-source world is a better world. By the way, you can see all of Tim Berners-Lee's talks on the beginnings of the World Wide Web at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.