Yet within a decade of its launch in summer 1991, Berners-Lee's invention of the World Wide Web seemingly had become as omnipresent as the light bulb. It had also transformed the economy, spawning millionaires much like the invention of the airplane and telephone decades earlier.
In 1980, working as a consultant at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland, Berners-Lee created a program that let him "link" to files on his computer. He didn't intend for his pet project, dubbed "Enquire," to change the world; he just wanted to better organize his computer files.
After a nine-year hiatus, Berners-Lee returned to the project, hoping to create a program that would let employees at CERN, where he'd become a full-time employee, share documents in an easy, clickable way.
Berners-Lee created an easy-to-use computer language called HTML (hypertext markup language) and gave each destination, or Web page, a specific name, or URL (universal resource locator). Using the Internet, a collaborative creation that helped computer servers communicate with one another, Berners-Lee created a set of rules called HTTP (hypertext transfer protocol) so the information could be shared around the world.
After a few months of internal use at CERN, Berners-Lee's World Wide Web went global. In the process, it opened up the Internet to everyone from hard-core tech junkies to everyday Joes.
The invention was an instant hit. Within five years, the number of Internet users jumped from 600,000 to 40 million -- at one point doubling every 53 days -- according to Time magazine. For his invention, Berners-Lee was named one of the magazine's 100 most important people of the 20th century.
Thousands of people made millions off the Web, but not Berners-Lee, a staunch believer that HTML and the Web should remain free and open. Instead, he chose a quiet life in academia at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he researches and directs the W3 Con...