Nobody was paying attention to Tim Berners-Lee and his pet idea. He was a young British scientist at CERN, a high-energy physics lab in Geneva, and he had a radical new way for scientists to share data by linking documents to one another over the Internet. He had kicked around a few different names for it, including the "Infomesh" and the "Information Mine." But he wasn't getting much interest from his bosses. His proposal came back with the words "vague but exciting" written across the cover.
So Berners-Lee took his invention to the people. He posted a message to a newsgroup—a kind of electronic public-access bulletin board—announcing the existence of the "WorldWideWeb (WWW) project." The message included instructions on how to download the very first Web browser from the very first website, http://info.cern.ch. Berners-Lee's computer faithfully logged the exact second the site was launched: 2:56:20 p.m., Aug. 6, 1991.
He posted it, and we came. From that day forward traffic to info.cern.ch rose exponentially, from 10 hits a day to 100 to 1,000 and beyond. Berners-Lee had no idea that he had fired the first shot in a revolution that would bring us home pages, search engines, Beanie Baby auctions and the dotcom bust, but he knew that something special had happened. "Of all the browsers people wrote," Berners-Lee remembers, "and all the servers they put up, very few of them were done because a manager asked for them. They were done because somebody read one of these newsgroup messages and got that twinkle in their eye."
A NeXT Computer was used by Berners-Lee as the world's first web server and also to write the first web browser, WorldWideWeb, in 1990. By Christmas 1990, Berners-Lee had built all the tools necessary for a working Web: the first web browser (which was a web editor as well), the first web server, and the first web pages which described the project itself. On August 6, 1991, he posted a short summary of the World Wide Web project on the alt.hypertext newsgroup. This date also marked the debut of the Web as a publicly available service on the Internet. The first server outside Europe was set up at SLAC to host the SPIRES-HEP database. Accounts differ substantially as to the date of this event. The World Wide Web Consortium says December 1992, whereas SLAC itself claims 1991.
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 Consortium, a technical think tank that aims to lead the Web to its full potential.