How the world wide web was won

©REUTERS/Valentin Flauraud

Did you know that the organisation that brought you the Higgs Boson (“god particle”) also brought you the world wide web? Robert Cailliau, one of its founders, and James Gillies, a first-hand witness, retrace the story.

The world wide web germinated in the mind of Paul Otlet in 1934, sparked the imagination of Vannevar Bush in 1945, developed more tangibly in the laboratory of Sam Fedida in 1973 and was definitively born in the office of Tim Berners-Lee at CERN in 1989.

Any idea with such a pedigree has to be a good one, and the web certainly is. Otlet imagined access to libraries through telephone and TV, and collected 16 million references, establishing a sort of Google on filing cards. Bush, writing in the Atlantic Monthly at a time when the cutting edge of information technology was microfilm, imagined a very web-like system for organising information, and he called his article “As we may think”.

Fedida had the advantage of three decades of technological innovation to draw on when he developed Viewdata at the British General Post Office’s Martlesham Heath Research Station, and his invention went on to see considerable success in the UK, first briefly as telephone-based Prestel, but more significantly as Ceefax, which was an information system accessed via television until it was closed down in October 2012. In France, Viewdata gave rise to the more interactive

Minitel in the late 1970s, a secure system that was widely used around the country for consulting bank accounts and paying for airline tickets. Indeed, had history taken a slightly different turn, Minitel might have grown to play the role the web does today. Fedida’s book, The Viewdata Revolution, still reads like a blueprint for the web.

But by 1989, Tim Berners-Lee at CERN had benefited from another technical innovation: desktop computing. After having been invented and dropped by Xerox in the 1970s, a couple of startups that came to be known as Apple and Microsoft made personal computing a reality.

Computer networking, which had originated simultaneously in the US and the UK, had evolved into the Internet. In the US, Paul Baran imagined a communications system that would be less vulnerable to attack from a hostile superpower than traditional telecommunications, whose architecture depended on a small number of telephone exchanges. Baran invented the concept of “packet switching”, whereby messages would be cut up into small chunks, and transmitted over a very distributed network in which no one exchange was critical. In the UK, Donald Davies reached the same conclusion, but with a very different motivation. He invented packet switching as a way to deal with the fragmented way computers handle information. The political impetus given by the USSR beating the US into space with Sputnik in 1957 led Eisenhower to establish the Advanced Research Projects Agency, or ARPA for short, to ensure that the US would not be taken off-guard again. In the early 1960s, when packet switching came along, ARPA was ready with the vision and the cash to turn the idea into the continentspanning computer network, ARPANET.

The next step came in France, where Louis Pouzin’s Cyclades network built on the advances made by ARPANET. As Pouzin once said, “we were like Hertz and Avis–we came second, so we had to try harder”. Pouzin’s main contribution was to recognise that while networks might speak different languages, the important thing was that information could be exchanged between them. As he succinctly put it in a 1970s presentation, “network+network+network=network”.

The ARPANET would borrow from his technology when it developed the protocol which defines the rules computers use to communicate with each other over the Internet in 1974, known as TCP-IP. When the French allowed Cyclades to wither, some of Pouzin’s colleagues took that idea back across the Atlantic, where they teamed up with Vint Cerf, who is widely acknowledged as the father of the Internet.

The third ingredient Berners-Lee needed to dream up the web was hypertext, the point and click system of navigating through documents. By the end of the 1980s, hypertext systems were becoming very sophisticated, able to self-correct if documents were removed, for example, so that there was no such thing as a broken link. Tim’s genius was to recognise that by doing away with that paradigm, you could put hypertext on the Internet: broken links would be an inconvenience you could live with.

Berners-Lee’s motivation was initially for researchers. In 1989, he wrote a memo to his boss Mike Sendall entitled “Information management, a proposal”, outlining a system that would allow the particle physics world to share information across the Internet. “Vague”, scrawled Mike across the top of the document, “but exciting”. That was the nod he needed to proceed. In September of the following year, he took delivery of a pair of NeXT cubes, the latest thing in desktop computing produced by a company established by a certain Steve Jobs after he’d temporarily parted company with Apple, and by Christmas 1990, he’d written the basic foundations of the web: the http protocol, the html mark-up language, and the concept of the universal resource locator, URL. He’d also written the first web browser and server for NeXT computers, and a beautiful sight it was to behold. The only problem was that to witness it, you had to have a NeXT yourself, or else make your way to Tim Berners- Lee’s office to see it.

Little wonder Tim and his colleague, Robert Cailliau, engineer and co-author of this article, who had become Tim’s first partner on the web project, met with limited success when they spent time evangelising for the web. Tim had a paper rejected from the Hypertext ’91 conference in Texas for containing “nothing new” (see references, OECD Observer). Nevertheless, slowly but surely, the web began to grow. A key development came that year when Tim’s technical student, Nicola Pellow, wrote a very simple “line mode” browser. It had none of the sophisticated graphics and editing capacity of Tim’s browser, but had the advantage that it worked on the kind of line-mode terminals that were ubiquitous in research at the time. Suddenly, everyone in particle physics could use the web without having to make their way to Tim’s office. The world of particle physics took notice.

Another significant moment came two years later with an ill-fated business decision. Back then, the web wasn’t the only player vying to bring the Internet to the masses, and the front-runner was a system called Gopher developed by Farhad Anklesaria and Mark McCahill at the University of Minnesota. The success of Gopher led the University to invent a very clever business model–sell the servers, but distribute the client (browser) for free. It was a great idea, but it came too soon and Gopher fizzled out. But it sparked a sort of gold rush for the web as all manner of innovative browsers for all kinds of computers started to appear. One in particular caught the world’s attention. Called Mosaic, it was developed at the US National Center for Supercomputing Applications, and was the first browser that could be installed at a click on Macs and PCs. Mosaic morphed into Netscape, and this time the world took notice. The web had arrived, but to become worldwide, it would have to be as free and as widely accessible as possible.

Scene one of the final act came on 30 April 1993 when CERN issued a statement placing the web in the public domain, ensuring that the basic web technologies became an open standard and the intellectual property of no one. The climax came the following year, when Tim Berners-Lee moved to MIT to take up the role of Director of the world wide web Consortium, W3C. W3C is the body run by academic institutes and its role is to ensure that the web can remain an open standard.

It’s hard to believe that there was a time, not so long ago, when there was no such thing as the world wide web. So ubiquitous has the web become that millions of us can hardly imagine life without it. Yet, the web still has a long way to go. In 1989, there was no such thing as the world wide web. In 2005, there was no such thing as Twitter. Who knows where the web will take us over the next couple of decades.


Larousserie, David (2012), “Le boson de Higgs découvert avec 99,9999 % de certitude”, in Le Monde, 4 July.

Gillies, James (2001), “Whence the web?”, in OECD Observer No 224 January.


©OECD Observer No 293 Q4 November 2012

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