11:40 am
Tue June 15, 2004

Tim Berners-Lee

A well deserved honor.

Wilmington NC – [Click the Listen button to hear Wally's commentary.]

Tim Berners-Lee has been called a genius by a lot of people. Today, in Helsinki, he'll receive the first Millennium Technology Prize, given by the Finnish Technology Award Foundation.

In this Postcard from the Digital Age we're going to talk about Tim Berners-Lee, possible genius and one of the good guys.

In case you don't know, Tim Berners-Lee is the fellow who invented the World Wide Web. And, in case you're wondering, unlike Al Gore's claim to invent the Internet, Berners-Lee's credential is real and undisputed.

Here's how it happened. Back in 1980, Berners-Lee was working at CERN, the physics research lab in Switzerland. He noticed that scientists who worked there often had trouble sharing information over the lab's computer network.

The scientists came from many countries and spoke several different languages. They worked at lots of different institutions with lots of different computer systems. The computer systems they used didn't make it easy to get information even on your own computer in your own language.

The inspiration for his solution to the information sharing problem came from two sources. The first was a Victorian self-help guide that Berners-Lee remembered from the library in the home outside London where he grew up during the Sixties. The book was called "Enquire Within Upon Everything."

The other inspiration was Berners-Lee's own experience of how the human brain works. Your brain doesn't need elaborate programming commands. Instead the brain easily makes connections between different bits of information.

In 1989 Berners-Lee submitted a proposal to the powers that be to use existing tools such as hypertext linking to create the system that would help CERN's scientists easily share all kinds of information. Naturally, the powers that be thought it was a dumb idea. But with the help of a creative boss Berners-Lee persevered to develop the initial version of what became the World Wide Web.

The Finnish Technology Award Foundation isn't the only group that's recognized him for his invention. Last year Queen Elizabeth knighted him. Time Magazine called him one of the 100 greatest minds of the 20th century. He's received the Japan Prize and a Macarthur Foundation "genius grant."

Some of those honors come with pretty big money. The Finns are giving him over a million bucks. The Macarthur grant is worth a million.

Between them and what he's paid for his work, Mr. Berners-Lee and his family are probably quite comfortable. But he would have been rich beyond counting if he'd chosen to patent his invention. He didn't.

His reasons sound simple and even corny. He has no desire to amass great wealth. He wants to make the world a better place. So, in effect, he gave all of us his invention and it's changed our lives.

What do you do for an encore when you invent the something like the Web and you're still in your thirties? Mr. Berners-Lee is doing what he loves to do.

He's teaching at MIT. He's the Director of the World Wide Web Consortium, the body that coordinates Web development and technical standards around the globe. And he's working on something he calls the Semantic Web.

Mr. Berners-Lee thinks that his Semantic Web concept will be a dramatic improvement on the current Web. He thinks it might just be more important than his original Web idea. He may be right. We'll have to wait and see.

Is Tim Berners-Lee a genius? According to one definition, in order to qualify as a genius you have to have at least two great ideas in your lifetime. If that's the test, then the jury is still out on Mr. Berners-Lee, but he's looking good so far.

While we're waiting for someone else to decide if the man's a genius, we can enjoy the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee's great invention and great gift to us all. And we can revel in his success. It's nice to see one of the good guys win.