Laureation address: Professor Sir Timothy Berners-Lee

Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science
Laureation by Professor Alan Dearle, Dean of Science

Friday 13 September 2013

WWW – three letters that Sir Tim Berners-Lee brought together to change the world. Online shops and auction houses, social networks, wikis, online banks, maps, apps, news sites, open government data, electronic journals and newspapers – none of them would have been possible if it were not for Sir Tim.

In 1990 Sir Tim bequeathed humanity the World Wide Web and thus totally revolutionised almost every aspect of modern daily life. That is incredible in itself. However, amazingly, the technology was gifted to the world on a royalty-free basis. By making the software and its specification freely available, the web was set to flourish and unleash previously unimaginable access to knowledge. The World Wide Web Consortium, better known as the W3C, an organisation Sir Tim founded, estimates that there are 2.7 billion World Wide Web users, or put another way almost 39% of the world’s population. He has made the global village a reality.

As a Professor of Computer Science, I want to take this opportunity to explain what Sir Tim actually invented. He combined the ideas of Hyper Text and the Internet to create the World Wide Web. Both these concepts were already in existence - the trick was to fuse Hyper Text onto the Internet platform.

His invention consisted of three parts:

  1. Uniform Resource Locators – URLs that uniquely identify each and every web page. These cleverly married hypertext references with Internet domain names.
  2. HTML – the Hyper Text Mark-up Language that is used to encode those web pages and which crucially can contain URLs that reference other web pages anywhere in the world.
  3. HTTP - The Hyper Text Transfer Protocol – a language understood by both web clients (such as Internet Explorer, Safari or Firefox) and servers. Again this simple protocol was a build above TCP/IP – a reliable transport layer protocol provided by the Internet.

This fusion of these three concepts by Sir Tim powers the web today, some 23 years later, and laid the foundations of the virtual world in which most of us live.

His invention was simplicity itself – then as now, web pages are encoded in HTML. The pages are uniquely identified using URLs and made available to the Internet via web servers. The first of these was implemented by Sir Tim and called httpd (a tradition that remains until this day).  Browsers, the first of which was also written by Sir Tim, provided the viewing and editing of web pages. They could extract server addresses from URLs and request the appropriate pages from the servers using the HTTP protocol. Finally, the retrieved HTML pages are displayed to users by the browser.

The World Wide Web succeeded where other systems have failed. This was largely due to its openness and scalability. Building new open WWW standards above open Internet protocols mean that anyone can create or use a web server or browser. Anyone can author web pages or link to existing pages and anyone can read them. The WWW and the Internet platform are inherently scalable, making it a tool for all.

Tim Berners-Lee was born in southwest London, in1955, one of four children born to Conway Berners-Lee and Mary Lee Woods who both had the distinction of working on the Ferranti Mark 1, the first ever commercially available general-purpose electronic computer, built in Manchester in 1951.

He learned about electronics tinkering with model railways during his time at the Emanuel School in London from 1969 to 1973. From there he went on to study Physics at Queen's College, Oxford and he received a first-class degree in 1976. Whilst at Oxford he hand-soldered his first computer – a Motorola 6800 based system.

After graduating he started his career with Plessey Telecommunications Ltd. in Poole, Dorset and worked on distributed transaction systems, message relays, and bar code technology. A few years later, in June 1980, when he was working as an independent consultant, he proposed a project to CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, to use Hyper Text "to link and access information of various kinds as a web of nodes in which the user can browse at will". This was accepted and during a six-month contract as a consultant software engineer he built a system called ENQUIRE, which supported pages called cards with hyperlinks within the cards.

From 1981 until 1984, Tim worked at Image Computer Systems Ltd., with technical design responsibility. In 1984 he returned to CERN and realised that a system similar to ENQUIRE was needed, "but accessible to everybody". From 1984 he refined the concepts along with his colleague Robert Cailliau and in 1990 published a more formal proposal to build a ‘Hyper Text Project’ called ‘WorldWideWeb’. By Christmas of that year, Sir Tim had built all the tools necessary for a working Web and had a web server running on a NeXT Computer. On 6 August 1991, he posted a short summary of the World Wide Web project on the alt.hypertext newsgroup and launched the first public website – – marking the debut of the Web as a publicly available service on the Internet.

In 1994, Tim founded the W3C at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and has served as its Director ever since. The W3C is responsible for all the web specifications, guidelines, software, and tools that guide the use of the World Wide Web.

In 1999, he became the first holder of the 3Com Founders chair at MIT and in 2008 he was named 3COM Founders Professor of Engineering in the School of Engineering at MIT. In December 2004 he became a Professor in the Computer Science Department at the University of Southampton.

Cited by Time magazine as one of the 100 greatest minds of the twentieth century, Sir Tim is a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was named a Fellow the Royal Society in 2001 and of the IEEE in 2008.

He was Co-Director of the Web Science Trust, launched in 2006 as the Web Science Research Initiative, to help create the first multidisciplinary research body to examine the World Wide Web and offer the practical solutions needed to help guide its future use and design. He is a Director of the World Wide Web Foundation, started in 2008 to fund and coordinate efforts to further the potential of the Web to benefit humanity.

In 2009 the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown asked Sir Tim to be a member of The Public Sector Transparency Board with the aim of making data more open and accessible on the Web. He has promoted open government data globally and is currently president of the UK's Open Data Institute.

In 2013 he was awarded the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering for ‘ground-breaking innovation in engineering that has been of global benefit to humanity’.

Sir Tim was awarded an OBE in 1997 and made a Knight Commander, Order of the British Empire (KBE) by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II in 2004. The rank of Knight Commander is the second most senior rank of the Order of the British Empire, one of the Orders of Chivalry.