Where the World Wide Web was Born | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 20.10.2004
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Where the World Wide Web was Born

Fifty years ago, the world's largest particle physics research center, CERN, was founded. One of its most popular inventions was actually just a by-product: the World Wide Web.


The first World Wide Web server

The acronym CERN stands for "Conseil Européen pour la Recherché Nucléaire" -- in English, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. Throughout its history, the official name of the organization has changed, but the old acronym has remained.

With over 3,000 staff, CERN is the world's largest laboratory for particle physics. Around 6,500 visiting scientists -- half the number of particle physicists in the world -- use CERN's unique facilities for their work.

Cern Genf Hauptgebäude

CERN headquarters in Geneva

Those facilities are situated on the border between Switzerland and France, in the Swiss city of Geneva. It's there that scientists search for the origins of the universe. In the course of their experiments, procedures and techniques are often developed that have significance far beyond the world of nuclear physics. CERN's most popular achievement is now used by more than 700 million people the world over: the World Wide Web.

If there was a Nobel Prize for information technology, the Web's creator, Tim Berners-Lee, surely would have won it. In 1990, the Internet was a complicated medium for communication, used almost exclusively by a small group of scientists and the military. Together with his colleague Robert Caillau, Bernes-Lee turned it into a democratic mass medium.

Berners-Lee eventually left CERN to become consortium in Boston. But

Robert Cailliau porträtfoto 1995 CERN

Robert Cailliau

Caillau (photo) still works at CERN. The way to the Web's co-inventor leads through low, dark hallways. His office is small and modest, and his desk overflows with paper. It's the typical appearance of almost any office at CERN, whether it belongs to a Nobel Prize winner or a lowly technician.

Practical problem

At the Web's beginnings, Berners-Lee and Caillau were thinking of ways to make certain data available to hundreds of scientists taking part in CERN projects.

"When you're sitting in front of your computer trying to save data from your experiment, and you know that a part of the data is on someone else's computer, then you need a way to link the two. Otherwise, you're always having to call up that other person in order to get the data you need," Caillau explained.

The goal was to develop a language and a mode that everyone could understand and use, to link up different kinds of information.

"It was really just about saying, okay, we all agree on these conventions to link us together. That's what led to the Web, the decision to all use 'html' programming language, the protocol 'http,' and then the dial-in over 'www'. The moment that we agreed on these conventions, everything was networked," Caillau said.

A public good

Senioren-Web-Cafe in Rostock

The Web turned the Internet into a democratic mass medium

The decision to offer the new tool to the whole world instead of just CERN staff came pretty quickly, out of pure pragmatic considerations.

"We had the problem of who was going to maintain WWW in the future. If we gave it out of our hands, it was our hope that companies offering browsers and other service options would find it, that there'd be lots of people at universities who'd be interested in developing the Web further. The idea was that a community would develop to keep the Web alive," said Caillau.

Now, it's hard to imagine life without the World Wide Web. As such, it's one of the most influential inventions of the last decades. Robert Caillau would be a very rich man today, if he and Tim Berners-Lee had registered a patent for their invention. But Caillau says that was never an issue.

"If we'd been working for a private company, then we'd have never invented the Web. It could have only come from such an open, non-commercial environment," Caillau said.

Nonetheless, more than a decade later, Berners-Lee was awarded the first-ever Millennium Technology Prize worth €1 million ($1.25 million) for inventing the World Wide Web. A deserved, but rather belated honor, says Caillau.

"Why did they wait so long to recognize the achievement?" Caillau asked. "We've gotten a number of prizes from cultural organizations for having invented the Web. I thought it was astonishing that it was the artistic community, not the scientific community, that first recognized the Web's importance. The media has taken a years to realize what it's all about, and many politicians to this day still haven't quite grasped the idea."

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