Low Plaza

Marconi Foundation Honors World Wide Web Inventor Berners-Lee

By Joseph Kennedy

Tim Berners-Lee

It is almost impossible today to imagine life without the World Wide Web, but little more than a decade ago it was still only a concept dwelling within one man's unique vision. With the Web's public launch in 1991, computer use throughout the world grew exponentially, ushering in our modern, interconnected Information Society.

In recognition of the importance of this world-transforming communications tool, the Guglielmo Marconi Foundation at Columbia recently awarded its coveted Marconi Fellowship to the World Wide Web's creator, Tim Berners-Lee, in a Low Library ceremony. Luminaries from the world of information and communications technology gathered to honor Berners-Lee's achievement and to assess the Web's past, present and future.

"In just a few years since inception, the Web has revolutionized information access and exchange across all human endeavors, truly creating a global village," said Francesco Parese Marconi, chairman of the Marconi Foundation. "It's only fitting that the Marconi foundation bestow this recognition on the man who first conceived and initiated this notion."

Zvi Galil, dean of the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, observed that Columbia's long history of achievement in communications technology makes it a particularly appropriate home for the Marconi Foundation.

"At the beginning of the last century, Columbia Professor Michael Pupin invented the inductance coil that made long-distance telephony possible, and in the 1930s his disciple Edwin Armstrong developed FM radio here," Galil said. "Even today, Columbia is leading many advances, such as MPEG2 and the next generation of display technology."

Berners-Lee began to develop the conceptual basis for the Web in 1980, while working as a software engineer at CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics in Geneva, Switzerland. In an effort to organize the files in his own computer, he wrote his first program for storing information including the use of random associations. The program, named "Enquire," was never published but provided the foundation for the future development of the World Wide Web.

In 1989, once again working at CERN, Berners-Lee began to address the problem of how to access files that were stored in different computers.

"CERN was the 'Petri dish' in which the Web was hatched," Berners-Lee recalled. "At that time, every research facility had its own mainframe computer with its own proprietary hardware, its own operating system and its own programs. In order to 'talk' to another facility with a different system, you had to have a computer at your facility that used the exact same system."

The innovation that became the World Wide Web centered on the use of hypertext as an abstract 'space' in which all information systems could co-exist. The links had the ability to point to anything; it was designed to minimize social and technical constraints, and most importantly, the design was universal.

The World Wide Web first became available within CERN in December 1990, and on the Internet at large in the summer of 1991 -- and the world has never been the same.

Sir Eric Ash, chairman of the selection committee for the Marconi Foundation Fellowship, believes that Berners-Lee's discovery, like Einstein's discovery of the General Theory of Relativity, was an entirely new concept that had not been thought of before.

"Some races are only won by a head," Ash said, referring to the generally competitive environment in which scientific and technological advances occur. "If the person credited with an advance had not made that advance, it would, in short time, have been made by someone else. [But in] the World Wide Web, we have another example of a race not won by a head but by an explorer discovering previously uncharted territories."

One of the main reasons for the rapid acceptance of the Web was Berners-Lee's insistence that it remain an open standard without hierarchical control. While it would have been enormously lucrative for him to patent the Web as a proprietary tool, its openness enables it to expand infinitely to accommodate new content, and encourages others to develop fully open and compatible technology.

"That's how the Web was created. It could easily have gone in another direction," Ash observed. "It could have become the creature of competing commercial interests. And if it had been allowed to start that way, it seems difficult to believe that the totally free, unencumbered World Wide Web providing the marvelous interactivity and possibilities of intercreativity which are now available could have been achieved."

In conjunction with the award, the Marconi Foundation convened a daylong conference on November 8, "WWW Redux: Trends, Obstacles, Potentials," at Columbia's Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science. Many of the creators and shapers of the Internet participated in the conference, which was simultaneously broadcast to Paris and Bologna.

Galil, recalling Sir Isaac Newton's famous statement, "If I see further, it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants," noted that the speakers' roster "was filled with giants" whose pioneering work created the foundations for modern communications technology and shaped the environment in which the World Wide Web flourishes.

Among the participants were three Marconi Fellows: Robert E. Kahn, a holder of the U.S. Medal of Technology for a his role in developing the Internet architecture; Paul Baran, chairman of Com21 Inc., the developer of the packet switching technology that underpins the Internet, and James Flanagan, vice president of research at Rutgers University, who made pioneering contributions to speech synthesis and voice recognition.

Other distinguished speakers included Leonard Kleinrock, professor of computer science at UCLA, who directed the first data transmission over the Internet; Andrew Viterbi, co-founder of QUALCOMM, Inc., who invented the signal processing algorithm that is employed by all commercial digital mobile wireless standards, and Mary Meeker, managing director, Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, who is one of the leading Internet analysts.

The Marconi Fellowship is the most prestigious in the field of telecommunications and information technology. Each year since 1974 the Foundation has recognized an individual whose scope of work and influence emulate the principle of "creativity in service to humanity," that drove Guglielmo Marconi, the father of modern telecommunications.

Published: Jan 03, 2002
Last modified: Jan 02, 2003

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