Many of the aspects of the invention of the Web by Tim Berners-Lee are well-known, especially the technical details, but there are some aspects that are are more hazy — One is the question of what constitutes “The Birth of the Web”? The other is the interesting story of how the birth of the Web was interwoven with the birth of Berners-Lee’s first child.

Berners-Lee proposed his idea for the yet-unnamed web to CERN in 1989, and based on that, last year (2009) was celebrated by CERN as the 20th anniversary of the Web. But it wasn’t until 1990 that Berners-Lee named it “The Web” and demonstrated a real working model. And, notably, just this month, in his article on the future of the Open Web, Berners-Lee says that he’s writing on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Web — So he apparently sees the Web’s birth as having been when he did the nitty-gritty production work on it in 1990.

The events of 1990 raise more questions — Berners-Lee went to work on making a working model of the Web when his proposal was finally approved by CERN in early November 1990. At that time he wrote a more detailed description of his idea and named it “The Web,” so that’s been seen by some as the Web’s birth date. But it wasn’t until December that Berners-Lee, working with CERN colleague Robert Cailliau, demonstrated communication between a Web server and another computer. The exact date in December when this first happened was apparently not recorded. Apparently based on Berners-Lee’s description excerpted below from his book Weaving the Web, most commentators say that it happened “by Christmas day.” Here’s Berners-Lee’s narrative:

Meanwhile, I took one quick step that would demonstrate the concept of the Web as a universal, all-encompassing space. I programmed the browser so it could follow links not only to files on HTTP servers but also to Internet news articles and newsgroups. … In one fell swoop, a huge amount of the information that was already on the Internet was available on the Web. … The browser/editor was working on my machine and Robert’s, communicating over the Internet with the info.cern.ch server by Christmas Day 1990 [boldface added].

And here are Berners-Lee’s touching words putting the birth of the Web in the context of the personally more emotionally affecting birth of his first child:

As significant an event as this was, I wasn’t that keyed up about it, only because my wife and I were expecting our first child, due Christmas Eve. As fate would have it, she waited a few extra days. We drove to the hospital during a New Year’s Eve storm and our daughter was born the next day. As amazing as it would be to see the Web develop, it would never compare to seeing the development of our child.

Berners-Lee generally says little about his private life, so I think it’s notable that he talks about it here, and it certainly is an indication that his personal life was taking precedence as he was working on making the Web — So it’s not surprising that the details of the Web birthing are hazy in his mind.

As mentioned, the quotes above are from Berners-Lee’s Weaving the Web — This has no preview in Google Books and no one has ever bothered to enter the excerpts above, that I can find in googling, so I’ve typed it in myself. With so many commentaries apparently based on the words in the quote (i.e. demonstration of the Web “by Christmas Day”) and with the unusual view of Berners-Lee’s personal life, it’s surprising that this hasn’t gotten more attention.

An open field for aspiring investigative journalists!

I’m left with the impression that I’ve just touched the surface of several interesting stories here, centered around the heroic figure of Berners-Lee — Working feverishly on the birth of the world-changing Web and waiting excitedly for the birth of a first child that would certainly change his own personal world. And the idea that the first communication that made the Web a live reality might have actually happened ON Christmas Day is certainly full of rich possibilities for a good story-teller!

Berners-Lee is a famously quiet, modest, altruistic person, who has chosen not to make money off of his invention of the Web — If he was one to seek publicity, I suspect the story told here would be told in the way that inventions of the past — Samuel Morse’s first telegraph message, Alexander Graham Bell’s first telephone call — have been told — Shouted out, to the benefit of the inventors, and entered into the mythology of our history books.

Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey

2 thoughts on “Inventing the Web: Tim Berners-Lee’s 1990 Christmas Baby

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