Honorary Graduates

Orations and responses

Timothy Berners-Lee

Oration given on 26 March 1998

Chancellor: The Senate of the University has resolved that the degree of Doctor of the University  be conferred on Mr Timothy Berners-Lee.

One comment by the Queen, not long ago, will have struck a chord with many people.  ‘Nowadays’, she said ‘we all surf the Internet - or, at least, we listen to other people talking about surfing the Internet’.

But what is the Internet?  And what is the World Wide Web?  The Internet is a communication system of computers linked to each other like a railway network.  The broad idea of linking up computers was discussed in the 1960s.  Rules for the potential Internet were developed in the 1970s.  By the summer of 1981, only 213 American computers were linked to the Internet but by summer last year, only 16 years later, the world estimate was 25 million.  Two months ago it was 30 million.

What is the Internet’s traffic?  Huge amounts of commercial data is one type of traffic.  People’s e-mail is another.  But a third type - of far more potency and cultural interest - is the World Wide Web.  Today we recognise and honour the Englishman who devised the World Wide Web, only nine years ago - Timothy Berners-Lee.

Perhaps unlike the Internet itself, which simply grew up, the World Wide Web is a deliberately conceived combination of two computer science ideas.  One concerned ‘hypertext’, that is, the set of related documents filed in any computer which can be cross-referenced, like indexes in books.  The Berners-Lee breakthrough was to see that this could apply between computers.  He linked this ‘hypertext’ feature within each computer to the idea of communication between computers, and thus the World Wide Web was born as a practical concept.

Computers which contain information are the servers.  Access to them is provided by browsers,  which offer a window onto the Web.  Just over six years ago there was but one server in the world offering material.  There are now thought to be about two million of them.  The magic of it is that, so long as browser and server are technically compatible, the browser will help you to find what you seek, also aided by devices with the splendidly old-fashioned name of ‘search engines’.   So the Web is an unbelievably huge reference service which no user need buy or store for himself.

The creator of the World Wide Web was born to parents both of whom are also computing specialists.  We warmly welcome them to our ceremony this morning.  He attended Emanuel School in London before taking a First in Physics at Oxford in 1976.  He is recalled by a family friend who has known him all his life as the ‘boy scientist’.  ‘He was always inventing things’, she says.  His first computer he also built himself at Oxford, marrying a processor to an old television set with the aid of a soldering iron.  He went into industrial computer research and became the founding director of ‘Image Computer Systems’.  At that time he produced his first program for storing information including the use of random associations, which offered the conceptual base for the Web.  He worked in Geneva as consultant software specialist at CERN - the European Particle Physics Laboratories - and returned there in 1984 as a Research Fellow.  In 1989, he proposed a global project running a web of hypertext documents.  He wrote the first World Wide Web server and produced the first browser.

Five years later, Tim Berners-Lee moved to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, not only to develop the Web in America (the home of the Internet) but also to guide its explosive expansion as Director of the World Wide Web Consortium.  The Consortium issues standards and rules to keep the Web an open universal system while it continues to grow at an incredible rate.  Despite the huge commercial involvement in the Web this consortium survives on its three bases: at MIT, in France and Japan. Specifications remain freely available, funded by membership subscriptions.  He and his Consortium are dedicated to developing the Web ever further as an elegant machine-to-machine information system which promotes human-to-human communications.

Our field of British higher education is just one among thousands which has already been heavily affected by the rise of the World Wide Web.  The world of academic research now has undreamt of techniques for discovering, capturing and analysing knowledge.  Inter-communication has been transformed.  Many prospective university students - and staff - apply to British universities via the Web.  Public and press relations also benefit and many documents are circulated and deposited.  This window on the world has only recently begun to open:  there is much more to come.

Tim Berners-Lee is said by colleagues and admirers in his field to be partly the shy backroom researcher but also the confident regulator of a huge, unique (but still infant) world-wide resource - dealing with , amongst others, American and other computer industry tycoons.  He is a leading player in a battle to keep the Web open to all, with no vested interest controlling or profiting from universal access.  He turned his back on the great wealth that probably could have flowed to him if he had offered his new systems to the computing giants.  Golden gates would have opened - but, as one American industry leader (at MCI Communications) has said, “He didn’t try to cash in and make millions.  He took a different path”.

Another American admirer is Eric Schmidt, chief technical officer at Sun Microsystems (which has produced Java, a Web-based programming language).  He has said:  “If this were a traditional science, Berners-Lee would win a Nobel prize.  What he’s done is that significant”.

But other honours are falling on Tim Berners-Lee’s young shoulders like snowflakes from American, French, British and Japanese sources.  These have been too many to list in full -certainly for his own taste - but mention might be allowed of a medal of the Institute of Physics; an innovation award from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, and a British OBE.

Today is a full-time honours day.  After visiting our Departments of Computer Science and Electronic Systems Engineering here at Essex this afternoon, he will go this evening to the Institution of Electrical Engineers in London to be made an Honorary Fellow - an honour they bestow on outsiders only once or twice a year.

At this ceremony this morning he becomes the youngest Honorary Doctor of this young University.  We salute his enormous contribution to what will one day be the almost universal offering of information, which is already changing the world and which will change it much more.

Sir:  If the information superhighway is one of the human race’s most important developments; and if the World Wide Web is the practical form of that superhighway (with about three quarters of Internet traffic now Web-based) then here is its creator.  If  his initial commitment against the Web’s commercial exploitation does (miraculously) manage to stick, then here is not only a leading technological creator but a human benefactor of a high order.  This University is proud to recognise and honour him today.

Chancellor, I present to you Timothy Berners-Lee.