Orations and responses
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
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
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.