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Spinning the web of knowledge

By Matthew Knight for CNN
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(CNN) -- On August 6, 1991 Tim Berners-Lee posted the World Wide Web's first Web site. Fifteen years on there are estimated to be over 100 million.

The pace of growth has happened at a bewildering rate and its success has even confounded its inventor.

It was in 1980 whilst on six-month stint working as a consultant at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, that London-born Tim Berners-Lee first devised a software program which he explained would "keep track of all the random associations one comes across in life and brains are supposed to be so good at remembering but sometimes mine wouldn't."

He called his program Enquire -- short for "Enquire Within Upon Everything" -- the name of an encyclopedia he had read as a boy. In essence it was a hypertext notebook which allowed words in a document to be linked with other files on his computer.

Universities and governments had been using an Internet to share information for several years and by 1989 CERN had the largest one in Europe.

But Berners-Lee imagined a system where all the world's computers could interact with one another, not just computers within organizations.

So he devised a relatively straightforward coding system HTML (HyperText Mark-up Language) which allowed for the creation and design of a Web page. He then created the URL (Universal Resource Locater) for addresses. And finally a set of rules HTTP (HyperText Transfer Protocol) which allowed one Web page to be linked with another.

From the outset Berners-Lee has taken an altruistic approach to his creation.

He gifted the fruits of his labor to the world and remains fiercely protective of the way the Web is developed.

Whilst the Web has made billionaires of some people, Berners-Lee remains happy to head up the W3 Consortium -- a nonprofit organization -- which maintains standards and builds consensus about how Web technologies are implemented.

The new business opportunities that the Web presented led to a glut of investment in online companies. Throughout the mid-nineties, fancifully high valuations were recorded on stock exchanges around the world for Web start-ups -- some of which hadn't even turned a profit.

The ensuing dot com bubble predictably resulted in the dot com crash with hundreds of companies going to the wall. On March 10, 2000, Nasdaq -- the US technology index -- closed at 5048.62. By October 2002 the index had lost 78 per cent of its value, tumbling to just 1114.11.

Faster broadband connections have replaced the often infuriatingly slow dial-up connections and completely altered the surfing experience. Information and entertainment can truly be accessed at the click of a button.

We take so much of what the Web offers for granted now, it is sometimes difficult to imagine how we coped before its invention.

Bestowed with titles and awards and regularly topping the list of greatest ever inventors the publicity-shy Berners-Lee remains committed to maintaining the balance between commercial and social forces. Its future looks safe in his hands.


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Millions of people across the world use the World Wide Web to communicate every day.

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