Elon University

2018 Areté Medallion honoree Tim Berners-Lee, Web innovator and founder of the World Wide Web Consortium, Web Foundation, Open Data Institute

World Wide Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee is being honored in 2018 by the Imagining the Internet Center, an initiative of Elon University, for nearly 30 years of outstanding work as a distinguished humanist innovator and technologist role model  

Tim Berners Lee Medallion Speech PhotoAreté (pronounced era-TAY) is a word used to describe people who live up to their fullest potential in a life embodying goodness and excellence. The Imagining the Internet Center’s Areté Medallion was established to recognize innovators, change agents and thought leaders who have dedicated their lives to initiating and sustaining significant contributions for global good.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee is one of the most important distinguished humanist innovators the world has ever known. He invented the World Wide Web at CERN in 1989 and – with the permission of CERN – gave it to the world for free. He co-founded the World Wide Web Consortium (the W3C, which he also directs) in 1994 to enable the continued positive technical evolution of the Web, bringing thousands of people around the world together to work to expand its capabilities. He launched the World Wide Web Foundation in 2009 to continually broaden the ways in which the Web can benefit humanity; he is the foundation’s director. He is president and founder of the Open Data Institute, which works to develop an open, healthy data ecosystem in which people can make better decisions using data and manage its harmful impacts.

Berners Lee CERN Diagram ProposalGetting the Web out there took years to pull off; popularized Internet use

When Berners-Lee first proposed the idea of the World Wide Web at CERN, the European particle physics laboratory, the Internet had been in existence for 20 years, yet it was still in its infancy, mostly used for email and rudimentary news and information sharing by a small, privileged percentage of the global population.

The Web is what made the Internet really take off in the mid-1990s, but it didn’t happen overnight.

Berners-Lee’s initial innovation – brainstormed in 1989 – came out of his desire to create a common base for connecting people to data that allowed each system/data set to remain independent and maintain its individuality. He wrote a formal proposal (including the diagram at right) and shared it with people at CERN, but they didn’t grasp the relevance and full potential of his idea. Instead of giving up, he kept working on it. He created the first Web client and server in 1990, initiating the use of his hypertext markup language (HTML), creating the first Web site and sharing on it his description of HTML, HTTP (hypertext transfer protocol – for retrieval of linked resources) and URI (uniform resource identifier – addressing) specifications. He became an evangelist for his idea, giving talks, showing his Web page and a diagram with machines of all types easily sharing information on his proposed system. At that time, different types of computers – mainframes, personal computers of various types – could only communicate with similar software and hardware. The Web could allow all intelligent networked digital systems to communicate in one shared space.

“My vision,” he wrote in his book Weaving the Web, “was a system in which sharing what you knew or thought should be as easy as learning what someone else knew… The idea of universality was key. The basic revelation was that one information space could include them all, giving huge power and consistency… A person should be able to link with equal ease to any document wherever it happened to be stored.”

Berners Lee Web Foundation Announcement Speech A passion project for the people

The Web was Berners-Lee’s passion, dominating his life as he worked to expand the circle of enthusiastic people who began to help it advance under his leadership. By January 1993 there were only about 50 known Web servers. However, the big boom for the Web got its start later that same year when Mark Andreessen and Eric Bina launched Mosaic, a revolutionary Web browser, in 1993; later marketed by the start-up company Netscape, the browser combined text and graphics and made it so easy to navigate that its role in the mainstream consumer adoption of the Internet was significant. By the end of 1994 and into 1995 most people on the Web were using Netscape Navigator (Mosaic) to browse and the next big assist for Web adoption came when Sun Microsystems introduced the Java programming language, which allowed the public to enjoy a much more lively looking Web.

Berners-Lee founded the World Wide Web Consortium to advance the best possible evolution of the technical aspects of the Web at about this same time. “I made it clear,” he wrote, “that… philosophically, if the Web was to be a universal resource it had to be able to grow in an unlimited way. Technically if there was any centralized point of control it would rapidly become a bottleneck that restricted the Web’s growth and the Web would never scale up.”

By mid-1996, millions of people were accessing the Web, thousands of companies were serving it, Internet service providers (ISPs) were popping up and connecting people and it all took off rapidly from there. In 2009, at the Global Internet Governance Forum in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, Berners-Lee announced the founding of the nonprofit World Wide Web Foundation, created to foster digital equality and advance the Web as a public good. As he stood at the podium to tell of this new initiative he made it official by tweeting the news on Twitter to the general public who were not able to be on hand at the event.

Tim Berners Lee SpeakingHe said in a 1995 speech at MIT, “I had – and still have – a dream that the Web could be less of a television channel and more of an interactive sea of shared knowledge. I imagine it immersing us as a warm, friendly environment made of the things we and our friends have seen, heard, believe or have figured out. I would like it to bring our friends and colleagues closer, in that by working on this knowledge together we can come to better understandings … The dream is that if everybody works from day to day using the Web as their notebook, mailer and calendar … then the scaling problems of teams and organizations could somehow be solved.”

Berners-Lee has become the most popular and best-known advocate for free, open and fair sharing of information and communication. As the decades since his original innovation have passed, the Web and the underlying infrastructure that carries it – the Internet – have grown by magnitudes in complexity and importance. As this expansion has rapidly transpired, the challenges and opportunities the Web and Internet offer have been magnified. Berners-Lee regularly speaks and writes on important topics such as Long Live the Web: A Call for Continued Open Standards and Neutrality (2010) and The Web is Under Threat; Join Us and Fight for It (2018). At the bottom of this page you will find links to several important talks by Berners-Lee on video.

In 2018, most of the nearly 4 billion people who live digital lives, communicating and staying informed see the World Wide Web as the essence of the Internet

Sir Tim Berners-Lee has been recognized many dozens of times globally for being a visionary humanist innovator. Among the many honors: In 1999 Time magazine named Berners-Lee one of the “100 Greatest Minds of the Century.” In 2000 he was presented with the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Pioneer Award. In 2004 he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth and named a Knight Commander, Order of the British Empire. In 2013 Berners-Lee – along with Vinton Cerf, Robert Kahn, Louis Pouzin and Marc Andreesen – was awarded the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering for “ground-breaking innovation in engineering that has been of global benefit to humanity.” In 2017 he was awarded the ACM A.M. Turing Prize for inventing the World Wide Web, the first Web browser, and the fundamental protocols and algorithms allowing the Web to scale. (The Turing Prize, called the “Nobel Prize of Computing” is considered one of the most prestigious awards in computer science.)

Arete MedallionThe Areté Medallion: Sir Timothy John Berners-Lee

  • Since 1989 Sir Timothy John Berners-Lee has worked tirelessly to develop and positively evolve the World Wide Web – a system linking everyone to nearly everything, revolutionizing nearly everything.
  • He envisioned founded, directs and continues to help shape the World Wide Web Consortium and the Web Foundation – vital human organizations that keep driving the evolution of his innovation to be positive, global and open to all.
  • He sets the example of an ethical technologist whose primary goal is global good and he stands up for human rights as he stands out as a charismatic, enthusiastic, creative, inspirational and tireless public intellectual who is giving his all to encouraging the world’s billions of people to work together to find and take advantage of all of the best approaches we can to make the best future possible for all of humanity.

Click here to return to Areté Medallion home page.

Click here to see “foreveryone.net” a 2016 film about the history and future of the Web.

Click here to see Berners-Lee’s 2016 keynote talk for the Internet of Things World Forum.

Click here to see Berners-Lee’s 2014 TED Talk “A Magna Carta for the Web.”

Click here to see Berners-Lee’s 2009 TED Talk “The Next Web of Open, Linked Data.” 

You can find more links to his talks and articles at the bottom of this biographical page.

* Photos of Berners-Lee shown on this page were taken at public events in 2009 and 2010 by Elon University photographers. No use of these photographs is permitted without prior written permission.

About Imagining the Internet

The mission of Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center is to explore and provide insights into emerging network innovations, global development, dynamics, diffusion and governance. Its research holds a mirror to humanity’s use of communications technologies, informs policy development, exposes potential futures and provides a historic record. It works to illuminate issues in order to serve the greater good, making its work public, free and open.

The center is a network of Elon University faculty, students, staff, alumni, advisers and friends working to identify, explore and engage with the challenges and opportunities of evolving communications forms and issues. They investigate the tangible and potential pros and cons of new-media channels through active research.

Among the spectrum of issues addressed are power, politics, privacy, property, augmented and virtual reality, control and the rapid changes spurred by accelerating technology. It exposes future possibilities while simultaneously providing a peek back at the past.