Heroes of software engineering - Tim Berners-Lee

Posted by s.hettrick on 5 September 2013 - 9:04am

TBL.jpgBy Ian Cottam, IT Services Research Lead, The University of Manchester.

Software Engineering Hero #3 in my series is Tim Berners-Lee. 
Of all my heroes in this series of posts, he is perhaps the one who needs the least introduction, as the inventor of the Web (and not the Internet as he often has to correct journalists).


All my heroes “stood on the shoulders of giants” to achieve what they did. The designers of the Internet, with all its established protocols, were Berners-Lee’s giants, as were his parents who both programmed the commercial (Ferranti) version of the Manchester Mark 1 back in the early 1950s. 
It is fascinating to consider that that there were hypertext systems before Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web. Interestingly, they were often put forward by computer scientists, rather than software engineers. In theory they were better than (what would become) the web, as they had, for example, links that didn’t break; two-way links; and links stored in a separate database, not the document itself.

As we all know, it was the engineering, pragmatic design (of Berners-Lee’s) that scaled massively and was taken up at such an impressive rate. It also helped that the technologies he invented were made freely available to all. But still, give me a software engineer’s gut feel for what is needed over a computer scientist’s any day. 
In the very (very) early days of the Web I remember talking with a couple of software engineering professors from Aberystwyth University and they said that the Web would be a bigger disruption than the personal computer had been. I thought that was a brave prediction to make at the time, but then I’ve never been very good at spotting revolutions.

Much has been published about Tim Berners-Lee so it is difficult to say something new. However, back in 2008 I helped my wife (Professor Carole Goble, one of the Institute's Co-Investigators) write a degree-day speech presenting Tim Berners-Lee with an honorary doctorate here in Manchester. The final version was written by Carole and until today has not been published widely. Here it is: I hope you enjoy reading it.

Excerpt from Professor Carole Goble's speech presenting Tim Berners-Lee for the degree of Doctor of Science honoris causa of The University of Manchester

Almost twenty years ago, a software developer working at CERN in Switzerland wanted to help physicists distributed throughout the world to work together and to share information more easily. In 1989 he proposed to design and build a distributed interlinked web of documents. By 1990 the system he developed, called the World Wide Web, was available to CERN scientists. By 1991 the World Wide Web was on the Internet at large, and its cornerstones – Uniform Resource Identifiers, the Hypertext Transfer Protocol and Hypertext Markup Language – were being refined. By 1995 he had won his first awards. Today, the Web as everyone, including my Mum, calls it, has more than 25 billion pages of accessible information, supports tens of billions of dollars in commerce and enables people to communicate across national and cultural boundaries.

The Web’s impact on information and communication has been likened to that of the printing press. It too changed the way society, business, entertainment, government, science, politics and our everyday lives are conducted. This new computing age has so changed the world that many people, especially the young, cannot conceive of a life without it, and don’t see how their elders could have computed, or worked, or played, without it.

Today we honour the work and achievements of that software developer, Professor Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor and custodian of the World Wide Web.

Tim Berners-Lee graduated from The Queen’s College at Oxford University in 1976, and whilst there he built his first computer with a soldering iron, some TTL gates, an M6800 processor and an old television. During the following eight years he worked for various commercial enterprises writing software for distributed communications systems, computer operating systems, and drivers for printers, bar-coders and graphics. In 1984, he took up a fellowship at CERN, to work on distributed real-time systems for scientific data acquisition and system control. And the rest we know. In 1994, Tim founded the World Wide Web Consortium and since then he has served as the Director of the Consortium that coordinates Web development worldwide.

The evolution of computing, from the Manchester Mark 1 to The World Wide Web, is paralleled by the “Berners-Lee family business”, for Tim is a second-generation software engineer. Both of his parents worked on the commercial version of the Mark 1 in Manchester – sixty years ago this October the British government had issued an order to Ferranti Limited, which just said, and I quote:

“Construct an electronic calculating machine to the instructions of Professor F.C. Williams.”


How implausibly, and refreshingly, straightforward. Tim’s mother, Mary-Lee, can claim to be the world’s first commercial programmer as she was sent out to organisations that invested in a Mark 1 to write programs for them and to show them how it was done. Tim was probably one of the first children to be given 5-hole paper tape to play with! He recently described this time to me

“So you could say I wouldn’t exist if it hadn't been for the project [the Mark 1]. The excitement of those years was very evident to me as a kid, as was the sense of unbounded possibility.”


Tim continues to push tirelessly towards greater possibilities such as the Semantic Data Web, the Web Science Research Initiative and the World Wide Web Foundation recently unveiled in September [2008, ed.].


The Semantic Data Web aims to enhance the Web with content that can be intelligently understood by machines, and so that data can be interlinked and combined as readily as web pages are now. I am proud to say that computer scientists at Manchester have been instrumental in the design of the knowledge languages that underpin this vision. The Web Science Research Initiative aims to facilitate and produce the fundamental scientific advances necessary to inform the future design and use of the World Wide Web. The Foundation’s mission is to advance One Web that is free and open, to expand the Web’s capability and robustness, and to extend the Web’s benefits to all people on the planet. Tim says


“The challenge is to manage the Web in an open way – not too much bureaucracy, and not subject to political or commercial pressures.”


The success of the Web can be attributed to the facts that it was open and free to all to use and all to contribute; its design was easily understood and adoptable and its vision unbounded and exciting. This is down to Tim’s sense of social responsibility, his enthusiasm and his generosity of spirit.


Tim’s achievements have been rightly recognised throughout the world with an astonishing list of prestigious awards – including a knighthood, a clutch of fellowships of learned societies and a citation by Time Magazine as one of the 100 greatest minds of the century. Today Manchester is truly privileged to acknowledge and honour this great computer scientist and this great humanitarian.


Chancellor, I am very pleased to present to you Tim Berners-Lee for the degree of Doctor of Science honoris causa.