Setting the WWW Free – This Day, That Year

There are some things which are so basic to our existence that we just take them for granted. Would it be a stretch to propose that Oxygen and World Wide Web fall in that category? Perhaps not. Arguably though, the instant recall of both Joseph Priestly (discovered Oxygen in 1774) and Tim-Berners Lee (invented the World Wide Web in 1989) would be a stretch for many. Two hundred and nineteen years separate the two dates, and yet, they are bound by the common thread of indispensability.

August 23rd, 1991 will forever remain a special day in modern history.

After graduating from Oxford, Tim joined CERN as a software engineer and almost immediately hit a wall – the singular challenge of sharing information. Sounds queer enough today, but back then one had to log onto different computers – which often responded only to specific software programs – to access information. The standard joke was, it was faster and easier to simply ask a colleague over coffee. Yet at that time, millions of computers were already connected through the fast developing Internet, and what he did thereafter would prove to be the foundation of today’s Web. Tim wrote three fundamental technologies – HTML, URL and HTTP right through the years 89 and 90. By the end of 1990, the first Web page was made available on the open Internet, and in 1991, precisely on this day – twenty-third of August – people outside CERN were invited to join this new “Web Community”.

The greatness of this man was that he was astute enough to realise that its proliferation rested on freedom, and that WWW should not be fettered by the control of proprietary software; that universality and proprietary, could only exist as mutually exclusive ideas, was not lost on him. Tim advocated hard at CERN to make the codes available forever on a royalty-free basis, which finally saw the light of day in 1993, and the world was never to be the same again. Inexorably, geography was a step closer to becoming history.

The World Wide Web and Internet are often used interchangeably, but they are not actually the same things. The Internet is a global system of interconnected computer networks. In contrast, the World Wide Web is a global collection of text documents and other resources, linked by hyperlinks and URLs. HTTP, one of the many internet communication protocols, is used to access Web resources. Well, this is hardly the place to delve into technical explanations of the two terms but suffice to say, the explosion since, has been unprecedented. In most (many?) parts of the world, the first thing that one does after waking up, is check social media for unread messages. Curiously enough, it’s pretty much the last activity for the day as well, for many (most?). That’s how ubiquitous this invention is.

Most inventions are birthed by brainwaves. We are indeed thankful to Sir Tim Berners-Lee and CERN that exactly 25 years ago, this day on 23rd August, the WWW was set free. As we raise a toast to one of the greatest inventions of humankind, one would do well to recall that famous line – a ship in harbour is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.

Well now, Oxygen and the Internet – are they comparable? You are using WWW to access this document at this very moment, so need I say more?

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