Appreciating the Roots of the World Wide Web

by Patricia McGinnis 0

Our Cambridge neighbor MIT is celebrating its150th anniversary. In honor of that event, TheBoston Globe has assembled and published a review including”150 Fascinating, Fun, Important, Interesting, Lifesaving,Life-Altering, Bizarre and Bold Ways That MIT Has Made aDifference.” Mine came with the Sunday delivery (yes, I know, Istill get a paper paper!) but most of the review, including thefirst 50 notables, is available online at

Overall, the review is a thought-provoking selection of pivotalevents and pivotal people, all linked to one rather amazingorganization. The introduction is by Bill Gates, who shares hisadmiration for the spirit and values of MIT:

“I was lucky enough to take a fewcourses at MIT when I was studying next door at Harvard. … It’sremarkable to think that 76 current and former MIT members areNobel Prize recipients. …. A recent study showed that MIT alumnihave founded nearly 26,000 companies, which collectively employ 3.3million people and generate about $2 trillion in annualsales.”

Less well known, but of equal orgreater value in Bill’s eyes, is MIT’s OpenCourseWare website,which makes videos and class notes from several thousand MITcourses available to the public at no charge.

What gave me pause was a sudden recognition of the debt ofgratitude that so many of us working in technology owe to oneindividual for one remarkable act, listed as the first of the150.

“Tim Berners-Lee, the soft-spokenBriton who invented the Web in 1989 while working at a particlephysics lab in Geneva, came to MIT in 1994 to help create the WorldWide Web Consortium, to help spread technical standards forbuilding websites, browsers, and devices (like televisions) thatoffer access to Web content. His greatest act of all was actuallysomething he didn’t do: patent his invention or extract licensingfees from those who used his ideas – decisions that helped the Webgo global in a few years. ‘The thing spread largely because Ididn’t make World Wide Web Incorporated in 1991,’ Berners-Lee hassaid.”

It was also an MIT alum Ray Tomlinsonworking at Bolt, Beranek & Newman in Cambridge who developed anearly e-mail system for the Arpanet (an Internet predecessor) andchose the “@” to signify the username link to the machine wherethat user could be found. It was MIT alum Ken Olsen (recentlydeceased) who founded Digital Equipment Corp., and rehabbed for itsheadquarters the old brick mill complex where Mercator AdvisoryGroup and others now reside.

Want a stroll down the memory lane of technology? Want to remembersome often-unsung heroes? It is hard to imagine how differentthings might have been.