In March, 1989, Tim Berners-Lee conceived the World Wide Web while working as a software engineer at CERN.
He was trying to solve a problem that many others had tried and failed to solve, he explained during a recent an interview at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
Scientists would come to the CERN research center from all over the world, bringing their own computers that used all sorts of operating systems and software. One scientist couldn’t find or access another’s research.
But then Berners-Lee noticed:
“All these systems looked different but in fact you’re reading stuff on a screen and sometimes clicking on bits. So you could imagine a thin layer which would map all these existing systems into one virtual system. Wouldn’t that be cool?”
He sent the idea to his boss, Mike Sendall, and got Sendall’s now famous response: ‘Vague, but exciting.’ He agreed to let Berners-Lee work on it in his spare time. But he did let Berners-Lee buy a special computer for the project, he told the audience at Rensselaer:
“We bought a cool machine, the NeXT computer. NeXT was a machine made by Steve Jobs when he was kicked out of Apple … it had a wonderful spirit to it, a really good developer’s environment … When you opened it, you got a pre-recorded message from Steve that said, ‘Welcome to the NeXT. This is not about personal computing. It’s about ‘inter-personal’ computing.’ It was perfect for designing the web.”
That idea — “inter-personal computing” — and Job’s voice saying it, really stuck with the creator of the web, he told the audience.
The NeXT computer did not sell well. At one point Jobs gave up on it and focused NeXT on software. Apple bought NeXT in 1996, encouraged Jobs to come back as CEO, and the NeXT software lives on today as the Mac OS X operating system.
But in 1989, Steve Jobs sold one NeXT machine to one young computer programmer and that combination forever changed the world.
Here’s the actual NeXT machine that Tim Berners-Lee used. It became the world’s first web server and ran the first web browser.
Here’s the famous memo: