Tim Berners-Lee and the Invention of the Internet for Kids

How are you listening to this podcast today? On a computer, a cell phone, or a smart home device like Alexa? Whatever device you’re using, it connects to the internet. The internet is central to so many things we do today, but have you ever wondered what exactly it is, or how it got to be what it is today? In this episode, you’re going to find out!

Our story begins in 1955 in London England with the birth of Tim Berners-Lee. Both of Tim’s parents were scientists who helped build one of the first computers in the 1950s, the Ferranti Mark 1. Tim enjoyed playing with model railroads as a child, and he learned a lot about electronics from this hobby. He went on to study physics at the University of Oxford in England, where he continued to tinker with electronics in his spare time, building a computer inside an old TV. He graduated with a degree in physics. 

Tim worked as a programmer for many years after graduating, and learned about many technologies along the way. Eventually, he got a job working at CERN, a European nuclear research agency. At CERN, Tim’s first job was to help people communicate over computer networks and use data stored on them in order to do their jobs. But Tim was frustrated to find that all these computers worked in different ways, so it was difficult to get them to talk to one another. Tim wanted to make it easier for people to communicate and work together using these computer networks. 

In the early 1990s, Tim Berners-Lee helped to invent not one, not two, but three key, related technologies that helped the internet become more widely available. He developed the “www” or World Wide Web system (you may have noticed this in website addresses); HTML, or HyperText Markup Language; and the first web browser. 

We’ll talk about each of these in more detail later, but before that, I should go over a few basic things about how the internet works. The internet actually existed before Tim Berners-Lee’s contributions. It’s just a name for a system of computers that are connected to each other — a network. Computers on a network can send and receive messages to and from other computers on the network, or to other networks There are two main types of computers that you need to know about to understand the internet: servers and clients. Servers store information like email or documents, and send or “serve” that information to clients when they request it. Clients are the computers that you and I use to go online. 

The details of this can get a little confusing, but Tim Berners Lee himself actually has a good way of describing the process. He compares it to a mail system. Say you drop a letter in the mailbox. Your letter is like the information you’re sending over the internet. The workers in the post office, similar to a server, look at the address on the letter, and decide where to send it next. That letter might go through a half dozen or more post offices on its way to your house, getting a little closer to you with each one. Eventually, the mail carrier drops it in your mailbox, which is like the client computer.  Unlike with paper mail, all this happens in the blink of an eye on the internet, although in the early days, it could take a bit longer.

Actually, in the early days of the internet, there were no webpages at all. The internet was mostly a tool for scientists to communicate with each other, and it was entirely text-based – no photographs, videos, or music. There were various computer networks in the early days. One of the first was called Arpanet, and it was created by the United States government. It had just four computers on it at first, all of them at universities or government research facilities.  These researchers used very basic tools like File Transfer Protocol to share documents, or simple email systems. 

Internet access expanded to the general public in the 1980s, but it was still far from the internet we know today. There were no viral tik tok dances, cat memes or Wikipedia. It was still used as a communication tool for people with technical knowledge. The systems they used were mostly text-based, meaning they had no graphics.

But Tim Berners-Lee and his three inventions would change everything. The early 1990s were a turning point in the development of the internet, the time when the web really began to look something like what we know today. 

Tim developed the first invention with his colleague at CERN, Robert Cailliau. The World Wide Web, or WWW, is the system used by servers — those computers where your websites are stored — to find documents on the internet. What I’m calling a “document” in this case might be a webpage, a photo, or a music or video file. In the WWW system, every document on the web has a Universal Resource Locator, or URL. That may sound like fancy techno-babble, but I’m sure you’ve seen one. It’s a web address, like www.bedtimehistorystories.com. These addresses can be used by anyone to link to any page on the internet, and they’re usually pretty easy to remember. The very first world wide web server was actually Tim’s work computer at CERN!

HTML is short for HyperText Markup Language, and it’s a computer language used to encode or “mark-up” documents so that a web browser can read and display them in a way that is easy for people to read and understand. HTML tags mark where specific elements of a document are. There are HTML tags for paragraphs, images, links, and most of the other things you would see on a webpage.  

Of course, in order to be useful for displaying web pages, HTML needed a program designed to read and display it. Tim also invented the first program to read and display HTML documents, which he called a browser. Today, there are dozens of browsers, like Chrome, Edge, and Safari, but the first one was called World Wide Web. Since CERN was not interested in paying people to develop web browsers beyond this, Tim encouraged the growing online community of web developers to volunteer their time to create a better browser. In 1993, the Mosaic browser was released by a team at the University of Illinois. Since then, this model of using volunteers from across the world has helped create many important web technologies and products. 

Finally, the managers at CERN made a decision that turned out to be very important for the future of the web: They decided to make Tim’s inventions open standards, meaning anyone could use them. This meant that people around the world could set up their own web servers and create pages using HTML, and they could link to any other webpage on the internet. Likewise, anyone in the world who had a computer and an internet connection could use a browser to view those pages. You didn’t have to be a computer scientist, or an academic, or even know what a server is. As a result, today there are:

  • Almost 2 billion websites on the internet
  • Almost 5 billion internet users
  • Around 7 billion Google searches per day
  • Around 7 billion YouTube videos viewed per day and…
  • Thousands of podcasts you can listen to at any time!

Tim Berners Lee saw a system–the early internet–that had a lot of potential, and came up with ways to improve it and make it vastly more useful for people all over the world. He has won many awards for his achievements: he was knighted by the queen of England in 2013, and won a prestigious computing prize called the Turing Award. He was the key force behind the modern internet, but he also made sure that anyone with the right skills could improve the systems he developed, which is what allowed the world wide web to explode in popularity and accessibility. He has continued to work throughout his life to keep the internet a free and open system that anyone can access.

Tim is a great example of someone who was curious and used his skills to design things that would be useful to other people. He liked to tinker, which means try out new things and play around with them, until they become a useful invention. And when he did design something that was useful he didn’t keep it to himself. He found a way that people all over the world could benefit from it. Considering others is important to do in all of our actions.

We hope you enjoyed this episode about the Invention of the Internet and Tim Berners Lee and be sure to tune in next Monday for a new episode.