12 November 1990: Tim Berners-Lee sets out to build the World Wide Web

Cern, the European nuclear research agency in Switzerland, churns out an awful lot of data, as you might expect. In March 1989, British scientist Tim Berners-Lee sent out a proposal to his colleagues bemoaning the fact that it was all too easy for information to get filed away and lost. Different departments used different computers, which ran different software – much of which was unable to talk to each other. If you found part of what you were looking for on one computer, you might have to get up and go to another computer to complete your search.

But what if you didn’t know exactly what you were looking for? You might be able to follow a trail for a while, but miss all the data around it. Berners-Lee’s solution was to have links on pages, over a network of computers, that would direct researchers from A to B, and then possibly straight to E, all at the click of a mouse.

Information would be easier to find, because it mimicked the way people communicate in the real world as opposed to following an endless, rigid directory of folders contained within folders. People don’t just talk to their boss, for example, they talk to everyone in the office, sharing ideas in all direction, so why not do the same with linked pages on an interconnected network of computers – an ‘internet’?

For that to happen, pages would have to be ‘marked up’ in a common language, which Berners-Lee referred to as ‘hypertext’. ‘Hypertext mark-up language’, HTML for short, is still the foundation of web pages today. And if anybody was free to create these pages, you would eventually have a ‘worldwide web’ of data.

On 12 November 1990, Berners-Lee and colleague Robert Cailliau published a proposal entitled WorldWideWeb: Proposal for a HyperText Project that set out a two-phase plan to achieve their web. The first stage would involve the “implementation of simple browsers”. Then they would “extend the application”, “allowing the users to add new material”.

For the “state-of-the-art” computers and software needed for the project, the pair budgeted around CHF80,000 (£32,500 in 1990). But research into “fancy multimedia facilities such as sound and video” would have to wait for the time being.

In the 25 years since then, the World Wide Web has changed our lives in ways we could scarcely have imagined. Last year, online retail hit £104bn in the UK alone. Who knows where the Web will take us next?

Also on this day

12 November 1859: Jules Leotard’s flying trapeze

On this day in 1859, Jules Leotard performed the world’s first ever flying trapeze act, wowing audiences in the Cirque Napoleon in Paris. Read more here