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Tim Berners-Lee Wins Finnish 'Nobel' Prize

By Kirk L. Kroeker
Apr 15, 2004 1:26 PM PT

World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee has won the first-ever Millennium Technology Prize -- worth 1 million euros (US$1.2 million) -- which is bestowed by the Finnish Technology Award Foundation.

Tim Berners-Lee Wins Finnish 'Nobel' Prize

The new prize represents an international acknowledgement of an outstanding technological innovation that directly promotes people's quality of life, is based on humane values and encourages sustainable economic development.

Berners-Lee will receive the prize June 15th at an award ceremony in Helsinki's Finlandia Hall.

"Less than 15 years after he first thought of it, the Web has connected millions of people all over the world," says Professor Bill O'Riordan, a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering who nominated Berners-Lee for the prize.

"We can now work together, trade and manage information in real-time, and it has opened up a totally new area of commerce through which scores of entrepreneurs have made (and lost) millions literally overnight," said O'Riordan. "Big science is now possible cheaply through instant global collaboration."

Solution to Engineering Problem

"I am delighted that a Fellow of our Academy has been nominated for the first award of such a prestigious international prize," said Sir Alec Broers, president of the Royal Academy of Engineering. "The engineering innovation that is the Web has had an amazing impact."

The Web arose less as a discovery out of the blue than as an engineer's solution to a problem -- how to make collaboration better and easier.

Berners-Lee conceived the idea in 1989 while he was a Fellow at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory, in Geneva, Switzerland. "In an exciting place like CERN," he has said, "you have so many people coming in with great ideas, doing some work, and leaving with no trace of what they've done and why they did it that the whole organization really needed this. It needed some place to be able to cement its organisational knowledge."

He based his Web initially on a "wysiwyg" browser-editor and a Web server, and he wrote most of the software to go with it, in the process defining URLs, HTTP and HTML, the trinity that serves to this day as the foundation for the Web and for creating and sharing information.

Avoiding Babel

Much of Berners-Lee's work was based on a program he had written 10 years earlier purely for his own use to "keep track of all the random associations one comes across and brains are supposed to be so good at remembering but sometimes mine wouldn't." He called it Enquire, short for Enquire Within Upon Everything, a Victorian-era encyclopedia.

The World Wide Web concept proved so popular that it soon broke out of CERN, providing a way for ordinary people to tap into cyberspace. By mid-1991 it was winning overwhelming acceptance from the Internet community, and public use of the Web soon started to grow exponentially, but the way Berners-Lee then developed the prototype demonstrates best-practice concurrent engineering.

In 1994, he founded the World Wide Web Consortium, a not-for-profit forum that aims to lead the Web to its full potential. W3C is a gathering of normally fiercely competitive companies and organizations working together for the common good.

"I felt there was a very strong push for a neutral body," Berners-Lee said. "Somewhere where all the technology providers, the content providers, and the users could come together and talk about what they want; where there would be some facilitation to arrive at a common specification for doing things. Otherwise, we would be back to the Tower of Babel."

Sir Tim Berners-Lee

Sir Tim Berners-Lee holds the 3Com Founders Chair at MIT's Laboratory for Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence and is director of the World Wide Web Consortium. He is a Fellow of both the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society and is also a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society. He won the Royal Academy of Engineering's first Whittle Medal in 2001.

He was born in 1955 and brought up in London, the son of two mathematicians who met while working on the Ferranti Mark I, the first commercially available computer.

He learned to enjoy mathematics and developed a fascination for electronics. While an undergraduate at Oxford, he built his own computer from an old TV and an M6800 processor. After graduation, he worked with Plessey Telecommunications on distributed transaction systems and then with DG Nash on multitasking operating systems.

He then spent six months as a software consultant at CERN, where he would return later as a Fellow after three years back in the United Kingdom as technical director of Image Computer Systems, designing real-time communication graphics.

Millennium Technology Prize

Seventy-eight innovators from 22 countries were nominated for the Millennium Technology Prize 2004 in four technological fields: healthcare and life sciences; communication and information; new materials and processes; and energy and the environment.

Berners-Lee's selection was based on a recommendation by the International Award Selection Committee and made unanimously by the board of the Finnish Technology Award Foundation at a meeting April 14th.

Founded in 1976, the Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the United Kingdom. The fellowship -- consisting of the country's most eminent engineers -- provides the leadership and expertise for the organization's activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology and quality of life.

As a national academy, the organization attempts to provide independent and impartial advice to government, to secure the next generation of engineers and to provide a voice for Britain's engineering community.


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