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Turing Award 2016

April 7, 2017

It takes a …

Sir Tim Berners-Lee is the latest winner of the ACM Turing Award. He was cited for “inventing the World Wide Web (WWW), the first web browser, and the fundamental protocols and algorithms allowing the web to scale.”

Today we congratulate Sir Tim on his award and review the work by which the Web flew out and floated wide.

Ken is the lead writer on this, and I (Dick) am just making a few small additions and changes: the phrase “flew out and floated wide” is due to Ken. He was until a while ago trapped in the real world where physical travel is still required. More exactly he was trapped at JFK airport in New York, which many consider not the best airport to be stuck at. The WWW may be wonderful for work at a distance, but we sometimes have to get from here to there: in Ken’s case it’s from Buffalo USA to Madrid Spain for meetings on chess cheating.

While he was stuck at JFK he had the pleasure of using the free airport WiFi. Free is generally good but it yields messages on his browser window that say, “Waiting for response from…” Ken adds:

OK, that window has my Yahoo! fantasy baseball team—I’ll use Verizon 4G access on my cellphone if it doesn’t load. Happily I can write these words offline until Dick and I can resume collaborating on this post when I’m airborne.

Let’s wish Ken good travels out of JFK, and get back to Ken’s thoughts on this Turing Award.

It Takes a “Willage”

Some have already noted that others besides Berners-Lee were integral to the early days of the Web: his partners at CERN including Robert Cailliau and also Marc Andreessen who wrote the Mosaic browser with Eric Bina and founded Netscape with Jim Clark. Usually we lean toward the “It Takes a Village” view of multiple credits. Last year we addressed whether Ralph Merkle should have been included in the Turing Award with Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman. There we signaled our feeling by including Merkle in the first line and photo.

Here, however, we note first that Berners-Lee not only conceived a flexible architecture for the Web, he originated a trifecta: the HTTP protocol, the HTML language, and the first browser design. The protocol included the specification for URLs—Uniform Resource Locators. Of course he had partners on these designs and tools, including counterparts involved in negotiating their adoption, but that brings us to our second point.

This is that Berners-Lee projected his will that the Web be open and free. Its core layers should be free of patent and copyright attachments. Service and access should in first principle be equal everywhere. He convinced many others to share and implement these aspects of will.

Being First Is Hard

Often an idea is invented multiple times. Often ideas remain just ideas because the technology is not ready to implement them. It’s curious to note that Berners-Lee, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates share the same birth year: 1955. One wonders did this help make things happen? Was there some confluence that made the ideas for the WWW all come together?

Ken notes that “As We May Think” is a 1945 essay by Vannevar Bush. Many of the ideas expressed by Bush are basic to the current WWW. Of course it was written ten years before Berners-Lee was even born, so it is not surprising that Bush did not invent the web.

Quoting Wikipedia:

“As We May Think” predicted (to some extent) many kinds of technology invented after its publication, including hypertext, personal computers, the Internet, the World Wide Web, speech recognition, and online encyclopedias such as Wikipedia: “Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready-made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified.” Bush envisioned the ability to retrieve several articles or pictures on one screen, with the possibility of writing comments that could be stored and recalled together. He believed people would create links between related articles, thus mapping the thought process and path of each user and saving it for others to experience. Wikipedia is one example of how this vision has been realized, allowing users to link words to other related topics, while browser user history maps the trails of the various possible paths of interaction.

Open Problems

We applaud ACM for selecting this year’s winner—Sir Tim Berners-Lee. There are perhaps too many great researchers around for all to get the recognition they deserve. Oh well. In any event Dick and I thank Berners-Lee and everyone who maked the WWW possible. Even as I (Ken) wait at JFK I can still help get this writing done, and can interact with Dick. Thanks to all who continue to make this work so well.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. April 8, 2017 12:21 am

    so then only ~½ century from the mind of a visionary to full fledged realization/ implementation. not bad…? congrats tim berners lee, thx for inventing much of cyberspace. & thx to google for upping the award money to a more significant/ meaningful amt.

  2. April 8, 2017 3:55 am

    For me the first exposure to the WWW was in 1994 at Ecole Polytechnique, Paris: the Mosaic browser in rooms with dozens of HP workstations. First effect: skip the courses, surf instead!

  3. April 8, 2017 7:45 pm

    > It’s curious to note that Berners-Lee, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates share the same birth year: 1955

    Malcolm Gladwell devotes half a chapter in his book Outliers on being demographically lucky and being born in/around 1955. See for more — apparently, top execs/founders from Microsoft, Apple, Google, and Sun were all born around the same time.

  4. April 9, 2017 9:52 am

    btw reminds me, another significant figure in the development of the web, Ted Nelson/ Xanadu, but alas mostly unheralded/ forgotten. a plight not uncommon among visionaries…

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