Sir Tim Berners-Lee

“I’m a geek, by the way, and proud of it.”

DO Takeaways

  1. Progression takes time and patience.
  2. Tinkering is learning.
  3. Luck always plays a part.

The Talk

Year: 2010
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Despite a career of proof to the contrary, a knighthood and an appearance in the London Olympic Games opening ceremony, Tim Berners-Lee begins his DO Lectures talk by arguing down the suggestion that he’s a genius. Instead, he insists that creating the World Wide Web was a simple matter of being in the right place at the right time.

He explains that being raised in a house where mathematics and science were considered both exciting and an imperative part of life – his parents worked on the first commercially built computer, the Ferranti Mark 1 – set him on a path that would see him reap the right technological advances of his generation at the right time.

It’s said that The Book Of Experiments by Leonard De Vries is ultimately to blame for Berners-Lee’s first experiences with circuits; it was because of this book that he discovered the power of a humble nail and coil … if only, at the time, used for stealthily firing things at his siblings with a home made remote control gun.

It wasn’t long, however, until Tim learnt that what he had actually created with a nail and a coil was, in fact, an electro magnetic relay.

Experiments with nails swiftly evolved into experiments with transistors, and experiments with transistors became discoveries of Logic Gates. This childhood of joyful scientific engulfment meant that during secondary school, Berners-Lee was creating systems as complex as Intercom with independent dialing in his spare time.

It’s not surprising then, that before he had even left school, Tim was using his well-earned wealth of knowledge to attempt to build his own computer, with the help of his buddy, Nick.

It was a task that would take years to successfully complete, Tim would still be working on their creation when he collected his first class degree in physics from Oxford, but his in depth knowledge of systems, their basic principles and their functionality, along with his vehement passion for programming, would stand him in impressive stead in his post graduate career, which include contributions to CERN.

The World Wide Web, the lynch pin of modern society, a fundamental part of our existence, was created several years later, in what Berners-Lee describes as a ‘ta-da’ moment. An indecipherable stroke of luck. Born out of a frustration with the lack of sharing ability between colleagues and systems at CERN, the boy who tinkered with circuits for his model trains became the man who invented the single most valuable creation of our time. And then gifted it to all of us.

Now the Internet is woven inexorably into every aspect of our daily lives. We tweet, we facebook, we email. Berners-Lee points out that there are as many web pages out there – ten to the power of eleven, apparently – as there are neurons in our brain. A mind-boggling statistic. Although, unlike the brain, there is no relevant studies to track and decipher the web as a living, breathing entity. This, he feels, is not only a job for the young generation who now reap the benefits of his creation that ‘just happened’, but a responsibility.

In fact, throughout the entirety of his talk, Tim continues to insist that for the internet to have any sort of sustainable future, the next generation of creative programmers need to be coaxed away from their bedrooms and encouraged to dream, create and experiment, just like he did.