It has been a long journey from the Stone Age till now; through the Iron age to Bronze and Steel and Steam and Electricity and we have most certainly arrived at the Information Age.
It’s who we are now. It’s what we do. Everywhere people carry their news, information and musical entertainment in pocket devices through which we also make telephone calls. Electronics has made Gods of us all! We are nowhere in time and everywhere in space. One can be talking with someone and their phone will ring (static or mobile) and suddenly physical presence is demoted in favour a of spiritual presence. We accept it without complaint. It’s how things are now.
Before these devices that can carry a thousand music albums in a match box, and which we now take completely for granted, we had tape recorders. Anyone remember those?
The first recorder was a wire recorder, which first saw the light of day in 1898. A reel of steel wire was run past an electro-magnetic head and the variances in the magnetised wire could be re-run past the same head to retrieve the information (sounds) stored on a reel of what looked like fishing wire. After 40 years the wire recorder was replaced by the far more efficient Tape recorder. These machines enabled the music industry to flourish and revolutionised broadcasting. Like all these inventions, they found their way into the domestic market. But they were cumbersome and large and didn’t really revolutionise people’s lives. Then in the `1960s, with the recent birth of the transistor – small and portability was what the population wanted. Transistor radios were everywhere. From the bathroom to the beach, people took their music stations with them. Tape recorders soon followed.
The idea was to bring the big reels of recording tape into a small plastic box. For about 5 years there was a kind of “Tape War” After many designs it came down to the 8 track cartridge verses the Compact Cassette or Cassette Tape. There were some other designs but they did not progress beyond proto-types. Various large corporations wanted to get a standard box tape agreed on, so that manufacture of the tape recorders/ players could begin, whilst at the same time wanting to be the company that gets to license their generic design, 8 track or Compact Cassette. The original designer of the Compact Cassette was Dutch Company Phillips. One day they made an astonishing decision – they gave to the world freedom to use their design, without paying any fees or royalties. Suddenly, the log-jam cleared and within what seemed months; cassette
recorders were everywhere. For the first time people could make their own record compilations, and take it with them.
Then Sony introduced the “Walkman” and the rest is History.
The same thing happened with the video recorder. People wanted to record TV. They wanted to film their own lives and watch it all again later. Another system war was raging, with it all coming down to a choice between Betamax and the slightly inferior VHS. It wasn’t until JVC (Japanese Victor Company) gave free license to manufacturers that VHS became, overnight, the established system of domestic video recording.
Had both Philips and JVC doggedly clung to their ownership of a technological advance, then who knows where we’d be now.
In 1991 another technological advance happened that has transformed how information is accessed.
Twenty-five years ago today, Tim Berners-Lee posted the first web page on line. Rudimentary and uninteresting, insignificant to the untrained eye, this web page has changed human history.
An early version of the internet was already established. I remember sitting at a computer terminal and dialing up and connecting to a University in the USA and was able to access some of their research documents. I can’t remember why I did this, but I do recall it being a slow painful experience. I would get lost in all the lists of directories and sub directories, looking for a document I wanted.
Tim Berners-Lee devised a software architecture that took all these directories and internet addresses and absorbed them into what became known as a Web Page. The web page did all that work for you and presented the destinations on the internet in a completely transparent and standard way. Every document had an electronic address. It involved a very sophisticated protocol called “Hypertext” which I can’t possibly go into at this time of night. Enough to say, it was very clever and in techincal terms put the horse and the cart together.
Tim Berners-Lee was working at CERN at the time as he was struggling to establish a usable front end environment to interrogate the growing number of documents available on line. He was allowed to develop his project by CERN bosses when others he had approached were not interested. (Always remember Decca Records turned down the Beatles)
CERN (Centre Européan de Recherche Nucléaire) the Swiss-based European research organization, which today is home to the Large Hadron Collider, recognized the potential
of Berners-Lee’s ideas and released the entire package free to anyone who wanted to develop it further. The CERN organization was a not for profit body charged with the task of promoting scientific research and development. Had he worked for IBM or British Aerospace, his ideas would have been proprietorial and therefore the property of his employer and subject to potential monetisation.
But Tim Berners-Lee worked for CERN and without charge to the users – for ever, the World Wide Web was born.
Thank you Tim. Thank you CERN.