Belgian inventions: World Wide Web

Slightly less than fifty percent of the world’s population or some four billion people have access to the World Wide Web (WWW). This popular information system saw the light of day in the early 1990s, partly thanks to the invaluable contribution of Robert Cailliau.

Although his name might not sound familiar, the Belgian Robert Cailliau is, together with the Brit Tim Berners-Lee, the founder of the World Wide Web. This invention can best be seen as a system (browser) that connects all individual websites. In the 1990s, the advent of the www brought the Internet, a global public network of computer networks, to the masses.

Robert Cailliau started working in 1974 at CERN, the European institute for nuclear physics in Switzerland. There, in 1989, he tried to develop a system that connected information systems. At the same time, the British Tim Berners-Lee was working on a similar technique. So they decided to collaborate.

“My colleague thought more universally,” Cailliau once told in an interview. “It was clear that his project had a broader scope. So, we decided to take over his business. Berners-Lee took care of the technical part. I made sure we had the best workers in Geneva and took care of the management. We came up with the name World Wide Web together. We also made the decision together not to take out a patent.”

Initially, the World Wide Web was intended to facilitate the exchange of information between the scientists at CERN. An environment was created in which project documentation and other information could be created and maintained in a jointly created hypertext that could be viewed and modified directly over the Internet.

Birth of WWW

By November 1990, the concept had developed far enough to be turned into a formal project, and a proposal was submitted. A few months later, on 6 August 1991, Tim Berners-Lee posted a brief overview of the project on the alt.hypertext newsgroup, making it publicly available. That date is considered to be the birth date of the World Wide Web.

Within a year, the number of web servers grew from a handful to thousands and the World Wide Web became a standard facility as important as e-mail. Both CERN’s and NCSA’s code was open source, making it relatively easy for third parties – such as Microsoft – to develop www-software.

Since then, the World Wide Web has undergone an enormous evolution. The initially educational project grew into a worldwide success. ​ Both Cailliau and Berners-Lee collected an impressive series of awards during their careers. For example, HTML, the language of the WWW, was awarded the unofficial Nobel Prize for computer science. Cailliau is also a Commander in the Order of Leopold, and holds an honorary doctorate from the University of Ghent. ​