Internet pioneers share £1m prize for "inventing" Web

Jonathan Weinberg
Yahoo! News
FILE - In this Thursday, March 31, 2011 file photo, World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee addresses the media during the International World Wide Web conference in Hyderabad, India. The scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known by its French acronym CERN, are searching for the first Web page. It was there that Berners-Lee invented the Web in 1990 as an unsanctioned project. (AP Photo/Mahesh Kumar A., File)

The brains behind the internet have been awarded a £1 million prize for revolutionising the way the whole world now talks, lives and works.

Brit Sir Tim Berners-Lee along with American Vinton Cerf and three fellow engineers are widely-regarded as being responsible for the creation of the Internet and World Wide Web.

Today their efforts were rewarded with the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, given to them by the Monarch herself at a ceremony at Buckingham Palace.

It is the first time the prize has been given out and the five were feted for changing the face of communication and enabling the development of whole new industries globally.

It is estimated that a third of the world's population now use the internet, which carries around 330 Petabytes of data per year, It is enough space to transfer every character ever written in every book ever published 20 times over.

On receiving the honour, Berners-Lee and Cerf, alongside Americans Robert Kahn and Marc Andreessen and Frenchman Louis Pouzin were praised for their work by luminaries such as former Microsoft boss Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, ex-US Vice-President Al Gore and scientist Professor Brian Cox. He called their work a "global benefit to humankind".

Lord Broers, who chaired the judging, said: "Engineering is, by its very nature, a collaborative activity and the emergence of the internet and the web involved many teams of people all over the world.

"However, these five visionary engineers, never before honoured together as a group, led the two key developments that shaped the internet and web as a coherent system and brought them into public use."

Londoner Sir Tim is widely credited as the person who built what we now know as the World Wide Web - the information-sharing model that sits on top of the internet. It is what we commonly see as website pages through our browsers and there are now more than 50 billion pages of information available.

However, it was Kahn and Cerf who made massive and crucial infrastructure contributions to the design and protocols that were the building blocks of the internet's architecture and communication systems.

These are known as the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and the Internet Protocol (IP) and the internet is made up of a worldwide network of these TCP/IP networks, enabling computers to talk to each other.

Back in 1972, Kahn and colleagues at the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency had shown how it was possible to connect 20 different computers and send messages between them. These messages were broken up into 'packets' of information and reassembled once they reached their destination. Kahn described it as "the watershed event".

Pouzin was responsible for leading a European team working on peer-to-peer networks sending data between computers. His work was later used in Kahn and Cerf's protocols.

But it was the work by Berners-Lee which extended the internet beyond simply email and file transfers creating the first web servers and pages while 41-year-old Andreessen, a student at the time in 1992, wrote the Mosaic browser, which made the web accessible to everyone.

What was a network of networks connecting billions of computers to send data found its usefulness thanks to Sir Tim's vision in 1989. He eventually added the higher-level of content, transforming into the first web browser, server and web page and first demonstrated it in 1991.

His breakthrough created the web address, or URL, the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), which is the foundation of data communication for the web and also HyperText Markup Language (HTML) which is the main mark-up language for creating web pages and information that can be displayed on a web browser.

Prime Minister David Cameron paid tribute to the men today. He said: "It makes me proud that the UK is host to this international prize. Engineering is about growth and progress for both the economy and society - bringing vast improvements in people's lives. The internet and the web are prime examples of this - engineering innovations that have enabled new industries, a huge number of jobs and enabled the world and its people to access education and knowledge as never before."

His view was echoed by former CEO of Microsoft Bill Gates. He said: "It would be difficult to point to any significant human endeavour that has not been touched profoundly through the invention and deployment of the internet. We are living today in only the beginning of the transformations that will come through this enabling technology."

Mr Bezos added: "By 'flattening the world' through ubiquitous communication and information flow, the internet has brought us closer together, increased global understanding, amplified freedom of speech, and served as a strong tonic to totalitarian regimes. One must look to items such as the printing press or widespread electrification to find technologies approaching the internet's global societal impact.