Tuesday, June 15, 2004

In order to qualify as a genius....

.......you have to have at least two great ideas in your lifetime.

Wally Bock
in his latest post card profiles Tim-Berners lee, the inventor of the Internet.

Tim Berners-Lee: Good Guy and Possible Genius

Tim Berners-Lee has been called a genius by a lot of people.
He's also one of the good guys. This month, in Helsinki, he
receives the first Millennium Technology Prize, given by the
Finnish Technology Award Foundation.

In case you don't know, Tim Berners-Lee is the fellow who
invented the World Wide Web. And, in case you're wondering,
unlike Al Gore's claim to inventing the Internet, Berners-Lee's
credential is real and undisputed.

Here's how it happened. Back in 1980, Berners-Lee was working at
CERN, the physics research lab in Switzerland. He noticed that
scientists who worked there often had trouble sharing information
over the lab's computer network.

The scientists who worked at CERN came from many countries and
spoke several different languages. They called lots of different
educational and research institutions home and those institutions
all had different computer systems. The computer systems they
used didn't make it easy to get information even on your own
computer in your own language.

The inspiration for Berners-Lee's solution to the information
sharing problem came from two sources. The first was a Victorian
Era self-help guide that he remembered from the library in the
home outside London where he grew up during the Sixties. The book
was called "Enquire Within Upon Everything."

The other inspiration was Berners-Lee's own experience of how the
human brain works. Your brain doesn't need elaborate programming
commands. Instead the brain easily makes connections between
different bits of information.

In 1989 Berners-Lee submitted a proposal to the powers that be to
use existing tools such as hypertext linking to create the system
that would help CERN's scientists easily share all kinds of
information. The powers that be thought it was a dumb idea. But
with the help of a creative boss Berners-Lee persevered to
develop what became the World Wide Web.

The Finnish Technology Award Foundation isn't the only group
that's recognized him for his invention. Last year Queen
Elizabeth knighted him. Time Magazine called him one of the 100
greatest minds of the 20th century. He's received the Japan Prize
and a Macarthur Foundation "genius grant."

Some of those honors come with pretty big money. The Macarthur
grant is worth a million bucks. The Finns are giving him more
than that.

Between those awards and what he's paid for his work, Mr.
Berners-Lee and his family are probably quite comfortable. But
he would have been rich beyond counting if he'd chosen to patent
his invention. He didn't.

The reasons he gives sound simple and even corny. He has no
desire to amass great wealth. He wants to make the world a
better place. So, in effect, he gave all of us his invention and
it's changed our lives.

What do you do for an encore when you invent the something like
the Web and you're still in your thirties? Mr. Berners-Lee is
doing what he loves to do.

He's teaching at MIT. He's the Director of the World Wide Web
Consortium, the body that coordinates Web development and
technical standards around the globe. And he's working on
something he calls the Semantic Web.

Mr. Berners-Lee thinks that his Semantic Web concept will be a
dramatic improvement on the current Web. He thinks it might just
be more important than his original Web idea. He may be right.
We'll have to wait and see.

Is Tim Berners-Lee a genius? According to one definition, in
order to qualify as a genius you have to have at least two great
ideas in your lifetime. If that's the test, then the jury is
still out on Mr. Berners-Lee, but he's looking good so far.

While we're waiting for someone else to decide if the man's a
genius, we can enjoy the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee's great
invention and great gift to us all. And we can revel in his
success. It's nice to see one of the good guys win.


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