4.4.2 Origins of the Web
The prime mover in the creation of the Web was an English physicist named Tim Berners-Lee, who was employed as a software engineer by CERN, the multinational particle physics research laboratory in Geneva. CERN is a vast organisation, doing research of great complexity. Much of its experimentation is done by teams of visiting physicists who come and go. Maintaining coherent documentation in such circumstances was an almost impossible task.
The task that Berners-Lee set himself was to design a radically new approach to the structuring of information that would meet the needs of such an idiosyncratic organisation. At the beginning of 1989 he put forward a proposal on how this might be achieved.
The problem was that CERN, by its very nature, had a very high turnover of people because physicists from participating countries were continually coming and going. With two years as the typical length of stay for researchers, information was constantly being lost. The introduction of the new people demanded a fair amount of their time and that of others before they had any idea of what went on at CERN. The technical details of past projects were sometimes lost forever, or only recovered after a detective investigation in an emergency. Often, the information had been recorded but simply could not be located.
If a CERN experiment were a static, once-and-for-all event, all the relevant information could conceivably be contained in one enormous reference book. But, Berners-Lee observed,
… as it is, CERN is constantly changing as new ideas are produced, as new technology becomes available, and in order to get around unforeseen technical problems. When a change is necessary, it normally affects only a small part of the organisation. A local reason arises for changing a part of the experiment or detector. At this point, one has to dig around to find out what other parts and people will be affected. Keeping a book up to date becomes impractical, and the structure of the book needs to be constantly revised.
Examples of the kinds of information needed were:
Where is this module used? Who wrote this code? Where does this person work? What documents exist about that concept? Which laboratories are included in that project? Which systems depend on this device? What documents refer to this one?
What was needed, he argued, was some kind of linked information system.