As a red Mini drove into the stadium during the Olympic opening ceremonies here in London, only its number plate was a clue to the man the organisers had decided to honour in the next segment.
Tim Berners-Lee was a fellow at CERN in the early 1990s, when he brought hypertext and the internet together. Building on the work of men such as Ted Nelson and projects like WAIS, Berners-Lee's proposal for a global hypertext system that used the internet's existing domain-name infrastructure and the TCP/IP protocol turned out to be the right idea at the right time. First one, then two, then 10, then 20, then hundreds, thousands, millions of websites — an explosion of content from that was inspired by that one first web server.
That first web server was turned on 21 years ago today: 6 August, 1991 was a day that changed the world. In an office in one of the world's largest physics laboratories someone typed a few lines on a command line, launching an instance of httpd, and the world wide web was born. That was when http://info.cern.ch went live, the first public website. It's still there, now a hypertext museum to the early days of the web. That first web server is still there too, as is the hand-written sticker on the front telling passers-by not to turn it off: "This machine is a server. DO NOT POWER IT DOWN!!".
The web didn't just change the internet, it changed lives. For one thing, it changed mine.
I was working in a telecoms research lab in those first years of the web, exploring how we could deliver video and data to people's homes. I came across my first web browser after being sneaked into a now notorious UNIX OS company's Watford offices with Mary Branscombe by a friend who was a technical author there. On a glowing black-and-white monitor, in crisp clear high resolution, we saw our first web page load over a high-speed 64kbps line.
All of us knew we were looking at something important, but none of us knew how much it would change our lives. My friend went on to become an early web consultant and to write one of the first books about web programming, and I went on to build one of the first web-based online services before spending several years helping other businesses build their first web presences.
And all the technologies I was looking at for delivering video and voice? They never did do what we planned. Instead, they became the last mile of the commercial internet.
The world we live in is one shaped by the web, one we'd never dreamed of 21 years ago, with the web part of the background of our lives: on PCs, on TVs, and — most importantly — on phones. It's one where web applications have changed the way we work, the way we shop, and the way we interact with each other — an information revolution as fundamental as the agricultural and industrial revolutions that provided its foundation.
In the Olympic stadium a house lifted into the sky, leaving a man at a desk, typing a line of text into a NeXT Cube. It was Tim Berners-Lee, and this time the one line of text was, "This is for everyone."
Happy birthday, web.