12 September 2023

There was one thing the engineer Robert Cailliau did not know when, in 1989, he wrote that hypertext in a computer network could be used to share scientific documentation. That it would become the World Wide Web as we know it today.

Magnus Johansson
“Social media is a disease. Mobile phones are a disease. People waste far too much time on them,” he says.

This could have signalled the end of a conversation with an old man. But when the words come from Robert Cailliau, they are rather thought-provoking.

We meet him at the Department of Computer and Information Science’s 40th anniversary celebration, where he is one of the main speakers. The Department of Computer and Information Science (IDA) at Linköping University was quick to set up its own web server. The development of the Internet was  something that researchers and students in Linköping followed very closely.

Photo credit Magnus Johansson After writing down his hypertext proposal, Robert Cailliau was at the forefront of developments. But he did not understand that at the time.

“I’ve always had an engineer’s point of view. It’s the interface between human and machine that drives me. The first thing I did during my doctoral studies in engineering, which I never finished, was to reorganise the lab so that it would be easier to collect all the data. I realised that I needed to understand more about computing, so I went to the United States to study it, even though it was not the primary area of my doctoral studies.” When he returned to Ghent University in his native Belgium, it was to another division, in a lab for control systems. And eventually he made a career at CERN in Geneva, where he was to become head of the Office Computing group. CERN in Geneva is the world’s largest particle physics laboratory. The need of researchers to access large amounts of information from CERN is enormous. This made CERN by far the largest Internet node in Europe.

"It was just full of buttons"

“CERN is physics at the highest level. But really, it’s a huge amount of computer usage. The need for a better link between human and machine was obvious when CERN was going to rebuild one of its accelerator control systems in the late 1970s. It was just full of buttons. Not very user-friendly. And that became a big part of my work.”

CERN is not an isolated laboratory, but rather the focal point of an extensive community of thousands of researchers from over 100 countries. The researchers spend relatively little time on the CERN site, results are usually processed at their home universities and national laboratories in their home countries. Reliable communication tools are therefore important.

“It’s easy to believe that CERN employs physicists. But they do their experiments, and then they go back to their universities and continue their work there. The CERN staff is mainly composed of engineers and administrators.”

Photo of handwritten remark.
The researchers accessed the information via computer tape copies, remote access to databases, email and file transfer. It was, in various ways, a complicated process. Robert Cailliau had already shown that he was solution-oriented in many other ways, such as in his early development of a word-processing programme.

“It was in this human-to-machine context that I wrote a proposal to study hypertexts in computer networks. It was a way to make access to information more efficient.”

The start for World Wide Web

Almost at the same time, another colleague, Tim Berners-Lee, had come up with a similar proposal: ‘Information management — a proposal’. It was fourteen pages long, and today is referred to as the start of the World Wide Web (WWW). The margins were marked with question marks and comments from the manager, Mike Sendall.

“´Vague, but exciting` is the most famous comment. This was later printed on t-shirts in CERN’s souvenir shop.”

Mike Sendall knew that Robert Cailliau was working on something similar and asked him to look at Tim Berners-Lee's proposal.

“I read it and exclaimed: ´This is what we have to do!` Here was someone who had thought of the same thing, and had gone further!”

The two worked together on the project, which later came to include two more colleagues. The idea was to leave the centralised files method, which existed in CERN’s documentation system, and instead use the hypertext model invented by Ted Nelson in the 1950s. According to Tim Berners-Lee’s proposal, the hypertext system would support links between multiple servers on independent computers. And it would allow simultaneous access by many users from any computer on the internet.

A single string of characters

This was made possible by the “URL”, the Universal Resource Locator” which in a single string of characters combined the remote server's access protocol, the server's name and the remote document's identification.

“We used a NeXT computer as a server, that has become a historical artifact. It’s still a bit fascinating that there were only four of us who did this.”

Photo credit Magnus Johansson The system could be demonstrated as early as the end of 1989, within the CERN collaboration.

“I didn’t think globally from the beginning. I saw it more as a collaboration tool for academics. But I remember being annoyed early on that the internet lacked a payment system for the transfer of information, and thus commercial sites began to rely on advertising in their business model.”

How was the new concept received by the researchers?
“Some liked it. But the physicists didn’t want CERN to invest in it. It wasn’t physics and it wasn’t a priority. I fully understood that, and quickly realised that it had to be taken out of CERN. I wanted to establish contact with the European Commission on it. In 1991, we wrote an article about making hypertexts over a network, for a research conference on hypertext. It was rejected on the grounds that it contained nothing new. But we got to make a poster presentation at the conference.”

I didn´t like the
name World Wide Web 
The gates had been opened. Interest in the new concept, that was given the name World Wide Web, grew exponentially.

“I didn’t like the name World Wide Web. It was too long. At CERN at the time things were often named after Greek or Roman gods. I suggested something from Norse mythology, like Loki. But Loki was the messenger who used fake news to upset the gods. ... well, maybe it wouldn’t have been such a bad idea after all,” says Robert Cailliau and smiles wryly.

He was continually asked by other physics labs about CERN’s next step. How would they keep the network and computing power up? How would they maintain the software?

We were certain that the WWW ideas shouldn’t be commercialised 
“I became more and more convinced that it had to be taken out of CERN. But we were certain that the WWW ideas shouldn’t be commercialised. Tim Berners-Lee was absolutely convinced that it would lead to fragmentation and different systems that would compete with each other.”

The release of the web

Robert Cailliau spent months in discussions with CERN lawyers. On 30 april 1993, CERN released the World Wide Web into the public domain. The European Commission approved its first web project (WISE) at the end of the same year, with CERN as a partner.

The first version of the Mosaic web browser was released that same year by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois.

“I wrote the proposal to put the web in a public domain. It was signed by CERN’s directors. This means that you can download the software freely, but you can’t sell it, patent or do anything with the idea. That was crucial. The World Wide Web was now completely free.”

early www-logotyp, three Early www-logo, designed by Robert Cailliau. 1994 was the year the internet was popularised. The academic control of the internet was gone. Companies started to put up web pages with hypertext. The Netscape browser was very popular.

“You can sell web browsers and you can sell services. But the idea and the standards were to be free. The important thing was that everything was interoperable. At the end of 1993, Tim Berners-Lee concluded that we needed a kind of body to ensure everyone used the same thing. The concern was to start making pages that work in all browsers.”

CERN, INRIA (Institut National pour la Recherche en Informatique et Automatique) and MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) started the Web Consortium, where all commercial companies would come together and adopt the same standards worldwide. CERN left the Consortium in 1995 to INRIA and MIT.

We saw early on the problems of internet security 
What are you most proud of?
“Not so much my own proposal. More the big web conferences that I arranged for about ten years. But, overall, it’s of course something I wouldn’t want to have missed. It didn’t make me rich. But it took me on a big adventure, and I’ve met a lot of interesting people.”

Is there anything about the web that should have been done differently?
“We saw early on the problems of internet security, that there was a lack of payment systems and opportunities for identification. If you see the internet as a pure infrastructure, you can say that those who create the websites are responsible. But we now know that the problem is bigger than that.”

The freedom to publish and access information on the web is a difficult question for Robert Cailliau:

“It was the nerds who designed the net who did not care about security, payment and identification. That was also normal: Among them, freedom worked as a nice idea. It works in the academic world, or as long as no one wants to hurt anyone else. But out in wider society, you would put a lock on the door to protect your property,” he says.

Then he thinks for a moment, and says:

“There’s nothing worse for computing than a bunch of nerds. They just want to start in the top left corner and write programme code! They only see what it’s possible to do. Not what’s really needed and not who should have it. They don’t want to discuss target groups and consequences. They don’t want to sit down and think about real people.

Photo credit Magnus Johansson How do you use the internet yourself?
“For me it is a big love-hate relationship. I probably use it much like most people do. Although I don’t use cloud services. I don’t like that it’s so hard to stay away from them. You get reminders and suggestions all the time. And I don’t like the advertising. It’s annoying how it just finds you.”

Neither is social media highly valued:

“No, it takes up too much of people’s time and attention. But at the same time, the internet is like roads. You can drive on them because it’s fun, or transport things. It has its bad and its good sides. You can get so much good from it. But people waste their time. I wonder how we can change that. We will be asking that question for a long time.”

What do you worry about in the future?
“I’m not really worried about the internet. I think that we need to focus more on global warming, the climate, and world population development.”
Three man look at old computers.Robert Cailliau and Henrik Eriksson listen to Mattis Lind from the Dalby Computer Museum in Strängnäs, who displays a recently printed punched strip with code. The museum invests in keeping old computers working. The visit was one of Cailliau's wishes when he came to Sweden to lecture at IDA's 40th anniversary. Photo: Dalby Computer Museum.

 

FACTS

Robert Cailliau

Key note speaker at the IDA 40th anniversary. Speech title: “Reflections of a grumpy old man”.

A Belgian computer engineer and author who proposed the first (pre-www) hypertext system for CERN. Collaborated with Tim Berners-Lee in designing the World Wide Web.

Cailliau designed the WWW's historic logo, organised the first international World Wide Web conference at CERN in 1994, and helped transfer web development from CERN to the World Wide Web Consortium in 1995.


Photo credit Magnus Johansson
Together with James Gillies, Robert Cailliau wrote "How the Web Was Born", the first book-length account of the origins of the World Wide Web.

Robert Cailliau is an honorary doctorate at four universities and has received several awards, including the ACM software award. He is also inducted into the Internet hall of fame.

Today he lives as a pensioner. He is interested in climate issues, old computer technology and devotes much of his time to family and grandchildren.

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