Kittens and six other web revelations from Tim Berners-Lee

13 Mar 2014

The web turned 25 yesterday. Well, sort of -- it was the 25th anniversary of Sir Tim Berners-Lee's original paper outlining the principles of the web, but let's roll with it.

To celebrate this first milestone, Berners-Lee was all over the web, giving interviews, posting videos and even taking part in a Reddit Ask Me Anything session. As someone with a massive professional crush on the man -- I once dodged a PR and vaulted a chair to shake his hand; I think I alarmed him -- I've read through every one of his AMA posts. Here's a collection of the web creator's best revelations from the Q&A session.

On kittens

Q. What was one of the things you never thought the internet would be used for, but has actually become one of the main reasons people use the internet?

A. Kittens.

That's it. Just the single word. He was later asked if he'd ever posted a photo of a cat online. The answer: no, but he has posted dog photos. That's right: the man who created the technology that allowed us to spend all day looking at adorable photos of cats prefers dogs.

Browser of choice

Q. What web browser do you use?

A. My default browser at the moment is Firefox. I also use Safari, Opera and Chrome each a reasonable amount. Firefox has the Tabulator plugin which does neat things with linked data. If I am running a latest version of that (I check it straight out of github) which can be unstable, I'll use one of the others for things which need to be stable.

That endorsement should go on Mozilla's homepage...

Other names than WWW

Q. Tim, What other names did you consider other than the world wide web?

A. Mine of Information, The Information Mine, The Mesh. None had quite the right ring. I liked WWW partly because I could start global variable names with a W and not have them clash with other peoples' (in a C world)...

Another Redditor pointed out that The Information Mine would have had an acronym that rather favoured its creator. Is our sister title WebUser named TIMUser in an alternate universe? We can only hope so.

The meaning of 404 errors

There's a long-running rumour that 404 errors -- shown when a page isn't found -- are a reference to room 404 at Cern, where the first web servers lived.

Is that true, Berners-Lee was asked?

A. No. Nonsense.

And that's the end of that.

Referred to his dictionary

Reddit poked fun at one spelling mistake in the web: the use of "referer" in http protocol headers when it should, of course, be "referrer".

Q. Have you learned to spell referrer yet?

A. No, my speling is still terible. Hopefully not to much or it will get into header field names without some review at this stage!

First computer

It's well known that Berners-Lee used a NeXT computer as the world's first web server, but what what was his first computer?

A. I got a M6800 evaluation kit in 1976, and built a bunch of 3U high cards, put them in a rack with a car battery in the bottom of the crate as UPS. All hand-soldered on veroboard, and programmed in hex. 7E XX XX was a long jump, and 20 XX a relative jump IIRC. The display was an old TV and some logic and a bunch of discarded calculator buttons lovingly relabeled with transfer letters. Those were the days....

Tim Berners-Lee also said that he counts his parents -- who met working on Britain's first commercially sold business computer, the Ferranti Mk 1 -- as key role models in his life.

Sarcastic predictions

Q. Did you ever think that the internet would get this big?

A. Yes, I more or less had it nailed down when it comes to the growth curve. I didn't get it completely right -- 25 years ago I was predicting I'd be asked to do an AMA on Reddit next week, but it turned out to be this week. Well, we all make mistakes. (No of course not).

He did have some real predictions to make about the future of the web, saying he's "optimistic" that the open web we have today can be protected from undue influence and surveillance.

Q. Do you think in the (not too distant) future we'll look back and think ourselves lucky to have witnessed a neutral, free, and uncensored world wide web?

A. I think it is up to us. I'm not guessing, I'm hoping. Yes, I can imagine that all too easily. If ordinary web users are not sufficiently aware of threats and get involved and if necessary take to the streets like for SOPA and PIPA and ACTA. On balance? I am optimistic.

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