World Wide Web inventor Professor Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering has won the first-ever Millennium Technology Prize, worth one million euros (£667,400), which is bestowed by the Finnish Technology Award Foundation. The new prize represents an international acknowledgement for an outstanding technological innovation that directly promotes people’s quality of life, is based on humane values, and encourages sustainable economic development. Berners-Lee will receive the prize on 15 June 2004 at an award ceremony in Helsinki’s Finlandia Hall.

“Less than 15 years after he first thought of it, the web has connected millions of people all over the world,” says Professor Bill O’Riordan, a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering who nominated Berners-Lee for the prize. “We can now work together, trade and manage information in real time and it has opened up a totally new area of commerce through which scores of entrepreneurs have made (and lost) millions literally overnight. Big science is now possible cheaply through instant global collaboration.”

“I am delighted that a Fellow of our Academy has been nominated for the first award of such a prestigious international prize,” says Sir Alec Broers, President of the Royal Academy of Engineering. “The engineering innovation that is the web has had an amazing impact.”

The WWW arose less as a discovery out of the blue than an engineer’s solution to a problem – how to make collaboration better and easier. Berners-Lee conceived the idea in 1989 while he was a Fellow at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory, in Geneva. “In an exciting place like CERN,” he says, “you have so many people coming in with great ideas, doing some work, and leaving with no trace of what they’ve done and why they did it that the whole organisation really needed this. It needed some place to be able to cement its organisational knowledge.” He based his Web initially on a “wysiwyg” browser-editor and a web server, and wrote most of the software to go with it, in the process defining URLs, HTTP and HTML, the trinity which serves to this day as the foundation for the Web, and for creating and sharing information. Much of the work was based on a program he had written ten years earlier purely for his own use to “keep track of all the random associations one comes across and brains are supposed to be so good at remembering but sometimes mine wouldn’t.” He called it Enquire, short for Enquire Within Upon Everything, a Victorian-era encyclopaedia.

The World Wide Web concept proved so popular that it soon broke out of CERN, providing a way for ordinary people to tap into cyberspace. By mid-1991 it was winning overwhelming acceptance from the Internet community and public use of the Web soon started to grow exponentially, but the way that Berners-Lee then developed the prototype demonstrates best practice concurrent engineering. In 1994 he founded the World Wide Web Consortium, a not-for-profit forum that aims to lead the Web to its full potential. W3C is an amazing gathering of normally fiercely competitive companies and organisations working together for the common good. “I felt there was a very strong push for a neutral body,” he says. “Somewhere where all the technology providers, the content providers, and the users could come together and talk about what they want; where there would be some facilitation to arrive at a common specification for doing things. Otherwise we would be back to the Tower of Babel.”

Notes for editors

  1. Professor Sir Tim Berners-Lee KBE FREng FRS holds the 3Com Founders Chair at MIT’s Laboratory for Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence and is Director of the World Wide Web Consortium. He is a Fellow of both the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society and is also a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society. He won the Royal Academy of Engineering’s first Whittle Medal in 2001.

    He was born in 1955 and brought up in London, the son of two mathematicians who met while working on the Ferranti Mark I, the first commercially available computer. He learned to enjoy mathematics and developed a fascination for electronics. While an undergraduate at Oxford he built his own computer from an old TV and an M6800 processor. After graduation he worked with Plessey Telecommunications on distributed transaction systems and then with DG Nash on multi-tasking operating systems. He then spent six months as a software consultant at CERN, where he would return later as a Fellow after three years back in the UK as Technical Director of Image Computer Systems, designing real-time communication graphics. See also
  2. Seventy-eight innovators from 22 countries were nominated for the Millennium Technology Prize 2004 in four technological fields: health care and life sciences; communication and information; new materials and processes; and energy and the environment. Berners-Lee’s selection was based on a recommendation by the International Award Selection Committee and made unanimously by the board of the Finnish Technology Award Foundation at a meeting on 14th April.
  3. Founded in 1976, the Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Our fellowship - comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers - provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, we provide independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain’s engineering community.

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