‘I'm an engineer and I was just doing my job’

14 December 2023

Unless you're a computer geek, the name Robert Cailliau probably means nothing to you. However, we can say with certainty that you use the ‘invention’ of this friendly Belgian every day. Together with Tim Berners-Lee, Robert Cailliau was one of the founders of the World Wide Web.

After passing through the United Nations, where colleague Arnaud had the opportunity to present our sustainability strategy, he met Robert in Geneva. Together they look back at Robert's work that changed the world so fundamentally. 

Cailliau and Berners-Lee were colleagues at CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, known for its Large Hadron Collider, the world's biggest particle accelerator. Initially, Cailliau was working on a control system for one of the particle accelerators. Towards the late eighties he’d started studying programming systems, in preparation of the LHC software.

This is how he came to be working with Berners-Lee on a hypertext system for sharing documents within the CERN, and laying the foundations of what we now know as the World Wide Web.

Arnaud Recko and Robert Cailliau in Geneva

‘Back in the eighties, scientists at the CERN saved their reports on disks and had them delivered to colleagues by internal post,’ says Cailliau. ‘CERN had set up various interconnected computer networks and I started thinking about a system to share those reports over the network instead of saving them in a central location.’ 

CERN colleague Tim Berners-Lee was working on the exact same problem at the time. They knew each other from before, but didn't know they were working on a similar problem. A colleague put them in touch with each other and they started working together.

Cailliau’s ambition didn't go beyond making information and documents available over the CERN network using a hypertext system and links, allowing them to be shared without the author's intervention. Berners-Lee was using the internet and potentially was able to connect with other laboratories as well.

‘If we hadn't done it someone else would have.’

‘I certainly didn't see it as global thing and I was only vaguely aware of the internet. Tim had got further than me and had worked it out in more detail. I was one of the few people who understood what he wanted to do. That's why I was the person who explained it to others and started advocating the World Wide Web.’

Not much confidence

When Cailliau and Berners-Lee were working on the World Wide Web, the internet was only available in academic institutions. Cailliau soon found out that the Hypertext community had little confidence in the World Wide Web. ‘That was in December 1991 at the Hypertext Conference in San Antonio, Texas,’ he says. ‘The organisation rejected our article, but we were allowed to give a short demo. I'd arrived a couple of days before Tim and had packed a CERN modem. On arrival I realised I had to dial in to CERN for an internet connection of course.’ 

‘It would have cost a small fortune to dial in from the hotel. That's why I drove my rental car to the closest university. I walked into the IT department and happened to find someone there with a NeXT computer, just like ours. I started talking to him about CERN, who I am, what I do and what I need. We downloaded the NeXT version from CERN so that I can prove I'm not some fraud and he lets me dial in on their network.’

‘At least that problem had been solved. But while I was setting up my booth for the demo, I realised that the modem works on 220 volt, whereas 110 volt is the standard in the States. Anyway, I had to make a couple of adjustments to make sure it would work.’ In fact, Cailliau still has the screwdriver he used for that.

‘There was something in the air’

‘Even without myself and Tim, we’d have something resembling the internet today,’ says Cailliau modestly. ‘There was something in the air. If we hadn't done it, someone else would have. A lot of people were thinking about other hypertext functionalities at the time.’ 

‘If you were to plot functionality and scalability on a graph, the World Wide Web scores very well in terms of scalability but not in terms of functionality. From a hypertext point of view, you can only carry out one function on the web, i.e. click a link. There were some great ideas that scored much better in the field of functionality but didn't make it because they were not scalable. Scalability was definitely a strength of the web, although it was more of an incidental side effect.

Let’s share what we know

The original logo of the World Wide Web uses the slogan 'Let’s share what we know'. Mission accomplished? ‘If you consider how it's used in academic circles, if I look at my own use, and if you look at how Wikipedia overcame all its difficulties, I would say yes.’ 

‘Share what we know has certainly been a success. But the web has given us so much more. Commercial activity is generated on the web. That's fine, but it has nothing to do with 'Let’s share what we know' anymore.’ And Cailliau pleads total innocence for the existence of social media.

‘Did it change the world? Absolutely. Has it made the world a better place? I don't know.’

You won’t hear Cailliau say that knowledge sharing is the World Wide Web's biggest achievement. ‘It has given people an opportunity to reach a large audience quickly. It brought people closer together and that's a positive thing. Telephone, television, and cars also did that in a way. In the olden days, you lived in villages where everyone knew who you were and whether you could be trusted. Now you can reach people on the other side of the world in no time, without them knowing who you are. And that also has a dark side. I think this is why some people use the World Wide Web for criminal purposes, phishing for example. Did it change the world? Absolutely. Has it made the world a better place? I don't know.’ 


Would he like to change anything? ‘The internet was never designed with the idea that people would use it for financial transactions, that privacy would become an issue, that security measures had to be implemented,’ Cailliau continues. ‘When the internet became available outside academic circles, we should have put a stop to it immediately until adequate security and traceability measures were in place. This was not done.’

Looking back, Cailliau would have added micropayments to his invention so that surfers pay directly to the author for the content they consult and not to the advertisers, for example. ‘Yes indeed, the internet would become paying. But ads would disappear at the same time. And everyone who contributes to the internet would be compensated fairly.’

‘The internet will keep going. I don't see any threats.’

Climate and overpopulation

Despite the many benefits, Cailliau can’t see how the internet brought any social progress. ‘The internet allows you to contact more people all over the world, but we weren't less socially active without the internet. In the previous century we also marched on Brussels to protest nuclear proliferation. Now there's more talk, but I don't think it has resulted in more action.’ 

Cailliau barely thinks about the future of the World Wide Web. ‘The most pressing problem we face now makes all others irrelevant. For decades, we've done nothing about the climate. Global warming, currently referred to as climate change, because it sounds less negative, is a very pressing problem. And in the longer term it's the overpopulation of the planet that will wreak havoc. That's something else we're not curbing. I'm pessimistic. But the internet will keep going. I don't see any threats.’

Particularly proud of the World Wide Web Conference

Cailliau hesitantly answer the question whether he's proud of his invention. ‘I never really thought about it. I don't feel we really invented the web. I was an engineer who was presented with a number of problems, some of which I solved, as you’d expect from an engineer. It's a human reaction to take credit for your accomplishments. But I am an engineer and I was just doing my job. You don't say that an architect invented a house, do you? The Wright brothers are said to have invented the airplane, but in fact it's the result of a great many people working very hard for many years on how to get men in the air. And that also applies to computers and the World Wide Web.’

‘You don't say an architect invented a house, do you.’

‘And anyway the best solution rarely makes it. The solution that makes it is the one that's easiest to sell,’ Cailliau continues. ‘I helped build something and it contains flaws. Those first ten years were very interesting and fun, but I look back with more pride on the conferences I organised from 1994 to 2000,’ says Cailliau. In December 1993, he organised the first International World Wide Web Conference, held in May 1994 at CERN. Even then, the conference brought together 380 internet pioneers and it’s still organised every year. With hindsight it turned out to be a milestone in the development of the internet and the World Wide Web.

‘That was new. It was not expected from me. Tim thought the conference was a waste of time and didn't see the point of it. But I consider it a great accomplishment that I managed to get Europeans to achieve something together. It's not the easiest thing,’ he laughs. ‘Despite the internet we've still not managed to get any better at working together.’

With this article, we support the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.