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Ian Ritchie: The day I turned down Tim Berners-Lee

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Well we all know the World Wide Web has absolutely transformed publishing, broadcasting, commerce and social connectivity, but where did it all come from? And I'll quote three people: Vannevar Bush, Doug Engelbart and Tim Berners-Lee. So let's just run through these guys.

This is Vannevar Bush. Vannevar Bush was the U.S. government's chief scientific adviser during the war. And in 1945, he published an article in a magazine called Atlantic Monthly. And the article was called "As We May Think." And what Vannevar Bush was saying was the way we use information is broken. We don't work in terms of libraries and catalog systems and so forth. The brain works by association. With one item in its thought, it snaps instantly to the next item. And the way information is structured is totally incapable of keeping up with this process.

And so he suggested a machine, and he called it the memex. And the memex would link information, one piece of information to a related piece of information and so forth. Now this was in 1945. A computer in those days was something the secret services used to use for code breaking. And nobody knew anything about it. So this was before the computer was invented. And he proposed this machine called the memex. And he had a platform where you linked information to other information, and then you could call it up at will.

So spinning forward, one of the guys who read this article was a guy called Doug Engelbart, and he was a U.S. Air Force officer. And he was reading it in their library in the Far East. And he was so inspired by this article, it kind of directed the rest of his life. And by the mid-60s, he was able to put this into action when he worked at the Stanford Research Lab in California. He built a system. The system was designed to augment human intelligence, it was called. And in a premonition of today's world of cloud computing and softwares of service, his system was called NLS for oN-Line System.

And this is Doug Engelbart. He was giving a presentation at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in 1968. What he showed -- he sat on a stage like this, and he demonstrated this system. He had his head mic like I've got. And he works this system. And you can see, he's working between documents and graphics and so forth. And he's driving it all with this platform here, with a five-finger keyboard and the world's first computer mouse, which he specially designed in order to do this system. So this is where the mouse came from as well.

So this is Doug Engelbart. The trouble with Doug Engelbart's system was that the computers in those days cost several million pounds. So for a personal computer, a few million pounds was like having a personal jet plane; it wasn't really very practical.

But spin on to the 80s when personal computers did arrive, then there was room for this kind of system on personal computers. And my company, OWL built a system called Guide for the Apple Macintosh. And we delivered the world's first hypertext system. And this began to get a head of steam. Apple introduced a thing called HyperCard, and they made a bit of a fuss about it. They had a 12-page supplement in the Wall Street Journal the day it launched. The magazines started to cover it. Byte magazine and Communications at the ACM had special issues covering hypertext. We developed a PC version of this product as well as the Macintosh version. And our PC version became quite mature.

These are some examples of this system in action in the late 80s. You were able to deliver documents, were able to do it over networks. We developed a system such that it had a markup language based on html. We called it hml: hypertext markup language. And the system was capable of doing very, very large documentation systems over computer networks.

So I took this system to a trade show in Versailles near Paris in late November 1990. And I was approached by a nice young man called Tim Berners-Lee who said, "Are you Ian Ritchie?" and I said, "Yeah." And he said, "I need to talk to you." And he told me about his proposed system called the World Wide Web. And I thought, well, that's got a pretentious name, especially since the whole system ran on his computer in his office. But he was completely convinced that his World Wide Web would take over the world one day. And he tried to persuade me to write the browser for it, because his system didn't have any graphics or fonts or layout or anything; it was just plain text. I thought, well, you know, interesting, but a guy from CERN, he's not going to do this. So we didn't do it.

In the next couple of years, the hypertext community didn't recognize him either. In 1992, his paper was rejected for the Hypertext Conference. In 1993, there was a table at the conference in Seattle, and a guy called Marc Andreessen was demonstrating his little browser for the World Wide Web. And I saw it, and I thought, yep, that's it. And the very next year, in 1994, we had the conference here in Edinburgh, and I had no opposition in having Tim Berners-Lee as the keynote speaker.

So that puts me in pretty illustrious company. There was a guy called Dick Rowe who was at Decca Records and turned down The Beatles. There was a guy called Gary Kildall who went flying his plane when IBM came looking for an operating system for the IBM PC, and he wasn't there, so they went back to see Bill Gates. And the 12 publishers who turned down J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter, I guess.

On the other hand, there's Marc Andreessen who wrote the world's first browser for the World Wide Web. And according to Fortune magazine, he's worth 700 million dollars. But is he happy?



Video Details

Duration: 5 minutes and 21 seconds
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: None
Producer: TEDTalks
Views: 247
Posted by: tedtalks on Oct 12, 2011

Imagine it's late 1990, and you've just met a nice young man named Tim Berners-Lee, who starts telling you about his proposed system called the World Wide Web. Ian Ritchie was there. And ... he didn't buy it. A short story about information, connectivity and learning from mistakes.

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