Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Tim Berners-Lee, Model Railroading and the Invention of the World Wide Web

It's impossible to imagine the world today without the World Wide Web, which celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary last year.

And it’s all because of model railroading.

OK—maybe not all because of model railroading. But the hobby played a significant role in the life and technological development of Tim Berners-Lee, considered the creator and founder of the Web. 

In interviews, Berners-Lee shared that as a boy he had a model railway in his bedroom.

“It was a long thin layout with a 4-track station in the middle, and on each side pairs of tracks going off into tunnels to actually loop back to each other,” he said, adding that he was also an active train-spotter (what the British call a railfan).

To help with operations on the layout, he “made some electronic gadgets to control the trains.”

This included making a making a whistle for his locomotives.

“To control a model train it’s useful to make whistles,” he said. 

“We would make a ace table multiplier for each of the back-to-back-to-back couple flip-flop, which made two transistors which will make a whistle—a ‘wee’ noise—and you might want to have the whistle run for a certain period of time, which is another way of coupling two transistors back to back so that one is stable.”

As a result of making gadgets for his model railway, “I ended up getting more interested in electronics than trains.”

He went on to build his own computer out of an old TV, study physics at Oxford and then, while at CERN in 1989, laid out his vision for what would become the World Wide Web.

As Stephanie Lynn put it on her blog, the boy who tinkered with circuits for his model trains became the man who invented the single most valuable creation of our time.”

And to think it was all because of a young boy’s interest in model railroading.


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