Tim Berners lee was originally a scientist in CERN. There he developed a model of the internet which he later developed to a full blown version of the world wide web.He made the first transfer of information using hypertext transfer protocol between a client and server in 1989, the year he proposed the idea for internet. He also wrote the programme for the first web browser and put in place the fundamental protocols and algorithms allowing the Web to scale.
So before answering why he is the greatest inventor of the twentieth century we should understand what makes some invention or scientific theory great. The most important characteristics are the impact of the invention on the world and whether it came out of new philosophical insight or just an improvement in the existing paradigm.
As Tim Berners Lee himself stated most of the components of his invention like hypertext were already present. He merely assembled them together in a new method. But here lies the philosophical insight. He thought and operated in a new paradigm that helped push the world into a new era.
The era of the internet.
How important is the internet? We know that human beings are distinguished from other animals in our extremely high capacity to hold and develop knowledge and technology. This is possible because of the high levels of meaningful communication large groups of humans can maintain. Thus communication capacity is the core of our ability to develop and use technology.
There are four giant leaps of communication in human history.The very first is the development of language which enabled cohesive and highly complex thoughts and ideas to be not only exchanged but also pondered over in our head. When we think we usually think in our language. This happened over a very long period of time but scientists usually mark that language developed during the period around 200000 years ago.
The second giant leap is the development of alphabet which enabled thoughts and ideas to be stored and communicated over time and distance, instead of being lost the moment the person who knows them forgets them or dies. This happened around 5000 years ago for the first time in ancient Sumeria. The invention of the alphabet enabled to the rise and spread of civilization. It also happen independently in other places like China and the Mayan civilization.
The third giant leap is the printing press, the most successfully used version being built by Gutenberg in Germany in the mid 15th century. The press enabled the rapid and exact spread of ideas over continental scales. It led to the protestant reformation and religious wars in Europe ultimately leading to peace of Westphalia, most significant event after Magna Carta in political history. It led to the scientific revolution in Europe in the form of the scientific journal by which scientists and thinkers far away could share and discuss ideas ultimately leading to the industrial revolution.
The fourth is of course the internet. It allows the instant sharing of ideas and thoughts not only in the form of words but also pictures and videos across the world. The huge benefits and ease of doing routine activities that internet provides are already very apparent. But what new great era of human progress is the internet leading us into? What new socio-political structures, what new technological heights are we going to see? We still do not have the answers.
Tim Berners Lee has the honour of being at the forefront of this immense innovation.
Not only that but there is another reason that cements his position as the most important inventor of the twentieth century.
He willfully chose not to claim intellectual property rights over the world wide web which not only made it free - like all truly great inventions but also made it easy for it to spread rapidly and take myriad forms.This great act of altruism is not getting the attention or respect it deserves. It is very likely that in the coming future Tim Berners Lee's position is cemented among the greats in human history.