Who Invented the Internet - A Full History
The internet has become a staple of modern life. We use it to shop for what we need and want, talk to friends and family, run businesses, meet new people, watch movies and TV, and pretty much everything else you can think of. In short, it has given birth to a new age in human history.
The last example of this type of widespread change was the industrial revolution. But unlike the digital revolution, which took place over less than a half a century, the transition to industrialized societies took hundreds of years. However, this rapid change is just further proof of how much the internet is reshaping the way we live.
The internet started in the 1950s as a small, government-funded project. But have you ever wondered how these humble beginnings led to worldwide connectivity?
If you have, read on for a detailed summary of the history of the internet.
Internet Statistics in 2019
Timeline of the Internet
The invention of the internet took nearly 50 years and the hard work of countless individuals. Here's a snapshot of how we got to where we are today:
Part 1: The Early Years of the Internet
When most of us think of the early years of the internet, we tend to think of the 1990s. But this period was when the internet went mainstream, not when it was invented. In reality, the internet had been in development since the 1950s, although its early form was a mere shell of what it would eventually become.
Wide Area Networking and ARPA (1950s and 1960s)
For the internet to become popular, we first needed computers, and while the first computers date back to the 17th and even the 16th century, the first digital, programmable computers broke onto the scene in the 1940s. Throughout the 1950s, computer scientists began connecting computers in the same building, giving birth to Local Area Networks (LANs.), and instilling people with the idea that would later morph into the internet.
In 1958, the United States Department of Defense Secretary Neil McElroy signed Department of Defense Directive 5105.15 to create the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), which, due to the tensions produced during the Cold War, was tasked with creating a system of long-distance communications that did not rely on telephone lines and wires, which were susceptible to attack.
However, it wasn't until 1962 that J.C.R. Licklidler, an MIT scientist and ARPA employee, and Welden Clark published their paper "On-line man-computer communication." This paper, which was really a series of memos, introduced the "Galactic Network" concept, which was the idea that there could be a network of connected computers that would allow people to access information from anywhere at anytime. Eventually, the idea of a "galactic network" became known as a Wide Area Network, and the race to create this network became the race to create the internet.
Because of how closely this idea resembles the internet today, some have chosen to name Licklidler as the "father of the internet," although the actual creation and implementation of this network resulted from the hard work of many hundreds if not thousands of people.
The First Networks and Packet Switching (1960s)
To build the internet, researchers were working on ways to connect computers and also make them communicate with one another, and in 1965, MIT researcher Lawrence Roberts and Thomas Merrill connected a computer in Massachusetts to one in California using a low-speed dial-up telephone line. This connection is credited as being the first-ever Wide Area Network (WAN). However, while the two men were able to make the computers talk to one another, it was immediately obvious that the telephone system used at the time was not capable of reliably handling communications between two computers, confirming the need to develop a technology known as packet switching to facilitate a faster and more reliable transmission of data.
In 1966, Roberts was hired by Robert Taylor, the new head of ARPA (which had been renamed DARPA), to realize Licklider's vision of creating a "galactic network." By 1969, the early framework of the network, named ARPAnet, had been built, and researchers were able to link one computer in Stanford and one in UCLA and communicate using packet switching, although messaging was primitive. Shortly thereafter, also in 1969, computers at the University of Utah and the University of California, Santa Barbara were added to the network. Over time, the ARPAnet would grow, and it served as the foundation for the internet we have today.
However, there were other versions, such as the Merit Network from the University of Michigan and the Robert CYCLADES network, which was developed in France. Also, Donald Davies and Roger Scantlebury of the National Physics Laboratory (NPL) in the United Kingdom were developing a similar network based on packet switching, and there were countless other versions of the internet in development in various research labs around the world. In the end, the combined work of these researchers helped produce the first versions of the internet.
Internet Protocol Suite (1970s)
Throughout the rest of the 1960s and into the early 1970s, different academic communities and research disciplines, desiring to have better communication amongst their members, developed their own computer networks. This meant the internet was not only growing, but that there were also countless versions of the internet that existed independently of one another.
Seeing the potential of having so many different computers connected over one network, researchers, specifically Robert Kahn from DARPA and Vinton Cerf from Stanford University, began to look at a way to connect the various networks, and what they came up with is the Internet Protocol Suite, which is made up of the Transmission Control Protocol and the Internet Protocol, also known as TCP/IP. The introduction of this concept was the first time the word "internet" was used. It was shorthand for the word "internetworking," which reflects the internet's initial purpose: to connect multiple computer networks.
The main function TCP/IP was to shift the responsibility of reliability away from the network and towards the host by using a common protocol. This means that any machine could communicate with any other machine regardless of which network it belonged to. This made it possible for many more machines to connect with one another, allowing for the growth of networks which much more closely resemble the internet we have today. By 1983, TCP/IP became the standard protocol for the ARPAnet, entrenching this technology into the way the internet works. However, from that point on the ARPAnet became less and less significant until it was officially decommissioned in 1990.
Part 2: The Internet Goes Mainstream
By the middle of the 1980s, the growth of the internet combined with the introduction of TCP/IP meant the technology was on the brink of going mainstream. However, for this to happen, massive coordination was needed to ensure the many different parties working to develop the internet were on the same page and working towards the same goal.
The first step in this process was to turn the responsibility of managing the development of the internet over to a different government agency. In the U.S., NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Department of Energy (DOE) all took on important roles in the development of the internet. By 1986, the NSF created NSFNET, which served as the backbone for a TCP/IP based computer network.
This backbone was designed to connect the various supercomputers across the United States and to support the internet needs of the higher education community. Furthermore, the internet was spreading around the world, with networks using TCP/IP across Europe, Australia, and Asia. However, at this point, the internet was only available to a small community of users, mainly those in the government and academic research community. But the value of the internet was too great, and this exclusivity was set to change.
Internet Service Providers - ISPs (Late 1980s)
By the late 1980s, several private computer networks had emerged for commercial purposes that mainly provided electronic mail services, which, at the time, were the primary appeal of the internet. The first commercial ISP in the United States was The World, which launched in 1989.
Then, in 1992, U.S. Congress passed expanding access to the NSFNET, making it significantly easier for commercial networks to connect with those already in use by the government and academic community. This caused the NSFNET to be replaced as the primary backbone of the internet. Instead, commercial access points and exchanges became the key components of the now near-global internet infrastructure.
The World Wide Web and Browsers (Late 1980s-early 1990s)
The internet took a big step towards mainstream adoption in 1989 when Tim Berners-Lee from the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) invented the World Wide Web, also known as "www," or, "the web." In the World Wide Web, documents are stored on web servers and identified by URLs, which are connected by hypertext links, and accessed via a web browser. Berners-Lee also invented the first Web Browser, called WorldWideWeb, and many others emerged shortly thereafter, the most famous being Mosaic, which launched in 1993 and later became Netscape.
The release of the Mosaic browser in 1993 caused a major spike in the number of internet users, largely because it allowed people to access the internet from their normal home or office computers, which were also becoming mainstream around this time. In 1994, the founder of Mosaic launched Netscape Navigator, which, along with Microsoft Internet Explorer, was the first truly mainstream web browser.
The subsequent Browser Wars, which resulted in the failure of Netscape and the triumph of Microsoft, made Netscape one of the many early internet players to rise quickly and fall just as fast. Many use this story to demonstrate the ruthlessness of Bill Gates' business practices, but no matter what you think of the guy, this "war" between Netscape and Microsoft helped shape the early days of the internet.
Apart from making it easier for anyone to access the internet from any machine, another reason browsers and the World Wide Web were so important to the growth of the internet was that they allowed for the transfer of not only text but also images. This increased the appeal of the internet to the average person, leading to its rapid growth.
Part 3: The Internet Takes Over
By the middle of the 1990s, the Internet Age had officially begun, and since then, the internet has grown both in terms of the number of users but also in the way it affects society. However, the internet as we know it today is still radically different than the internet that first went mainstream in the years leading up to the turn of the millennium.
Growth of the Internet and the Digital Divide
All restrictions to commercial use of the internet were lifted in 1995, and this led to a rapid growth in the number of users worldwide. More specifically, in 1995, there were some 16 million people connected to the internet. By 2000, there were around 300 million, and by 2005, there were more than a billion. Today, there are some 3.4 billion users across the world.
However, most of this growth has taken place in North America, Europe, and East Asia. The internet has yet to reach large portions of Latin America and the Caribbean, the Middle East and North Africa, as well as Sub-Saharan Africa, largely due to economic and infrastructure challenges. This has left many with the fear that the internet will exacerbate inequalities around the world as opportunities provided to some are denied to others based on access to the web.
But the other side of the coin is that these regions are poised to experience rapid growth. East Asia had relatively few internet users in 2000, but that region now represents the majority of internet users in the world, although much of this is due to the rapid industrialization of China and the growth of its middle class.
The Internet Gets Faster
In its early years, computers required connection to a phone line to access the internet. This connection type was slow and it also created problems, the most famous being that it limited the number of people who could access the internet from a particular connection (Who doesn't remember getting kicked off the internet when their mom or dad signed on or picked up the phone?)
As a result, shortly after the internet went mainstream, the public began demanding faster internet connections capable of transmitting more data. The response was broadband internet, which made use of cable and Direct Service Line (DSL) connections, and it rapidly became the norm. By 2004, half the world's internet users had access to a high-speed connection. Today, the vast majority of internet users have a broadband internet connection, although some 3 percent of American's still use a dial-up internet connection.
Another big driver of the growth of the web was the introduction of the concept known as "Web 2.0." This describes a version of the web in which individuals play a more active role in the creation and distribution of web content, something we now refer to as social media.
However, there is some debate as to whether or not Web 2.0 is truly different from the original concept of the web. After all, social media grew up alongside the internet - the first social media site, Six Degrees, was launched in 1997. But no matter which side of the debate you fall on, there's no doubt that the rise of social media sites such as MySpace and Facebook helped turn the internet into the cultural pillar that it has become.
The Mobile Internet
Perhaps the biggest reason the internet has become what it is today is the growth of mobile technology. Early cell phones allowed people to access the internet, but it was slow and modified. The Apple iPhone, which was released in 2007, gave people the first mobile browsing experience that resembled that which they got on a computer, and 3G wireless networks were fast enough to allow for email and web browsing.
Furthermore, WiFi technology, which was invented in 1997, steadily improved throughout the 2000s, making it easier for more and more devices to connect to the internet without needing to plug in a cable, helping make the internet even more mainstream.
WiFi can now be found almost anywhere, and 4G wireless networks connect people to the mobile internet with speeds that rival those of traditional internet connections, making it possible for people to access the internet whenever and wherever they want. Soon, we will be using 5G networks, which allow for even faster speeds and lower latency. But perhaps more importantly, 5G will make it possible for more devices to connect to the network, meaning more smart devices and a much broader understanding of the internet.
Part 4: The Future of the Internet
While the concept of the internet dates back to the 1950s, it didn't become mainstream until the 1990s. But since then, it has become an integral part of our lives and has rewritten the course of human history. So, after all this rapid growth, what's next?
For many, the next chapter of the history of the internet will be defined by global growth. As economies around the world continue to expand, it's expected that internet use will as well. This should cause the total number of internet users around the world to continue to grow, limited only by the development of infrastructure, as well as government policy.
One such government policy that could dramatically impact the role of the internet in our lives is that of net neutrality. Designed to keep the internet a fair place where information is freely exchanged, net neutrality prohibits ISPs from offering preferred access to sites who choose to pay for it. The argument against net neutrality is that some sites, such as YouTube and Netflix, use considerably more bandwidth than others, and ISPs believe they should have the right to charge for this increased use.
However, proponents of net neutrality argue this type of structure would allow large companies and organizations to pay their way to the top, reducing the equality of the internet. In the United States, net neutrality was established by the FCC in 2015, under the Obama administration, but in 2018, this policy was repealed. At the moment, nothing significant has changed, but only time will tell how this shift in policy will affect the internet.
Another issue that could possibly affect the internet moving forward is the issue of censorship. Internet use around the world is often restricted, most famously in China, as a means of restricting the information available to people. In other parts of the world, specifically in the U.S, and Europe, these policies have not been enacted. However, in the era of fake news and social media, some companies, most notably Facebook, are taking action to slightly limit what people can say on the internet. In general, this is an attempt to limit the spread of hate speech and other harmful communications, but this is a gray area that has defined free speech debates for most of history and that will continue to be at the center of debates about the internet for years to come.
The internet has helped usher in a new age in human history, and we are just now beginning to understand how it will impact the way we live our lives. The fact that this tremendous cultural revolution has taken place in less than half a century speaks to the rapid nature of change in our modern world, and it serves as a reminder that change will continue to accelerate as we move into the future.