The internet as we know it today has very long and complex origins, and no single source ever agrees exactly with another on any point of the origins and early history of the internet. This controversy makes giving a detailed, unbiased account of the origins of the internet difficult, but for purposes of uniformity, the accounts that have more evidence, or have similar accounts given in other documentations have been used in this article to provide a brief history of the internet.
Although all of the accounts used as references regarding the early history of the internet have differences in the exact details surrounding the creation and gradual evolution of the Internet, the main points are the same, and their differences of opinion enable us to create a more rounded, and better-informed version.
The creation of the internet is nested in the political and social climate of the cold war, and, by most accounts, it was driven by the potential for a closed system of central control in the US Military. It is difficult to name “the man who invented the internet”, because, in reality, there is no central founding figure. There is no Thomas Edison or Samuel Morse, instead, the internet resulted more from bureaucratic teams than from individual genius.
The Complex History of the Internet
Communication and Sharing Data between Computers
Where Wizards stay up late: the origins of the internet by Hafner and Lyos starts with Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN) which was the computer company with the first contract from the US Defence Department Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), for the creation of what was later to become known as ARPANET.
Hafner and Lyon explain the source of the contract as follows: Bob Taylor (head of the ARPA office that did computer research) had an “irksome” problem in 1966 in winter. There were 3 computer terminals in the room next to his office, each connected to a mainframe running at a different ARPA site.
The different computers used different systems, languages, and OS (operating systems), and as such, they required different login procedures and commands. “It became obvious that we ought to find a way to connect all these different machines.” Taylor later recalled. This would allow for the sharing of extremely expensive computer equipment. Taylor received a million dollars as the budget for the development of this project. (the purchasing power of $ 1 000 000 in 1966 translates to roughly $ 8 000 000 today.)
Tailor commissioned Larry Roberts to act as overseer for the design and construction of the network. In 1967, Wes Clark of Washington University came up with an idea that would later prove to be crucial to the success of ARPANET: to make the network function by inserting a sub-network of smaller computers between the host computers and the network lines, which were later named Interface Message Processors or IMPs. Wes Clark told Roberts that only Frank heart could build such a network at a non-outrageous cost.
With his help, BBN, which was the Cambridge consulting company where he worked got the million-dollar contract for the construction of ARPANET.
The problem is, by starting our history of the internet with Taylor, we leave out the broader historical context, as well as the work of some people who made the construction of the internet possible.
In the popular Short History of the Internet by Bruce Sterling, we read that in 1964 engineer Paul Baran of the RAND corporation developed an idea for the solution of the problem of communications between US authorities after a nuclear war, which was at the time a distinct possibility. Baran imagined a network with no central authority, which “would be designed from the get-go to transcend its own unreliability”.
Baran’s theory was that unlike a centralized network in which destroying the central switching point would bring the whole network to a screeching halt, Baran theorized that a distributed network could get hit multiple times and keep working because of the existence of alternate channels. Crucial for this idea was Baran’s second innovation, using digital technology to break up messages into discrete pieces that could be sent and reassembled on the other side. These were later dubbed “packets” by British Physicist Donald Davies, a rubric that has stuck and is embodied in the name of “packet switching networks”, which are essentially the core around which the modern internet is built.
Roberts later credits Baran with teaching him to route packets through Baran’s reports, which Roberts read in 1967.
Small-scale computer networking, time-sharing computers (computers that could be used simultaneously by multiple users), and the vision of giving people access to the world’s knowledge (seen in a lot of pre-war science fiction books, including books by HG Wells, Denis Diderot, Vannevar Bush and many more) also influenced the direction taken by the ARPANET experiment.
Another figure crucial to the development and history of the internet is J. C. R, Licklider, who was one of the people who helped switch the focus of computers and networks from ‘computing’ to communication. Licklider was well-liked by his colleagues and was also one of the reasons that the US Department of Defence poured so much funding into the ARPANET project.
By the first public demonstration of ARPANET at the International Conference on Computer Communication in Washington in October 1972, the feasibility of packet switching had been established, but success was limited as no one had really figured out what the network was good for.
By 1972, ARPA wanted to apply the packet switching research directly to various military experts, and Bob Kahn, an engineer who had gone from BBN to ARPA in 1972, and others realized that they had now replicated the problem Taylor had come up against in 1962: how can one connect incompatible networks-rather than merely computers- to each other?
Out of the dilemma of ‘inter-networking’, came the name and concept of the Internet. Kahn launched the “Internetting project” to make it possible for computers on different networks to communicate with each other, for example, for a computer on a satellite network to communicate with one on the terrestrial ARPANET and with one on a radio network to communicate uniformly with each other without interference in between.
In 1974 Kahn, in collaboration with Vincent Cerf, developed a new independent packet switching protocol, called TCP/IP, IP standing for “Internet Protocol”- this would serve as a kind of universal language or lingua franca for this new ‘internet’. This IP remains in use today, after conquering x.25, a European competitor, and several other protocols developed for inter-networking. This victory is part of the reason why the US still dominates the internet.
Although ARPANET was up and running at this point, it was still only available to a select group of people who had access to the Department of Defense-funded stations that could connect to this network.
In 1965, or possibly 1964, Ted Nelson pioneered using hypertext ( basically this means he invented hyperlinks) to organize network information. Later in the 1970s, Robert Metcalfe developed a system using cables that allowed more data to be transferred between computers. He named this system ’Alto Aloha’, but it soon became known as ‘Ethernet’, and it is still in use today, especially for wired connections to phones and routers.
Invention of Emails
In 1979, two students at Duke University, Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis, along with students from schools in the area created some simple programs with which computers using the Unix operating system, which had become popular earlier on in the decade could call each other and exchange information using phone lines. They called this network Usenet.
To sum it up, Usenet made it possible to have an online newsletter that would be continuously updated. The people who could access this system could comment on the news postings, and people could see and answer to those comments almost immediately, which was the first social media (sort of). The program also allowed emails to be sent between the Unix computers connected with phone modems. E-mails were first invented in 1973 by BBN engineer Ray Tomlinson, who developed a program for sending messages across the ARPANET, which made ARPANET traffic explode almost overnight.
The Dominoes of the Events and the Birth of the Modern Internet
The students saw themselves as offering an alternative to the then-limited ARPANET, which could only be accessed by Defence Department-funded sites. This computer network grew with astonishing rapidity; by 1987 there were 5000 sites on the network, and in 1988 11000. A breakthrough had arrived in1981 when a tenuous connection was established between Usenet and ARPANET by Mark Holton, a student at the University of California.
Restrictions on ARPANET fell further with the creation of MILNET, segmenting the US military sites off of ARPANET, which made the DOD less worried about the traffic on ARPANET.
Crucial to the success of the modern internet, and the reason you can read this article today is the ‘computer revolution’, and the famous “Homebrew Computer Club”, formed in the 1970s by Lee Felsenstein and several computer hobbyists and computer ‘liberationists’ who wanted to make computers available to everyone.
In the “ Homebrew Computer Club”, the first Personal Computers were built, marking a very important step into the direction of free-market, unregulated trade in computers, and almost unrestricted access to internet information we see today.
The first e-mail discussion group (MsgGroup), launched in June 1975 and was about e-mail itself. As late as 1982, most group discourse on ARPANET and Usenet was still focused on technical issues, and the rest reflected the leisurely pursuits of young engineers- such intellectual topics as football and food, with very little political debate being involved, contrary to current circumstances.
In 1975, after the first PC, the Altair, using an intel 8080 with 2 MHZ processing capacity, was published on the front page of popular electronics, two teenagers, Bill Gates and Paul Allen wrote a BASIC program for the new machine (BASIC is almost like BIOS). But before MITS even started selling the computers, pirated copies of the software were already in circulation. This marks the start of the war on internet-related piracy.
In 1982 the PhoneNet system was launched and connected to ARPANET by Dave Farber of the University of Delaware, and the first commercial network called Telenet is also launched. This caused a boom in internet access and allowed for emails to be sent between continents and countries.
In 1981, Metcalfe’s company 3COM released Ethernet products for computer workstations, and personal computers, which allowed for the establishment of Local Area Networks or LAN, which remains popular today, and was widely used as one of the first forms of multiplayer gaming, which makes up 5 % of global internet traffic currently.
The Domain Name System is created in 1985, by developers Paul Mockapetris, Jon Postel, and Craig Partridge, which uses Domain Names to manage the number of users on the internet, and is crucial to the internet today, since it allows for the creation of a unique address for every single website on the planet, and as of 2021, there are one billion one hundred ninety-seven million nine hundred eighty-two thousand three hundred fifty-nine (1,197,982,359) of these domains on the internet.
Also in 1985, the first domain, which was called symbolics.com was registered, this domain belonged to a computer manufacturer.
In 1990, ARPANET was decommissioned, and Tim Berners-Lee and some of his colleagues at CERN developed HTML (hypertext markup language), which set led to the first form of the World Wide Web, which was set to overtake Usenet in popularity in the 1990s and is possibly one of the greatest events in modern internet history.
One of the biggest years that define the modern internet was the year 1995. Microsoft launched its first operating system, called Windows 95, which was an immediate success and set the stage for the current world where Microsoft is the dominant operating system.
In the same year, Amazon launched, as an online book store. In 1997, Amazon held its Initial Public Offering, where shares were sold for $18 each. If one had invested $100 into amazon during 1997, it would be worth about $130 000 today.
1995 and the Blooming of the Internet
The third key development in the year 1995 was the launch of Yahoo, an American service provider that remains popular today, and their most popular feature, YahooMail has two-hundred-and-twenty-five million (225 000 000) active users per month as of the time of writing. Yahoo’s popularity increased fairly rapidly after its inception and has remained reasonably high ever since.
Another huge event in the course of history that shaped the internet, is the launch of one of the most popular online marketplaces ever, eBay, which has an astounding two billion (2 000 000 000) daily transactions and was the 2nd most popular online e-commerce website as of 2018.
The second-to-last Internet-shaking event to take place in the extremely eventful year of 1995 was the launch of Internet Explorer, the default browser for the windows OS up until 2015, and the launch of the Edge browser, previously codenamed Project Spartan. For many years Internet explorer was the browser of choice for internet users around the world and it had a huge effect on current browser technology.
The final event in this historic year is the launch of Java, which made animation on websites possible and created a boom in internet usage and popularity.
The Maturing of the Internet
In 1996, Congress passed the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which attempted to “combat the increasing amount of objectionable material on the Internet”, and contained regulations limiting the kind of things that could be said or done on the Net, the first attempt to restrict online freedom of speech. In reaction to this bill, the Family Empowerment amendment was introduced and passed almost unanimously.
In the year 1988, Google was launched and rapidly increased in popularity as a search engine. In 2020, there were an estimated 2.65 billion users worldwide using Google Chrome as their main search engine, and Chrome is still the most popular browser in the world by a large margin, the runner-up being Safari, which was launched on the 7th of January 2003, with a comparatively smaller user count of 446 million as of the year 2020.
In 1999 the video-and-music piracy controversy intensified with the launch of Napster. The DMCA was launched in 1998, so piracy was technically legal up until this point. A lot of recent controversies have been seen surrounding the DMCA, especially as regards music and online streaming services, the most notable being recent changes to the DMCA which turned a large number of streamers from Twitch and other platforms into felons.
In 2001 Jimmy Wales launched the popular Wikipedia, which gained over 20 000 entries in the first year, and has more information than any other encyclopedia ever as of 2021. In 2002, Microsoft launched Xbox Live, an online gaming service which was thought ridiculous at the time due to the lack of broadband connections, but soon became a huge success, and sparked the multiplayer trend we can see today.
In 2003, Linkedin, Itunes, Myspace, and WordPress all launched , and their popularity grew fairly rapidly, with Myspace immediately becoming the platform of choice for musicians, however it was soon replaced by iTunes and Spotify, after which the company’s market value dropped from over 500 million dollars to less than 35 million dollars.
In 2004 Mark Zuckerberg launched facebook.com, which quickly became the now very popular social media platform Facebook, with an estimated 2.8 billion users as of 2021, making it the most popular social media site on the internet.
Also important in 2004, Mozilla launched Firefox 1.0, and the immensely popular MMORPG game World of Warcraft was launched, changing the face and standards of online gaming forever.
In 2005 Youtube was launched, the first cat video was posted and within a year, Youtube was purchased by Google for 1.65 billion dollars. Reddit launched in the same year and was purchased by Conde Nast in 2006.
Twitter launched in 2006, growing to 330 million users in 2019, after which they no longer offered a ‘user count’, switching instead to listing 186 million ‘monetizable’ users in 2020. The next year, 2007 there is only one event of real significance, and that is the release of the first iPhone by Apple, retailing at $499 for the 4GB version, and $599 for the 8GB version.
2008 saw quite a number more significant events, including the release of google chrome, which rapidly topped the charts of browser popularity. It also saw the release of HTML5, which still powers most of the sites available on the internet today. The App Store was released and turned into an immense success almost overnight.
At this point in time, most of the internet we know today had been shaped in rock and stone, although formats and trends still changed at an impossible speed, but the core of instant communication, banking, shopping, entertainment, and news networks remained.
One of the bigger events that took place since 2008 is the launch of the popular livestreaming service Twitch in 2011, since which it has attracted approximately 32 million visitors every month. The majority of streams on Twitch are live gameplay streams, the majority being of the vastly popular Fortnite ( Fortnite was launched in 2017, and hit its peak of active players per month in 2018, at 78.5 million.) Twitch was sold off to Amazon in 2014 for an immense 970 million dollars.
The history of the internet is quite complex and cannot be pointed out to a single person or event.However, there are some figures and events that definitely, played significant roles in the origin, shaping, maturing, and the history of the internet.
The internet has come a long way from a system funded by the US DOD, and available only to users at DOD sponsored venues, to a program written by a few disgruntled college students, all the way to what we see today, a hub of instant connectivity, more versatile than almost any system invented by humans since the wheel and axle.
This amazing center of employment, entertainment, commerce and communication is only as far away as the nearest smartphone, laptop, smartwatch, or console, and it’s only as hard to reach as it is to lift a finger and put it down again. The internet today is the closest humanity has ever come to creating something similar to a whole new universe, and it has revolutionized everything, even down to the way we think.