History of the Internet

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As humans — both in communities and individually — we like to understand our origins. Where did we come from? Why are we here? What can our past tell us about our future?

As I was writing about digital obesity, I realized that I wanted to know the same thing about the Internet! Where did it come from? Why is it here? What can its past tell us about its future?

After some research, here’s what I learned. I hope it’s as illuminating for you as it was for me!

The 1-sentence version:

The Internet was originally funded and developed by the US government to be a military tool during the Cold War.

Hmm, that sounds pretty different from the Internet we know today… So how did we end up where we are now?

The 74-sentence version:

1800s
In the 1800s, the concept of telecommunication — the use of electromagnetic media to transmit data across distances — first arose. In the 1830s, the telegraph (occasionally referred to, now, as the Victorian Internet) was invented and, in the 1870s, the telephone followed. (Side note: if you have a problem with run-on sentences and the passive voice, you’re going to hate the rest of this blogpost.) During this time, most telecommunication required point-to-point connections between two devices, meaning that the devices had to be connected through a physical link.1

1950s
In the early 1950s, the first electronic computers were invented. They often included a central processing unit as well as remote terminals for individual users. Because these computers could send data between terminals at different locations, they were sometimes referred to as local area networks (LANs).2 Unfortunately, LANs still relied on point-to-point connections, as well as message switching (wherein a message is sent in its entirety), which limited their stability against enemy attacks.3 At this time, the height of the Cold War, enemy attacks were an active concern.

In 1957, Soviet Russians successfully launched the first satellite into space: Sputnik. The US feared falling behind Russia scientifically and technologically, not to mention losing the Cold War. As a result, the US government decided to invest heavily in science/technology education and research, leading to the establishment of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) in 1958.4

1960s
In the early 1960s, the US government recognized that a Soviet attack could destroy the nation’s telephone system, making long-distance communication impossible.5 To develop a more stable telecommunications system, it hired J.C.R. Licklider to connect the Department of Defense‘s three preexisting computers/networks, which resided at Cheyenne Mountain, the Pentagon, and Strategic Air Command HQ. In a series of papers, Licklider shared his idea for a “galactic network” of computers — a term that’s often referred to as the inception of the Internet.6

Then, in 1965, MIT researchers Leonard Kleinrock and Lawrence G. Roberts invented packet switching, which broke data into packets and allowed each packet to take a different route to its destination. This avoided the vulnerabilities of message switching, making it essential to the development of networked computers for safe government use.7

Kleinrock standing with the original node on the ARPAnet.

In 1967, Roberts published his idea for the ARPAnet, a network of computers run by the ARPA team at the Department of Defense.8 In 1969, ARPAnet sent its first message, “LOGIN,” from its original node (a computer at UCLA) to its second node (a computer at Stanford).9 Although the message was short, it crashed the ARPAnet after the first two letters. According to Kleinrock:

“We set up a telephone connection between us and the guys at [Stanford. …] We typed the L and we asked on the phone,

‘Do you see the L?’
‘Yes, we see the L,’ came the response.
We typed the O, and we asked, “Do you see the O.”
‘Yes, we see the O.’
Then we typed the G, and the system crashed …
Yet a revolution had begun.”10

By the end of 1969, four nodes (specifically, computers/networks at UCLA, Stanford, University of Utah, and UC Santa Barbara) had been connected to the ARPAnet.11

1970s
By the early 1970s, the ARPAnet was ready for the development of applications (aka computer programs designed to help users perform specific tasks). In 1971, Ray Tomlinson wrote the first basic email application.12 Up until this point, the ARPAnet has been used mostly to send files between different nodes, but Tomlinson’s app allowed individual users to send each other messages, kicking off the idea of people-to-people traffic.

By 1973, the ARPAnet had connected three more nodes/computers/networks. However, it became difficult for these nodes to speak to each other, since they had been developed separately with different protocols (aka defined set of rules and regulations that determine how data is transmitted).13 ARPAnet, for instance, used a protocol called Network Control Program (NCP), while other computers used other protocols.14 So, in 1974, Vinton Cerf developed “Transmission Control Protocol” (TCP) and “Internet Protocol” (IP), now commonly referred to as TCP/IP. These protocols became “’the ‘handshake’ that introduces distant and different computers to each other in virtual space.”15[/note] TCP/IP allowed for successful networking *between* networks or “internetworking” — an adjective that eventually led to the noun we know today: “Internet.”

In 1975, the ARPA team decided that they didn’t want to manage ARPAnet anymore, since their main goal had been to conduct research, not to run a communications system. However, since the ARPAnet was government-funded, commercial use was strictly forbidden, so it would need to be handed off to another government agency. This agency ended up being the Defense Communications Agency, which also resided within the Department of Defense.16

1980s
In 1983, ARPAnet officially transitioned from NCP to TCP/IP, and every node on the network was required to do the same at the exact same time — a monumental transition called “flag day.”17 This coordinated transition was so successful that additional government agencies, including NASA, the Department of Energy, and the National Science Foundation (NSF), found it easy to launch their own networks afterward. By 1985, dozens of networks like these were connected to ARPAnet, making the young Internet an essential tool for researchers, academics, and the government. In 1986, however, the NSF’s network (unsurprisingly named NFSnet), was recognized as a stronger backbone for the Internet than ARPAnet. As a result, the ARPAnet was fully decommissioned in 1990 (which I’ll touch more on later), and NFSnet became the key inter-network.18

In line with the new leadership role they were playing in the development of the Internet, the NSF team initiated a series of conferences at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government on “The Commercialization and Privatization of the Internet” and commissioned a report called “Towards a National Research Network” in 1988.19 (This report caught the attention of Al Gore, who decided to support the NFS.20 Eventually, he gave a memorable interview with Wolf Blitzer, which triggered the joke, “Al Gore invented the Internet.”)

NFS’s exploration of the Internet’s commercial potential led to the creation of a few independent Internet Service Providers (ISPs), such as PSINet, UUNET, Netcom, and Portal Software, in the late 1980s, which allowed non-government communities to develop their own networks. However, these networks couldn’t be connected to ARPAnet or NFSnet, since government-funded networks were precluded from carrying any commercial traffic.21 The commercial Internet had been born, but it was just getting its legs.

By the way, although the Internet had mostly been used for file transfers and email up until this point, a Swedish programmer named Tim Berners-Lee had another idea. In 1989, he developed the World Wide Web, which was “not simply a way to send files from one place to another but was itself a ‘web’ of information that anyone on the Internet could retrieve.” As a central repository of information mostly crafted by technicians and experts, the World Wide Web had pages that were connected through hyperlinks. Soon after, Berners-Lee created the first browser, called WorldWideWeb (which was later renamed Nexus), allowing users to access this repository more easily.22 23

1990s
As mentioned above, ARPAnet was officially decommissioned in 1990, leaving NFSnet as the main backbone of the internet.24

In 1992, students and researchers at University of Illinois developed another browser, which they called Mosaic and later renamed Netscape. This browser provided a user-friendly, multimedia way to search the web — images and text on the same page, oh my! — which has been credited with the Internet boom of the ’90s.25 26

Also in 1992, Congress passed the Scientific and Advanced-Technology Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1862(g), which allowed the NSFnet to connect to some commercial networks, essentially deciding that the Internet could be used for commercial, as well as government-funded, purposes.27 This opened the gate for the Internet as we know it today: a vast commercial market.

In 1994, NSF wrote a report called “Realizing The Information Future: The Internet and Beyond,” which provided “a blueprint for the evolution of the information superhighway [… and …] anticipated the critical issues of intellectual property rights, ethics, pricing, education, architecture and regulation for the Internet.”28

In 1995, NSF fully removed its funding from NSFnet, which eliminated the final restrictions on commercial use of the Internet. This led to more growth and competition for ISPs, leading to a wide offering of national and regional networks for consumers.29 The Internet could now be a part of the workplace and the home of the average American. (My family, for one, got AOL in 1998, when I was in 3rd grade.)

In 1999, Darcy DiNucci, an information architecture consultant, wrote an article called “Fragmented Future,” in which she explained that the World Wide Web would soon change:

“The Web we know now, which loads into a browser window in essentially static screenfuls, is only an embryo of the Web to come. The first glimmerings of Web 2.0 are beginning to appear, and we are just starting to see how that embryo might develop. […] The Web will be understood not as screenfuls of text and graphics but as a transport mechanism, the ether through which interactivity happens. It will […] appear on your computer screen, […] on your TV set […] your car dashboard […] your cell phone […] hand-held game machines […] and maybe even your microwave.” 30

The term “Web 2.0″ refers to the internet as we know it today: sites, pages, articles, comments, blogs, videos, social media profiles, and status updates are created by users themselves, not just by technicians and experts. Today, this is called user-generated content.31

2000s
In 2006, TIME Magazine acknowledged the power of Web 2.0 by naming “You” the Person of the Year. In the cover story, Lev Grossman wrote:

“It’s a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before. It’s about the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million-channel people’s network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace. It’s about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world but also change the way the world changes.”32

I’m going to stop my history of the Internet here, before I get into the messy world of ecommerce, the dot-com bubble, smartphones, WiFi, social media, SaaS, cloud computing, and GIFs. Also, this blogpost has gotten a bit too long.

Suffices to say: a lot has happened since J.C.R. Licklider conceived of a “galactic network” of computers in 1962.

Back to the blog

References:

  1. “History of the Internet.” Section: “Precursors.” Wikipedia. Web. Accessed on 12/27/17.
  2. “History of the Internet.” Section: “Development of wide area networking.” Wikipedia. Web. Accessed on 12/27/17.
  3. “Message switching.” Wikipedia. Web. Accessed on 12/27/17.
  4. History.com staff. “The Invention of the Internet.” Section: “The Sputnik scare.” History.com/A+E Networks. (2010) Web. Accessed on 12/27/17.
  5. History.com staff. “The Invention of the Internet.” Section: “Birth of the ARPAnet.” History.com/A+E Networks. (2010) Web. Accessed on 12/27/17.
  6. “History of the Internet.” Section: “Inspiration.” Wikipedia. Web. Accessed on 12/27/17.
  7. “History of the Internet.” Section: “Development of packet switching.” Wikipedia. Web. Accessed on 12/27/17.
  8. Barry M. Leiner, Vinton G. Cerf, David D. Clark, Robert E. Kahn, Leonard Kleinrock, Daniel C. Lynch, Jon Postel, Larry G. Roberts, Stephen Wolff. “Brief History of the Internet.” Section: “Transition to Widespread Infrastructure.” Internet Society. (1997) Web. Accessed on 12/27/17.
  9. History.com staff. “The Invention of the Internet.” Section: “LOGIN.” History.com, A+E Networks. (2010) Web. Accessed on 12/27/17.
  10. Gregory Gromov. “Roads and Crossroads of the Internet History.” Section: “1969: The first LOGs: UCLA — Stanford.” NetValley. Web. Accessed on 12/27/17.
  11. “History of the Internet.” Section: “ARPANET.” Wikipedia. Web. Accessed on 12/27/17.
  12. “Ray Tomlinson.” Wikipedia. Web. Accessed on 12/27/17.
  13. “History of the Internet.” Section: “Merging the networks and creating the Internet (1973–95).” Wikipedia. Web. Accessed on 12/27/17.
  14. “Network Control Program.” Wikipedia. Web. Accessed on 12/27/17.
  15. [note]History.com staff. “The Invention of the Internet.” Section: “The Network Grows.” History.com, A+E Networks. (2010) Web. Accessed on 12/27/17.
  16. “History of the Internet.” Section: “From ARPANET to NSFNET.” Wikipedia. Web. Accessed on 12/27/17.
  17. “History of the Internet.” Section: “ARPANET.” Wikipedia. Web. Accessed on 12/27/17.
  18. “History of the Internet.” Section: “From ARPANET to NSFNET.” Wikipedia. Web. Accessed on 12/27/17.
  19. Barry M. Leiner, Vinton G. Cerf, David D. Clark, Robert E. Kahn, Leonard Kleinrock, Daniel C. Lynch, Jon Postel, Larry G. Roberts, Stephen Wolff. “Brief History of the Internet.” Section: “Transition to Widespread Infrastructure.” Internet Society. (1997) Web. Accessed on 12/27/17.
  20. Richard Wiggins. “Al Gore and the Creation of the Internet.” First Monday. Volume 5, Number 10. October 2, 2000. Web. Accessed on 12/28/17.
  21. Barry M. Leiner, Vinton G. Cerf, David D. Clark, Robert E. Kahn, Leonard Kleinrock, Daniel C. Lynch, Jon Postel, Larry G. Roberts, Stephen Wolff. “Brief History of the Internet.” Section: “Transition to Widespread Infrastructure.” Internet Society. (1997) Web. Accessed on 12/27/17.
  22. History.com staff. “The Invention of the Internet.” Section: “The World Wide Web.” History.com/A+E Networks. (2010) Web. Accessed on 12/27/17.
  23. “History of the Internet.” Section: “World Wide Web and introduction of browsers.” Wikipedia. Web. Accessed on 12/27/17.
  24. “History of the Internet.” Section: “From ARPANET to NSFNET.” Wikipedia. Web. Accessed on 12/27/17.
  25. History.com staff. “The Invention of the Internet.” Section: “The World Wide Web.” History.com/A+E Networks. (2010) Web. Accessed on 12/27/17.
  26. “History of the Internet.” Section: “World Wide Web and introduction of browsers.” Wikipedia. Web. Accessed on 12/27/17.
  27. “History of the Internet.” Section: “Rise of the global Internet (late 1980s/early 1990s onward).” Wikipedia. Web. Accessed on 12/27/17.
  28. Barry M. Leiner, Vinton G. Cerf, David D. Clark, Robert E. Kahn, Leonard Kleinrock, Daniel C. Lynch, Jon Postel, Larry G. Roberts, Stephen Wolff. “Brief History of the Internet.” Section: “Transition to Widespread Infrastructure.” Internet Society. (1997) Web. Accessed on 12/27/17.
  29. “History of the Internet.” Wikipedia. Web. Accessed on 12/27/17.
  30. Darcy DiNucci. “Fragmented Future.” (1999) Print. Page 32.
  31. “User-generated content.” Wikipedia. Web. Accessed on 12/27.17.
  32. Lev Grossman. “You — Yes, You — Are TIME’s Person of the Year.” TIME Magazine. December 25, 2006. Web. Accessed on 12/27/2017.