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A brief history of the internet

Read about the history of the internet, from its 1950s origins to the World Wide Web’s explosion in popularity in the late 1990s, the ‘dotcom bubble’, and beyond.

How did the internet begin?

The origins of the internet are rooted in the USA of the 1950s. The Cold War was at its height and huge tensions existed between North America and the Soviet Union. Both superpowers were in possession of deadly nuclear weapons, and people lived in fear of long-range surprise attacks. The US realised it needed a communications system that could not be affected by a Soviet nuclear attack.

At this time, computers were large, expensive machines exclusively used by military scientists and university staff.

Elliott/NRDC 401 Computer MkI, c.1953
Elliott/NRDC 401 Computer MkI, c. 1953

These machines were powerful but limited in numbers, and researchers grew increasingly frustrated: they required access to the technology, but had to travel great distances to use it.

To solve this problem, researchers started ‘time-sharing’. This meant that users could simultaneously access a mainframe computer through a series of terminals, although individually they had only a fraction of the computer’s actual power at their command.

The difficulty of using such systems led various scientists, engineers and organisations to research the possibility of a large-scale computer network.

Who invented the internet?

No one person invented the internet. When networking technology was first developed, a number of scientists and engineers brought their research together to create the ARPANET. Later, other inventors’ creations paved the way for the web as we know it today.

• Paul Baran (1926–2011)

An engineer whose work overlapped with ARPA’s research. In 1959 he joined an American think tank, the RAND Corporation, and was asked to research how the US Air Force could keep control of its fleet if a nuclear attack ever happened. In 1964 Baran proposed a communication network with no central command point. So if one point was destroyed, all surviving points would still be able to communicate with each other. He called this a distributed network.

• Lawrence Roberts (1937–2018)

Chief scientist at ARPA, responsible for developing computer networks. Paul Baran’s idea appealed to Roberts, and he began to work on the creation of a distributed network.

• Leonard Kleinrock (1934–)

An American scientist who worked towards the creation of a distributed network alongside Lawrence Roberts.

• Donald Davies (1924–2000)

A British scientist who, at the same time as Roberts and Kleinrock, was developing similar technology at the National Physical Laboratory in Middlesex.

• Bob Kahn (1938–) and Vint Cerf (1943–)

American computer scientists who developed TCP/IP, the set of protocols that governs how data moves through a network. This helped the ARPANET evolve into the internet we use today. Vint Cerf is credited with the first written use of the word ‘internet’.

When asked to explain my role in the creation of the internet, I generally use the example of a city. I helped to build the roads—the infrastructure that gets things from point A to point B.

—Vint Cerf, 2007

• Paul Mockapetris (1948–) and Jon Postel (1943–98)

Inventors of DNS, the ‘phone book of the internet’.

• Tim Berners-Lee (1955–)

Creator of the World Wide Web who developed many of the principles we still use today, such as HTML, HTTP, URLs and web browsers.

There was no “Eureka!” moment. It was not like the legendary apple falling on Newton’s head to demonstrate the concept of gravity. Inventing the World Wide Web involved my growing realisation that there was a power in arranging ideas in an unconstrained, weblike way. And that awareness came to me through precisely that kind of process. The Web arose as the answer to an open challenge, through the swirling together of influences, ideas, and realisations from many sides.

—Tim Berners-Lee, Weaving the Web, 1999

• Marc Andreessen (1971–)

Inventor of Mosaic, the first widely-used web browser.

When was a computer network first used?

In 1965, Lawrence Roberts made two separate computers in different places ‘talk’ to each other for the first time. This experimental link used a telephone line with an acoustically coupled modem, and transferred digital data using packets.

When the first packet-switching network was developed, Leonard Kleinrock was the first person to use it to send a message. He used a computer at UCLA to send a message to a computer at Stanford. Kleinrock tried to type ‘login’ but the system crashed after the letters ‘L’ and ‘O’ had appeared on the Stanford monitor.

A second attempt proved successful and more messages were exchanged between the two sites. The ARPANET was born.

What was the ARPANET?

President Dwight D. Eisenhower formed the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) in 1958, bringing together some of the best scientific minds in the country. Their aim was to help American military technology stay ahead of its enemies and prevent surprises, such as the launch of the satellite Sputnik 1, happening again. Among ARPA’s projects was a remit to test the feasibility of a large-scale computer network.

Lawrence Roberts was responsible for developing computer networks at ARPA, working with scientist Leonard Kleinrock. Roberts was the first person to connect two computers. When the first packet-switching network was developed in 1969, Kleinrock successfully used it to send messages to another site, and the ARPA Network—or ARPANET—was born.

Once ARPANET was up and running, it quickly expanded. By 1973, 30 academic, military and research institutions had joined the network, connecting locations including Hawaii, Norway and the UK.

As ARPANET grew, a set of rules for handling data packets needed to be put in place. In 1974, computer scientists Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf invented a new method called transmission-control protocol, popularly known as TCP/IP, which essentially allowed computers to speak the same language.

After the introduction of TCP/IP, ARPANET quickly grew to become a global interconnected network of networks, or ‘Internet’.

The ARPANET was decommissioned in 1990.

What is packet switching?

‘Packet switching’ is a method of splitting and sending data. A computer file is effectively broken up into thousands of small segments called ‘packets’—each typically around 1500 bytes—distributed across a network, and then reordered back into a single file at their destination. The packet switching method is very reliable and allows data to be sent securely, even over damaged networks; it also uses bandwidth very efficiently and doesn’t need a single dedicated link, like a telephone call does.

The world’s first packet-switching computer network was produced in 1969. Computers at four American universities were connected using separate minicomputers known as ‘Interface Message Processors’ or ‘IMPs’. The IMPs acted as gateways for the packets and have since evolved into what we now call ‘routers’.

Packet switching is the basis on which the internet still works today.

What is TCP/IP?

TCP/IP stands for Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol. The term is used to describe a set of protocols that govern how data moves through a network.

After the creation of ARPANET, more networks of computers began to join the network, and the need arose for an agreed set of rules for handling data. In 1974 two American computer scientists, Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf, proposed a new method that involved sending data packets in a digital envelope or ‘datagram’. The address on the datagram can be read by any computer, but only the final host machine can open the envelope and read the message inside.

Kahn and Cerf called this method transmission-control protocol (TCP). TCP allowed computers to speak the same language, and it helped the ARPANET to grow into a global interconnected network of networks, an example of ‘internetworking’—internet for short.

IP stands for Internet Protocol and, when combined with TCP, helps internet traffic find its destination. Every device connected to the internet is given a unique IP number. Known as an IP address, the number can be used to find the location of any internet-connected device in the world.

What is DNS?

DNS stands for Domain Name System. It is the internet’s equivalent of a phone book, and converts hard-to-remember IP addresses into simple names.

In the early 1980s, cheaper technology and the appearance of desktop computers allowed the rapid development of local area networks (LANs). An increase in the amount of computers on the network made it difficult to keep track of all the different IP addresses.

This problem was solved by the introduction of the Domain Name System (DNS) in 1983. DNS was invented by Paul Mockapetris and Jon Postel at the University of Southern California. It was one of the innovations that paved the way for the World Wide Web.

How did email begin?

Email was a rapid—but unintended—consequence of the growth of ARPANET. As the network increased in popularity and scope, users quickly realised the potential of the network as a tool for sending messages between different ARPANET computers.

Ray Tomlinson, an American computer programmer, is responsible for electronic mail as we know it today. He introduced the idea that the destination of a message should be indicated using the @ symbol, which was first used to distinguish between the individual user’s name and that of their computer (i.e. [email protected]). When DNS was introduced, this was extended to [email protected]

Early email users sent personal messages and began mailing lists on specific topics. One of the first big mailing lists was ‘SF-LOVERS’ for science fiction fans.

The development of email showed how the network had transformed. Rather than a way of accessing expensive computing power, it had started to become a place to communicate, gossip and make friends.

What did early home computers look like?

From the 1970s onwards, the home computer industry grew exponentially. The uptake of home computers was not necessarily driven by users’ needs or a computer’s functionality; early machines could actually do relatively little. The appeal to the consumer was the idea of becoming part of the ‘Information Revolution’. Computers were embedded with the rhetoric of the future and learning, but in most cases this meant learning to program so that people could actually make the technology do something, such as play games.

How did the internet become popular?

The invention of DNS, the common use of TCP/IP and the popularity of email caused an explosion of activity on the internet. Between 1986 and 1987, the network grew from 2,000 hosts to 30,000. People were now using the internet to send messages to each other, read news and swap files. However, advanced knowledge of computing was still needed to dial in to the system and use it effectively, and there was still no agreement on the way that documents on the network were formatted.

The internet needed to be easier to use. An answer to the problem appeared in 1989 when a British computer scientist named Tim Berners-Lee submitted a proposal to his employer, CERN, the international particle-research laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland. Berners-Lee proposed a new way of structuring and linking all the information available on CERN’s computer network that made it quick and easy to access. His concept for a ‘web of information’ would ultimately become the World Wide Web.

The launch of the Mosaic browser in 1993 opened up the web to a new audience of non-academics, and people started to discover how easy it was to create their own HTML web pages. Consequently, the number of websites grew from 130 in 1993 to over 100,000 at the start of 1996.

By 1995 the internet and the World Wide Web were established phenomena: Netscape Navigator, which was the most popular browser at the time, had around 10 million global users.

How is the World Wide Web different from the internet?

The terms ‘World Wide Web’ and ‘internet’ are often confused. The internet is the networking infrastructure that connects devices together, while the World Wide Web is a way of accessing information through the medium of the internet.

Tim Berners-Lee first proposed the idea of a ‘web of information’ in 1989. It relied on ‘hyperlinks’ to connect documents together. Written in Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), a hyperlink can point to any other HTML page or file that sits on top of the internet.

In 1990, Berners-Lee developed Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) and designed the Universal Resource Identifier (URI) system. HTTP is the language computers use to communicate HTML documents over the internet, and the URI, also known as a URL, provides a unique address where the pages can be easily found.

Berners-Lee also created a piece of software that could present HTML documents in an easy-to-read format. He called this ‘browser’ the ‘WorldWideWeb’.

Birthplace of the Web (the computer that Tim Berners-Lee used to invent the World Wide Web)

On 6 August 1991 the code to create more web pages and the software to view them was made freely available on the internet. Computer enthusiasts around the world began setting up their own websites. Berners-Lee’s vision of a free, global and shared information space began to take shape.

The dream behind the Web is of a common information space in which we communicate by sharing information. Its universality is essential: the fact that a hypertext link can point to anything, be it personal, local or global, be it draft or highly polished.

—Tim Berners-Lee, 1998

When were web browsers invented?

Tim Berners-Lee was the first to create a piece of software that could present HTML documents in an easy-to-read format. He called this ‘browser’ the ‘WorldWideWeb’. However, this original application had limited use as it could only be used on advanced NeXT machines. A simplified version that could run on any computer was created by Nicola Pellow, a maths student who worked alongside Berners-Lee at CERN.

In 1993, Marc Andreessen, an American student in Illinois, launched a new browser called Mosaic. Created at the National Center for Super-computing Applications (NCSA), Mosaic was easy to download and install, worked on many different computers and provided simple point-and-click access to the World Wide Web. Mosaic was also the first browser to display images next to text, rather than in a separate window.

Mosaic’s simplicity opened the web up to a new audience, and caused an explosion of activity on the internet, with the number of websites growing from 130 in 1993 to over 100,000 at the start of 1996.

In 1994 Andreesen formed Netscape Communications with entrepreneur Jim Clark. They led the company to create Netscape Navigator, a widely used internet browser that at the time was faster and more sophisticated than any of the competition. By 1995, Navigator had around 10 million global users.

What was the ‘dotcom bubble’?

The enormous excitement surrounding the internet led to a massive boom in new technology shares between 1998 and 2000. This became known as the ‘dotcom bubble’.

The claim was that world industry was experiencing a ‘new economic paradigm’, the likes of which had never been experienced before. Investors in the stock market began to believe the hype and threw themselves into a frenzy of activity. The internet was thought to be central to economic growth, while share prices implied that new online companies carried the seeds for expansion. This led in turn to a feverish level of investment and unrealistic expectations about rates of return.

We have entered a period of sustained growth that could eventually double the world’s economy every dozen years and bring increasing prosperity for—quite literally—billions of people on the planet. We are riding the early waves of a 25-year run of a greatly expanding economy that will do much to solve seemingly intractable problems like poverty and to ease tensions throughout the world.

—Peter Schwartz and Peter Leyden, Wired, July 1997

Venture capitalists flourished and many companies were founded on dubious business plans. The most notorious of these was the high fashion online retailer Boo.com, which spent its way through $200 million, only to collapse within six months of its website going live.

However, despite their failure, such businesses helped cause a fundamental transformation and left an important legacy. Many investors lost money, but they also helped to finance the new system and lay the groundwork for future success in ecommerce.


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