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History of the Internet

The internet has revolutionized more than just the computer industry: it’s completely changed every aspect of our world.

Ever wondered where the internet came from? Today, we’re going over the history of the internet.

The Internet Has Its Roots in Early Communications Methods

It’s easy to see the internet as its own entity that had never been seen in the world before.

However, in reality, the internet owes its existence to all major communication technologies that came before it. The invention off the telegraph, telephone, radio, and computer all set the stage for the unprecedented capabilities of the internet.

The internet is unlike any communication method that came before it: it allows for global collaboration, light speed communication, and world-wide broadcasting capabilities.

But the internet didn’t appear out of thin air. There wasn’t a single “eureka” moment. Instead, as one researcher at InternetSociety.org explains, “the internet represents one of the most successful examples of the benefits of sustained investment and commitment to research and development of information infrastructure.”

With that in mind, let’s figure out where the internet came from.

August 1962 and the Galactic Network

The first mentions of the internet took place in 1962 when a researcher named J.C.R. Licklider of MIT discussed his Galactic Network concept in a series of notes.

Licklider theorized that computers around the world could be globally interconnected, allowing users to simultaneously access data and programs from any site. Licklider was more accurate than he probably imagined.

At the time, Licklider was the head of the computer research program at DARPA. During his time at DARPA, he would convince others of the importance of his global network idea.

Leonard Kleinrock and Packet Switching Theory

Leonard Kleinrock, an MIT researcher, published the first paper on packet switching theory in July 1961. He would later publish an entire book on that subject in 1964.

In these publications, Kleinrock theorized that communication between computers was best achieved using packets instead of circuits.

Kleinrock didn’t know it at the time, but this was a major step along the path towards computer networking.

Kleinrock would later work with two researchers to test his theory in 1965. These researchers were successfully able to connect a TX-2 computer in Massachusetts with a Q-32 computer in California over a low speed dial-up telephone line.

This may have seemed like a simple connection, but it was the first wide-area computer network ever built (even if that network consisted of just two computers).

As a result of this experiment, researchers realized that time-shared computers could work in complementary fashion across a network. One computer could run programs and retrieve necessary data from the remote machine.

Nevertheless, researchers also realized one major constraint: their computer network was severely limited by the constraints of the circuit switched telephone system. Thus, Kleinrock realized how important his packet switching theory could be.

Lawrence G. Roberts and ARPANET

You may have heard that the first version of the internet was called ARPANET. ARPANET was pushed forward by an MIT researcher named Lawrence G. Roberts, who was one of the three researchers who had originally worked on Kleinrock’s network in 1965.

Roberts pushed DARPA to create its own computer network called ARPANET. He published his plans for ARPANET in a 1967 paper and would later present it at a conference.

By 1968, DARPA was ready to finance and development ARPANET. As a tribute to Kleinrock’s earlier packet switching technology work, DARPA selected Kleinrock’s Network Measurement Center at UCLA to be the first node on ARPANET.

On 1969, ARPANET was activated for the first time when the first host computer at UCLA was connected to the network.

One month later, a computer at Stanford Research Institute (SRI) was connected to the network. Two more nodes were later added at UC Santa Barbara and University of Utah.

Thus, by the end of 1969, ARPANET was a computer network that spanned a significant portion of the United States and consisted of four host computers connected together using a common platform. The prototype version of the internet had lifted off the ground.

More Computers Are Added to ARPANET

Over the coming years, more and more computers were added to ARPANET. While computers were being added, researchers also sought to enhance communications technologies. Researchers were hard at work developing host-to-host protocol, for example, also called Network Control Protocol.

By 1971 and 1972, NCP was ready for implementation. That meant network users could finally develop their own applications for use across the network.

1972: ARPANET Is Showcased at the ICCC

In 1972, ARPANET researchers were ready to present their work at the International Computer Communication Conference (ICCC). This was the first public demonstration of the internet – or something like the internet.

As a demonstration of the power of ARPANET, researchers also unveiled the first major application on the servers: electronic mail, which would later be shortened to email.

That email system would be expanded over the years to allow for reading, file attachments, forwarding, and message replies. Over the next decade, email would quickly become the most commonly used network application.

ARPANET Turns into the Internet

How did ARPANET turn into the internet we know and love today? Essentially, ARPANET grew to become the internet.

The internet we know today was based off the idea that there would be multiple independent networks operating together with each other. ARPANET was the first network. But over time, it was thought that new networks could join ARPANET – including packet satellite networks, packet radio networks, and other networks.

Today, we call this open architecture networking. Providers could freely select their choice of network technology and join: these choices were not dictated by a certain type of network architecture.

As promised, multiple independent networks began to appear alongside ARPANET. Some of the other early networks included:

  • NPL network
  • CYCLADES
  • Merit Network
  • Tymnet
  • Telenet

All of these networks were developed throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s.

ARPANET was further expanded in 1981 when the National Science Foundation funded the Computer Science Network (CSNET), allowing it to join ARPANET.

But ARPANET’s potential grew enormously when, in 1982, ARPANET introduced the internet protocol suite (TCP/IP) as the standard networking protocol on the ARPANET.

The NSF and Supercomputers

We owe a lot about the internet to the National Science Foundation, or NSF. That foundation not only funded the Computer Science Network, as mentioned above, but it also financed supercomputer sites across America.

These supercomputers were connected to several universities over the internet. Researchers at these universities could access the supercomputers over the ARPANET.

Recognizing the commercial potential for such a system, ISPs began to take notice of the ARPANET in the late 1980s.

The ARPANET was officially decommissioned in 1990. During this time, the earliest parts of the internet started to appear online: businesses across America created limited private connections to parts of the internet.

At this time, however, the internet still had a major problem: The National Science Foundation’s network (NSFNET) prevented the internet from carrying commercial traffic when NSFNET was decommissioned in 1995, this opened the door for commercial traffic and the resulting explosion of internet technologies.

NSFNET

NSFNET was, according to NSFNET-Legacy.com, a “program of coordinated, evolving projects sponsored by the National Science Foundation.” That project was initiated in 1985 to support and promote advanced networking between research institutions in the United States.

By 1991, NSFNET had a major presence in over a dozen research institutions across America, including Ann Arbor, Palo Alto, Seattle, and Princeton.

NSFNET promised to be a faster solution to networking: “By design, the NSFNET backbone made high speed networking available to national supercomputer centers and to inter-linked regional networks.”

Prior to the invention of NSFNET, only certain computer science researchers could access supercomputers. NSFNET opened these supercomputers up to numerous other disciplines.

When Did We Start Calling it “the Internet”?

The term “internet” was first used in a paper that discussed TCP protocol published in December 1974. In that paper, internet was used as an abbreviation of “Internetworking”, and the two terms were used interchangeably throughout that paper.

Over the years, internet came to describe any network that used TCP/IP.

When the two largest networks of the 1980s, ARPANET and NSFNET, merged together, people stopped calling the networks by their respective names. Instead, they began using the term “internet” to refer to the collective two networks.

Tim Berners-Lee and the World Wide Web

When you look up “Who invented the internet?” you’ll typically get “Tim Berners-Lee” as the best answer. Tim Berners-Lee was a CERN researcher originally from London, England.

Beginning in the 1980s, Tim Berners-Lee theorized that a common platform could link hypertext documents into a practical, usable system on the internet.

Tim Berners-Lee used this research to create the Hyper Text Markup Language, or HTML. HTML allowed for the publication of rich multimedia onto the internet and paved the way for online commercial enterprises.

The first website in the world was hosted at CERN on Berners-Lee’s own computer. That website was, appropriately enough, dedicated to describing the features of the World Wide Web. It featured a brief tutorial on how to setup your own web server and how to access other documents across the network.

For historical purposes, CERN has actually re-uploaded the world’s first website. You can browse through that website here: http://info.cern.ch/

By April 30, 1993, CERN was ready to introduce the World Wide Web onto the public domain. Instead of making this a private, membership-based service, CERN made the World Wide Web available with an open license. It also allowed anyone to run web servers on the World Wide Web and provided a basic web browser and a library of code.

Together, these decisions ensured that the early World Wide Web was allowed to flourish.

Web 1.0 (1990s to Early 2000s)

Web 1.0 is described as the earliest days of the internet as we know it. This is the age when commercial enterprises were just starting to get online. People knew the internet was amazing – but nobody understood its full potential.

Some of the hallmarks of this period of the internet included:

  • The internet was widely used for mailing lists, emails, ecommerce, basic online shopping (Amazon and eBay both arose in this period), and online forums
  • Social media did not exist outside of forums
  • Data rates were slow, which prevented mass media storage online
  • Websites typically had static pages instead of dynamic HTML

The Web 1.0 era was also marked by the first speculative investment bubble related to the internet. The so called “Dot Com” bubble involved the world’s biggest internet companies being propelled to ridiculously high stock values. While the bubble filled more and more rapidly, it eventually burst in 2001.

As data usage on the internet become more and more widespread, people began to wonder about what web 2.0 would bring.

Web 2.0 (Mid 2000s)

Web 2.0 is typically used to refer to websites that emphasize user-generated content and social interactions. The first use of web 2.0 took place in a January 1999 article called Fragmented Future, where the author talked wistfully about the potential future of the internet:

“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 author went on to discuss the potential for rich multimedia hosted online, handheld gaming machines, the internet on cell phones, and the internet on car dashboards and TV sets. It was surprisingly forward thinking and accurate for the time.

Of course, there was no concrete moment when web 1.0 switched to web 2.0. Instead, the change took place over the years between the early 2000s and the mid-2000s.

During this period, websites like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter started to appear. Wikipedia and blogging websites rose to prominence. Mobile devices became more and more important.

Mobile Revolution

Today, we’re in the middle of the mobile revolution of the internet. The social sharing days of web 2.0 naturally transitioned into the idea that we wanted the internet in our hands at all times. We needed to keep up-to-date with our social networks and share information on-the-go.

The mobile revolution led to an increased growth in smartphones, tablets, and all of the other devices you see today.

The mobile revolution introduced major changes to the internet like:

  • Mobile optimized websites (like m.website.com)
  • Crowdsourcing
  • Location-based and location-tagged services
  • Netbooks and ultrabooks
  • Widespread 4G and Wi-Fi networks to take mobile devices on-the-go
  • Apps

Who knows where the internet will take us next?

The Internet Goes to Outer Space

In 2010, the internet hit a new frontier: it went to outer space for the first time. On January 22, 2010, American astronaut T.J. Creamer tweeted from the International Space Station without assistance. Prior to this, astronauts had to relay messages to the ground, then wait for assistants on the ground to relay the messages to the internet.

Internet service arrived in space as part of something called Crew Support LAN, which used a high-speed microwave link. The ISS now hosts a laptop that astronauts can use to communicate with loved ones back home.

In other words, the internet isn’t just an international communication service anymore: it’s an interplanetary communication service (okay, that may be a little dramatic).

Who Controls the Internet?

Over the years, the internet has managed by a number of organizations, but no one organization.

One of the key features of the internet is that it’s a “globally distributed network of voluntarily interconnected autonomous networks”. There is no centralized government authority that manages the technologies or policies of the internet.

Nevertheless, the internet does require some regulatory oversight. Here are some of the bodies that help us manage the internet as we know it:

Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF)

This organization was originally supported by the United States federal government. However, starting in 1993, the IETF moved under the jurisdiction of the Internet Society, which is a non-profit international organization. Today, the IETF consists of a series of working groups that work together to propose various changes and solutions to internet infrastructure.

Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN)

ICANN is responsible for performing the technical maintenance work on the central internet address pools while also maintaining DNS root registries. ICANN is also responsible for managing the global Domain Name System, including pushing forward new improvements (like new top level domains). The organization is based in Los Angeles, California.

Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA)

IANA is a department of ICANN. Based in California, IANA is responsible for allocating IP addresses around the world. The organization delegates the allocation of IP address blocks to regional internet registries, which are then further allocated around smaller areas.

100 years from now, historians might look back at this time period and consider it to be the “early days” of the internet. We know that the internet is the most powerful communication device ever made. But it’s possible that we’ve barely scratched the surface of its potential.

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