The Internet pervades our lives. There is almost no one whose life is not touched by some aspect of it, even if it is just that the cash register at your grocery store is connected to the company’s computers through it. For many of us, the Internet is much more prevalent. We do our banking using it. We get our news from it. We keep up with family and friends over it. We use it for our own entertainment. How did it come to be? Who invented the Internet? (Hint: It was not Al Gore, although he was a leader in government support of creating it.)
There is no short answer to the question, no one person who we can say invented the Internet. It evolved over a twenty-year period from 1962 until 1983. During this time, there were a number of different technologies that had to be invented by different scientists, then refined through being used. These technologies were the building blocks of the Internet and until each was mature, they could not be combined to make the Internet we use today.
Even before the specific technologies were developed, there had to be a vision and a visionary. In this case, there were two, Vannevar Bush and J.C.R. Licklider, 15 years apart. During World War II, Bush headed up the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development. He coordinated the work of 6,000 scientists doing military research to support America’s war effort. He saw firsthand how scientists were having trouble keeping up with the information being produced. In July 1945, Bush published an essay in The Atlantic magazine entitled As We May Think. He set forth a vision of how this information could be made more accessible. Because of the state of technology at the time, he got the details wrong—he envisioned using microfilm instead of digital computers—but his vision of all knowledge being readily available at a desk with a means to maintain links between the information describes today’s Internet. Bush was also instrumental in creating the National Science Foundation (NSF). As we will see later, the NSF played a big role in creating the Internet.
The spark that lit the fire behind America’s development of the Internet came from across the seas. In 1957, Russia launched Sputnik. America was caught by surprise by a technological innovation from another country, one with which America was at “war”—the cold war. In response, the Eisenhower administration established the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) under the Department of Defense. ARPA led the initial efforts to get America into space and to ensure that America remained at the forefront of innovative technology. ARPA worked by funding research at organizations such as Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN) and universities such as MIT and Stanford. After the space efforts were transferred to NASA, ARPA turned part of its efforts to information technology using computers. It established the Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO).
In 1962, J.C.R. Licklider became director of that office. Licklider had for years advocated sharing computers over a network to solve technical and communication problems. He called it the Intergalactic Network. He used his office to convince Ivan Sutherland, Bob Taylor, and Larry Roberts of the usefulness of networked computers. This was important because each of these men led IPTO after Licklider and carried his vision forward. Alan Kay, another noted researcher and pioneer in computers, said that 90% of all significant developments in computer science came from ARPA-funded research.
One of those developments was the ARPANET network. The technology was not sufficiently advanced during Licklider’s and Sutherland’s tenures at ARPA to build the network, but Bob Taylor decided in 1966 that it was time. There were other networking efforts going on in the world using different technologies. In fact, the proliferation of incompatible systems was a reason to move forward. Taylor brought in Larry Roberts to head up the effort to build the ARPANET.
It took three years before the ARPANET connected computers at UCLA and Stanford Research Institute. Leonard Kleinrock of UCLA, instrumental in the packet switching technology that was the basis for transmitting information over the network phone wires, tells the story of the first transmission (of the word login) on October 29, 1969:
"We set up a telephone connection between us and the guys at SRI," Kleinrock said in an interview. "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."
In a matter of months, network connections were made to the University of California Santa Barbara and the University of Utah. Growth was rapid after that, but limited to government, research companies, and universities. The first major, nationwide computer network was a reality.
So did the ARPANET become the Internet? Not exactly. The ARPANET was a single network, even after it expanded to hundreds of computers. The Internet is a network of networks. The key technology underlying the Internet was developed at ARPA. In 1972, Larry Roberts wanted to connect satellite communications to the ARPANET. He gave the job to Bob Kahn. Kahn brought in Vinton Cerf of Stanford University to help him develop the connection technology. It took a year to develop the Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol or TCP/IP, another year to publish how it would work, and another eight years to convince the Department of Defense that it was reliable enough to use. On January 1, 1983, the ARPANET was switched to TCP/IP. This date can be viewed as the birth of the Internet.
The TCP/IP was public information as it had been developed with taxpayers’ money. Others began to use it to connect networks even before the ARPANET was converted to use it. The most important of these was the National Science Foundation’s NSFNet, launched in 1986. Its goal was to connect every academic researcher in the nation to facilitate the flow of research information. With government funding, the NSFNet network backbone replaced the ARPANET as the basic network underlying the Internet. The ARPANET was formally ended in 1989.
Gradually, commercial networks, mainly from the telecommunication companies, became the Internet in America. By 1991, we were sending emails and using the Internet for accessing information using tools such as Archie and Gopher. But it was not easy to find that information and the use of the Internet was small scale compared to what was to come. For in that year, Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web or WWW. The use of the Internet exploded because the WWW and web browsers made it easy to both put information on the Internet and to find it. Surfing the Internet became a part of almost everyone’s life.
Below is a list of links that were used in writing this story. The list is currently being compiled and is not complete. Send questions or comments to email@example.com.
Copyrighted and maintained by Robert Hobbes Zakon.
If you read only one document about the history of the Internet, make it this one. Although its title says "Brief," it is complete. More importantly, it is written by those who actually created the software and hardware that became the Internet. Thus it is likey the most authoritative history on the web.
Likely an authoritative site as it was written by Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web.
Article by Vannevar Bush in The Atlantic magazine that summarized his thoughts about the need to improve the access to the explosion of information coming out of research efforts of World War II. July 1945. Presaged the World Wide Web and hypertext:
"First he runs through an encyclopedia, finds an interesting but sketchy article, leaves it projected. Next, in a history, he finds another pertinent item, and ties the two together. Thus he goes, building a trail of many items. Occasionally he inserts a comment of his own, either linking it into the main trail or joining it by a side trail to a particular item. When it becomes evident that the elastic properties of available materials had a great deal to do with the bow, he branches off on a side trail which takes him through textbooks on elasticity and tables of physical constants. He inserts a page of longhand analysis of his own. Thus he builds a trail of his interest through the maze of materials available to him."
Article by Mitch Waldrop on the DARPA (formerly ARPA) web site. Discusses the development of ARPANET, the direct ancestor of the Internet.
See the section entitled ARPA, which funded the development of the first coast-to-coast network and the software supporting it.
Includes a timeline (focused mainly on computers as opposed to networks), list of key people in the development of computing as we know it today, and a summary of history of some areas of computing, including the Internet.
Good list of books about computer history. Need to review for information about the Internet.
In Iterations: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Software History, hosted by the Charles Babbage Institute, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.