Where did the Internet come from? Who built it? How did it get to be what it is today?

A Brief History of the Internet

The concept of the Internet had been around since 1960, when J. C. R. Licklider proposed an idea to network computers so that libraries could share computer data. Licklider was hired by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), a research unit for the United States military. His idea was later developed into a network called ARPANET. On October 29, 1969, the first connection between two computers on this network was tested. It crashed after just 3 letters were typed, but it was the beginning of what we now call the Internet.

One thing was missing, however: a way for different computers, with different systems, to communicate reliably with each other. Robert E. Kahn and Vinton Cerf solved this problem by creating a set of protocols in 1974 which later became known as "TCP/IP." The 1974 proposal was the first time anyone had used the word "Internet," which was short for "internetworking." The TCP/IP protocol set was mostly completed by 1978.

In 1983, the military created its own network named "MilNet," and left the ARPANET to US government organizations like NASA, the Department of Energy, and the NSF, or the National Science Foundation. The NSF started a network called "NSFNET," which grew and was expanded, and was eventually transformed in 1995 into the "Internet" that we know today.

Over this time, many people had gotten experience using the network. I remember as a teenager visiting my sister's part-time work at Stanford University. In her office they were using computers to connect to networks, most likely ARPANET. By the 1980's, many people in business and education started using the Internet. Around 1980, discussion groups (Usenet) came into use (I remember using them; they always reminded users that the system required a great deal of money, and warned people not to use them unnecessarily). The same system also helped introduce e-mail, a technology that had been used for almost 10 years on ARPANET before that time.

Soon, more and more people had used or heard about these computer networks. E-mail was appreciated as a wonderful convinience, and many wanted the ability to access information electronically. However, public networks like NSFNET could not be used commercially. As a result, many private companies began their own "private Internets," called online services. Some names you have perhaps never heard of, like GEnie and Prodigy; you might have heard of CompuServe, and you almost certainly have heard of AOL (America On Line).

These private online services began to gain popularity in the early 1990's. Most were text-based, and all were private—they did not link to each other, and did not allow access to the Internet. All of them were content providers, meaning that they offered valued information, such as stock prices, weather, news, sports news, and entertainment information. They also provided discussion areas, and allowed users to send email to each other (although again, not to users of competing networks). At that time, I used a service called GEnie, provided by General Electric Corporation.

These services were not so easy to use, however. There were no "Internet connections" or ISPs at the time. To connect to the Internet, a user had to buy a machine called a "modem." This machine used a standard telephone connection. The computer would dial up a local telephone number, and use audio signals to transmit data. My own first modem ran at the speed of 300 baud, or 300 bits per second. Today, a home connection in Tokyo may be 1 Gigabit per second, or 1,000,000,000 baud! The data transfer was so slow that most interfaces had to use text only, or else low-quality graphics. I remember seeing photos downloaded; you would wait several minutes while the image appeared, line by line. In addition to being slow, the connection used the telephone line. If someone picked up a telephone and tried to use it, or if a call came, you would lose your connection.

All of this changed in the mid 1990's with advent of the World Wide Web, browsers, and Internet Service Providers.

History of the World Wide Web

As noted before, many people confuse "The Internet" with "The World Wide Web." The Internet is all computers linked together using the TCP/IP protocol set. The World Wide Web is primarily one protocol used in that network, a protocol designed to share information in a graphic manner.

Not Made in the U.S.A.

Also contrary to what most people think, the World Wide Web was not created in the United States. It was, in fact, born in Europe, at the CERN labs in Switzerland, in a project headed by British scientist Tim Berners-Lee. Now Sir Berners-Lee, he used the already-established idea of hypertext links to create "pages" on a computer screen which would display information and allow readers to jump to other locations by the use of "links." This idea was proposed in 1990, and the primary work was done on a NeXT computer (a computer made by Steve Jobs after he left Apple).

It was only after the idea was proposed that America comes back into the picture. A college student name Marc Andreessen at the University of Illinois created a program (which Berners-Lee called a "browser") named "Mosaic" in 1993. I remember going to college in San Francisco at this time; I was given a floppy disk with a program called "Mosaic" on it. I had no idea what that was. At one point, I tried using it, and saw some web pages with some text on them. I thought it was interesting, but there was nothing I could use at the time. I stopped using it. I was much more interested in discussion groups in an area called "USENET."

The Emergence of the Popular Internet

The online service networks like AOL and CompuServe were private "walled gardens," each with their own closed systems; as I used GEnie and my father used Prodigy, for example, we could not communicate by email. Worse, some services started charging extra for basic features. Prodigy, for example, began charging users 25 cents per each email sent.

While the online services were better than nothing, people wanted to use the "real" Internet. Finally, in the early 1990's, that became possible: the United States government opened up the Internet to commercial use.

In order to connect, you had to go to a new kind of company, call an ISP, or Internet Service Provider. The first appeared in 1990, but they did not start to become popular until the mid-1990's, when Netscape Navigator started being widely used, and more and more web sites began appearing.

ISPs were a big change because they started to give open access to the World Wide Web and email. Before ISPs, most people used online services like Prodigy, CompuServe, or AOL. These were "walled gardens," private networks which were closed to anyone outside them. Emails could not be exchanged between different networks. They were also independent businesses, charging money for content, and sometimes charging extra fees, like Prodigy's decision to charge users 25 cents for every email sent. Because these were private companies, they did not have web pages for other companies' content, products, or services. You could not browse and go to any place you wanted; it was a very limited experience.

In contrast, ISPs charged a flat rate, usually starting at $20 per month, and allowed access to the Internet, which was connected to everything else. Suddenly, you could visit web pages for any company, see news from any source, send email to anyone you wanted. It was a much wider, and more liberating experience.

A Slow Start, Then a Big Bubble

One problem at this time was connection speeds. At the time, most people had modems no faster than 14,400 baud (1 baud is usually considered equal to 1 bps, or a single bit of data transmitted in one second; 14,400 baud would be 14.4 Kbps). Such speeds could, at most, download 1.8 KB every second. 200 KB is not uncommon for a single small photograph, but that would take a full 2 minutes to download, even at top speed—and Internet connections rarely perform at top speed. As a result, web pages were mostly text; images were small, and usually were low-quality GIF images made to be as small as possible. Take a look at the White House web site from 1994, pictured to the right, and then the same site today, just below that; more early web pages can be seen here. If you are interested, the Internet Archive "Wayback Machine" can look up almost any web page since the late 1990's.

The White House web site, in 1994 and 2012

Browsers had better success aside from my own early experience, fortunately. Marc Andreessen had formed a private company called "Netscape," and created a new browser called Navigator, released in 1994. Netscape Navigator was the first successful popular browser, and was the #1 browser until it was effectively destroyed by Microsoft in the late 1990's. Microsoft released Internet Explorer, which was much worse than Navigator; however, Microsoft was able to place Internet Explorer on almost every PC desktop, and many people either didn't bother to change, or had trouble installing Navigator.

The World Wide Web, despite slow connection speeds, became an explosive market. Stock prices skyrocketed, creating the "Internet Boom" of the 1990's, which became the "Internet Bubble"—a bubble which popped in 2000, causing an economic downturn. Before that happened, anything related to the Internet was a "hot property," and investors would sink millions into anything related to the web.

The NASDAQ stock composite of the 1990's
The tech-based stock market from 1993 to 2002. The bubble burst in early 2000.

Eventually, things settled down, but not before the Internet became so widely used that it is now as ubiquitous as TV and radio used to be. The web has replaced many resources which used to be common. Newspapers and magazines are dying as a result of the Internet; for example, Newsweek, a famous weekly news magazine which had been in print for decades, stopped issuing a print edition, and now is only a web entity. People who used to read the newspaper every morning now surf the web instead. I myself used to be a newspaper reader, but stopped about 10 years ago. Telephone books have all but disappeared as phone numbers are just a Google search away. Students who used to spend hours in the library searching for a single reference now get a dozen from a quick search engine check. Encyclopedias, once a treasured family possession, have been replaced by Wikipedia. YouTube, Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu are slowly replacing TV.

The appeal of the web is simple: it is a huge resource, with almost anything you might want to see; it is, in most cases, free to use (there are ads, but browser plug-ins and extensions like AdBlock make them disappear); and it is immediately available wherever you are: at home, at work, on your mobile device.

Today, people cannot imagine life without the Internet. What it will transform into in ten, twenty, or fifty years would perhaps be impossible to imagine.

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