We all know that Thomas Edison invented the light bulb and Karl Benz, the automobile. But who invented the internet? Even though we use the internet every day, we don’t widely cite a specific genius behind this innovation. This may be because the internet has been the result of gradual development rather than a flash of inspiration that can be attributed to a single person. But there are definitely some key figures along this path who deserve to be celebrated.
Join us for a whirlwind tour of the history of the internet!
A lot of people contributed to and developed the internet that we know today. Like many of the technologies that we take for granted nowadays, it got its start during the Cold War as the U.S. government sought to gain an edge over its bitter rival, the Soviet Union. In 1957 the USSR successfully launched the world’s first satellite into orbit, a move that is widely seen as marking the start of an era in which these two global powers battled for technological supremacy. This was reflected in the foundation of new U.S. government programs such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) – as well as a key player in our story, the U.S. Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA).
How did the internet begin?
This highly charged atmosphere saw the first steps on our internet history timeline. ARPA started working on one of the earliest versions of the internet – the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) – as a way to let its computers connect to each other. We may take this networking capability for granted today, but keep in mind that early computers were huge and immobile, and information was stored on magnetic tapes. Sending data to another computer actually involved a trip to the post office!
A first seed was planted in 1962 when ARPA scientist J.C.R. Licklider outlined a vision of an “intergalactic network” that was safe from enemy attack. But it wasn’t until 1966, under Robert Taylor, that plans were laid to make the dream of an interconnected network system come true. The agency also brought in Larry Roberts from MIT in January 1967 to get the ball rolling. Another important name that should be mentioned here is Leonard Kleinrock, who developed the mathematical theory that underpinned the technology, known as “packet switching”. Technology firm Bolt Beranek & Newman, who you may also remember for their role in developing electronic mail, was awarded the contract to build ARPANET.
On October 29, 1969, ARPANET delivered its first message: a node-to-node communication from a computer in a research facility at UCLA to another computer at Stanford University. The message was short and sweet: “LOGIN”. Unfortunately the system crashed, and only the first two letters were sent!
Despite these claims to fame, none of the early visionaries behind ARPANET is now a household name. This is because additional networks were also developed in an attempt to further data communication and computer networking (and presumably to send a few more words!). And as multiple networks emerged, something was required to unify them. Enter Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn.
The “internet” is born
Computer scientists Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn can be found on every shortlist of people credited as inventors of the internet. This is because they came up with the Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol (TCP/IP), aka the standard for how information is shared between different networks.
Kahn and Cerf went public with their ideas in 1974, leading to a system that is still in use today. RFC 675, the Specification of Internet Transmission Control Program, was published in December 1974. This document is also noteworthy because it contains the first attested use of the term “internet” – short for “internetwork.”
Cerf and Kahn’s work is so integral to today’s internet that January 1, 1983,the day ARPANET and the Defense Data Network officially changed to the TCP/IP, is considered the official birthday of the internet. It marks the day on which all the networks were finally connected by a universal language.
Enter the WWW
You may think that this gives Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn a lock on the title “Inventor of the Internet.” However, there is another strong contender: Tim Berners-Lee. As already discussed, the 1980s saw multiple computer networks (e.g. in military installations, universities, corporations, etc.) finally able to connect and communicate with one another. However, the internet was still not accessible to the general public. This was first made possible by the invention of the World Wide Web (WWW) in 1989. And who created this system?
There is no disputing that English computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee is the inventor of the systems that make the internet something that you and I can use in our everyday lives. For example, Universal Resource Locators (URLs), which allow quick access to publicly hosted information, clickable hyperlinks, the Hyper Text Transfer Protocol (HTTP) – not to mention the web browser! The World Wide Web software was placed in the public domain in 1993, and the rest, as they say, is history. Can any of us imagine our lives today without it?
And there we have it – the history of the internet in a nutshell! We hope you found this deep dive as fascinating as we did. We look forward to your feedback below.