The Internet is unquestionably one of the greatest inventions of technology. However, not many are aware that the network, or system, that connects millions of computers worldwide- has no single “inventor” unlike technologies such as the light bulb or the telephone. The internet has instead evolved over time.
The internet got its start in the United States more than 50 years ago as a government weapon in the Cold War. For years, researchers used it to communicate and share data with one another. Today, we use the internet for almost everything, and for many people it would be impossible to imagine life without it.
International Internet Day that is observed on 29th October every year (since 1995), highlights the sending of the 1st electronic message which was conveyed from one computer to another computer in the year 1969 and aims to honor the momentous day in the history of technology.
Charley Kline who was a student programmer at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), discovered the transmission of first-ever electronic message in the world ‘LO’ on this day. In that era, the Internet was called ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network).
Here’s a quick recap of the history of the Internet and its evolution.
The Sputnik Scare and birth of the ARPAnet
On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the world’s first manmade satellite into orbit. The satellite, known as Sputnik, did not do much: It relayed blips and bleeps from its radio transmitters as it circled the Earth. Still, to many Americans, the beach-ball-sized Sputnik was proof of something alarming: While the brightest scientists and engineers in the United States had been designing bigger cars and better television sets, it seemed, the Soviets had been focusing on less frivolous things—and they were going to win the Cold War because of it.
This launch challenged the United States Department of Defense to put a high priority on research and projects in science and technology and created an agency called Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA).
Scientists and military experts were especially concerned about what might happen in the event of a Soviet attack on the nation’s telephone system. Just one missile, they feared, could destroy the whole network of lines and wires that made efficient long-distance communication possible.
In 1962, a scientist from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and ARPA named J.C.R. Licklider proposed a solution to this problem: a “galactic network” of computers that could talk to one another. Such a network would enable government leaders to communicate even if the Soviets destroyed the telephone system.
In 1965, a team of MIT scientists developed a way of sending information from one computer to another that he called “packet switching.” Packet switching breaks data down into blocks, or packets, before sending it to its destination. That way, each packet can take its own route from place to place. Without packet switching, the government’s computer network—now known as the ARPAnet—would have been just as vulnerable to enemy attacks as the phone system.
On October 29, 1969, ARPAnet delivered its first message: a “node-to-node” communication from one computer to another. (The first computer was located in a research lab at UCLA and the second was at Stanford; each one was the size of a small house.) The message—“LOGIN”—was short and simple, but it crashed the fledgling ARPA network anyway: The Stanford computer only received the note’s first two letters.
The Network Grows
By the end of 1969, just four computers were connected to the ARPAnet, but the network grew steadily during the 1970s.
In 1971, it added the University of Hawaii’s ALOHAnet, and two years later it added networks at London’s University College and the Royal Radar Establishment in Norway. As packet-switched computer networks multiplied, it became more difficult for users to integrate into a single worldwide “internet.”
During that time, computers were actually huge mainframes that served an important military role in computing and communications.
Meanwhile, ARPANet had a huge problem. In order to be effective for military and intelligence operations, the network had to be able to communicate with terminals located thousands of miles away in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, or any in other of the US military’s 800 bases scattered in more than 70 countries around the world.
This was enormously challenging. Engineers had to figure out a way not only to network the military’s widely dispersed terminals via radio and satellite, but also connect these wireless nodes with the wired network at ARPANet where the country’s most powerful computers were located.
Getting networks to communicate with one another was much more challenging than networking two or more computers. Each network moved data differently, which ultimately made transferring information practically impossible. Something had to be done — and this is where two very bright ARPA researchers by the name of Robert Kahn and Vint Cerf came in.
In 1973, the pair devised a new communication architecture with a universal set of rules that essentially allowed computer networks to speak the same language. They called their invention “Transmission Control Protocol,” or TCP. (Later, he added an additional protocol, known as “Internet Protocol.” The acronym we use to refer to these today is TCP/IP.) One writer describes Cerf’s protocol as “the ‘handshake’ that introduces distant and different computers to each other in a virtual space.”
In a year’s time, the commercial version of ARPANET, known as Telenet, was introduced. It’s widely considered to be the first ISP (internet service provider).
“When Bob Kahn and I did the original designs we handed them out freely with no constraints, no patents, no other intellectual property claims for a very good reason. We wanted this to be accepted with no barriers to adoption,” Cerf said during a talk.
Later, TCP was married to the Internet Protocol (IP) to form TCP/IP which is still used to this day to exchange data packets between different distant networks. TCP on the sender’s machine breaks a message into packets and sends them out while IP addresses and forwards these individual packets.
Cerf’s protocol transformed the internet into a worldwide network. Throughout the 1980s, researchers and scientists used it to send files and data from one computer to another.
World Wide Web: Internet for Everyone
However, the internet changed drastically since Swiss computer scientists, Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989. From sending files from one system to another, the internet became a “web” of information that could be accessed by anyone.
Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web while he was working at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Switzerland. He wanted the internet to be a universal and free ‘information space’ to share knowledge, to communicate, and to collaborate.
There are three main ingredients that make up the World Wide Web. URL (uniform resource locator), which is the addressing scheme to find a document; HTTP (hypertext transfer protocol), which connects computers together; and HTML (hypertext markup language), which formats pages containing hypertext links.
Berners-Lee also made the world’s first web browser and web server. During the 1990s the amount of web browsers being produced rapidly multiplied and a whole load more web-based technologies started sprouting up.
The year 1995 was a watershed year for the Internet: Microsoft launched Windows 95 and Internet Explorer, services like Amazon, Yahoo and eBay appeared, and Java was created, allowing for animation on websites and resulting in a new flurry of internet activity.
In 1996, Nokia released the Nokia 9000 Communicator, which was the first cell phone capable of connecting to the internet.
The World Wide Web opened up the internet to everyone, not just scientists. It connected the world in a way that made it much easier for people to get information, share, and communicate. It has since allowed people to share their work and thoughts through social networking sites, blogs, video sharing, and more.
People began to use search engines—such as Google, Yahoo!, and Bing—to look for information on the Web. People also use the Web for entertainment. In the early 2000s some of the most popular Web sites were social networking and shopping sites. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Amazon and eBay have become household names.
The internet of the future
Since the first internet connections were laid in the late 1950s, the world has undergone a sea of changes, thanks to the power of the World Wide Web.
The world is now a global city and the internet is in a lot way responsible for that. With the power of web and smartphones, we can now connect with anyone, anytime from anywhere. From the basic needs to the utmost luxuries, almost every facet of our lifestyle is now impacted by the internet. And as we go towards the future, the dependence on the internet and its role in our life are expected to grow more, making it a basic human right: everyone should have equal access to the information and opportunities available from Internet-connected computers.
Unfortunately, there’s an uneven distribution in access to computing devices and the Internet. Sadly, even to this day, there are still billions of people who lack internet access. The idea of the “digital divide” refers to the growing gap between the underprivileged members of society, especially the poor, rural, elderly, and handicapped portion of the population who do not have access to computers or the internet; and the wealthy and middle-class, living in urban and suburban areas that have access. The digital divide also continues to grow at an alarming rate.
While big technology companies such as Google, Microsoft, Cisco etc., are working to provide internet access to every corner of the world, many of these projects are still in its infancy. It remains to be seen whether these services can be made affordable enough to be of use to those most in need.
But the future of the internet might be so exciting that it literally exceeds the boundaries of our planet, as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been bullish about the metaverse while pledging to transform his company into ‘‘a metaverse company’’ in the next five years or so. He sees it as “the next generation of the internet.”
Imagine an internet connection with Mars or Jupiter’s moons — an interplanetary internet… and that day may not be very far away!
(This is an excerpt from Techtonic Shift: A Brief History of Computing and the Web by Sohini Bagchi, Editor, CXOToday.com. The book is published by Orange Publishers and is also available on Amazon.in)