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The History of the Internet

Updated on January 14, 2015
Matt Britt's visual map of the web, 2005
Matt Britt's visual map of the web, 2005 | Source

...And the Invention of the World Wide Web

You're online every day, but do you know the history of the internet?

The internet has been around for half a century. Scientists, techies and hobbyists have used computers to send files and messages back and forth for half a century, but at first there was no standard system for doing it.

On March 13, 1989, the web was born. That was when Dr. Tim Berners-Lee submitted his paper "Information Management: A Proposal" to his boss at CERN, a physics lab in Switzerland. This paper contained a simple yet powerful plan for how to organize and share information across CERN's in-house computer network. It was such a great system that people started using it across the whole internet. That system is what we now call the web.

Twenty-two years ago, I first watched a high school friend "logging on" to a computer network called USENET to check in with friends and co-write a story. That was my first glimpse of the (or a) "net." In the fall of 1989, I went to college and began communicating with friends on our college computer network. Little did we know that Tim Berners-Lee's idea was about to transform our world.

This page is a celebration of the Web's twentieth anniversary, interweaving the history of the internet with my own personal recollections of the early internet and web from 1987-1996. If you've been online for a while, I invite you to add your own internet and web memories, as we celebrate this invention that changed all our lives.

Source

Before The World Wide Web

History and Origins of the Internert

There was no "switch-on" moment for the internet, although its roots lie in the 1960s and in ARPANET, the computer network of the U.S. Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). ARPA was originally founded in response to Sputnik!

About that time, government and scientific agencies, college campuses, and corporations were starting to use computers more and more. Then they started connecting ("networking") individual computers to pool their processing power and exchange data. These early networks were extremely local. For example, all the computers in one laboratory might be hooked together. Or there might be a big mainframe computer with a lot of individual terminals connecting to it. More complex and powerful computers and networks were being developed every year.

Then regional networks began to develop, linking up local networks at different sites. The proto-internet was like a cave full of isolated crystals growing out from the walls until their edges touched. But these crystals weren't all using the same basic pattern, so they didn't always fit together very well.

In 1973, ARPA began a new "Internetting" project to investigate the most effective methods and technologies for transmitting data between different networks. This project developed IP (internet protocol) addresses and coined the term "internet." [Source: "A Brief History of the Internet" by Vint Cerf.]

Computer lab like my college's in 1989
Computer lab like my college's in 1989 | Source

My Memories of the Pre-Web Internet

Personal History of the Internet 1987-1993

I graduated from high school exactly when the internet did: in 1989. I was busy with my studies at college, but found time to correspond with friends using early email on a big mainframe called a VAX. We had text bulletin boards that served as discussion forums, and access to IRC, Internet Relay Chat, a primitive type of chatroom organized like a bunch of truckers' CB channels. (IRC is where I was hit on by my very first internet stalker-- and he seemed like such a nice guy, in the beginning!)

We had to perform an arcane ritual to get our messages outside of Haverford/BrynMawr's local network to academic networks in other parts of the U.S. I can't remember the details, but I hadto go through a complicated process to open a connection between our network and the University of Virginia network, so that I could exchange an early form of email with a friend in Richmond.

The VAX was a grand old machine that filled a room and stored data on DEC tapes (pocket-sized tape reels). I think it was a VAX 8200, which had a whopping 128MB memory (dwarfed by many modern cellphones) and 20GB of hard storage! One of my friends, a senior, was the VAX Goddess and a computer genius who spent many late nights with the great machine babysitting it or coaxing it back to life after a crash. I remember bringing her tea when she was working the midnight shift or typing away on an original Mac at rapid speed talking to her long-distance sweetie. Some of us had personal computers, but Thida was the first person I knew with a modem and telephone connection in her dorm room. (For the nerds from those days, she was logging onto PernMUSH).

I remember my email address changing twice in college; originally, it didn't have an @ sign in it! My first email address was prefixed with BITNET% followed by my name and college, then it changed to IN%, which annoyed me because "Bitnet" sounded cool. (A bit is the smallest unit of data in a computer). In my last year of college (I think?) we finally got addresses that were in the modern form of firstletter_lastname@college.edu. I understood that these changes meant our local network was getting absorbed into bigger networks, but I didn't realize it was the last rumblings of the internet coming together! Once I had an @ email address, I was officially part of the modern internet. I should've marked the date on my calendar!

OK, We've Built the Internet -- How Do We Use It?

"You're in a Twisty Maze of UNIX Versions, All Slightly Different..."

... so went a parody of Adventure, one of the earlest computer games.

By the 1980s, networking technologies and the "internet protocols" that controlled them were allowing more and more computers and institutions to connect to each other. However, there were two major problems.

First of all, different computers had different systems for storing, organizing, and recording data. Essentially, they spoke different languages. This was in the days before everyone had Microsoft Word! So how did you get even a simple text document, written in application X on one computer, to be intelligible to a computer on another network using application Y?

In other words, the internet needed a universally recognized system to help computers understand: What is it?

More importantly, how did you find anything on the internet? Domain names came into use during the 80s, but that only told computers how to identify local networks, not the files stored on them. Unless you knew a document existed and exactly where it was located, you'd never discover it. Millions of pieces of data were scattered across the internet like a haystack made entirely of needles.

The internet needed a universally recognized system to answer the question, Where is it?

Various research labs and government programs developed answers to these two questions. But until someone came up with an efficient, easy-to-implement solution-- and more importantly, until everyone agreed to use the same solution -- internet users would have to learn and use different methods and software to log onto and use different regional and local networks hooked up by the internet.

Image credit: mconners, photo of a modern network.

The World Wide Web Is Born

Tim Berners-Lee and the WWW Breakthrough

Enter Tim Berners-Lee and his "Information Management: A Proposal" paper at CERN. Originally, he was just outlining way to organize information a big scientific lab where there was frequent turnover of researchers, contractors and students. How did anyone on the team learn about documents written before they arrived? How could they learn to use and rewrite/update the software on the lab's computers? How could they understand what was there, and where to find it?

Berners-Lee's proposal outlined a system he called a "web" that would allow people to organize and locate documents, files and pieces of information by links, just as computers and local computer networks were connecting up to form the emerging internet.

WIthin a few months, Berners-Lee had solved the "Where is it?" and "What is it?" problems. He invented the Universal Resource Locator (URL) system for identifying where files were and retrieving them (http, hypertext transfer protocol). And he invented HTML, hypertext markup language, which "marked" documents with codes or "tags" to identify their parts: headers, paragraphs, lists, images, and most importantly, links which connected to other documents.

In 1990, assisted by Robert Cailliau and a team of students at CERN, Berners-Lee designed and tested his original "World Wide Web Browser," which could find (and edit) pages stored by URLs and display pages "marked" with HTML codes. He also programmed the first web server -- a program for storing webpages and "serving" them to any computers on the internet -- and the first website, which came online on August 6th, 1991 [Source: About.com].

Image credit: Silvio Tanaka, Photo of Tim Berners-Lee. Creative Commons, Some Rights Reserved.

Spotlight: "Weaving the Web" by Dr. Berners-Lee - Learn How the Web Began from the Inventor of the World Wide Web!

Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web
Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web

Want to know how the web began, what the "World Wide Web" really is, where it came from and where it's going? Learn the in-depth story from the inventor of the World Wide Web, Dr. Tim Berners-Lee.

 

The Web Catches On

A Great Idea at the Right Time

The idea caught fire, partly because it combined several fundamental concepts that were already in wide circulation in the computer world: hyperlinks (hand-coded links between documents), domain names and text markup (there were other markup languages before HTML, but it was particularly simple and easy to use). Another factor was Dr. Berners-Lee's insistence that the design and codes used by the World Wide Web be royalty-free, so that networks could adopt universal standards without having to pay their inventor(s). It also helped that the team had come up with a catchy name-- a powerful marketing force in the web to this day!

In 1994 Dr. Berners-Lee transferred to MIT and founded the World Wide Web Consortium, which continues to play a guiding role in establishing and developing standards for the web. Compliance with these standards ("recommendations") is voluntary but vital, maintaining a common language that all computers can understand (a goal occasionally undermined by web browsers)!

Twenty years later, Sir Berners-Lee -- knighted for his invention -- is still the director of the W3Consortium and continues to take an active role in the web's development.

Image credit: jurvetson on Flickr, Map of the Internet 2004. Creative Commons, Some Rights Reserved.

My Memories of the Early Web

Greek and Pagespinner and HTML, Oh My!

In 1993 I headed to graduate school and a fellowship with the Perseus Project, a digital library of classical Greek texts, translations, dictionaries, language tools, thousands of images of ancient art, maps, and museum card catalogs. Perseus already had an ARCHIE server -- one of those primitive pre-web internet applications used for sharing files. So when NCSA Mosaic, the first widely-used web browser, went beta in April 1993 -- again, right before I graduated! -- Perseus converted its library to HTML and jpgs and built one of the web's earliest websites.

My boss, Gregory Crane, used to proclaim, "Power to the People! Information for the Masses!" He argued that the web could revolutionize the world by letting everyone share information for free which had previously been locked away in the ivory tower. He envisioned kindergarteners and armchair hobbyists teaching themselves Greek and learning from Plato and Aristotle.

About that time, restrictions on commercial use of the internet were lifted. Suddenly dot coms flooded the web. Not that I don't benefit from e-commerce, but I'm still nostalgic for the days when the web was mostly .edu.

Like Thida, I kept up with several of my undergraduate friends through a MUSH -- Muti-User Shared...er, Hallucination-- one of many early text-based virtual reality worlds constructed entirely by cooperative writing and storytelling. MUs were the distant ancestors of World of Warcraft, Second Life, and other multi-user online environments and RPGs. I avoid modern equivalents lest I ever be sucked in. When I moved to California, online friends from my MUSH helped me unpack! I've kept up with a few net friends for fifteen years, and have met many unique, creative, and intelligent people through participation in various online communities.

The web has grown in ways we could never have imagined, but I still believe Dr. Crane's vision that the web is a place where everyone should contribute and share some of the unique resources they have to offer.

Image: Header and footer of my second website, built in 1994: an eclectic mixture of classics, hobbies, art, writing, and HTML tutorials. Pagespinner, Mac shareware, is still my favorite HTML/CSS editor!

More First-Hand Accounts of the History of the Internet and WWW

How the Web was Born: The Story of the World Wide Web
How the Web was Born: The Story of the World Wide Web

CERN's David Gillies and Robert Cailliau, collaborators on Tim Berners-Lee's team that created the internet, trace the origins of the World Wide Web from ARPANET and the early days of the internet, including profiles of many of the major researchers and players in the internet revolution.

 

© 2009 Ellen Brundige

YOUR TURN! Share YOUR Early Internet Memories Here! - Guestbook and Web Memories Scrapbook

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    • drifter0658 lm profile image

      drifter0658 lm 8 years ago

      I remember having some sort of internet lab in high school, 33 years ago. That's about all I can tell you from that period, other than the school was somehow networked with some California Universities.

      Fast Forward to a time (I know you've read my words on this) when Yahoo touted access to a whopping 30,000 websites. Additionally, Yahoo was unsponsored.

      And then there was the time I got a $286.00 monthly bill from AOL. Okay, not ALL of that $286 was access fees. I did buy a $26 sweatshirt (which I still wear to this day). Man, was my then wife hacked off. :)

    • mythphile profile image
      Author

      Ellen Brundige 8 years ago from California

      [in reply to drifter0658] Yahoo in the good ol' days! Poor Yahoo, eaten by corporate needs and costs like the rest of us.

      And ouch. There's a reason it was called AOH-E-double-toothpicks. O.o

      However, if you'd been my spouse I would've understood!

    • Christene-S profile image

      Christene-S 8 years ago

      My very first web memory was from high school in 1993. My best friend's father had a modem at their house for work and she used to chat on Bulletin Boards. (I had to ask her what it was called and she said service was called Argus.) The day she first showed me my life changed forever. LOL

      In Sept. 1994 I got my first email address through a Telnet system at college.

      The first time I used Yahoo was 1997 and I still remember laughing at the name when a friend showed me how to use it.

    • Kate Phizackerl1 profile image

      Kate Phizackerl1 8 years ago

      A nice lens

      At least Yahoo is still around. I was a big fan of AltaVista!

      Kate

    • mythphile profile image
      Author

      Ellen Brundige 8 years ago from California

      [in reply to Kate-Phizackerley] So was I. Heck, some of my net friends worked there. It took me a while to give in and switch to Google.

      I feel nostalgic when I see Altavista pop up in my "traffic sources" graph on Squidoo stats.

    • profile image

      johnnyvnt4 6 years ago

      Have you had ever wondered why there is a gap in the history of the early IP Internet days?

      One omission in the Internet History Timeline is when the first dial-up access occurred to the Internet.

      I know because I was there when it happened (and I donât remember seeing Al Gore!).

      It occurred in mid 1985 at an AT&T Bell Labs Data Center in Morristown, NJ.

      In 1985 I was involved with engineering the first dial-up access to the then existing IP Internet.

      This event was unofficial back room project that was spearheaded by AT&T Bell Labs

      Morristown NJ Data Center Supervisor; James Kelly. The test times were masked as scheduled maintenance events and had taken three tries to succeed in making the connection. Having worked closely with James for number of years, he was confident I could engineer a connection through my companyâs FEP. Jim Kelly was a friend of one of the Software Engineers at BELCORE (Bell Communications Research) at the Piscataway NJ site that was working on the SLIP (Serial Line Internet Protocol) communication protocol component of Bell Labs official project of trying to turn the companyâs 3B20 General Purpose Computer System into a viable Communications Processor. I can only imagine this was an attempt at trying to save AT&T money by replacing the NCR Comten FEPs with the 3B20s.

      The event occurred in mid 1985 at an AT&T Bell Laboratories site in Morristown New Jersey. Up to that time public internets were BBS access points for members to dial into which gave them limited access to the organizations data archive hosted on the private network. The driving force for this type of dial-up access within AT&T was for managers and engineers to be able to access their work files from home without having to have a leased line connection, which at that time was @ $18,000 a month for a 19.2kbps connection. This sort of puts todayâs ISP fees in perspective! This was the only remote connection option because of data security directives that prohibited attaching a BBS to the main frame based Internet.

      The connection was made through an AT&T 6300 PC with a 1200 kbps modem to a phone in the data center patched via an 300 baud acoustic coupler into a MIME 300 baud port in an NCR Comten 3695 FEP channel connected to their IBM System/360 mainframes. Due to some coding errors in the then version of SLIP it had taken three scheduled test events for me to identify the errors and to work around them to successfully make the connection. By this time the un-sanctioned project was getting noticed by Bell Labs upper management, especially since after the second failed attempt I had identified the error and told Jim the next test shot would be successful.

      At the third attempt upper management were present and upon the successful completion of the test the champagne corks were figuratively flying! In all honesty I didnât have a clue at that time what all of the hullabaloo was all about.

      Unfortunately AT&T didnât see the real marketing future of this event either, only the savings in corporate budget charges for dial-up access. My employer, NCR Comten had even less of an understanding, which presented itself as a âdeer in the headlightsâ look from management when I presented the results and even more befuddlement as to why AT&T Communications Headquarters directed the company to appoint me to the AT&T Account Specialist position.

      This promotion tasked me with managing AT&T Communications (Long Lines) 35 FEPs and three Comten Data Communication Field Engineers through the two and a half years of the U.S. District Court directed divestiture of AT&T Corporation.

      NCR Comten was THE Data Communications Company of the day. Comten pioneered mainframe data communications by off-loading the NCP (Network Communication Protocol) from the mainframe and into the FEP (front-end processor). This saved large companies that used IBM mainframes millions of dollars a year since at that time IBM charged by the MIPS used (Millions of Instructions Per Second), and when communication processing was decoupled from the mainframe this cut into IBMâs profits and allowed the customers to get a better ROI on their mainframe investment/overhead.

      NCR Comten was on the cutting edge of data communications through the 1980âs but didnât survive the transition of high priced data comm equipment (a moderately optioned NCR Comten 3690 FEP was @ $1,000,000.00) to more reasonably priced client server routers. In the late 1980âs NCR Comten had taken on a struggling start-up network company as a low end network product and was the installer of their products. Comten corporate executives had the option to buy the struggling start-up company but passed on the opportunity because they felt they were small players in their view of the grand scheme in the world of mainframe networking. They might have looked more closely if they werenât distracted with the efforts of AT&T buying the parent company NCR, but they didnât and Comten ended being an AT&T product line before fading into technology history.

      I had been involved in data communications since 1976 while an Electronics Technician in the U.S. Navy serving on Fast Attack Submarines, and then with NCR Comten from 1982 through 1989 as an Data Communication Field Engineer. This involvement was a great lesson in humility for me. It taught me that having the best product or solution doesnât guarantee indefinite success. An organization has to keep an open view on new technologies and be positioned for major changes as the evolution of technology continues to march forward.

      This event went under the radar since I had a serious NJ divorce in 89-92 and the first IT industry slowdown during the same time that radically changed my focus and direction. My interest in bringing this bit of history to light is to bring attention to the efforts by James Kelly to make this happen. I was just a willing tool to his direction and insight. I have lost touch with James Kelly after my departure from NCR Comten before the take over by AT&T, but I had learned that James suffered from Muscular Dystrophy and might not be able to realize his hand in that historic moment.

      Respectfully

      John S. Vincenti

      P.S. By the way, that struggling start-up network company is Cisco systems.

    • mythphile profile image
      Author

      Ellen Brundige 6 years ago from California

      @johnnyvnt4: Wow! I'm sorry I had my guestbook set to auto-approve; I totally missed your wonderful, fascinating story!

      Thank you so much for telling us "state secrets," so to speak! I'm afraid I had never heard of NCR Comten-- this was all when I was a tot, at the "Merlin is so cool!" stage (the toy, not the wizard).

      And as usual, the one left standing is not the one you'd think would be the winner during the early part of the race: Cisco. See also: Altavista losing out to Google (although Altavista has hung on better than some also-rans).

      This page doesn't get seen by enough people, alas. I wonder if there is some other place one could share the story of James Kelly. In every revolution there are some unsung heroes.

    • phoenix arizona f profile image

      phoenix arizona f 5 years ago

      Very cool lens.

    • mycalculadora profile image

      mycalculadora 5 years ago

      a really great read, thanks! makes me remember the first time i used Google and introduced it to friends in the late nineties - amazing just how omnipresent it is now :)

    • Gloriousconfusion profile image

      Diana Grant 5 years ago from United Kingdom

      I feel under constant pressure under a barrage of emails - always worried I'll overlook an important one whilst social networking. Also I'm glued to the screen - hard to tear myself away, but the up side is that I'm never bored

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