Who Invented the Internet?

Jeremy D. asks: Who invented the internet?

internetWhile the World Wide Web was initially invented by one person (see: What was the First Website?), the genesis of the internet itself was a group effort by numerous individuals, sometimes working in concert, and other times independently.  Its birth takes us back to the extremely competitive technological contest between the US and the USSR during the Cold War.

The Soviet Union sent the satellite Sputnik 1 into space on October 4, 1957. Partially in response, the American government created in 1958 the Advanced Research Project Agency, known today as DARPA—Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The agency’s specific mission was to

…prevent technological surprises like the launch of Sputnik, which signaled that the Soviets had beaten the U.S. into space. The mission statement has evolved over time. Today, DARPA’s mission is still to prevent technological surprise to the US, but also to create technological surprise for our enemies.

To coordinate such efforts, a rapid way to exchange data between various universities and laboratories was needed. This bring us to J. C. R. Licklider who is largely responsible for the theoretical basis of the Internet, an “Intergalactic Computer Network.” His idea was to create a network where many different computer systems would be interconnected to one another to quickly exchange data, rather than have individual systems setup, each one connecting to some other individual system.

He thought up the idea after having to deal with three separate systems connecting to computers in Santa Monica, the University of California, Berkeley, and a system at MIT:

For each of these three terminals, I had three different sets of user commands. So if I was talking online with someone at S.D.C. and I wanted to talk to someone I knew at Berkeley or M.I.T. about this, I had to get up from the S.D.C. terminal, go over and log into the other terminal and get in touch with them…. I said, oh man, it’s obvious what to do: If you have these three terminals, there ought to be one terminal that goes anywhere you want to go where you have interactive computing. That idea is the ARPAnet.”

So, yes, the idea for the internet as we know it partially came about because of the seemingly universal human desire to not have to get up and move to another location.

With the threat of a nuclear war, it was necessary to decentralize such a system, so that even if one node was destroyed, there would still be communication between all the other computers. The American engineer Paul Baran provided the solution to this issue; he designed a decentralized network that also used packet switching as a means for sending and receiving data.

Many others also contributed to the development of an efficient packet switching system, including Leonard Kleinrock and Donald Davies. If you’re not familiar, “packet switching” is basically just a method of breaking down all transmitted data—regardless of content, type, or structure—into suitably sized blocks, called packets. So, for instance, if you wanted to access a large file from another system, when you attempted to download it, rather than the entire file being sent in one stream, which would require a constant connection for the duration of the download, it would get broken down into small packets of data, with each packet being individually sent, perhaps taking different paths through the network.  The system that downloads the file would then re-assemble the packets back into the original full file.

The platform mentioned above by Licklider, ARPANET was based on these ideas and was the principle precursor to the Internet as we think of it today. It was installed and operated for the first time in 1969 with four nodes, which were located at the University of California at Santa Barbara, the University of California at Los Angeles, SRI at Stanford University, and the University of Utah.

The first use of this network took place on October 29, 1969 at 10:30 pm and was a communication between UCLA and the Stanford Research Institute. As recounted by the aforementioned Leonard Kleinrock, this momentous communiqué went like this:

We set up a telephone connection between us and the guys at SRI… 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.

By 1972, the number of computers that were connected to ARPANET had reached twenty-three and it was at this time that the term electronic mail (email) was first used, when a computer scientist named Ray Tomlinson implemented an email system in ARPANET using the [email protected] symbol to differentiate the sender’s name and network name in the email address.

Alongside these developments, engineers created more networks, which used different protocols such as X.25 and UUCP. The original protocol for communication used by the ARPANET was the NCP (Network Control Protocol). The need for a protocol that would unite all the many networks was needed.

In 1974, after many failed attempts, a paper published by Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn, also known as “the fathers of the Internet,” resulted in the protocol TCP (Transmission Control Protocol), which by 1978 would become TCP/IP (with the IP standing for Internet Protocol). At a high level, TCP/IP is essentially just a relatively efficient system for making sure the packets of data are sent and ultimately received where they need to go, and in turn assembled in the proper order so that the downloaded data mirrors the original file.  So, for instance, if a packet is lost in transmission, TCP is the system that detects this and makes sure the missing packet(s) get re-sent and are successfully received.  Developers of applications can then use this system without having to worry about exactly how the underlying network communication works.

On January 1, 1983, “flag day,” TCP/IP would become the exclusive communication protocol for ARPANET.

Also in 1983, Paul Mockapetris proposed a distributed database of internet name and address pairs, now known as the Domain Name System (DNS).  This is essentially a distributed “phone book” linking a domain’s name to its IP address, allowing you to type in something like todayifoundout.com, instead of the IP address of the website.  The distributed version of this system allowed for a decentralized approach to this “phone book.” Previous to this, a central HOSTS.TXT file was maintained at Stanford Research Institute that then could be downloaded and used by other systems.  Of course, even by 1983, this was becoming a problem to maintain and there was a growing need for a decentralized approach.

This brings us to 1989 when Tim Berners-Lee of CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) developed a system for distributing information on the Internet and named it the World Wide Web.

What made this system unique from existing systems of the day was the marriage of the hypertext system (linked pages) with the internet; particularly the marriage of one directional links that didn’t require any action by the owner of the destination page to make it work as with bi-directional hypertext systems of the day.  It also provided for relatively simple implementations of web servers and web browsers and was a completely open platform making it so anyone could contribute and develop their own such systems without paying any royalties.  In the process of doing all this, Berners-Lee developed the URL format, hypertext markup language (HTML), and the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP).

Around this same time, one of the most popular alternatives to the web, the Gopher system, announced it would no longer be free to use, effectively killing it with many switching to the World Wide Web. Today, the web is so popular that many people often think of it as the internet, even though this isn’t the case at all.

Also around the time the World Wide Web was being created, the restrictions on commercial use of the internet were gradually being removed, which was another key element in the ultimate success of this network.

Next up, in 1993, Marc Andreessen led a team that developed a browser for the World Wide Web, named Mosaic.  This was a graphical browser developed via funding through a U.S. government initiative, specifically the “High Performance Computing and Communications Act of 1991.″

This act was partially what Al Gore was referring to when he said he “took the initiative in creating the Internet.”  All political rhetoric aside (and there was much on both sides concerning this statement), as one of the “fathers of the internet,” Vincent Cerf said, “The Internet would not be where it is in the United States without the strong support given to it and related research areas by the Vice President [Al Gore] in his current role and in his earlier role as Senator… As far back as the 1970s, Congressman Gore promoted the idea of high speed telecommunications as an engine for both economic growth and the improvement of our educational system. He was the first elected official to grasp the potential of computer communications to have a broader impact than just improving the conduct of science and scholarship…  His initiatives led directly to the commercialization of the Internet. So he really does deserve credit.” (For more on this controversy, see: Did Al Gore Really Say He Invented the Internet?)

As for Mosaic, it was not the first web browser, as you’ll sometimes read, simply one of the most successful until Netscape came around (which was developed by many of those who previously worked on Mosaic).  The first ever web browser, called WorldWideWeb, was created by Berners-Lee.  This browser had a nice graphical user interface; allowed for multiple fonts and font sizes; allowed for downloading and displaying images, sounds, animations, movies, etc.; and had the ability to let users edit the web pages being viewed in order to promote collaboration of information.  However, this browser only ran on NeXT Step’s OS, which most people didn’t have because of the extreme high cost of these systems. (This company was owned by Steve Jobs, so you can imagine the cost bloat… ;-))

In order to provide a browser anyone could use, the next browser Berners-Lee developed was much simpler and, thus, versions of it could be quickly developed to be able to run on just about any computer, for the most part regardless of processing power or operating system.  It was a bare-bones inline browser (command line / text only), which didn’t have most of the features of his original browser.

Mosaic essentially reintroduced some of the nicer features found in Berners-Lee’s original browser, giving people a graphic interface to work with. It also included the ability to view web pages with inline images (instead of in separate windows as other browsers at the time).  What really distinguished it from other such graphical browsers, though, was that it was easy for everyday users to install and use.  The creators also offered 24 hour phone support to help people get it setup and working on their respective systems.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

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Bonus Internet Facts:

  • The first domain ever registered was Symbolics.com on March 15, 1985.  It was registered by the Symbolics Computer Corp.
  • The “//” forward slashes in any web address serve no real purpose according to Berners-Lee.  He only put them in because, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”  He wanted a way to separate the part the web server needed to know about, for instance “www.todayifoundout.com”, from the other stuff which is more service oriented.  Basically, he didn’t want to have to worry about knowing what service the particular website was using at a particular link when creating a link in a web page. “//” seemed natural, as it would to anyone who’s used Unix based systems.  In retrospect though, this was not at all necessary, so the “//” are essentially pointless.
  • Berners-Lee chose the “#” for separating the main part of a document’s url with the portion that tells what part of the page to go to, because in the United States and some other countries, if you want to specify an address of an individual apartment or suite in a building, you classically precede the suite or apartment number with a “#”.  So the structure is “street name and number #suite number”; thus “page url #location in page”.
  • Berners-Lee chose the name “World Wide Web” because he wanted to emphasize that, in this global hypertext system, anything could link to anything else.  Alternative names he considered were: “Mine of Information” (Moi); “The Information Mine” (Tim); and “Information Mesh” (which was discarded as it looked too much like “Information Mess”).
  • Pronouncing “www” as individual letters “double-u double-u double-u” takes three times as many syllables as simply saying “World Wide Web.”
  • Most web addresses begin with “www” because of the traditional practice of naming a server according to the service it provides.  So outside of this practice, there is no real reason for any website URL to put a “www” before the domain name; the administrators of whatever website can set it to put anything they want preceding the domain or nothing at all.  This is why, as time goes on, more and more websites have adopted allowing only putting the domain name itself and assuming the user wants to access the web service instead of some other service the machine itself may provide.  Thus, the web has more or less become the “default” service (generally on port 80) on most service hosting machines on the internet.
  • The earliest documented commercial spam message on an internet is often incorrectly cited as the 1994 “Green Card Spam” incident.  However, the actual first documented commercial spam message was for a new model of Digital Equipment Corporation computers and was sent on ARPANET to 393 recipients by Gary Thuerk in 1978.
  • The famed Green Card Spam incident was sent April 12, 1994 by a husband and wife team of lawyers, Laurance Canter and Martha Siegal.  They bulk posted, on Usenet newsgroups, advertisements for immigration law services.  The two defended their actions citing freedom of speech rights.  They also later wrote a book titled “How to Make a Fortune on the Information Superhighway“, which encouraged and demonstrated to people how to quickly and freely reach over 30 million users on the Internet by spamming.
  • Though not called spam, back then, telegraphic spam messages were extremely common in the 19th century in the United States particularly.  Western Union allowed telegraphic messages on its network to be sent to multiple destinations.  Thus, wealthy American residents tended to get numerous spam messages through telegrams presenting unsolicited investment offers and the like.  This wasn’t nearly as much of a problem in Europe due to the fact that telegraphy was regulated by post offices in Europe.
  • The word “internet” was used as early as 1883 as a verb and adjective to refer to interconnected motions, but almost a century later, in 1982, the term would, of course, be used to describe a worldwide network of fully interconnected TCP/IP networks.
  • In 1988, the very first massive computer virus in history called “The Internet Worm” was responsible for more than 10 percent of the world’s Internet servers shutting down temporarily.
  • The term “virus,” as referring to self-replicating computer programs, was coined by Frederick Cohen who was a student at California’s School of Engineering. He wrote such a program for a class. This “virus” was a parasitic application that would seize control of the computer and replicate itself on the machine. He then specifically described his “computer virus” as: “a program that can ‘infect’ other programs by modifying them to include a possibly evolved copy of itself.” Cohen went on to be one of the first people to outline proper virus defense techniques. He also demonstrated in 1987 that no algorithm could ever detect all possible viruses.
  • Though it wasn’t called such at the time, one of the first ever computer viruses was called “Creeper” and was written by Bob Thomas in 1971. He wrote this virus to demonstrate the potential of such “mobile” computer programs. The virus itself wasn’t destructive and simply printed the message “I’m the creeper, catch me if you can!” Creeper spread about on ARPANET. It worked by finding open connections and transferring itself to other machines. It would also attempt to remove itself from the machine that it was just on, if it could, to further be non-intrusive. The Creeper was ultimately “caught” by a program called “the reaper” which was designed to find and remove any instances of the creeper out there.
  • While terms like “Computer Worm” and “Computer Virus” are fairly commonly known, one less commonly heard term is “Computer Wabbit.” This is a program that is self-replicating, like a computer virus, but does not infect any host programs or files. The wabbits simply multiply themselves continually until eventually causing the system to crash from lack of resources. The term “wabbit” itself references how rabbits breed incredibly quickly and can take over an area until the environment can no longer sustain them. Pronouncing it “wabbit” is thought to be in homage to Elmer Fudd’s pronunciation of “rabbit.”
  • Computer viruses/worms don’t inherently have to be bad for your system. Some viruses are designed to improve your system as they infect it. For instance, as noted previously, the Reeper, which was designed to go out and destroy all instances of the Creeper it found. Another virus designed by Cohen would spread itself on a system to all executable files. Rather than harm them though, it would simply safely compress them, freeing up storage space.
  • Al Gore was one of the so called “Atari Democrats.” These were a group of Democrats that had a “passion for technological issues, from biomedical research and genetic engineering to the environmental impact of the greenhouse effect.” They basically argued that supporting development of various new technologies would stimulate the economy and create a lot of new jobs. Their primary obstacle in political circles, which are primarily made up of a lot of “old fogies,”  was simply trying to explain a lot of the various new technologies, in terms of why they were important, to try to get support from fellow politicians for these things.
  • Gore was also largely responsible for the “Information Superhighway” term becoming popular in the 1990s. The first time he used the term publicly was way back in 1978 at a meeting of computer industry workers. Originally, this term didn’t mean the World Wide Web. Rather, it meant a system like the Internet. However, with the popularity of the World Wide Web, the three terms became synonymous with one another. In that speech, Gore used the term “Information Superhighway” to be analogous with Interstate Highways, referencing how they stimulated the economy after the passing of the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956. That bill was introduced by Al Gore’s father. It created a boom in the housing market; an increase in how mobile citizens were; and a subsequent boom in new businesses and the like along the highways. Gore felt that an “information superhighway” would have a similar positive economic effect.
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  • A journey of a thousand sites begins with a single click

  • So in answer to the actual question who invented the Internet the correct answer is Tim Berners Lee.

    Any mentioning of Cerf and Kahn and others is just trying to associate them with it’s success. For example many children have played the game of imagining “wouldn’t it be cool if we had shoes that allowed us to fly” ? for example. Imagining the benefits without showing how it could be done or putting forward a working model of it doesn’t make you co inventor.

    Taking the step and developing or inventing the necessary technology is what separates the men from the boys…Step forward Tim Berners Lee.

    • Daven Hiskey

      @Michael Richards: The Internet and the Web are very different things and there are numerous other very popular services that run on top of the Internet that are not the Web. And, in fact, other services like Gopher once looked much more promising to come to dominate the Internet as an information sharing service, but for various reasons did not. You could say Lee helped popularize the Internet with the masses, but as far as developing the actual internet, not so much.

    • Michael, your reply displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the internet. Davin is correct. The Internet and the Web are vastly different things.

      • The Web and the Internet are not vastly different. The Web, which is simply shorthand for servers transmitting information using the Hypertext Transfer Protocal, is part of the Internet. I could open up a shell and establish a connection using the File Transfer Protocal. If I go to gmail.com and send mail, I’m using the Hypertext Transfer Protocal and the Simple Mail Transfer Protocal. The Web and the internet are intertwined.

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