Who Invented the Internet?

The Internet pervades our lives. There is almost no one whose life is not touched by of it. For many of us, the Internet seems like a necessity. We do our banking using it. We get our news from it. We keep up with family and friends over it. We use it for our entertainment. How did it come to be? Who invented the Internet? (Hint: It was not Al Gore, although he did play an important role as a government leader in supporting its creation.) 

The answer is that no one person invented the Internet. It was a collaborative creation that evolved over twenty years, from 1962 until 1983. During that time, a number of different technologies were invented by different men. These technologies were the building blocks of the Internet and until each was fully working, they could not be combined to make the Internet we use today.

Even before the specific technologies were developed, there had to be a visionary. In this case, it was J.C.R. Licklider, a psychologist who worked on human-computer interfacing for years. Licklider was inspired in his vision of managing computer information by Vannevar Bush, head of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II. In July 1945, Bush published an essay in The Atlantic magazine entitled As We May Think. He set forth a vision of how information could be made readily available at a desk, with a means to link different parts of it. Bush was also instrumental in creating the National Science Foundation (NSF), which later played a key role in creating the Internet.

The spark that lit the fire behind America’s development of the Internet came from across the seas. In 1957, Russia launched Sputnik. In response, the Eisenhower administration established the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) under the Department of Defense.

ARPA led the initial efforts to get America into space and to ensure that America remained at the forefront of innovative technology. ARPA worked by funding research at companies such as Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN) and universities such as MIT and Stanford. After the space efforts were transferred to NASA, ARPA turned part of its efforts to information technology. It established the Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO).

In 1962, J.C.R. Licklider became director of IPTO. Licklider had for years advocated sharing computers over a network to solve technical and communication problems. He playfully called it the Intergalactic Computer Network. He convinced Ivan Sutherland, Bob Taylor, and Larry Roberts of the usefulness of networked computers. Each of these men headed IPTO after Licklider and carried his vision forward.

Licklider could not develop the network of his vision because the technology was not sufficiently advanced during his tenure at IPTO. By 1966, Bob Taylor decided that it was time. There were other networking efforts going on in the world using different technologies. In fact, the proliferation of incompatible systems was a reason to move forward. Taylor brought in Larry Roberts to head up the effort to build the network, eventually called the ARPANET.

It took three years before the ARPANET connected computers at UCLA and Stanford Research Institute. In October 1969, the first transmission (of the word login) between two networked computers took place. Leonard Kleinrock of UCLA was one of the team present when that first message was sent. He told in an interview how the system crashed when the letter G of login was typed and said, “Yet a revolution had begun.”

In a matter of months, network connections were made to the University of California Santa Barbara and the University of Utah. ARPANET, the first computer network, was a reality. Growth was rapid after that, but limited to government, research companies, and universities, because they were the ones with computers, all of which were big, expensive mainframe computers. The widely available, personal computers of today were not invented until 1977.

So did the ARPANET become the Internet? Not exactly. The ARPANET was a single network, even after it expanded to hundreds of computers. The Internet is a network of networks. The key technology of the Internet—the protocol controlling the connections among computers—was developed by ARPA. In 1972, Larry Roberts wanted to connect satellite communications to the ARPANET. He gave the job to Bob Kahn, who brought in Vinton Cerf of Stanford University to help him develop the connection technology. It took two years for them to develop and refine the Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol or TCP/IP and another eight years to convince the Department of Defense that it was reliable enough to use. On January 1, 1983, the ARPANET was switched to TCP/IP. This date can be viewed as the birth of the Internet. Cerf has often been called “the father of the Internet.”

TCP/IP was public information, developed with taxpayers’ money. Others began to use it even before the ARPANET did. The most important of these was the National Science Foundation’s NSFNet, launched in 1986. Its goal was to connect every academic researcher in the nation. With government funding, the NSFNet network backbone replaced the ARPANET as the basic network underlying the Internet. The ARPANET was formally shut down in 1989.

By 1991, researchers were sending emails and using the Internet for accessing information using tools such as Archie and Gopher. But it was not easy to find that information and the use of the Internet was small scale compared to what was to come. For in that year, Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web or WWW and Al Gore sponsored bills to allow commercial enterprises to connect to the Internet. The commercial networks, mainly from the telecommunication companies, became the Internet. Its use exploded because the WWW and web browsers made it easy both to put information on the Internet and to find it. Surfing the Internet became a part of almost everyone’s life.

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About JCB

A retired chemical engineer who likes to play with computers.
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