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The Internet: A Simple History

by Vicky Vickers

The Internet: a network of connected networks (over 40000) with hundreds of thousands of individual computers connected to one another.

In the mists of time, a long time ago (in computer terms that is), a new technology was born - the Internet. Developed originally by the United States (U.S.) military, during the cold war, to assist communications in the event of a nuclear attack, the technology was then adopted by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and various U.S. universities to exchange knowledge. As it didn't have a central hub, it was much less vulnerable to disruption or attack than a network which operated from one central location. The general public started using the Internet in the 1980s and during the 1990s the Internet grew to become a world wide phenomena.

In the beginning . . . (1960s)

As incredible as it sounds, the Internet can trace its beginnings back to the former Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik, the first artificial earth satellite in 1957. This led to the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) forming the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) to help them gain a lead in military science and technology. The ARPA was very involved in the beginning stages of what we know today as the Internet.

The next major step towards today's Internet was a paper written in 1961 by Leonard Kleinrock (MIT) on packet-switching theory, a technology which was necessary for the Internet to function successfully. Over the next few years, more papers were written on packet-switching, networking, time-sharing computers, etc. thus building up a knowledge base which would make the Internet technologically feasible. In 1965, computers from two U.S. universities were directly linked (without packet-switching) to see if if was possible to network computers.

By 1969, the technology was far enough advanced that the U.S. DoD commissioned APRANET to research networking. "Nodes" (hosts) were setup at four locations in the U.S.: University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), Stanford Research Institute (SRI), UCSB and the University of Utah. The first node-to-node message was sent in October 1969 between UCLA and SRI. This was the actual start of the Internet.

Internet technology grows rapidly (1970s)

Like most new technologies, the knowledge on networking grew more and more rapidly, one discovery often leading to many others. By 1971, 15 nodes were attached to the APRANET and a basic e-mail program was invented. E-mail grew to be the most used feature of the new networking technology. In 1972, Telnet specifications were developed, with the first software released in 1974. Also, in 1972 the InterNetworking Group was created to establish standards for networking. (Note: this is the first time I noticed the word internet appearing in the history.)

1973 saw ARPANET gain it's first international connections when the University College in London, England and the Royal Radar Establishment in Norway joined. Also in this year, Ethernet and gateway architecture (another technology necessary for today's Internet) were discussed, and file transfer protocol (FTP) and voice transmission specifications (for tele-conferencing) were developed.

Now things really started to look more familiar as TCP (Transmission Control Program) was designed in 1974. This year also saw the first commercial version ARPANET. Great Britain's Queen Elizabeth II joined in on the new technology in 1976 by sending her first e-mail message. In 1978, e-mail specifications were developed and Usenet newsgroups were started in 1979.

The Internet expands (1980s)

With the general public now getting into the act with the availability of personal desktop computers and modems, the Internet started growing in the 1980s. 1982 saw the loose connection of networks which made up ARPANET referred to as "The Internet" for the first time. By 1984, there were a 1000 hosts (or nodes) on the Internet. Other networks started up, such as BITNET (Because It's Time NETwork) in 1981, CSNET (Computer Science NETwork), EUnet (European UNIX Network) and JUNET (Japan Unix Network). Eventually, gateways were formed between the different networks around the world.

In 1982, TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol / Internet Protocol) was established as the protocol for the DoD and ARPANET and instituted on January 1, 1983. This lead to one of the first definitions of an "internet" as a connected set of networks, specifically those using TCP/IP, and "Internet" as connected TCP/IP internets. FidoNet was also developed this year.

The present architecture of the Internet started to take shape with the addition of a name server developed at the University of Wisconsin in 1983. This meant that users no longer needed to know the exact path to other systems on the Internet. And, in 1984, the Domain Name System (DNS) was introduced, providing our now familiar .com, .net, .org, .edu and .gov endings for Internet addresses. The first registered domain was assigned to symbolics.com on March 15, 1985.

To put this technology explosion into perspective, a few hundred years ago, technology hardly changed at all during a person's lifetime. You could be pretty well assured of learning everything you needed to know before you left your teens. However, now things are different. To keep up with modern technology, including the Internet, requires constant, lifelong learning. In 1985, 100 years to the day of the last spike being driven on the cross-Canada railroad, the last Canadian university was connected to NetNorth in a one year effort to have coast-to-coast connectivity. From one cross-country technological marvel to another more highly technical cross-country marvel in just 100 years!

NSFNET with a speed of 56 Kbps (upgraded to T1 in 1988 and T3 in 1991) was created in 1986 using five super-computing centers which allowed an explosion of connections, especially from universities. By the end of the decade ten countries were connected to NSFNET.

The general public gained access to the Internet on July 16, 1986 when the first Freenet came on-line in Cleveland in the U.S. Between 1987 and 1988 the number of hosts increased from 10,000 to 60,000 and a virus called the "Internet Worm" infected 6,000 of them, leading to the The Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) being formed to address security concerns. FidoNet connected to the Internet in 1988 and in 1989, the number of hosts hit 100,000.

Rapid expansion occurs with the WWW (1990s)

With the development of the World Wide Web (WWW) in 1991, there was no stopping the rapid expansion of the Internet. No longer did users have to learn complicated UNIX commands in order to access the information on the Internet. They only had to download a WWW browser, such as Netscape, in order to access the information on millions of websites. Countries around the world joined the Internet and registered their two-letter domain names, e.g. .ca for Canada.

In 1990, the originator of the Internet, ARPANET, was disbanded. However, there was a very important first step made as the World (world.std.com) came on-line. This was the first commercial provider of Internet dial-up access - the first Internet Service Provider (ISP)! Other important events this year included the release of the Internet program "Archie" and CA*net, formed by ten regional networks in Canada, acquired a direct connection to NSFNET along with eleven other countries. There were now 300,000 hosts on the Internet.

1991 saw NSF lift the restrictions on commercial use of the Net. However the most important new Internet technology was the posting in a small newsgroup by Tim Berners-Lee of CERN in Switzerland of computer code for the World Wide Web. NSFNET upgraded to T3 (44.736Mbps) and it's traffic passed one trillion bytes per month. Gopher and PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) were also released this year and ten more countries joined NSFNET.

The number of hosts passed one million during 1992 and the Internet Society (ISOC) was setup to focus on standards, education and policy issues (info.isoc.org/). Veronica, a gopherspace search tool, was released and Jean Armour Polly invented the term "Surfing the Internet". During the year the World Bank and thirteen more countries joined NSFNET.

The most important development in 1993 was the release of the first graphic web browser software, Mosaic. NSF created InterNIC (www.internic.net) to provide directory, database, registration and information services. The United Nations and White House (www.whitehouse.gov/) came on-line with good old Bill (and future US presidents) acquiring their very own e-mail address (president@whitehouse.gov). A new kind of creature appeared on the Internet scene as WWW Worms, Spiders, Wanders, Crawlers and Snakes, operated by the new search engines, started roaming the Internet. They catalogued and databased information to make it easier for the "surfers" to find what they were looking for. NSFNET gained seventeen more countries and Internet traffic experienced a 341,634% annual growth rate.

1994 was the 25th anniversary of the founding of ARPANET, which was really the beginning of the Internet. Netscape Communications Corp. was formed and you could order pizza on-line. The first junk e-mail or "spam" was sent out this year. The first shopping malls also appeared along with Internet radio stations (mainly rebroadcasting) and the first cyberbank. This author's employer decided to join in the fun and I was required to learn the technology so he could get on the Internet and start a website. Twenty-one more countries joined NSFNET.

NSFNET returned to being a research network in 1995 as the main U.S. Internet traffic now moved through interconnected network providers. RealAudio was developed, giving the Internet "ears to hear with". One of the most important events in 1995 was the provision of dialup access to the Internet by the new international ISP's Compuserve, America Online (AOL) and Prodigy, thus giving millions of "ordinary" folk a chance to get on-line. The saddest (although necessary) event was the beginning of charges ($50 per year) for domain names. The Java Internet program language was developed and the WWW comprised the bulk of Internet traffic. The Canadian government (canada.gc.ca/) and the Vatican (www.vatican.va/) both went on-line this year. The Human Rights Watch reported five countries which were restricting Internet use by their citizens. Twenty more countries obtained two-letter Internet domain names.

In 1996, regulations and hackers hit the Internet. While the hackers were quite successful in their endeavours, mainly against the U.S. government, the US regulations (on decency on the Internet) were ruled unconstitutional by the courts. Some of the international ISPs suffered major service outages by adding more subscribers than they were setup to handle. The worst was AOL, which was off-line for nineteen hours. Thirty more countries registered their domain names and the number of hosts approached 10 million with approximately 40 million users in 150 countries world-wide.

As technology grows and becomes more complicated it seems to break down much easily. A human error at Network Solutions early in the morning of July 17, 1997, caused the Domain Name database table for .com and .net domains to become corrupted, making millions of FTP sites, websites and e-mail addresses unknown and unreachable. Twenty more countries obtained domain names.

The Internet Today

In 1998, the Internet continues to grow, with thousands of new subscribers every day joining the millions already subscribed. The amount of information available on the World Wide Web is overwhelming. So much so, that it is becoming difficult to separate the "wheat from the chaff" - the important information you really need from all the information which only looks like it might be important. Websites are becoming more complicated as the technology to produce them grows and the knowledge they need to display increases - sometimes too complicated! However, it looks like the Internet is here to stay. Hopefully, once the novelty wears off and some of the unneeded junk disappears, finding what you're looking for will become easier. In the meantime, patience is the word!

More detailed histories available

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of websites which cover the history of the Internet, from the very simple to the very complicated. I have not covered everything in this article. Instead I tried to concentrate on the simpler parts of the story and stay away from most of the complicated technical aspects. However, if you are interested in pursuing this subject further you can check out the following sites.

Net History Links

(a list of websites on Internet History)
www.geocities.com:80/SiliconValley/2260/links.html

ISOC A Brief History of the Internet

(paper with views of its origins and history)
info.isoc.org/internet/history/brief.html

Public Broadcasting System's "Life on the Internet"

(a time-line)
www.pbs.org/internet/timeline/

Hobbes' Internet Timeline

(very comprehensive and fairly easy to follow)
info.isoc.org/guest/zakon/Internet/History/HIT.html

View From the Internet Valley

(Net & Web History)
www.hooked.net/netvalley/intval.html

Short History of the Internet

by Bruce Sterling
www.forthnet.gr/forthnet/isoc/short.history.of.internet

Acknowledgements

This article was published in two parts in the August and September1998 issues of the Victoria Macintosh Users Group's monthly newsletter "MACtalk" in Vicky's monthly article "VMUG On-Line".

Vicky Vickers is the owner of Word Crunchers, Etc. which specializes in website design and HTML training. She is the vice-president of Victoria Macintosh Users Group (VMUG) and previously served VMUG as president (1994-6) and webmaster (1995-8). She also founded and was the first president (1996) of the Web Enthusiasts Association of Victoria (WEAV).

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Copyright 2010 Tim Stouse
Last modified: December 10, 2010
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