Imagining the Internet's Quick Look at the Early History
of the Internet
President Dwight D. Eisenhower initiated the Advanced Research
Projects Agency (ARPA) after the Soviet launch of Sputnik I in
1957. Eisenhower believed in the great value of science, and formed
ARPA in 1958 in a quest for "the scientific improvement"
of U.S. defense. This project employed, at one time or another,
some of the finest engineers and scientists of the late 20th century.
The early emphasis was on missile-defense systems and the detection
of nuclear bomb tests. It wasn't until 1962, when J.C.R. Licklider
arrived on the management team, that ARPA began investigating
the idea of networked computers.
In the early 1960s, Licklider, Leonard Kleinrock, Paul Baran,
Lawrence Roberts and other research scientists came up with the
ideas that allowed them to individually dream of and eventually
come together to create a globally interconnected set of computers
through which everyone could quickly and easily access data and
programs from any site. Licklider jokingly called it an "Intergalactic
Computer Network," but he and his team began to seriously
build the ideas and the technology that turned out to be the Internet.
By 1964, some researchers had begun using their enormous mainframe
computers to occasionally trade information by an early, informal
form of e-mail - but the purpose wasn't to formulate a research
network; they were just trying to get their work done efficiently.
In the early 1960s, Baran and British scientist Donald Davies
both proposed the idea of sending blocks of data - packets - through
a digital network. Roberts and many others got down to the serious
business of taking this concept, combining it with other researchers'
proposals and building a real network in 1967, 1968 and 1969.
1969 - Critical work on the first real network
was being completed, and information had to be shared between
far-flung research groups. Steve Crocker, a young computer scientist,
wrote a long memo - the first of what came to be called a Request
for Comments (RFCs). These are, to this day, the accepted way
in which computer networking engineers and scientists suggest,
review and adopt new technical standards. Since the day Crocker
wrote the first Request for Comments, thousands more have followed.
RFCs are a rich source of history about the development of the
Internet. The researchers also established a name for themselves
at this time - the Network Working Group. The democratic way in
which decisions were made by these pioneers became a basis for
the free-speech, free-exchange format of the Internet. ARPANET
went online in an extremely basic format in late 1969, connecting
four major universities: the University of California at Los Angeles,
SRI at Stanford University, the University of California at Santa
Barbara and the University of Utah. This rough system gave computer
scientists and engineers the opportunity to begin refining ideas
for a more efficient, reliable communications network. They had
a lot of work to do in the years to come to get the "bugs"
out, brainstorming, trying and failing, exchanging RFCs and improving
1970-75 - In 1970, ARPANET machines five, six,
seven, eight, nine, 10, 11 and 12 were operating at locations
around the country, including those at a Network Control Center
at the technology corporation Bolt Beranek & Newman, at Harvard,
the RAND Corporation and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
File-Transfer Protocol (FTP) - the method for allowing computers
to exchange files, was posted as RFC 354 in July 1972. The ARPANET
went on public display for the first time at the International
Conference on Computer Communication in October 1972. The first
electronic mail delivery engaging two machines was accomplished
in 1972 by Ray Tomlinson - also the originator of the use of the
@ to indicate an e-mail address. By 1973, three-quarters of all
traffic on the network was e-mail - still mostly researchers sharing
information. An e-mail list group of the time named MsgGroup is
believed to have been the first "virtual community."
The scientists had been using Network Control Protocol (NCP) to
transfer data from one computer to another running on the same
network. Vinton Cerf of UCLA and Stanford and Robert Kahn from
ARPA came up with the ideas for Transmission Control Protocol
and Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) over a span during the mid- to
late-1970s. The superior TCP/IP allowed diverse computers networks
to interconnect and communicate with one another no matter what
network they were on at the time of use. TCP/IP made the Internet
was faster and more efficient; it was thus possible to bring more
computers online at a lower price. This fueled the growth of the
1976-79 - In 1976, Robert Metcalfe developed
Ethernet, which allowed data to be transferred at rapid speeds
over coaxial cables. Soon after, a packet satellite project (SATNET)
that used satellites to link the United States with Europe was
completed, thus a basic worldwide data-delivery universe was born.
Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign staff sent out e-mail several
times a day in the fall of 1976, earning him the descriptor "computer-driven
candidate." In 1979, Kevin MacKenzie, a member of the MsgGroup
e-mail list, complained about the "loss of meaning,"
the lack of facial expressions, vocal inflection and gestures
in e-mail correspondence. He suggested the use of a new form of
punctuation in e-mails and used the example -). This was far less
sophisticated than the :o) and many other emoticons in use today.
MacKenzie was flamed (criticized) by the other people in the e-mail
group at the time, but his legacy lives on. At this stage in its
development, few people outside the research community used the
1980-89 - The National Science Foundation started
the Computer Science Research Network (CSNET) and had more than
70 sites online by 1983. In the mid-'80s, a coordinating group
called the Internet Activities Board centralized networking efforts;
late in the decade its membership numbered in the hundreds, and
it was split into two groups, the Internet Engineering Task Force
(IETF) and the Internet Research Task Force (IRTF). By 1986, most
U.S. computer science departments were connected through this
method, paying the NSF annual operation fees in order to use the
network. More networks emerged, including BITNET, USENET and UUCP.
In 1985, NSFNET, a "backbone" to connect five supercomputer
centers located all over the United States, allowed the establishment
of regional networks around the country, making a brighter, more-connected
future possible for more people. In 1989, Tim Berners-Lee, a researcher
at CERN, the particle physics laboratory in Geneva, wrote a memo
to his supervisors suggesting his ideas for the invention of a
worldwide network that would revolutionize everything.
1990-95 - Berners-Lee brought his "World-Wide
Web" to life in 1990, writing the first html source code.
He introduced the Web at a conference in December of that year,
but it didn't actually appear online and come into use by other
people until 1991. 1990 was also the year that ARPANET was decommissioned
after 20 years of operation; the NSFNET backbone - at least 25
times faster than ARPANET - took over and democratized the network
even further. In 1991, thanks to the ease-of-use brought about
by Berners-Lee's Web, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) - businesses
that allowed people to "dial up" to get access to use
of the Internet - began gaining popularity. The first user-friendly
interface, "Gopher," created at the University of Minnesota,
was introduced in 1991. Gopher was extremely limited in comparison
with tools soon to come, but it was the best thing yet to emerge
in Internet communication, and it was nearly universally adopted.
The Internet Society was founded in 1992 with Cerf and Kahn at
the helm and assigned oversight of IETF and IRTF. Mark Andreessen
launched his Mosaic, a revolutionary browser, in 1993; later marketed
by the start-up company Netscape, it combined text and graphics
and made it so easy to navigate that its role in the mainstream
consumer adoption of the Internet was significant. Gopher became
obsolete. In 1994, the White House launched its first Web page.
By 1995, the Internet had an estimated 16 million users and venture
capitalists were busy full-time, funding hundreds of new Internet-related
Bringing it all together
Thanks to the work of thousands of collaborators over the final
four decades of the 20th century, today's Internet is a continually
expanding worldwide network of computer networks for the transport
of myriad types of data. In addition to the names above, there
were direct contributions from Ivan Sutherland, Robert Taylor,
Alex McKenzie, Frank Heart, Jon Postel, Eric Bina, Robert Cailliau,
Tom Jennings, Mark Horton, Bill Joy, Douglas Engelbart, Bill Atkinson,
Ted Nelson, Linus Torvalds, Richard Stallman, Dave Clark and so
many others - some of them anonymous hackers or users - it is
impossible to include them all.
In 1996, there were approximately 45 million people using the
Internet. By 1999, the number of worldwide Internet users reached
150 million, and more than half of them were from the United States.
In 2000, there were 407 million users in 218 of the 246 countries
in the world. By 2002, there were between 600 and 800 million
users (counting has become more and more inexact as the network
has grown, and estimates vary).
How does the arrival of the Internet compare to the introduction
of other new communications tools? It took 38 years for radio
to get a market of at least 50 million users; it took television
13 years to achieve 50 million users; and once it was open to
the general public, it is estimated that it took just four years
for the Internet to achieve 50 million users.
This database tells the story of the people of the Internet in
the early 1990s in their own words; it tells us something about
what those people hoped or dreaded the Internet would come to
be. It tells the story of the people who supported and opposed
a networked world and shares their views of the positives and
negatives that might be expected to accompany such progress.
We encourage you to use this information as a base of exploration.
We ask that you please credit the Elon/Pew Predictions Database
in any use of the material herein.
Readings for more on the history of the Internet:
Abbate, Jane (1999) Inventing the Internet. Cambridge,
MA: MIT Press.
Castels, Manuel (2001) The Internet Galaxy. New York:
Oxford University Press.
Berners-Lee, Tim, with Mark Frischetti (1999) Weaving the
Web. San Francisco: HarperCollins.
Hafner, Katie and Lyon, Matthew (1996) Where Wizards Stay
Up Late: The Origins of the Internet. New York: Touchstone.
Naughton, John (1999) A Brief History of the Future: The Origins
of the Internet. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
Utsumi, Takeshi (1998) Electronic Global University System
and Services. (Book Draft.) This offers Utsumi's take on
the history of packet switching. It can be found online at: http://www.friends-partners.org/GLOSAS/Bookwriting/PART_I/Chapter_I/Section_2/Chapter_1_Sect_2.html