Elon University

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 the system.

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 faster and more efficient; it was thus possible to bring more computers online at a lower price. This fueled the growth of the internet.

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 internet.

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 business concerns.

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.

The Early ’90s section of Imagining the Internet 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 entire site as a base of exploration. We ask that you please credit and link to Elon/Pew’s Imagining the Internet 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.