The internet is incontrovertibly one of the most important developments (economically, culturally, socially, politically, and any other -ly you want to name) of the past 50 years. The world as we know it would not be possible without it. But who invented it? Let’s find out.
The Shoulders of Giants
In a letter to Robert Hooke, Isaac Newton famously wrote, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” He was stating that all his scientific achievements owed a massive debt to the thinkers and philosophers who’d come before him and that, without their work, he’d never have made the discoveries he did. And it’s mostly the same with the internet: no one person invented the whole thing in one go. What we now know as “the internet” is built on decades of work by countless scientists around the world.
But who are some of these giants?
Modern computer science started to take shape in the 1950s, although Alan Turing, a British mathematician and cryptologist, had laid out the theoretical framework in the 1930s. World War Two had led to serious progress in digital, general-purpose computers. Before that, computers had been analog, often mechanical, devices for calculating specific problems (like differential calculus or a bomb’s trajectory) rather than the electronic programmable, multi-use machines we know now—and that were taking shape then.
But at this stage, computers were gigantic, room-filling, sometimes house-sized monstrosities connected to smaller, individual terminals that people could use. No one person owned a computer. Instead, research institutes would have one, and all the scientists would vie for computer time (much like me and my brother when we were growing up).
It began to seem logical that networking multiple computers together so they could share information was the next step—MIT researcher J.C.R. Licklider proposed an “intergalactic network” of computers in the early 1960s—but there were hurdles to overcome. The existing protocols required a continuous connection that didn’t allow for fast, stable information transfer over long distances. It wasn’t until the invention of “packet switching” later in the 1960s (developed independently by both Paul Baran in the US and Donald Davies in the UK) that it became feasible. By splitting messages into smaller packets that got sent individually, computers were able to make much better use of the limited bandwidth available.
The first wide-area network built on packet switching so multiple computers could communicate was ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), developed by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—part of the US Government. It was later the first network to use the TCP/IP protocol, which all computers still use today. It was a true precursor to the modern internet.
On the 29th of October, 1969 the first message was sent across ARPANET between a computer at UCLA and another at Stanford. The message was simple: LOGIN. Unfortunately, even those five letters were too much for the fledgling internet. The network crashed after just the “L” and the “O” had been sent.
ARPANET wouldn’t be fully operational until 1975—but things had started and the internet as we know it was on the way.
WWW Dot Tim Dot Burners Dash Lee Dot Com
If any one man could be said to have “invented the internet” as we all know and use it, it’s Tim Burners-Lee.
Burners-Lee created the World Wide Web and the underlying protocols, like URLs, HTML, and HTTP, in 1989. Before that, computers had been networked together, but it was more like a super-sized version of your office or home network. Burner-Lee invented the website, which made it significantly easier to share information, and the web browser, which made it possible for people to view it.
While the World Wide Web is technically built on top of the internet, it’s the only way most people access and use it. When someone talks about seeing something on the internet, they’re not talking about something they found SSHing into a remote server; they’re talking about something they read on a website or saw on social media.
What About Al Gore?
Poor Al Gore gets a lot of stick for claiming to have invented the internet. Things are, as always, a little more complicated than that.
Gore was instrumental in the creation of the internet or, as he called it in the 90s, the Information Superhighway. While in Congress and serving as Vice President, Gore championed network computing. The 1991 Gore Bill was responsible for funding a considerable amount of the research—including the development of the Mosaic web browser—that led to the first commercial internet boom. Without Gore’s advocacy, the internet would probably not have happened as early.