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The History of the Internet: Pioneers, milestones and references

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

In 2019, the Internet turned 50 years old. This article is about their history explained through “Designing an internet” book (David D. Clark, MIT Press) and several online references.

The 1960s. The basics of the Internet. Invention and vision.

The first thing we should dive into is the packet switching method. “Packet switching is a digital network transmission process in which data is broken into suitably-sized pieces or blocks for fast and efficient transfer via different network devices.”

Packet Switching Definition. Scheme by Avinetworks.com

To get more about this concept, watch the following video by Udacity and GeorgiaTech or read this accurate definition from Techopedia.

The internet pioneers

There is always someone behind an invention or vision. In the internet history, we ought to mention three principal inventors, three computer scientist pioneers, Paul Baran, Donald Davies, and Leonard Kleinrock.

Paul Baran

Paul Baran presents his work at a RAND Alumni Association event on July 25, 2009. Photo by Diane Baldwin/RAND Corporation.

Baran took on the task of designing a robust communications network using redundancy and technology to provide launch control over nuclear missiles. As Rand Corporation highlighted in their website, “Baran envisioned a network of unmanned nodes that would act as switches, routing information from one node to another to their final destinations. The nodes would use a scheme he called distributed communications.”

Donald Davies

Computer researcher Donald Davies and his Naughts-and-Crosses machine.

Davies was credited with the term “packet switching,” and had the goal of revitalizing the UK computer industry by developing user-friendly commercial applications like:

  • Remote data processing
  • Point-of-sale transactions
  • Database queries
  • Remote control of machines
  • Online betting as potential applications

Davies went on to become an influential pioneer in networking and artificial intelligence.

Leonard Kleinrock

Leonard Kleinrock poses beside the first interface message processor at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA)

Last but not least, Kleinrock independently conceived the power of packet switching. Kleinrock’s best-known is his early work on queueing theory and the first internet message “lo” dispatched from UCLA University.

Bonus: J.C.R Licklider, Robert Taylor and ARPA

It’s fair to mention J.C.R Licklider and Robert Taylor, because they wrote a paper in which they predicted a wide range of applications for packet-switched net hooking computers and people together called “The Computer as a Communication Device.”

In this early stage, it is also essential to mention ARPA (now called DARPA), a research and development agency of the United States Department of Defense responsible for developing emerging technologies for the military. ARPA established a program to build a wide area packet-switched network called ARPAnet.

If you have time, it is worth looking at this timeline about their innovation and technology history.

The 1970s. Engineering and proof of concept.

Some of the principal milestones of this decade for internet technology were:

  • Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn proposed the Internet’s core idea (co-inventors of TCP/IP protocol).
  • First standards of IP+TCP
  • Implementation of protocols on a range of computers
  • The email, @ symbol, and the most significant technological advance: “Reply” and “Forward” functionality.
  • The first unsolicited commercial email message (later known as spam).
  • The first trans-Atlantic connection and the popularity of emailing.

It is essential to highlight that an inclusive collaboration between Cerf, Kahn, ARPA Research community members and Computer Researchers from outside the USA was crucial before the Internet came true.

The 1980s. The decade that noticed the first tangible use of the Internet.

The ’80s was the decade where the conception of the Internet Architecture Board (IAB) -led by Vint Cerf and aimed to address the issue of how to scale the routing schemes of the Internet to the size we now contemplated- provides a long-range of technical direction for Internet development, ensuring the Internet continues to grow and evolve as a global communication and innovation platform.

In this decade, some of the most relevant milestones were:

  • The standards for IP and TCP were published.
  • Transformation of computing from mainframe timesharing to PC.
Vintage footage from the MIT Computation Center in an extended interview with MIT professor of computer science, Fernando J. Corbato, describes the concept of timesharing, one of the most crucial computing developments.
  • The DNS (Domain Name System), a database in which internet domain names are located and translated into internet protocol (IP) addresses.
  • First major malicious internet-based attack.
  • Virtual communities and first emoticon.
  • The proposal for the World Wide Web, written by Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

The 1990s. Rise of the global Internet.

A friendly reminder during the web’s birthday by The web Foundation. The web and the internet are not the same things. Tim Berners Lee invented the web, and Vint Cerf invented the internet.

Many relevant milestones happened during this decade. The 90s were the beginning of what we now describe as the Digital Era. Below, I sum up some of the most interesting ones. I’m pretty sure that most of them are very well-known.

  • First vision for the future of communication and the power of computer-mediated access to info among people.
  • Fiber optic emerged to drive down the cost of data transmission.
  • Commercial network providers decommissioned NFSnet.
  • From 1993 to 1994, the World Wide Web had gained a dominant market share.
  • Mosaic was the first web browser to allow web pages to include both graphics and text.
  • Terms like webcam, weblog, webmail, navigator (Netscape and Google), JavaScript, etc were coined.
  • In 1991, Senator Al Gore led the national Information Infrastructure, a conception of the information superhighway.
  • By the end of the 1990s, about half of Americans were online.
  • In 1999, David Bowie prognosticated The Good, Bad and Ugly of the Internet: “We’re on the Cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying.” It was a time of the Dot-com bubble.

The 2000s. The decade of consumer broadband, the Internet’s eruption globally, and the spread of mobile access.

Photo by ROBIN WORRALL on Unsplash

Or the decade of the internet of everything as Steve Case stated, right?

When the internet and the web turned massive, significant issues emerged: Dilemmas of security, the necessity to regulate the Internet, or the first computer viruses (Melissa and ILOVEYOU) are merely a few examples.

On top of that, the birth of social media (LinkedIn 2002, Facebook 2004, Twitter 2006) and the first iPhone (2007) and Android (2008) implied the beginning of a new era: networks and mobile. The growth of new web-based apps and e-commerce remained a critical aspect of the decade too.

The 2010s and 2020s. The application landscape is again being transformed.

Photo by Franki Chamaki on Unsplash

Digital platforms, the rise of social media, AI, big data, machine learning, or Big Tech are terms that cause deep insecurity, discussions around network neutrality, or issues regarding privacy.

In the end, we need to address the tech bugs, define new principles for the future of the net, and implement the catalog of aspirations written by David D. Clark.

There is hope. Let’s build together a better web (and why not, a better Internet).

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fer benito

fer benito

Senior strategist focused on technology, new business models, innovation and digital products with extensive experience in local and global projects.