Who invented the Internet? Over 5 billion people are on the Internet today, which is 65% of the entire human population. It’s hard to imagine life without the Internet now, but it hasn’t actually been around that long.
So, many people might be surprised to hear that no one person invented the Internet. Figuring out who invented the Internet requires taking a look at the interesting history of the “World Wide Web”. A few people have a claim to the title of Internet Inventor, but was it really a team effort?
Who Invented the Internet?
When people ask who invented the Internet, it’s often based on the misconception that the Internet is a single technology like the iPod or TV. The Internet actually evolved over decades, moving through multiple iterations and technologies over the years. There wasn’t one day when they didn’t have the Internet and the next when they did.
So, who invented the Internet is really a question of who invented the networking technology most associated with the modern Internet. In this case, the title usually goes to British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee.
Berners-Lee invented the “World Wide Web” in 1991, as well as three computer science languages and protocols vital to the Internet: HTML, URLs and HTTP. If you look at any web address URL today, you’ll still see “http” at the beginning of it. Berners-Lee’s HTML programming language is the core of every webpage on the Internet and remains one of the first coding languages web developers learn.
Did Tim Berners-Lee really invent the Internet, though? He definitely played a critical role in the creation of the modern Internet. A few other people deserve some of the credit, though.
ARPANET and the Early Internet
Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web was one of many different versions of the Internet. There were other early forms of the Internet around decades earlier. Most notable among these is the ARPANET, an early internetworking project run by the U.S. Department of Defense.
The ARPANET was operational from 1969 to 1990. During the 1970s, it served as a purely professional communication platform. Users accessed it through Interface Message Protocols, or IMPs, also known as hosts. These were single computers powerful enough to be part of the ARPANET.
Originally there were only four IMPs, computers at the University of California Los Angeles, the University of California Santa Barbara, Stanford Research Institute and the University of Utah. Through the 70s, the network expanded to include dozens of IMPs across the United States and even Hawaii.
People used the ARPANET for email as well as document sharing. Many modern Internet users will be shocked to hear that commercial activity was strictly prohibited on the ARPANET. Users weren’t allowed to advertise products on it or use it for conducting business. That policy remained in effect until the U.S. Department of Defense transferred control of the ARPANET to the private sector in 1990.
Bob Taylor and Elizabeth Feinler
If you’re wondering who invented the Internet, a couple leaders of the ARPANET project deserve some of the credit. The ARPANET was at its core a group project, but it was led by a man named Bob Taylor, who ran the IPTO division of ARPA in 1969, when the ARPANET was invented.
One notable figure on Taylor’s team is computer scientist Elizabeth Feinler, who developed the first ARPANET directory. This directory made it possible for people to use the ARPANET at all. Back then, accessing any page on the network required users to have a very specific address or pathway on hand. All of these were stored in directories, starting with Feinler’s.
The Internet Goes Public
As the Internet grew, more people wanted to use it, including people who weren’t university researchers. During the 1980s, thousands of people were accessing the ARPANET. It was getting more and more difficult to manage with the directory system.
In 1980, a pair of computer scientists found a way to solve that problem. Vinton Cerf and Bob Kahn invented TCP/IP, or Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol. It definitely earns Cerf and Kahn a spot on the candidates for who invented the Internet.
TCP/IP changed everything for the early Internet because it created a standardized system for web addresses. The directories were difficult to use because there wasn’t much, if any, standardization and addresses had to be manually updated if they changed. It was extremely difficult to connect different networks because they all communicated so differently.
TCP/IP resolved these issues. It remains a foundational part of the modern Internet and allowed the ARPANET to evolve throughout the 1980s. It definitely did evolve!
By the end of the decade, everyone wanted to use the Internet. Since it was still technically all connected to ARPANET and therefore run by the Department of Defense, there was still no commercial Internet access.
ARPANET to NSFNET
Instead, people used smaller micro networks where they could do basic tasks like on the ARPANET, but in a more limited, isolated environment. Some companies also began selling access to mainframes people could use to connect to the Internet at home. These were usually mainframes that were normally used by businesses during the day, so users could only access the Internet through them in the evening or over the weekend.
The Department of Defense acknowledged by this time that things were getting out of hand and they no longer wanted to keep control of the ARPANET. In 1990, it was formally decommissioned and transitioned to NSFNET. This was a computer network run by the National Science Foundation, which had been operational since 1986.
NSFNET acted as a bridge between the public sector Internet and the private sector Internet we know today. Decommissioning of the NSFNET started in 1995, so it didn’t last long, but it was an important link.
Broadband and the Modern Internet
The privatization of the Internet was a major turning point. There was no one who invented the Internet in this form. It simply evolved out of older networks. Privatization meant that companies could create actual business models around providing Internet access to the masses, opening the door for mainstream Internet as we know it today.
In 1991, the first commercial Internet Service Provider, or ISP, launched in the U.S. as “The World”. The retro ISP most people remember was America Online, or AOL, which started its massively popular Internet access services in 1993.
Many ISPs popped up throughout the 1990s. Early on, they all provided dial-up Internet, which transmitted analog signals using phone lines. This networking technology was extremely slow, severely limiting what people could do online.
After a few years of painfully slow dial-up Internet, ISPs began using a technology called Digital Subscriber Line or DSL. DSL Internet was first patented in 1988 by AT&T Bell labs. It was invented by two researchers at the lab, Joseph Lechleider and John Cioffi. Lechleider is considered the “father of DSL”, so he could be counted as someone who invented the Internet in this particular form.
DSL transmitted data through digital signals instead of analog signals, making it much faster than dial-up Internet. ISPs began switching to DSL services in the early and mid-1990s. In 2000, things changed again with the introduction of broadband Internet.
Broadband sends digital signals using the same wires for cable TV. Cable quickly became the new standard for Internet access. Broadband is still the most popular type of connection people use to get online. Fiber optic Internet is somewhat faster, but not as affordable as broadband.
With broadband, people were finally able to quickly browse the Internet, download things, upload things, share things, watch videos, talk to others, play games and more. It’s hard to believe the Internet went from the purely professional, confined ARPANET to a massive network of five billion users in a span of just a few decades. It was all thanks to the work of many brilliant computer scientists over the years.
The Inventors of the Internet
So, who invented the Internet? The credit should go to a group of several people who all made major contributions to the development of the Internet over the late 20th century. Those people are Bob Taylor, Elizabeth Feinler, Tim Berners-Lee, Vinton Cerf and Bob Kahn.
Thanks to these computer scientists, the Internet exists today. They were the leaders of a massive, decades-long effort to transform the way people communicate, interact and connect all over the world. Their legacy carries on, too – the Internet continues to evolve and grow every year.
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