Brief Timeline of the Internet

October 29, 2009

Yesterday was the 40th birthday of the Internet. I don’t know anyone who celebrated, but I’ve been enjoying imagining what those early days were like and thought I’d write a very brief history of what I think are the most exciting developments.

1945: The Idea of the World Wide Web

Engineer Vannevar Bush published an article in Atlantic Monthly entitled As We May Think which described a theoretical device he called the Memex. The key feature of the Memex was its ability to link arbitrary microfilm frames to form a trail of related information. This is a precursor to various hypertext systems invented during the 1960s, and ultimately HTML and the World Wide Web.

1965: Email

Despite what you might expect, email pre-dates the Internet. Email began as a way for mainframe users to communicate with each other from their dial-up terminals. All emails were sent directly from one user’s computer to another (as opposed to today, where there are many mail servers in between). In 1971, what we would think of as the first “Internet email” was sent over ARPANET.

1969 October 29: ARPANET Is Born

At 22:30 two computers were connected (UC Los Angeles and Stanford Research Institute) over the world’s first packet-switched network, which would become known as ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network). This is probably the closest thing to the moment the Internet was born.

Before ARPANET, networks were circuit-switched, meaning each transmission prevented anyone else from using the line until it was completed. Packet switching broke transmissions up into pieces for more effective sharing of network resources.

1973-82: Evolution of Inter-Networking

Computers on ARPANET could communicate with each other, but they couldn’t yet communicate with computers on other networks because they all used different protocols. During the period of 1973-82, following the lead of the CYCLADES network in France, various protocols were developed for communication across different networks. Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) was invented in 1973, the International Standards Organization (ISO) proposed the Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) standard in 1977, and on January 1, 1983, ARPANET was successfully migrated to the TCP/IP protocol, which has been the standard ever since.

1990 December 25: The World Wide Web Is Born

Tim Berners-Lee proposed the World Wide Web in March of 1989 and almost two years later, with Robert Cailiau, executed the first communication over the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP). This is the birth of the World Wide Web, the “killer app” which is probably what most people picture when they think of the Internet.

Berners-Lee’s web browser, called WorldWideWeb, was also an HTML editor. It was first officially released on February 26, 1991 and was soon renamed Nexus to avoid confusion with the actual World Wide Web. His server software became known as CERN httpd. The W3C retains an archived copy of the first web site (originally at The first official announcement of the World Wide Web was on August 6, 1991 when Berners-Lee posted a description of his project to the alt.hypertext newsgroup.

1993: The Accessible Web

The WorldWideWeb/Nexus browser ran on the NeXTSTEP operating system. Ever heard of it? I hadn’t until I started researching this article. There were other browsers too, but NCSA Mosaic, developed principally by Marc Andreesen, was the first cross-platform browser to provide a usable interface and hence was the first to hit it off with the general public. In 1994 Mosaic became Netscape Navigator, in 1995 Internet Explorer was released (packaged with Microsoft Plus!), and then the browser wars began…

I remember Netscape 2.0 so well—the big buttons, the gray pages, the shooting stars in the logo. Now I carry a little box in my pocket with a touch screen that’s faster than a desktop computer with a 14.4 kbps modem was just over a decade ago. The pace of evolution is only increasing and it’s mindboggling to imagine where we could be in another ten years.

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