Letters To Mr. IT: When Did the Internet Start?
Dear Mr. IT,
When did the internet start? I mean I know it’s been around a long time, since before even Google, but when did it actually start?
Craving Chronological Certainty
Have you ever heard the expression, two Jews, three opinions? This is like that, but times ten. For every geek you meet, they’ll have at least one opinion on when the internet started. Truth is, the debate tends to go down vicious rabbit trails over what the internet is, not just when it started. That’s the real kicker. When something started can’t really be decided, until we decide what it is we’re talking about.
So lets quickly (or as quickly as possible) define the internet, for our purposes. I suppose the most appropriate place to seek a definition of the internet would be Wikipedia, which defines it as the following:
So that’s a bit of a mouthful, and wonderfully technical, but what does that definition really mean? In a nutshell, it means a whole bunch of individual computers, like the one you’re probably using to read this post, all connected together, sharing information. Some of those computers have repositories, like libraries, full of information, some for business, some for personal use. The bottom line is, it’s really just a bunch of individuals comprising a whole.
Okay, you say, that makes sense, so we’re defining the internet as individual computers sharing information with each other. Sounds good. Now when did that start, when was it incepted to a definable object as we know it today?
Rather than just tell you an answer myself (though you’ll get to hear mine eventually), I consulted 2 people I consider experts in the areas of computer science and the internet especially, both for their foundational knowledge of technology, and the fact that they spend so much bloody time online. So here are your three answers, for the birth date of the internet:
Aaron’s answer, co-worker of Mr. IT, programmer
“I’m going with April 30, 1993. Though the pieces that went into it (the internet) started long before, people at CERN put them together to create the World Wide Web, and that is the date that CERN declared it freely available to anyone. It was that point that triggered a massive boost in browser usage.
You can trace the development of the involved technologies as far back as you like, but I believe that’s the point when the internet, as it is commonly known, was born.”
Basically, Aaron is referring to the moment that CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research), let the whole world use the technology they had developed for sharing information across computers, across the world. The above photo is of the very first “web server,” used to hold information that anyone could access from any other computer (interestingly, it’s a NeXT computer, made by a company started by Apple Co-founder, Steve Jobs). This little black box became the foundation for the methods of information sharing used across the globe today.
In 1993, CERN went from only using the solutions inside their own company to making it publicly available, and allowing anyone to host and share webpages. You can view the very first web page here, as it was originally hosted on the computer pictured above.
A fine point indeed, but as Aaron himself says, the pieces that made up the internet started long before, and were simply brought together by CERN, who’s not even a computer technology company! So with that in mind, let’s see what someone else has to say.
Jason’s answer, friend of Mr. IT, a software developer
Jason, a good friend and top notch software developer, who regularly uses the internet to, among other things, keep abreast of Japanese culture, thinks he has a better answer:
“…October 1969. This was when the network that would become ARPANET was setup between UCLA and SRI International. In my mind this marks that threshold because UCLA isn’t a government network system, it’s an open and collaborative system by which great minds can contribute and share information, which for me is what the internet is all about.”
Jason’s referring to the UCLA (University of California Los Angeles) connecting their computer systems with ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network). The purpose for this network was simple: let researchers assisting the military have access to the country’s most powerful computers, from anywhere else in the country. At the time, the only way to send information from one place to another was through phone systems. They were unreliable at best and still required someone moving plugs around a switchboard.
ARPANET gave direct, uninterrupted connections between computers across the large geographical expanse of the US. All that to say that Jason’s point is, once this type of communication was established, once it was known that this kind of information exchange was possible, and beneficial, the internet began. Information now had its own method for being exchanged and shared, no longer at the mercy of solutions built for other purposes. It could be available directly, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to anyone who had access. Sure, there weren’t any web pages or commercial applications, and Facebook wasn’t even a pipe dream, but the country was now unified in information sharing.
Mr. IT’s answer
Aaron makes a good point, that what we consider the internet, full of animated GIFs, cheap books and status updates, is based on the things setup and made freely available in 1993. Jason also makes a good point, that Nyan cat only has a home because a university in California wanted to share its computing power with other computers through a military communications network.
But who’s right?! There must be an answer?! Well, they’re both right, but I’ll make the following argument:
There were some pretty big steps before Aaron’s CERN network went public, but ARPANET could never have been considered user friendly enough to share the kinds of things we do today. I say the internet came of age and began to grow into what we know it as today on January 1, 1983. That’s when the TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol) standard was adopted globally (it’s also the short name for the “internet protocol suite” mentioned in the definition of the internet at the beginning of this post).
That might sound a bit technical, and it is (it’s incredibly technical), but it really just means that’s the moment everyone agreed on how computers would talk to each other, laying the groundwork for a unified network being possible, and everyone getting on the same page. It’s also the time when businesses began using those technologies for commercial applications, rather than just education and government institutions. We still use that same technology today to chat each other up online.
It’s like when the United States Postal Service was created. Sure, you could send letters before that, and even after its creation, there were still other ways to get people letters, but it was the moment a standard was created, that allowed the bickering to stop (or at least refocus itself) so we could all start sharing.
In conclusion, the answer is there is no answer, but now you at least have an idea, and a few options to choose from so you’ll be prepared when you get asked, when did the internet start. On a side not, Al Gore, the “inventor of the internet,” while not at all that, did help pioneer the bill that made the internet the publicly available property it is today.
I’ll end with a poem to show what these kinds of technologies have meant to us geeks over the years. This was written by Vinton Cerf, considered one of the “Fathers of the Internet,” for his vast contributions to the technology behind our modern world wide web, and network communications in general. He wrote it in honor of the ARPANET’s decommission, on February 28th, 1990.
Requiem of the ARPANET
It was the first, and being first, was best,
but now we lay it down to ever rest.
Now pause with me a moment, shed some tears.
For auld lang syne, for love, for years and years
of faithful service, duty done, I weep.