Who Invented the Internet?
A map of the ARPANET — the predecessor of the Internet — in December 1970.
The Internet has been called one of the world's greatest inventions. Today, we work, bank, shop, flirt, educate, watch cat videos, protest and socialize online. So who invented the Internet?
No, wasn't Al Gore. Although as a senator, he did advocate for it.
No single person exclusively invented the Internet. It was the result of years of collaboration among computer scientists, researchers and engineers. Even back in the 1930s, a Belgian information expert named Paul Otlet imagined a network, which he called the Radiated Library, which used telephone wires and radio waves to bring the world's knowledge into any home.
The Internet as we know it really got started in the early 1960s. An MIT researcher named J.C.R. Licklider started writing memos about his vision for an “Intergalactic Network” of computers. His idea: link computers together across the globe; and anybody near a computer could share information.
He had the right idea at the right time. The Cold War had the United States searching for a communication network that could survive nuclear attacks. In 1962, Licklider took a job heading computer research at the Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). There, Licklider championed his vision to his colleagues, including another former MIT researcher named Lawrence Roberts.
Send a packet, not a message
Roberts came to DARPA with experience in computer networks, and according to the FCC, had learned that sending direct messages over telephone lines would be too slow for a national network. As it happened several researchers — all unaware of each other — developed a solution. First, break up the message into sections and label each section with its final destination and its place in the original message. Then, blast the sections over any open channels. Collect the sections as they arrive at the destination computer and reorder them to form the original message. Under this system there were no centralized switching stations vulnerable to an attack. Kill one node, or channel, and the message could still be sent over any remaining lines.
About the same time, in 1961, MIT graduate student Leonard Kleinrock wrote a paper, “Information Flow in Large Communication Nets,” describing the mathematical theory of what we now call packet networks. In 1964, Paul Baran, a researcher at the RAND corporation came to the same conclusion about decentralized networks. Baran went on to found the Institute for the Future and invent the first metal detector. Donald Davies and Roger Scantlebury developed a similar idea while at Britain's National Physical Laboratory during the mid-1960s. Davies called the sections of a message “packets” and the method for transmitting them over a decentralized network “packet switching.”
Roberts had worked with Kleinrock at MIT, and he encountered Davies' and Baran's work at a conference in 1967. Roberts succeeded Licklider at DARPA, and under his leadership, DARPA began a computer network project called ARPANET — the ancestor of today's Internet. ARPANET adopted the term "packet" and moved forward with a packet-switching network. In October 1969, the first ARPANET communications were sent between Kleinrock's lab at the University of California at Los Angeles and the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) under the direction of Elizabeth Feinler. Feinler later led the development of the domain names .gov, .com, .edu, .mil and others.
By the end of 1969, ARPANET had two more nodes at the University of California at Santa Barbara and the University of Utah. The network was up, running and growing, but the work had just begun. ARPANET researchers developed a system to share ideas, later called Request for Comments or RFCs. They also needed a protocol, or a computerized postal address and delivery system of sorts. Robert Kahn, who also left MIT to join ARPANET, led the development of the Networking Control Protocol, or NCP. Once a protocol was established, computer scientists could write programs to work with it, such as email, which debuted in 1972. That same year, Kahn and his colleagues showcased ARPANET to the public. They connected 20 computers at the International Computer Communication Conference in Washington, D.C.
Of course, groups outside of DARPA now wanted computer networks of their own. NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy each built networks. Rick Adrion, David Farber and Larry Landwebert built CSNET for the computer science community. Xerox built XNS, and IBM built SNA in 1974. Many of these networks had their own protocols, and were used by businesses in local networks for decades. But another protocol built by Kahn came to dominate the Internet.
Kahn and others recognized that a more robust a protocol was needed to expand ARPANET across heterogeneous networks. In 1973, Kahn and Vint Cerf, a newly minted Ph.D. who worked with Kleinrock, developed the Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol, or TCP/IP. Among their many ideas, Cerf and Kahn thought each network working with TCP/IP should stand independently, that if a packet was lost it could be sent again and that the system should use computers (now called routers) dedicated to connecting networks between host computers.
Cerf and Kahn spent a decade perfecting TCP/IP with the help of other academics, government agencies and interested industries. Then on Jan. 1, 1983, ARPANET made the switch to the new TCP/IP protocol. The date is widely known as the birthday of the Internet.
Eyes on computer networks
During the 1980s, the National Science Foundation started to build a nationwide computer network that included its own supercomputers, called NSFNET. ARPANET had grown well beyond the needs of the Department of Defense, and so the NSF took control of the "civilian nodes." In 1990, ARPANET was officially decommissioned. Ultimately, the NSF aimed to build a network that was independent of government funding. The NSF lifted all restrictions on commercial use on its network in 1991 and in 1995, the Internet was officially privatized. At the time, the Internet was 50,000 networks strong, spanned seven continents, and reached into space. When Cerf and Kahn started working on the TCP/IP protocol in 1973, they only imagined 256 networks would be needed, according to the Internet Society.
Many people confuse the World Wide Web with the Internet. In fact, the Web was created by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989 to help researchers find and share documents at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, in Switzerland. Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau brought his idea to the public in 1990. Thanks to the Web, files shared on the Internet became far more accessible to the world.
Al Gore and the Internet
And as for Al Gore "inventing" the Internet? That "claim" was all a misunderstanding. During an interview on CNN on March 9, 1999, Gore was asked to describe what distinguished him from his challenger for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Bill Bradley. He replied, "During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet." The media latched on to that awkward statement, and ever since, Gore has been called a liar, or at least an exaggerator.
A few years after that interview, Robert Kahn and Vint Cerf, who developed TCP/IP, set the record straight about Gore's involvement in "inventing" the Internet: "We don't think, as some people have argued, that Gore intended to claim he 'invented' the Internet. Moreover, there is no question in our minds that while serving as senator, Gore's initiatives had a significant and beneficial effect on the still-evolving Internet. The fact of the matter is that Gore was talking about and promoting the Internet long before most people were listening."
Kahn and Cerf credited Gore as being "the first elected official to grasp the potential of computer communications to have a broader impact than just improving the conduct of science and scholarship." In the 1970s, they wrote, Gore urged government agencies to consolidate the several unconnected networks. He sponsored a bill that became the High Performance Computing and Communications Act in 1991, which supported the National Research and Education Network (NERN) initiative that helped spread the Internet beyond the field of computer science.
According to Kahn and Cerf, "no one in public life has been more intellectually engaged in helping to create the climate for a thriving Internet" than Gore.
A networked world
What happens over the Internet influences politics, wars and the global economy. Google reported it made $50 billion in total revenues and $10.7 billion in net income in the year 2012. That's just one company, in one year, making billions over the Internet.
Worldwide, people are adopting the Internet at an amazing pace. In 2011, Iceland set the highest Internet user rate at 95 percent, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). In 2000, only 5 percent of people in South Africa were using the Internet, but 21 percent of people in the country were online by 2011. Similar jumps were seen throughout the developing world. The ITU estimates one-third of the world's population uses the Internet today.